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Sand slowed as she neared what she thought was the PE classroom. She produced her Scroll in one hand, ensuring that the room number above the door was the same as the one marked in her schedule, and leaned in past the frame. Her peeking revealed the training equipment she had been expecting, along with a few students already inside, but no professor.

She supposed that was good. Must have meant she was not late, and she’d have some time to herself before the class started.

Readjusting the strap on her duffel bag, she strode into the room, beelining towards one of the empty benches. She took her seat there, setting her bag down next to herself. Seeing as she had missed the Grimm Studies class, some of the bulk inside like the extra change of clothes she had packed would likely go unused, but that detail was hardly worth thinking about at that point.

Instead, she glanced at the other students in the room, listening to the few snippets of their conversation that reached her. Seeing them together, she found herself wondering if any of her teammates was enrolled in this class.

She frowned slightly.

Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to learn their schedules. Sharing class could have been a good excuse to learn more about them. Or everyone could focus on their own tasks and not share a word. Hard to say without knowing how the class is taught.

Sand hummed and gave the barbell behind her a searching glance, wondering if she should simply start training on her own while she waited, but quickly discarded the idea. She was not so terribly impatient that she could not wait a few minutes for their professor.

Instead, she leaned forwards, resting her arms against her knees in a relaxed posture while she continued to idly eavesdrop on the other students.
Well, it's not a particularly silly or creative change, but I've had this other version of my character in my head for a while now, so let me cobble up a quick bio.

I also wrote a little one-off with the character a few days ago after the contest idea came up in discord, so I might as well leave it here.

Edit: My bad. Wrong place.
@Lugubrious Hopefully we’ll still be able to carry this to its conclusion in the end.

I have a chunk of a post written, but not enough to actually put it up. Homework and procrastination are eating into my writing time (and I realize how ironic that is when I keep asking you to play MH with me). I’ll see if I can write some more before the end of the weekend, but I doubt the post will be complete by then.

Sorry for the absence. I can't promise I'll be able to post every week, but I'll try not to drag my feet.

In the hallways of Beacon Academy as students began to file out of their classrooms, Sand slowed her brisk walk to pull out her Scroll. Her eyes scanned the time reported by the clock at the top and she let out an irritated sigh. Grimm studies was clearly a lost cause. She was much too late.

The new transfer training stepped off to the side, leaning against a wall to let people walk past. She had spent much of the day settling in and dealing with administrative troubles with the school’s registrar. She would have taken care of it the day before, but the parent’s day celebration had meant most of the offices had closed for the day. Now that she had taken the time to visit them, she realized that appearing in the school a week earlier than intended had caused its own share of problems.

That said, if she was being honest with herself, scheduling issues were only a mild irritation. What truly weighed on her mind was the news that she had received yesterday. After Robert had been relieved from his duties as team leader, she had been appointed in his place as leader of team STRG—team Sterling.

Another student may have heard this and felt pride, thinking their achievements had been noticed and they were being rewarded.

In her case, the circumstances behind the announcement left a bitter taste in her mouth. She had been brought into the team as a convenient replacement for a casualty, then chosen over two existing team members to lead them, despite being the newest member and having no previous experience as team leader. Had her unplanned role in their mission left such an impression? What had the headmaster been thinking?

What was I thinking when I agreed? That was not terribly difficult to answer. At the time she had been shocked, confused and, she had to reluctantly admit, a little flattered.

Now, however, as she thought of the responsibility she had agreed to bear and of the idea of leading a team with a recorded mortality rate, she found a knot of concern forming in her gut. What did the others think of her taking that position?

Robert was easier to read. Once it had become clear that he would not be getting immediately expelled, he had seemed almost relieved by the news. She had more difficulty gauging the reactions of the other two. From what she had seen, she did not think Trad would give her trouble. Grane worried her, however. It had been clear since they had met in the forest that he was adamantly against Robert holding the position of leader, but whether this was due to personal disapproval of the redhead, or a wish to hold that position for himself, she was not yet sure. Having said that, she thought it safe to assume he would be watching her for any mistakes she might make.

As she absentmindedly looked at the thinning herd of students walking by, it occurred to her that she would have to get to know each of them better. In and of itself, it did not seem terribly difficult. However, Sand was aware that she was not the greatest conversationalist. Answering questions about herself had always been a lot simpler than coming up with questions about the particulars of another person’s life. It simply was not something that often interested her. To make matters worse, small talk did not come easily to her unless the other person spoke enough for the both of them, and something told her that would not be the case for at least two of her teammates.

Which meant it could be better to find an approach that suited her.

Sand exhaled and pushed herself away from the wall, now searching for the PE room. She had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. For the time being, class beckoned.
Pithy drummed her fingers absentmindedly on the new cane she had summoned, eyeing the objects sitting atop the table belonging to the Crucible’s announcer.

Crunching sounds periodically interrupted the silence. Moments ago, after she had explained the basics of their situation, Dew had distributed a few orange packages to the rest of them at her request, and the contents had proved to be hard, flat biscuits that tasted thickly of cheese and spice. For the most part, the other two occupants of the room seemed content with focusing on their meal rather than breaking the awkward silence that had descended over the room ever since the man who called himself Nero had been convinced to return Pithy to her natural form. Naturally, she had not grown back into her clothes.

She had made nothing of it, using it instead as a chance to apply new bandages, since her own had grown loose and fallen during her transformation, but she felt a flare of irritation every time she recalled the way Dew’s gaze had lingered on her until she had dressed. The man in question was sitting against a nearby wall, digging into his meal. A white bandage adorned his wounded arm, the rags of Pithy’s robe now discarded. His smaller shooter was resting by his leg, within easy reach, and his gaze frequently roamed towards the other man in the room.

Nero had been made to sit on his cot. An improvised sling had been fashioned for him from some of the supplies that had been stored in the cabinet and the bandages Dew had found in the diner. He occasionally looked up from his snack to toss the others looks of annoyance, but he had ceased his resistance when it became apparent that Pithy did not intend to pursue her feud with him.

Pithy studied the displays atop the table. One of them showed various vistas of what she assumed to be the various locations within City of Echoes, likely seen from the eyes of the drones spread throughout the area. Another contained a map of the whole city, with several conspicuous dots slowly moving throughout its surface. A moment later, she caught sight of one of these dots where she imagined the tower to stand. Only one, however. Pithy frowned, bringing a hand to her chest, where her beating phylactery rested. The mess of cables behind the screens told her little about how the machines worked, but she knew of one thing that every competitor held and could be used to keep track of them. It served to confirm her suspicions that the College could keep tabs on her even without the use of the drones.

“Which of these is my next opponent?” she asked.

Suppressing his irritation for himself for not thinking ahead to shut down or at least lock his system, Nero replied, “The purple dot.” The point in question appeared to be moving through the port district, which lay northwest of the Governance Hub, in a straight line and with a intriguing disregard for the buildings in its path.

Pithy merely nodded, her eye tracing the movement with a distracted interest. It was useful knowing the locations of the other competitors, but that was not the true reason why she had climbed the announcer’s tower. She could have such a thing as her next foe’s location of one of the drones, and Nero would have happily answered from the other end in accordance to his role as supervisor. She simply was not certain how to approach the topics she wanted to discuss. Her sister had had a way with words, and a caring disposition that had made others fall in love with her, but that had never been Pithy’s strength. She’d had precious few of those, in fact.

Sighing, the elf turned, spinning the chair in front of the table to face the two men. She sat on it, the trio forming a triangle inside the room.

“There are things I’d like to know about this ‘Crucible’ I’m a part of, Nero. Will you answer if I ask?”

A dazzling smile shone upon Pithy as the dark mage told her, “But of course. Consider me a captive audience.”

Pithy considered that expression in his face, and decided it promised a headache. “True. I don't intend to leave before I am satisfied. But you won't do me much good as just an audience.” She frowned, then closed her eyes.

How would she have played this? Chances are she would not have gone as far as breaking the arm of the one she wished to speak with.

“I would not be surprised if your first concern was getting me out of here. You might not care about me or my intentions beyond that, but I am willing to answer any questions you have for me. I will be as forthright as possible, if you promise me the same from you.”

Nero’s demeanor did not falter as he scratched his jaw in a quizzical manner. “Ya don’t have much I’m interested in. I’ll answer what I feel like. Regardless, it might shock ya to know, but uh, I don’t have all the answers either.”

There was a beat of silence, where Pithy’s head drooped slightly. It was as she had expected, but that olive branch had taken more effort to extend than she cared to admit. “Very well.” The woman opened her eye, giving the man an even look. “I’ll take what I can get. You have already told me some reasons why the College is conducting this tournament—”

“He did?” Dew perked up. “How come I didn't hear about that?”

“Quiet,” she admonished. “We’ll go over that in a moment.” Turning to Nero, she continued. “For now, I want to hear about some details that have been bothering me. For example, why were we chosen to participate? My recruiters knew too much about me to have been a coincidence.”

“I believe the idea was gettin’ people who wanted something bad enough to not just risk their lives, but also be willing to gamble on a wishing machine existing in the first place.”

“That doesn’t explain how they knew to reach us specifically. We do not even come from this world.”

Nero offered another shrug. “Dunno how they did it. My guess is some kind Like, someone pulling strings and making stuff happen in the background. A driving intelligence, somewhere in the city...or beneath it, judging by the massive hole in the Commercial District.”

“A hole?” Even as she asked the question, she recalled the tremor she had felt that morning. Regardless, that hardly bore thinking on when she considered the rest of what Nero had told her. An intelligence aware of the inner details of the life of beings outside its own realm. Such a thing would be clairvoyance of the highest order, capable not only of accessing all information, but filter it for relevance. Would this be limited to present and past information, or to future as well? The distinction grew blurry when one considered separate universes. Of course, the information regarding the contestants could not have been uncovered by the college through conventional means, but the idea that such a thing might have been involved was so outlandish that Pithy had a hard time not rejecting it out of hand. If such an intelligence had a direct stake on the proceedings of this ritual, outmaneuvering its designs would be nigh impossible.

That said, Nero had framed this as a guess, and any information she derived from it would be pure conjecture. There was no reason for her to believe that the tremors were at all related to the source of the College’s source of information either. “What happened this morning? And what makes you think it is related to this supposed ‘intelligence’?”

“I thought I told all ya in my announcement this morning?” Nero glanced upward, as if to better remember by searching the ceiling. “Big boom in downtown. Probably set by one of the factions, most likely the military-looking people in the choppers. The whole City was supposed to be a no-fly zone, designated by Continent United and to be investigated by the College, but it looks like someone’s gettin’ in on the action. It’s the most normal thing that’s happened, really, so I don’t think it’s related to the ‘intelligence’ but instead a way for the outsiders to get at it. Someone knows more than we do about what’s goin’ on here.”

She did not know enough about the politics of this world to call Nero’s words into question. All she could tell was that one mysterious organization was already enough to contend with. However, for all she knew, she might not have to. Pithy frowned. That is an interesting thought. If their goals are in opposition, they might take care of certain obstacles for me. Alas, she knew that was mere optimism on her part. One way or another, she had not ran into any such groups as of yet, and so had no way to verify Nero’s claims.

“I suppose time will tell.” She sighed, leaning back against the chair, and gave the other man in the room a sidelong glance. “Let’s leave that aside for now. Repeat what you told me about the goal of this Crucible. What does the College hope to get out of this?”

Were Nero’s eyes open, he might have rolled them as he exhaled through his nose. “...Some of ‘em want the wish for themselves, some just wanna learn and discover for the sake of science. This place is so full of magic and technology you can hardly tell the two apart, and there’s potential for great good or great evil if humanity can figure out how it works. And, obviously, what happened here in the first place.”

“Sounds about right,” said Dew, crumpling the bag in his hand and throwing it across the room. It bounced atop the overburdened trash can and fell to the floor. “You got the power-hungry crazies trying to get their share of the pie, and then you got the nerds who think this is an experiment and want to see what happens. Gotta wonder which one’s the crazier of the two, though.”

How uncharacteristically perceptive of him. The latter, of course. Anyone capable of seeing a battle for what is thought to be a wish-granting machine as an experiment would either be insane, or know something no one else is privy to. Otherwise, what they have orchestrated is closer to a disaster in the making. But where does that leave us who would participate in such an exercise?

“Don’t stop there, Nero. I want to hear what you want in all this.”

“Told ya that too.” The dark mage’s patience was beginning to wear thin. Of course, it was dubious if the spirit of cooperation had ever taken root in him. “Gonna stop ‘em from the inside.”

“Stop them,” Pithy repeated. Her dispassionate gaze seemed either unaware or uncaring of her prisoner’s mounting irritation. “You place me in an awkward position, Nero. Who do you wish to stop? Those who wish to take the wish for themselves? Or all of them?”

“Whoever I can. They’re all either psychotic, in one way or another, or ignorant of the powers they’re messin’ with. I mean, just take the lanterns. Simplest, most common artifact we got, but in a world without magic can ya imagine how they can be abused? Take a look at the giant fortress bird and tell me these people oughta be toolin’ around with Echoes and wishes.”

Could a sense of moral responsibility truly be what moved this one? Perhaps, perhaps not. However, she knew that if it was the whole College he had taken issue with, his meddling could well cost her her wish. But why would he lie about this? He must have known I would not like this answer. She studied his face, and then prodded, “Do your ‘bosses’ agree with this?”

It was a shot in the dark. Nero might have been a mage, but any design of his would be exponentially more difficult to accomplish if he lacked any kind of help on the other side. And for a moment, his expression took a confused cast. Is that…?

It faded just as quickly as it came. His voice developed more of a point as he told Pithy, “You’re not as clever as ya think.” He paused momentarily to think. “My only friends are a long, long way from here. If I do this, I’m hopin’ there won’t be any more disturbances across worlds. Tournament hasn’t lasted a day and the anomalies are gettin’ worse. The way I see it, nobody anywhere’s safe until the College’s done meddling.”

Pithy glanced away and tapped her fingers on her cane, digesting the warning. It did not do her much good. Her hands had been tied from the start. “Have you been told what I want to do with the prize? The recruiters seemed to know.”

Nero shook his head. “Nope. I figure it’s none of my business, though. Still, if you’re inclined to tell, I’ll lend an ear. Sometimes it feels better just to get stuff out there.”

“What a gracious favor,” she said, wryly. “You are right when you say it is none of your business. Still, you will make it your business one way or another if you move against the College before this ‘Crucible’ is finished. If it is after, may the Eight favor your endeavors. If not...” Tap, tap, tap went her nails against the crystal.

She needed to decide then, how much she wished to tell, and how much of it had to be truth. “I am sick, Nero. I was born sick. When I was younger, I had trouble even walking outside. I would occasionally lose my breath for no reason at all. I sickened often and deeply. Small cuts would bleed for days without closing properly. My kind live longer than humans, but it would not have been strange if I’d perished at a young age even for your standards.”

“Don’t look so sick right now,” commented the other occupant of the room.

“Thank you, Dew. That is very perceptive of you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Nero said nothing, but his face had changed. First the corners of his mouth began to twitch, and as Pithy continued, his characteristic grin fell apart. When he gazed at her now, it was with sorrow and regret, as if he could imagine the suffering that she’d gone through.

“I do not know how common the talent for magic is for humans in your world. In mine, it is rare, but present among them. However, all among elvenkind have the potential. That said, much like my physical growth, my magical growth was… stunted. I often had difficulty harnessing the power I possessed, but I could read the tomes, and understand the lessons, so I pored over them.” She tapped the side of her head for emphasis. “One day, I came by a very particular kind of magic, and realized that it could be used to halt the spread of the disease and remove its symptoms. Imagine my surprise when it actually worked.” She pursed her lips, fighting a nostalgic smile. “For a long time, I thought that was that. My magic took on the aspect of the spell used to sustain my body, but that was a small price to pay for being able to move and reliably use my power.

“But I only managed to buy time. The disease is still there, and my body is dying. My magic may try to treat the afflicted parts, but it will eventually reach a point where the best it can do is patch the blemishes over.” At this, she brought a hand to her hair, and parted the swath that usually covered her right eye. The crystal mask that covered the eye, the brow and most of her cheek glittered in the light. “I do not know how much time I have left, but it is not long. I have tried everything, Nero. I even tried to get a god to notice my plight and help me.” She smiled bitterly. Self-deprecatingly, and that was not something she could fake. “This is my last chance, and if I have to step on thirty-two other wishes to take it, so be it. It is far less than I’m willing to pay.”

“...I see.” The bespectacled fellow glanced down at the floor, his voice low. “I wish I could help you, but my magic… it can’t do that. No matter what I learn, it seems there’s always someone I can’t help. Some wish I can’t grant. I’m sorry that this has happened to you.” He took a long breath. “In my world, ten percent of all people have the gift of magic. All kinds of stuff. If there was a way to get you there, maybe someone’d be able to help. But the Crucible’s all we got right now.”

Sympathy. That was not something she received often, for few were the ones she told of her plight. Receiving it from someone she held under threat of death made her all the more uncomfortable. What she had sought had been for the man to understand where she stood, not to evoke pity in him. Pithy nodded soberly, gaze fixed far away, at some point beyond the corner of the room. “If I’d come to interrogate you and found that you were willing and able to fix all of my problems, I’d be terribly embarrassed indeed. If you truly wish to help me, or any of the other desperate fools still fighting, let the Crucible reach its conclusion unobstructed.”

Though Nero opened his mouth to reply, no sound came out. He shut it soon after, his frown persisting. Several moments passed by in quiet.

“There was something else,” Pithy said, absentmindedly. “What happens tonight?”

“That’s my business.”

Her gaze snapped to him, regaining its focus. “Nero,” she warned. Do not become the thirty-third.

In an instant the dark mage’s empathy evaporated. He offered a smile as sweet as the one she’d given earlier—or rather, as hers had meant to be. The end result appeared less creepy, as his face was more suited for it. “Nero who?”

Dew whistled and turned his head to look at her expression. She hated him for it. Pithy realized that for the first time since she had started questioning Nero, all the other gazes in the room were fixed on her. “You had best give me something,” she told the man in the cot, “or it will not be your business for much longer.”

For a reply Pithy received a giant yawn. “Aaaaah! Man, who knew that havin’ guests was so exhausting?” Using a knuckle, Nero wiped a bit of wetness from the corner of his eye in an excessively flippant manner. “C’mon, I’ve played nice and given you tons of info, but a man’s gotta have his secrets. Our little meeting’s over, you two.” Without any apparent difficulty he crossed both his arms across his chest, still smiling while he looked between Pithy and Mountain. “If you’re not outta my hair in less’n ten seconds, I’ll give ya something all right.”

Pithy stared at the man silently. After a moment, she made to stand.

Dew gave her a surprised look. “Don’t tell me you’re just gonna leave it at that?”

“I told you to be quiet,” she said. With a grunt of effort, she pulled herself to her feet, but rather than heading for the door, Pithy moved closer to the cot. She looked down at the man as her hand went to the six-shooter’s holster.

Like a fox pouncing on a vole Nero sprang forward, shouting, “Law of Escalation!” with as much speed as he could muster. Three interlocked magic circles of brilliant green appeared in the air behind him with a chime, and he reached forward with both hands. His broken arm didn’t appear to be troubling him at all as one shot for Pithy’s head and the other toward the hand headed for her pistol. Her hand never reached the weapon.

There was a sound of snapping fingers, and a wall of wind crashed against him. His hands swiped at empty air as the sudden gale threw him back, tumbling over the cot and into the wall a handful of feet beyond it. He had only a split second to see that Pithy had looked away from the transformative glare of his magic circles before impact. “Nnuh!” Hitting with his back to the wall proved to be a stroke of luck, but the force pinned him against the unforgiving stone.

Mountain Dew, meanwhile, took the brunt of the curse. Without any delay whatsoever he sprang upward, not in a jump but in height. Before he could even figure out what was happening, he’d grown tall enough to clock his dome against the roof and slump back to the floor in an elongated, unconscious heap.

The gale raged inside the building for a few moments, hair and paper fluttering about and the miscellaneous objects and mechanical gadgets that had supplied the announcer’s tower tottering and falling from their places of rest. Just as suddenly as it had sprang, the roaring sound of wind finally receded, leaving in its place a shaken silence. Nero tumbled to the wooden floor, but before he could move again, he felt a cold, prickling sensation under his chin. Eyes rolling down, he caught sight of a small, crystal blade pressed against his throat.

“That is enough. I left you unbound as a courtesy against my better judgement, not so you could give me another excuse to kill you.” Pithy stepped back from the sprawled figure, even as she held the floating dagger to her captive’s throat, and took the chance to glance back at Dew’s distended, unconscious figure. She clicked her tongue.

With some effort, Nero planted his hands on the ground, righted himself, and rose with a series of muttered oaths. In his hand he held the dagger, no longer made of ice, but of inert cloth. Pithy scowled, even as the dark mage chuckled. “Neheh...kill me?” His wild grin showed his pearly white teeth. “You’re still thinkin’ too much of yourself, ice queen, when ya should be afraid of whatcha don’t understand.”

For the second time, the sound of snapped fingers resounded through the otherwise-quiet chamber. An odious yellow-green sheen filled the place, radiating from below instead of from behind Nero. A quick look down could confirm the presence of a vast magic circle that covered the entire floor. Its luster, more powerful than that of the circles that preceded it, reflected off Nero’s glasses and the monitors of his computer system from where they’d fallen.

“I am Nero the Genie. My Curse Laws have taken down combat mages who can level castles. Lemme give ya a demonstration.”

It occurred to the elf that she might have found a rare treasure in this human. Truly, were talents such as this common in his where? Her heartbeat felt like a drum on her chest, and there was nowhere she could look to escape the glow. The surge of power was almost oppressive in its scale. Had she known the man would escalate things to such a degree, she would have killed him outright. But now that it had happened?

Two alternatives occurred to her. Kill the man before the curse took hold, or draw enough power to destroy the floor the circle was inscribed on. Collapse the tower if needed.

The first one was unlikely to succeed. Nero had the initiative, and she did not know how this new magic might take root. Even if that was not the case, it would have deprived her from a valuable source of information. Which left the other option. There were hurdles involved in that one too. First, Dew was still unconscious, and there was no telling what would become of him if she tried to destroy the place. Still, that was largely inconsequential compared to her second concern. Can I draw on enough power to act on it? For a moment, she found herself staring at the whirling white gale inside. She might. The roaring wind drowned her ears, hinting at vast potential. Further than that, she might have been able to draw power enough to overwhelm Nero, but there was no telling what she might pull with it. The sound of chiming bells echoed in her mind, and Pithy shuddered. If she tried to escalate, any victory she could eke out would be overshadowed by a deeper loss. However, it had become apparent to her that Nero, like her, was not yet ready to cross the line and kill the other. Pithy let out a trembling breath, realizing that further confrontation would only end poorly.

Reluctantly, the woman closed her eyes and raised her arms in surrender, accepting of what might follow. The crystal she had used for support clattered against the ground. She had raised too high. Now it was time to fold, and wait for a better hand.

By the time Pithy’s arms had gone up, the curse’s effect was already taking hold. A sudden ache wrenched her stomach, and the next moment she began to grow. Her belly extended outward, straining against her tunic, followed by more and more mass accumulating all over her body over the course of seconds. Her black belt became tight, then agonizing, until it couldn’t hold against the pressure any longer. When it snapped, her gut surged outward to flop down against her now-massive thighs. The fat built up beneath her head, forming a second and then a third chin, while her arms thickened into drumsticks. Rolls piled up on either side of her torso, and her belly continued to swell until it hung close to her knees. While not in the best of shape, Pithy’s robe now covered a lot more than her clothes did in their sorry state. In fifteen seconds, Nero’s curse had bloated her to around six hundred pounds and struggling to stay standing. All the while, he watched intently, his fist over his mouth in the manner of a scholar reviewing an essay.

When the pain finally passed, Pithy allowed herself to open her eye. She immediately closed it again, making a repulsed noise.

“You are a pig,” she said, disgusted both at him and the feeling of fat jostling as she moved her jaw. Her tone almost seemed hurt under its anger. “At least being an owl had some dignity to it.”

“That’s the point.” Nero’s own tone expressed his anger unrestrained. Pithy’s ice cane shot at his head, levitated and sent flying by the remnants of her magic, only to trigger another curse on contact. It, too, turned to cloth and fell to the floor, though not before its force had beaned the dark mage in the nose and knocked his glasses off. Grimacing, he knelt down to feel for them. “Ya hurt me. Ya shattered my poor arm, and me healin’ it doesn’t take away the pain. Blast me into a solid stone wall, try ‘n smash my face in with a stick. Ya slammed me in the nuts, then stood over me gloatin’ about how easy it is to wound men’s pride. Assert yourself over me, will ya? Humiliate me? Well, excuse me if I return the favor. I hate people who are full of themselves. Only fair to knock ‘em down a peg.” His fingers closed around his spectacles, but he remained crouched behind the cot for some cover after putting them on. Though his eyes remained squinted, their gaze on Pithy conveyed a notable interest.

“So you are just a victim here? I am the one with the overinflated ego?” Pithy’s eye flared open, blazing with indignation. She was deeply thankful that Mountain Dew was unconscious on the other end of the room. “Your interference got me crippled! You took away my magic! Turned me into a child! Turned me into an owlet after that! I tried to make this a civil exchange, and you threw the offer at my face. I at least had the decency to treat your arm! You had best be able to fix my clothes!”

“Maybe if ya asked me for healin’ or something instead of sayin’ ya’d kill me, and not trashed some expensive hardware in a tempter tantrum, I wouldn’t have been so quick with the spells. Those curses were mostly in self-defense, lady.” Nero rubbed his bruised nose. “I can actually fix your clothes, though. Or make you new ones. Handy little hex called Law of Raiment. Though with that said, I only have two more curses you don’t know about.”

“Are you so unaware of how you come off through those familiars? You goaded me into coming here, challenged me when I warned you, and now you have the gall to suggest the fault lies entirely with me?” Pithy bit her lip, struggling to contain her temper. The man had excuses for everything. He would never admit to any fault no matter how much she yelled. “Turn me back. I’ve had enough of this.”

“Thirty seconds of standing still is enough?” Nero seemed incredulous. “Ya haven’t even gotten the chance to feel it all sloshin’ around yet. What’s the use of teachin’ someone a lesson if the penalty vanished right away, hmm?” Standing to his full height, the announcer crossed his arms again. “Let’s make this a learning experience. I’ll fix your clothes and dispel enough of the enchantment so that it wears off by tomorrow morning. A little reminder that ol’ Nero ain’t someone to be trifled with, and your ego ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

He murmured, “Law of Raiment,” and a multicolored circle appeared behind him. This one sported a modest shine, but under its glow Pithy’s clothes began to change. Staring with her robes, they repaired themselves, changing to suit her excessive frame with one exception: her tunic ended shortly beneath her bust, leaving her enormous, blubbery belly and all her rolls hanging free, though the robe obscured them well enough.

“Do you expect me to roll down the stairs? I’m not certain if I can even fit through the door, never mind the window.” She complained, even as her clothes were mended. She had a new appreciation for the plight of wealthy lords in times of peace. “I have already had three chances to kill you since we met. One at the window. One when Dew came in. One thirty seconds ago when you jumped at me and found a knife at your throat. That is not a lesson you wish to teach me, unless you want me to take the next chance I get. Turn me back, and I’ll see to it that this business concludes peacefully.”

A look of mild exasperation factored into Nero’s smile. “Then I guess we’re startin’ back at square one. Neheheh, we haven’t learned a thing!” He sauntered over to Dew, who was just beginning to stir. A wiggling of his fingers undid the Law of Escalation that had elongated him, but the quickscoper could only blearily mutter, “Huhwha?” before Nero’s palm made contact with his chest.

A weak mutter of protest could be heard as Dew shrunk down, becoming a cloth doll of himself that the dark mage unceremoniously chucked out the window. “No mass, no painful impact with the ground. In ten seconds that curse will wear off and he’ll be good as new, not that he deserves it.” He’d kept his eyes on Pithy during his little demonstration. “Ready to fly, Lady in Weight?”

Pithy tried to back away, found her wounded leg even less willing to support her weight than it had been when she was her normal size, and instead fell on her ample backside. Her cloak ruffled, betraying the movements of her flabby arms under it, but there was too much mass for them to get anywhere truly useful. “Blast it,” she snarled, the pain and humiliation breaking through what remained of her composure. “‘Lady’ this, ‘Lady’ that. That Howell man used that title too. What is it supposed to mean?”

Nero raised an eyebrow. “’s just a semi-formal way of referrin’ to a woman. Sometimes it’s a title. Like, if you call someone a ‘lord’, his wife is a ‘lady.’ Any noblewoman, really.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Ya don’t know your own epithet? I received the list for everyone’s right at the start.” For a second or so, the wheels turned in his head. Then, making his decision, he added, “Lemme heal your leg before I send ya packin’. That plus all that poundage sounds pretty painful, and I’m more the mental-trauma guy than the physical-trauma guy.”

“If you can even find it.” Pithy gave him a resentful look as he approached. Unlike last time, the the curse’s hold on her magic was a tenuous thing. Continuing to pressure Nero with physical punishment had only made him push back harder, but even if she would not have considered it in normal circumstances, she had other tools available to her. This was not something she would suffer, even if she had to harm herself in exchange. “Nero, I will break this curse myself if I have to, but it will be a lot more dangerous and I will be much more inclined to hurt you again if you do not lift it yourself. So let us do each other a favor.”

Her enemy stopped cold, uncertain. “Break…? No way. It’’s too specialized! If expert healers can go their entire lives without drummin’ up an anticurse strong enough for me, no way in Zantopia you can just belt one out.” As before, he seemed inclined to believe whatever she said, balanced out with what he knew to be true.

“I am an elf. I might be a whelp to my elders, but I would not be surprised to learn your grandmother is younger than me. I have spent years studying methods to heal diseases and remove curses. Do you really want to test me now of all times? Because I am of a mind to be tested!”

Distress polluted Nero’s smile as he recalled Pithy’s story from earlier. After a moment of gears racing in his head, his expression turned bitter. “Not fair…” he growled in a whisper. In a flash, he raised both hands toward her, making finger-guns. Minuscule black circles appeared on his finger tips, and in a voice as cold as glacier in midwinter he said, “Dammit. Fine. Get up, go to the window, I’ll undo the curse, and you leave. Not gonna heal ya, not gonna change your clothes again. Just go. Any funny business...” He trailed off, unable to finish the ultimatum, though the implication was there.

Not good enough. Putting her back against the window was the last thing she intended to do. There was no guarantee that he would not simply turn her into a puppet and fling her away before she could react. “Do I look like I can move?” She only looked at him irritatedly. “Remove the curse, heal me, and I’ll leave on my own. I swear on my power that if you do this I will retreat peacefully.” The vow came out evenly, but only as she spoke it did she realize that there was no guarantee that this otherworldly mage knew the weight to such a promise in her own realm. Indeed, as she saw the suspicion in his eyes, he realized those were simply words to him.

This time, Nero didn’t believe her. In the end he trusted his power alone. Yet, it was obvious Pithy wouldn’t even try to move unless he obliged her. He felt manipulated and afraid. Who the hell was this woman to have such power? If this was average for the Crucible’s competitors… the dark mage shivered before curling the fingers on his right hand. The black magic circles dissipated, and he swiped away from the Lady in White to remove the curse. Without delay she began to shrink, steam billowing from her skin as she closed in on her former size. Next, he held out his palm, and a stream of rosy-red energy transferred from him to his target. It lasted only a moment before he cut it off, however, and he resummoned the black circles after. “It’s healed enough to get you out of here.”

Under her cloak, now much too large for her, she gingerly pressed her hand against her thigh. There was some irritation, but the distressing pain she would have felt moments ago had all but vanished. Slowly, she rose, experimentally using it to hold her weight.

“You kept your end of the bargain.” Her tone held a mixture of surprise, gratefulness and frustration. She could not have healed such a wound herself. She wondered if Nero knew how vexing it could be to have the knowledge to act on something but the inability to do so properly.

“Mostly do. Go away and don’t come back.”

Pithy grimaced and looked around the trashed room one last time. Her gaze lingered on the mage’s hands for a moment, then nodded. No matter how much she detested the man, she had given him her word.

This time, she used the stairs.

Dew was waiting for her downstairs, sitting under the shade of the tower with his legs crossed. He glanced at her when she noticed her approach. “Yo. I expected to see another puppet fly out the window any second now.” He frowned at the oversized boots and gloves she was carrying in her arms, shrugged, then looked down at her leg. “You managed to make him heal you?”

“We struck a deal,” she admitted. “He healed me in return for my leaving peacefully.” In the end, it was not a conclusion she was particularly displeased by. If she forced herself to think critically and did not account for the indignities she had suffered, she had come out of the encounter with more than she had had coming in.

Mountain Dew clearly did not share in that assessment. “You mean that fucker’s still up there as if nothing happened?” He scowled, rising to his feet. “Give me a minute. I’ma go find a place to snipe him from.”

“Hold it.”

Dew froze, then gave the woman an annoyed glare. “Come on, you saw what happened in there. He made us look like a pair of dumbasses.”

Us? You were hardly touched by that sorcery. I have to live with the memory of this humiliation. Pithy had to stop herself from correcting him. “I am well aware. Nonetheless, there was one question he refused to answer. It worries me.”

“The thing about tonight? So... what? You gonna head up there again and hope he’s in a better mood this time?” He scoffed. “Just shoot the guy if he’s planning something.”

“No,” she sighed, dissatisfied. “I fear he may be working with others. If we kill our one lead now, we may not be able to see what is happening until it's too late. We’ll have to wait and keep an eye out for anything that happens. Nero will know where I am, but he does not have a bead on you. We’ll have to take advantage of that.” Pithy glanced at her surroundings. “But that can wait for now. Let’s find a place to rest.”
Pithy’s mind churned as she examined the tower where the Crucible’s announcer was supposed to reside.

She had told Oren that she would kill him if she went to him. After the slight she had suffered at his hands, not to mention the wound she would not have sustained had he not intervened in her bout, the idea was deeply attractive. There would be consequences to such a brash act, however, and she was not certain she wished to deal with them at that point. Openly opposing the College would mean showing her hand much too soon, when she knew little of the other players and had no reliable ace up her sleeve.

That said, she could not simply continue to dance to another’s tune. She could not bring herself to trust the College to keep their end of the bargain once the Crucible was done. Even if he claimed ignorance, Oren was the most obvious lead she had to the answers she sought. At the very least, breaking into the room used to monitor the state of the tournament would give her much needed information on her competition.

She turned this dilemma again and again in her head, until a small shadow flew from one of the tower’s upper windows.

He knows I’m here. She uncrossed her arms, one of them resting on her rapier’s handle. This was not unexpected. Rather, she had deliberately stayed in the open to gauge the man’s reaction.

She had thought she might be ignored until she made a move. Perhaps he might take the chance to barricade the entrance. Hopeful optimism on his part that she might leave if he waited long enough, or she was unable to use the front door. Perhaps he would take the chance to escape, but that was partly the reason why she had sent Mountain Dew to scout around the building. He would tell her if he saw Oren leaving. Alternatively, her purpose in reaching the tower had been stated clearly enough that she would not have been surprised had College agents been brought to send her away, or another competitor was diverted to deal with her.

To have another of the announcer’s drones swoop down to greet her made her confident that Oren had decided to stay in his post. Perhaps he felt he could talk her out of this course of action.

“Ya came!” Oren's voice was gratingly jovial, as though he was greeting a guest of honor instead of the one who had threatened to murder him only a few hours before. “First person to accept my invitation, and lemme just say, I'm glad it was you and not that giant troll creature. Poor brute, rest his soul. What can I do ya for, dearie?”

There have been others, then. If the invitation had carried the same menace as it had in her case, the fact was worrisome in and of itself. Pithy did not want to think that such confidence was well-founded, but neither could she believe that Oren would be gleefully confronting the competitors of this tournament with no way to assure his safety.

“Do not ‘dearie’ me, Oren. We are hardly on familiar terms,” she said bluntly. “I am impressed, nonetheless. I did not think you would contact me again after our last conversation.”

A slight huff preceded the announcer’s reply. “Pff, what kind of host invites a guest, then gives ‘em the cold shoulder? I ain’t that mean.” There came a brief pause, and in that moment the drone’s arm reached up and brushed across its underside below the eye, as if scratching its chin. “Or didja think I’d be scared?” His flippant tone evidenced how foreign the idea was to him.

Pithy’s eye tracked the motion. A memory came back to her, of one of her previous encounters with the machines. They held a storage area in their undercarriage, did they not? Yes, I did. I think you are, in fact.

Her grip on her rapier tautened. “It seems you are braver than that. Did you bring this thing out to lead me to you, then?”

“Well, unless you can fly, no. But the tower’s a straight shot up, minus the two locked hatches in the stairwell. They’ve got...uh, padlocks? Sounds about right.” Oren breathed a long sigh, then leaned closer to the microphone. “Not in much of a jokin’ mood, are ya? If ya really wanna do this, climb on up, but you’re not gonna like what comes next.”

“Took the words out of my mouth.” The crystal cane that until then had been leaning against the vehicle suddenly lanced upwards, crashing into the drone. Sparks sputtered from the impact, and the machine wobbled dangerously as it tried to correct its position. The cane, held aloft in the air with magic, swept into it again, crushing one of its engines. As the machine fell to the asphalt, the rod fell over it again and again until the rotors’ whirring noise ceased.

Pithy’s onslaught, aimed for the most part at the rotors and exterior, did not fully disable the drone’s onboard comm system. When it came through again, Oren’s voice was very distorted, but not so much as to make him unintelligible. “Any time ya wanna stop provin’ how tough ‘n mature ya, I’m waitin’ at the top.” After that, what little power remained was shut off.

A last strike of the rod sent the machine flying off to the side street.

The drone had not made a move against her, in the end. Perhaps she was paranoid. Pithy recalled the cane, the chips and cracks that had appeared from the strength of the impact filling and smoothing out of existence the moment the crystal touched her glove.

She began limping towards the tower’s entrance, silently wishing her accomplice would hurry. She had blinded one of Oren’s eyes, but that would not help her for long. Stars, if the man is truly in that tower, all he needs to do is lean out a window to see me.

As she walked, she untied the badger’s phylactery from her belt and pulled her own over her neck, summoning a sphere of ice to shield them from the outside. She tucked it under her left arm.

The trek to the thick wooden door at the tower’s base was short, but left beads of sweat forming on her brow. Her right leg ached with every motion, but there was little the elf could do for it. With neither a healer or a chance to rest, all Pithy could do was endure and carry on. Instead, she leaned against the doorframe, glancing upwards.

The window she had seen the drone come out of was a fair distance off to her left. If Oren was in that room as well, he would need to field another one to see her from this angle. Even if he was in the room straight above her, he would need to poke his head out of the window to look at her. Pithy took a deep breath and looked around her, her eyes going to the top of some of the nearby buildings in search for Mountain Dew’s figure.

After a minute of scanning with no results, Pithy grunted and turned towards the entrance. The orb of ice slid out from under her arm, levitating behind her, and her hand reached for the six-shooter at her breast. She pushed the door open with some effort, keeping the weapon trained on the widening crack. Eventually, the rest of the tower’s base was revealed to her.

The only occupant was a fireplace at the room’s center, the chimney rising upwards and through the ceiling to diffuse the heat into the other floors of the tower. As she had expected, a staircase lined the inside wall, rising upwards to her right and down to her left, forming a spiral. The latch leading to the upper room, proof that Oren had not fed her complete falsehoods, was also immediately visible. Her eye, however, fell on the steps.

Steep and narrow. As I feared. The pain in her leg pulsed. She would not be able to weather the climb in her state.

“Saw what you did to the drone.” The sphere of ice seemed to hum as Pithy turned, hinting at her first reflex at hearing Dew’s voice. “You gonna do that to him, too?”

“Depends on him.” Pithy shrugged, hiding her start under a cool voice. “Will that be a problem?”

“Not sure yet. I mean, dude’s kind of a dick. Kept saying my car was bullshit.”

The woman sighed. She was not certain she wanted to touch that topic of conversation. “Tell me what you saw.”

“Well, the drone was pretty messed up. Did you get a baseball bat while I wasn’t loo—”

“What you saw around the tower, Dew.”

There was a hint of a smirk in the man’s face as he straightened. “No other entrances that I could see, if you don’t count the windows. As for something suspicious… nothing much. ‘Cept for the room that drone came out of.”

That got the woman’s attention. “You saw inside?”

“Well, it was pretty far away.”

“I know what the tube atop your weapon is,” Pithy told him, patience beginning to fray. “Tell me what you saw.”

Dew did not withhold his smirk. “Had a feeling you’d pester me about it when I got back, so I saved myself the trouble. There’s a pretty impressive looking set-up in there, but I also saw a cot from my perch. Didn’t see Oren, but I think he was off to the side where I couldn’t see him. Place looked lived in.”

Pithy took a steadying breath, closing her eye. That was the confirmation she had been hoping for. “I want you to climb the tower from here.” She looked at him. “Oren said there were two locked latches on the way to the top. Can you deal with that?”

“Of course.” The man preened, as though insulted that Pithy had so much as hinted that such a thing would be an obstacle to him. “But what about you? Will you sit here while I do all the work?”

“Do you want to carry me to the top?” she asked dryly.


“Then don’t ask pointless questions,” she snapped. “Get going, and don’t waste time. When you get to the top, restrain Oren.”

Dew let out a puff of air through his mouth, rolling his eyes. “Aye aye, Cap’n.”

Pithy ignored the shiver she felt at the words.

As he moved past her in his way towards the stairs, Pithy retreated out of the building. A glance to the skies revealed no new drones, but she could not know if Oren had released a new one and hidden it while she was speaking with Dew. She limped around the building, throwing searching glances at her surroundings every few seconds, until she was directly under the correct window. She holstered her shooter and took the sphere with the phylacteries under her arm once again before setting down her cane.

Pithy drew her rapier with her free hand, and as she pointed it to the space between the ground and the tower, crystal began to form. A sheet of ice grew against the wall, hugging its surface at the same time as thick ice formed on the floor below. There was a crack, and the ‘L’ shaped crystal separated from the surfaces she had used to mold it. Another gesture with her rapier formed a vertical handle at chest height. The mage approached it, hooking her arm, blade and all, around it, and leaned against the wall. With another flash of the runes on her weapon, a sheet of ice covered the boot of her good foot, securing her in place.

This solution was hardly elegant, but she did not intend to wait below while Dew confronted Oren. The two men were similar in certain respects, similar enough that Pithy did not wish for the two to meet out of her sight if she could help it.

She took a deep breath, her mind conjuring images of the elevator she had used when she had first arrived at the Justice Hub. With a flash of her runes, the crystal carrying Pithy began to rise upwards at a sedate pace, sliding against the stone walls with unnatural smoothness. Perhaps Oren was right when he assumed she could not fly, but levitating a platform was certainly within her capabilities.

Pithy looked at the receding landscape for a moment before she focused on what lay above her, making sure Oren had not leaned out to drop something on her. Frustratingly enough, the announcer was ready to take a stand against her. Whatever drove him had long since gone past bravado, and it would be dangerous of her to assume otherwise. She was certain that, were she to attempt his front door, she would have fallen into a trap, which was why she had sent Dew that way. It was entirely possible that Oren had other eyes and ears inside the building, which was why she had not shared the rest of her plan with the man.

Ideally, the two would arrive at the same time and corner Oren together, but with no way to coordinate, it would not be strange if one arrived before the other. Even if she kept to her slow pace, the trajectory of her ascent and the lack of obstacles made it likely that she would be the one to reach the top first.

Which left her with a need to plan her final approach. She could simply throw herself into the room as she was and hope that Oren did not see her coming, but that relied too heavily on her luck even before considering her injury. She would much prefer to have eyes on the room first.

The elevator slowed ever so slightly as Pithy drew her focus inwards, then channeled a spell through her rapier. A crystal disc began to form besides her, the surface reflective like a mirror. It continued to grow until it was larger than her head. With a whispered word, the surface of the ice sphere under her arm took on the same mirror sheen.

Pithy looked behind her for a moment, taking in the distance that she had traveled. She was close to her entry point now, and she knew that a fall from this height would certainly kill her. Swallowing, she sent the first mirror upwards, letting it reflect the inside of the room.
The small badger muttered under her breath as she moved through the snow, the body of a girl draped bonelessly over her like a puppet with its strings cuts. Were she not able to feel the weak breath flowing in and out of the girl’s lungs, she would have thought she was carrying a corpse. She was certainly cold enough to the touch to be one. Luckily, the girl was so light that Jo suspected there would have been little less difficulty traversing the snow without her at her back.


A freezing breeze had picked up, snow riding with it to crash on the badger’s frame from all directions. It was almost as if she had walked into a dust devil, and she was forced to keep her head low and eyes half-closed to keep herself from being blinded.

“Curse the Reaper…”

Not that there was much to see in that white wasteland. The landscape looked the same in every direction, something that was not helped by the film of fog that hanged over them, making it difficult to see farther than a few feet away. It even made the light seem to lack a direction, as though the light in this place did not come from the sun but from the snow around them.

“Curse the Reaper, bend your back and cheat your sorry grave…”

Jo sang this under her breath, hummed wordlessly for a few moments, and then repeated the words again. They were lyrics to a sea shanty she had once heard about a sinking ship. That line was the only one she remembered, but the insistence with which she intoned the words made it easy to ignore her trembling limbs. It had not taken long for the biting wind to sink through her fur to steal at the heat of her small body.

Nonetheless, something in her gut told her that this was the direction in which she should be walking. Something was waiting for her in this direction. She knew this with a certainty that she could not put into words, but whether whatever was waiting was good or bad news, she could not tell.

Don’t matter when you got nowhere else to be.

Jo glanced up once again, as she had been doing periodically to ensure she was not about to walk off the edge of a cliff, and what she saw made her pause. She blinked. There was a light up ahead, shining through the mist.

The badger barked a laugh and redoubled her efforts, thinking that she might have lucked out and managed to find civilization.

A few more minutes of marching into the snow revealed the source of the light, but it had not been quite what the badger had been expecting.

A large brazier rested atop the snow, a flame taller than most humans she had met dancing atop it. Jo grumbled at this strange apparition, and began to approach. Out of place as it was, fire was fire. They needed the warmth.

As she neared, she realized two things. The first was that, despite the sweltering heat radiating from the flame, all the more noticeable in the cold, the snow surrounding the brazier remained without hints of melting. The second was that she could see no coals fueling the fire. The flame simply seemed to exist atop its plate, standing in defiance of the snowstorm, placidly ignoring the wind that threw snow every which way.

She almost failed to notice when the unconscious girl slipped from her shoulders, but that was fine, was it not? They were close to a fire. Out in the snow, she lacked any form of a chance, but now she could regain her strength under the warmth of the pyre.

And what a strange fire it was. It glowed a yellowish orange, as if fed by wood in a hearth, but if she peered closely at it, Jo thought she could see wisps of white, green and pink flashing through it.

And yet… there was something missing… something she…

“No… stop,” the weak voice brought Jo to her senses.

She had one paw outstretched towards the flame, which flickered barely a foot away from the outstretched limb. The heat coming from the fire buffeted at her, and she stepped away, shaking her head and forcing her gaze away from the glow. Trying to keep herself from looking at the strange brazier, she returned to where she had left the girl.

Her eyes remained closed, but her breathing had turned rougher. Stronger for that, but rough. Had she spoken in her dreams?

Irritated, the badger poked at the girl’s cheek, then lifted one of her eyelids. “You playing dead down there, girl?” A familiar blue eye twitched aimlessly, and Jo let the eyelid close, slightly unnerved by the lack of response.

She glanced around herself, careful not to stare into the fire for long as she tried to consider her options.

The sound of the engine thrummed softly as the vehicle coursed through the flooded streets, its driver eerily aware of which roads he could take to keep the water from stalling the device. Pithy had rapidly given up her skepticism after a few blocks had gone by without incident, and had instead settled against her seat on the back of the Rover, injured leg extended over the glossy, dark upholstery.

Her mind was on the events of the last hour, going over the words she had exchanged from Oren, and what she had seen from her defeated enemy.

“A pocket dimension?” she said after a long moment of silence. “Is that where you keep that sword and shield?”

She saw the slight nod from the one at the driver’s seat. His brow was set on a frustrated scowl, and blood stained much of his lips and jaw.

Pithy suppressed a pleased smirk. It seemed he was not in a talkative mood after what had happened.

“Cut off your tongue.”

Belying the baffled expression on the man’s face, his body was quick to act. His hand gripped the handle of the offered knife and brought it up to his face, where he extended his tongue. Comprehension had dawned by then, and a panicked, protesting whine poured from man’s open mouth—the best he could express with his tongue hanging out like a panting dog’s.

Pithy watched with a cool expression as the tip of her knife reached past his mouth and the blade rested on the side of the pinkish muscle. She noted with an almost scholarly detachment that the man’s arm had begun to tremble, as had the offered tongue. The trembling made the blade sidle against the flesh, drawing some red.

But for a long moment, that was as far as it went.

Pithy scowled. “Stop.”

The hand that held the knife fell to the side, and his tongue receded back past his lips, letting past fitful, gusting breaths.

Pithy held out her hand, making her intentions clear.

The man looked up, his face pale. The moment his green eyes met her, hostility began to radiate from him in waves. He rose, his knuckles white from the strength with which he held the knife.

And he set it on Pithy’s accepting hand. The stunned visage was almost comical in its confusion. Her eye went to the knife in her hand, studying the knife’s blade. A think droplet of blood ran through its length as she looked, the edge tinged red where the man had dug it onto his tongue.

“Well? Was that it?”

Pithy looked up. He spoke clumsily, the small wound clearly causing its own share of irritation, some of the earlier bravado had returned to the man’s features. That cocky smirk filled her with loathing.

“Should’ve known you wouldn’t have the guts t—” The words were cut off when the pommel of the knife, still clutched tightly in Pithy’s hand, crashed against his mouth. The man fell to his back, clutching his face and muttering curses from behind his hand.

The momentum brought Pithy stumbling forward, the pain in her leg flaring like a fire as she tried to steady herself. Her piercing eye found the man’s own as she did.

“That is enough,” she had told him. “I want to think you are worth more to me whole. Do not try to convince me otherwise. Watch your tongue if you wish to keep it.”

It had been a difficult, when the man had failed to do the deed, not to drag the man’s tongue out of his mouth and cut it out herself . She had genuinely wished to see the man writhing on the ground, sobbing through the blood pouring from the severed muscle. Part of her still did.

Pithy studied her reflection on the window. Sometimes she wondered if there was anything different between the woman she was now and the envious whelp that had been cast out from her home so long ago.

Truly, I have learned nothing.

What good would that do her? A moment of dark pleasure, earned through the maiming of one she would seek to use. Her satisfaction was not worth the time and energy she would have to spend tending to such a wound, or attempting to communicate with a mute if she wished to use him as a tool. In her current state, she had little choice but to do just that.

It was good then, that following her warning, the man’s lips had tightened considerably. She was not certain if it was due to the phylactery’s influence or her own admonishment, but she welcomed the calm.

She had gotten his name from him, and then proceeded to treat his arm as best she could. There had been small shards of ice stuck inside the wound her rapier had made, stemming the flow of blood but causing no small discomfort. Once those had been melted and removed, red flowed freely. Her robe had been much diminished after she was done with it, looking more like a mantle than a proper cloak.

The pair had then returned to this Mountain Dew’s vehicle, and were currently driving through the streets of the Governance Hub.

“Are there limits to what you can place inside?”

The man shrugged at her query.

Pithy frowned. Did that mean he did not know or that he did not wish to elaborate on the matter?

The woman glanced out the window, looking at the buildings that surrounded the street. Alternate dimensions and spatial manipulation were not unheard of in her realm, but those that could work that kind of magic were far and few inbetween. Moreover, examples that she had seen which resembled what Dew could do were typically tied to enchanted objects, such as pouches and bags that were considerably larger on the inside than they were on the outside. To have such a space available to one at their beck and call without needing a focus to act as a gate was a special skill indeed.

“Are you certain you are not a master wizard?” she asked dryly.

“I’m neither thirty nor a virgin, so no.”

Pithy was about to turn to ask him what that had to do with her question, when a sign caught her eye. “Here.”

The thrumming sound came to a stop as the vehicle halted by the sidewalk. The sign reading Theo’s on the large window was as visible as when Pithy had found it earlier that day. Moments later, bells rang as Pithy pushed the door open, clumsily pushing forward into the building with the use of one leg and her cane.

She glanced behind her to see Dew filing in, eyes roaming over the place suspiciously. ‘Why are we here?’ they seemed to ask. By the way his jaw bunched, she thought he wanted to ask.

“Look around the front. Call me if you find something I should see.” Her gaze wandered over the counter. “And grab some food while you’re at it. I don’t know how long we’ll be staying in this city.”

He frowned in distaste. “Just grab random food to clutter my inventory? I don’t feel like cleaning apple pie from my ammo.”

She looked at him crossly. And what do I care about that? “Then use a table cloth to wrap it. Work it out on your own.” She shrugged and turned, unwilling to put more thought into it. “I will look further inside.”

Grumbling arose from behind her, but she paid no mind, leaving him to his own tasks.

A door behind the counter led her to the diner’s kitchen—or at least what she assumed to be the kitchen. There were more white tiles and metal surfaces than she was used to, but the utensils arrayed on the tables and drawers, as well as the multiple oven-like cubes made the room’s purpose clear. Finding little use for forks and kitchen knives, her inspection took her elsewhere, cane tapping past the door to the pantry and into a small lounging area off in a side room.

She navigated with some difficulty between a large sofa that occupied the majority of the room and a small round table she imagined people would use to rest drinks or plates of food while they sat. Opposite to it was a large box with a glass pane, similar to the ones she had found in the Justice Hub. However, this one lacked the button board she had seen before, so she opted to ignore it, going instead for a closet on the far end of the room.

Inside, she found several aprons, as well as some scattered clothes. It was mostly skirts and puffy, yellowish shirts, the kind a waitress might wear, but she also spied black pants and vests hidden near the back. Pithy glanced down at her leggings, noting the red that covered them as well as the tear in the fabric over her thigh, and took one of the pieces of clothing.

“Elsa!” She heard then.

She swore under her breath, turning to squeeze her way out of the room with her prize in hand.

“Eeeelsaaaa! Hurry and come hereee! Shouting like this hurts like a bitch!”

“Then quit being so loud!” she hissed as she limped her way back to the front of the diner. She found the man sitting at one of the tables near the counter. “And quit calling me that.”

“What do I call you, then?”

“Pithy, if you must call me anything.”

“That’s a dumb name,” he answered petulantly.

Thus spake Mountain Dew the Quickscoper. “We are not having this conversation,” Pithy grunted, bunching her jaw. “Why did you call me?”

The man rapped his knuckles on an object sitting on the table, drawing her attention to it. It was a case, with a symbol of a red cross on it.

Giving him a searching glance, Pithy reached for the case and opened it. Seeing the contents, she sucked a breath and rifled through the contents. Clean bandages and gauze were the things that drew her eyes first, but she took note of the small plastic bottles held within when Dew reached inside and snatched one of the containers.

He put it to his mouth, twisted the cap with his teeth and spat it into the box before throwing it back like a flagon of ale.

Pithy rushed to snatch it away from him, fearing that her thrall was trying to off himself with poison. He relinquished the bottle with no resistance, looking at her with a contented smile.

Pithy eyed him warily for a moment, but when he did not collapse and blood refused to suddenly leak from his orifices, she asked, “What is in this bottle?”

“Painkillers,” he offered dreamily.

Pithy frowned and glanced at the bottle. It read ‘Ibuprofen’ in large letters, with a list of effects and instructions in smaller letters. I don’t imagine ‘muscular pain’ would include cut wounds, she reflected. Not to mention the slew of possible side effects listed. As surprisingly well-documented as this was, the idea of ingesting it felt rather daunting. She would have to wait and see the condition of her thrall after some time. She had not seen the dosage the man had taken just then either, but she suspected it had been more than the one pill recommended every six hours. He had recognized the bottle on sight, but it was possible that the physiology of the ones who used these pills was completely unlike hers.

Grimacing, she closed the bottle and placed it back in the case. The ache in her wound throbbed almost accusingly.

“Bring this with us,” she told Dew. “And go wait by the vehicle—”


“Wait,” Pithy said slowly, “outside.”

The man rose one arm in a gesture of surrender, and turned to leave the building. Pithy’s gaze remained fixed on his back until the bells rang, signaling his exit. Then, she turned to the clothing she had brought.

Over a dozen minutes went by before the elf limped out of the building wearing the dark cloth pants. Small, dark stains were beginning to mat the back of the fabric. At the very least they were harder to see in this attire.

Mountain Dew, who had been leaning against the Rover with his arms crossed roused himself as she came out. “What took you so long?” he asked, impatiently.

The man had grown steadily more vocal in the past hour. Pithy considered making another incision inside his mouth if he proved too irritating.

Pithy gave him an incensed look. “Have a guess,” she said. It was because of him that she was having so much trouble moving her right leg. Fitting those pants on had been nothing short of agony, and she was certain that if the blood had managed to coagulate at all, the cut had opened again mid-stretch. “On second thought, I don’t need to hear it. Just get in.”

The man grunted, then moved to take his place inside the car. Pithy followed moments later. When she sat, she let a cube of ice, about the size of her head, fall on the seat beside her.

Pithy noted the man’s regard from the mirror ahead. “Where’s your phylactery?”

She tapped the large ice cube. It was a thick box, in truth, completely sealing the badger and her phylactery—since Dew’s own had been left behind at the art gallery—while allowing hers to continue beating. If whatever enchantment allowed Oren to hear their conversations from the artifact originated from within it, he would be hard pressed to listen in. If it worked through different means... well, she could do little about it in that case, meaning it did not bear thinking about.

“Have you seen an out of place tower in this part of the city?”

The answer did not take long to come. “Sure did.” Good, that made things simple. “Why? Oren told you to go there?”

“Yes.” Pithy nodded. That was true enough, and it might have been all that she needed to say. However, if she wished to make use of Dew, it could not be all the information she gave him. “Oren is supposed to be overseeing this tournament from there.”

She felt the man’s steady gaze from the mirror hanging from the front of the vehicle. “You’ll have a word with him?”

“We had words.” Pithy found herself scowling. “I did not much like his.”

The man let out a humming sound, seeming to consider this. After a moment, he clapped a hand against the wheel, letting out a chuckle.

Pithy gave him a disgruntled look.

“Now, now,” he said placatingly. “Look here, lady. I’m clearly out of the running for this shit, so if you want to go off the rails and ruin any chance you might have at getting something out of this tournament, I’m not gonna get in the way. Hell, if you plan to screw yourself over, that I wouldn’t mind helping with.”

For some reason, Pithy felt cold creeping up her spine. Irreverent as the words were, they gave her a dark premonition. His acceptance of what he thought to be her plan made her all the more uncomfortable. “It won’t end that way,” she breathed.

“’Course not,” Dew said with blatant sarcasm.

“Just get us there.”

Pithy leaned back against her seat as the man clicked his tongue and started the wheeled contraption.

Aided by the moving vehicle, the trek did not last long even when taking pains to avoid the area’s more flooded streets, and soon enough Pithy knew what Oren had meant when he had told her she couldn’t miss the tower.

Contrasting heavily with the sleek, glass surfaces that seemed to cover many of the nearby buildings, the tower Oren had referred to. The tower, circular and made almost entirely of stone, reminded her heavily of the watchtowers and castle turrets one might see near the human settlements of her realm.

“There it is,” Dew announced. “There’s an Echo if I ever saw one.”

Pithy nodded absently, reaching for the cube still holding her phylactery. The ice disappeared as she waved a hand over it, and she returned the heart mimicries back to their place on her person. Once the task was done, she shimmied her way out of the car.

Dew was already outside, waiting for her. “Behold!” He waved his uninjured arm at the scenery, as though he was a magician presenting the tools for his next magic trick. For all of that, he still looked to her. “So? What now?”

She clicked her tongue. Looking at the tower, she would have been genuinely surprised if Oren was anywhere other than in the top level, but that left a lot of climbing to be done. She could already see a few entrances to the building from their current position on the streets, but she was not particularly eager to start the trek. Rather, there was something she wished to test beforehand.

“I want you to scout the perimeter” she told him. “Tell me about any other entrances, or things you find suspicious. And try not to be seen by college staff.” Which was a moot point either way. They would know they were about if Oren but deigned to listen in now. That was not the point.

The man did not seem to realize this, drooping his shoulders instead. “A stealth mission? Ugh, you suck.”

“Your complaints have been noted,” she said wryly. Then, after another cursory glance at the building, she beckoned him closer.

The man complied, listened for a moment to her whispered words, and retreated, a frown in his face. “Whatever,” he said, turning to walk away. He had only taken a few steps when he suddenly vanished.

Pithy sighed and leaned back against the vehicle, crossing her arms. The tower of the Governance Hub stood before her like a stalwart guardian.
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