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Either way, it seems like I should have Mountain Dew react to Bonesword's appearance next time I write.
This place is them? Is that meant literally? Pithy pondered. Then where did this ‘know one’, understudy fit in the scheme of things? Was the voice simply making up lies as she went along? Some part of her still held onto the suspicion that the situation she found herself in had somehow been orchestrated by the announcer, but she could not imagine why he would set up this scenario to toy with her like this. Having another player leap into the stage like this made things complicated, placing her in a position where she would need to take things at face value until she was able to make judgements about what she had seen and heard.

She felt the rumble underneath her before she heard the grinding noise. Pithy stepped back out of reflex, the trained motion all that kept her legs from being entangled as metal pipes suddenly phased through the floorboards below her. Pithy grimaced, uncertain about the strength that twisted the pipes. If it could bend metal like that, having a single one wrap around her could result in broken bones. That was not the kind of wound she was willing to chance.

Pithy drew away as two of the tubes snaked towards her feet. Two of her icicles thrusted downwards, failing to pierce through the metal but banging it off course. Nearby pipes swarmed around the ice, wrapping around it and adding the sound of cracking crystal to the cacophony of groaning metal.

She almost didn’t notice the cutlery trembling above the nearby tables until one of its wooden legs bent and it shifted, as if testing its weight. The mage gave a panicked glance around her as the two closest tables suddenly loped – there was hardly a more accurate word to describe their motion – towards her, knives, forks and plates scattering over the floor with the jerking motion.

Pithy made a split-second decision and sucked in a breath before jumping towards one of the tables. Her back hit the flat surface, knocking away the last few knickknacks that remained atop it as she began to roll with the motion. She pulled her robe closer with a panicked flick of her left arm, bringing the cloth above over the edge of the table just before the two crashed into each other. The impact made the table tilt dangerously, the sudden impulse sending her flying out of her roll.

Pithy angled herself to land even as she heard a groaning sound below her, the pipes nearby seeming to rattle with excitement. More tubes suddenly rose out of the ground, raising to catch her. They crashed against the disk of ice she had made instead. Pithy landed atop it, almost slipping as the metal pipes carried her and her platform upwards, and, seeing a chance to escape, she threw herself forwards.

A pained grunt escaped Pithy as she landed, the strain on her shoulders making itself known as she rolled with the fall and brought herself to her feet. The blade of her rapier stroked downwards with the motion, giving life to a bluish spark where the point touched the ground.

Ice spread out from it like a wave, smoothly covering the floorboards and even creeping up the closest wall. It swept over the floor, past the writhing pipes, ice rising and clinging to where it touched them as though to hold them, doing the same to the legs of nearby tables.

So far, the voice had only exerted control over things within the building. Things that did not originally belong had been left untouched, those being herself and her ice. If she was correct in her assessment that those could not be affected by this haunt-like magic directly, barriers of ice could at least prevent the pipes and other objects from moving through walls.

Pithy scowled, air gusting heavily through her nose. She would have to keep her eyes on the ceiling from then on as well.

She had expected more plates, but it was clear that the owner of the voice was less interested in gathering data than they were in flexing their muscles. So much for ‘experiment’.

It was beginning to dawn on her just how precarious the situation she was in was. Had she been only slightly less alert or agile, she would have been smashed between the tables. She had thought at first that the voice’s curiosity would ensure a measure of safety for their perceived guinea pig, but now she began to suspect she was only there to entertain for as long as she lasted. Which meant she either had to find Nero and get out first – and pray to all Lords that this one keeps their word – or to find a way to stop the owner of the voice themselves.

The sorceress recalled the disk of ice and her one remaining icicle before she moved at a brisk pace towards her initial target. The runes of her rapier glowed brightly as she made the ice covering the floor spread below her, and Pithy ignored the low droning of wind she could hear under the screeching noise of writhing metal.

“Nero!” Pithy yelled out as she reached towards the door, hoping against hope that the voice did not decide to use it for their next surprise. “You had best shout back if you’re still alive!”
Like many other edifices she had entered since she had been summoned to this alien land, the one she entered now appeared to have been abandoned suddenly and recently, as though only a few minutes before her entrance the restaurant’s staff had prepared the tables for a grand feast, and retreated into the kitchen. For all that, no food sat on the plates, nor guests sat at the tables.

The large reception was wasted on the single traveler, and the cloying scent of an unknown sorcery brought her pause as she scanned the utensils on the tables through a narrowed eye.

A soft click alerted her to the fact that the door had closed behind her. The rasping sound of the bolt sliding into was more obvious.

Pithy reached towards it at once, confirming her fears. It refused to move, as though affixed in place.

A curse danced on her lips as she turned, studying her surroundings with renewed intensity. The locked door itself did not upset her as much as what it meant. Her presence was known.

The voice that greeted her as she slowly stepped away from the front entrance turned that into a certainty.

“Welcome, Pithy.”

The voice echoed around her, seeming to bounce off the cutlery.

The woman froze, listening attentively. It was a familiar voice, even through the reverberations, and her first thought was that Nero had lain in wait for her. The longer she heard the voice speak, however, the less convinced she was. Gone were the ill-timed jokes and irreverent tone she had come to associate to the announcer.

Still, they knew her name limiting the possible suspects. Furthermore, while she was not familiar with the word ‘camera’, it was clear that they had left a means to spy into the announcer’s tower, meaning the owner of the voice had been a party to her conversation with Nero, and conceivably her later attempt to locate him. It was possible such a device was being used to observe her at that very moment. Was the owner of the voice even present in the edifice?

The announcer’s drawling voice echoed in her mind. There’s shifty business goin’ on in the College. Some of ‘em ain’t so bad, aside from bein’ willing to sacrifice a lot just to research all the nonsense that’s goin’ on in this place, but some want that wish for themselves.

The magic swelled around her with such intensity that it made her nose itch, disrupting her train of thought. The runes in her rapier shimmered, frost appearing over nearby plates as the blizzard inside her swelled in response. Pithy shivered.

It dawned on her that the voice was trying to intimidate her, and her lips twisted in a spiteful grimace. Her eye went to the shooter in her left hand, mindful of the weight it carried. She needed only pull the trigger to alert Dew to these unexpected developments. Her finger twitched, her hand tensing.

She brought the weapon up, returning it to its holster.

Not yet. It was not the time. She did not have a target. Even if Dew was able to cross the boundary to this territory she had walked into, it was likely that she would simply end up stuck with him as company. After all, if the voice knew to wait for her, it would also know she had her own pawn nearby. She doubted the voice had heard the exchange she had had outside, but revealing her hand too early could cost her dearly.

Instead, she drew her rapier from the hoop at her belt, the blades of ice she had summoned fanning out around her, wary of unseen danger.

“To rescue Nero...” The irony of the task the voice had left her with was not lost on her. She was reticent to take any promises this mysterious addition to her worries gave her at face-value, but at the same time she was unwilling to leave empty-handed after she had tracked down the announcer’s location.

Is that the arrogance of newborn power I hear? How vexing to listen to it myself is. Just what had the foolish boy done after he’d slipped away from her?

The plates in the nearest tables trembled, eight of them slowly rising in the air.

The first two spun towards her head. Pithy ducked, the plates crashing against the door as she spun to the side to keep all the floating discs in front of her. She brought up her rapier.

The next two were turned away by her ice, two blades batting away the projectiles before they reached her.

The third set met the same fate. The last two plates crashed against a solid surface, a thin disk of ice that now levitated before her, its rapid formation aided by the cold she was still bleeding to the surroundings.

As an afterthought, one of her blades spun around her and lanced towards a nearby window. The glass shuddered in its frame against the impact, but for all that, it bounced off, leaving not so much as a mark.

Pithy frowned as she reeled the ice back towards her. That was hardly a threat, but if I’ve been truly sealed off, for how long will that last? I do not believe it is my limits that are being tested.

The avenue of assault the voice had chosen bore thinking about. Levitation, at first glance. That could prove problematic if the power was able to touch her or her ice directly. She would need to be watchful of that, until she knew if the voice had not yet bothered to do so because it was unable to, or because it felt it unnecessary. Considering the objects moving as if of their own will, combined with the fact that she seemed to have been sealed inside the building, along with the roiling power suffusing her surroundings and the allusion to an entity other than the voice, her first guess was a haunting. Had a poltergeist been bound to this place?

Pithy walked towards the nearest wall, hesitant to wade between the tables, and followed to march towards the back of the establishment, wary of more sudden projectiles even with her own conjured weapons trailing behind her. She quickly caught sight of an array of doors, some featuring the images she now knew signaled the restrooms, and moved towards the unmarked ones.

“Does my voice reach you?” she asked out loud as she walked. She wanted to keep the voice talking for whatever information it might betray. Ought I to play to their expectations, then? “How did you get to Nero? I admit to feeling as though the chance to properly humiliate him has been stolen from me.”
Fenn’s low, disdainful laughter echoed in the clearing. “You chose the harshest path. Let us see if you have the strength to make it the right one,” he pronounced, before throwing himself at the angels’ commander. The tremor of his first blow crushing the ground where the angel had stood moments before heralded the true beginning of their battle.

Akoni wished he could say he was surprised by this turn of events, but in all honesty it hadn’t been the least bit surprising at all. Demons usually sought to destroy, but angels usually sought to rule, feeling their judgment to be righteous regardless as to the thoughts of others. As tension rose in the air, so did his own conflict. He wouldn’t have cared about killing angels, after all he’d killed about as many of them as he had demons in his time. It just had to be this angel, and the nephilim Wrath seemed to be taking their side. Such a pity. Akoni had actually liked Wrath.

The mage readied himself for battle with the angels, and possibly Wrath himself. Blue aura flickered around his eyes and hands, concentrating into hardened battle magics. Zuriel and the angelic soldiers attacked without missing a beat, the archangel headed straight for Fenn while the small fries went after the others. Souta managed to hold his own quite well, Akoni noted. Well enough for a man mostly devoted to his art, and not live combat. An angel swooped straight for the old man, but he was having none of it. A gate opened directly in front of his attacker, and the angel emerged sixty feet away in the opposite direction. It took a moment for him to reorient himself, but in that time Akoni would be able to do what he wanted.

“Wrath. When we all met, before being branded by the Council, you saved my life in those caves. If you dare attack any of us, then it’ll be me. Take responsibility for the life that you held in your hands!” The mystic aura flared up as it became infected with blacks and greens overtaking the blue. He uttered two words incomprehensible, and hundreds of tiny portals opened surrounding his body. Reptilian green scales emerged from the countless portals, affixing to Akoni’s skin. His Squamous Armor would make him more durable if he needed to take a few hits.

Wrath was still trying to figure out what exactly was going on when all Hell, and he mentally slapped himself for the unintended pun, broke loose. Drawing Rage Bringer, he adopted a more defensive stance as the angels attacked, Zarrath being intercepted by a demon who must have been waiting and forced to engage her.

He kept an eye on each of the remaining opponents, letting them go after others while he tried to think of a way to defuse this before there were too many dead Army of Light. Think there’s a way to stop this, before Sevrin shows his slimy face, but how… Kushiel was well known for his pride and, where demons were concerned, ruthlessness, but he was also considered a traitor by many in the Army of Light, the AT-Field he’d been given a clear mark. Still… Before he could think any further in, Akoni’s voice cut through his thoughts, calling the Nephilim to action, though if he was honest, Wrath couldn’t think of a time he wanted to fight less.

”I won’t take my blade to you unless you attack me first, Akoni. But neither can I stand with the Council as I once was able. You didn’t see the Undersky, a place that ignored the laws of the Charred Council, that had, without help, kept them and their agents out. They aren’t what they seem.” He turned to look at the battle between Kushiel and Fenn and frowned slightly. ”But neither can this continue. Bah, had Uriel only given me some form of command!” The Nephilim knew he needed to get between the two, but didn’t know how without ending up worse for wear.

“Save your self-pity for another day, Wrath!” Lily barked from across the room, throwing an unfortunate angel into one of his allies. She gave Wrath a glance. “Either you honor the deal you made, or I will consider you an enemy.” The previously thrown angel attempted a flanking maneuver with the one he had hit, both advancing form either side. Lily impaled one with her spear before he even came within his own reach, and the other found itself facing her bullwhip-like tail, sending him sprawling backwards. She yanked the spear free and made a wide swipe with it, slashing its throat. “So choose, now.”

“To hell with absolutes, Lily! Where has that gotten us except the mercy of those who would see the will of none but themselves done?” Some part of him realized what he’d said and mentally apologized for it, but the greater majority of his awareness was on the situation at hand. “We’re owed answers, damnit! Like why the Horsemen weren’t sent to the Undersky when that was clearly somewhere the Seals had no power!” An Angel was flung in Wrath’s direction and he caught him before setting him on the ground. ”This is a lost cause and the wrong one. Gather our forces and set them to finding the snake who destroyed the second seal.”

There was the briefest hesitation on the angel’s face before he remembered the fate of his friends and he nodded, flying away speedily. Wrath then did something incredibly rash, which wasn’t uncommon to him, his voice booming out across the arena. “Stop, Kushiel! This battle serves no purpose other than to serve your inflated ego!”

The angel jumped over Fenn’s swipes, his wings flaring and leaving him out of reach. Nonetheless, his attention was no longer on the hound below him. “‘Inflated ego’? Perhaps that is you, remember even with your special status as an agent, you serve heaven. I saw something in you I could relate, a free spirit, after all I hold a similar status. We serve the will of god, and this, is His will”, Kushiel’s voice in all his condescending manner, was calm and collected, it was chilling, his polite demeanor with the dark look in his eyes, did not befit the traditional notion of what an angel should be. It was a terrifying charisma, backed with the strength he wielded.

“I will forgive your outburst, but the moment you side with them, you will no longer be considered an ally to the Army of Light. Fight with me, or stay out of it”, was the demand out of generosity? Or arrogance that he was enough? It was unclear, for he did hold the power to contest them, even alone to some extent. Regardless, Kushiel’s attention was quickly diverted by a glint of metal. He clicked his tongue in irritation, diving under the whip of chains towards his chosen foe.

Still Wrath tried to sway him. “I side with the Balance, Kushiel, as Heaven always has! Attacking the agents of the Council is far from the wisest decision you’ve ever made, and my status as an ally to the Army of Light has never been your decision. That rests with Uriel and the Hellguard, as I am formally assigned to them, as is Zarrath.” He kept his eyes unmoving. “Sevrin is here, Kushiel. The man...creature perhaps, who destroyed the second seal. And you would waste time and energy on THIS?”

Akoni meanwhile had spent his time evading numerous angels that had brought their attacks toward what was perceived as the weakest enemy. After all, he was still just an old man, by all appearances. Yet he did not kill any of them, preferring to dodge, evade, and trick them away with his use of the Gatewalk. He would have to conserve his strength for the battle with Sevrin. Thankfully Wrath had enough sense not to attack, for which the old mage was thankful. A house divided, and all that.

“You’re a fool if you believe that this is God’s will, Kushiel! And even more foolish if you believe you can stand up to whatever has taken residence within Sevrin’s body. It is not anything that I believe any of us could defeat alone. It is not anything that I believe the Horsemen could defeat alone! I could not even pierce the veil enough to get a name with my magics!” An angel got lucky and managed to land a cut on Akoni’s arm with a sword. The scale-like armor blocked most of the attack, shaving scales off like a razor taken to hair. The old man morphed his Lammasu gauntlet into a hammer fist, then slid it up along the angel’s blade to strike his foe in the face. Bloodied, the angel fell back through a gate Akoni manifested, and exited further still from the skirmish.

“I stand with humanity’s survival above all else! Demons, angels, the Council, and anything else in these cosmos, I trust none of them to respect humans autonomy! Kushiel, either be our ally against a common foe, or be another divine monster crushed beneath the heels of the ultimate survivors!”

Kushiel’s cherubic expression twitched, his lips twisting into a smirk for the smallest of moments, before his focus was brought back to task by the large arm streaking his way. He dodged under it, the rush of wind following the blow whipping at his hair. His lance streaked upwards, seeking the beast’s exposed sides, but the monster shifted almost imperceptibly and the spearhead skittered along the hardened scales, failing to find purchase. The angel’s brows knitted together. He had not thought possible that a lumbering mutt would offer him trouble, but the beast’s hide was harder than he had anticipated. Out of the numerous blows he had landed since the short time the fight had begun, most had been turned away in a similar fashion, leaving only a few, thin trickles of blood as proof that his spear had so much as nicked the beast.

As he processed this, the hound reversed its swing, tree-trunk arm sweeping back from the angel’s right. He jumped over it wish a flap of his wings, but before he could retaliate, the demon’s other arm swept upwards with the momentum, claws outstretched. Kushiel twisted in the air, using his wings to spin himself back, but as he did, the tip of one of his feathered appendages touched the sweeping claw. Red stained the feathers at the wing’s end, and the limb was swept back with the force, throwing his spin into an uncontrolled tumble.

Kushiel rolled back into the fall, coming to his feet just in time to catch the hellhound looming over him, arms stretched upwards.

Kushiel raised his hands just as the hammer blow rocked down. A barrier of energy sparkled between them, and Kushiel was brought to his knees, the earth cracking below him. He looked up past the dog’s fists to the its amber orbs with undisguised hatred. “You damned mutt.”

The dog’s expression seemed almost crazed, his irises wide and lined with red, fury in his eyes. The change to his disposition had come as soon as he had launched himself at the angel, as though slipping into a mask, so perhaps it should not have come as a shock that it still found it in itself to speak. “Enough talk, little lord. I am your enemy. The rest do not matter.”

Gritting his teeth, Kushiel spun to the side, using his AT-field to finally parry the two hammers. Fenn sunk down at the absence of resistance, and Kushiel jumped upwards with his motion. He spun in the air, the zenith of his jump leaving him hanging for a weightless moment above the beast’s back. If his spear could not pierce his body normally, he would have to find the monster’s weak points.

He could spy the hellhound’s muzzle turning, one eye staring back at the angel poised behind him, but it did not matter. The beast was too large and lumbering to avoid him. With a pained flap of his wings, the spearman streaked downwards, aiming at the base of the demon’s skull. He felt the give of softer flesh against steel.

Kushiel widened his eyes as he kept moving. Somehow, the dog had shifted at the last moment. His fall continued, earthbound, but he caught a glint of metal below, a hoop held in the large demon’s hand. Almost as if he had predicted the angel’s trajectory, the spear fell inside the ring of metal.

Fenn twisted his body, pulling Kushiel by the length of his spear, and swung his arm backwards. The force of the movement freed the lance from its sudden prison, sending it and its owner flying towards the edge of the clearing. Kushiel’s flight was halted when he crashed against a tree, the trunk cracking and falling under the impact.

The hound fell back to all fours, showing his teeth at the treeline. Blood flowed profusely from the side of his neck, the usual smoke that accompanied his wounds never appearing. But for all that, and for all his objections to the battle itself, the hound’s expression was that of one extremely pleased by the proceedings, at least to any who knew how to read it.

Beside Fenn landed the large form of Lily, black spear in hand. She bore a few scrapes and cuts, but nothing major, as opposed to the several dead angels behind her. She had her eyes trained on where Kushiel had fallen, body tense and ready to act. From within her chest and up to her throat, an orange light started to shine, like a flashlight viewed through one’s hand.

“Give him no quarter,” she murmured, half to herself, half to the Hellhound beside her. She leaned forward and unleashed a narrow cone of hellish fire, directly at where Kushiel landed, engulfing him and the immediate area around him.

“Enough you damnable fools!” Wrath coalesced a portion of his own energy into his blade before slamming the tip of the blade into the ground. After a moment of rumbling that shook any but Wrath that were standing on the ground, a line between the two demons and the fallen Angel Lord fell open, the Earth Render technique unique to the Nephilim creating a sizable gorge, all things considered, before slamming shut. No one was harmed, but it had the desired effect, and it was gaining the attention of those around him.

“I’ll say it again. Sevrin is HERE. What we’re doing now? It’s giving him a free pass into the fourth seal if we all wear each other out trying to kill each other.” Pausing, Wrath took a deep calming breath, the battle lust inside him dying down some with it. Being Nephilim, he lived for each battle, every exchange of blade on blade, fist to flesh and blood for blood, but he had to know when to choose his battles, and now wasn’t the time. “This is sad, the Nephilim, bred and born for battle, trying to talk down beings far more capable of talking this shit out. Use your fucking heads.”

It was already too late to put a stop to Lily’s flames, but hopefully he’d convinced them to stop attacking further. A sense of unease had seized him, but he doubted it came from the battle that had just occurred around him.

The moment that the words left Sand’s lips, she knew they somehow would be turned around to her. It did not stop her from stammering when the girl next to her, the one who’d shed her clothes first, poked her on the side, urging her to follow her own advice.

“E-Eh… nay,” she rapidly improvised. “such is the nature of my thankless task.”

And where did this low fantasy movie accent came from? She’d affected it without putting much thought into it, and now it stuck as she rebuffed the other girl’s objection. “Peer pressure shan’t stand in the way of my duty.”

Except it would, if the rest of the team happened to be as ready to cast their worries away as these two. She couldn’t poke fun of something as strange when it happened to be the most normal thing in the world to another. The best she could do was try not to get dragged into it despite herself.

Hearing her name being called, she cast out her gaze to the other team, hoping to find some inspiration.

She found more than that.

Oh.

“Indeed, look over yonder, to the one with the dyed blonde hair—”

That was a thing he could do.

“And the top—”

Dammit, Jer.

“That almost profiles the abs she works so hard to maintain—”

Jer.

“And the chest that looks a bit tighter than it actually should be—”

Jer, you massive weirdo.

“Would you not say this is the best time for misdir—Okay, I can’t. Give me a minute.”

Abruptly breaking out of the silly character she had adopted on a whim, Sand broke from her team’s huddle and moved closer to the other, staring intently at the face of her new twin. She paused when she was close enough to stretch a hand and touch her clone, casting out for words to express what she felt at the moment.

Did she truly look so irritable all the time? She’d had a similar feeling for some time whenever she looked into a mirror, but perhaps she truly needed to work more sleep into her schedule. Those were words, to be sure, but not for the boy wearing her skin. The specific wording of that musing gave her a shudder, along with a thought better left unexplored.

“What am I looking at?” she started with a resigned tone, trying to ignore the other eyes looking at the bizarre pair. “Don’t say ‘Sand Vespa’. I know we’re both from Atlas but this…”

Then again, this was a very peculiar situation. Don’t make things weirder, girl.

“I’m not really okay with…”

It would be a waste if she did not ascertain all the facts of the matter. Don’t bring that up. You don’t actually want an answer.

“Huh.” She coughed, glancing down meaningfully for a split-second. “Does—Hm. Does that change what’s down there too?”

@Plank Sinatra@Norschtalen
“One thing at a time.” Pithy said, before resuming her walk.

The pair had set out from the announcer’s tower not too long ago, deciding that their destination was too close and their vehicle too loud to be practical when they were supposedly tracking someone. It had not stopped Dew from swallowing the entire thing into his personal extradimensional space, making Pithy question his supposed ignorance of the arts once again.

Halfway to their destination, the pair had seen fit to look over the buildings to see a decidedly out of place apparition.

Dew brought the scope of his rifle away from his eye, having just told Pithy about the shape falling from under it. ‘Like an anchor?’ she had asked. ‘No rope. Maybe garbage,’ he had suggested, but the elf had only one thing in mind for the time being.

“One thing. Right.” Dew paused as he began to follow, as though chewing on his words. “What’s the plan if we do find Nero out here? Last time we sat down for a chat didn’t exactly go well.”

Pithy grimaced. The question had been on her mind for much of the trek, after all. When it came down to it, she had no way of coming to an understanding with the otherworldly mage. She had nothing to offer him for his cooperation, and the young man had not responded well to her threats. Worse, it seemed that their goals were diametrically opposed. She wished to make use of the Crucible’s wish machine. Nero wished to prevent the machine’s use.

Perhaps it would have been different if she could reach those ‘friends’ he had referenced in their earlier conversation, but coercion had earned her little when Nero’s continued health had been the only thing at stake.

The man was distorted at his core. That was how she felt about him, now that she had had time to process their encounter. A kind of fearlessness had been born from such a schism.

“Frankly, part of me hopes he will have moved on by the time we arrive. He is not afraid of what I could do to him, which means I cannot control him,” she allowed, trying to keep the frustration from her voice. The best case scenario would be one where the place Nero had led them to in and of itself held the answers she sought, or if Nero somehow led them to a more pliable collaborator to his scheme.

“Is there no way to hold him down? Tie him up until he answers our questions?”

Pithy huffed at the interruption to her musings. “You saw how his magic works. Physical restraints will not work. That includes my ice. The truth is that we cannot touch him, look at him, or for that matter stand near him without being vulnerable to his curses.”

“If his magic is what’s giving us trouble, can’t you just keep him from casting?”

“As I am now? No.” Pithy frowned, looking down at the asphalt. The streets had dried considerably, meaning that they could march straight for their objective with no detours. The glass panes of the buildings and businesses surrounding them receded quietly in their march, revealing no new threats, much to the elf’s continued relief. She wondered if, had this been a city she was familiar with, she would have been able to feel at ease, as though this was merely a nighttime walk with a colleague. That was a useless thought. “I could cut his hands off so he could not gesture. Poke his eyes out so he could not choose a target. Cut his tongue off. Would he still be able to cast then? I can’t be certain. He certainly would not be able to answer my questions, however.”

“Would you do that? Cripple him if it would get him to cooperate, I mean.”

“He would not cooperate.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“It is not,” she agreed. Then, after a moment, she added, “I have trouble imagining a scenario where killing him is not my best option.”

“Don’t worry,” Dew smirked. “A lack of creativity is only one of your many flaws.”

“Remind me why I did not cut off your tongue again?” she asked, the irritation mixing into her tone partly directed at the man for trying to get a rise from her, and partly at herself for knowing it would be a waste to harm him at this point.

“I have to wonder myself. It’s almost as if you thought I’d have anything good to say about you after you cheated me out of the competition.”

“Unreasonable expectations,” the woman droned dryly. “Another flaw of mine, it would seem.”

She stopped then, looking down at the map she had taken from the tower. Looking up again, she studied the building before her. It reminded her slightly of some of the wealthier establishments in certain human cities of her world, with an open terrace fitted with a multitude of fine, wooden tables, and a set of stairs rising along its length to the main building. The large panes of glass that separated the interior from the terrace would normally give onlookers a clear sight of the first floor, but heavy, maroon drapes blocked the view. A large sign with the words ‘Moscow Caliber’ told of the business’s name.

Dew snorted. “Call it a hunch, but I’d feel disappointed if we didn’t get into a shootout in this place.”

Pithy took a slow breath, ignoring that forecast, and stuffed the map back into her pocket. “I want you to wait outside.”

The man glanced at her, expression betraying some surprise. “You sure? Last time you went up against Nero on your own, you weren’t doing particularly well.”

I appreciate the reminder, Dew. Truly, I do.

“I’ll take the front door,” she continued, drawing the shooter from the holster at her breast. “If you hear me fire, I want you to come looking for me. If I’m in there for too long, I want you to come looking for me.”

“How long’s too long?” he asked, and Pithy could see a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Long enough to make one think I might not walk out on my own.” As the smile only grew brighter, Pithy’s brows only knitted closer together. “I’m aware I’m being vague, Dew, but I will not take that as an excuse if you leave me in there for dead.”

The man waved his arm dismissively. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Come on, what else? We’re wasting time out here.”

“I want you to check for other entrances, and to make sure nobody gets out of the building. If something is wrong, or if you see someone that’s not me leave the building, I want you to fire your weapon in the air.” She paused for a moment, then added. “If you see Nero walk out alone, I want you to kill him.”

Dew grimaced for a moment, then nodded.

Pithy could not help but to feel relieved by the gesture. She took another steadying breath, then turned towards the steps. Her free hand went to her rapier as she walked, the runes beginning to glow as three shards of ice the length of her blade separated from the silvery surface, as though her sword was multiplying, then trailed behind her.

Soon enough she stood before the front entrance, her armament at the ready. Taking one last pause, she nudged the door open.

Sand frowned slightly as she eyed the pamphlet she had been given. She was not familiar with this version of football. It almost seemed likely that the professor had made it up in whatever mountain training pilgrimage he had been dragged out of.

She moved closer to the rest as the teams huddled, pausing only to blink at Trad’s waste of a good shirt and to ponder how he had done such a thing before concluding it was not worth the headache.

Instead, she joined the huddle, attention split between the pamphlet in front of her and the voices of the other students. As another student shared what they could do for the team, Sand found herself nodding. She might have been unfamiliar with this version of the sport in particular, but she thought he knew her strengths well enough to share.

“This is a bit different from what I’m used to, but I usually played defense. Tackling or intercepting passes tended to be my thing.”

Glancing up from the paper for once, she noted that the student that had been speaking before had also shed her upper garments. And here I thought the skin vs. shirts comment had been a joke.

As another girl spoke, Sand looked up with half-lidded eyes. She was not terribly surprised when a look at the one who’d spoken also showed more discarded sets of clothing.

A thought occurred to her, and she stifled a small smirk.

“I wonder about using Semblances in a PE class,” she offered matter-of-factly. “Might have to clear it with the professor. If we want a general strategy, though… I see. Dressing as distractingly as possible is certainly an option. It is good to lead by example, Trad.” Sand nodded, as though she had suddenly come across a great truth. She tilted her head slightly, giving the rest of the team a level stare. “Go on then, strip. Hurry.”

Despite her urging, her own arms remained notedly still before her, still holding on to her instructional pamphlet. As if anticipating protests, she added, “I’m playing defense, so it’s only natural that I’d have to camouflage myself like the shirts. Worry not, this is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

In the back of her mind, Sand ignored the voice that told her she was making a questionable first impression on her new classmates.

@Awesomoman64@Norschtalen@Suku@Eklispe@harinezumikouken@SevenStormStyle@Forsythe@NarayanK@Krayzikk


Sand gave a slight nod at Trad’s assurances. She did not need to ask about his following comment. It had already become apparent in the short time since she had met the trio that the relationship between their other two teammates was anything but amicable. The stressful part was that as team leader, she would not be entirely surprised if she learned people expected her to somehow find a way to ease that conflict. At least for the time being she could sit back and see if removing Robert from a leadership position had done much of anything to improve Grane’s disposition.

Noting that the conversation had fallen into a small lull during her contemplation, Sand looked around, casting about for a new topic of conversation. Her eyes eventually fell over to the door, lazily following the newcomers that drifted into the room. One of the students in particular drew her eye, making all thoughts of conversation flee from her mind. It was a young man with dark hair and severe expression, a familiar face from Atlas Academy.

Sand forced herself not to stare as he approached another group of students by bringing her eyes back to the entrance, but the coincidental appearance of a classmate had surprised her.

Should I greet him? That seemed like the proper thing to do, but she found herself hesitating. She knew he belonged to team HJNS – its members had become rather popular amongst the rest of the student body since its formation – but she could not quite recall his name. They must have exchanged greetings at some point, and she vaguely recalled something to that effect, but when it came down to it, she had had very little actual contact with the man. I know he’s the ‘J’ but what did his teammates call him? Jer… Jeremy? Jerry? No, that’s horribly wrong.

Sand frowned, vaguely irritated by the turn her thoughts had taken. Doesn’t matter. We’re barely acquaintances as it is. Why bother when he might not recognize me in the first place?

Luckily for her, the next person to walk through the door drew enough of her attention to prevent her from dwelling on her lack of courtesy. The booming, jovial voice of what could only be their PE professor – the possibility that it was anything else was too bizarre to contemplate – brought her out of her previous reverie and right into a new one as the man marched in in all his prodigious humanity, announcing it was time to play ball.

“That’s a lot of meat in motion.”

The comment was followed by a self-conscious cough as she realized she had given voice to her thoughts. At least the conversation between some of the nearby students told her she was not the only one taken aback by this man’s exuberance.

At that point, it almost felt natural when the last arrival to the classroom clumsily slipped on his face before yelling out an apology for his tardiness.

“Huh.” Sand blinked, speaking in a low voice. “Guess that’s the tone for this class now.”

The door to the tower groaned open in quiet complain to those who would intrude in it after its master had left, but for all of that, the pair walked in without fanfare.

Dew walked in first, carrying his signature weapon in his arms. Where that noon he had had trouble lifting it with his right hand after suffering an injury from Pithy’s rapier, the bandages and pain killers had done his arm more good than she had thought possible. Then again, she had learned in her bout with him that Dew himself could not be physically described as an average human.

He paused inside, and after a moment where nothing happened, Pithy joined him inside.

“No traps at the door,” he commented.

“The fireplace is still lit,” she added, nodding at the flame lighting the center of the room.

“Probably didn’t care enough to kill the fire. Or maybe he left in a hurry.”

“Perhaps he hasn't left at all.” Pithy felt the need to voice the possibility, though she felt little confidence in it. What would be the point of hiding from them inside the tower? Their quarry was long gone. “You head upstairs and look for something that might help us. I’ll search this room and see if there is anything in the basement.”

The man gave her a look she could not quite place. He opened his mouth, closed it, then finally turned away. “Fine.”

Pithy watched him ascend the stairs with a slight frown before she turned towards the door. Drawing her rapier from her hip, she pushed the tip against the wood. With a flourish and a flash of the weapon’s runes, she tapped at the frame, above and to the sides. At the last tap, there was a small spark and a breeze of cold air, signaling the boundary’s completion. It was a simple cantrip, similar to the ones she used when sleeping in unfamiliar places, but it would alert her if any crossed the threshold.

Satisfied that she would not be surprised by anyone coming from the outside, she turned to the spiraling steps that hugged the wall to her right.

Not long after she had began her descent, she summoned a wisp of light to hover over her head. Whereas the main entry was lit up by the fireplace’s glow, it seemed the rest of the building was draped in shadows.

When her light finally fell over the contents of the basement, Pithy felt her brow rise. Rows upon rows of barrels spread throughout the room, giving the space a scent of old, damp wood covering over the smell of fruit.

Taking a short glance towards the stairs to ensure this was indeed the tower’s lowest level, she approached one of the lowest barrels. A faucet was affixed to the side facing her, and turning it released a stream of reddish liquid. Pithy shut off the faucet and knelt, dragging a finger across the floor where the liquid had spilt. She sniffed, then licked it, savoring the taste of the wine.

It seemed the tower had a cellar under it. Had Nero been indulging himself while playing the announcer? It would explain his whimsical manner. Pithy ruefully shook her head. That was hopeful thinking. She was fairly certain the man had been completely sober when they had met. What she had seen then was the face he presented to everyone else in the world.

The woman stood, giving the room a searching glance. A quick search around the room turned up no hidden exits or trap doors, nor did the floor show signs that barrels had been moved around to conceal an escape.

Wouldn’t that be convenient? If I found a simple path to follow leading to the College’s doorstep? Alas, she knew the world was not that generous. If Nero had left, he had done it through the front door while she had been cluelessly playing decoy to draw out their target while Dew had been sleeping.

There is nothing for me here.

Wordlessly giving up on the cellar, Pithy began the climb to the tower’s peak, the long walk punctuated by the sound of her heavy footfalls bouncing against the stone walls. She found the trapdoors barring progress unlocked and opened, evidence of her ally’s passage.

She found her ally at the room where they had confronted the Crucible’s announcer, his face illuminated by the light coming from the screen in front of him. He glanced at her as she approached, eyes going to the orb of light following her before returning his attention to her.

“Did you find anything?” she asked. With a gesture, the magelight floated up to the ceiling, fully illuminating the room with its cold, bluish light.

“Nope.” He shook his head. “Thought we might use the computers at least, but when I came up here, the thing was shut off. I got it to turn on again, but it’s password protected.”

Pithy moved closer, looking over his shoulder to see the squarish white message stating “Enter Password:” sitting idly at the top left of a black background. She thought back to the machines she had come across when she had first arrived at the city and felt her meager hope plummeting.

“Have you no way of unlocking it? You are clearly more familiar with this machinery than I am.”

“I’m not a hacker, lady,” he drawled, though the word itself did not tell her much. “I’d rather not be doing this.”

Pithy gave him an irritated glare. “I’d rather not be rummaging through Nero’s things either, Dew, but we lost the chance to follow him out.” Because of you, she wanted to add, but she swallowed down her bitterness.

The man grunted, a conflicted frown on his face. “Unless he wrote the password down somewhere in here, best I can do is guess at it. I tried looking with my lighter, but I didn’t find anything I would call a password. Hell, we don’t even know if the thing is related to Nero at all. Without anything to go on we could sit here guessing at it for days and still not get in. At least it looks like it won’t lock us out entirely even if we keep getting it wrong.”

Pithy drew back, bringing a hand up to massage her temple. What were her options? If there were no clues leading her to Nero’s whereabouts and she could not operate the machinery tracking the contestants, would she be relegated to waiting for her opponents to come for her? Contrary to the message the competitors had received, it had already become painfully clear that no drone would come to guide her, likely the last insult Nero would deliver onto her before he left the stage. That left going on the offensive and searching for her next enemy out of the table.

A long, frustrated sigh escaped her. “Keep guessing. I’ll see if I can find any other clues.”

“Seems like a waste of time to me.”

“Shut up and do it, Dew,” she snapped.

The man gave her a dissatisfied grimace before wordlessly turning to the machine. The sound of sinking keys quickly arose from the workstation.

Pithy let out an irritated huff and marched towards the supply cabinet Nero had used to blockade the room’s door earlier that day. There were clear signs that Dew had rummaged through it recently, but Pithy was not in a state of mind to care. Instead, she began methodically poring over the contents.

She found food and water aplenty for the room’s occupant, along with a small assortment of medicinal supplies. There were also numerous writing utensils, some she recognized and some she did not, along with multiple white sheets of that parchment that was so plentiful in these city’s buildings. A few contained a few notes written over them, and these she passed on to Dew, to little success. She also came across a map of the city, identical to the one she had seen on the machine’s screen earlier that day, but seeing nothing special about it, she returned it to its resting spot.

Nothing for me here…

Searching other cabinets and shelves was similarly fruitless.

Nothing…

Neither did trying to make sense of the tangle of cables coming from Nero’s announcer machinery did her any good.

Nothing at all…

Her eye turned to the lonely cot in the room. Nothing under the mattress. Nothing under the sheets. Nothing under the pillow. She was not even certain what she was looking for anymore.

She had drawn one of her knives, intent on gutting the pillow in her hand when something stopped her. It was the sight of a small, blonde hair, barely visible on the white fabric by the sliver of cold light reflecting from it.

It gave her an idea so simple that she was baffled it had not already crossed her mind.

And yet at the same time, I know exactly why I never considered it and option.

Spells and curses that used a catalyst to bind to a target where as old as the practice of magic itself. Particularly for curses, discarded hair, nails, skin and blood were popular tools when it came to binding curses to a target, but what she had in mind was simpler than that. A tracking spell, using the connection between the residues she could gather from the bed and Nero himself.

Most magic users with her knowledge of the arts would be hard-pressed to botch the spell. That said, the affinity of most magic users would not restrict them to the degree that Pithy's aspect did to her. She had not attempted this kind of spell in years for that very reason.

But what else could she do? At the very least, she had nothing to lose by attempting it.

Taking a slow breath, Pithy shifted her grip on the knife and leaned over the bed, next to a pillow. Instead of using the knife to gouge into it as she had originally intended, she slid the blade along its surface, brushing what hairs she could into her waiting palm.

Once she had enough, she sheathed the knife and produced the badger’s phylactery. She wrapped the hair around the needle, then drew her rapier.

“What are you doing? I’m sure it must be someone’s fetish, but collecting someone’s bed hair is kind of gross.”

Pithy glanced behind her, suddenly realizing that the sound of tapping buttons had been absent for the last few minutes. Dew was leaning on the back of the chair, studying her with a curious look. The mage glanced at what she had been working on, choosing to ignore the man’s latter comment.

“I am working on a spell. If it works, this pendulum should tilt towards Nero, wherever he is, giving us a way to follow him.”

“Really? Should have done that from the start, then.”

I would have if I did not think it will be a waste of time, she wanted to tell him. Rather than admitting as much, she said, “Quiet. I need to concentrate,” instead.

Wrapping the phylactery’s chain around her hand, she brought the heart closer to her rapier’s glowing blade. The spell began to form in her mind, and she began to draw onto the power she needed to mold.

She found resistance almost immediately. The power struggled against the shape she wanted to impose, seeking to twist into the crystalline lattice the came so naturally to it. She imposed her will against it, forcing it to conform to the weave in her mind, and little by little, she felt the power yield to her designs.

A barely audible crack reached her ears. A thin band of ice had replaced the strands of hair wrapped around the phylactery, and as she watched, the ice fractured and dispersed into tiny crystals. Without its focus, the spell lost its cohesion, leaving the power to disperse.

Pithy unwrapped the phylactery and let it dangle from her hand. It simply swung back and forth, tethered only to gravity.

Only a few seconds had passed while she worked her magic, but to Pithy, it felt like it had been minutes. She keenly felt Dew’s eyes on her. He must have realized by then that she had failed, but, uncharacteristically enough, he had remained quiet. For that, at least, she felt a grateful.

Sighing, she returned her attention to the failing spell. She was not so incompatible with the magic that she was completely unable to cast it, of that she was sure, but it seemed the raw materials she had available would not be able to survive the casting. Worse than that, if that was the reaction that the spell brought about, even if she succeeded at first, whatever she used as a focus for the connection would likely be worn down and frozen after a few seconds. Minutes, at best. This meant that the idea of creating a lasting connection to follow was flawed in the first place.

If that was the case, continuously acquiring the relative direction of her target would be useless. If she could acquire more information that the heading in a single instant, however…

Her mind went to the map she had seen on the screen earlier that day, with the dots representing the Crucible’s competitors.

Drawing a sudden gasp, Pithy darted towards the cabinet and pulled the map she had found. She studied it carefully, ensuring it matched with what she knew of the city and and of the map she had seen that afternoon. If she wanted this to work, she would need a proper representation of the space her magic would search.

Nodding to herself, Pithy took a pencil from the cabinet and moved to the center of the room. There, she set the two items down. Next, she pointed her rapier at the ground. A thin sheet of ice began to form around the map, encircling it in a ring. Three outer rings joined the first, followed by a series of interlocking patterns that connected them. Several of the patterns had been taken from magical relics she had studied, and she knew that the power they shaped would serve to remove outside interference and filter out as much of the disruptive influence of her aspect as possible.

Once she was satisfied with the ritual circle, she turned towards the bed and once again gathered the raw materials for her magic. Once she thought she had enough, she walked towards the circle and sat cross-legged at its edge. She set her rapier over her lap. One hand she held against the blade and its faintly glowing runes, while the other, the one which held Nero’s hair, was held palm facing up, the back of the hand resting on the sword.

Staring intently at the map before her, she began to formulate the spell. Once again, she began to draw the swirling power from its wellspring, and once again she felt resistance. It was stronger than before, her spell more complex, it’s goal more ambitious, but still she set about enforcing her will. The patterns in the circle began crackled in response, and the ice began to spread ever so slowly between them as her magic’s influence steadily distorting the barriers she had created. It was not unexpected. While they remained, she could continue to mold the power to her needs.

Just as the spell was about to reach completion, Pithy felt a lurch in her stomach. That is… a disconnect. Something’s off. Pithy scowled, attempting to stave off her panic. If she dismissed the spell now, the leftover energy would destroy the map, but the same would happen if she tarried too long trying to cast her magic.

Only one ring was left untouched, so she closed her eyes in an attempt to better sense where the mistake had happened. She tuned out unnecessary information, letting the sounds of her breathing and heartbeat recede to the background. Then, one by one she identified the segments of the spell that had already been finalized properly.

It was then that she saw it, clear as day once all distractions had been removed. There was a problem with the representation of the spell’s sphere of influence. It’s the map, she thought. There’s something wrong with the map, like a spike was driven at its center, as though there’s supposed to be a… a hole.

That morning, there had been an explosion powerful enough to send shockwaves to the underground of the Justice Hub. It must have been large enough to significantly alter the terrain in part of the city. The good thing was the discrepancy in her magic told her exactly where.

Pithy opened her eyes. The last ring had been breached, and branches of ice spread over the floor, seeming to stretch like snakes trying to lunge at the map at their center. Pithy murmured a word and a circle of ice formed over the downtown area of the map, and this magic eager to take form at her command.

That was enough.

The ice stopped its spread, and Pithy felt the enchantment snap into place. There was only one step left. The mage looked down at her open palm. The bundle of hair and dead skin remained there, rigid and frozen. She knew the slightest movement would make them crumble. This time, it was as she intended.

Pithy leaned forward and blew over her open hand, and the bundle of residue fell apart like a sand castle. The particles flew out, making circles over the map until, one by one, they all landed over the same place in the map.

Rushing forward so quickly that her rapier clattered off to her side, Pithy took the pencil she had set beside the map and marked the spot with an ‘X’.

The woman paused. She stared at the mark she had drawn for a long time, as though it would disappear if she so much as blinked. Yet she closed and opened her eye, once, twice, thrice, and when the mark continued to stare back at her from the piece of parchment, finally, Pithy sat back.

She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths. She almost wanted to laugh. So much effort for such a simple cantrip. Had she not been certain that Dew knew little to nothing about the inner workings of magic in general, she would have been embarrassed.

That hardly mattered, of course. What mattered was that they had a lead now. One she had fashioned from the ether.

“Must have worked,” Dew said from his perch, a smile smug on his lips. “Never thought I’d see you smile like that.”

The remark made her expression harden, drawing a disappointed “Aw,” from her companion. Ignoring him, she drew forward and took the map. The section she had frozen split away with almost no resistance, remaining stuck on the floor at the center of a disk of crystal.

She handed the map to Dew. “The X loosely marks his current location,” she explained as she picked up her rapier and stood. “As large as this city is, I can’t be sure he is exactly where I marked him, and he might have left by the time we get there.”

The man frowned, considering, then shrugged. “Better than nothing, I guess. Let’s go see what the douchebag’s been up to.”
Hidden from sight, at the very back of the room, Mountain Dew sat waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

He had taken a bunch of office chairs from the building he had holed himself up in and had arrayed them all around him. He was currently sitting atop one of them, resting his feet atop another. Dorito bags rested on the few chairs next to him. A few were already empty.

His sniper rifle was in his lap, and he would occasionally peek into the scope to peer into the window of the tower up ahead. Moving with his injured arm had been painful at first, but in the few hours since the battle, the pain had diminished considerably.

That said, every time he saw Nero sitting at his desk, looking into the screens. Occasionally, he could pick him out speaking into a microphone.

Pithy had given him a sphere of ice, instructing him to break it if he thought Nero had left his post and had then proceeded to leave him there. He had simply chucked it into his hammerspace. Last he had checked, the thing had still not began to melt, but with how things were going, by the time Nero decided to up and move, the crystal ball would probably be gone.

“This is so fucking monotonous I sometimes think I’ll look into the sights and find the ass flipping me off. Hell, that ice queen might as well be standing next to him doing the same thing. She would too, if she knew what it meant. What a bitch.”

No romance option for this one, like way back when Bioware had yet to fall to Electronic Arts evil schemes, that was for sure. The woman was more liable to freeze something off if approached the wrong way than anything else. He had held some hope when he was forced into her party, but he was only a few hours into the route and he already had a feeling he knew how this character would turn out.

“Doesn’t help that I actually have to put an effort into voicing my thoughts when the bitch is around. Manages to cheat in a tourney match and hexes me afterwards. Good thing it goes away when she’s not around. Let it out, man. Let it out before she comes back and you can’t tell her about how stupid those pointy ears look on her.”

He shifted and dug a hand into another bag of nacho cheese goodness and brought it to his mouth, relishing the flavor. This world needed more of that. A surefire way to tell that a world was superior was by the amount of tortilla chips in the universe, which surely marked his own universe as the best of all. Why, he wasn’t sure why he insisted on staying. It certainly wasn’t the sudden pain in his chest that accompanied the thought, as though something had gripped his heart and threatened to crush it like some curse in a weeabo show, no siree. Anyone who said that should be smacked with a hammer, yes siree.

Mountain grunted and looked into the scope again. Seeing no changes, he put down the sniper again, and brought the one thing that made this stakeout bearable. He breathed deep, feeling smoke fill his lungs, and then exhaled, letting out a sweet-smelling cloud. With a lop-sided smile, he looked at the rolled-up paper in his hand. Seeing as he expected he’d be there for a few hours, he had made sure to make it last.

“Been saving these for the right time, and what time is righter than this time to blaze it, ice queen be damned. Bitch told me to keep a look out for Nero, but she sure as hell didn’t mention I needed to be sober while I did it. Heh. Gottim.”

Leaning back in a relaxed position, he closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the syrupy buzz that had slowly begun to fill his head.



Jo could not say for how long she had been lying next to the freezing girl. Minutes, hours or days, the white landscape remained the same, the sourceless lighting that permeated the fog neither receding nor giving clues as to the time of day.

Neither had the state of the girl changed, the cold feeling of her bare skin as permanent a fixture to the scene as the light regardless of the badger’s attempts to warm her with her fur or the strange fire. The thought that nothing would happen if she waited had occurred to her, but she was not certain when it had become a certainty. Certainly long before she finally decided to leave the girl to her resting place.

The little badger stood, looking out at the white nothingness. There had to be something else out there. A town, or a settlement, with people that could help her find her way and take care of the girl she had found. It wasn’t possible for the two of them to be the only living beings in these freezing wastes, she told herself, but she could not help but feel a niggling doubt that.

Once the badger began walking again, it did not take long before a glance back revealed nothing but cloudy white, the girl and fire swallowed by the mist. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she was not doing the wrong thing by leaving the girl. Already her trail in the snow was disappearing behind her. Would she be able to find her again if she strayed too far?

The answer came back to her quickly and easily. The mysterious pyre still tugged at her gut, as though calling out to her when her thoughts turned towards it. Finding that fire would not be an issue, she realized, and so she continued.

For minutes, hours and days.

Once again, the white robbed her of her feeling of time. She tried counting her steps, but her short legs sunk into the snow, making it so that her gait was rough and uneven.

Instead she took to counting her breaths. One in, one out, focusing her mind on that so she would not have to think of the cold on her limbs or the exhaustion that had begun to assail her at a certain point in her journey.

No hunger or thirst, however, which made sense if she had died and turned into some kind of ghost, but then why did she feel so tired?

“Ah.”

Jo let out a small gasp. Something ahead had drawn her attention, and the little badger approached, the irregularity in her surroundings drawing clearer and clearer as she moved closer.

It was a grown person, lying on the snow face down. They must have collapsed recently, for the white particles had only just began accumulating over it. Most of the body was covered by dark hair and torn, vibrant blue mantle. The clothing filled her with familiarity.

Approaching the body, Jo turned it over.

At this point, she was not surprised to see the face of the one who had killed her, but the fact still confused her. Much as she remembered, a strange mask of ice covered half the woman’s face, and a single eye blue eye stared blankly up to the sky. It was undoubtedly the woman she had faced, though it seemed as though she had continued battling after she had defeated Jo. Her clothing was ragged, and there was a red splotch coating one of her pantlegs that had not been present when Jo had encountered her. She had no weapons on her. Pressing a paw against her neck revealed no pulse.

Dead.

Jo scowled, shaking her head. First the child and now this corpse? Why did she keep seeing her face? What had this woman done to her? Had killing her not been enough?

After a silent moment of brooding over the issue, the badger shook her head again and reached towards the woman’s neck, unclasping the cloak. Once she had pulled it out from under the corpse and wrapped it around herself, a relieved sigh escaped her lips. It was warm. She was not sure how, but it was warm.

There was no problem with her taking it, was there? After all, the woman had taken her gun after she had killed… her…

Jo frowned. It had been after, had it not? She could not recall the small necklace being pried from her neck before she electrocuted herself, so where had that thought come from?

She turned towards the body again, intending to give it a more thorough examination, but there was nothing there anymore. Suddenly wary, Jo glanced around, but saw only white around her. The wind was the only thing that moved.

Cursing under her breath, Jo moved away, deciding to continue her trek in the snow even as she threw occasional glances behind her, to where a corpse had once rested.




Minutes after the message left by the announcer had finished, Pithy heard the tell-tale sound of a firearm thundering in the distance.

She brought her hand to the device hanging from her neck on instinct. That was not a sound she wanted to hear.

“What are you doing, Dew?” she whispered to herself. Killing Nero had not been part of the plan. She had explicitly told him to keep watch for any movement and to alert her if the announcer left his post. Furthermore, she had explicitly given him a method to do as much that would not raise the alarm of everyone in the general area. What could have happened for him to fire his weapon?

A moment later, there was a prickling sensation at the back of her mind. The discomfort quickly lessened, replaced instead by a tug in the direction of the place she had left her ally. Pithy immediately set off, moving as quickly as she dared in the growing darkness. She found her eyes darting towards the darkness of allies and street corners, expecting something to jump out at her, drawn in by the announcement that had blared from her phylactery.

Already she had had an encounter with some of the local fauna when she had come across a small group of what she could only assume were a novice’s attempt at making chimeras. Creatures with bodies of mangy, street mutts and the enlarged heads of crows had jumped at her as she moved through the streets. They had died readily enough to her magic, and she had not seen any since then, but much like the bat creatures in the Justice Hub, she kept expecting to see the monsters when she rounded the corners of the increasingly dark city.

The feeling was not helped by the thought that had long since gripped her mind. There was something wrong.

Having reason to believe that Nero would not make a move until nighttime began to approach, Pithy had taken the chance to both plan and to replace some of the articles of clothing that had been enlarged beyond practicality after the mage had ‘mended’ them. Raiding a building singled out by Dew as a ‘clothing store’ had netted her a veritable mountain of apparel, and she had quickly found suitable replacements for her leggings and boots. Her dueling gloves, however, had been designed specifically for her, and as such had been discarded entirely.

Once she was no longer forced to wander in clothes meant for a person several times her own size, she returned to the vicinity of the tower. The first thing she had done had been to instruct Dew to go to a place where he could see into the announcer’s room, to alert her if the man left, and to continue tracking him after that. Since Nero could track her position, it made little sense for him to remain with her until he had been separated from the machines inside the tower.

For that same reason, she herself had to be the bait. Pithy had no doubt that Nero would know she was waiting for him, and would be looking for chances to slip by undetected. In that case, the best she could do was give him such a chance at her own discretion.

She had chosen a place where she could keep watch of the tower’s doors. Then, after she deemed enough time had gone past, she had moved away from her perch, taking a route that ensured she had no visibility of the announcer’s escape route, and found herself another place from which to keep watch. If Nero attempted to leave, he would have to do it while she was moving. When no signal came from her appointed lookout, she had simply repeated her ploy.

The chimeras had appeared on the second trip along with a nagging feeling that something was off. Grudgingly, she had chosen to trust the man she had defeated would follow her instructions, but when she had heard his weapon, her apprehension had come back at full force.

Finally, as she rounded a corner to follow the tugging feeling in her mind, she saw Mountain Dew emerge from a building. He turned at her approach, and she felt a pit form in her stomach at the way his expression twisted into a grimace when he saw her.

Pithy stopped a few paces away, suddenly losing her desire to come closer. “What happened?”

Dew brought a hand up, rubbing his neck in an awkward fashion. He stepped back, seeming to chew on the words before he spoke. “Alright, Pithy, don’t be mad.”

She felt her jaw set. How could one not grow irritated by that response? We lost Nero. The thought came unbidden, but there was no stopping it. There were few reasons why those words would come out of his mouth.

“About what, Dew?” and when he saw the way his eyes trailed away from her, as if trying to think, she added “Don’t you dare lie. Where’s Nero?”

“I don’t know.” He admitted, for a moment looking baffled by how easily the words had come out.

Pithy brought a fist to her forehead as Dew confirmed her fears. She closed her eye and took in a deep breath, trying to hold in her frustration, before uttering a single, accusatory word. “How?”

The silence that answered her was the last thing she wanted to hear.

Pithy opened her good, coolly regarding the man. “I do not wish to be cross with you, but you are making it difficult. Let’s start with something simpler, then. It was you I heard fire earlier, correct?”

“Yes. Seen any other snipers recently?” he answered, losing some of his previous sheepishness.

“Why?”

The man’s expression twisted. “A bit ago I noticed Nero was not sitting at his desk. Couldn’t see him anywhere, so I shot inside the room to see if I could spook him out of hiding.”

Pithy gave him a baffled look. “Why would you do that? I explicitly told you to call me if something like that happened.”

Dew’s brows furrowed. “I did. Smashed your little toy like you told me to.”

“That does not explain why you did that after you took a shot at the tower, nor why you aren’t up there tracking him.”

“That’s because I’m not sure when he left.”

The admission put a momentary halt to Pithy’s thoughts. How can he not know? He must have a general idea of when Nero left simply by knowing the last time he saw him. Unless… It was then that it dawned on her. She stepped closer. “Did you fall asleep?”

Mountain Dew drew back slightly, looking away from her. Was he ashamed? He well damn ought to be. Taking another step closer to him, she caught a whiff of a strangely sweet smell. It was not the only thing she noticed.

Suddenly, she grabbed his face in her hands, pulling him closer. Her thumbs roughly pulled at the skin on his cheeks.

“Your hands are cold!” he protested.

“Why are your eyes so red?” Now that she was this close, the stench was almost overbearing. At once, she realized what it was. Her eyes widened, her anger overshadowed only by her awe at this man’s stupidity. “Are you drugged? Did you drug yourself?

The man tried to pull away, but Pithy’s nails pressed on his skin, making him wince. “Jeez, I know you’re the medieval fantasy lady but talking to you like this is a pain in the ass. It’s high, baked or stoned, thank you very much. Okay, maybe it didn’t mix too well with the painkillers.”

Pithy loosened her grip on Dew’s face, dumbstruck. Her fingers slowly traced down, and for a moment, Pithy found herself entertaining the notion of wrapping her hands around the fool’s neck and throttling him. Instead, her hands continued to move down, until they held a tight grip on his shirt.

“He eluded us. Because of you…” She had lost the one lead that they had into the designs of those who sought to meddle with the Crucible. Despite her making it clear just how important this matter was to her. She could have understood it had the man been distracted or outsmarted by the mage in the tower, but to willingly impair his faculties and fall asleep while she needed him to keep a careful eye out fell outside what she was willing to believe. And yet she had no choice but to do so. Her voice sounded hoarse to her ears as she spoke. “I put my trust in you. I thought you could handle this one task. Damn you, Dew, if Nero really intends to do something while the tournament is still underway your slip might cost me my life.”

“Pfft. Don’t feed me that crap.” The man rolled his eyes. “Nero might’ve bought your convenient sob story back in the tower, but I bet you just told him that so he’d do what you said.”

Pithy felt her blood go cold, strength leaving her grip on the man’s clothes. She did not stop him when he pulled away. “Oh?” she said softly, feigning disinterest even as she felt a horrendous headache come over her. “And what might my wish be, Dew, since you know me so well?”

“Unlimited power or something like that wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” he answered, irritably. “You got the villain shtick going for you even if you try to play it off. You even have what might as well be a demonic red hand sticking right out of your face. Cure gone wrong my ass, I bet that came from an insane experiment.”

The answer was so dreadfully predictable, she had not truly expected it to come from the man’s mouth. But why not? Many a sorcerer lived for their art, seeking to refine it until all its mysteries laid bare before them. Why, a conjurer that reached such mastery over their own element would be nothing short of a god, and what was unlimited power but the power to do whatever one wished? The idea stole a laugh from her, bitter and filled with loathing.

“I see, I see. So that is how you see the one who bested you. Why not?” she agreed with a dark glint in her eye. “I have never given you reason to think differently.” Indeed, the idea was attractive. So attractive, in fact, that in a moment of passion she could have grasped at that power even if it had no ability to save her. After all, if she could use such a thing, everything would become fair. Death was the ultimate equalizer for all things.

If only things had been fair to start with. She could not understand why things had begun as they had. She was so frustrated that she could not understand it.

“I don’t understand” she found herself saying it out loud, and then she was unable to stop. “It is something I have seen all my life, and yet I still can’t make sense of it. I have given so much… I have broken traditions and laws, been cut off from my roots and put my life on the line so many times only to earn myself the right that so many take for granted, to have at least a chance at living as one of one’s own kind would. Yet every time I share this burden, I am met with disbelief, pity, and even disdain, but never action, never aid.” She did not know when she had done it, but she was face to face with the man again. Her hands were balled in his clothing, trembling, and she had pushed him against the wall. She felt something warm and wet under her good eye, and she could not bear to think of what it might be—that feeling her schemes and chances crumbling in such an absurd way could have awakened such helplessness inside her.

“Every time, it is people like you,” she told him in a hoary whisper, accentuating the last syllable as though speaking a curse. “It is always people like you who act as if the right they were freely given at birth was something I am supposed to earn. Well, I am trying. Some do not even get the chance, so what kind of scum would I be if I didn’t? I have been trying for decades without rest, because every time I let my guard down and allow routine to set in, every time I allow myself to catch a glimpse of the life I am fighting for, years go by in the blink of an eye and I realize yet again that I cannot keep up with the speed your kind goes through life. No, I am tired beyond words of trying to keep up, but I must. The alternative is death.” She gritted her teeth. “Once upon a time, I might well have done as you said, if only so that I might have gained the ability to wipe everyone like you off the face of existence. Stars know I gave it my best attempt in another life.”

“So?” Dew met her gaze. “What changed since then?”

“I finally realized that you are not worth the effort.” This she spouted with all her venom, putting behind the words the weight of a century-old grudge in the making. “And as for why I won’t kill you specifically…” She pushed herself away, letting Dew steady himself. Pithy herself turned away, taking the chance to rub her sleeve against her cheek, to replace the armor that had, for a moment, cracked. “You are my only ally. Even if it is against your will. Even if you despise me for it. I will have you fulfill that duty until I have achieved my goal, or died trying.

“Now follow.” With that, she began to walk.

“Wait!” he called out. “What are you doing?”

“We head for the tower. If there are any leads to be found, that is where we’ll find them.”
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