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6 mos ago
Current The last time I sent my picture to someone... oh wait, I've never done that.
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7 mos ago
I will never emotionally recover from the knowledge that Fire Emblem Awakening could have been a Pokemon crossover instead of a waifu simulator.
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7 mos ago
I can't find the brain anywhere inside this fog, chief. I think the brain has evaporated. It has become the fog itself.
8 mos ago
Psst. uBlock Origin doesn't have this "we've detected an ad blocker" problem. They also don't literally let companies pay them off to allow their ads through, like some other ad "blockers" out there.
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8 mos ago
The ideal number of RPs depends entirely on how active you expect your partners to be, and your own mental bandwidth for keeping track of characters and story threads.
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Bio

A late twenties/early thirties, they/them something-or-other who's been doing this writing thing on and off since my teens. When I need to blow off some steam, I play the kinds of games that would make the average Dark Souls fan scream with rage. Aside from those two hobbies, I don't make time for much. My roleplaying is probably the most social I'll ever be across the internet, but hopefully that's what you're here for. Time Zone: +9, Korea/Japan/Australia. Hello American night shifters.

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The Fox and the Hound






Some Time Ago - Before Ransom Demand

After the Trials that had turned friends to enemies, Xiuyang's dorm had been ransacked: furniture overturned, papers scattered, bedding shredded, art destroyed or stolen. It was fortunate that she'd had the foresight to start storing her valuables somewhere else after the incident with Juulet that had left a hole in the ceiling. After the siege of the Violet Enclave that sparked revolution behind the hallowed white walls of Ersand'Enise, the Zenos assured Xiuyang that such behavior would not be tolerated again. Perhaps the school truly was turning a new leaf, the staff endeavoring to show more care for the students—or maybe they only did it on her account because she showed so much promise as a Tan-Zeno candidate. Regardless of the reasoning, Xiuyang would return to life in the dorms, at least until she could complete some projects and reduce her ongoing responsibilities a bit. As much as she was grateful for the peaceful isolation and safety—and living close to Ciro—she had no time to properly enjoy it. Always, there was a new drain on her time; more was being dedicated to business, to training, to studying, to her commute—and of course, Ciro had his own business, much of it Xiuyang was privy to, but some of it that she could not be, and she accepted that. Still, she'd barely had a taste of what life with the man would be like.

Finally, she returned to Ersand'Enise, not to her old dorm room but a new one. It was the early hours of Shune when she arrived, and at her front door was a large wicker basket. Inside was a warm looking blanket. A letter was placed on top of it and unfolding it revealed a simple letter from Guy. Confused, Xiuyang took a quick look around, but he was nowhere to be found. At the end of the hall, though, was a dog she was familiar with. Penelope the Puffhound was watching over the basket, waiting for Xiuyang to receive it. How did he know I was coming back? she wondered, momentarily unsettled. She shook it off, though; this was Guy. He was indeed Perrench, and a bit nationalist, but he was also one of her closest friends in the school.

I know that things have been difficult with all that has happened and although I believe we have made some peace of it, I still wanted to send you a gift. Not because I have too many, surely not. But truly, I believe they will be wonderful companions for you. The little one reminds me of you in some ways. The large one is a doting Dragonhound and he should serve you loyally and with training might be able to be a fierce protector to whatever the world may bring you. The little one is a Virrangish Pointer that has boundless energy at times and recesses to her shell. I'm sure she will keep you plenty entertained. If you wish to return them, can you really do that? Look at her face.

Unfurling the blanket revealed 2 puppies! The large one was already the size of a piglet and had long fur of mixed browns and whites. It didn't even notice Xiuyang for it was happily dreaming. But the other dog was smaller, hidden amongst the fur of the greater pup. She was white and blond and looked at Xiuyang anxiously. She had these beautiful violet eyes that just stared back at Xiuyang. Soon she began to complain about it being too cold, shaking and letting out little distressed yelps. Startled, Xiuyang gasped and put the blanket back over her. Next to her was some more paper that was again from Guy, though this time they were just instructions on how to care for the dogs along with some good books in the library to help with training. It was surprisingly thorough. With that, Penelope the puffhound headed off, and Xiuyang was left to gather her thoughts.

Quickly, she unlocked the door to her dorm, snatched up the basket and headed inside. If the men Ciro hired to have her things moved hadn't been subtle enough to avoid Guy's notice, they had done a spectacular job arranging everything—almost everything. There was one article that she would entrust to no one but herself, and that was the mirror of swift exchange, the artifact whose intended purpose was for switching places with a partner—and while that function would surely see some use someday, she mostly used it to talk to Ciro, anywhere. For now, she mounted it above the fireplace, placed the basket in front of it, and knelt down to get one started. "Now it's a home," she remarked fondly. Then, she turned her attention back to the puppies.

Laying down on the tatami mat lazily, she slowly pulled apart the blankets with a finger. Again, the blonde craned her head to look at Xiuyang with an anxious side-eye. Xiuyang tilted her head back in reply. The girl stretched, yawning, then sniffed and licked Xiuyang's finger. It was at this moment that Xiuyang knew. She couldn't stop herself. She was about to do something she hadn't ever done in recent memory: she squealed. "You are so cute! Yesh you are," she cooed, spoiling the precious baby with belly rubs and head pats. This got the attention of the other dog, who also started begging and whining for cuddles. Tails were wagging, Xiuyang's legs were swinging in the air, and the room was full of panting and giggles and playful smooching noises.

Then, there was another noise, a voice. It was Ciro's, coming from the mirror. Xiuyang perked up upon hearing it, then she froze as she realized she'd been caught in the act. Quickly, she picked up the shy blonde puppy and rose to her feet. "Ciro! Look at this dog!" she said urgently, her cheeks flushed with poorly hidden embarrassment. "Look at her," she insisted, holding the puppy close to the mirror. Whether it was being lifted up suddenly, or Ciro's appearance in the unnatural mirror, the startled pup whined and piddled on the floor in response. Xiuyang's face froze in place. Slowly, she lifted the dog in front of it to hide her growing smile. "Sorry," she snorted, trying not to laugh.

She failed.



Itching for Trouble

For the first time in a long while that Xiuyang could remember, it was genuinely pleasant outside: partly cloudy with a strong breeze that kept the body cool. It was perhaps because of this that plenty of students were training at the Proving Grounds today. It was on days like this that Xiuyang would generally prefer to train alone somewhere else, but lately she found herself getting used to the stares, and the occasional interruption from experienced physical trainers like Mr. Secto were becoming more welcome, perhaps because she was starting to spend less time trapped inside her own head and more time focused on the task at hand.

With a controlled descent, she lowered herself to one knee, with a large rock, more of a boulder really, on her back. "Eight..." she groaned as she stood back up, her muscles teeming with chemical and binding magics to support her. "Nine..."

Other girls used to stare and judge. Girls that said things that reminded her of Raffaella, things like how her muscles were going to get big and big muscles aren't cute. Must be nice having a low enough RAS that you don't have to worry about the draft, she used to think bitterly. Now, she was a familiar enough sight that the harpies kept to themselves. A few boys ogled, but Xiuyang ignored them. Unlike the girls, they never did stop, though.

"...Ten!!" with a grunt, she hurled the rock onto the ground, and it crumbled into the dust from which it was formed. Only now was it apparent who had been hiding beneath the boulder. Xiuyang had grown her hair out and was keeping it in a ponytail during her training sessions. "Oh. I didn't see you," she greeted Roslyn, out of breath. "...Why is it that whenever you find me, I'm always struggling to breathe?" she japed, pointing it out as she wiped the sweat from her forehead.

Wiping with her thumb, Roslyn cleaned up the small trickle of blood that trailed from her busted lip. "I've noticed that too. I think the Gods have a very... weird sense of humor. Especially lately. Or I just have horrible timing."

When Roslyn spotted the sweat, she grabbed her water skin from her hip and popped it open. Her nose crinkled at the strong, slightly sour scent filling the air. She offered it with an outstretched arm. "Here, drink this. Despite the smell, it is helpful to keep up your strength. It's adapted from the recipe I once got from Messer Secto."

She added by detailing the ingredients, knowing the smell was off putting. "It's just beer vinegar, a few herbs I got from Esmii, and honey. The honey helps tame the sourness somewhat."

As Xiuyang toweled off, she eyed the pungent waterskin with instinctive skepticism. But, who was she to question a formula used by her new mentor? Perhaps she'd convinced herself it would taste like beer. It did not. "Somewhat," she allowed, hiding her face with part of her forearm. It didn't really work; they were still quite skinny. "I'm not sure the gods have a sense of humor, beyond just fucking with us." She glanced up at the sky. "How did that go, anyway?" she asked curiously, remembering how she caught a loon with Guy as part of her... initiation?

Upon hearing Xiuyang's task, Roslyn looked taken aback. It seemed that Penny and her had the easier one compared to chasing a duck. "Now I know who to ask when I need to catch a bird." "Yeah. Ask Guy. I made him do all the work," Xiuyang snickered, only half-joking. She watched her friend rise to her feet. Pressing her lips, Roslyn finally forced out the question on her tongue. "Do you need a partner?" It sounded better in her head than out loud causing her to add. "I mean, only if you want to." She was already getting up, ready to spar or walk away depending on her friend's answer.

At Roslyn's sudden question, she blinked, confused. Do I look like I'm hurting for options, here? she thought, looking around at the other students sparring. Then, a glimmer of understanding appeared in her eyes. Oh, she's asking me. "Uh, sure. I'm up for it, but I'm not training for next year's Trials, you know? I'm training for real. I won't play around."

Roslyn nodded."To be honest, I don't think the Trials will be the same after the last one." She bit her lip, thinking of the reason she was here originally. "Anyways, with everything that's happened I am not either. I nearly died trying to get past the golem and mercenaries." She clenched her jaw at the memory. "And I doubt it will be the last."

"I still think the mercenaries are in contention for the most fucked-up part of that whole thing, even though they were the easiest enemies. You don't hire people to fight kids, and if you do, you certainly don't hire people of their ilk." Xiuyang shook her head in disgust. "I spared as many of them as I could, but I've been wondering lately if that was a mistake."

She finished her stretch, an annoyed look on her face, and while her memory of that night's events was certainly part of it, there was something else bothering her. Does she think we're on the same level? She thought back to her performance during Mano e Mano, where she was always overshadowed by her partner in each round, if not eliminated instantly. She thought back to how Mathijs completely disrespected her, and how she admitted during the Tan-Zeno interview that she was behind on her studies. Most of all, she thought back to the time she had to be rescued from Yarsoc. Of course. Who wouldn't think you were worthless in a fight? She tried to think back to a time that she'd made a decent showing, but until recently, she'd made it a point to never draw attention to her RAS.

"I agree with you. But I blame the administration more than the mercenaries. They were only doing as they were told, even if it was heartless." Roslyn began as she noticed the change in Xiuyang's voice, but she said nothing. "I did my best to avoid killing anyone, but I failed. I caused some man's head to pop."

"Some of the worst atrocities in history were 'just orders,' Rose. Take it from a Solari: if you're going to take up dirty work, you have to be prepared to die for it, without notice from the gods or a shot at redemption. Fair or not, those are the stakes you accept when you go against the current. They deserved less." She smiled as she brought her staff to her hand with a swish of kinetic magic.

Forcing a bit of warmth in her tone, Roslyn added. "Sooo... you ready or do you need to warm up first?" "Nope!" She forced a smile as she turned to move into a more open space. "Grace round or something?" she asked, her voice full of unusual cheer. Moving to face her partner, she stretched a bit to keep her muscles loose before she answered. "Grace round, I'm going to need it to keep up." "Soo, how much 'stuff' you wanna use? Bring anything?" She twirled the staff a bit. Drinking in the question, Roslyn's fingers rotated the tarnished ring on her hand before dropping her arm to her side. "Give me a moment to get my cannon."

She turned about and strolled back to her bag hidden near a crumbling wall. Crouching down, she flipped open the top and reached in to retrieve the smoking bandit and a skin glue tub. Roslyn bit down to pull out the cork before pouring it in. Upon return, she spoke. "I have only the smoking bandit with two shots and the ring. So how about two items each?"

"Two?" she replied, somewhat incredulously. She stood, with no less than five on her person, for an amount of time that bordered on awkward. It was impossible not to feel just a little shame as she removed her boots, her guns, and... Fuck this, she decided, tossing the Second Chancers to Roslyn. "Borrow these. You were part of the magusjaeger's thing, right? Show me what you can do."

Roslyn hid her embarrassment at Xiuyang's response. Her collection of magic items, defensive and not, was small compared to others. Especially given the fact she lacked the funds to increase it. Her fingers curled a rogue strand of hair about her ear and shrugged, trying to fill in the awkward silence. "Well, four in total. Compass isn't useful in battle and I forgot the club. I'm not even sure how it really works."

Xiuyang's reaction made her painfully aware how small her collection was compared to others. She didn't have the funds to expand it since most of it went to her family. Distracted by her thoughts, Roslyn nearly missed catching the Second Chancers. She looked over the pretty pair of pistols before nodding. "Yeah, my Zeno's teaching assistant runs the club. I'll make sure to clean them after we're done."

She immediately drew in the sunlight and casted a buff to speed herself up. A simple kinetic spell to enhance her speed.

"You had to know this was coming," Xiuyang said as she split off into four separate Xiuyangs.



Roslyn inhaled as she eyed up each doppleganger quickly. "Well, you did warn me you weren't holding back." She raised her hand cannon and took a shot at who she thought was the real Xiuyang.

An overly ambitious attempt to neutralize the glue with binding and chemical ended with one false Xiuyang revealed and the true Xiuyang soaked in a small amount of glue, most of it being deflected by an impromptu spin attack with her staff. "Hah! Good, good! I hate it when I have to wait for the final round for things to get interesting!"

"I can be full of surprises when motivated. Besides, why choose one, when I can hit you all?" Roslyn smirked then jumped back, narrowly avoid being clipped by the staff's edge. It was then she noticed it. One of the Xiuyang were covered in glue.There you are. Drawing in energy, she cast Light of Ahn-Shune. A sudden burst of light erupted in front of the target then she took a shot from one of the second chancers.

The gunshot was a distraction, swiftly followed by an attempted gaze of sloth. Xiuyang quickly made to resist with chemical and binding.

Roslyn's heart stopped a bit when her spell hit her target. She didn't expect it to work. A small breath exhaled when Xiuyang managed to block it. By now, the other doppelganger had gotten free and rushed in to join the others. She aimed at the nearest one with the gun—and with that, the last false Xiuyang was revealed, leaving the real one to retaliate with a physical attack using her gourd, of all things.

Xiuyang, confident in her approach, was rebuffed with Arcane fire, with more force than she expected. Alarmingly, her beanie was also showing her not one, but two Roslyns. "W-What?! How did you do that?!" she demanded. All the while, the luminescent ring of their arena was shrinking in size.

"If you win, I'll tell you." Roslyn said, a little surprised herself. It shouldn't have worked. She had only been practicing temporal a few days, but it felt familiar. Like she had done it before... She pushed away the thoughts and drew one of the guns. Her eyes lined Xiuyang up and pulled the trigger, aiming for the body.

Xiuyang foresaw the failure of her Arcane and Kinetic attack, ending with her flung from the arena completely. In response, she changed tactics to her own Arcane and Temporal. Now, she saw multiple of herself attacking Roslyn through the beanie, and moved to secure her best outcome.

Then, suddenly, something strange happened. A butterfly passed by Xiuyang's view, and suddenly, she was back where she was a moment ago. Impossible! She can do that too?! Xiuyang was becoming disoriented with everything going on, between the beanie, the Temporal magic used by them both, and now butterflies that could rewind time.

Xiuyang repeated her action, this time with even more resolve, and managed not to stumble. With Roslyn's Temporal attack deflected with one of her own, Xiuyang took the opportunity to strengthen her muscles with Binding. "Seems we're both hiding some new tricks," she remarked.

Xiuyang leapt at Roslyn, aiming to attack with her gourd once again. It was an odd choice, when her staff had far more range. It might have seemed to Roslyn like Xiuyang was messing around, but then it hit her—despite the kinetic rock shield—and Roslyn could feel her manas drop as the gourd softly glowed red, even as the circle was still closing in on the two of them. There was hardly anywhere to run now. However, as Roslyn just managed to avoid being knocked out of the ring, the Second Chancers were also starting to glow a bright blue.

Wiping the trickle of red from her lip, Roslyn inhaled. Her eyes glanced back. The circle drew nearer as she gritted her teeth. Doubt, sensing blood and weakness, began to crawl over her confidence. She couldn't waste time healing now as she used her chemical magic to attack.

A valiant effort from a weakened Roslyn was countered by a simple Arcane blast from Xiuyang. "Come on..." she panted. "You can't get gassed out in the first match." She took a chug from her gourd, as the ring kept closing in.

Roslyn frowned as her spell was easily pushed away. She felt her ring's warmth on her finger, its magic not enough. Her friend's words felt like a taunt and a spark of anger snaked its way into her chest. "It's not over until its over. You might be in better shape... but you're not untouched either."

"A lot of effort for a little scratch," she parried, coming in again, this time harder with a kinetically-charged gourd attack.

Roslyn didn't expect Xiuyang's retort. As the woman charged in, her gourd spinning, the Hendlish girl jerked out her smoking bandit. She pulled the trigger causing the adhesive to spew out. It caught the scarred girl, but not before the gourd slammed into the underside of Roslyn's jaw. The pain erupted in her head, the impact sending her backwards. It flung her out of the ring as she came to skidding to a stop onto her side.

Ultimately, the match ended with Roslyn stuck to the floor, flung far outside the ever-shrinking ring. "First one goes to me," Xiuyang declared, healing herself and Roslyn and freeing the latter from the glue. "It's best of Five where I come from, if you want to keep going."

"Yeah, but give me a moment. I need to see if I have ammo for the smoking bandit." Roslyn said as she pushed herself onto her feet. As she rummaged through it, she placed a small clay jar to the side and continued. Slowly, she realized there wasn't any skin glue. "Uhh, where is it? I thought Niallus gave me another." She groaned. Dropping her bag, she turned to her friend. "You wouldn't have any skinglue on you, would you? I think I used the last of mine today."

Just then a younger student jogged into the Proving Grounds with a small wooden box and approached Roslyn. "A... guy... paid me 10 Magus to hand this to you. I don't know what's inside." Then before she could give much of a response, he had made his exit leaving her with the box. Opening the box, a letter sat on top:

'Listen, Roslyn. I got a lot of money riding on you winning this thing. You better not be running outta items just yet. Inside this box you'll find enough skinglue to last you the fight and all the ammo you'll need. Just hidden beneath all that, you'll find a strong paralytic poison as well. Just in case you were inclined to mix it in the other girl's drink. You know, to improve your odds. I could be inclined to share 10% of my winnings.'

Roslyn blinked and stared. Who would bet on ME of all people?, she turned to the boy who started to trot away. Her arm jerked out to stop him, but he slipped past and disappeared around a pillar. With a heavy sigh, she pulled the box closer and lifted the lid. She flipped open the letter to read it. Her eyes shifted from the words to the contents, noting the blackened glass vial. Paralytic poison.

Xiuyang's words repeated in her head. Would it make it easier? Realizing what she was considering, Roslyn pushed the thought away. She shoved the vial underneath the letter and took out the skinglue. She drew in energy and snapped the handcannon and pistols to her hands.

While reloading both, she forced a smile and looked at her friend. "Welp, looks like someone's being generous. Not sure who, but it would be a shame to disappoint them." She pulled onto her feet and stretched again. Her joints gave a soft, subtle pop. "Another secret admirer?" Xiuyang teased as she twirled her staff impatiently, like one might spin a pen. Roslyn shrugged, "Maybe, not sure really. It feels a bit weird to me. Of course, if you're not okay with me having more ammo... I can either go without the weapon or we can drop down to two items each to keep it even. It's your choice." Xiuyang pursed her lips. Isn't this outside interference? Well, I'll look lame if I complain about it, so. she shrugged. "So do we get a grace period for this round too?" "Sure? Go for it. Don't save your best material for the last round. Your enemies sure won't." She stood ready to take advantage of the grace period. This time, though, the arena was shrinking down from its starting size while they prepared.

Roslyn inhaled and focused inwardly. The familiar tingle of her binding rushed down her skin and sank into her bones, gradually it faded. Her body felt reimbursed with energy as she drew out her hand cannon. She knew she needed to get more serious this time or there was no way she was winning this. "Ready, it is your turn."

"Turn..." Xiuyang muttered under her breath. She had already begun to conjure illusions, but as Roslyn spoke, Xiuyang foresaw her spell failing. She tried again, this time invoking Temporal. All around her, Xiuyang could see no less than three different Xiuyangs trying to conjure six more illusory Xiuyangs. Xiuyang was seeing more of herself than she ever wanted to. However, no matter how many timelines she used the beanie to search, all of her attempts failed. F-Fuck. The three copies she had actually managed to partially manifest dissolved in front of Roslyn's eyes, leaving only the original standing there, covering her mouth, appearing sick.

Roslyn tried to track the real Xiuyang when the itching started. Uttering a curse, her hand rolled up her left sleeve then she scratched at the nook of her elbow. Why now? Her eyes looked up to see a very green looking Xiuyang standing there.

"Hey, uh... are you okay? You don't look so good." She stepped closer.

"I'm... fine!" she replied angrily, staggering. "I'm just..! I'll just..."

And then, she collapsed.

"Xiuyang... No!" Roslyn's eyes widened.

Everything happened in a blur. Adrenaline raced in her veins and settled in her head. She rushed forward. Her right arm snapped out and her bag thumped into her hand. Knees hit the ground and skidded. Xiuyang's form fell into her lap, spared from hitting the ground. She dug into her bag for anything. WHERE WAS IT!?!? Her brain screamed at not having found the snow pepper powder.

Roslyn changed tactics. Her fingers checked for a pulse. A frantic, rapid one. Focus... focus, she forced herself to take a breath. Eyes snapped onto the beanie. She ripped it off and tossed it away. What was going on? "Xiuyang, please. No... fuck, what's wrong? Come on. This isn't funny, please just wake up. Please!" Her voice cracked against her will. She started to shake and a blurriness settled in her vision. A hand was placed on her friend's chest and she tried to sense the issues with binding.

Nothing.




Xiuyang walked solemnly down the opulent white halls, accompanied by a familiar maid. Though she could feel the warmth of the Torragon sun on her face through the windows, her blood ran cold as a memory she couldn't quite place played out in her mind. There, beyond that old redwood door, in that bed waiting for her, was Ciro. There he was, deathly ill of some horrible malady that no binder could name—but it was not supposed to be Ciro in that bed. Xiuyang remembered this scene. She used to know this person. What was their name? What did they look like?

Now, she couldn't remember.

She reached out to him, intertwining her fingers with his. His hand was cold; he was already dead. She reminded herself that this wasn't real—no, it was real, but it was not Ciro in that bed. That was impossible. This scene was familiar, but this was not a real event. This was not happening to Ciro.

This is a hospital bed, she recalled.

This can happen to anyone, she remembered.

This was a dream. It had to be. Yet, the tears fell down her face. Who was this person? She loved this person.

Why couldn't she remember?

Again, she ran out of the room, into the restroom to cry. Another familiar scene—but the face that met her in the mirror was not hers, but her father's. She'd poured so much into the family business—how could he betray her, toy with her like this?! Her emotions threatened to boil over. They made her feel sick—but she forced herself to keep them down. Yet, she couldn't do nothing. She had to get back at him, somehow—but he was too powerful. Just like every other notable mage she knew, infuriatingly out of her league.

Just as she was fighting the urge to throw a punch at the mirror, the image of her father reached through it and grabbed her by the neck. Now, she was in another familiar scene: the streets of Mudville, on the night she'd had her drinks with Hill's Pond. The night she was "kidnapped" by... there she was, standing just over there. Juulet.

She stalked forward, her eyes wide in that filthy, aberrative way. Xiuyang struggled, unable to break free of her father's grip. As she met Juulet's eyes, accepting her fate, she realized something: Juulet wasn't looking at her. She was looking at him.

Dad, let go of me! She struggled to break free, but couldn't.

Juulet hopped closer, in that ridiculous yet terrifying way.

Dad, I'm begging you... please turn around! She tried to speak, but no sound escaped her mouth.

She was less than an arm's length away now. No! This wasn't happening. This couldn't be allowed to happen! Despite everything..!

Dad, I love you..!



Xiuyang jerked awake, covering her mouth as she again fought the urge to vomit. Her head was pounding horribly, and her sweat felt absolutely frigid. It was then that she finally remembered: she'd never lost someone she loved to illness before—but she'd seen others suffer through that very scene so many times, the fear always lurked in the back of her mind that someday, it would be her.

Slowly, the intense pain faded, and she realized that her beanie had been removed. Either Roslyn had realized what was happening and removed it, or it had come off when she fell. "Mnn... Round two is so not happening..." she sighed, laying an arm across her forehead. "I, am never, doing that again. Holy fuck, that sucked."

The moment Xiuyang moved, Roslyn pulled back her hand. Relief washed over the brunette's face causing her to exhale. Thank Eshiran, she was okay. "I agree, and what happened? You cast some weird magic and collapsed." Roslyn made her voice steady, but the panic refused to be suppressed. She didn't realize she had a small trickle of tears running down her cheeks.

Xiuyang reached around blindly until she found her missing beanie, but she didn't put it back on just yet. "I can see into the future. Just about ten seconds' worth..." she explained while she caught her breath. "That was hard to get used to at first, but I got the hang of it, so I tried to see multiple different futures. Pushed it too far."

Her vision was starting to return to her, and she caught Roslyn crying. She had tears too—perhaps from the pain, perhaps from the dream—though, she had wiped them away. "Stop that," she scolded, grinning as she reached up and wiped them away with her crumpled-up beanie.

"I-I can't. You scared me. I thought you were sick and..." Roslyn swallowed. She fought to slow her heart, ignoring the strain of it. A weak, forceful laugh escaped her lips. "I'm glad you're okay."

Xiuyang slumped back down to the floor, contemplating. She'd told the High Zeno of her ambitions, but did anyone else really know? Aside from Ashon... probably not. It served as yet another reminder of how she had kept her fellow students at arms' length—and now, war was closing in, and it might be too late for proper friendships. For once, the thought made her a bit sad. "I've watched people die of diseases with no cure. It's what motivated me to pick the binding school, really. Well, that, and not wanting to go to school at first, but that's a secret." She smiled. "Sorry for getting carried away. If I'm going to pass the Tan-Zeno Exam, I need to push myself, and learn to push others. I was... putting on airs a bit, there. ...We can call this one a draw." She averted her eyes. Roslyn. resisted the urge to hug her friend. It would only embarrass her and she didn't want that. "I say we call it a day here, and just rest. Are you sure nothing else feels off?" "My hips feel a bit light," she japed. "I've been carrying those guns everywhere ever since... you know."

Roslyn listened and wondered how much she should say. Deep down she knew after the symptoms started, her time here would be over and everyone would forget her. Any type of impressions didn't matter in the end. She was nothing, but a low born baroness from an unimportant nation. The idea, scary as it was, felt unavoidable. She leaned against a chunk of pillar and twisted her ring on her finger. It surprisingly calmed her whenever she was upset. "I know the feeling of dread and waiting on something to repeat, but never had that feeling of relief. I just try to ignore it. Eventually, I won't be able to."

After spending a few minutes on the floor, Xiuyang did a kip-up, landing on her feet to definitively show that she was okay. Then, she walked over to where Roslyn was resting. "What's that about?" she asked, out of habit. For a moment, she pondered if she was being too nosy, and if she should give Roslyn an out to not talk about it. "And when did you get engaged?" she added, teasingly reaching for Roslyn's ring.

"It's not an engagement ring. I got it from the trials, alongside that compass, and it has been pretty handy. It seems to steal luck from my opponent, then transfer it to me. Been saving my ass a few times during the attacks. " Roslyn pulled off her ring and offered it to Xiuyang to study.

"So that's why I felt off my game today," she replied as she inspected the ring. She even put it on and tried using it, directing it at other students who were training. "Doesn't seem to work for me. Maybe it's just your lucky ring. Like my 'lucky' guns." She smiled playfully as she returned the ring to Roslyn, and the guns to herself. "Only works when my opponent does something. It's only one of two new tricks I have." Roslyn commented, smiling at the mention of luck. It felt like something she lacked. "Definitely lucky then," Xiuyang decided, grinning.

It was hard to know for sure how her friend might take what she was about to say. Anyone in their village that knew about the curse kept her at an arm's length. Roslyn didn't blame them for it. It was painful to become attached to someone who might die prematurely.

"A family curse."

Xiuyang scratched her chin. "So, it's passed down?" She looked Roslyn up and down, noting that she looked healthy. "Me and Trypano both have theories about that sort of thing. I don't like the idea that the gods just punish people for being born and nothing can be done. There must be a mechanism of cure, but the execution is out of our reach... for now," she allowed. "That's why I need to become a Zeno. I'm sure the information I need is somewhere only they can get to it." She didn't ask about the mechanism of the curse. It was Roslyn's right to not speak of it, if she wanted to. Her dignity was worth more than Xiuyang's curiosity.

Her eyes shifted back to Xiuyang. "Trypano... I remember her. She offered to help me with funds for the ship, materials, and my brother. However, I am not sure I trust her now. She gave me an item that could've gotten me into a lot of trouble if the wrong people discovered it."

Xiuyang could only offer a shrug at Trypano's behavior. "That's just how she is. It's like... if she doesn't think she should get in trouble for something, it's not her problem. As long as she accomplishes her goal in the end, the opinions of others don't matter. She holds herself as the ultimate ethical authority. It's a very black-and-white way of thinking. ...It is going to land her in hot water someday," she admitted. "I don't really think she's trying to 'use you' while disregarding your safety. She's a go-getter, and I think the very concept of anyone else thinking differently is genuinely weird to her."

"Yeah, just glad that Tku discovered the issue rather than someone else. I have enough to deal with and I don't need more trouble." Roslyn's hand began to rub her arm, recalling the blood Trypano took. She knew it was stupid, but she took a risk. She hoped nothing would come from it.

Roslyn took a breath as she continued. "Yes, it's passed down. Would sharing what I know, help in your research?" "...Maybe. The best thing would be to meet a family member who's presenting symptoms. I don't have to worry about catching anything," she said confidently, though she wouldn't explain why.

Roslyn looked hard at Xiuyang then stuck out her tongue. "Well, as far as I know it's not contagious. And, I am planning on going home some time this month. The trip's been delayed long enough because of everything that's happened. You could tag along? Garith, my brother, has symptoms. I might need the help to convince him to be looked at again."

Xiuyang gave Roslyn an odd look, amused. "I didn't say you were contagious. Unless, there are symptoms you want to talk about? Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, itchy ankles..." she teased. "I've got multiple projects going on this month, but I'll try to make time for it." She paused. It sounded more uncaring than it did in her head. "I just take my promises seriously, that's all. I'll let you know when I've worked something out."

"I mean the mark I have does itch occasionally. Other than that, nothing like my brother's. Mano e Mano was a pain. It took a lot of will power and chemical not to peel off my skin." Roslyn frowned a bit, considering something. "It also itched earlier when you used your beanie and then collapsed."



"Mark?" Xiuyang replied curiously. Her confidence seemed to wane somewhat. "...Would you show it to me? Uh, not here, obviously."

"Yeah, all my family on my mother's side has it. As far as I know, they are all... gone save for my brother and me." Roslyn struggled a bit to get the words out. She had been about to roll up her sleeve, when Xiuyang's words stopped her. "It's on the elbow, if you're worried about modesty. It's been on display at least once or twice when someone tried to scorch my clothes."

Xiuyang frowned. This was quickly becoming a more serious affair than she'd expected. "I'm... so sorry. I can't imagine..." The truth, however, was that she could, and often did, imagine Juulet coming for her family. "N-No, please cover it. Sorry. It's just... the Perrench have accused me of being a blood mage. I'm sure you can imagine how it might look. We just fought and all." She averted her gaze.

Roslyn wasn't sure what to say at the moment. She bit her lip and then leaned into Xiuyang slowly. Once she was sure the woman wasn't going to flinch, she gave her a genuine hug. "Don't be. You didn't do anything wrong. Even if you were accused, I can prove otherwise." She took a breath to brace herself, adding a hint of mirth to her tone. "I have had this since birth. Besides, only the Great Hugo was rumored to be able to cast magic before he could speak. At least according to the stories of him."

Xiuyang returned the gesture, putting her arms around Roslyn. "Thanks... but the truth doesn't matter to those people. Convenient rumors and half-truths always suited them better." Catching the eyes of some such students, Xiuyang just smirked at them. It felt good to be able to walk freely around campus again, but it felt even better to be just a little smug about it. "Come on, we're hogging the arena. Let's go get drinks. My treat."

"You're right. However, I count this as a win. I don't think I'll get one officially otherwise. You're hard to beat." Roslyn's grin widened. She pulled back and followed Xiuyang onto her feet, grabbing her bag from beside her. Thoughtfully, she added. "But seriously, Xiuyang. If you can't come with me, don't worry about it. You're one of my closest friends and I'm grateful for that." She waited for her friend to lead the way.

"What?! Are you kidding?" she replied incredulously. "You want a real win, come back tomorrow! I'll train with you anytime." She slung her bag over her shoulder. "By the way... last one there buys drinks next time!" she blurted out, laughing as she took off running.

She didn't comment again on her brother for the time being. More than anything, she wanted the both of them to escape this melancholic mood. Thanks, Roslyn, she thought, but didn't say. She hoped it would still be true next year.

Becoming





A Prison Without Bars

Ashon sauntered over to where Dory and Lunara stood, their captive yasoi bandit held at knife point. With a theatrical flourish, he clapped his hands together and spread them in a welcoming gesture. "Ersandenisers!" he exclaimed, gesturing towards the shiny weapons gripped tightly in their hands. "Are these rewards from your trials? Expensive, shiny, toduul. Eager to use such toys. Want to do your good deeds for House points, luuca?" He gave a wide mocking smile to the crowd, “Five points each to Hunghorasz!”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two coin purses, pressing one into each of their hands. Then, with a casual pat on the head of the yasoi bandit and a clip around his ear hole, he addressed them once more. "This is my jexoff moila, and he will help me find my Hyc'oilan. Leave this matter to Belle'soi." He politely indicated them to run along now.

He clicked his fingers loudly as he summoned his man servant. “He may be suffering from amnesia, we might have to prompt his memory.” He dangled a coin purse by his eye, and on the other side, is the imposing skull mask of Xiuyang.

Xiuyang watched Seviin's interrogation of the eeaiko with a blend of shock and genuine interest, which the masque just managed to cover up as, perhaps, some form of imposing, predatory look one might give to a weakling. Impressive. If it were me, I would probably cry. She should get straight to the point like this more often. With him stabilized, she turned her attention to the agitated onlookers. "Oh, please," she drawled. "You would have walked over their well-dressed corpses while going about your business—but don't worry, the criminal who would just as easily prey on you will live," she assured them. "Why then are you angry? Because there are no dead to rob here? This circus is over. Begone," she spat at the hypocrites.

After digging up the money box and re-securing it to her medicine box, she walked over to their captive audience and abruptly dropped into a squat, bringing her eye level to his. Her neck cracked as she perched her chin on her free hand. A moment had passed since Ashon had used her as some form of threat, leaving the eeaiko wondering what the masked woman might do. "Yeah. I know how it is, to be desperate for work, and no one wants you. Like you've been denied the right to exist," she said, half-truthfully. Usually, she was on the other side of that equation. "Makes you hate people who have it all. Makes you forget that they're even people," she said coolly. "I think someone like that is targeting the Doridax family. They've lost more than just a good friend recently. Know anything about it? If it's work that interests you, I have connections that will pay more reliably than the odd coin purse."

The eeaiko looked at her with wary, evaluative eyes, but he had learned to outright fear Seviin. It was as if one could hear the wheels turning inside of his head. Then, he laughed bitterly. "Yoo theenk Eye cen joost taulk end nautheng weell heppen too mee?" He arched an eyebrow. "Aur yoo soore yoo knauw es mauch ebaut te woorld es yoo theenk?"

Xiuyang cocked her head, considering his reply. "I think I know quite a bit—but suppose I know nothing at all. You know how unfair the world is. It's not really 'what' you know, but 'who' you know, y'know? Unless an actual Zeno is involved with the alley cat shits who think they run 'Belleville,' I doubt they have a chance against me and mine. Even so, if my people don't want to be found... they won't. So why not be one of them? Better than clinging to this filthy town. It'll be a while yet before they get their shit together, even with us helping them along."

The masked girl's demeanor was friendly, but down-to-earth and not in a saccharine way. She didn't moralize any further about 'honest work' or claim that she'd clean up Belleville like some kind of hero. At best, she tried to discreetly project the kind of character who did good through dishonest means—someone who could be more benevolent than the street gangs, but no less savvy and with powerful connections of her own. She also implied that with her help, he could leave Belleville entirely, if that suited him.

He pursed his lips - funny eeaiko lips. "End yoo joost auffer mee thees aut oof te goodness auf yoor haurt?" He regarded her skeptically, but perhaps there was a hint of hope there - unless it was Xiuyang's wishful thinking. "Whaut ees te cetch? There ees aulweys e cetch."

Seviin scowled, unimpressed, and addressed her partner before any more was said. "Already looking for a way out." She shook her head. "You're wasting your breath with this sort." She narrowed her eyes. "He'd just as soon stick a knife in your kidneys."

"Ovviamente cerca una via d'uscita. La sua vita è una prigione senza sbarre," Xiuyang mumbled to herself in irritation as Seviin interrupted. Shaking it off, she continued. "Nah. I'm not some goody-goody. You tell us everything you know, and do exactly what I tell you—which will work out well for you, since the first thing I want you to do is get the fuck out of here and talk to one of my contacts. You'll be safe with him anyway." She stood up and leaned on her staff again. "The catch is that if you stick a knife in my kidney, she'll replace it with one of yours," she japed, pointing back with her thumb at Seviin. "It seems I have more patience than a clergywoman, though, which should tell you something." Behind the mask, a cheeky grin could be felt, if not entirely seen.

These were smalltime crooks and not the sort of people to risk their necks being defiant or threatening. The people who they were currently tangled up with were rich and powerful and appeared to possibly have support from Ersand'Enise. Much as they might resent those who dwelled behind the white walls, they craved their acceptance, wanted to join them, and feared them all at once. If the yasoi hoodlum currently before Ashon had thought to mock Lunara or rally support, he'd lost that notion at Seviin's casual display of power, Ashon's offer of generous monetary support, and Lunara's and Dory's apparent willingness to kill.

Meanwhile, the eeaiko who Xiuyang and the priestess had cornered shrugged. "Eye doon't see thet Eye heve mauch choice," he admitted, "Baut yoo aur sentenceeng yoorselves end praubebly mee too deth oor saumtheng lyke eet." he pursed his lips. "Eye waus paurt oof te Broosers. Wee cauntroolled thees paurt auf tauwn oonteel te Colas mooved een aun aus." He shook his head. "Yoo send mee elone too taulk too yoor peepel, Eye praubebly die aun te wey." His eyes flicked Seviin's way momentarily.

"There's always a choice," the Rettanese replied sternly. "To be beholden to the people who taught you to be this helpless, or to take your life back from them. It's yours. I won't take it from you. I for one think you can make it if you swim." She backed off, giving the eeaiko some space. If he was going to chicken out and be useless, she'd rather he run away front of her where she could see it. "I know the water is filthy," she allowed. "Believe me, I won't soon forget it."

The eeaiko man, still unnamed, shook his head. "Eef Eye jaump, Eye need prootectioon, naut kynd woords." He glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the scene. He scrunched his face up bitterly. "Baut Eye'll go. Where end to whoo?" Seviin narrowed her eyes, but he made to stand.

"A boy's life is on the line. I don't have the time to gather my grunts for you," she replied. "Tell me everything you know, and I'll tell you who and where. Or you can crawl back to your old masters, though I doubt they'll take you back after talking to me, if they're as omniscient as you seem to think," she said coolly.

"Good lauck too heem," the eeaiko replied coldly and that was it. If they wanted him to betray the powers that governed his life here for nothing more than vague assurances that he would be able to make it and they would help him at some point in the future, they clearly either knew nothing about how this place worked or the assurances were false, likely both.

It had become clear that he would not talk and be a stoolie for free. Seviin and Xiuyang would either have to beat the answers out of him if he had any, or let him go and that was that.

Xiuyang would waste no time personally dirtying her hands with such a task, however. She made a dismissive hand gesture, as though she were discarding trash. She would not prevent him walking away from the best offer he'd get.

With that, a potential lead tried to walk away, but he found that he couldn't. Seviin had destroyed his sense of balance. He stumbled and fell, eyes wide. The priestess smiled smugly. "Damy demands balance," she remarked coolly. "You have done much harm and now do nothing to provide restitution when given the opportunity, so I have seen to its rectification."

"Eye geve my caundeetioons!" He shouted back. "Eye weel naut dye foor yoo!" He staggered a few more steps. "Fauck -"

There was a small kinetic shove. "Then you will crawl through this town that is so dangerous," Seviin declared, "all of the way to a skilled binder, if you can make it there."

With that, she turned and walked away towards the others, inclining her head in the masked woman's direction as if to say, 'coming?'

The woman followed, a satisfied look in her eyes. It didn't need to be said that letting him get away could have been a problem, and the yasoi's solution suited her just fine.





The Colas

It was right then that the answer seemed to present itself, at least from the other end of things. Whatever other leads they'd gotten, the one pointing to the Cola Brothers had seemed the strongest and they were on their way. Drawing close, Abdel had reached out with his tethered range and picked up what he was pretty sure were the rest of the group. They'd just finished beating up some hoods and were not far from the warehouse that they'd been told to bring the money to.

Xiuyang felt a pinch behind her ears that could only have been the group's lone tethered: <Close. 400. There soon. Learn? Danger?>

The reply came in the form of subtle binding magic. Xiuyang tattooed it temporarily across her shoulders where only Abdel could see. Learned much. Didn't catch it, yasoi. Colas, big threat. We go in with money, you ambush?

<Big Enemy. Big Enemy. Big Enemy. Careful. Distance. Will ambush.>

"So, he said a lot of words, but did we learn anything?" Xiuyang asked Ashon as she approached him. Then, suddenly, she erected a sonic bubble. "Hm. Abdel is advising that we should keep our distance. There's a 'big enemy' at the warehouse, whatever that might mean." Meanwhile, she replied to Abdel as she dropped the bubble. Big enemy, inside warehouse? What else?

<Doors danger. Mystery. Three bads. One BIG. Two not BIG. One man down.>

Seviin had noticed Ashon and Xiuyang speak beneath a sonic bubble. "Something has changed?" she inquired, trying not to look hurried as she caught up.

Xiuyang snorted at "not BIG." She wasn't sure why she found it funny. Nerves, maybe? Then came her reply. Jaxan? she asked simply.

< Not Know. >

She put up the bubble again, this time making sure to include Seviin. "Only that our enemies have two tricks up their sleeves. A 'big enemy' inside the warehouse, and a mystery door trap. That's a bit of a pissoff. I wanted at least the appearance of a negotiation, but it seems we're in for a fight as soon as we're there."

Ashon rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The Yasoi mentioned that Jaxan is part of the resistance," he recounted, "and that they, along with the Colas, have a conflict as big as a Snowsweeper-sized beef."

They spoke as they moved and, before long, were within sight of what they assumed was their destination: A long, low warehouse poked out from the gap between buildings down a winding a street. There were few houses around it. This area appeared to be mainly industrial.

Jaxan, resistance. Enemy of Colas, Xiuyang quickly relayed to Abdel. Negotiations likely futile.

"Hm." The Rettanese mercenary cocked her head as she observed the unremarkable warehouse. "Think I should give the door a firm knock or two?" She asked the others. There was no response; perhaps there was no need? They were all surely eager to see these criminals fed a taste of their own medicine.

Xiuyang focused on the door, to see what the beanie could show her of what lied beyond it. "That's a funny little coincidence," she remarked jovially, appearing to approach the door. "Stay here," she said, insisting her allies keep a safe distance. Only, her voice seemed to be coming from behind them...

As the false image of the masked woman approached the door, money in hand, an invisible Xiuyang prepared to pelt the door with a kinetic spell. "Boom," she whispered as she drew. If anyone was to stop her, now was the moment.

< Chimney. Maybe. Possible. Safe not sure. Door. Trap. >

Xiuyang, shaken from her giddiness, takes a second to reconsider. Far away from door. Further than enemies. Blow it? she proposes to Abdel. Spring trap, know their numbers. In position to flee if needed.

< Knock. Distance. Or distraction. Draw out. Confirm Yasoi boy. >

Acknowledged, she replied. And with that, she fired her kinetic spell right at the door, timed with the movements of the illusion.

The doors blew in with stunning force, exploding into splinters. The urns shattered and... there was nothing to see but a gust barreling in and then blowing violently back out. The fox-masked woman stood there amid the debris, her cloak flapping in the wind. She stalked forward confidently and it was perfect work, almost enough to make the true Xiuyang proud.

Two hoodlums - a yasoi man with red hair and a woman with short dark hair - coughed and reeled, but the great hulking figure who stood behind them was unbowed. There was a Gargantuan surge of energy, but not much happened aside from a few weak gusts of wind in the area of the apparent Xiuyang. Then, a couple more in the area behind her.

"Right in through the front door, not even an attempt to negotiate," she chided, collecting herself. "I had hoped to be working with professionals."

"Fantas, they're not here to negotiate. They probably don't even have the money." She nodded. "Kill the kid and let's split."

"Oh, you have the boy?" the masked woman pleasantly but quickly replied as she approached the door, for real this time. "Don't worry, we have your money. You can even have it, if you behave yourselves. I'll even overlook the pathetic attempt at murder before the negotiations even began." The skull masque's unmoving smile turned eerie. "In case you hadn't noticed, we are the professionals here. Not you. No more games, hm?"

Dorothea summoned forth her rifle once more and slowly entered. "Knock. . . Knock." She knocked on the wall with her free hand before she readied her weapon. The anticipation of combat, it excited her. . . but little did she know that she fell upon the ground, knocked out.

As she spoke with such confidence, however, the people behind her began to waver and collapse. Miray dragged a half-conscious Lunara away. Ashon staggered and fell to his knees. Dory fainted and Ashon managed a few more steps before collapsing on top of her. The hulking goon grinned malevolently. "Look behind you, little professional," he mocked.

"Easier than usual, to be honest," the woman remarked, striding forward. "But thank you for telling us about the money. Hand it over now and we let you live." Meanwhile, the red-haired yasoi had flung the semi-conscious youth up to near the ceiling, ready to let him drop. It would've been a good thirty to forty foot fall and he was likely to land head first.

"Generally, unwise to turn your back to an enemy," she fired back without missing a beat, giving the man some cheeky finger-guns. Though she could hear the bodies falling behind her, she continued to feign impressive confidence with her masque. "Say, does something stink or is it just me?" she japed, letting out the tiniest, most pathetic mocking cough she could.

"Anyways, unless you're unafraid of the full wrath of Ersand'Enise falling upon this little shack of yours, I wouldn't threaten us if I were you. But hey, I'm easy enough to please. Free the boy of his ropes, hand him over, and it's yours, nice and easy. I'll even make a special exception and look the other way while you make your escape. Sound good?"

Lunara started to walk with the others, suddenly out of no where Miray started to act odd. Miray started to aggressively pull on Lunara's skirt, to get her to more. "Miray, What are you..." Lunara started to feel sluggish. "Crap, good girl Miray, thank you." Lunara then fell to her knees and collapsed, but Miray was able to move her far enough away.

Seviin, however, found herself utterly unaffected by the poison. She knew the scent. It came from Sparknettles, which grew close to her home, and she simply held her breath with the help of the Gift. With a mighty kinetic blast, she cleared much of the poison and took stock. Xiuyang was unaffected. Either she'd figured it out on time as well or she had some sort of resistance. Lunara had collapsed, but her goma cat had pulled her free of danger. Not so for Ashon and Dory, and the priestess rushed into action, setting up a bubble of wind around them to counter the gases.

Running to their side and kneeling, she reached down and murmured an apology before slapping Ashon across the cheek. "I am sorry, Moila. You need to wake up." She tried to clear the bad air from his lungs and his blood and, in a moment, he was sputtering, blinking, and rubbing at his cheek. Seviin turned next to Dory, and the Feskan was unmoving. This one proved a good deal harder to revive, and Seviin had to settle for dragging her away with kinetic magic and setting her near the still-groggy Lunara.

The big man began gathering energy again for something else huge and it was clear that he was a real danger. Just as he seemed about to unleash it, however, the second yasoi man - the lanky ginger - froze and contorted. For a second, the youth in his kinetic grasp bobbled and began to fall. Then, he stabilized. Perhaps the others didn't know what had caused it or what it was, but it was Abdel and he had bloodwarped his enemy.

"Money first," the woman demanded, "Or at least let me see it. I've no reason to trust you."

It was right about then that her minion lost control over the mark.

The big man who had gathered all his energy did not unleash it on his original intended target: that pesky healer. Instead, the full brunt of it came down upon Abdel in a massive corrosive attack. The very air around him turned into an acid mist and whirled with tornado-force winds, all this backed up by a RAS level approaching nine.

An immense pillar of lightning blasted clean through the building's roof and struck the hulking figure in the middle. He spasmed and jerked, roaring in annoyance. "Oh ho hooo! Someone big wants to play!" he exclaimed, but Abdel remained in control of the man who remained in control of the hostage as the two giants tussled.

Ashon, after almost hacking up a lung, thanked Seviin for the assist and gave her a raised hand signal to indicate he was now okay, then turned to the attacker. "That was some terrible body odour, Moila. You're surrounded by water now, no excuse not to bathe."

"We've got that in common," she replied casually. Opening up the decorated box attached to her medicine box, she dug a gloved hand into the rice and pulled out a handful of the magus, rolling her eyes as the big man walked away. "Good grief, can we not agree to control our animals? Counting money is so much more fun than smashing heads."

"How do I know it isn't all rice?" she demanded. "You show it all and we have a deal. We trade on five. You don't, we change things up a bit."

"So demanding~ There's a couple hundred of these things, you know?" she replied in a conversational tone as she dug more and more out of the rice. "I was going to stay until you counted it all, but if you don't want to, then sure. Count to five when you're satisfied."

The red-haired yasoi straightened and, seemingly from nowhere, pulled out a pair of odd but wicked looking blades. "For the record, he's a sweet boy and I didn't enjoy any of it." She sighed and drew... and drew... and drew: a classic yasoi intimidation tactic.

Then, however, it was a two-on-one. The woman glanced between her two adversaries, taking stock of matters, and... while Oksana had been up there long enough to sense her massive energy draw, Lunara had not. A huge fiery blast came straight for the Palaparese, catching her cold.

Meanwhile, Niallus would've done anything to be cold, though in a different way. Arduously, pulling in and expelling massive amounts of thermal energy, he carved through the thick ghulthite. He could feel his hair burn away and his skin start to shrivel and peel. At first the pain was incredible, and then it began to fade as nerves died. Yet... bit by bit, he completed his circle and then it wobbled. With a blast of kinetic force, it came flying free. It hurtled across the warehouse and slammed into the opposite wall with such force that it punched a hole clean through. A burned, raging figure emerged, smoke and steam rolling off of his grotesque figure. The outside world beckoned.

"Very well," the manly yasoi woman was replying in another part of the warehouse She ignored Ashon at first before being unable to resist a jibe. "You shall have your... 'son' returned to you safely in five."

Meanwhile, Abdel, maintaining his concentration and slowly retreating out of range, soon found himself more or less out of the fight. It was a lot to maintain his lock on the ginger yasoi, however, and it taxed him to his very limit. Jerking his puppet on invisible chains, he began forcing the man to lower his hostage. Qadira and Dayanara stood guard to either side of him but, then...

Dayanara let out a loud gurgling growl and turned her massive head. Qadira hissed and lowered herself into a ready position. So occupied was Abdel that he could not take the focus necessary to sense what was coming until it was nearly there. Dayanara sprung into action, leaping at the coldfire wyvern while Qadira barreled for the dreadmaw halassa.

"Four..."

Dorothea began to stir, the dread power of Levidan the Accursed dragging her from the depths of unconsciousness and demanding that she take action, that she crush these subhuman nothings that had dared lay her low.

It was at this moment, as the youth was being gently lowered from close to the ceiling, as Johann blasted the huge yasoi through a wall and was, in turn, himself, driven into the ground, that the ground opened up into a thousand needles and a gravitational slam to drive Abdel towards his death.

"Three..."

Seviin rose and gathered her power, filling Ashon and Dory with it. These criminals were not to be trusted. They had wronged Mother Oirase and now they were Lord Exiran's playthings if there was any justice in the world.

It was then that Oksana felt another presence off to the far side of the roof. A tall, elegant man stood there with a thin black rapier in his hand. He flourished it and began walking toward her.

"Two..."

Xiuyang closed the box and latched it, with all of the coins inside. While she stood ready to toss it, she didn't neglect to pay attention to her surroundings. She also reached out to sense underground, for any convenient escape routes. If the trade actually went through, she would probably still need to escape and quickly deliver Jaxan to his family. Then, there was also the other plan she needed to enact, preferably before these criminals could escape. It all hinged on this moment, with her eyes locked on the boy, held helpless in the air. Various scenarios played out in her mind: one in where the boy was thrown straight at her, another where he was sent straight into the ground and turned into paste. His life hung on her ability to see, if only for a short distance, into the future, and to use her budding Temporal ability to guide it to an outcome where a son could be reunited with his father. All the while, as Xiuyang's sweat turned cold, she betrayed not a single hint of emotion on her face.

Dorothea leaned on her rifle for a second to compose herself. A face that was on the verge of turning into a snarl. She tried to be friendly, to let the others take the lead and just act as the muscle. The way she fell to the ground was unbefitting for someone of her stature and ability, someone had a debt to pay. She felt her own gift heightened further than even her communing had granted her and it would be put to good use.

A knife ear that could barely be considered a woman was counting down about something? . . Not that it mattered. The Feskan aimed it towards the knife ear that was ever so smug about it. One breath in. One firm grip. One kinetic enhancement and a little extra gift was all it shall take. As the trigger was pulled the bullet was barely visible as it exited the barrel. The only thing that became visible was small disruptive bits of the air that rippled. That dirty baummensch might not even be affected with how little they have into going around within that head.

As the hit was confirmed Dory loosened up once more. "Sleep tight, filthy messerohr"

Dory's purpose was clear and her aim was true. In, she breathed, and out, and there a bullet flew.
And yet, beyond her bubble, where a roiling calm prevailed, on past the perfect focus through which her bullet sailed...

Things were happening.

Unbeknownst to Dory, some three hundred yards away, Abdel, for his survival, had been forced to free his prey.
A momentary lapse seized that ginger-haired yasoi. He tremored and wobbled and then released the boy...

Who fell from the sky.

It happened so fast the Gods must've desired it. He fell into the path of the bullet: she'd fired it.
Dory had sworn to leave one of them dead. She'd aimed her gun straight for the lesbian's head.

But the shot struck the boy.

For a moment, nobody believed it. For a moment, the shot had surely struck its intended target. Reshta did not play such cruel jokes upon any but those who had earned her personal ire.

"One."

Ashon, Seviin, and Xiuyang were caught off-guard by the shot, for Dory had acted solo. The woman who'd been counting froze, just about to take a step forward. No sooner had the ginger-haired yasoi regained himself than he crumpled.

"Moila!" he screamed. "Dii! Oh Exi, dii!" His hands snapped the sides of his head, ripping at his hair. His sister's eyes widened like dinner plates and she stood there for a moment, frozen.

Then, there came a cold rage.

Niallus, having emerged from his deathtrap panting and snarling and still thinking that he had hair, did a whole lot of nothing but look angry, but he soon had cause to do more. He'd missed the exact details of what had happen, but all watched the boy hit the floor, his impact lessened by the red-haired man's intervention, but would it be any good? Had the bullet intended for his apparent captor done him in?

Niallus didn't get the chance to ruminate on it. Two more thugs appeared from opposite directions. While one was at the other end of the warehouse, and made Dory his direct target, the second sent a wave of hyperdense slicing wind at the Eskandishman from less than a dozen meters away.

The woman let out a shrill kinetically-enhanced whistle that carried through the whole building and even up onto the roof. Then, she and her brother barreled towards Ashon, Xiuyang, and Seviin with everything that they had. If the deal had looked about to go through, it was 'off' now, and the escape was on.

All of Xiuyang's negotiations had seemingly come to naught. The boy was dropped out of the air, finally within her line of sight from the doorway, ready to be caught, even by a bed of blood magic to soften his fall if need be—but she had not been prepared for his captor to step in to catch him, or to stop a bullet of all things. In the moment, ten seconds of warning had only provided her enough time to process what in all the hells had just happened, and the aftermath.

"Well," she remarked, momentarily breaking character. "I had thought I was working with professionals." As she quickly approached Jaxan to inspect his body, a faint echo of a [Loon's Call] rang out, and Xiuyang's image began to visibly distort, as if her body were vibrating. It wasn't just Xiuyang, either: any who looked at her could hear the loon's call grow louder, feel their eyes begin to vibrate, and an unnatural fear slowly gripped their hearts. As the Colas and their goons charged, they nearly stumbled, ran off course, and their attacks missed, the disorientation appearing to get even worse the closer they drew to her. Their desired fortune was hopelessly out of reach and securely in Rettanese hands, or so it appeared.

In reality, Xiuyang was taking a big risk, and she knew it. Just as the Colas had disempowered the locals by convincing them that they were untouchable, she continued to bluff, trying to show the Colas that they were beneath her—no, she was untouchable to them. The power of this divine blessing she'd received from the Old Mother was an exotic and unfathomable power, one she hoped to use to inflict more terror on the Colas than even the forbidden magics could on the citizens of "Belleville."

But if it didn't work, she'd be surrounded, cornered in a warehouse full of traps, forced to defend herself and show her true, meager strength, of which the Colas could almost certainly match. Xiuyang could not be seen or heard properly, hidden beneath the masque and beyond the veil; perhaps her mediated urgency as she approached the body could be construed as confident, but her breathing was ragged, and sweat ran down her face.

Why was she going so far for one drug-dealing yasoi? She didn't need this money. She had her family, its legacy, and if things continued to go well, she had Ciro. It was the faces of her parents that haunted her: those hopeless, despairing faces that she'd seen for only a split second before they gave way to joy and hope. No parent deserved to feel the loss of a child, even if that child was a street-slumming ne'er-do-well like Jaxan... or like herself.

She was a Solari, she reminded herself—and the Solaris always came out on top in the end. It was the Colas who would pay the "cost of doing business."

Ashon watched as Xiuyang appeared to speak her native language and secured Jaxan for the group. He shook his head toward Dorothea's direction, muttering some profanity about Ersandenisers, especially as she hit the rescue target. Instructing Seviin to help tend to Jaxan, he recommended they avoid further agonizing the situation.

"We are here for the boy, and we have him. Now kindly yash duul spax joi Yanii'jexoff," he gestured toward them dismissively.

"You Ersandenisers are all the same!" the woman with the short hair shouted. "Wasn't it supposed to be: 'we hand you the kid, you hand us the cash' or are you White-wall dwellers exempt from holding up your end of the bargain?" She let out an exasperated noise. "You've shot him anyways. Great job!" She glanced over at Xiuyang. "I had thought I'd be working with professionals."

Dorothea looked rather flabbergasted. The lady of Fortune must be playing the cruelest joke on her. To think their target would fall in that split second to catch the lesbian’s sentence. However the boy did not disappear into nothingness was a sense of relief.

”Oi, taca!” She shouted towards the Yasoi that was meant to be the target. ”They’ll be fine, if it actually hit there would be nothing left.” She spat on the floor with utter distaste for the dyke. ”But if I were you, you should thank him. That little gift would’ve been your one way trip to whatever one of the five hells wants you the most.” A sigh left the girl. ”Lucky for you, I don’t leave business unsettled. So let me ask you, do you want to be shot… or” her free hand would go across her throat. ”Maybe a quick slash to send a suuthi down under.”

"Well?" Coca offered, "Are you going to try to run away with the money and kill us all because you can?" She shook her head, already knowing this type. "Or can we stop and act like adults." She paused. "Except for that one." She jerked a thumb at Dory. "You were aiming for me, bitch, weren't you?" She let out a low whistle. "My oh my, you're gratuitously bloodthirsty!"

It was so fast that Dory didn't sense it on time. A rush of air hit her and then a sound: a noise, right in her ears. It was overwhelming. It bent her over and ruptured her right ear drum. "You were saying, about my imminent death?" She was rushign forward now, brimming with energy, though whether she was headed for Dory or past her wasn't clear yet.

Dory flinched from the sudden painful sensation followed by a ring in her head. What a utterly annoying sound given to her by an even more disgusting person. "You bitch! You fucking peasant whore. How fucking dare you?!"

A wall of invisible flames was cast between her and the broad that rushed towards her. She looked scared? Her rifle fell as a shakey hand laid on her chest. "Please don't come any closer! I... I..."

It was at about that moment that Johann came hurtling through a wall between the Eskandr and his four allies, slamming into a pillar and going limp. For all of his mighty RAS, the big man was not much of a fighter and made no pretense at being one. The colossal yasoi he'd been fighting trudged through the gap, bloody and battered but still on his feet. "Aww shit, boss. These guys are a lot tougher than they was s'posed to be." He shook his neck and grimaced at the pain it caused. "That guy damned near took off my head."

Coca did not engage with Dory and paid her little heed now that she seemed to be temporarily neutralized. The ringleader raced for the doorway, barely acknowledging her hulking brother. "Less talk, Daiyet, more getting the fuck outta here!"

"How 'bout the cash?" he prodded, puzzled.

The orange-haired yasoi was also making a break for it. "We tried!" he shouted. "Fucking... Ching Chong there has him in some kind of fucked up bubble!"

"We run, brothers!" the woman shouted. "Live to fight until the next crime they blame us for. This was a resistance setup! It has to be!"

The girl clicked her tongue. "And here I made myself extra vulnerable for you only to have you ignore me." She grabbed her rifle and stowed it away, only for a handle of some sorts to appear within the hand that disappeared. "I'm actually quite hurt, you know? Were my acting capabilities not adequate for your standards?"

As her hand moved away from her chest it would seem as if she was a blade of some kind. It was straight, slender and the point turned towards the Lesbian that dared to not pay her no mind. "Won't you entertain me with this little squabble instead of being a sneaky, little, sound bitch."

Coca stumbled to her feet, shaking off the shove and glancing over at Daiyet as he 'took care' of Seviin and Johann. "Fuck! You really like me," the yasoi taunted. "Why else would you be paying so much attention?" With that, she shot up into the air, trying to race past Dory. "Not interested,!" she called, making a break for it.

"What a shame, such a shame. I wanted to have fun and all you want to do is sour my mood." The girl slashed the air a couple times as weird disruptive crescent-shaped energy bolted towards her new 'friend'. "Guess I do really like you. You've been truly fun to play with, little criminal."

"Oopsie, does that sting?" She looked at the other get hit by it with a long smirk. A couple more slashes were flung her way aimed at her leg. Might as well make this criminal a Lady of Misfortune.

The yasoi tried to deflect the sword, but it wasn't enough. The blade sliced clean through her leg and, when it wasn't there on her next step, she fell roughly, screaming, and tumbled some ways.

Immediately, Seviin broke off from her attempts to break through Xiuyang's strange barrier and made for Johann, but she paused and her eyes widened. She turned to the fleeing Coca and hit her with a powerful kinetic shove, that sent the Constantian yasoi crashing into a stack of crates. "You savage!" she screamed, though whether her words had been directed at Coca or Dory was up for debate. She whirled and glared at the latter, still on the move, and drew near to Johann.

It was at that moment that the colossal Daiyet lifted the ground up from all around her and slammed it shut like a trap with Seviin the rat caught in the middle. This, he hurled at the fallen student. "Two down," he crowed. "Two more to go!" he turned his attention to Xiuyang. "Fantas, you distract the other ginger, huh?" he commanded, sicking his younger brother on Ashon. "If Coca's gonna puss out, that's more for us!"

The yasoi tried to dodge, but she was too slow. Instead, she was caught across the side by the energetic slashes.

Inside the warehouse, Ashon had pointedly removed himself from the fight, watching with dispassionate eyes as Johann was mercilessly driven into a support beam and broken, Niallus split a man open and tore his arm off, Dory attempted to use an insidious weapon on a fleeing target, Coca was slammed into crates with bonebreaking force, and Seviin was lifted up like a toy and crushed inside of a massive ball of dirt, rocks and debris.

Then, however, there was another man looking at him: a ginger who was almost his mirror image, though not quite so heroically tall, buff, and handsome. It was Fantas. "You uh... you're the peaceful type, right, big fella?" He grinned nervously, eyes flicking between Ashon and Daiyet, who was busy hurling the ball with Seviin inside of it at Johann in what would only be a finishing attack. "Heh yeah. You just stay there and maybe walk out if you like, okay? No trouble, no worries. This ain't your fight, moila."

The money secured to her waist, Xiuyang approached the downed yasoi, her pace urgent but cautious. "Do you still draw breath, Moila?" Leaning on her staff, she knelt down to check his pulse. By the time Xiuyang noticed the wig, or heard Dorothea explain that the bullet must have been stopped, the bloodchild had already reached out and placed a blood mark on her, and began sapping her energy. "Sleep," he responded calmly. Perhaps he hadn't expected a "white-wall dweller" to be familiar with the school.

He would be proven wrong.

In an instant, Xiuyang was fighting back, her staff placed across his neck. The energy drain became weaker, until Xiuyang dissolved the blood mark. Her opponent placed another, stronger one that could stick, but for all the yasoi's skill in blood magic, the privileged schoolgirl, decorated with enviable enchanted treasures, was just that much stronger in the Gift. He could hardly make any reasonable progress this way.

"Open your eyes, you little shit," Xiuyang growled, seizing his hand. For a moment, he did—and for a moment, he saw beyond the veil. "You're at my mercy—" she seethed, struggling. Taking a breath, she continued. "—and your allies are about to flee straight into my trap. I'll make you a deal: tell me where the real Jaxan is, and I'll declare you dead and walk away. How's that? You can be the sole survivor of this; if you lay low for a few days after their execution, you might just be able to start a new life. Lie to me, however, and I'll dedicate all of my Family's resources to hunting you down," she threatened.

"So many words," Vani'la replied. "But it not matter. No deal." In response, Xiuyang brought her weapon close to his neck, and it began to bleed—a lot. It bled and bled, and there was no stopping it. "My apologies. Am I speaking your language now?" she said, her eyes wide and crazed as she drew upon the hatred she'd felt during that time in Yarsoc. "It's real simple. Tell me, where to find Jaxan." The echo of the loon's call began to fade slightly, but it was still difficult for Vani'la to see or hear anything but the illusionist pinning him down. "You can die now, if you'd prefer," she offered.

It was chaos outside of their little bubble but, inside of it, the boy seethed and glared. "You cunt," he snarled. "We don't have him. Never did, but we knew everyone was just gonna blame us, so we figured we'd make some money off of it if we were gonna be cooked anyway."

He was scared, though, beneath the show and through the indelible hatred that had been birthed here. "Said he was headed for the resistance, those fucking crooks." He shook his head as much as the blade would allow. "Spawning darklings every fucking step of the way without a care of heed. Oh, they're gonna love him." He breathed tightly, glaring. "I dunno if he reached them. If he did, he's fucking gone. Last one who saw him was Arsii, with some one-legged hooker. They were arguing." He seemed to be gathering energy subtly as he spoke. Who wouldn't in such a situation? "That good enough for you before you murder my family?"

"You complain of being blamed for kidnapping, but this is a reputation you've done well to earn. Stupid games, stupid prizes as the huusoi say. Should I pity you? Stroke your cheek and tell you I'm sorry for the misunderstanding? It's also rather convenient that you'd blame your enemies, you know?"

Indeed, why should she believe a single word this scumbag said? The door trap said all that needed to be said: the Colas were prepared to kill them and take the money without any negotiation whatsoever. Every single word they'd said afterwards was deception, trickery, gaslighting—and now, this worm was drawing energy. It would be his final error. Subtly, Xiuyang resolved herself to finish the job, drawing the blade across his throat. Her enemies had not retreated as she'd thought they would, and further attempts to negotiate from both sides had fallen on deaf ears. Her friends were in danger, injured, and in one case, burned alive, and she couldn't afford to let Vani'la live, even though it had been her original intent. Not an ounce of trust could be afforded to these maggots.

You're becoming more like him, came the voice in the back of her mind. Was it praise? A warning? A threat?

Regardless, she ignored it. The yasoi would die.

The moment that she took his life, the protection of the call faded and Fantas came for her with everything he had and no words. A colossal pillar of fire erupted around Xiuyang, but there was more. From his palms leapt beams of heat by the dozens, feeding the inferno, growing it. "You murderous fucking bitch! You think doing it sneaky lets you get away with it?"

"Shall I dumb this down for you fucking parasites?" Xiuyang said as the bubble faded. "No Jaxan, no deal!" she shouted as she twirled her staff, meeting Fantas' Marhazannet with all she could muster. As it became clear that it was not going to be enough, she chemically raised her pain tolerance to stop herself from screaming uncontrollably. "Jaxan was never here! Every word they say is a lie! Every deal is a trap! Kill them all!!"

Ashon scratched his head. “The goal was to return the Boyo to his father. Why do people keep making this more complicated?” He stuck his arm around Fanta’s shoulder and pointed toward the others. “I mean, clearly being scrunched like that has got to hurt.” Then he pointed toward Niallus. “Though it looked like he got more handsome.” He shook his head, then gestured toward Xiuyang, who decapitated Jaxen in front of everyone. His jaw slackened, then closed. “And that is the girls’ first blood right there. Poca.” He smacked Fanta hard against the back of his head, pushing him onto the floor. “Go to sleep, yaya.”

There seemed to be no stopping Johann however. He drew in half of the roof and turned it into a million or so gossamer metallic threads, each sharp and slicing. This, he drew from a thousand directions onto Daiyet, but the big yasoi blasted them away with a roiling inferno. In return, he launched a massive arcane lance at the Kerreman. Johann sucked in still more energy and and launched back a solid beam of metal as if it were a laser leaping from his hands. They met and the metal splattered, congealed into shards, and hammered Daiyet, impaling and slashing at him.

Bloodied and beaten, he staggered back, but there was rage such as nobody had ever seen in the normally gentle Johann's eyes. "I'll tear you limb from fucking limb!" he roared, standing in place. As the others watched, he began to change. Massive amounts of heat and energy rolled off of him, distorting the air and turning the sany soil into a glassy crater. Smoke and steam filled the air and, when they cleared, the young man who stood there looked totally different. Where he had always been huge, it was now loads of lean muscle as opposed to fat that covered his hulking form. He pushed off and, in less than a second, he had covered the distance between them.

Great bony protrusions sprouted from his fist as he drove it into Daiyet's ample gut. The yasoi tried to block, but his arms were snapped by the sheer force of the blow.

He healed them almost instantly and drove a powerful kick into Johann's flank, but the Kerreman's body seemed to almost bend as it absorbed the strike. He spun away and then, somehow, he landed a hammer fist from above. It should've been impossible It should've.... Johann had grown a third temporary arm! It was drawn away to nothing in no time at all and the energy put into a colossal lightning beam that leapt from one giant's hands and plowed into the chest of the other. Daiyet smoked and twitched, stumbling backwards, but there was no mercy here, only pain.

Johann's foot connected with his head and snapped it back, spraying blood, sweat, and teeth everywhere. A slicing wind dissipated against Johann's swirling barrier of heat and cold and he emerged from it almost enritrely unscathed. "You!" shouted Daiyet. "What the fuck are you!?"

The Kerreman said nothing. He merely stalked forward. A desperate arc lightning was absorbed and he swelled further with energy. He grabbed the giant by the shirt, reared back, and then his mouth opened. It widened. It grew impossibly wide.

Pure D E A T H leapt from it and, when the smoke, dust, and rubble from the blast cleared, Daiyet's headless body slumped to the ground.

The colossal fireball faded and, burnt and battered, Xiuyang still stood. Then, came the sneak attack from behind: Ashon knocking him out with a single application of chemical and kinetic magic.

This was it then: a fight to the finish, in the long tradition of Ersand'Enise's relationship with Mudville. Change a name and maybe all you've changed is a name after all.

Ashon picked up the temporarily indisposed Fantas and handed him over to Pepsii to carry. “Take him and get out of here.”

Pepsii nodded, his eyes searching the ruins of the warehouse as more of these Ersandenisers poured in. For a moment, something built behind those eyes. Was it rage? Was it regret? Was it something that words could not adequately give name to? This was impossible to say, but then he nodded painfully, held out his arms, and took the unconscious boy.

Heart heavy, he was about to turn and leave, but that was when it happened.

Dory whistled, making her way toward the fallen knife-ear. "You were blessed it seems! You resemble the Lady of Misfortune now, aren't you happy?"

The sword ticked against the flooring.

Tick

"Now, do you want me to kill you or perhaps we can strike a deal."

Tick

"I do like you, you know?"

Tick

But the look that she got in return was one that basically told her to fuck off.

"No, That's a shame. Guess we'll just have to part ways."

The disturbance that slashed her leg off started to tear open further, the yasoi that was Coca became enveloped within it. The recently one-legged yasoi's screams and struggles were for naught, no matter what she did she ended up the same way.

"At least part ways with the you that makes you... well, you."

And soon the disturbance faded back into the VOID, along with the knife-ear that she oh, so adored.

"Take pride in this, little knife-ear. I don't usually do this for anyone."

The girl smiled warmly as an entity emerged from the VOID. It looked familiar to the people who were around it but it wasn't quite what they remembered. A vile creature born from another, a mere shadow of what Coca the person was.

The Void that had swallowed Coca opened back up and, from it, issued a monstrosity: a gnarled and twisted version of something like his sister and some mockery of the Lady Vyshta, all in the form of a hideous demon. It let out a mindless screech of pain and rage, but kowtowed to its master's bidding.

That was the first thing that Seviin - freshly emerged from her deadly cocoon and gasping desperately for breath - saw. Her eyes widened in horror just as Dorothea's had widened in glee. She looked up at Niallus and over at Ashon and Xiuyang, numb and stunned. Did they support this? Had they been part of it? If they did, they were no better than the Colas and possibly worse. She staggered to her feet and began to draw energy.

Pepsii set his brother gently on the ground. He breathed in and out and nodded apologetically in Ashon's direction. "I had hoped for a happier ending," he intoned sadly, and then he began to cast.

It started with grass that raced across the floor, and vines that snaked up the pillars. Trees and great flowers sprouted and flourished from the bodies of his fallen family and they grew. They became huge and colourful and full, but then they began to change. Where they had once represented the beauty he had seen in his siblings and friends - imagined or real - they now represented his sadness, his bitterness, his regret at lives dishonestly lived, his murderous rage at Dorothea, who had gone only after fleeing targets and always in the most reprehensible way possible. They grew up around the monster that had once been his sister, ready to consume her.

Ashon’s expression wasn't one of disappointment; it was something worse. “That twisted abomination is not of this world,” he declared, drawing his blades. “I’ll help you put her to rest.” He nodded toward Pepsii, then called out to Seviin. “Get the boy out of here,” he instructed, indicating to Fantas.

Dorothea saw another damned Yasoi prepare to engage her, this truly became tiresome. Then the betrayal of one that she would've considered rational. "You're really going to align with the person that tried to kill us?! Have you gone mad, monkey boy!?"

"Don't you remember what our task even is? We are here to find a missing boy, not being virtuous little students!" She began to cast a defensive tear in front of the monstrosity. "We can kill it when it stops proving useful." She signalled for Zabarchazad and Arisztaxa to be ready when her supposed ally can't be reasoned with. "Be smart about it, please."

Pepsii turned to Ashon. "Reason with this yanii," he said in Hyparish. "Do not ruin this family of yours on account of mine." He shook his head. "We were bad people anyhow, even if we weren't always."

He strode forward. "Come now, warlock, do your worst."

Ashon looked at Dorothea grimly. “Then dismiss her, let her soul rest. That abomination is a terror beyond death. These petty thieves are defeated; there is no need for further blood to be shed,” he urged, crossing his arms. “There is no honor in what you have done. Cease your actions.”

"Can you guarantee this one to actually stop?" She pointed towards Pepsii before something that she could not stomach. "Honor? You care about honor around these evil people?" Whilst she talked Zabarchazad closed in towards the unconscious Fantas only to drag them down into the VOID, keeping them safe from any other person.

She shot a look towards her 'countryman' "Johann, at least you could see the worth in having it stay until all matters are resolved, right? I am trying to have them see the light."

Ashon raised an eyebrow. “We outnumber him,” he said, thumbing toward Pepsii. “He was about to leave when you decided to do that to his family,” he gestured toward the abomination. “So kindly stop being a taca and return that thing from where it came, and put an end to this.”

This was the sort of person who made all unconventional thaumaturges look bad, but - oh - how powerful she was! Johann considered. "Strategically, you are as astute as ever," he agreed, "but this is a moral and religious matter as well. She has a soul that needs to be released to wherever it will go." He glanced over at the massive, headless corpse of Daiyet. "Don't we honour our fallen enemies back home?" This was an undesirable situation to be in and he worked to suppress a scowl. For Dami's sake, read the room! You can always summon another less publicly later.

That was not the reaction she hoped for from the only rational person in the group. "You are right with that, I suppose." There was no way out of this it seemed. Her blade readied. Her hand caressed her recently made companion's cheek. "You truly deserved better, but these people do not wish for you to live."

"Your soul is strong, may it prosper." After one final swipe across the other's cheek her hand left. One swing and the beast was without it's head. Dory looked... saddened? . . She let out a displeased glare at the monkey boy before moving onto the only one that made some lick of sense. "You owe me an entire night of beer if we end up in a situation where she would've been helpful, got it?"

And the body would fade back into the VOID, soulless and away from this world. "Does this please you, mister high morality?"

If the standoff between Ashon and Dory had been brought to an abrupt close, the situation was far from over. Fantas had been stolen through the void while they weren't looking. This witch's evil truly knew no end and she would care not in the slightest for any moral or even practical argument. There was only the threat of death remaining. The eldest of the siblings teleported in beside her. "Let my brother free from that prison unharmed," he said simply, "or I will blow this entire place up, with you, your demons, and your friends. We were bad, but I've seen the face of true evil today." He let out a snort of ironic laughter and began to glow. "It'll be nice to be the hero for once."

Dory smirked. "Not so fast, friend." She turned around slowly to not cause any aggression from the other. "There is no need to blow everything up, for if you kill me here... Your brother will face the same fate as your sister and then there will be no one to save them from said fate." Her hand extended towards him. "But I can just return your brother to you, so how about we make a deal for it?"

Pepsii's glow intensified. "You speak and say nothing," he replied. "I'm waiting." There was absolutely no way he would shake the witch's hand. She could either choose to return the yasoi or die. That was it.





Schism


Xiuyang backed away, severely battered and burned, frightened by the power that reminded her of the dragons in ReTan. She would not stop the behemoth of a man from burying his sister. She had the money, and had been attacked and tricked multiple times. Feeling like a target, she moved to the outer edge of the conflict. She rushed to Abdel's side and whispered to him in hushed tone. She didn't bother to play up the accent—he knew who she was. "The hostage was another Cola brother. Before he tried to kill me, he confessed strange things to me. We might be able to find Jaxan, but I don't want her with us. How do we lose her?" She gestured towards Dorothea as she slowly patched what she could of her burns.

Seviin stood there listlessly for a moment. She breathed gratefully. Then, she twisted about and laid her hands upon Niallus. "Oirase Aloi, Seviin siin joi juu wast p'oilan." She closed her eyes and a soothing feeling raced through him. Burnt and damaged skin, an angry, bleeding red, gave way as fresh new skin, pure and pale, raced to cover his wounds. "Be healed, friend." She drew back, and he was. She turned and walked over to Johann. He, too, she laid her hands upon. "Stay your anger, moila. You are safe now. Exiran has taken him."

Abdel was still healing his lacerated flank and arm when Xiuyang had joined him. Ever the vigilant Tethered, once the big distraction named Pepsii was gone, he could piece together the current mess his senses gathered. Most notably the wicked and dense magic, one he had learned or at least a year now to be dark magic, was sicked upon one of the hooligans.

“The eldest pinned it on the resistance.” answered Abdel without the trouble of hushing up. They were very much at the edge of the battlefield, and the sounds of war caught most outliers' attentions. “Did you hear something similar?” once his wound healed and his plain apparel knitted back together, he peered the Rettanese-Revidian's way. “If so, we could gather those we need and leave while this bordello solves itself.” he figured, nonchalant to the chaos unfolding.

But then he let a half-hearted chuckle escape him. “What troubles you so much about her?” he did not seem amused, but instead pensive - a true pokerface barring the force smile when speaking. “A monster might be what we need to deal with other unsavory creatures.” once again, his eyes were made to meet Salomé's. “Would you save this woman that caused you grief if you could?”

The Skuggvars were there, Abdel was ready, they could leave right now if they so wished. But he seemed more interested in knowing Xiuyang's position in all of this.

Seviin could not bear to look at what had become of the criminal woman. Bad deeds, bad ends. Yet, she also saw Dorothea, beyond a doubt, for the creature that she truly was. This was not the heat of battle, this was a deep illness of the soul and there was no cure for it in this life. It was Seviin who interrupted Abdel. "I would. It is not ours to decide who lives and who dies, merely to respond as we are treated." Her hands found his side and sped up his healing until the wounds were gone. "She was a bad a person, but nobody deserves this fate, ever."

There was still Xiuyang left, and Seviin hesitated for a moment, uncertainty in her eyes. Then, she reached for the Retanese as she had the others. "I will answer your question, Xiuyang Solari," she replied beatifically, but her hands trembled as she spoke. "The only way is death." Soothing energies worked their way through Xiuyang's body after those words. Did they feel any different than they should have?

"Yes, he said the same thing to me," Xiuyang replied to Abdel. "From the sound of things... in the worst case, they may be... keeping him as an aberration generator." She squirmed at the notion. "We may need monsters, perhaps, but dark magic? ...I hate it," she confessed. "I've seen the VOID. Its secrets should be buried," she insisted, as one who had been swallowed by it during the Trials surely would.

She turned to look at what was left of the girl who, like her, had tried to play ringleader and paid the price. "She dealt dishonestly at every turn. I was going to give her the money, forge an escape route for them if that wasn't enough of a bargaining chip. I had a ship ready and everything. I showed her far more kindness than she deserved... but even she doesn't deserve this fate, Abdel. All of us are good people, some with a few issues... but that woman is different. Can you not feel it? How she hates the yasoi, and takes shots at the vulnerable and fleeing."

Then, there was Seviin, healing what Xiuyang could not herself. From the beginning, the preachy girl had been more useful than the pragmatic Rettanese expected her to be. Rather, had she been even the slightest bit preachy since this whole ordeal had started? Her presence had become almost soothing, even... ...and then, there was what she said. Xiuyang's blood turned a bit cold. She glanced at Abdel to see his reaction. "We... It's not that simple a matter. What are you suggesting?" she replied, still whispering. Her eyes were locked on to Seviin's, inquisitive, but not judging.

Seviin shook her head sadly. "Mother Oirase brings us all into the world with love." The burned faded from Xiuyang's skin. Surely, she'd have been able to heal these wounds herself, but the act of having another do it - another care for you - was somehow a better thing. "I am not saying that we should kill her, but for the way that she is, death is the only cure." She pulled her hands back and wiped a single small tear from her cheek, straightening. "That is the Gods-honest truth." She tilted her head in consideration. "For now, we must be a united front, not violent, but drawing a line against such abomination." She looked meaningfully at Abdel.

"...Right," she offered, unnerved all the same. Perhaps it was her own family's legacy, her own darker nature at play, but she could have sworn that it seemed as if Seviin wanted her to arrange for Dorothea's "accidental" death, somehow. Perhaps she was fishing for some trick Xiuyang may have had up her sleeve... and in truth, she had two more cards to play, but now didn't seem to be the time to lay them on the table. This entire venture with the Colas appeared to be a waste of time and effort, and it was time to end it. "Thank you," she hastily added. "I mean it."

"But your assurances do not reach your eyes," Seviin replied sadly. "I am sorry."

Xiuyang's eyes widened, taken aback. "No, really! I know you care, and I trust your judgment. It's just... showing sincerity is hard, for me. No one trusts a Revidian, or a Rettanese." As if to prove her point, her eyes involuntarily averted themselves. "...Jamboi needs my help," she said hastily, taking off.

Many appeals to emotion, some reasonable, some Abdel took issue with. Seviin's intervention was sweetened with her thoughtful assistance in the healing process, but sentimentality wasn't something this young man was going to afford.

That said, the binary nature of their options didn't sit well with him. “She is a problem, but not one we should necessarily direct toward us. If anything, despite the alienation, this has been to our benefit.” he looked at the carnage that was happening, and chaos and destruction. “Well, sort of. Still, I'm of the mind that we finish this job and don't get on her bad side. Keep her as a boon.” very utilitarian of him, but the concern in his expression he tried hard, and failed, to keep cool sold out his own anxieties.

“As for the Cola woman ...” she sighed, annoyed at the fact that what he was going to propose may very well complicate everything. But, alas, Seviin's approach to thing left him feeling as though he owed some humanity to the moment. “We do have experts on the subject in our current cohort, do we not? The short ones from the desert. If anyone can rectify VOID-bound issues, it could be them.”

“... Nevermind.”

"As you say, Abdel Varga." Xiuyang had darted off, afraid of Shiin's truth, and it was the two of them alone. She watched him for an extended moment as Dory sliced the beast's head off, before turning to regard the developing situation there. She had no further words for him.

Xiuyang stalked up to Ashon and grabbed him by the arm. "He's giving us time to get away," she hissed. "She's insane. Let's just leave."

But did that boy, before you killed him? Seviin wondered or was it self-defense? It took unusual restraint to hold herself back from saying it. The priestess would never deny the gift of Mother Oirase to a living, sentient being, but she could not remain with these people in good conscience.

Perhaps the masked woman who had proven to be Xiuyang was not inevitably bound for hell. She had shown some capacity for doing right at the eleventh hour but she had also taken that boy hostage in some sort of spatial bubble and, while Seviin had not witnessed the act, he now lay there dead with a slice across his neck. Unless the Retanese had a very good explanation...

This was not somebody who Seviin would choose to work with.

Abdel's response to Dory's brazen acts of evil had been eye-opening as well. He had wanted to keep the Feskan as an unpunished ally and wished for the monstrosity to persist. He had to have known very well that there was no curing such a condition and, if he did not, he was foolish in addition to his cruelty. Either way...

This was not somebody who Seviin would choose to work with.

Lunara had proven amply willing to spill blood over trivial matters and Johann had killed, though in the heat of battle, as Niallus had maimed. Of Oksana, she knew next to nothing. Healing was her priority, so she had done it, but she remembered Ashon's words as well.

Fantas was nowhere to be found and, as she listened to the drama playing out a short ways away, the reason became horrifyingly clear. It was not the first time that such an anger had built up in Seviin, but she had always managed to find Mother Oirase and Lady Ypti. I am sorry, Ashon. I am sorry, Fantas. I should have been better. I should have acted quicker. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment. "Mother Oirase, forgive me. I have failed you," she whispered to herself but, truly, to them.

There was yet one more to save, however, and she rushed over to heal this final target: the thug who Niallus had nearly torn apart. When she reached the desperately wounded man, he was in a sorry state. He had tried to sneak up on Niallus for some final act of revenge, but he had failed. He lay on the ground, his side burnt and blasted and carved open, his left arm gone. "You stay away, Tarlonese bitch!" he rasped, but there was nothing he could do. She simply knelt. "You will live," She said.

"Fuck you," he spat. "Exiran has me already. Do not take me from his -" His words cut off in a choked gasp of pain. Behind her, the situation was worsening. People would die and she did not have any time to waste. She began to heal. "You will live," she insisted, hands shaking.

He tried to swat at her head as his strength returned. "No! Fuck you!" he howled. "What kind of life is this? One arm, a record nobody will trust, and everyone I know dead in this fucking shithole? Take your mercy and shove it up your holy snatch."

"Father Damy gives us the right to act hurtfully." She swallowed.

"Stop!" he screamed, and then Seviin was out of time. There was a greater need. She stumbled back listlessly and began drawing with every ounce of her capacity. Mostly healed to the extent that he could be, the one-armed man began racing for Niallus, doing his best to kill the Eskandr or die trying. "Niallus!" Seviin shouted, "On guard!"

Still, she drew, as Dory smiled with a beatific smugness and continued to hold out her hand, as Daiyet lay dead on the ground, Pepsii glowed brighter and brighter and his energy became unbearable, as Mentos hurtled towards the scene bent on a glorious death. Great walls of stone and debris began to form all around the scene, and between her friends and the now-inevitable blast.

Dory did not return Fantas. Vani'la'cola and the thing that had been Coca'cola lay there dead. The walls grew higher and firmer. Pepsii looked Dory right in the eyes. He turned both of his hands up and raised his middle fingers. "Eat shit, Yanii bitch."
He erupted.


Xiuyang saw it before it happened. Ten seconds was not enough time to get away. Nothing needed to be said: Seviin was already working on a barrier, and Xiuyang sprang into action to support it with her own magic. She ran to Seviin's side, leaving Niallus in the hands of Eshiran. There's the Seviin I know, saving someone worthless, she thought. It was always when faced with death that she found the oddest thoughts crossing her mind.

Sweat poured down her face as she struggled with the immense power. Then, horror: Ashon's skull was obliterated in front of her eyes. Xiuyang froze. How could this— "NO!!" She let out a primal shriek, reaching out in front of him to do... something. Anything! He couldn't die here, not now, not before he had the chance to hold his own child in his arms—

It was a brick. A loathsome, stray brick from the street, as wholly mundane as any brick could be, as if it had been picked up by one of the Cola brothers themselves and thrown at them out of spite. In reaching out with her hand, Xiuyang found it broken—but a broken hand had just saved Ashon's stupid face. His stupid, handsome, lovable face.

Then, it was over, and Xiuyang collapsed onto the ground, practically convulsing from the pain and the general strain on her body. Remarkably, almost nothing around them had been destroyed: the others must have directed their Gifts toward deflecting the energy of the blast into the sky.

But not Xiuyang. She needed to live, and Ashon needed to live, and Seviin, and Abdel, and Johann... This dump of a neighborhood, the biggest hotbed of crime nestled within Mudville like some kind of tumor, could burn along with the Colas if that was what it took to save the ones she cared about. The others were fools to prioritize the locals... but perhaps their foolishness was what made them endearing, in the end.

Darkness had coated the girl except for her face which she tried to keep up to potentially reason with him, but alas it seemed like he was determined to throw his life away. The weight of desperation and urgency hung in the air. She could feel the oppressive heat of the Yasoi's imminent eruption.

“You suicidal oaf! You’ll die for-” Her voice, a blend of anger and fear, cut through the tension. Her words, however, fell on deaf ears. He didn’t hear her out, not too different from what everyone else did.

The last bit of what people could see of Dory’s form became shrouded as the Yasoi erupted. In that split second. The energy released was fierce and uncontrollable, begun to be sucked into the darkness as a cocoon of VOID energy. However, it could only suck up so much. The sheer force and magnitude of the explosion pushed her barrier to its limit.

Her mind raced, accommodating for any imperfections in her ‘coating.’ Any tiny flaw, any moment of weakness, and she’d be turned to dust. It made her heart pound like a war drum. The energy battered her shield relentlessly. The thoughts around feeling that heat was unbearable. When the explosion finally subsided, the silence that followed was deafening. Her body trembled, a weak smile plastered on her face for her survival. She looked around, eyes wide with the realization of how little destruction there actually was.

The entire ordeal felt like an eternity even if it barely lasted a couple seconds. ”Nothing. . .” Dory began to be fully visible once more. She stared at her hands, before touching her face. The shock dissipated and her weak smile turned into pure elation. ”Heh. . . Hahahaha, I told you!” She kicked in front of her as if she kicked the lingering spirit of Pepsii. ”Not a scratch! I told you, but you didn’t want to listen.” She embraced herself, took in the air and laughed at her own survival.

Slowly, Xiuyang healed her broken fingers and shattered wrist. No longer was she shaking from the pain, but rather, pure rage. If the Colas hadn't been stopped from fleeing, it all could have gone off without a hitch. Her plan had been perfect, and not only did this bitch ruin it, she'd nearly got Ashon killed. She waited for some sign of unity from the others against Dory. She waited, and not only did that sign never come, she found a few side-eyes cast her way as well. Of course. Let the wealthy and powerful noble who ruined everything get off scot-free, blame the conveniently-placed nameless mercenary. Cowards.

Her rage, rational or not, boiled over until she could barely contain it. Rather than speak, she wisely reached for her medicine of choice: alcohol. She took a long chug from her gourd, then poured one out for the Colas. You know what. Fuck this. She walked over to Abdel and unceremoniously dropped the money box at his feet. "You want to work with her? Well, I don't. I'll see myself out," she said plainly, unwilling to speak further as she was obviously holding back some complicated feelings. "Well, there's no Jaxan here. You kids do whatever it is you do after beating the bad guys," she said, raising her voice so the others could hear. "Goodbye." With a curt wave, she left without even looking at them.

Tense Negotiations






One look around at the state of affairs and a glimpse at the captain's face left Raffaella questioning her involvement in this battle. Wow. He's already given up, she quickly surmised of him. Before she could step in to that mess, though, she was saddled with someone else. Pink one? Rude! At least my color held up though. Taking a look at the swabbie, he was obviously being told to take her to safety (and to go be useless somewhere else while he was at it,) but he didn't seem to be getting the hint. Yeah, some iced tea and macaroons would be great right now, she thought with some snark. But, something about his doe-eyed look squeezed just a tiny bit of sympathy from the girl. After all, she herself hadn't been born the master of her own destiny that she was now. Even she had gone through a time where she simply did what she was told and tried not to be pathetic while doing it.

If this ship goes down, it'll turn into a worst case scenario free-for-all. Problem is, I'm no binder and certainly no sailor bitch. And then there's this guy. Well, at a bare minimum... "Uh... Yeah. Do you have... can you use a map and compass? And can you use a lifeboat? I can't really do much from here."

"Y-yes, I can read a map, a little." But he shot a nervous look back toward Balik when a lifeboat was mentioned, she was looking in another direction. The boy seemed to have understood the implication and seemed to be weighing the odds whether Balik would kill him for abandoning the ship or if he would die by staying on it. "I can row, I can row well. He said resolutely with a nod, trying to build up some bravery to follow through.

Phew. She tried not to let the relief show too much on her face. "Then, let's get rowing... that-way-ish," she replied, pointing in the general direction her presumed allies had went. "And don't worry. No one will get mad at you for protecting a totally helpless little lady." She stuck her tongue out a bit before turning to look at the water, showing him a bit of her mischievous side. Why not? He was her accomplice now, and no one would believe him anyway.

"Bye Ren~! I gotta convince our friends to not be useless pacifists real quick!" she called out as she jumped into the nearest boat, unsure if her voice could really carry over the sailors' shouts. But first, I'm gonna cause some problems for those stinky pirates. She grinned impishly as the boat lowered. Sticking her hand into the waters, she spread a chemical pheromone around in it, one which her loyal pet associated with "mom."

...No response. A little curiosity from other nearby threshers, but little else. Irritated, she tried again, this time bringing what command magic she had to bear to the situation. Not that she knew it by that name; she just knew her gloves were useful for commanding animals.

If it were possible for a thresher to display the human experience of being unamused on its face, Kiskac did exactly that. "Geez. What's got you so worked up?" she pouted, oblivious to what exactly she was interrupting. "Now, which one was 'attack,' again?" she pondered, petting the creature contemplatively. She responded with a vigorous cheek pinch. "Ahwua, dasshit!" Raffie declared triumphantly, coaxing her pet to let go. "Go gettem," she cooed to the alpha thresher.

Kiskac sank beneath the water irritably. Was this girl stupid? Well, whatever. If it meant she'd be left alone for a little while, she could get some of the beta males to attack that barnacle-encrusted mass of wood the humans called a "boat." Not her, though. Queen that she was, she would get the others into a frenzy and have them do the work. This was the way.

Whether or not Ren heard the call, Balik certainly did. But by the time she had taken notice, the lifeboat was already decending to the waters.

The ship was not ill-equipped by any means, but it didn't mean that the lifeboats were in such plentiful supply that two kids could take off with one. The swabbie was a of little use and the pink one was supposed to be helping in this fight, not fleeing from it. A surge of anger rose within the second mate as she went to the side of the ship. But before she could yell TRAITOR! at the pair already rowing to the western shore, she was interrupted by the signs of movement beneath the waves and turmoil.

It was not the chaotic splashing and trashing of a aquatic orgy, but the coordinated swimming of threshers primed for attack and they were heading toward the pirates. A look of respect replace that of anger on Balik's face even if Raffie was too far away to notice the subtleties. The pink one had earned her lifeboat. Balik didn't waste time in returning to her command.

The swabbie rowed and rowed. Some parts fear and some parts appreciation guided what strength he gave to the oars. He had seen death on that boat and a short but periodic chuckling showed the relief he felt to escape its grasp.

He didn't quite have the courage to thank her. It would be in poor taste given the battle was still going and he abandoned his countrymen. But he was grateful nonetheless. Even if he wouldn't allow himself to speak it, it was present in his eyes.

"Good job. Keep it up," Raffaella said between breaths. It wasn't quite clear whether she was speaking to the young man rowing for his life, or to her pet beneath the waves. For her part, she was too busy drawing energy from errant cannonballs and pouring it into a combined effort between the both of them to reach the shore faster.

At some point, her hair had ceased its soft pink glow. Perhaps she'd done it to make their boat less of a noticeable target in the low light. Beneath the illusions, her hair was red, and... were those freckles? It was too dark to say for sure. By the time the two had reached shore, the lapse in her guise had closed up. Maybe she hadn't even noticed.

The warm luminescence coming off of her made her a target for every flying insect in the brush, however. She sputtered, annoyed, about to use her chemical magic to ward them off when she suddenly had another idea. She wasn't quite done with those pyrates just yet. Just as her pet had done with the threshers, she stirred the bugs into a frenzy. While their attention was directed downward toward the water, trying to prevent the threshers from punching a dozen holes in their hull, now was the time for an aerial strike. She didn't know much of anything about naval combat, but she knew that a ship with no sails was dead in the water, and being dead in the water was, like, super bad.

...It was no use. The Blue Adam was too far away now. Just looking at the distance she'd need to blow those chemicals through the air made her feel exhausted. Aw, heck. A feat like that would make a Tethered blush... She sighed and slumped against the edge of the boat, content to repel the insects for now. "I can't... do anymore. It's up to Ren now," she yawned.

The swabbie sat near her leaning against the boat. While Raffie was considering the use of insect warfare, he had been dragging it to shore so it wouldn't float away from them. He was without the kinetic magic to make this an easy endeavor and struggled to catch his breath.

With a focus toward the waters and the battle beyond, Raffie was less alert to the noises happening from the jungle. She wasn't completely caught off-guard, but certainly off balance. A group of around 10 warriors emerged with spears ready and surrounded half the lifeboat.

"I thought you Virangish were supposed to be protecting us from the pirates." Prince Tamatoa called out to the pair. "I would think you should go back and join the fight." It was far from a welcoming reception.

Raffie would turn to the swabbie, perhaps expecting him to have already started retreating, but he hadn't. The was fear in his eyes sure, but he held his ground. Had she inspired a sense of loyalty in the boy for getting him off the boat even if it was a matter of convenience?

Raffie turned back to the jungle and noticed that Mahal was some distance behind the warriors holding them captive.

As the 17-year-old turned toward the sound of the Prince's voice, it was not the face of a Virangish that greeted him, but the pale visage of a Miattan girl, shocked at the unfriendly reception. She retreated into the corner of the boat, hugging herself.

It was neither the first nor the hundredth time she made a show of being harmless, and it wouldn't be the last. "P-Please to repeat?" she stammered, thinking back to the earliest Virangish lessons she'd received. There were mistakes the non-natives always made, and she'd been mocked for them in Inipor. Now, they might just save her life. "Ersand'Enise," she invoked. "Friend, school. Raffaella. With me," she said, eyes wide as she introduced herself and patted the swabbie on the shoulder. Catching sight of Mahal, she raised her hand and waved. "Mahal, you made it!" she cried excitedly in Avincian. "We're over here!"

The Prince looked confused at the pale girl. No, she certainly didn't look Virangish and she seemed to speak the language poorly, even if Tamatoa didn't know it well himself.

When she called out to Mahal, he looked over his shoulder and seemed frustrated that the Palapar girl had followed the group. Still, the recognition meant that the pink one was likely telling the truth about being a student of Ersand'Enise. His suspicions about a Virangish allegiance weren't entirely cleared, but his eyes looked more sympathetic. They unreadied their weapons.

The Prince cast a discerning eye on the swabbie. "You're friend here doesn't look like much of a mage" he remarked in Avincian. "Where did you pick him up from?"

Mahal's eyes tracked the slowest of the warriors. Her feet navigated quickly over the fallen trees, crashing twigs and leaves underfoot. She paused long enough to let the distance widen so no one saw she was tailing them. For now, she hoped to stay hidden until a faint voice betrayed her presence. Mahal's eyes snapped up and caught a girl dressed in pink from head to toe: Raffie. Mahal inhaled sharply when she spotted the Prince glance her way before the warriors lowered their spears. Whatever happened, tensions seemed to have dissipated for now. Mahal immediately picked up the pace to cover the rest of the distance.

"Ah!" Raffie dropped her guard and blushed a little in embarrassment as the man spoke Avincian in return. "W-Well, he actually picked me up, sir," she replied, ignorant of the prince's rank but polite all the same. She considered calling the swabbie "Abdel" and hoping the others would get a clue and play along, or simply claiming him as a servant, but if what she'd heard about the rest of those kids was accurate, if they could do anything, it was get opposing sides to the same table, where they would expose her lies and ruin her plans. Here, some version of the truth was the best policy. "Please don't punish him for his courage," she pleaded. "I don't think... he can go back." She bit her lip.

Tamatoa was lost in thought for a moment. It was clear that he held animosity toward the Virangish, but did those misgivings extend to a couple of teens younger than himself. His determination was strained by the call to empathy.

"Whatever you can do to me, I'll face the same thing or worse if I go back now." The swabbie spoke up with the desperation in his voice hard to miss. "She wasn't part of the ship either. She's a student and got teleported in like the rest of them."

Tamatoa seemed to believe both Raffie and the swabbie. But something about the last statement made him raise an eyebrow. If this girl had teleported in with the rest of the students, then why didn't she make it to shore with the rest of them?

It was some misfortune that brought Mahal to the shore. Now the Virangish could suspect an alliance forming between themselves and the students. That is, if word were to get back to Royal Asper Company ships.

But Mahal also brought a benefit to the discussion. "Mahal, it seems another student has made it to our shores. What do you say of her allegiances to Virang?"

Mahal looked to the small lifeboat then shifted to the pair that used it. She caught Raffie's defense of the man and it helped confirm her earlier sightings. Likely the other shape was either Fiske or Ren, which she assumed was the latter. It would fit his arrogance nature. Still, Raffie's presence being found like this put Mahal on the spot. As if the gods knew this, she heard the Prince air a question at her.

"I don't know her well enough. We met during the trials where she tricked me with an inferno lemon. " She frowned, recalling how long it took to get the sticky goo out of her clothes. Her arms crossed over her chest as she continued.

"I can say, not all of us made it to shore. It was hard to tell who headed where in the dying light, but it wouldn't surprise me if two ended up on the Asper and the other two on the pirate ship." Her eyes darted to the side before she turned to face Raffie. "If she causes trouble, I will... deal with her."

"Gawds. Are you really still mad about the lemon incident? I already told you that—" Tommy made me do it, she remembered. There was no need to exchange those words, though. Raffie frowned. For all his faults, Tommy was a fun fellow, and now he was gone. "I can't float and can barely swim. I went towards the ship because it was closer than the shore. And y'know, 'cause I figured everyone would agree the pyrates are the bad guys," she mumbled.

The Hegelan couldn't float or swim, but he managed to make it to shore. Mahal thought, but didn't say it. Sparking a fight wasn't in her best interest right now. Her arms remained crossed in front of her chest as she took a breath, moving on from the topic. "Was anyone else on the ship with you?"

"She's right! I-I had to fetch her out of the water." The swabbie's stammering could be easily explained by the fearful situation. "It was the Asper flagship so plenty of people were on board. But we had to flee to safety. It was getting nasty out there."

Tamatoa seemed to take in the exchange, taking a backseat to the students arguing. "We could take these two in. But I couldn't guarantee we would let them leave again as they wish, or the most accomodating welcome..."

"What would you say we should do, Mahal? You know this one better than I. Is she worthy of trust?" He gestured toward Raffie.

Mahal's eyes turned toward Tamatoa. Her expression remained somber, giving nothing away. After a moment or two of silence, she let out a soft sigh of acceptance. "I wish I could confidently say yes, but..."

She quickly moved on. "The others will want to know about this. She is also a student of the school, but it might make things worse if you kept them both. Last thing I want is the Virang abusing Palapar more because of an incident like this. Even if it was small, you know they would use the excuse in the name of 'justice'." She was putting what little trust she earned on the line and she hoped Raffie realized it. "If we go back to camp, I'll take full responsibility over them. They will not leave my sight unless I say so."

"I dunno. I think whatshisname might have made it. Finze? He seems pretty strong," Raffie replied dismissively. Apparently, she needed to disassociate with Ren if she wanted to stay alive around these Virangish-hating savages. It'll be bad if they find out he was there later and didn't hear about it from me. But if I say something now, they won't think twice. She crossed her arms. "Fine by me if you want to play babysitter. Just don't expect a payout."

Mahal's head tilted slightly, not sure if she should believe the girl or not. She shot back at the babysitting remark. "Babysitting never does. If you cause too much trouble... I'll leave you outside with the wildlife." Whether it was a bluff or not, it would be hard to tell. Mahal's eyes scanned the horizon for more lifeboats coming in, but saw nothing. "We should head back."

Tamatoa paused in a conflict between the two options. "Sending two kids back into that..." He nodded toward the conflict which seemed to be growing more heated than when the pair left. "No, I don't wish to have that on my conscience. Follow us, we'll take you to camp." In unison, the warrior picked up their weapons and turned. Only a few lingered behind to make sure the pair actually followed.

As they made their way back through the jungle to camp with the two Virangish in tow, Tamatoa looked toward Mahal with a modest grin. "You offered to do the babysitting, right? I might just hold you to that."

As they reached the prince's campfire, Raffie could see the field of them all housing at least 10 people each. This was not a military force that either of them had expected to find, at least in regards to size. Some barely acknowledged them with passing curiosity while others understood were the pair had come from and appeared to hold them in ill regard.

The two were sat at the fire on the side furthest from the camps centre. Surpisingly, they had some privacy, they were under watch but not being guarded strictly. Raffie didn't get the sense that she was restricted to where she sat now, especially if she spotted another student.

"The more I think about it," the swabbie spoke quietly to Raffie in a moment of reflection, "the more I think you saved me life back there." He chuckled grimly, resting his arms on his raised knees. "I only joined the Asper Company to impress a girl back home, but now I'm just happy to be alive. I'd say I owe you for that."

"If you ever find yourself traveling the costs and stop by Malat, you have a place to stay and eat on the house. It's not much I must admit, but it's what I can give. Although, it depends on me making it out of this I suppose." He looked into the fire absent-mindedly with a smile. It was probably the first time Raffie had seen him looking optimistic.

"My name is Abdel by the way, Abdel al-Zaidi." He looked back to her. "And your secrets safe, your hair's a natural pink to me." He joked.

Tamatoa had returned to the fire and merriment of his friends. But Mahal could notice that he didn't fully return. Some lingering stares were still cast over the Virangish pair they had taken in.

"I don't like it Mahal. She is a student like the rest of you and will need to join you all in your mission. We can't keep her here, but I don't trust her either. Try to keep a close eye."

At Tomatoa's earlier comment back to camp, Mahal's eyes held a warm twinkle. She didn't reply until she settled in beside him, catching his concerns. She stared into the flickering fire for a few moments.

"I wouldn't have offered if I didn't intend to. Right now, it was the best solution I had." She ensured that Raffie and her companion stayed within her line of sight. The others of her group needed to know about the girl, but it could wait until after the audience with the king. She picked up a small branch then tossed it into the fire. It blackened then fell into ashes, consumed by the heat. "Truthfully, I don't think she'll cause too much trouble. Most of her 'actions', according to her, were influenced by others. That means she either runs with the crowd or whatever serves her self interest. Right now, it serves her to cooperate."

Raffaella stared at the fire, a look of obvious frustration on her face. It was probably understandable, given all she had done so far was try to get the Asper to stop firing at her allies, and send a few angry threshers at the obvious bad guys, only to be treated like a criminal for merely associating with the Virangish. "It was nothing. I just pulled some heartstrings." Her mind wandered back again to that boy she'd liked when she was living on the streets. Then, a bigger boy had decided that he wanted to bully her for her red hair, and he'd run off and left her, and that was the end of that. How tired she was of essentially begging for her life every time she was cornered. Oh, what it would feel like when she could turn the tables. She shot Abdel a curious look. "I did the same to get you to follow me, you know? I can use a map and compass just fine. If I had one..." she mumbled under her breath.

"Well anyway. Your deckmates aren't dead yet, but they might be soon. I missed the meeting, but I think it's pretty obvious what happened here." She looked around at the general lack of urgency among her "comrades." "Our mission is to protect the wreck from being destroyed and pillaged. Apparently, my allies have all decided to abandon it in favor of freeing the locals from their 'oppressors' instead. Looks like they'll wait until the Virangish lose against the pirates before making their move. If only they were smart enough to realize that Tarlon and Nikan are doing the same. It's not just the Blue Adam; we're surrounded by pirates. Convincing the locals to spurn their protectors so soon is absurd." She chewed her thumbnail irritably. "But no one will listen to me. No. They'd rather follow the conniving merchant who ruined everything in ReTan... it was either her or Scarface, I just know it. Those two are always plotting something." Her knee bobbed up and down as her agitation increased, until she suddenly stopped. "Sorry. The politics might be going over your head. All you need to know is that girl in the wheelchair is a threat to us getting out of here alive. She can't see the forest for the money trees."

Too exhausted to get up and do much, but too agitated around the hostile locals' eyes to sleep, she felt truly stuck. She was hungry, too, and all of the food she brought was soggy. "I want to go home..." she sighed, scooching closer to the fire as she shivered.

Abdel did a double take, Raffie suggesting she simply pulled on his heartstrings and had him look back with scepticism. However, he took a moment, thought about it, and the look of contentment returned. Truthfully, what did it change? He still got off that ship regardless of her methods or intent. As someone without magic, he was used to being pushed around by those who could move mountains. For once it had worked out to benefit him instead. "I wish I had one too" he replied in a similar quietened tone. He didn't wish to retract his previous offer.

Abdel had focused on his own life and safety that he had zoned out the cannons firing in the distance. It was Raffie's mention that reminded him of the ship they had left. "I'm no proud countryman, but I saw what is happening on that ship and these people are doing nothing. They are letting it happen, they wanted to send us back there." Frustration was clear in his voice. "I do can't do much. They know where I stand in this. But they don't know about you, or at least they can't act on it. You are a student of Ersand'Enise, they'll let you see the others. I can't say they'll do the same for me but I'll do what I can."

Despite being in a similar condition, Abdel remained in place where Raffie got closer to the fire. "I do too..." Perhaps he was trying to present a divide between the two, trying to help Raffie shed the Virangish-allied label she had been given by the locals.

There was plenty of food cooking over the fire, just sitting there. But none so far had given indication, for or against, whether Raffie could partake of it.





Tku had set up in a small clearing in the tree line that he decorated with some loose stumps for everyone to sit on. A small fire sat at the center, barely giving enough light to see each other. Once people were seated, Tku spoke up, "I hope that everyone is still awake enough to come up with a plan?" Tku was already painting himself some Zenobucks.

Upon spotting the others gathering, Mahal stretched and then got to her feet. She walked over to where Raffie sat with her companion then gestured for her to follow. "Come on, it seems the others are done."

On her hip, her bag began to squirm. Mahal flipped open the top to check on Diyablos. Small, reddish tentacles began to slide out and climb upward. Shortly, her companion found his favorite perch: her shoulder. "You should've stayed home like Supok and Puno. Now I have to make sure you don't cause trouble." Mahal growled in Palaparese at him. Diyablos just stared then idly twisted his tentacle about a strand of her hair. What did she expect from a ground octopus?

Once she made it over to the fire, Mahal plopped onto a stump. "I'll manage. I assume the conversation with the royals went well?"

Marz had made his way over. After the partying had died down, most of the warriors had been wrangled up. The only able bodied chemist had their work cut out for them. Last Marz saw, they were trying their best to detox Kai, the other chemist. However he had been a hand full. Marz knew that well.

The moment Marz saw Tku, he waved wondering for a moment what was going on. Yet the moment he was asked the question of his alertness, Marz waved his hand in a dismissive manner and said, "Aye, this is nothin'".

Marz took a seat as he began to look among the others. Upon seeing Mahal there, he became curious what she found from some of the warriors he didn't interact with, "So, d'ya find anythin' yerself?"

Mahal looked at the red haired Hegelan. She reflected on her time spent with Tamatoa, but felt it yielded little that they didn't already know. She took a breath then nodded her head toward Raffie. "Likely nothing more than what we already know. Based on what the Prince told me, pirates arrived first followed by the Aspers. The tribe's pride is hurt because they can handle pirates, but the Virang is not letting them."

She reached into her pouch for another bone to chew on. Before she popped it in her mouth, Diyablos' little tentacle reached out. She let him pull it from her grasp and play with it, retrieving another for herself. "She, " Mahal gestured at Raffie, "came to shore on a life boat with a Virangish officer."

Tku looked between them, nothing of note was really said and that was fine, it was only the start after all. But he did sieze the lull to greet Raffie, "I'm happy that you made it to shore safely," Tku said with a genuine smile. "But I must ask you something while it can still be fresh in your mind. Can you tell us how the fight is going for them?"

Raffaella followed Mahal, weak and sulky as she may have been. Hungry as she was, she was no stranger to being around food she wasn't allowed to touch, and she didn't take the locals to be the generous types. "Oh. So they're being stupid?" she replied bluntly, surprising even herself. Perhaps it was owed to her mood. Appearing to ponder this new information for a moment, she nodded. From her experience, it certainly seemed like that useless Virangish captain would sooner go down with his ship than ask the locals for help. Then, to Tku, she offered her brightest, consolation-grade smile to thank him.

"It's a bit of a stalemate. Just between you and me, the captain doesn't seem the brightest. They'd probably have won already if they had a better leader, but I don't know anything about boats, so I came to get the rest of you," she explained. Pondering for a moment if it was worth keeping up her "dumb cutie" act, she decided to say her piece. Soon, the domain of politics would be unavoidable, and the public would need to see her as semi-competent, at least. "I think this one's real simple. The Nikanese and the Tarlonese have no right to be here and are basically pyrates, too. We should make a show of unity between the Virangish and the locals and get rid of the pyrate pyrates before they realize that and all band together. We can worry about how the pie is sliced and whether or not the Virangish deserve any once all the actual bad guys are gone—the ones who probably wouldn't hesitate to kill both us and the locals."

It didn't take Tku to realize the error of his ways, asking questions right away when their was a hungry girl, truly deplorable.

He sat with his paintbrush, thinking of what he knew of her. While tapping the side of his head, an image reemerged of her enjoying a cart of Baklava during the trials. That will be sure to fill her up, Tku simply thought, not knowing the depth of this girl's pit of a stomach. He calmly listened as he pulled out some red, yellows, greens as the main colors but put out a bit of black, white and blue. Layer by layer, depth was being added and a baklava was on its way.

But Tku could not just paint it and it be done just yet, even he was not that fast without the use of excessive magic. He had a conversation to participate in.

"I'm not sure about them being pirates though," Tku spoke to what he knew, "The Tarlonese had already made contact with the King Kaleo and Queen Kanani and have made favorable impression of them." He wasn't actively contesting her point of them being here for selfish gain per se but rather offering an insight to what he had learned so far.

"And as far joining hand with them," he sighed, "They have made it known they do not wish to work with the Virangish under these circumstances that are being suggested." The baklava was staring to form although now he wished he made pie, maybe he can make just one slice? Tku simply went back to his baklava, painting it was making him hungry.

Raffie averted her eyes, twirling her hair nervously, imagining that Tku must be painting her. Truly, why else would he have suddenly started painting for no reason? "O-Oh. Are the King and Queen aware of what Tarlon is up to lately?" she replied, her tone less snarky but still skeptical. "Hardly the best country to get involved with, and not in their best interest to snub Virang. I worry that they may not realize just how big a problem pyrates have become these days." Still, she continued to listen. "So, they want better terms? What are those?" She rested her chin on her wrist, posing a little, but not trying to make it look like she was posing.

Marz nodded to Mahal showing he had heard what she said as he now listened to the others speak as they were the ones who knew what was happening.

Mahal had finally noticed the rumbling of Raffie's stomach. The sound was familiar and distinct, especially for someone like her. While the pink haired girl played niceties to Tku, she gave a sigh then pulled up onto her feet. Shifting past the pair, she moved toward the nearest food pit. A large roasted animal was skewered between two large poles and mostly eaten. She sliced off a few large chunks onto a large leaf then walked back.

As she sat down, Mahal set it on Raffie's lap without warning. "Here, eat that. I can hear your stomach growling."

Maura waited patiently as she allowed the others to speak and share their thoughts. Outside superficial pleasantries, nothing constructive was spoken of to succeed in the mission. Not even Tku had relayed the discussion with the Royals productively. And this is why it comes down to me, she thought, brushing her hair to the side, as she moved to instill some structure to the discussion.

“So, here's the deal. The locals want to maintain cordial relations with the Virangish and potentially appease the Tarlonese to eliminate the other interlopers,” she began, gesturing to the pirates and the Nikanese. “In return, they demand that none of them approach that island. It holds special religious significance to the people here. However, we have been granted permission, as arbiters, to access the wreck. Our objective is to find enough valuable items to bribe the Virangish to leave it alone. While we are authorized to protect any archaeological artefacts, it's unlikely we'll be able to preserve everything. We've been instructed to steer clear of their religious objects, such as the war graves, as they fear zealot Darhannics may attempt to destroy them.” She glanced toward Raffie with a raised eyebrow. “Due to the losses being against Eeiako, they requested Kaureerah doesn’t go on the island for that reason too. We’ll speak to her about this.”

Gesturing to Tku, she continued, “Our talented artist here will assist in constructing art pieces to emphasize the island's importance and deter people from approaching with worthless materials. The locals will help commemorate the religious site.”

“Now that we have the broad strokes outlined, are there any questions before we delve into the specifics?”

Marz began to look around, he was listening to the others begin discussing. Yet before anything began to get moving, Marz saw the small woman who wheeled herself into the area then began to state countless things.

She began to speak with matter of fact talks, making statements of what will be the plan. There was no allowance of discussion. With countless facts being stated and plans already being made.

There could have been countless things he could have allowed. Someone being straight forward, fine. Someone wishing to put their foot down to on their own plan, Marz is fine with that, he even likes that in others. Yet there is one sin Marz cannot forgive.

"Who keeled over and made you queen?'"

Marz asked Maura, with no shortness of disgust. Even his face showed it as he continued, "We're 'ere to discuss. Naw' spew vomit at ea' other until one of us pass out and er forced to go along".

Then Marz leaned forward, pointing to Maura as he continued, "An' also. Why in de 'ell did I build yer bathtub if the plan doesn't need it?"

When Maura made a face at Raffie, she made a point of looking away from Maura with a huff. If she was going to be ignored, she wouldn't fight for a seat at the rabble's table.

Then, Mahal surprised her with goodies. They... really did look surprisingly good. "Um... r-really?" she replied, embarrassed. "...Thanks." Still, she held herself back, eating slowly, which was the next best thing when a food was impossible to eat in ladylike manner. She barely held back a snort as Marz chided Maura. "Uhh... bathtub..?" she inquired, very confused. Not that I'd disagree that she needs one. She smirked with a mouth happily full of wild game. Eating gamey meat around a fire with kids giving each other a hard time... it was almost nostalgic. Eh, shit. I need a bath too.

"You're welcome," Mahal struggled a bit with the words. She was not use to being thanked for something minor. When the woman in a wheel chair's voice rang out with a tone of authority and privilege, her eyes darted that direction. Mahal's eyes narrowed at the mention of religious ground.

That was never brought up by Tamatoa, but she also didn't ask. Still it felt like something important to mention. "I agree with Marz. "

Diyablos reminded distracted with his makeshift toy as she continued, "Based on what the zeno said, the Aspers are here to 'protect' the salvage rights. I don't think they will leave until the wreck has been confirmed to have nothing of value. It doesn't feel like our word will be enough."

“You can be the Queen, but as majestic as your beard is, we don’t think you would suit the dress,” Maura said with a smile, amused by the Hegelan's accusation. “But to address your point, this is why we participated in the negotiations: to establish the framework of the plan. While some aspects may not align with my preferences, certain points were insisted upon by the locals. So, we must work with what we have.”

Regarding the comment about the bathtub, Maura added, “When have we ever seen a plan go smoothly? People are already focused on objecting to the situation instead of discussing resolutions. Feel free to pitch any suggestions. As stated, the floor is open.” She waved her hand, indicating that he could speak.

Turning to Mahal, Maura appeared unsure of what exactly she agreed with, but listened attentively nonetheless. “Great point. So, since we cannot allow them near the wreck, how do you propose we resolve that, Mahal?” She smiled as she looked toward the girl, awaiting her suggested solution to the problem.

Mahal locked eyes with the woman in the wheelchair before her head shifted down in a thoughtful manner. Her mind considered the simplest answer. They needed someone to confirm it that the Virangish might consider loyal or trust. Her eyes shifted to the man, wherever he sat, that came with Raffie. He wasn't the best choice, but better than letting someone of higher authority stomp around on the island.

"A Virangish sailor brought Raffaella on shore. What if we clear out the artifacts and any interesting valuables then let him take a look? He can confirm what we said and gives more strength to it. We'll be escorting him the whole time to ensure he doesn't hurt any... sacred ground." She paused a bit on the label as she remained skeptical over it.

Maura observed Mahal, noting how the girl's mouth opened and closed as she thought, then spoke once she had formulated her response. “So, you propose that to solve the issue of not allowing them access, we should give them access?” Maura smiled sweetly as she extended her hand toward Raffie. “We already have our own Virangish Biro as a witness. Since they provided her with an escort, they should deem her trustworthy enough, don't you think?”

Mahal's jaw tightened. Maura's sweet tone sounded more like mockery than sincere causing her temper to flare. Her fists tightened before her form went slack. If her first year at the academy taught her anything, it was fighting her classmates got her nowhere. Best to just resign herself to pure muscle and not think.

"Just one, but you're right. Just.. tell me what I'm doing and I'll be out of your hair." Mahal didn't care if her tone was abrasive or not.

"Let's get our facts straight," Raffie interrupted between bites. "My adoptive mother is Virangish, and my citizenship is with Inipor. None of that matters anyway, since I don't look the part of either. They have no reason to trust me over any of you. I've done nothing for them." She gave Maura the side eye. "Accusing me of being with them is a great way to get the locals to tie me to a pike, though, if that was your aim."

Maura sighed as Raffie spoke, giving her a sympathetic smile. “They don’t know your backstory; it isn't conveniently located on a parchment for them to read. So, a sweet innocent girl from Virang, seen as a paragon of virtue, is a very good tale to spin to help resolve matters,” she explained. She knitted her hands together. “The locals want to work with Virang the right way, and they are scared of crossing the tiger. Will you help them? We promise they wouldn’t dare put your head on a pretty pike.”

Tku continued to draw a baklava, though now it wasn't as important. He has planned a slow conversation over the course of an hour. Tku wanted to avoid just laying things out all at once because it would stifle speech, in his opinion. But Maura saw something and seized it because she could.

He couldn't agree to her plan, not fully at least. It had lies and some off handed remarks that felt aimed at Raffie and Darhanics in general? And lastly, she has stated to everyone it was religious, a lie to her allies. And for some reason, Tku would need to make fake art to dissuade them and then have the people here to say it was. It was messy.

But luckily, the Baklava looked crispy, I mean thank the Gods for a drunk Hegelan. Tku made no attempt to hide the light chuckle he had, it was objectively funny. It didn't slow Maura though, instead it at least opened for people to discuss. But what am I going to say.

He was putting together his thoughts since it seems anything less that a rebuttal followed but an immediate counterproposal was asking for sass. She was already angering Marz and Mahal. Raffie could get offended and Kaureeerah could also prove to be a troubling point.

Tku had finished up his Baklava! "Raffie," Tku called her attention over despite the very heavy accusation. With a flip of the canvas, a warm tray of Baklava formed. "A little slow compared to Mahal but hopefully the wait was worth it, share it if you want," he handed it over, obviously eyeing a corner bit himself.

"Alright," he put his hands together and pointed at Maura, "Let's get some things straightened. Having a full plan is fine, even preferable, but you are creating stess here. 3 of the people we came with are not even with us and you have managed to anger 3 of the 5 people here. Ren is dangerous, Maura. Raffie has stated that the Captain of the Viragish isn't the brightest and like she said, they have no reason to believe her."

He sighed, "Let me lay out what I have heard and know. The people here do not wish to fight and die with the Virangish to give them things. They would be willing to do so if they do not step on the island. The Island is their focus, not the treasures on it. They are on good terms with the Tarlonese, not so much the Nikanese but they are not pirates and have met up with them at some point." He looked around to make sure people are on that point.

"Raffie says the virangish captain isn't the brightest and that they wouldn't just trust her. I believe her," He looked over at Raffie and nodded at her.

"The Bathtub is... I'm not sure, to be honest, but I trust Maura brought it because we could use it" He looked back at Maura and Marz.

"Can we work together from this point," he looked at Mahal, and his old teammate.

Raffie turned away from Maura in her seat. There was simply no way she was going to let that smarmy woman use her as a tool, especially if it involved doing something with the Virangish. It was too big of a risk from her experience so far, and whose word did she have that they wouldn't at least imprison her for being associated with Virang? Maura's? What was Maura's word worth?! "Oh, they won't put my head on a pike? That's nice. Tell that to the big guy who wanted to throw me to the threshers just for coming from that general direction. Sorry, not sorry, but your plan to use me against the people you decided all on your own are the bad guys is a no-go."

The pouting continued, until suddenly there was a plate of baklava. Momentarily flabbergasted, she didn't miss her chance to grab a handful and add it to her growing collection of sustenance. Then, she took another piece and all but shoved it into Mahal's face-hole. "Try this, it's good!" she huffed, trying to act as though the ongoing argument were already over and she were trying to restore some semblance of peace—demonstrate some token effort at maturity—but, her anger seeped through her words, and she made no effort to continue engaging with the debate.

As if summoned, Kaureerah soon found herself headed back from her conversation with Leilani. It did not take a genius to see that things were not going smoothly. "Eye hoope Eye deedn't meess too mauch!" she called out, hurrying along the beach, "baut eet looks lyke Eye deed!"

She skidded to a stop in the growing space around Maura. "Enyaune cere too feel mee een?" she inquired, glancing about.

Maura smiled warmly as Kaureerah turned up. “There you are, you were gone for far too long.” She held her arms out toward her, suggesting they embrace each other as friends.

Kaureerah glanced about, noticing the less-than favourable expressions towards Maura. Keko, whaut heve yoo daune? she groaned inwardly, but nobody else had said anything yet and there was nothing that would stop her from embracing her friend anyhow. They hugged tightly and exchanged a handful of whispered words in reassuring voices. Then, pulling back a little bit, Kaureerah glanced momentarily at Tku as well and smiled. "Doo yoo news fraum te keeng end queen?"

"It's good to have you, help yourself to Baklava if miss Raffie allows," Tku waved over to Raffie, currently forcing it down Mahal's gullet.

Tku straightened up, "We have," he looked at Maura, "And some discussions have happened but they have turned out rather sour so far but are hopefully going to try and start again?" Tku didn't look anywhere in specific this time but Kaureerah was smart.

Tku then described what he had said earlier about what they knew, this time without as much stressed tone.

"Yes! Please try it," she piped up with a smile, grateful to Tku for sweeping away the awkwardness for her to make the offer.

Mahal knew there would be no discussing, just plain and simple orders. What was the point? They would only get chided and she didn't feel like wasting her time or energy. Shaking her head, she just snapped. "Tku... there's no point in a discussion if- "

Before she finished her sentence, Raffie was shoving something in her face. Mahal flinched and jerked about, noting the strange multi-layer pastry being presented. A light, honeyed scent with a hint of nuts filled her nostrils. She gave it a suspicious look. Before the pink haired girl could react, Mahal pulled forward. Her teeth sank into the corner and took a large chomp from the piece. She chewed then begrudgingly took the rest of the offering.

Mahal had been stuffed full of Baklava, as had Maura, and Kaureerah could hardly refuse. "Promise it isn't poisooned, yoo beeg bed Veerengeesh?" she teased with a wink, but she took some, sat down, and had a bite. "Ooh, thees ees good," she enthused, savouring the taste and rocking back and forth on the spot.

In truth, Kaureerah had heard things that had shaken her almost as soon as she'd arrived, and she could sense how broken this discussion was, but drawing further attention to it would likely only make it worse. "Let's eet, end then let's heer whaut peeple heve too sey." She picked up a stick from the sand. "Een my caultoore, these theengs aur secred," she began, still chewing. "Naut steecks, baut the eyedeea thet te persaun hooldeng eet ees te oonly speeker. Eet helps when peeple aur argooeng." She held it up. "Enywaun waunt too goo foorst?"

Tku asked for the stick, he was more than game for a talking stick. "So I have the stick," he raised it into the air to show that he indeed had the stick. It was but a normal stick for now.

"I will be frank with my wishes," Tku prefaced, "From what Raffie has said and my own experiences with Ren, I believe simply trying to convince the Virangish not to explore the Island won't work. My suggestion is to use the Tarlonese to pressure the Virangish victors to have to take what they can, a.k.a. what we give them, and head off before things get rough and potentially get into a 2nd fight. I know it's rough but that would be my preferred actions." He held out the stick for someone else to take.

"Eet's bed menners too jaust teke eet beck," Kaureerah admitted, "Baut thet's geeven mee e beet auf en eyedea." She paced. "Eye waus theenkeng wee heve ebaut fyve moore haurs auf daurk remeyning," she began, looking towards those more scientifically inclined for confirmation. "Ryght?"

Tku tossed the stick to Kaureerah and then quickly had it tossed back, "Um, Let's see, Palapar is..." he pulled a map of the world from his bag. Realizing he is, in fact, not good with time. Obejan's had their own way of measuring time. "There is an 'amount' of time, yes," Tku answered, completely unsure of how many hours it has been.

"Don't you have a banana that can expedite almost any process?" Maura prodded helpfully, and Tku blinked. She was... not wrong.

"Oh! I have a guy," Tku took out his banana and held it up to his ear like a horn, "Banana Phone, Sigmund Bastañer, please." There was a pause like he was on hold and Tku seemed to be tapping his foot to a beat.

"Ah Sigmund! It's me Tku!"
. . .
"Know this is me, you picked me up in Nikan when I was about to become a courtesan,"
. . .
"Yes, Kitakuni, I just thought they were testing my art skills not that other stuff,"
. . .
"Told you it was me. How I am contacting you doesn't matter, I have a question that only you can answer."
. . .
"We're in Moatu Suva, yes, that one, and we are wondering how much time we have before sunrise or I guess effective darkness hours,"
. . .
"4 hours and 45 minutes? Yep, thank you. Yes, I will come by to visit, I'll even do my best to bring you a souvenir. Bye now my friend," Tku hanged up the phone.

"4 hours and 45 minutes, your estimate was good Kaureerah!" He nodded at her like he didn't just call a Zeno. What even was calling?

Kaureerah clapped, and almost bobbled it when he tossed the talking stick back. "Soo," she continued mischievously, hardly missing a beat, "whaut eef wee get sneeky?" She shook her head. "Maura hes thet saub Maurz soo generoosly poot toogether. Wee heve enaugh tyme." She began ticking items off on her fingers. "We heve the steltheeest veeheecle eemegenauble." She counted another, "End the pyretes end Veerengeesh aur es deestrected es they'll ever get!" She glanced at her friend, hoping for approval. "Plenty auf tyme foor aull thet tresoore too moove -" She shot Maura a very brief but meaningful look. "- weeth saum auf te pryme peeces aun te saub. Then, te Veerengeesh cen see te wreck naune te wyser, fynd whaut screps wee leeve them, end leeve graumbleng ebaut hauw eet wausn't woorth eet baut weeth no ceyse egenst aus."

She paused and shrugged. "There aur praubebly hooles een et," she admitted, "baut thet's where aull yoo smaurt peeple caume een."

Raffie appeared to have fallen asleep in her seat, but when the opportunity arose, she suddenly perked up. "Ooh, ooh!" she exclaimed, reaching for the stick with excited, wiggly fingers. There was other movement around Raffie, too, but it was surely a trick of the firelight.

"Nobody knows how many of us students came through the portal, probably. Who would have had the luxury to stop and do a headcount?" she suggested. "One group joins the battle and acts like siding with Virang was always the plan. Another 'investigates' the locals and finds that they took nothing and did nothing wrong. The last group was never here." She smiled sweetly. "We take anything that could be used as a weapon of war, in particular. If we get caught, we were here to prevent the scales of power from tipping in favor of war breaking out. That's our 'official' mission." She crossed her arms proudly.

Who Can Know It?






Zenobucks - Before Castaway

It had been a while since Ayla last saw Raffaella, and for some reason, the girl kept occupying her thoughts. She wondered what she was up to, how the kitties were doing, and as she passed by some sweets, she wondered if Raffie would enjoy them. She was certainly fond of the girl, though every time Raffie came to mind, all she could remember was that embarrassing scene where she fed her, recalling how happy Raffie looked. It made Ayla feel horrible, as if she was a monster. It was even worse when she bumped into Raffie at the Soiree, and the conversation seemed to revolve around Asier this, Asier that. Ayla tuned out of the conversation and couldn't bring herself to confess the truth.

She knew what she must do: invite Raffie out for a date. Ayla wanted to sit her down, clear the air, and address all those embarrassing misunderstandings. It was time to face the truth, and she hoped Raffie would be as sweet and forgiving as she looked.

Ayla proceeded to write a handwritten invitation for the two of them to meet up at the local Zenobucks, kitties welcomed.

"Kitties welcome, huh?" Raffaella pondered as she read her one and only letter that wasn't a piece of "fan mail." Well, it was a private invitation, but Ayla was actually a friend, so this was a special exception☆

"I guess a coffee shop can't be that bad if they allow kitties, and sell sweets~" she decided as she jogged on over to the local Zenobucks, her Zaqhorian Sphinx hot on her hot pink heels.

"Heya Ayla~" she chirped as she burst through the door, her chatty Sphinx sauntering over to Ayla's table, "mrrp-mrrping" as he went.

Ayla smiled widely as the kitty was excited to meet them, her own Zaqhorian Sphinx, Gisele, excitedly met with her brother as they purred happily together. She waved excitedly toward Raffie as she called her over, with a coffee and plate of different vibrant-coloured macaroons ripe for the picking.

Ayla hopped from her chair as she went to give her friend a hug, “Wow, have you got taller since we last met?” She compared the height, then realized she was wearing hot pink heels, giggling a little.

“We are very pleased that you came,” she indicated towards the table for them to sit together.

Raffie spoiled Gisele with back scritches as the siblings nuzzled each other. Then, she turned to Ayla to give her friend her requisite hug. "Ahaha, nope~ I haven't gotten taller in years." Staying still as Ayla compared their heights, they were almost exactly the same, with Raffie having the advantage of heels. "Heehee~! I'm so happy you're the same, Ayla. People are acting so weird lately. It's all... how would you say? There's this... frosty layer of doom and gloom." She popped a pastel pink macaroon into her mouth and smiled.

Ayla enjoyed seeing the girl, a smile spreading, "Is pink your favourite colour? You always look very pretty in it." She made sure to greet her sphinx warmly with scritches too, then left the pair of siblings together as she indicated to the seats. "We agree, it is nice to share a pleasant moment together." She went to sit at the table, noticing a pink macaroon on her own plate, "Oh, we have one here too!" She picked it up instinctively and enthusiastically brought it to Raffie's lips, then felt a light blush grow on her cheeks as she realized what she just did.

Raffie looked around the cafe, with shifty eyes. Then, she leaned in towards Ayla. "Just between you and me... it's red. Don't tell anyone!" she insisted, hastily shushing her dining partner to emphasize the point. Nomming the pink macaroon, she smiled. Of course, that wasn't what she'd told "Asier."

Ayla mouthed an "oh" as she instinctively twirled a finger through her red hair. "Mine is blue," she said, and as she spoke, it seemed like her sapphire blue eyes sparkled much like Raffie's usually did. She fidgeted with her fingers for a moment before focusing on the macaroons again, spotting a blue one. "These are blueberry flavoured, we hope you find them to be pleasant." She brought it to Raffie's lips again, almost without thinking. The problem was, she was thinking too much about a certain boy herself.

Raffie paused as Ayla went to feed her a third macaroon, when she herself had none yet. Woah. Déjà vu, she thought, suddenly keenly aware of Ayla's posture as she was feeding her. She picked up a blue macaroon and held it out to Ayla. "You tell me!" She grinned.

Ayla felt her cheeks redden as she leaned forward to take a tentative bite of the blueberry macaron. It was delicious; after all, she did her best when baking them. Her lips spread wider as they enclosed around the snack, and inadvertently, one of Raffie's digits, which she released after a light suckle on the tip of it. She quickly fetched a napkin to her lips and covered her mouth, looking away shyly. "It is... delicious," she mumbled.

"Mhm, cute," she agreed, narrowing her eyes deviously. Then, after about five solid seconds, she realized what she said. Her cheeks turned pink, but she decided to pretend not to notice that she misspoke. "So! Um... What did you do after the party? Sorry for leaving so suddenly. I tried to talk to someone and uh, it didn't go well, you could say."

Ayla felt that funny fluttering feeling, especially as she was confronted with such a question. "No, that's okay. We tried to speak with someone too, and we were left with mixed feelings," she said, her voice slightly shaky. She moved her hand to hold onto Raffie's for a moment, seeking comfort in the touch, then continued, "We need your advice."

She started to fidget with the held hand, her nerves palpable. "You know, like those stories where the hero is in disguise, and they fall in love with a girl? Have you ever considered what happened afterwards? Maybe the hero really loved her, but could she accept him for who he is, or did he simply abandon her, return to his job, and leave her heartbroken? What if she didn't recognize him, and they became close again? Should he tell her the truth?"

She breathed out, releasing Raffie's hand, her eyes searching for understanding."This dilemma is vexing us. The novels do not cover what one should do in these circumstances."

Raffie tilted her head, chin perched on her free wrist as Ayla confided in her. Huuh. So that's how it is. Another girl who likes girls. Constantians sure are bold... asking a Virangish girl for advice. Is this what it feels like to be a big sister? she mused. I would've been a good older sister. Thanks, worthless dad of mine. She smiled as always while she brushed away the thought. "Oh, Ayla," Raffaella sighed as she squeezed the girl's hand fondly. She's soo~ obvious. I can feel her heartbeat through her fingers. Maidens in love are so adorable☆

"If you wanted me to pray for your success in love, you didn't need to bribe me with sweets."
She smiled warmly, and before Ayla could protest, the rosary was on the table, and she was speaking Virangish faster than Ayla could follow. Before she knew it, the ritual was done, and she'd tucked the rosary back into the collar of her dress.

"A secret love is no good! Love takes many forms, but it's only beautiful if both parties are aware and accepting of it, you know? Besides, if you don't confess, she'll be swept off her feet by someone else before you know it." She nodded sagely. "If you were only hiding who you were, and not who you were, then it's no wonder you still got close to them, yeah? So it's easy to just tell them. But if you were pretending to be something you're not, you'll have to beg forgiveness and a chance to start over. Otherwise, if she still thinks that person exists, not only are you living a lie, you're competing with yourself." She squeezed Ayla's hand once more before letting go. "That's what I think." She smiled.

Ayla paused for a moment, feeling frozen and flustered. "No, you misunderstood. We knew you read romance novels," she clarified, her voice slightly shaky. She held the girl's hand for a moment, then let go, a nervous habit of hers. "Perhaps we should have been clearer from the start."

She moved her hand to scratch the sphinx cat behind its ears, seeking some comfort in the familiar action as the cat nudged its head against her hand. Taking a deep breath, she decided to be more direct. "Raffie, call it intuition, but you like Asier, right?" She looked into Raffie's sparkling eyes as she asked the question directly.

Raffie searched Ayla's eyes and pondered. "Ooh? So he was smitten after all, and he never left Ersand'Enise. This friend of yours." She nodded along as she put the pieces together. "He's a sweet boy. And a gentleman. But like him, I don't really have the luxury of choosing who I get to marry." She smiled apologetically to Ayla, thinking she would be the bearer of bad news to the man. "Well, that's how it is. The adults who 'know better' are gonna tell us what to do." Even as she said it, she didn't seem particularly bothered by the notion.

"Well, not quite," Ayla began, her voice soft as she moved her hands to hold Raffie's. "We're sorry we lied to you. We didn't know how to tell you, but…" She released one hand to flick her red hair to the side, a nervous gesture. "We are Asier." She squeezed Raffie's hands gently, her eyes pleading for forgiveness. "You've become important to me since that day, and as we've got to know each other better, we didn't want this to be a thing between us. After all, who else enjoys sweets and likes cats almost as much as we do?"

Raffaella's eyes widened, and they seemed uncharacteristically cold—even a bit distant, as though she were thinking about something else entirely.





"No. Outside! Now!"

"But he's hurt! Someone kicked him!"

"We're NOT keeping him. Put him out!"

"HE'LL STARVE!"

"SO WILL YOU IF YOU DON'T DO AS I SAY!"


Little Raffie's blood ran cold. Her eyes turned cold. Her heart shriveled like a prune as she realized this hell of an orphanage had drained her soul dry as the street on a Dorrad day. The cat mewled in protest as it was placed outside in the rain, unable to stand up on its own legs. Raffie placed it on the red stones. She remembered the red stones vividly. She knew the stones had always been a dull grey.

The sound went on for what felt like hours. It was horrible. At some point, the nun returned to the door, giving little Raffie some fleeting hope before the cat went quiet mid-cry. When she thought she had no more tears to cry, she quietly sobbed for hours after that. How could she be so cruel? She should have taken the cat and run away with it—such was the mind of a child. In reality, she had no options.

It's a bitch-eat-bitch world, kiddo. Raffaella pitied little Raffie as she reminisced. For just a moment, she imagined that fossil of a nun sitting across from her. It's just a fucking cat, you fat whore. Probably would've eaten less in a month than you do on a Victendes, if it outlived you.



"...Who doesn't like cats? I might have to kick their butt," Raffie said, deadpan. After a moment, she shook her head and snapped out of it, getting back to the point of the conversation. "Yeah, I kinda got it. You were just wa~y too similar. Besides, normal boys aren't that cu— anyway. I didn't think the girl was me."

She smiled sadly, averting her eyes, obviously unsure how to respond to the confession. It was all fun and games to be confessed to by some random boy and turn him down gently, but a sincere and heartfelt confession from Ayla..? It's me who's pretending to be something I'm not. We're nothing alike. ...You're what I wanted to be.

Cute—innocent—kind—all traits this world had strangled out of her. Yet, if you didn't at least pretend to have them, no one would want you. Beneath the mask, some vile part of her was brimming with ideas for how she might use Ayla's crush for advantage—but Ayla was so very much like the girl she used to be. It was unconscionable, even monstrous.

"Hey, so... If you're Asier, then that means you're engaged, right? We're, uh, pretty much in the same boat, huh." She looked everywhere but at Ayla, afraid of her eyes, afraid to catch a glimpse of that crushing disappointment she regularly saw in the mirror. "Anyway, I'm not mad. I just..." she trailed off, not finding the words.



Ayla squeezed Raffie’s hand warmly, their fingers interlocked, and she gave her a big smile, releasing a sigh of relief. “We have been so terribly guilty about wronging you. It's a relief that you are still open to being with me.” She realized she now had a good friend to talk to about that experience with, too. “We agree, he was kind of cute, but looked too much like my brother for my tastes. We never knew it would be so awkward being a man as well. It was like you suddenly had to become emotionally stilted. And the cheek of that waiter! Giving us a menu without prices on, unless you are a man. We had thought all the menus were like that.” She shook her head in disapproval.

Ayla nodded as they discussed engagements. “Unfortunately so. Looking for an excuse to break it though. Perhaps we could become a Zeno, and it would be a convenient excuse to disentangle myself from any political arrangements.” She popped one of the macaroons in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully for a moment. “There's no love in this arrangement. Outside perfunctory gifts and letters, there's nothing there. We have only met him once. But by Ipte, we are not going to live our life without love.” She leaned in towards Raffie, as if sharing a secret. “We think he is a friend of Tku,” she said, bending her hand at the wrist before sitting back. “He spends all his time travelling the world. Perhaps we should try to introduce them.”

She continued to hold her friend's hand, cherishing the gentle connection between them as she smiled. It was comforting to be in Raffie’s company. Ayla saw a little bit of herself in there, and she would have loved a sister like her, rather than the vapid real one she had. Ayla continued to shine brightly towards her friend.

Raffaella sighed. Why, Oraff? Why are girls so cruel? She felt Ayla's heartbeat through her fingers and returned a little squeeze. Why do we both act like we don't know how this ends?

"Hehe. It's mostly the high-end places that are like that, where girls expect to eat for free."

Why did you say that? She can't know you came from the streets. No one can know.

"Well, I've just heard the cheaper places are different. My maid told me about it!"
She cracked a faux childish grin, as if she knew something most people didn't.

A 'friend of Tku' sounds like a euphemism. Do I want to know? She pondered, quirked a brow, and shrugged. "Huuh. You're ambitious. I could never be a Zeno. ...Do you hate him?" she asked curiously.

Ayla leaned back and giggled for a moment, "The market vendors, you have to barter with them, and the more well-dressed you are, the higher the price goes up." A smile appeared on her lips, "Maura knew how to get the best deals, though. Every time they tried to overcharge her, she would remark how her father must have been selling to them too cheaply. They adjusted their prices accordingly when she was around."

She returned to the other matter, "No, we don’t hate him. He hasn’t done anything to deserve that." With a squeeze of the hand, she asked, "What about yourself?"

"Ooh. I've never had to haggle before... Show me sometime~?" she lied pleasantly. Well, if you're going that far down the social ladder, you can get anything for free if you look cute and pathetic enough, she reminisced, but said nothing. The wealthy get stuff for free all the time, too. Who knew there was symmetry at the top and bottom, she pondered, amused. What she ironically couldn't realize was that being at the top would leave her with just another kind of unhappiness.

Even if she couldn't reveal everything about herself, just listening to this girl talk was surprisingly fun—such were her thoughts when the question was returned to her. "Mm. I suppose I'll probably be engaged to someone by the end of our year of Ipte, and I'll have to try to find a way to like him." It seemed she intended to take her own advice, the advice meant for "Asier." "Getting away from politics really isn't an option for me."

Her mind wandered, first to her first crush, and where he was now as an adult. Probably drunk in a ditch somewhere, like the rest of them, she unceremoniously decided. He'd got what he deserved. Then, she wondered if Ayla had been part of the limited audience who saw her last few matches in Mano e Mano.

Ayla blushed a little. “No, no, we are terrible at haggling. We always fall for all those sob stories they give us. It's cruel that they use such tales to tell a lie.” She shook her head. “Maura is better. She can appraise an item for its true worth, considering things like material, labour, and market rates.” She made a motion indicative of her dislike for such things. “We just act pretty with flowery, well-intentioned words. It tends to work most of the time. More of a big picture approach person, rather than getting bogged down in the details.”

She smiled as Raffiie spoke of engagement. “They would be very lucky to have you. They are in for a real catch,” she gave her a playful wink, cheering her friend along. “Everything is about politics in our situation. The idea of simply being poor and being with the one you love, as Ipte intended, is nice.”

"Mmnheehee." Raffie grinned and giggled. She couldn't help her weakness to flattery. The next statement brought her back to the conversation at hand, however. "What's so romantic about being poor with the one you love? What about being rich with someone you get along with? Or just having both? It's like romance writers have no ambition." She pursed her lips in a playful pout to disguise a more genuine emotion she felt towards the topic. It occurred to her that she had barely touched the macaroons, but by now it was getting awkward. If she reached for one now, it might seem like she was getting bored and, for some reason, she was feeling extra considerate toward Ayla today.

Ayla simply smiled at Raffie’s comments. “Rich and in love is certainly the best outcome,” her eyes sparkled as she bared her teeth, “but those poets say that love is worth more than money, power, and the rest of it. Very romantic.”

She noticed Raffie’s eyes glancing toward the macarons, yet she didn't move to help herself. Is she waiting for us to do it? She picked up one of the colourful mouthfuls and brought it to the girl's lips. “We have been spoiling you, clearly. Eat up.” She pressed the treat to her lips, grinning widely in a teasing manner.

Raffaella chose not to dignify Ayla's naive optimism with a response, leaving the topic with a skeptical cheek puff. As if she had read her mind, Ayla offered another macaroon, and Raffie again found herself indulging. "Neu, I wuz jush... haffing fun," she admitted, averting her gaze.

The Kraken






Hours Earlier

While the students of Ersand'Enise completed their own preparations to meet with the Doridax family, the skull-masked lady in red met with another cloaked figure in a dimly lit warehouse, not too dissimilar from the one in which they'd be requested to drop off the ransom. Dust motes danced in the ambient sunlight streaming in from the single unwashed window that wasn't broken and boarded up, while the two figures verbally engaged in a dance of their own.

"This is quite unlike... well, any favors you've requested in recent memory. Make it make sense," remarked the Revidian man in the brown cloak.

It could have meant a great many things. It might have been a simple observation, or a show of reluctance, or an attempt to barter for a higher payout. It could even have been interpreted as an almost fatherly warning to the masked youth—but if a fly on the wall had been present to witness the negotiation, it might have noticed that the younger of the two was sitting comfortably at the head of the table.

"Both our enemies and our closest associates lay out their plans, unaware that our plans are already laid out beneath them. It's not your place to make sense of it, and it isn't mine to give it all away," she replied. Unlike his response, the meaning of hers was clear: keep your nose out. "I'm offering you the privilege of operating freely during a time when leashes will be the most tight. Being gifted that level of trust in the Family is no small thing."

"All the more reason why I have to wonder why you'd risk so much for some kidnapped kid, or a criminal or two... It's certainly not about making off with that ransom money," he preempted. "Or your fight for 'yasoi equality' or whatever it is you're up to on the side."

"Ohhh~? Is it not? Tell me more," she replied, perching her cheek on her hand, appearing genuinely invested. This caught the man off guard, and, as he sat there, struggling to form a follow-up question, the life of the Doridax family's son hanging in the balance of every uneasy, awkward second that passed, he finally understood: behind the perception-compelling power of that mask, she was mocking him. Her eyes narrowed, the youth with the skeletal face watched in playful amusement as this grown man struggled to put the pieces together, to find the grander scheme lurking beneath the veneer of a simple plan that read like some kind of childish prank. "Well, it's as if you want the Company to fail."

Her eyes narrowed in further glee. "Heehee! The Family has its tendrils in everything that touches the Ensollian. Every gulf, every port, every river—if a puddle can be used to transport goods by boat, it's been touched by Company ink. They're too big to fail—and why would I want them to?"

"What about the Forte Impresa?" he replied—as if that were a mark against their record.

"What about it?" she shot back flippantly.

"She hasn't been seen near any port since she went missing. We still don't know who's made off with her, and worse still, we know they aren't lone actors. Someone is supplying her; the shareholders that have already left can certainly see that much. At this rate, I'd say the pyrates have as much control over the Ensollian, if not more—unless you mean to sit there and tell me you know all the answers?" he challenged.

The girl's face didn't change, but the energy that could be felt from it did. That skeletal smile didn't move, yet it somehow morphed from something like a child's unbridled mischievous glee to something altogether much more sinister. The single bead of sweat on the man's face suddenly felt ice cold as she considered her response. "Yeah," she replied coolly.

It could have meant a great many things. It might have been a simple acknowledgement that she was aware of the situation, or a show of confidence that it was being handled, or an attempt to suggest that she did, in fact, have all the answers. It could have even been interpreted as an eerie warning that, yes, the pyrates controlled as much or more of the Ensollian now, and that this was being accepted as the new normal. This was policy.

If there had been a fly on the wall, it would have flown away in fear. Again, her meaning was clear.

The negotiations had concluded.

Frenzied Waters





Castaway

Raffaella had taken the plunge, confident that she and her erstwhile allies would be given a dignified entrance. Whether it was on the beach, or the deck of a ship, or some nearby outpost, they would most certainly not be cast away into the water like some common criminals.

Ah. The boat must have moved, she thought, as she hit the water. Cannon fire became more and more muffled, her tiny body offering little resistance as she sank like a rock. The cold was a shock, and by the time she was able to control her movements in the water well, she had already hit bottom. There was precious little to draw energy from down here, except the tide and some curious and hungry crustaceans. Unconcerned at first, she bounded up toward the surface, but as the need to breathe became more dire, she realized that the math wasn't working out in her favor. She was going to drown, unless...


Raffaella's heroic torpedo thresher dived to her aid, and pushed her the rest of the way to the surface, toward the Virangish flagship. She coughed and struggled as she recovered her senses, and she launched herself out of the water and landed on the deck. It would be a moment before she could speak properly, a moment in which the captain and crew would not know if she was a stowaway, an intruder, or what. A storm of questions was surely headed her way, but as soon as she could speak, she would shout the only thing she could think of to get them to stop firing at the students. "Ren Baykara is in the water! We came from Ersand'Enise!" she rattled off in quick Virangish. She may not look like one, but she could speak like one of their own countrymen.






The Six-Tailed Fox





The Doridax Family's Plight


Abdel peered into the contents of the boxes, relatively unfazed by the grizzly display. Still, he put up a look of concern to not appear too callous in what he saw as a trying moment for the family's patriarch. The tethered beastmaster rubbed his chin. “I'm sorry this is blighted situation has befallen your family, Mister Doridax.” he looked into the man's eyes with sincerity. “I have no doubt we'll be able to track these people. In fact,” he hovered his hand over the box that held the finger. “for what they've done, I think letting them stay ahead of us wouldn't be prudent and a signal for them that you can be bullied at any time.” he shot an expectant look at the father as the hovering hand approached the finger.

“You must know about Skuggvars from where you're from, Mr. Doridax. Then you would understand why I'd need this finger.” only with the authorization for the fatherly Yasoi would he seize the severed part, of course. “We should be able to track down the owner. With some luck, it's actually a decoy and thus a lead for us to get a jump on the kidnappers.”

Oksana examined the details of the case. Such complicated affairs were not her strong suit; she was a simple girl who spent most of her time in the wilderness. If a huntress wanted to catch an animal, then the first task was to find its location, and the second task was to lure it out. In retrospect, this case was far easier to resolve because they knew where the 'animal' was; they just needed bait for the trap.

"We don't know them, but we have the location, and we have what they want." She indicated towards the letter, pointing out the writing warehouse on Owl Street and the demand for five thousand Magus. "We bait the trap, they come out. We capture them for lord. Job done." She spoke positively and authoritatively on the matter as she looked at the others.

Ashon listened to the ideas presented, raising his own finger, though not too close to Abdel. "Yes, yes, there are some great ideas here. A touch of refinement needed, but they will definitely work to bring home your wayward son." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "There's a good chance that Jaxan wouldn't be there at the meet, and our little springing of their trap could backfire on its own." He flicked Oksana's nose playfully. "What we need is what's called a multi-faceted approach in yanii speak, or in less fancy words, a plan with a couple of moves going on at once."

He gestured toward Abdel with an enclosed hand. "One group tracks down Jaxan specifically, rescuing him from the foes." He held up another hand. "Another acts as the distraction; we'll need to create a very juicy target to draw away support." He opened his hand to reveal a benny. "With attention focused elsewhere, you can grab him safely, then we apprehend those involved." He flicked the coin up and caught it.

"As for the distraction, it's best if you don't attend yourself. So we'll need to borrow some clothes for myself and my friend here." He put his arm around Seviin, pulling her close. "We'll dress up enough to resemble yourselves so they think we're the bigger mark." He grinned widely at Seviin. "What do you say? Will you be my wife for the evening?"

Seviin was not sure if she should've been here. She knew nobody, aside from Ashon in the most cursory manner, and felt like an outsider. Still, there was a need and she was a healer and protector. If she would not sully the name of Lady Oirase by employing her talents on behalf of the Grey Fleet, then neither could she sit idle while her people suffered outside the gates of Ersand'Enise. The 'pass' she'd been given a couple days ago - the one that she'd been told to wear at all times - was a reminder of the challenges they faced and she burned with resentment over the entire affair. Still, it was not enough to drive her back into the arms of her Tarlonese brethren. She'd made her break and there was no going back.

Mostly, out of sorts as she was, the young priestess listened in lieu of speaking. There seemed very many speakers and few listeners here. She listened and observed. Abdel was one of those proactive principled secretly-angry sorts. Lunara was a soft, weak noble girl who let others lead her. Oksana knew killing, though Seviin could scarcely understand her.

Then, Ashon spoke and Seviin's face lost much of its paleness for a moment. "I... I shall endeavour to serve... well," she stammered, trying to fight back the aggressive blush. "I should speak little, however. I sound ever so much like a Tarlonese." When Niallus opened his mouth she took some solace. Jaxon. He was perhaps even more hopeless than her. beyond that, she got little sense of him. He was kind, perhaps, especially to ladies, set on his own ideas. Dorothea was the mocking type, but with a bit of grace and subtlety. Seviin found herself torn. She often harboured similar impulses, though she never entertained them.

There were, as far as she could discern, four different plans being floated about and nine people to carry them out. Track the finger with the skuggvars, bring the money and ambush the kidnappers, create a decoy target - including myself, and nab Jaxan. It was a lot to juggle and they had no idea of their enemy's strength. Seviin did not like killing; she abhorred it, in fact, but she knew it almost like Oksana did, so immersed had she been in the brutal world of Tarlonese expansion. You did your recon. Leaping in without doing any was a recipe for disaster. Dory was right.

She was about to separate herself from Ashon and say as much when Johann, another listener, spoke up. "I might be called overcautious," he admitted, "but I can't help help but wonder if my lady is right." He gestured in the Feskan girl's direction. "We know nothing about our quarry except that they have put forward a ransom note for Baron Doridax's son and seen fit to include a finger that may be his as evidence of their seriousness. I am very much for a multifaceted approach and I see no reason not to employ the... talents of those skuggvars, but surely we must learn something before just charging in."

"We also should not split into groups of less than three people," Seviin suggested, finally finding her voice again, "except, perhaps, in the case of myself and Ashon somewhat later."

Oksana rubbed her nose as the Yasoi flicked the tip of it, earning him a disapproving glare from her. As he and the others spoke, she tilted her head, trying to follow along with the conversation. A part of her wondered if they were just making up words at this point. From what she gathered, they thought her plan was a good one, and that worked for her.

Peeling an apple with her sword, she noticed Seviin looking over at her a couple of times. Perhaps she's hungry, Oksana thought. She cut the fruit in half and offered a portion to the girl with a big smile on her face. "It's sweet," she said, then proceeded to cut the remaining half into quarters, taking a bite of one of them herself. Secretly, she slipped another piece under her cloak, feeding some kind of animal tucked in there.

The discussion seemed to shift towards dividing people into groups for further talks. In hindsight, she should have considered a task involving hunting and tracking animals, or something related to the wilderness where her skill set would be more relevant. But beggars can't be choosers, and she was certainly begging when it came to income right now.

Lunara on seeing the Yasoi's severed finger, started to feel quinsy. She instinctively put her left hand over her mouth and she also started to feel unsteady, as she had never seen a severed limb before. On noticing that Niallus was next to her she grabbed his are with her right hand to steady herself. "Sorry Niallus, I suddenly felt ill on seeing the finger, never seen that before." Lunara's Goma cat Miray on seeing that Lunara wasn't feeling well started to rub her face on her leg and stand on her hind legs to get her attention. Lunara on noticing this crouched down and petted her. "It's ok Miray, I'm fine."

Lunara after pulling herself around, stood and attentively listened to the conversations. To make sure she heard every idea, and information. She wanted to make sure she knew exactly what had happened and what was going to happen.

Feeling something grip on his sleeve, From his first glance, he originally thought it was Mahal. But seeing the Goma Cat by her side turns out it was the other one, Lunara. Hearing her apologise for gripping him to help keep her steady. "No, no it's alright." listening to the ideas that was mentioned by the his fellow biros. When Jamboi mentioned about the diversion. Niallus agreed. "A Diversion would be good." cupping his chin, pondering on what more input could be added to help.

"If we have a small group looking for Jaxon while the the others cause a distraction. I can take part im looking Like Jamboi said, Most of their priorities will be on this meeting, more likely be one high goons and a few lackys at best." Thinking more about it, his gaze turned to Daxon. "Would you be able to provide a description of your son? Or Hair colour, length, height that sort of thing. Or even how he talks. It can help the group who are searching for him have an easier time."

"A finger, huh? Now that's a classic." Dory looked with a wide smirk on her expression. Her look turned to the girl that fell ill from just a finger. "There were corpses and mangled bodies all around Ersand'Enise when some students attacked for their little 'revolution'. A little finger can't be too much to look at, right?"

The girl just leaned around. "These plans could work if the kidnappers don't account for it, I guess. But than again we don't even know how strong they are given a fight could break out."

But among the many who spoke, there was one who listened, and listened intently: the one who simply introduced herself with the yasoi word for "fox." Her skeletal smile was at times impossibly friendly and, only when appropriate, menacing.

"It is hard for the young to understand the love of a parent, but, as someone who was kidnapped and rescued once, I know your feelings well." She narrowed her eyes at the flippant attitudes of some of her allies. Then, her gloved hands reached for the ransom money, as she produced a bag of rice from her own cloak and mixed the two together. Anticipating the strange looks from her wealthy patrons and classmates, she explained. "When carrying large sums of money through a seedy place like Mudville, one should take care that her purse does not jingle with the telltale sound of gold." Ensuring a top layer of rice, and tying the mundane-looking sack tightly, she jostled it a few times, satisfied with her handiwork.

"I can vouch for the talents of Abdel and his skuggvars. But regardless of what other plans we decide to set into motion, to give us the best chance of returning the boy unharmed, someone must take the money to the location and negotiate if necessary. Surely no one objects to letting me perform this role?" She looked around at each of them reassuringly. "If I were accompanied, even by a distance, by the pair of you, disguised as the parents, this might go smoothly," she said as she regarded Ashon's contribution.

Seviin blinked at Oksana's offer. She swallowed and accepted the slice of apple. "I thank you for your generosity, suunei." If there was more to notice, she did not comment upon it. Then, the Rettanese girl spoke and she nodded. "I agree that we should try, but it is best if we go as agents of their Lord and Ladyships, however. I am not a skilled enough illusionist to pass myself off as Jaxan's Lady mother." She twisted to regard Ashon briefly. "And I may be mistaken, but I don't believe he is either." She winked. Xiuyang gave Ashon an exasperated side-eye, as if to suggest that this was his problem to solve.

Ashon smirked widely, and shook his head at the pair of them. “We don’t have to look like her. We simply have to look like we could be her," as he placed emphasis on the points “After all, this beautiful and regal lady has never stepped foot in the slums known as Mudsville.”

He clasped his hands together, “Now, we have a plan idea, let’s go and gather some information so we can put it into practice.”

The masked Rettanese pinched his sleeve as if expecting him to run off. "True, they could be idiots who wouldn't know one well-dressed yasoi from another. But we shouldn't just assume that. I don't think they could have kidnapped Jaxan without a plan. This was probably a targeted abduction, which means they might know who they're dealing with. And yet they did what they did. Which is why Seviin is right. Smaller groups are a bad idea."

Seviin narrowed her eyes for a moment. Then, she shrugged. "I suppose we should try to look distinguished, then." The mysterious Rettanese spoke in a way that was quite familiar with Ashon and this only added a layer to the mystery. "All three of us together, then. Ideally, as Belleville is not geographically large, we should each try to keep within sensing range of at least one other group."

Having separated themselves from the wealthy family for this brief discussion, Seviin pivoted on her heel and made to return. "Perhaps we might borrow some clothing?"

"Then, as the kids say, I shall 'case the joint' while you two prepare," she replied to Seviin. "You know, you may not need to worry so much about getting your physical appearance exactly right. Dress well, maintain good posture, walk with dignity, age yourselves up with some makeup-wrinkles if you can. Throw on a cloak and cover as much as possible; any sensible person would do that in this situation. I can change the color of your hair, at least, if need be. And if we're found out, so be it. Our enemies shouldn't be shocked to be confronted with body doubles at the end of the day."

Johann, meanwhile, simply played an easygoing part. "I admit to being in quite over my head," he remarked. "Like my Feskan neighbour here -" He gestured at Dory "I am merely looking to set things right immediately outside our city's gates and help some people in need." He paused and furrowed his brow. "Perhaps, given the... regrettable recent history between our people and the yasoi, I should focus on the human side of matters and, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of matters, I might act as muscle if needed." He seemed less than enthusiastic about the last part of his proposal but, perhaps , accepting of its necessity. "Now, I do think time is somewhat of the essence. We should get moving if we are to recover Master Jaxan in a reasonable state."



With that, the Fox took her leave and, expecting to go alone, was surprised to find Dory following her outside. "Is this really a task for a lady of noble bearing such as yourself? The types we are dealing with may decide that a woman of your beauty would fetch a high price. Not to be crass, but I'd prefer to be thought of as rude rather than incompetent. Can you handle yourself if things go south?" She didn't look at Dory while she spoke; her head was always on a swivel. "Their delivery point is a warehouse. Relatively isolated and, if bystanders happened to hear loud noises, it would likely be overlooked. Not that many in that part of Mudville would likely investigate a potential danger in any case."

A surprised look appeared on Dory’s expression, only to be followed by a chuckle. ”I feel blessed that you worry about me that much, but please be more worried about your own safety than my own.” She decided to take the words of the other as a compliment. ”If things go south, as they say. I will make sure it will be them that will have things go south, you can count on that.” A warm smile was the look she accompanied those words by.

She elected to lead the duo of Ashon and Seviin as the "obvious bodyguard" while Dory and Lunara followed at a discreet distance, effectively to tail anyone who was tailing them. Usually, she would have her own hired help for this, but there was only time to prepare enough tricks to be confident—not certain. Both her eyes and her mind wandered as she considered the next steps, but "being followed" was almost a distinct sense to Xiuyang. She knew the feeling of being stalked uncomfortably well, especially after her recent experiences: the subtle change in brain chemistry and the ever-so-slight increase in pace that could be felt nearby whenever she and her escorts would turn a sudden corner. With each corner, she eliminated suspects, and eventually, she was down to four. She was no Tethered, but if she kept them just barely in range, and with enough trials and errors—

She saw herself, ten seconds ahead, and saw Ashon lean in to whisper something she couldn't hear. That was enough for her. She started drawing, and not a moment too soon for the Devourer, for the enemy was upon them. Seviin was on the ground, and Xiuyang deleted an arcane lance with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary. She saw herself try and fail to recover the box, caught in a struggle of kinetic magic that she couldn't win, and instead opted to just use binding to cause the earth to swallow it up as it landed with a distinctly un-money-like "clunk."

As the attackers lunged forward, Ashon smoothly stepped back, his tailored suit rippling with his movements. With a flick of his wrist, he launched a small purse of coins at the nearest assailant, the bag bursting open upon impact, showering the thief with a cascade of copper.

He spun around gracefully, the large money bag held firmly in his hand like a seasoned duellist wielding a rapier. Ka-ching! The sound of the clunk of coins made as the bag connected with the head of another thug, sending him stumbling backward. The sound of clinking coins filled the air as the bag swung through the melee, each strike precise as he bludgeoned their foe.

Ashon straightened his jacket with a flourish, as he surveyed the surrounding chaos with a critical eye. "Manners maketh a Moila," he declared loudly, the condescending smirk played on his lips as his voice carried above the commotion. With a swift movement, he used the bag to uppercut one of the thugs before bringing it down on the back of his head. "Stay down, Tem’broa," he chided, his tone dripping with disdain. He kicked the thug as he rolled into a puddle, using him as a makeshift bridge to keep his feet dry as he approached his dear wife.

Turning to Seviin with an elegant bow, Ashon extended his hand to hers, his eyes sparkled as he drew her close. "Please, don't cry, my Eluulan," he murmured, pressing a delicate kiss to her fingertips.

Ashon threw money at them—actually, he threw it everywhere, and in no time at all, the box was buried not just in dirt, but beneath the feet of a scurrying crowd, eagerly scooping up whatever they could. There was no time to be impressed with their accidental teamwork, however. It was time for the finisher. "Eshiran condemn you, defilers!" she shouted, her words thick with disdain and a not-so-subtle implication that the fancy-looking box the thieves had just tried to steal contained the ashes or remains of the deceased. "Shall I kill them, milady?" she asked Seviin as Ashon helped her to her feet. Of course, she already knew her answer would be "no," and this was the point: to paint a halo on her allies, and devil horns on the four criminals, before they could try to do the reverse. The general public held little love for the wealthy, after all.

Seviin had drawn a bonecrush away before it could cause anything more than discomfort and dropped a wall in front of the second brigand coming at her, but it did not prove necessary. Bags of money flew out, the masked woman who she did not know dropped the chest into a hole, and she could sense Dory and Lunara catching up from behind, hopefully under the cover of wanting to dive for the cash. Indeed, Ashon was having too much fun throwing his money around, quite literally, and the pause following the masked woman's question was about to tip over into awkward.

Seviin was not supposed to have spoken, but she couldn't just... She cleared her throat and focused on sounding like a Consoi. "No." she pleaded beatifically, "Please just secure -" It couldn't be a 'family member'. She remembered very well from her schooling that consoi did not cremate their dead, so she adjusted on the fly. "Mister Zahrawi's ashes. He was very dear to us."

It was more words than she'd have liked. She hadn't rolled her 'r' quite well enough. She'd made sure to use a name from a population who were buried with money. Hopefully nobody would notice the first in the scramble and all would notice the second. Most were still diving for pocket change, at least. It was a little bit pathetic how caught up in worldly things they were, to be honest. Seviin needed only her faith.

The robbers had switched targets, of course, going after Ashon, and Lunara and Dory were reaching the thick of things presently. It occurred to her that these were likely not the Colas. They'd have known there was a ransom and they'd have recognized that the bags of bennies and owls were not it. "Please let him rest!" Seviin wailed, and a couple of people drew back from the area of the semi-buried chest. Might someone else add to the ruse? Her accent had slipped there and she knew she was treading too far on a narrow branch. They merely needed to extract themselves from a situation that was nothing more than unneeded peril and a waste of their collective time.

Fuck I'm so stupid that should not have worked holy shit, Xiuyang managed to hurl at herself quickly. She was on a tight schedule, after all. "S-Say no more, milady," she stammered back quietly, the statement of double meaning delivered with a look of panic and apology in equal measure.

Managing to somehow not break character too much, she turned her attention back to the crowd in front of them. "Oi, oi. Make way already," she said as she kinetically scattered the coins away from the small mound in the center of the street, then stuck her staff in the dirt as if she were staking a claim. "You there. Take this money and leave, and I'll only have to bury one person today. Understood? Capito? Habla Torragonese?" She gestured somewhat flippantly, as if they posed no threat to her whatsoever.

Dory was close enough to intervene if need be. She had enough on her for any scenario she might be in, her rifle, her sword and a certain book. The Feskan did not expect for things to get this lively so soon, but the closer she got to the conflict the bigger the grin on her face became.

She stumbled upon her oh so favorite yasoi boy and one of the troublemakers. As soon as she got a good inspection on the situation, a small disturbance within reality would appear over the girl’s torso and soon the butt of a rifle would poke out of it. With one quick pull the rifle revealed its beauty. The rifle was black instead of the normal wood brown that most magusjaegers were used to. The etchings were deep crimson and almost seemed to glow with a flicker pattern similar to fire.

She could so easily switch targets to take revenge on that smug asshole blaming the death of her beloved on her. . . But she won’t, not this time. Her breathing was steady, her eyes sharpened and within what felt like a second after she pulled the rifle, her arm straightened and took the shot. Hitting the robber’s neck, although missing the spine. ”Oh, dear. . . I was aiming for the shoulder.” She looked shocked at the shot she took, and it seemed she wasn’t as good of a shot as she thought she was. The robber was alive, but for how long would they be able to hold onto life?

"Man servant," Ashon called out as he addressed Xiuyang with a regal air, "Once you have dealt with these ruffians, please ensure the ashes are secure. If you make my dearest raise her voice again, I'll dock your pay." He clicked his fingers imperiously, the sound cracked in the air. "You may leave the coin; I will find a new levy to enact."

Having a little too much fun committing to the bit, there. "Man-servant..." Xiuyang thought irritably. Well, she certainly was in the process of "dealing with" the ruffians, but seeing as one of her allies had deemed it fit to nearly behead one of them with a bullet, she began drawing to enhance her threat... and prepare for an unnecessarily drawn-out battle that was likely about to happen.

Buried Hopes, Seeping Like Darkness





The Interview


The office was large and cluttered with crates, artifacts, and stacks of books and notes, organized with a sort of idiosyncratic chaos that smacked of academia. The windows were large and dusty, arched at the top, and golden light streamed in through them. At the far end of the room, silhouetted within the open balcony doors, behind a great mahogany desk, stood the head of the Archaeology department: Giancarlo Silvestri. On the desk was laid out a luxuriant antipasto platter. Upon seeing Xiuyang enter, he turned and smiled, hands clasped behind his back. "Please, come in, seat yourself and help yourself." He gestured. "I do apologize in advance for just how tough I'm going to be on you, but let's do it on a full stomach, no?" He smiled and the laugh lines around his eyes crinkled warmly.

Xiuyang wore a dark blue Rettanese dress with red floral patterns, sharp and form fitting. A blood red pendant adorned her neck, and for once, she was covering her scars with makeup and arcane magic. "I would never hold it against you to take your work seriously, Messer Silvestri," she remarked, taking her seat with a businesslike smile. At his prompting, she eyed the food, but considering who came before, she would politely abstain, with an apologetic smile.

The High Zeno reached out with a tiny fork and took a roll of prosciutto from the plank. "Your decision, Signorina Solari." He smiled, and the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled. "Now, as we are all business here, shall we get down to it?" He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, smiling again. "Simple question, a rote one you've likely prepared for: Why this job? Why this job really? Help me understand you."

Xiuyang chuckled good-naturedly, checking over her shoulder to the door Zast had just left from. "My apologies. I know it's irrational. Someone of my blood shouldn't worry about where food has or hasn't been—but despite everything, I'm still a lady, so here we are," she japed.

She nodded at the suggestion that she was prepared for his question. "My favorite part of any job has always been to find the talent among those under my purview, and allocate my time and resources accordingly, teaching included. I could do that anywhere, but I find my interest in the Gift renewed and expanded beyond the scope of medicine lately." After a pause of consideration, she continued. "A good way to continue to learn is to teach. If both teacher and student are motivated, both stand to benefit. I don't waste my limited resources on the unmotivated, who refuse to learn."

"Oh, truly? Why this sudden awakening, Miss Solari?" Giancarlo still appeared to be waiting: waiting to be convinced.

Xiuyang smiled tightly in mild annoyance. She could truthfully only come up with one answer to that, and she had convinced herself that everyone else was thinking it too: she was weak. Those who can't, teach.

"Can you think back to a time when you were young and naive enough to think that only selfish or evil people made enemies?" She knitted her fingers anxiously, some small part of her wondering if only she could ever be that blind and stupid. "I used to think of the Gift as just this funny bag of tricks the nobles had, a learnable skill like any other. Now I've seen how much bigger than all of us it truly is. I've seen the Gift do things that ought not be done, in the hands of those who ought not have it. But they do, and when a nine-point-five decides to exercise their will, it's no wonder people say the gods are on their side, or that they themselves are the gods." Xiuyang frowned. She was so close yet so far from that level. Her RAS level was considered "prodigious," but the more they called her "prodigy," the more it began to sound like a taunt, a joke at her expense.

"Nothing could be more important than teaching those with the Gift to use it responsibly. Without that, there would be no order, either within society or to life itself. No one could ever live in peace. Some nights, I can barely sleep. I always wake up wondering if my nightmares are real." There was obvious frustration on her face and in her voice. Frustration that it had taken her this long to come to an obvious conclusion, perhaps, or maybe frustration that she had desired a more convincing answer herself, but had not found one. A more convincing answer to what, though? Not just Silvestri's question, but a much deeper one.

Silvestri clasped his hands at the small of his back and stood in profile, silhouetted by the archway. "So," he concluded, "in a nutshell: fear." He nodded slowly, as if to digest the statement. "You work to prevent something terrible. This, I... understand," he allowed. "Is there anything you work towards, however? A mage should know fear, but not without wonder."

Xiuyang raised her head slightly, curious and bemused. A mage should know fear? she pondered. It wasn't a reaction she expected. Just what had she expected, though? For him to laugh at her for being weak? "My initial goals in attending Ersand'Enise haven't been set aside. There are maladies yet to be understood or made curable... dare I even suggest they might be made preventable in their entirety instead. If such research exists, that's what I want to work on. If it doesn't, then I'll make it so." Her face turned sheepish as the boldness of her own words caught her by surprise.

As if to apologize, she averted her gaze. "I've always been healthy. Illness is not something I can understand from experience, but I've seen how it ruins lives. Even royal heirs are not exempt from the risk of a short, bedridden life. Even when I was young, I pitied them. I'm still passionate about it. I just... also think that I need to be a more well-rounded student. I can mend broken bones, but not the hearts filled with the desire for murder and war. I have to be prepared to protect what's dear to me."

"A fair assertion," the Zeno allowed, "and a hopeful one." He nodded, sipping some of his lemon water. "But also not a whole truth. You've not always been healthy. The scars you're trying to hide with makeup say otherwise." For a moment, his face became sympathetic. "I don't mean to pick at scabs or reopen old wounds, and I do apologize, but I must perform my due diligence." He shook his head and waited for an answer.

There was nothing in Xiuyang's stomach. Yet it turned, as though it might just manifest something to spite her. Scars weren't "unhealthy." They certainly weren't contagious. The High Zeno that stood before her knew this. He wasn't an idiot. All of her father's advice about not drawing attention to herself repeated itself in her rattled mind. She wanted to oversell her offense at his nosiness and just leave. Instead, she swallowed and continued speaking, her face as pale as a ghost.

"What do you think would have happened if I had returned from Yarsoc completely unscathed?" She replied, gathering her composure. She didn't name her assailant. She couldn't. She had no "proof." "This way, their pride is sated, and I remain safe from further attacks, for now." She took a deep breath. She wasn't lying. She was not lying. "Their message is not meant for you, High Zeno. It would be rude of me to insist on showing them to you."

For a moment, his eyes narrowed, but then he shrugged easily enough. "Fair enough," he replied with nonchalance, "but there is something from earlier that interests me, however: a question that I have found myself grappling with before." He took a piece of cheese and tossed it into his mouth, sitting and folding his arms upon the desktop. "You spoke of not caring for the unmotivated, but the reality of both teaching and learning is that you will encounter these people, like it or not, and you are being paid to work with them. How do you reconcile your strident statement to that effect with the harsh reality?"

Xiuyang tried not to look too relieved to be rid of the previous question. The next, though not a soft pitch by any means, was one she was prepared for. "It's true. You can't fire a student. They're more like bad customers than employees." She nodded. "It's not that I'd be refusing to do my job out of frustration—only that I'd be seeking to ensure the school's resources are not going to waste," she explained.

"Perhaps this sounds harsh for a merchant to say, but my only duty is to provide the goods and services that were paid for. It's not my job to ensure that the parents' money is well spent. To not be so brazen as to use myself as an example, you have limited time in your day. Not every student can have your full attention at all times. Students who put in the bare minimum should expect the same in return. The students who show the most promise and who put in the most effort should be the ones receiving 'extra service.' The same here: only the most promising candidates received an interview with you. The rest had their forms thrown in the bin—politely, of course." She put on her best customer service smile to emphasize the point.

He let out a bark of laughter - genuine laughter - or at least it appeared so, and nodded thoughtfully. "That was your best answer yet, and perhaps your most honest." He stood and a hand reached for hers. It was gentle, but rough and calloused. "You are impressive, Xiuyang." He pursed his lips in approval. "So, one last question: do you really want this, and who do you want it for?"

The faux customer service smile gave way to a genuine one as the High Zeno laughed and commended her. She was unaccustomed to praise, and couldn't help herself. Tension left her body as she stood up and shook his hand. He didn't ask about her position at the company. He didn't ask about her choice of friends or question her religious beliefs or point to her alcoholism or seek out other moral failings to criticize. If her own father had been half this supportive—but that didn't matter anymore.

At his final question, her smile mellowed somewhat. She'd spent much of her words both in the written form and the interview trying to sell him on how she'd be an asset to the academy, and he had spent much of his asking about what she wanted out of this. In reply, she nodded in understanding. "I'm sure you've seen your fair share of students being pressured by their parents into doing this, for the prestige. It would be nice if they bragged about me once in a while, but that's not why I'm here. They can 'have' the title of Tan-Zeno, figuratively speaking. The job is for me and my own future."

He shook her hand. "Well, I imagine you'll have it one way or another. The question remains: will that be now or at some time in the future." His smile was businesslike now. "You'll be notified if you've made the test stage. Good luck."

It was Xiuyang's turn to laugh now, but she stifled it. "Hmhm. Just how many times do you think I've written to an applicant that they are 'not accepted at this time,' when the reality is, 'not in a million years?'" She smiled impishly. "Thank you for your time, High Zeno Silvestri, and your well wishes are much appreciated." With a nod of respect and a curtsy, she turned and left.



Unbecoming


It was the first gloomy day in a long line of fair weather days; perhaps the Zenos had meddled with the skies again to raise morale, whispered some. The sky was grey, and the distant rumble of thunder punctuated the relative quiet of an Ersand'Enise that saw most of its students enjoying their free time indoors.

It was on these kinds of days that only the most dedicated would train outdoors. It was also on these kinds of days that those students who hated crowds would go to the Proving Grounds to do just that. Among them was the familiar student with the unfamiliar face.

Faster. Xiuyang ran another lap around the inside of the arena; not her second, third or fourth lap—simply "another one." She would run until her lungs burned, and then she would walk until she caught her breath. Then, she would run some more. Faster! Sweat poured past her brow, stinging her eyes and running down the scars she bore. Here, in the Proving Grounds, scars were welcome things. On the face of a warrior, they were celebrated.

Xiuyang did not want to be a warrior. She wanted to be so many other things: a world-renowned doctor and pharmacist, supportive wife of the savviest businessman and philanthropist in all of Revidia, and loving mother of at least four children, who would be accepted and appreciated the way her own mother tried to convince her that she was, but she simply was not.

The faces of the few women lucky enough to be remembered by history did not bear scars. Neither did scars belong on the faces of wives who were loved by their husbands—and they were certainly unbecoming of mothers. Scars belonged on the faces of warriors. Xiuyang did not want to fight. She simply wanted to live—to see the day these dreams would come to fruition—but if history forced her hand, she would become a warrior first, and the rest would have to wait.

Xiuyang continued to run, pursued in her mind's eye by a one-legged phantom. Faster!! she told herself, remembering that time—for it would come again, and the next time she would have to be faster, stronger, and... "S-Shit." Xiuyang stumbled to her knees, willing herself not to throw up. Her training regimen was not very smart, nor—she told herself—did it need to be. For neither the first, second, or third time, she healed the damage in her legs as she retrieved a food jar from her medicine box. It was time for a break—just a short one.

Then, she would run some more—

"You seem determined!" boomed a voice that had become familiar lately. It was Zeno Sectoxomactex. "But you'll run faster if you maintain proper form! You run like you're desperate to escape something—like a woman possessed. Your body will feel less heavy if you lighten the load on your mind." Xiuyang looked up at the tower of a man and regarded him with a smile. "Thank you, Z—Messer Secto." She swiftly corrected herself, but declined the implied offer to lay her troubles before him by way of a silence that would not go unnoticed.

"The strong, silent type, are we? That attitude won't last long under my tutelage," he promised with a grin. "I meant no disrespect." "No, no, I'm sure you didn't—but you'll get my advice whether you like it or not. You've lost weight since the last time I saw you, and for someone as small as you, that's not good. Enough running for you—you should lift weights!" He flexed his biceps to emphasize the point. "And don't neglect your sleep. If all you do is train, you'll never get stronger. No matter how skilled a binder you may be," he added meaningfully. Xiuyang looked down at her gourd and pondered. Muscle repair was something she could do herself. If her energy, focus or willpower wavered, she could give herself more with chemical magic. Daily sleep was a necessity for most people, but a luxury for a talented mage, wasn't it? If this method was good enough for Trypano, it should be good enough for her—but, perhaps she ought to consider his experience. Maybe she was overlooking something important.

Her thoughtful expression seemed satisfactory for the time being. "Believe it or not, I didn't come here to give you a lecture. The archaeologist was looking for you. He has a job for you—not your test, but something that may interest you—a delicate situation befitting an experienced negotiator." An unasked question formed on Xiuyang's face: I passed the interview? Secto grinned from ear to ear. "That ought to put your mind on other things! Go see him," he encouraged. Xiuyang took a victory chug from her gourd. "Thank you. I will."



Ransom Demand


This isn't where I'm supposed to be. That was all Xiuyang could think about as she listened to the hooded figure and read the notice being passed around. While she hadn't exactly given her word that she would accept the mission from High Zeno Silvestri, expressing her interest in receiving a mission from him personally and then getting distracted by Yasoi affairs could be construed as "unprofessional" by those who wished to look for such things. This was, ostensibly, also a matter which the academy would want resolved, and one she couldn't ignore. She would just have to hope that an understanding could be reached after the fact. This was effectively a hostage situation, and she couldn't waste time apologizing ironically for taking the initiative on this.

Jaxan'suul'doridax. When the notice finally reached her hand, she had to disguise her scoff as a dramatic loss of breath. Charitable work. Right... At least this explains his disappearance. Having finished reading, she passed it along, then stood pondering a while. The notice had some concerning undertones about the parents' intentions. Understandably, their way of handling this could be charitably described as "unrefined." As she considered their intentions, and the intentions of some of her allies, and the possible motives of the kidnappers, various pieces fell into place in her mind. "I agree with you, Seviin—but this situation requires more finesse than our wealthy friends are expecting. Frankly, it's beyond me. I'm going to call in a favor from an old friend of mine. Don't worry, you can trust them—more than you can trust me, really. Unlike me, they have a reputation to uphold," she japed playfully, winking at Ashon as she turned to leave.





Rather than Xiuyang, someone else arrived at 74A Crossview Terrace. Another, entirely different black-haired, distinctly Rettanese woman wearing a red hood, not to be confused with Xiuyang, carrying a historically significant staff that certainly didn't belong to their friend, Xiuyang, and wearing a skull masque that was definitely not acquired by Ciro during the Trials prize selection.



"Good day to you all," she greeted as though meeting for the first time, with a thick Rettanese accent. She leaned on her staff as she bowed her head. "Since before Belleville got its name, I have been called the 'Six-Tailed Fox,' and been a benefactor of its residents. Now that I am no longer needed there, I've turned my attention to the refugees," She raised her head and pointed her staff in the direction of the Seagate. "I'm here to find and rescue the boy." She planted her staff back on the ground, and casually leaned on it as she spoke with a kind of authority from experience. To her credit, the skull masque did much to give her an aura of a mysterious local guru and plant a seed of doubt even in those who knew her well. It couldn't possibly be anyone else but Xiuyang, but was she? To her friends, she was Xiuyang, but to anyone else, she was... passably incognito, which, given recent events, was probably for the best.






Appetites, Like Sponges, Expand When Whet





Castaway


Raffie listened to Giancarlo Silvestri explain this complex situation, her eyes lighting up with wonder at all the proper times. A historically significant find! Treasure! Adventure! Pirates! "Well, we can't let the pirates win! They don't care about history, only money!" she chimed in vapidly. This is gonna be, like, a major shitshow. Maybe if I do the bleeding heart thing, I can get some info out of the locals, she pondered. "Aw, shucks! The best and brightest! I just got lucky☆" she squealed. "I'll be there, for sure!" she said with a big smile.

So it was that she arrived at the portal, wearing a shorter summer dress, sandals rather than her usual high heels, and a straw hat. She bounced back and forth on the balls of her feet and her heels, as if she were excitedly daydreaming about going to the beach, not giving any consideration to the political and diplomatic nature of the mission at all. Unlikely doesn't mean it won't happen, though, she wondered in secret, eyeing up all of her allies, trying to decide which among them could actually make a decision and take a side. Hmm~ At least a few of these gentlemen look like they got their priorities straight... She smiled and waved at each of them in turn, not a scrap of evidence as to her inner thoughts apparent on her face—until she laid eyes on Mahal. "O-Oh, uh, fancy meeting you here," she greeted awkwardly, averting her gaze. She's a rash one, but that's better than analysis paralysis. I'll take her over a moralizing gasbag any day.

The Price of Memories, a Renewal of the Soul






The Death Merchant








For a Friend of a Friend










Clarity, and a Turning Point


Xiuyang sat at her desk, faced with two big decisions—first, the school faculty was asking the students if they wished to keep their memories of everything that had happened in the past two weeks, or if they wanted to return to blissful ignorance. Xiuyang found the whole thing unconscionable—if forcing the Trials and Mano e Mano upon the students was being inhumanely cruel to children, erasing their memories of the riots was an equal but opposite offense of infantilizing them. Of course, Xiuyang would choose to keep hers. She couldn't imagine how she'd react to the knowledge that something so monumentally important had happened, and that she had chosen to forget about it and now had to rely on secondhand information.

Was a Xiuyang who had forgotten the past two weeks—or even just the most traumatic events that had taken place then—even the same person? There was surely no guarantee that she would be happier. If anything, her resentment and self-loathing would only deepen for making such a weak decision. That was to say nothing of the possibility of having other memories conveniently tampered with, or rifled through like so much private correspondence. What if they discovered that she was a Facemimic? What if they learned of her plans? Her actions had surely made her new enemies, and she couldn't afford to be at such an insurmountable disadvantage as to have them know of her schemes, and for her to forget that they even existed. The only real question was whether or not it was a genuine choice. Was there an unstated threat that, should she choose to retain her memories, she could become a target?

Bah. If there was a political target on her back, it was only a slightly larger one than she was born with. She would take her chances—which just left the matter of the piece of paper she was currently poring over carefully. Even as the school sent out inquiries regarding the mammoth in the room that was the revolution and change in management, they also sent out inquiries regarding Tan-Zeno positions. Xiuyang was faced with a kind of dilemma; did she really want to dabble in a teaching career? Not really—but the need to impress her family and Ciro, who she hoped would become family sometime next year, continued to hover over her and weigh on her mind from time to time. Additionally, there were the benefits it could bring—potential access to forbidden magics which could cure her defects and allow her to become a match for Juulet. Everything she could want was being dangled before her like a carrot on a stick; the only issue was whether or not the school at large saw her as a liability, which she would only know if she sent in an application. A rejection, in itself, would present potentially valuable information.

She found herself filling out the form, slowly and thoughtfully, a process that took all the hours of Oraff and continued well into the hours of Eshiran. As she did, she found herself deciding upon reasons why she might actually be good at teaching, and find some enjoyment in it. Of course, she had lied about her mana type, and made no indication that she'd received any instruction in blood magic. Technically, it wasn't a lie—as she hadn't had her level of skill in the school officially evaluated in any capacity. Overall, though, she was surprised at how truthful her statements felt when they were finally finished, and had found reasons to be optimistic about the prospect by the end. Maybe... I really need this. Something to call my very own—an important role to play, where others can rely on me. She carefully folded up the form and waxed the envelope shut. For a moment, she simply held it in her hand, letting time pass her by while her third cup of undrunken tea grew cold, and simply breathed in and out.

Accepting a job offer from Ciro would be yet another easy decision, in a long line of easy decisions. She enjoyed working with him, but that was what she wanted to do—work with him, and not for him. Already, she caught herself relying on him too much. No matter how long the past few weeks had felt—(if only their time together would always feel so long!)—it was still such a short amount of time. A little voice in her head told her to slow down, told her that things were moving too fast. Whether it was a voice of reason or a voice of cowardice, she couldn't yet be sure. Another voice told her other things: that she was a worthless girl, growing more and more dependent on her boyfriend by the day, already irresponsibly deep in his debt, and that someday he would surely collect, just as any sensible businessman would. She needed to do more—be more than she was: ruthless, brave, strong, smart, beautiful.

The envelope she held in her hand represented a difficult decision, and challenges ahead.

Unlike before, she would make this decision, and face these challenges of her own will.

Lost and Found, the Voice of an Unyielding Will





Dami's Judgment, Vyshta's Mercy





The Face of Triumph is a Warm Smile






Mano e Mano














Two Girls and a Scheme










A Party is Never Just a Party










Cal {Placeholder}



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