On the mouth of the tunnel, where the kaleidoscopic lights threatened to make her vision swim, Pithy finally moved past her up until then host and guide. She did so silently, her furrowed brow twisting her features into a scowl made sharper by the odd light shining upon the room.
She could not hide her disappointment. Where Pithy had hoped to find a treasure that would tip the scales in her favor, all she had found were sand, bones and a jackal beast-man with better manners than most humans she had come across on her travels.
Better than just sand and bones she told herself, but blunting the edge of her irritation was no simple feat. The information she had gathered had barely kept her trek underground from becoming a colossal waste of time, but she still was not certain how much she could trust the word of Actaeon.
Not that the beast had done anything to garner her mistrust. Much the opposite. It had spoken to her earnestly and without reservations, answering her questions with a zeal that made her think he deeply wished to be useful to this random traveler.
Her inner cynic whispered in her ear, suggesting that Actaeon had simply pretended at servility so that he might convince her to turn back on the catacombs he called home, but the same could have been accomplished much more simply—not to mention permanently—by killing her. It did not take a discerning eye to know that the creature was well-equipped for violence.
“Actaeon,” Pithy called out before he could retreat into his tunnels. She turned around, narrowing her eye slightly as the light played off the creature’s adornments. She was not sure if it was the effect of the beacon in the center of the room that made the words form in her lips, but she would not have been surprised had it been so. She had not thought the answer important before, after all. “Did you know of the prize offered to this tournament’s winner?”
The hunter regarded Pithy with a look of ambivalence. Though she hadn’t been uncivil with him, he could sense her frustration in the tone of her voice and the hardness of her face. Moreover, he could intuit that some of it was directed at him, yet Actaeon spoke with only a touch less of his former geniality when he replied, “I do not. That, at least, was not mentioned in idle conversation.” Trying not to appear too eager to maintain the attention of a guest on her way out, lest he give off an air of possessiveness, the creature gazed into the floating cube with its undulating amaranth corona. His ear remained Pithy’s though, and he anticipated that she might have more to say to him than a simple ‘farewell’.
And that should have been that. Telling him any more could place her in a dangerous position. “The people of the College claim to have found a machine that grants wishes.” She surprised herself when she continued. “They have promised the winner of this tournament a wish of their choosing.”
The morsel of information picqued Actaeon’s curiosity, causing him to give his species’ equivalent of raised eyebrows. “...Is that so? A shame I did not participate, then. Our chance meeting has reminded me how sorely I long for proper society. Still, such a thing scarcely seems possible.”
“Truly?” Suddenly, the beast’s earnestness made sense to her. It is lonely. How… pathetic. She did not try to hide her contempt. “How foolish. You do not need a wishing machine for such a thing.”
A stiffness entered the hunter’s body abruptly, noticeable before he turned his eyes back on her a moment later. Those pale blue orbs held very little kindness now. When Actaeon replied, a barely-detectable rumble had entered the back of his throat. “Now, now. You needn’t be presumptuous as well as ungrateful. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how monstrous I look. Very few imagine me to be anything but evil and violent, and respond accordingly should I dare step out into the sun.” His explanation, succinct and dispassionate, belied a sudden lack of concern for what Pithy thought. Being looked down on for being a Noctis was something Actaeon was accustomed to; it was an old wound, scabbed over. He’d never yet been looked down upon for wanting something more. Yet, it hurt just the same. Another one who doesn’t understand, he ruminated, unshelving his earlier, hidden misgivings as he looked back into the floating cube’s light. I am foolish—for thinking this woman valued anything but my knowledge.
I may be too close. Should it become violent, will I be able to draw in time?. Pithy found herself tensing, but held her voice steady. A part of her was already thinking of how she might use this knowledge to her benefit.
“What would you have done had you participated, then? Wish to become human? It seems to me you have yet to grasp the possibilities this place has presented you. That there are worlds other than these, with inhabitants much stranger than you or I.” She shook her head, making her hair sweep to the side. For a moment, the changing lights played over a crystalline surface before it was hidden once again. “You may be fortunate, in fact, that you were not given a chance to throw your lot with the rest of us.”
“What I want most is rather personal. Either way, I don’t think I ultimately would have participated. From what I gathered, this tournament has a high chance to end in death for most entrants, so the risks don’t outweigh the reward for me.” He tilted his neck from side to side in a casual manner, working out the stiffness. A predatory species seldom stood still, but having company meant being presentable even at one’s own expense. “Perhaps that is why I was not chosen.”
How wise of him. Unfortunately, I cannot use wise. Her thoughts went to the empty phylactery still tied to her belt, the one she had taken from her first opponent. Actaeon claimed that he had not been chosen. Perhaps this was true, if one thought on the College staff organizing the ritual, but Pithy did not believe he and his home had found their way to this where purely by coincidence.
“A very rational decision.” Pithy nodded, agreeably enough. Neither was it a lie, for she truly envied him the choice. “But I have to wonder if those are merely your thoughts after the fact. What if the choice to participate was actually given to you?” Almost as though discussing an hypothetical scenario, she placed her hook. “If, let us say, I had the means to make you a contestant?”
Actaeon’s eyes held for a moment, locked with Pithy’s. Then, with resolution, he shook his head. “I am not a hypocrite. Besides, why would the College allow a contestant to bring additional contenders into the mix? Seems like it would hurt their structure, and their plans. You must have concluded that they’re planning something, right?”
“Naturally.” The elf smiled bitterly. It seemed this beast would not be so easily blinded by his desire, so she answered honestly. “A wish for the victor? Rubbish. I am inclined to agree that such a machine may have fallen into their hands after seeing this city, but I am not optimistic enough to believe humans would honor that deal. However,” she said, “the tournament itself is a façade. From what I have pieced together, these battles are for the sake of a ritual needed to wake this miracle machine and the tournament merely helps the College guide the procedures to their desired conclusion.
“In the same way, who takes part in this process is not truly up to them. The entrance of a new player may well make the opening the participants need. So I ask once again. Do you truly have no intention of participating?”
Actaeon tilted his head sideways. “My friend, I am a beast of my word. I’m not chasing after some fairy tale. I’m not risking one hair on consecutive fights.” He turned halfway around. “Besides, you speak of ‘the participants’ as though you’re a cohesive group. You’re a couple dozen separate groups dead set on making one another dead. Good luck, though. And good night.”
Pithy watched the creature recede into its tunnels, and for a moment thought she could hear the sound of her teeth grinding over the drone of the extractor machine. “You had best not regret this,” she murmured before she, too, vacated the area.
The staccato rhythm of her rapier against the wall breached the silence of the citadel, and was followed by a quiet thrum coming from every direction, as though the very air had grown agitated. Then, the silence returned.
Pithy took the chance to fall on one of the available chairs, starting slightly when the wheels at its bottom carried it slightly backwards with her weight.
As the creature in the tombs had told her, Pithy had retreated to one of the higher floors, choosing one of the available offices to camp in. The mage had walked around the vicinity, tapping her rapier on specific points along the office level as she weaved a threshold around the area.
It was a weak thing, not a barrier that would bar the path of those who approached, but a subtler spell that would alert her should something approach her campsite.
She pulled herself closer to the office desk, and deposited the three items she had gathered that demanded closer inspection. First came the phylactery she had been given, the thing beating rhythmically like a real heart. Then came the one she had taken from the badger. This one was completely inert, as hers had been when it had first been presented to her. Lastly, she placed on the desk the family portrait Oren’s drone had left for her.
Pithy leaned back, looking at the three items. Distractedly, she reached for a small pile of wrapped bars she had found while rifling through the nearby offices. If she had found a bottle of liquor in one of the upstair offices, it was not terribly surprising when in some of the rooms she found small envelopes of what purported to be cereal, chocolate and what she assumed to be candy.
Taking a moment to savor the rare treat, Pithy picked up the badger’s heart with her free hand. Sharpening her focus on the object revealed little she could make sense of.
She frowned slightly as she turned it over in her hand. Was it different than the time she had examined her own? Part of her felt that the enchantments woven over it had weakened. The possibility existed that, had she given it to Actaeon, it would have served as little more than a bauble.
Not that I ever intended to let him wear it, she mentally added. It did her no good if the beast was bound by the same rules as her. That was the reason why she had not alluded directly to the phylacteries, saying only that she had the means to make him a competitor. The beast would have had to keep her alive if he wished to be made a part of the Crucible. It did not matter, in any case. Actaeon had made it clear he wanted nothing to do with her ploys.
She removed her gloves, holding the cereal bar with her mouth, and ran her fingers down the rubbery length of the heart replica, stopping only to tap at the glass surface at its center with a sharp nail.
Setting down her food, she grasped the beating heart. It may have been her imagination, but its surface felt cooler to the touch than the other one.
Having acquired both an active and dormant artefact made this a perfect opportunity for study. A single sample of an alien enchantment told her little, but as she focused her senses on the two objects, she began to see where the threads of energies connected, and where they pooled and flowed. It was a far cry from revealing the entire purpose of this magic, but rather than needing to decypher every single thread in the tapestry, she began to make out the distinct parts that comprised the spellwork.
There was one part of the phylactery which seemed similar to other connections, but in both cases was inactive, and in the physical object seemed to lead off into nothing, as if incomplete. Pithy turned it in her hand, looking at a metal point jutting out of the object.
’If one of you dies, your killer’s phylactery will absorb your soul. There are other ways, but I can sense I’m going on too long already.’ An interesting thing to gloss over. Was it undesirable for the College that the participants found these other ways? If so, why would they mention them at all?
Even then, Pithy angled the empty phylactery over her own, bracing herself.
Then, she pierced the rubbery belly of the beating heart.
Nothing, not even a tingling down her spine. The heart continued beating, even with the metal stabbed into it. Pithy separated the phylacteries, setting both of them down on the table.
She leaned back, staring up at the ceiling.
Did I guess wrong? Or do both artefacts need to be active for a soul to be collected in this way? Even if it worked, what would it do to the owner of the soul? If her soul had been separated from her body and placed on the device, and indeed she had felt something very much like herself in her own phylactery, she suspected they could survive the transfer as well. The problem with the idea was that such a thing by itself would leave the enemy alive as well.
Unless that was not how it worked.
‘You’re a couple dozen separate groups dead set on making one another dead.’
“Groups…” she mouthed. Not individuals. Why had Actaeon said that? Was there a possibility that he knew more than he had said? What had he overheard during his forays to the city that he had thought was unimportant, or decided not to share with her?
Pithy grunted. In any case, she would not learn more from the phylacteries themselves. She needed a test subject, and the closest one was back in his lair and likely on guard against her. Knowing this, she slipped her own over her neck and once again tied the badger’s heart to her belt.
That left the portrait she had been given after defeating her first opponent.
Pithy had hoped her mind had been playing tricks on her, but under the calm light of the office building, the features of the two adults were unmistakable. The woman forced herself to breathe evenly, trying to soften the tension that had crept onto her shoulders.
She could not remember their names, nor their family name. Like her own, those had been stricken from her memory upon her exile, but those visages had not been taken away.
There had been a time where she had been prepared to never see her parents again outside of her memory, but this city had a way of toying with her expectations.
The crispness of the image was outstanding, beyond that of a painting, making her believe that this might have been achieved by the mysterious technologies of this place. Such a portrait had not existed in her own world, she knew. The couple was facing her, smiles filled with a radiance that felt blinding to her, and the two flanked a smaller figure, arms resting on its shoulders. The child between them was—
Pithy closed her eye, then opened it again. The features of the smaller figure were blurry, so that she could not see them properly. It did not matter. There were only two individuals who would pose in such a portrait, and they wore the same face. All she knew was that she would not be the one who should be in such a thing.
Her fingers caressed the image, as though tracing the white sleeping gown the child in the center was wearing.
Then, she extended her senses. The moment she touched the portrait, a sob wracked through her. The paper slipped through her fingers, and a hand instinctively went to her chest, as though trying to still her heart.
The feeling that had gripped her when she had graced the enchantment in the image did not leave her mind as she forced her breathing to slow and willed her lips to cease trembling. She reached to her good eye with one hand and found an errant tear streaking down her cheek.
She glanced meekly at the portrait, the image facing down on the ground, and gingerly knelt to pick it up.
The desire to go back. Longing for a better time. Intense and pure, like that of an ailing child. She understood that what was housed in the portrait could not be called spellwork. It was closer to a wish. A desire held so strongly that it had manifested in the world as a kind of miracle. One would not be wrong in saying this scrap of paper is haunted.
Judging by the impression dwelling in the scrap of paper, it would work to preserve something. This much she could tell, though the nature of the phenomenon made the conditions upon which this power would be unveiled unclear.
She also understood that the enchantment would not had had such an effect on her if it there had not been something within herself that echoed the sentiment. She turned the image on her hand, studying the smiling faces of the ones who had raised her.
Thinking back half a century, she could not deny that that had been a time of light and warmth. Her family had coddled her, given her everything in their power even in her weakness. It was more than many could have asked for.
But a gilded cage is still a cage, and tenderness and goodwill are not enough to lift a curse or heal disease. Though she had seen those smiling faces, there had never been pride when that gaze reached her. There had been affection there—she had long become unable to lie to herself about that—but there had also been a sadness that had haunted her since she had first become able to perceive it.
Mayhaps the issue was not in having a noble soul, but a proud one. No matter the warmth it was surrounded by, such an existence could only be miserable if it could not find worth within itself.
In that regard, the latter majority of her cursed life, moving on her own power, had been filled with both greater freedom and satisfaction.
It was much too late for such thoughts, in any case. The rest of her kind may have had eternity to nurse their regrets, but dwelling on them would only rob her of that luxury.
Knowing this, Pithy stowed away the paper and reached for the switch that controlled the room’s lighting. She would need rest if she was to fight at her peak, and felt that this office was as safe a place as she would find in this city.
Within the sandy tomb, Actaeon returned to his room. With practice born of habit, he pulled a bone from an urn to gnaw on as he lay upon his chair.
“Gain every soul, child,” he murmured aloud through his chew, “Wake the machine, and I will see you again.”
A woman’s body convulses.
Human, though that is not what matters. Despite the pained grimace twisting her pale features, it is clear she is still young. Short, auburn hair plays over her closed eyes as her head shakes. Her clothes are coated with dry blood, torn above the gut, but the flesh under it is whole and healthy. Not too long ago, she had been lying over a small mound of corpses.
A thin, silver blade is poised over her form. It twists, and sigils drawn on the dirt under the woman flash for an instant. A sound like chiming bells is heard.
Eyes fly open. Lungs drag in a ragged, needy breath as though their owner had been moments away from drowning. The woman turns over, coughing, gagging, head hung low so that the evening’s shadows fall over her features.
The one holding the blade, an elven woman of long raven hair donning a blue cloak, merely waits..
Eventually, the coughing ceases, and the woman cranes her neck to look up at her company. As shadows flee, a wry smirk is revealed on the woman’s lips, teeth glinting like white knives.
“Ah, if it isn’t the elf that extended such gracious courtesy to my host. I should thank you.”
“I’m not doing this for you.”
“The girl isn’t aware of your existence.”
There is a spirit hiding inside this woman. The elf had come across a ruined caravan not too long ago, and had found the creature among the corpses of the guards hired to defend it.
“And yet you knew the moment you laid eyes on us, didn’t you? And to be able to call me out like this… hah. Most impressive.”
“Not as impressive as what you must have done to possess her.”
At this, the thing with a woman’s face cocks its head. “I’m afraid I don’t follow, dear.”
“There was a broken spear besides her. Her armor had a hole going from front to back.”
“And there was blood, bile and piss everywhere, yes?” The thing chuckles. It must have found the thought amusing. “Death is rarely dignified.”
“So you revived her.”
A widening smile answers the elf’s statement. The elf knows it would be useless to ask how such a thing was possible. She knows there was a wound going through the woman’s abdomen, and that there was none now. So she instead probes for a motive.
“You should know better than most.”
The elf’s eyes narrow. “What is that supposed to mean?”
The thing lets out an uproarious laugh, loud and sudden enough that it makes the elf start. “Ah, you are delightful, but you don’t need to play coy here. Don’t think I can’t tell why you are so interested in us.”
There is anger in her now, and it can be clearly seen in the cast of the elf’s shoulders, and the way the grip on her rapier tightens. Still, she plays along. “Oh, and what would that be?”
The thing tilts its head, ‘is it not obvious?’ written plain on its host’s face. “The soul can be likened to a fire, elf. You have taken something within you, just like this girl. A gate from which a blizzard rages, fanning the flame. Such wonderful opportunities can be born from such an arrangement.”
“This power is my own,” the elf hissed.
“Indeed,” the thing readily agrees. “For now. Until the day it drowns your flame. A Wraith understands, you see. We must! That which binds is bound in return!” it says, and erupts into another round of cackles.
The woman gestures with her rapier. The thing freezes, eyes wide in surprise, before they roll back. The woman slumps, unconscious once more.
The elf maiden glares icily at the unconscious woman before her. A flash of white at the edge of her vision grabs her attention, and she about her surroundings, a pair of blue eyes darting across the forest scenery to ensure there had been no witnesses. There is nothing there to be found.
It is almost night, and there is a nip in the air.
A low rumble, and the feeling of small particles falling from above her roused Pithy from her slumber. The woman opened her bleary eye and glanced up, only to spit out a curse as more dust fell from the ceiling.
Pithy stood, fumbling slightly as the office chair wheeled back on the opposite direction. Before she had even steadied herself, the tremor ceased as quickly as it had started.
The elf glanced about warily, deeply conscious of the fact that she was still deep underground, but the building seemed as steady as they had been the night before and there was no indication of another quake starting up.
As her concern began to dissipate and the cobwebs left her mind, her thoughts slowly turned towards the dream she had seen.
It was an old memory, one that came to her more and more often as of late. The dream in and of itself had not been terribly accurate. She had not yet gotten ahold of her rapier at that point in time, for example, but there had indeed come a time where she had found an existence that was similar to her own.
As dreams were wont to do, the gaps in the dialogue she had failed to remember had been filled in, but she could clearly remember what the spirit had said through the woman’s lips.
“A flame, a blizzard, and binds…”
This chance meeting had taken place before side-effects had began to appear. When the woman had awoken the next day, unaware of the conversation Pithy had shared with her passenger, Pithy had agreed to escort her to the next settlement. The pair immediately parted ways once they reached civilization.
Had Pithy found the woman today, she would not have let her out of her sight.
However, this was once again dwelling on things she could not change.
She parted her long hair with one hand, combing it with her fingers, and froze. Slowly, she picked at the flowing hair, revealing white strands hidden within the raven locks. There were more urgent matters afoot.
It took her the better part of half an hour to work her way back to the Justice Hub’s surface.
She had entered the citadel before the first drop of water, but the appearance of ponds large enough to block some of the facility’s made it clear that the previous night’s weather had been fierce.
A crackling sound from nearby made her flinch, and her hand went to her weapon.
“Good morning! Your friendly, neighborhood announcer here!” Oren’s voice slipped out from something on her person. Pithy pulled on the chain on her neck, withdrawing the phylactery from its resting place.
“Before you ask, lemme just say: we don't know what the hell that explosion was for sure. Honestly, a lot of weird stuff is going on, and the grand old Inquisitional College has let me know that we're not standing idly by.” Pithy confirmed that the announcer’s voice was not also coming from the phylactery tied to her belt. Perhaps it was seen as unnecessary now that the badger was dead.
However, Oren’s message piqued her interest. An explosion? How large must it have been for me to feel the tremors while underground? It occurred to her that one of the other participants may have had something to do with it, but if the College did not know of its cause, that seemed unlikely. Perhaps it was for the best. Pithy was not particularly enthused by the idea of facing something with such destructive power.
She listened attentively to the contents of the message, some of which she had already learned from the tomb-dweller Actaeon, down to its conclusion, and held the phylactery up in front of her once the message was delivered.
Up until then, the announcer had communicated with her using familiars, so it had not occurred to her that the phylactery would be a means to deliver information to the participants. What was truly worrisome was if, as Oren had implied, the link was two-ways.
She licked her lips, hesitating for a moment, then spoke into the artefact. "Oren, has my enemy left the Governance Hub?"
There was a moment of silence before Oren answered. "Not yet, but he's moving quickly. He asked for something to do, so I sent him after a disturbance in the northeastern end. He'll be there soon if he doesn't hydroplane into a brick wall."
Pithy nodded stiffly, then put the device away. She was not entirely sure what ‘hydroplaning’ was supposed to be, but that hardly seemed relevant. If sounds could be communicated through the phylactery, it was entirely possible that her exchange with Actaeon had been overheard.
But when he spoke of Echoes, he said only locations had appeared. Would that mean Actaeon lied to me and did not come with those tombs, or that Oren is not aware of his existence? She grimaced. It was possible he had simply not mentioned it to make her believe she had not been overheard.
One way or another, she had been naive to think the College would not have means beyond the familiars to keep the participants under surveillance. At the very least, it would pay to keep in mind that Oren had the means to listen in on her. Perhaps more, if the phylactery held other hidden functions.
Pithy began to walk, heading for the direction she knew to be east. She had failed to find anything of note under the citadel, and with a deadline imposed on her, it would no longer do to sit and wait for her opponent to reach her. Perhaps she could make a move on the enemy while they were busy with whatever objective Oren had left for them.
In any case, the announcer had suggested she head that way in the first place. Finding where Oren was housed could open its own set of options.