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Cold sweat dribbled down Pithy’s brow as she tightened the bandages on her right arm. Once she was satisfied with the tightness, she held the bandaged limb out towards the room’s door. Ice began to coat the lock and hinges, sticking them in place.

She let out a slow breath at that, hugging the inert limb close to herself. She could hardly feel anything below the elbow now, but the waves of cold easily swept past the covers where she touched them.

Not my finest work, but it will do for what lies ahead, she thought with forced dismissiveness. It was far too late for regrets at that point.

She leaned back against the wall, letting herself sink down to a sitting position. All that was left was to wait.

As she had told Dew earlier, she had sprinkled the inside of the building with a number of detection wards. A very simple and inconspicuous cantrip, a variation of which she often used to keep herself aware of her surroundings when resting in unfamiliar places. She had left the wards at various thresholds, such as entrances, emergency exits, stairs, elevator doors, and more specifically, the doors to the two rooms where she had left instructions for the enemy she awaited. They were not disguised—given her condition, attempts at doing so would only have made them more obvious—but they were unassuming enough that she doubted they would be sniffed out unless an intruder was well-versed in the arcane, and was actively searching for them.

That said, that it was not a certainty was something she was deeply aware of. Aside from the few clues she had left to guide intruders, like the lights left on at the apartment and the smashed lock for that room’s door, those wards could well become a second trail for someone to follow. Fortunately, that it would grab the attention of any who found them could be of use to her. For that reason she had not placed any magical wards at the entrance to her hiding place. If someone crossed them or attempted to tamper with them, she would know. Unless they preferred to wander aimlessly through the building until they happened to land upon her, they would have to.

She planned to use this to her advantage to keep track of intruders until she felt it a good time to use her escape route. Namely, the metal chute to the basement placed in the room she had chosen. It would not normally have been an option, given that the opening was not large enough to fit a grown human—or elf, for that matter—but the black and green bracelet fastened to her left wrist gave her some flexibility in that regard.

Pithy nodded to herself. If all went according to plan, she would be able to shape the next altercation to her needs. For that, she would need to be watchful. Both of the state of her wards, and of sudden noises like the thunder of Dew’s weapon in the distance.

Dew was going to be angry if all he had gotten was a cosmetic reward. There was a reason people had gone up in arms against lootboxes when they caught on to how disgusting a monetization system it actually was. The power lottery couldn’t be much better if it also came with extreme pain and vivid hallucinations at every pull.

Though what kind of whale demographic that could attract he was not sure he wanted to know.

Once Dew managed to shake himself out of his stupor and he caught his reflection in the window, it did not take long for him to find the change. The creepy black eyeball was not exactly subtle.

He had rushed off to the apartment’s bathroom to have a better look at that point, leaving only a clueless plant monster to keep watch.

Unfortunately, attempts at figuring out what the eye did—most of which revolved around staring intently at the toiletry—did not shed light on any new abilities beyond a persistent itch that made it hard to keep it open. It reminded him of the feeling he got when he spent too much time staring at a screen without blinking.

Man, if Pithy got mad about red eyes, she’s going to freak out about this one.

Eventually, he gave up and came back out to the dark living room. He found the large plant monster Pithy had adopted slithering around the discarded arrow, curiously poking it with its snout.

“Guessing you didn’t see anything while I was out?”

The creature craned its neck to look at him, blowing a quick raspberry his way.

I swear all snakes are assholes. He walked over to where the creature was, shooing him away with a hand before leaning down to pick up the arrow. He brought it closer to his face, examining it. It didn’t look at all different from when he had first picked it up—certainly not as though it had gone through his arm not moments prior. What had been the point of that, anyway? He wished a tutorial message would have appeared to tell him what was new. He almost wondered if he should take another stab at himself to see if it did anything different.

A chill raced down his spine at that thought, the pain and hallucination he had seen flashing through his mind and sending a shiver up the hand that held the relic.

Maybe I should leave the real experimenting to Pithy, he thought, letting the hand holding the arrow fall to his side.

He took his camping spot close to the window once again, surveying the empty streets. Almost as if to punctuate this thought, a bird crowed in the distance.

Dew sighed.

He knew where to stand to keep himself hidden from view. It was not as if he had never camped a single spot in a map, waiting for people to come by for easy kills when he couldn’t expect quick respawns. As long as you found a good spot, that was a way to get your chicken dinners when you were not terribly familiar with your surroundings. Not something that would fly with an audience, mind you, but that was not an issue here. That said, he was not typically expected to sit still for hours on end before anything happened.

Sadly, he had agreed to do this stakeout thing properly, so he couldn’t well take a nap this time. Bored as he was, he found himself wishing something happened sooner rather than later. That, in turn, led to thoughts of what he should do when that time came, and that once again redirected his thoughts to the arrow he still held in his hand. More specifically, to the fact that it had not originally been meant for him.

“And I’m supposed to play decoy if things go south too, aren’t I?” He might not get a chance to get the relic to Pithy before things got ugly.

Taking a glance at the large snake monster lounging nearby, though, it occurred to him that there was a solution to that predicament.

“Here boy,” he said, patting his leg and drawing the snake’s attention to him. “See this? He said, holding the arrow out. “We need to get it to that lady in white we’ve been following around. Thing is, we can’t go and give it to her right now, and I probably won’t be able to go give it to her later. You with me so far?”

The creature stared blankly at him.

“Great. Well, I’m going to need you to hold onto this thing and go give it to her when I tell you. She took you to the bookstore yesterday, right?” He paused for a moment. “Do you know what a bookstore is?”

The snake tilted its head lightly.

Dew scratched his cheek awkwardly. “Place with all the rectangles?” At the snake’s silent stare he drew the shape in the air and added, “you know, like this?”

At that the snake let out a short hiss, bobbing its head forward.

Oh, good, it does understand. I feel like a crazy person when I’m talking and it just stares without doing anything. Dew went to place the object at his feet, but hesitated as a thought struck him. He paused to wrap the paper the note he had found with the arrow around its shaft before leaving it on the floor by the snake. “Great, then hold onto this for now.”

The creature loomed over the proffered object, sniffing at it curiously, before it reared back, shaking slightly. For a moment Dew wondered if the thing was scared of the relic, until he noticed its head bobbing up and down, as though trying to dislodge something from its throat. The snake made a retching noise, and an oval object only slightly smaller than Dew’s fist clattered on the ground.

“Nice. Is that a timer? Did you steal it from the apartment’s kitchen?” As the snake leaned down to swallow the arrow, Dew picked up the object, turning it in his hand curiously. “Probably mistook it for an egg.”

Turning the dial on a whim, Dew quickly realized that the snake had vomited something far more valuable than an oven timer.
The hound let out a surly grunt at the demoness’s answer. Yet, he found himself feeling pleased, the air around him losing some of its weight. He had prodded for a piece of the spider’s mind, and had received a more thoughtful answer than he had expected. That did not, however, mean he agreed with the reasoning.

“I have heard humans refer to such an outlook as ‘result-oriented,’” the hound drawled with heavy sarcasm, “eager as they are to spin deficiencies of character as desirable traits. Should that be the case, one must wonder what was achieved through this exercise.”

“To answer that, we’d have to look at what it caused. There is of course the obvious; the deaths of countless demons. Then there is the copious amounts of blood that the battle left in its’ wake. There is also the now raging fire which I presume we have you to thank for? Though there is no way your quarry knew that would happen.” Malvossia crossed both sets of her arms and pondered a moment before continuing. “It could have been exactly what it was. An attack, meant to breach the wall and storm the city. With the defences down there is a chance the attack might have succeeded and your quarry could have gotten what they wanted. If you have the resources to spare it’s worth taking a crack at your goal, even if there is only a slim chance of succeeding. Considering how weak these demons were, I doubt this attack cost them very much.” Malvossia stared out across the battlefield at the raging fire that looked like it would be burning for some time. With a disappointed sigh the demoness lowered her body to the ground and tucked her legs underneath herself; she crossed both sets of arms atop a crenulation and rested her head upon them. “And let us not forget the most classic of reasons. A distraction. If your quarry is in anyway intelligent -and it is best to assume they are- they would know the angels and demons beyond this stony barrier would be off trying to thwart their plans and would not remain within the city. With the defenses down, an attack would clear out any remaining foes within, the non-human sort anyway. But what do you think, Cerberus?”

“I question the point of attacking this place to begin with. The one who sent these demons off to battle, the one I sought to hunt down and kill, was the same demon that destroyed the other Seals of the Apocalypse. I recognized the snake’s scent in the wind the moment they showed themselves. With that said, no seal has been found within this city.” The hound blew a rough breath through his nose. Had the enemy’s goals changed since last time? Could it be that destroying only some of the seals had been its objective?

No, were that the case, would it still be sneaking in the shadows? The Imp described this one as one of the most powerful demons she had ever come across. Had it managed to restore itself completely, what need would there be to hide then?

Fenn shook his head. “As you said, a distraction seems likely at face value. However, this attack would not have given the snake an opportunity to act. Did you notice during battle, Crone? The demons we fought were but meat puppets. Living corpses. Weak as they were, slaying this warband in the first place must have taken some time. I can say with certainty, as well, that the snake was in the forest when I charged in. Even if it did not show itself, it was never truly unaccounted for.” The hound let out a short, caustic chuckle. “Even if its aim had been to infiltrate this place during the assault, you yourself have shown such measures are unnecessary simply for the sake of crossing these walls. It seems more likely, then, that the snake was testing the limits of its powers. Either that, or...” At that, the hound fell uncharacteristically silent, narrowing its eyes.

“Or…? You seem to be in a bit of a dramatic mood.” Malvossia tilted her head slightly so she could look at the wolf with two of her slitted eyes. “I must say” she continued, “it rather suits you. Paints you as a rather ponderous and prudent pooch.” The demoness giggled, at least it could be assumed to be a giggle as the sound she immited was that of a band of cackling demons.

“It was not my intention to amuse,” he groused.

She turned her gaze back towards the fire. “Don’t leave us in suspense my friend. Or…?”

“It occurs to me,” Fenn said at length, “that the snake may well have found allies to act in its stead.”

Malvossia quirked an eyebrow that she did not have. “You came to this conclusion, how?”

A white figure surrounded by a starry blackness flashed through his mind. Yet that is hardly the only party who could take an interest in the Seals’ destruction. Some are closer than we would wish, and need only to recognize the chance to act unnoticed when it is presented to them. The hound grumbled in annoyance at the turn his thoughts had taken. Thoughts that availed him naught, that could only lead him to indecision, where it was not his place to make those choices in the first place. Like a spider sitting on its web, jolting at every tremble of its threads. I forget myself.

“By assuming the worst, naturally. I have found such thinking often reaches closer to truth.” The hound gave a ponderous roll of his shoulders, and turned to leave. “I do not think this snake one to waste time so freely otherwise.”

“The human’s have a saying for assuming.” Malvossia giggled but did not elaborate further. “Best to keep on our toes and tackle what's thrown at us, rather than be concerned about could be’s and maybes.”

“There is wisdom in that, aye.” The dog let out a slow chuckle, sparing the demoness a glance. “Alas, wisdom is wasted on a restless hound.”

“So long my friend. I shall remain a little longer to help the humans strengthen the defences.”

The distressed researcher bit her thumb nervously as she watched the fight unfolding below, having pulled her vanishing act the moment the monsters had appeared. Samantha clung tightly to a tree branch some distance away from the melee, her camouflage keeping her out of the monsters’ sights.

And her teammates’, for that matter, which became somewhat worrisome when the half-demon Gideon pulled out his firearms. No amount of hazard pay would make up for being hit by a stray bullet or bolt of magic.

So Samantha thought, but this was already a touch better than her old solo expeditions. No armed escorts then, never mind hazard pay.

“Not to say,” she whispered to herself, a hint of giddiness mixing into her voice, “where else am I going to see a Nephilim in action?”

Indeed, the tall warrior had torn into the group of Assaults with an ease fitting the scraps of information she had found regarding the dead race. To their credit, Gideon and even Souta were not far behind. “In fact, this fight is going so well I wonder if I could convince them to take one alive… well, as alive as an undead monstrosity could be.” She doubted they would listen to her, though, particularly if they had to carry the squirming beast while they looked for the spiders’ den. It already was hard enough to simply try to ask questions about the Council given the company without mixing in bizarre vivisection related favors.

She would have to content herself with gathering samples from the corpses. The largest and most twisted of which, she noted, was slowly stumbling towards the brawl. A brawl which, while she had been too busy staring, had moved closer until the Frankenstein’s monster of a demon was marching uncomfortably close to her hiding spot.

Samantha, shifted against the branch, trying to reposition herself to see if she could move somewhere farther away—when a shuddering tremor made her stomach sink.

The branch splintered, and she fell with a surprised yelp, her camouflage broken. She landed unceremoniously on her back, letting out a dizzied groan as she propped herself up to took a look at her surroundings.

Her gaze quickly found the team she had been sent with, noting with some embarrassment that they were all staring in her direction. “Come now,” she half-slurred, “is this really the first time you see a scientist fall from the sky?”

It took Samantha a moment to realize they were not in fact focused on her, but on something past her. She felt a tremor on the ground, and blinked. Swinging her head back, she came face to disfigured face with the abomination she had been keeping tabs on moments earlier.

Ah, of course. How could I forget?

The creature lifted a maimed arm, its mouths opening to let their keening wails. But no wail was louder than the scientist’s as she stood and dove away with terrified briskness. The blow missed her by inches. At the same time the flap on her knapsack flew open, and pages of parchment flew out as though carried by a strong wind, flapping onto the creature’s face while Samantha fled into the bushes.


By the time Fenn left the forest, the flames had already reached the tree line. The fires danced phantasmagorically behind his black silhouette as he lumbered towards the city’s walls.

He noted that they remained largely in the same state he had left them, proof that he had not overestimated the Crone’s ability. Humans milled above the ramparts, some facing the flames while others ran to and fro on tasks of their own.

When the hound came into view, some of the weapons mounted atop the wall turned to face him. Fenn sneered at them. He almost wished for them to open fire, if only to give him an excuse to vent his frustration. The snake had eluded him. Had set puppets against him in the face of his challenge. Had remained hidden even as the hound proceeded to turn the surroundings to cinders. The seething rage had bolstered his flames, and even with the flames no longer dancing over his fur, the air was heavy with the hound’s restrained anger.

He clambered onto the ramparts. Truthfully, he had little interest in what the humans had to say. Even when he first approached the walls, his intent had been only to kill time while prey came to him. The pretext of defending the settlement from the horde of demons had been all but abandoned when he had caught a whiff of the snake. He did, however, have a reputation to uphold. If not for himself, then for his warlord. Had another demon not been at the wall, he may not have had such freedom to act.

The Crone was already waiting above the ramparts, along with the man who had sought their aid at the wall. Fenn approached, ignoring the tension among the observers. Then ignoring the man’s stuttering thanks, until he finally saw fit to leave. He was not the only one to do so. After the display, the wall’s occupants had decided to give the two demons a wide berth.

“This is the second time this snake eludes me,” he remarked gruffly, glaring at the burning forest. “The first time, my quarry struck a blow while I was weakened and preoccupied with another foe, then left before I had a chance to recover. This time, it avoided me entirely. Even alone, it ignored my challenge. What does this tell you, Crone?”

In the face of Thoúlē Aristeas’s praise, Sand bowed her head lightly in acceptance. The warm reception was a relief for her, but she could not shake the feeling that this much was expected of them. In fact, Sand felt they had failed to perform to the level they could have achieved.

Had it not been for the surprising efficacy of Violet’s semblance, coupled with Sand’s fortunate decision to fetch the rifles, the flock of Grimm may have posed a real problem for the exposed team of Huntsmen on the ship’s hull. Another may have left it at that and been happy for the lucky coincidence, but the fact that Violet’s use of her power had taken her by surprise made Sand keenly aware that she did not really understand her team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Where she wanted to be happy with the results, the frustration in that thought lingered in the back of her mind even as she addressed the noblewoman.

“We’ll take the chance to rest, in that case.” She glanced back at her teammates, gesturing at the two rifles she was carrying. “I’ll go ahead and return these in the meantime.”

With that, Sand left the others to their own devices. She was quick to find the officer that had lent her the weapons, a young man wearing the Atlas uniform that could only have been a few years older than her.

“Nice work out there,” he said when he saw her approach. “It’s always a treat seeing Huntsmen at work.”

“Just glad to be of service,” she answered, almost automatically.

The man hummed, taking stock of the weapons in her arms. “Looking to put those away, right? Give’em here.” As she handed him the weapons, and just before she took the chance to return to the others, he added, “wait here.”

Sand blinked, pausing to watch the man disappear into the ship’s armory. A moment later he came back out, still holding one of the rifles in one hand, and a harness in the other.

When he presented them to her, Sand found herself reaching out to grab them. “What’s this?”

“For the missy back there,” he said. “After seeing her shoot in the screens, we figured she deserved to keep one. Got a feeling we’ll all be better off with a rifle in her hands, anyhow. Let her know she’s free to keep it if she wants.”

“Oh. That’s unexpected,” Sand said as she took the ‘gifts’ and tried not to dwell on the fact that she was not being given anything despite her having been outside sniping the approaching Grimm as well. “I’m grateful, but are you sure this is fine? Won’t handing out hardware like this get you in trouble?”

“Don’t worry about it. I cleared it with the captain. Turns out these things go missing all the time.” The man winked at her. “For example, when someone tosses it away in a rush to keep a friend from falling off an airship and the gun happens to slide off the edge down to Grimm-infested wildlands.”

Sand blinked as comprehension dawned on her, and the man let out a self-satisfied chuckle.

“Well done, team,” Sand said when she returned to the others. She didn’t waste time presenting Violet with her prize. “Especially you, Violet. You impressed the crew so much, they want you to keep the guns we borrowed. Be sure to thank them before we’re done here.”

With her hands now free, she stood back, pausing to rub her forehead and pull her hair back. It was nervous fidgeting, she knew. Part of her wanted to leave the conversation at that, but she still felt the need to at least address what had happened above.

Taking a deep breath, she continued. “We did well this time, but that could have turned out for the worst very easily. Robert, you need to be more aware of what’s happening around you. We’re a team, but we may not always be there to catch you if you fall.”

This is turning out wrong, she realized. Her intent had not been to single out one of them in the first place. Assigning blame was a messy affair either way. The instructions about sticking to her or Trad that she had given before they went to the ship’s roof had meant to prevent situations like that, but who was she supposed to blame for it not working? Robert for straying too far? Trad for not keeping closer tabs on Robert? Herself for staying close to Violet instead of Robert? Or for not specifying who should pair up with who? An attempt to make their battle plan flexible may simply have made it difficult to follow properly.

She sighed. “That goes for all of us, I suppose. This isn’t just a training exercise. Let’s be more careful next time.”

For a place they had been calling the ‘ICE CreAM facility’, the place where the ship alighted gave Sand an intense sense of disquiet.

She and the rest of SVRT followed Thoúlē as she dismounted the aircraft to meet the solitary person awaiting their arrival.

Though it took her a moment to realize it, there was something odd about the arrangement that did not inspire confidence in the young Huntress. It did not surprise her that there were no other aircrafts to be seen in the landing strip— given the location and purpose of this facility, as well as the difficulties they had encountered in the way, she imagined air traffic was nonexistent for most of the year.

What did bother her was the absence of any visible landing crew aiding the descent or storage of the aircraft. She also found it strange that the white-haired man waiting for them had the need to ask who they were. Had there not been any communication between the ship and the facility prior to landing?

She shook away the intrusive thoughts. As far as she knew, it was explicitly because the facility saw so little traffic that none of the infrastructure one would expect was in place. Letting her paranoia run rampant without any context was simply not a good idea.

Better to defer to the inspector where unsure, she resolved, glancing at the noblewoman and waiting for her answer.

@Guess Who@Awesomoman64@Abillioncats@Crimmy
Fenn continued his inexorable pursuit through the forest with nary a thought for the obstacles in his way. The earth and trees in his wake bore marks of his advance in the form of deep gouges where his claws had sunk, broken tree branches, bent trunks, and large scores in numerous trunks where coarse black scales had brushed against them.

The hound had locked into a singular scent, one he had felt before, faintly, at the site where he had first seen the destruction of a Seal. One that had once again been present when a thin blade had split his hide and torn his stomach open. The scent was stronger now, burrowing into his snout with a numbing intensity. It reminded him of the sickeningly sweet stench of rot.

It was in his mouth now too.

Along with broken tree branches, his path was littered with the bodies of the crazed demons, where they had accosted him in his path. The hound had answered with fangs, claws and monstrous strength, and many of the creatures left behind were now missing limbs, or had had their bodies bent at impossible angles. A good number had not even been killed, left instead to squirm and cry piteously in their broken bodies, but the hound hardly cared.

The sickly scent may have been wafting from them, but they were not its source.

Even as he had been forced to slow down his approach to accommodate for his bulky frame amidst the trees, it did not take long for Fenn to reach the scene of the carnage.

Numerous demons lay dead inside the clearing, haphazardly strewn about wherever they had fallen. The corpses were covered in wounds, the still fresh blood splattered over their surroundings seeping into the forest floor. The cloying scent he had followed mixed with that of the charnel, stagnating in the air over the clearing and giving it a dense, viscous quality, almost as though he was breathing in mud.

The hound marched to the center of the clearing, senses attuned to his surroundings. If his prey was to be found in the vicinity, however, it had concealed itself capably.

An irritated growl built inside the demon’s throat. “I know you can hear me, snake!” he challenged, powerful voice sweeping over the still surroundings. “You who sunk your fangs in me before you shed your skin! Face me, so I may return the favor!

Outside the hound’s field of view, there was movement. Three of the demons that until then had been as corpses stirred. Darkness cloaked one of them, a black cloud lifting it above the ground, while the other reptilian monsters brought their limbs under them and began to creep forward. From underneath the cloaked demon’s darkness, a single, clawed appendage was raised with a sharp talon pointed at the back of the hound’s neck.

It the blink of an eye, it had stretched and covered the distance.

But rather than soft flesh, it was caught in Fenn’s fangs. A baleful eye stared back at the small demons as steaming blood began to drip where the blade was being held.

The two reptilian demons shrieked, surging forward. Fenn turned to face them, roughly pulling at the cloaked demon by its talon. With a heavy wrench of his head, he smashed it to the ground, the blade finally snapping from the force. Fenn swatted away the first of the smaller demons with his tail as he turned, but as the other jumped forward over it, the hound brought up one of his tree-trunk arms, snagging it off the air.

Without stopping, Fenn raised it over his head and leapt at the cloaked demon. Dazed from the previous impact, it barely had a chance to look up before the combined weight of Fenn’s fist and the squirming demon in his grasp fell over it with a meaty crunch.

The two creatures shrieked and squirmed as he held them under his weight, motes of flame beginning to gather where he held them. Finally, with a snarl, the hound pressed down. A detonation rocked the clearing, fire spreading from its center.

There, the hound turned, bringing his weight away from the charred remains. Where since he had arrived at the human’s settlement all that had adorned his scales were the chains affixed to his arms, orange flames now rose and flickered over his fur, bristling like raised hackles.

The hound spat the remains of the cloaked demon's bladed talon, and snarled furiously as he saw more of the corpses rise, the cloying scent growing in intensity the moment the purple poison seeped into the bodies. From beyond the confines of the clearing, he could hear the screeches of more demons rising, the forest coming alive with their cries, yet his quarry still did not show itself.

COWARD!” Fenn howled. “It shall be known that the dreaded architect of the Seals’ destruction quails at the thought of facing a single hound!

When all he received in response to his taunt were the howls of the newly revived creatures, the hound’s expression grew darker. His lips moved, the words now low and grave, if no less filled with menace. “Very well, then. I shall leave nothing left of this place for you to hide in.”

The ground under the corpses glowed for but a moment before plumes of fire rose from under them.

From afar, smoke and flame could be seen beginning to rise from the forest, the unchecked fires brought about by the demon beginning their rapid spread.

Eventually Sand’s sights fixed on a cloud of blackened wings in the distance. She knelt for better stability and held her rifle in place, taking aim at the center of the flock for a moment before she lowered the rifle with a dissatisfied grunt. At the current distance she would just have to spray and hope that at least some bullets hit their targets, but she feared she might run through her ammo too quickly.

She was about to aim down the sights again when Violet stepped past her. Sand looked up, surprised, as the girl aimed down the length of her rifle and placed the hand on the trigger.

Sand raised an arm in protest. “Wai—”

The rifle’s rapport swallowed her complaint. Not in a volley or a burst, like she herself had been considering, but a single tap of the trigger. Off in the distance, a single shadow fell from amidst the larger group and vanished some distance below. As if to deny any claims that it had been a lucky break, the rapport rang again and was followed by yet another shadow dropping from the flock. The Grimm began to spread out in the face of this sniper, but even then, Sand simply watched dumbstruck as Violet continued to matter-of-factly kill the creatures with only a short pause between shots.

This aim can’t be natural, can it? she found herself wondering. Last time I looked, she didn’t have eagle eyes. Then again, there was something in the information she had been given regarding their new team member that could work as an explanation. There had been a note about the Huntress’s arrows tracking targets affected by her semblance, but it had not occurred to her that this effect could manifest with other weapons.Though in hindsight, there was no reason to think that. She was not born with that bow in her hands either. In the end, handing her a rifle to handle the Nevermores had been a stroke of luck.

By the time Violet stopped to reload, the number of Grimm had been halved.

“Maybe you should have given her both rifles,” Trad commented from behind her. Given what she had just seen, she was not sure she should treat that as a joke either.

“Let me keep a semblance of dignity here,” she called back regardless. Then she opened fire, and a smattering of black feathers burst from the side of one of the approaching beasts before it began to plummet. One thing was certain. The Grimm that remained had managed to close most of the gap, and as impressive as Violet’s shooting was, she would not be able to kill them all on her own before they reached the ship.

Recognizing this, the other three members of the team joined in the shooting, and were only moments later followed by the thunder of the ship’s own cannons.

In fact, the situation seemed to be set so overwhelmingly in their favor that Sand thought she had misheard when a panicked yell rose from behind her.

"Guys! Someone help!"

When she whirled around and saw the Nevermore hauling off with Robert in its clutches, her blood ran cold.

‘How!?’ she wanted to howl. She had been certain that they had kept all the Grimm far from the ship, but now it was patently obvious that one had slipped notice and closed the gap.

“Violet!” Trad shouted hard into the wind, “Take that thing down! We’ll hold the others off.”

Violet had already turned, drawn by the scream like the rest, and was fixing her sights on the bird. However, she hesitated when she saw the fall that waited under Robert. Sand caught a glance thrown her way, as if asking for confirmation. As if it was needed. The bird was a Grimm; it was going to drop him one way or the other.

Sand surged forward. She tossed the rifle towards the elevator platform, not bothering to check where it landed, then slipped her hands down to the cases at her belt. The metal unfolded at her touch, covering her forearms in heavy, black gauntlets.

She needed a lifeline if she wanted to catch him, she knew, but her claws were liable to break if she tried to stab them into the flying vessel’s metal hull. Sand futilely scanned her surroundings as she ran, deeply aware that she only had a few steps left before she would have to jump, until a thought struck her.

“Trad! Hold these! Your semblance!”

Blades slid out of slots over her wrist left wrist, followed by metal cables, and she spun, swinging her arm outwards. The whip-like cables spun out of the slots, the blades travelling in an arc towards the Huntsman. Sand barely had time to see Trad bring up his rifle and snagging the wires before she had to return her focus to what was in front of her.

The last step.

Not too far in the empty air, Robert let out a panicked scream as the Nevermore let go of his clothes and gravity reasserted itself over him.

Sand leapt after him. Above her, the rapport of weapons and a pained screech sounded out, but her focus was on Robert’s stretched hand an inch away from hers.

There was a spark, and suddenly her right gauntlet had wrapped tightly around Robert’s arm. With her prize secure, she braced herself and locked the metal wires spinning out of her left gauntlet. With a wrenching motion, the downward fall turned into a swing, and the two dangling Huntsmen crashed against the ship’s metal hull. The jarring impact drew a hissing breath from her, but the tight grip on Robert’s arm did not slacken.

For the next few seconds, the pair only dangled from the side of the aircraft, wind rushing against their ears.

It took a moment for Sand to gather enough of her wits to take stock of their situation. Up above, the sounds of shooting had stopped. No more Grimm were visible. It also seemed, judging by the fact that they were not both free-falling into the wilderness, that Trad had managed to catch and hold the wires in place. Down below, against a backdrop hundreds of feet away, Robert stared up at her from only two arm’s lengths away.

“Thanks.” He breathed. “For a second there, I was thinking my last name was some ominous foreshadowing I never got until now.”

Sand gave him a dull stare, wondering if she had heard that right, before shaking her head in defeat. “Let’s not talk until we are back inside the ship,” she stated.

Almost as if of their own volition, the metal wires began to retract into Sand’s gauntlet, slowly pulling the two upwards.

@Guess Who@Awesomoman64@Abillioncats@Crimmy
Dew frowned at the piece of paper Pithy had left in front of him. “Mind running through that again for me?”

The woman sighed. “I have left a few messages inside the building. One in a room on the fourth floor, pointing whoever finds it to the entrance. I have no doubt that they will find that one once they get to that floor.”

“Why was that?”

“I destroyed the handle to imitate a break-in, made it as noticeable as I could without tearing the door down.” She shrugged. “If whoever comes is observant enough to realize a whole drawer full of keys is missing, they may be suspicious of it, but I doubt they would ignore it.”

“...right. And the others?”

“There is one hidden at the entrance, demanding that whoever shows their phylactery must go to a bookstore down the street on their own, if they wish to find me. This paper,” she said, pointing at the one on the table with her good hand, “is here in case someone comes across this room. In any case, your role is simple. You merely need to find a place to keep watch over the front entrance—”

“—And make sure that whoever comes follows the demands in your letters.”

“Precisely. I trust you won’t fall asleep this time?”

Dew scratched his head, the frown never leaving his expression. “One more time, please.”

“I am starting to think you are mocking me, Dew,” she said with a reproachful look. She was likely growing exasperated with him, but he did not feel particularly sympathetic.

“I’m just trying to make sure I’m not hearing wrong. Why are your plans always so stupidly complicated? What’s the point of having them explore the building? Why not just start shooting the moment someone shows up?”

“After what I saw last night, I am not keen on killing the other competitors.” She sighed. “But that is not the reason, truly. Ever since Nero foiled my ambush on you when we first fought, I have had a suspicion that killing another competitor without a battle may somehow jeopardize the Crucible. Moreover, having them search the building buys me time to go to the bookstore and prepare.”

“Why not just start at the bookstore, then?”

“If I have you, my next opponent may have allies of their own. This gives us a chance to isolate the one person we care about. It also means I have to stay inside this building to lead them here. At least until they go in.”

“What if they’re alone? Wouldn’t it be better to keep them in the open where I can see them instead of sending them somewhere else?”

“Only if they do not have allies in hiding, which I would rather not assume. You should follow them to corner them in the bookstore if no one else appears, however.”

Dew rubbed his eyes, groaning. This was one of those moments where he couldn’t tell if the woman was smarter than most or simply prone to overthinking every little thing. “There are so many ways this can go wrong.”

Pithy nodded seriously. “It is good that you can tell. I would be shocked if this worked smoothly, in fact, so it is likely that you will have to do more than watch.”

He thought he knew where she was going. “So if they don’t go into the building, or ignore the warnings, you want me to kill them?”

Pithy paused. Then, heavily, she said, “If they do not have one of those flying machines with them, and they appear to be looking for us, yes. Otherwise, and this is important, Dew, shoot the machine first. It will keep them from finding me too quickly if they go off-script early. Whether they cross my wards when they enter the apartments, or I hear your gunfire, I will make for the store.”

Before he could open his mouth, Pithy preempted him. “Escaping should not be an issue. Even if someone is left guarding the entrance. I found a few back exits while I was exploring yesterday, and if all else fails, leaving through a window on the other side of the building should work fine.” She shook her head. “No, I’m reasonably certain I can leave without being noticed. If something goes wrong, however, as much as it scares me to say, you will have to use your best judgement. You may have to buy time to let me relocate, and then lead them to me.”

“I guess I can do that. What’s with that bookstore, though? Why do you want to go there?”

A ghost of a smile tugged at her lips, the white of her teeth flashing like a knife. “Let us say that, with any luck, I should have the advantage if a fight breaks out there.”

“So you want to fight alone? With one hand?”

“I’m as good with my left hand as I am with my right.”

“It’s still one arm.”

Pithy narrowed her eye and looked away in a way Dew did not at all like. “Let me worry about that.” The moment had gone as quickly as it had come, as Pithy returned her regard to him. “Nonetheless, you can keep Bonesword’s cutlass.” She nodded at the weapon, which had remained resting on the counter, forgotten since the previous day’s altercation with the snake. “I do not expect I will have much use for it.”

Dew grimaced and glanced away. He never thought he would feel bad over the prospect of free loot. “What about the plant snake?” he asked, in a last effort to mount some resistance to the sorceress's unreasonable reasoning.

The creature, which until then had been curled in on itself, lifted its head as it became the topic of the conversation.

Pithy tilted her head at it, then glanced at Dew. “Take it with you. It would make it harder for me to leave the building if I had to worry about it.”

“I’m more worried it might try to eat me again.” He grunted. “Fine.”

“One last thing.” Pithy said as she stood and began making her way to the windows. The first few rays of daylight had begun to make their way in from the outside.

“Yeah?” Dew answered, feeling compelled to stand and follow.

Pithy paused as she looked down. Following her gaze, Dew saw nothing untowards.

Indeed, all the clones that had appeared during the night seemed to have banished with the coming of sunrise. Dew snorted. He supposed he'd gotten lucky. The first time he had been told he would have to leave the building, he had asked about them. Maybe he should have expected it, but Pithy's answer had been a blank stare something to the effect of 'What about them?'

He didn't even know if he hated or respected that.

“Once you leave, don’t come back here until the enemy arrives or the sun is about to go down." Pithy said, bringing his attention back to the moment. "I won’t know who it is that is breaking my wards.”

"Yeah, yeah. I got it."

That had been less than an hour ago.

Dew sat near large windows now, looking out at the streets below with his sniper rifle resting on his lap. The front of the building where they had stayed the previous night was right before him, and the entrance was clearly visible from his perch. What was also visible, was a wooden cart that had not been there the night before.

Dew wondered what specifically had made him change his mind about Pithy. They had spent half of the previous day at each other’s throats, and if he was going to be honest now, he still did not like the woman one bit.

Still, after his blunder when laying a trap for Nero, he had begun to think that he may have jumped to conclusions about her and her reason for coming. He had expected to be chewed out when he called Pithy to him after falling asleep and missing Nero, but he had not expected her to start crying midway through it.

Dew let out an exasperated breath. “Shit. Maybe I’m just a mark for crying girls. I'm really hoping she mellows out if she gets what she wants." He frowned, already unconvinced. "Watch her turn around and try to conquer the world anyway if she wins.” He scowled, looking at the objects in his hands. “And now this. Shit.”

Dew held the prize the cart below had hidden, as well as the note that had come with it, in his hands.

It had taken him a moment to understand the handwriting, but what he could read had surprised him.

“The idea that the ice queen could have friends is unbelievable,” he said jokingly to his companion.

The nearby snake hissed a reply.

“Hm. Everyone’s a critic.”

There was no denying that the arrow he now held in his hands had been meant for Pithy. If it was like the one at the art gallery, the one Nero had told them about, it seemed like it would come with a new batch of powers for whoever stabbed themselves with it. However, she had expressly told him not to go looking for her after he left, so he could hardly run up to the building and hand it over.

He had picked it up—of course he wasn’t dumb enough to leave an obvious power-up lying around—but now he was left with the choice of what to do with it.

The idea of using it on himself was very attractive. And why not? If half the College staff had used one, there was no reason to think it would be a one-use item. And it was more than that. Every time Pithy had spoken, it had been clear to him that she was looking for any possible edge over the competition. If he was really going to help her win, any advantage would be welcome.

He nodded, satisfied by that reasoning as he turned the arrow in his hand. It certainly wasn’t like he was simply excited to get new superpowers or anything.

Letting out his breath in anticipation, he brought the arrowhead down on his bicep.

In the end, Pithy had chosen to wait for her next enemy, trusting that they would have to find their way to her if they wished to claim their wish. For that reason, she now stood in a small room on the fourth floor of the apartment building where she had stayed the night, only a few doors away from a room sporting a cracked frame and a largely missing handle. Boxes filled with garbage were pressed against the back of the room, and a chute covered by a shiny metal lid was visible on a nearby wall.

Regardless of her surroundings, Pithy was absorbed in other matters. A cold glow enveloped her bandaged hand. She had left it to Dew to wrap them for her, the task having proved somewhat cumbersome with a single hand, but rather than stopping at the wounds over her fingers, the man had continued onwards to mummify not only each individual finger, but the better part of her right forearm.

“It looks cooler this way,” he had told her by way of an excuse. Weary of quarreling with the fool, she had simply let him do as he wished.

Now, however, she had unfastened the bindings ever so slightly so she could see some of the pale skin as she laid down her preparations. As much as it pained to admit it, Dew had a point. The dead weight would only put her at a disadvantage.

She could not move the inert muscle. However, she could work with something else.

Even if she dreaded the idea that had occurred to her, it was a simple matter if she thought of of it logically. Her time was running out. She was not sure if her time in this new realm, or her exposure to these phylacteries had accelerated the rate of erosion, or if this was simply what had awaited her had she not taken the College's offer, but that did not matter now. She simply needed to last until she could make a wish, and any time beyond that was, simply enough, a commodity.

It just so happened, then, that commodities were meant to be traded.

Violet’s demonstration made her wonder if the girl had had the chance to use Atlesian weaponry before, or if she was simply that comfortable around firearms. Still, Sand nodded, satisfied by the answer, and produced a magazine from under her vest.

“These hold thirty rounds each,” she said as she passed it on to her teammate. “With luck, we won’t even need to reload, but...” she trailed off, shrugging.

The lighthearted exchange between the rest of the team made it clear that no questions would be forthcoming, and when even the shrinking Violet joined in the conversation, Sand knew there was no point in delaying matters further. She pressed the button to close the elevator, and the platform shuddered under them as it began to rise. Looking up, she could see the hatch leading to open air begin to scrape open.

“You’ll have other chances, Trad,” Sand said, before taking a steadying breath. “The day’s just getting started after all.”

In the intervening moments before the elevator brought them to their destination, Sand felt there was time to say one more thing as leader. A last instruction, or a warning.

She opened her mouth to speak, but a jumble of half-finished thoughts tugged at her. She could give a cautionary warning not to waste ammo until the birds were close enough to shoot. She could share her fear that shooting the flock too early may make them spread out while the Grimm were still too far too shoot accurately, and that it might be best to wait for the cannons to open fire. She could impress upon them that should the Grimm get too close for the cannons, they would become the last line of defense for the airship.

It felt like so much clutter. Everything that needed to be said had been said, and anything else felt like it would simply get in the way of what they needed to do. She hesitated, then closed her mouth again just as they reached the opening.

Sand squinted against the rushing wind, moving a few heavy steps forward and away from the platform. Motes of light at her feet revealed the use of her semblance. She raised her weapon and scanned the skies for the incoming Grimm, ponytail whipping wildly behind her as she turned.

Earlier she had said that this would just be target practice, but she had largely said this to ease any nerves. Both in the others and in her.

She could handle a rifle as well as your average Atlas-trained fighter, but she had always preferred close-quarters. Combined with the cold wind making it difficult to keep her eyes open and the occasional trembling of the aircraft below her throwing off her sights, she feared that she might have been too optimistic.

@Guess Who@Awesomoman64@Abillioncats@Crimmy

Once the inspector had dismissed them, Sand had simply nodded and turned to the rest of the team, telling them to settle down for the flight. Seats had been reserved for them near the back-end of the bridge, out of the way of the flight crew, and she was quick to claim hers.

Time went by slowly, the only things to occupy her being idle daydreams, the rhythmic sound of Thoúlē’s feet against the floor of the airship during her occasional strolls throughout the bridge, and the occasional bout of conversation between her teammates. After a time listening to the droning murmur of the turbines, she had diverted most of her focus towards staying conscious.

Just as she resolved to match the inspector’s example and stretch her legs, an announcement from one of the crew members scattered the cobwebs from her mind.

"We have a flock of Nevermores inbound. Visuals confirm around sixty individuals. Your orders, captain?"

Sand listened to the Captain’s response, now wide awake, and was not surprised when the crew’s focus turned to them. It was time for them to play their part.

And time for me to put on my act, she added, feeling the flutter of nerves in her stomach.

“We’re on it.” She answered crisply, satisfied by the steadiness of her voice, before glancing at the others. “Go ahead to the elevator. I need to check on something, but I’ll be right with you.”

True to her word, no sooner had the door to the bridge slid close behind the three members of SVRT that it opened again to let Sand through. This time, however, she held an Atlesian service rifle in each hand.

“Leave it to Atlas to keep spare weaponry even in their research vessels,” she commented, pre-empting any odd looks, “now catch.” At that, she tossed one of the weapons at Violet.

Cradling the remaining rifle into a comfortable grip in her arms, Sand explained, “Robert and Trad may be able to resupply before we head out to inspect the facility, but arrows and blades are harder to come by than bullets. There’s really no reason to burn through our equipment before we even touch ground, so I thought we could borrow these.” She began walking, motioning them forward with a tilt of her head as she moved past them. “Elevator should be right ahead, come on.”

Expecting them to follow, she continued. “As long as they’re not too large, between us four and the ship’s cannons a murder of Nevermores this size should be your regular target practice. Just don’t let them get too close. That said, it’s going to be windy up there, so try to stay low and close to a handhold.” She glanced back, hoping to drive this home. “Falling off would be a problem, so stick close to me or Trad if there aren’t any. We can anchor ourselves down if we need to, isn’t that right?”

Finally reaching the elevator, she stepped inside. “Might be hard to hear each other up there, so last chance for questions. Anything on your minds? You know where the safety is on that thing, Violet?”

@Guess Who@Awesomoman64@Abillioncats@Crimmy
Pithy gasped, throwing her eye open with a start, and immediately regretted it.

Frozen air burned her lungs, and fire blossomed along her ribs and under her jaw wounds disturbed by the motion.

Yes, she was wounded. Long cuts along the underside of her jawline and along the side of her ribs, blood welling from the openings cut open by a needle-like blade much like her own.

But her enemy was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the mirror-filled room she had been in moments ago, where the contestants had descended to fight each other in the name of their patron deity. There was not much of anything to be seen, truth be told, besides an endless expanse of white.

Snow covered the ground, while a dense mist shrouded her surroundings.

What happened? What is this place?

An image of her standing over a blonde woman, rapier pointed down at her, raced through her mind like a thunderbolt. Blue eyes like hers—they were nothing like hers—glared up at her—she would never have worn that expression—daringly, half-mad, as if looking forward to what came next. The feeling of flesh giving way, of an airway crumpling—what had been the point of that death?—under a metal tip.

“What a ghastly expression.”

Pithy found herself agreeing, until she realized her own lips were stretched into a wide smile.

Stilling her features, she turned slowly, trying not to upset her wounds. A figure had stepped out into view, so silently that she wondered if it had always been there, and she had simply missed it.

It was covered in a white cloak, shrouding it down to its feet. The face peering out from the hood’s opening was also white, featureless save for the large, black pits where its eyes would have been. It was taller than her, and the cast of its shoulders as well as the timbre of its voice brought a man to mind, but those were the only details she could make out regarding its identity.

It did not matter. She knew who she stood before.

“I come to have my wish granted,” she found herself saying.

“Yes. As do all who reach this place.” The voice was deep. The words spoken, steady, slow, but with a sharp clarity that was almost cutting. “Except for those whose wish is the struggle itself.”

“I have struggled for too long already.”

“Too long, yes. Now your time is short. You paid a price once so you could stand here today. Now, you wish to strike another bargain, but in order to gain what you want, it must come at no price to you. The toll must be paid by others.” The mask paused. “Perhaps you are too eager to pay.”

The image of the blonde woman’s last, blood-choked gasp flashed through her mind.

Stung, Pithy scowled towards the white expanse, unable to meet the masked figure’s gaze. “Such a wish should not have come at a price in the first place,” she spat. “Do you judge me, then?”

“The judgement has already been made. Should you emerge victorious from among the other Champions, one of the wishes within you shall be granted.”

Her excitement was short-lived. “What do you mean by ‘one of the wishes’? There is no other wish; I am not of two minds about this.”

“No, not about this. Rather,
you are of two minds. The price you paid, after all, was to take something else into yourself. A child of this realm. An open gate.”

Gradually, puzzlement morphed into a trickle of terror. Not here. It could not get in her way now, when she had gone so far.

“ No, you cannot mean that. Such a wraith has no ego of its own! And even if it did, a bargain was struck!”

“A trap was set, rather, but that is a matter of semantics. In any case, just as you affected a change in yourself by coming into contact with this being, so did it change in return.”

Pithy closed her eye, taking a slow breath. This was not something she wanted to hear. She had had her suspicions, but now that
he had said it, she could not easily dismiss it.

“What...” she began. “What does it want?”

The cloaked figure did not answer. Instead, it changed its posture, masked turning to face something behind her.

Pithy felt a searing heat coming from behind her. Forgetting all about her wounds, she whirled.

A large bonfire raged behind her, rising from within the snow as though fueled by it. And through it, as though standing at the other side of the flame, was a small silhouette.

A word rose over the roar of the flame.


Want blinked, shaking her head. Looking around, she saw she had returned to the tree-house hidden in the blizzard. She was still sitting on the chair before the dying fireplace, the emaciated Spite sitting at her side. She, too, blinked disorientedly, as though just coming out of a daze.

Eventually, Want found her voice. “What was that?”

“A dream,” rasped Spite, sluggishly shifting on her chair. “They originate somewhere else. A deeper place privy to its own hidden insights, ephemerally rising through the folds of consciousness. Easily forgotten.”

“That was my dr—“ Want paused. “Her dream?”

“Yes. Was this dream something that happened to the one outside?”
How should I know? she began to answer, but instead, she asserted, “That never happened.”

Another torrent of memories streamed into her mind, prompting a grunt of pain. Arriving into the city of Bren. Streets packed with people of every kind and origin. A room filled with mirrors. A woman with an otherwordly aura and savage blue eyes.

After a moment, Spite prompted, “Can you tell me about it?”

Want glanced at the emaciated woman, the headache slowly fading away. “Don’t you remember?” she asked, annoyed.

“Ever since I found myself here, I have no way to see what happens without. I only know what I can guess at from dreams and what others like you have told me.”

Want paused, her eyes turning towards the few flames still dancing on the fire place. While her gaze still felt like it was drawn to it, unlike before, she did not feel as though she was falling into them. She sifted through thoughts not her own, trying to piece everything together.

“The Elemental Championships,” she said.


“A combat challenge. They are a competition held before the Elemental Lords. The prize was a gift from your patron Lord.” Even as she said it, she could not help but feel it was strange, as though she could not decide whether she was recounting her own experiences or someone else’s.

Though perhaps strangest is the experience itself.

What were the chances that someone would find themselves in a situation like this twice in as many days?

Even Spite seemed skeptical. “Would the Lords truly grant mortals a wish that easily?”

“It would seem that the tournament is held every year, and the winner indeed receives their prize.”

The woman scowled, the gesture making the wrinkles on her face sink even deeper. “How is it structured?”

“Any can sign up to participate. All they need to do is to choose a Lord to represent. The entrants are then sent to different arenas, where they battle in a free-for-all against the other competitors in order to impress their patron.

Once a certain amount of time has elapsed, eight Champions are chosen, one for each Lord. These are restored to fighting conditions and are sent to a final arena to compete against the other Champions. Like before, the battle ends after some time, with one Champion being declared the winner. The means the Lords used to choose them are known only to them.”

“She was chosen to be a Champion?”

Want shook her head. “I—She did not make it past the first round. She... she killed a woman who faced her. That woman came to be Wind’s Champion.”

“The dead woman.”

“The Lords did not seem to consider that an obstacle.”

Spite grimaced. “Leaving us to dwell in dreams on the fact that even a corpse is of more worth to the gods than us.”

Want frowned at the callous remark. After a moment of reflection, she asked, “What about the end of it?”

Spite gazed into the fire. “As I said, I am warden, and gravekeeper.”

“Then the dying girl I carried—“

“No girls are dying in this world. To die one must be alive in the first place.” She began coughing at the end of that pronouncement, seeming to fold into herself.

Want stood from her chair, kneeling at her side and placing a hand at her back.

Spite shook her head, as though the gesture amused her. “Even if the wraith has changed, the nature of its existence has not. The bargain remains. Warmth... we kill ourselves a little every day, at every turn of a thought. Everyone does. Whether this place existed before the bargain was struck or not, I do not know—I was not here before that—but now it serves the specific purpose of holding our end of it.

That is why I asked you that when we met. It is no longer enough to simply feed the flames. The wraith’s wish is to be born, but the mother would not survive the process. We can, however, buy time. Please, Want. I implore you.”

Will you replace me?”

Want was silent for a long moment. Saying yes meant that she would stay in this cabin until the end of time. Slowly withering away in the hopes that one day, the problem would get fixed. Her other option, however, was braving the blizzard outside. It would lead her nowhere in this enclosed world, and she would eventually end up under one of those mounds surrounding the tree house.

Regardless, this was not an option she would be able to pass on to someone else. She could tell Spite was at the end of the rope, and the possibility that another would find this place was not worth considering.

Slowly, she shook her head. “There has to be a better way. What if the wraith has truly gained an ego? What if it’s something more? Staying the course will see it killed.”

“It’s killing us now,” Spite pressured. “We must make sacrifices. You leaving will doom us all. Please!” Spite’s hoarse voice devolved into a coughing fit at that point.

Want stood, shaking her head. She turned towards the door and started walking. At the doorstep, she turned around, chancing a glance at the emaciated woman.

She recoiled at the look of utter despair she saw in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

And then she was outside. She walked past the graves she had passed on the way there, stopping only when she reached the last row. The one dug-out mound, was now full.

She rocked back as if struck, and something jingled at her feet. Desperate for something else to focus her attention on, she glared downwards, eyes falling on the bell she had found at the tree-house’s entrance.

Remembering what had happened the last time she had seen the small item, Want knelt and grabbed it, slowly as to avoid jostling it.

When she looked up again, the scenery had changed.

The multitude of mounds had disappeared, as had the tree-house. In its stead was the white expanse she had become intimately familiar with as of late. Turning around, she saw a familiar figure curled over the snow, before a multi-colored flame, larger than she recalled even from her higher perspective.

She glanced at the bell in her hand and instantly understood its purpose.

Did you do this, Spite? What a roundabout way of living up to your name.

She set forth, steeling herself for what she might find. The small girl did not stir at her approach, dead to the world as she had been when she had last seen her. But not dead. She could tell by the slow rising and falling of her chest. Further, the bluish tint of frostbite had receded from some of her skin, the fingertips on her right hand showing some color, now.

This really was a losing battle, wasn’t it? It still feels as though it’s happening to someone else.

Want knelt at her side, cradling the girl in her arms. She was dimly amused by how easy it was to hold the small figure in her arms when she had had to drape the girl over herself to drag her out from the snow before.

Taking a steadying breath, she held the bell higher, and gently shook it. The crystalline pangs seemed to bounce over the landscape, echoing in her ears for long after she stilled the bell.

As she expected, the girl in her arms stirred. After all this time, piercing blue eyes stared up at her.

If the girl was what she thought, there was no telling what would happen. At this proximity, she had placed herself at its mercy.

She did not care. If the girl turned on her then as the monster she had come from would have, there would have been no hope in the first place.

Yet, she could not help but be surprised when those eyes welled with tears. The girl buried her head in Want’s chest, shoulders shaking as she weeped. Dumbly, Want wrapped her arms around her. With one hand, she slowly began to stroke the back of the small girl’s head.

They stayed like that for a time, a small girl sobbing in a woman’s arms.

Finally, the girl extricated herself from Want’s embrace, sniffing all the while. She looked up at her, face a mess of freezing tear-tracks and snot. Her mouth opened and closed, as though trying to remember how to speak.

Want brought her cloak up, delicately wiping the girl’s face. Once she finished, she asked, in a tone softer than she had thought herself capable of. “How long have you been out here, lil’ girl?”

“I-I d-don-d...” The thin, sweet voice faltered and trailed off. She shut her eyes, new tears trailing down as her features twisted with effort. Haltingly, she started once again. “I don’t... remember.”

“Have you seen anyone else out here?”

The girl shook her head, long black hair swaying with the motion. “No. I couldn’t find anyone, even though I walked for so long.” She sniffed. “Are you going to take me home, miss?”

Want gave the girl a rueful look. “I can’t.”

Panic gripped her features. “Why not?”

“Because I’m lost too.”

“Oh.” There was a pause, the girl looking down, as if embarrassed. “Sorry.”

Want smiled in spite of herself. “Me too. But are you okay with that?”

The girl nodded, and Want could feel her grip on her cloak tightening. “I missed others.”

“Do you have someone waiting for you?”

The girl nodded. “My parents. My sister.” Timidly, she added. “You look like her.”

Want stiffened. “Your sister?”

“My mom. You’re pretty, like her. Your skin is strange. though.”

“Yeah.” An ironic smile played on Want’s lips, while a nostalgia not all her own tugged at her heart. “Could you tell me about them? Ah, but before that...

“What’s your name, lil’ girl?”

A rattling sound drifted into the bedroom from the adjoining room, disturbing the sleeping figure’s rest. With some effort, a single blue eye fluttered open, drifting towards the window.

The cold, artificial lights coming from below rose to illuminate the gloom, and a purplish hue on the horizon told of how close to dawn the night was. Yet for all that, it was still night.

Pithy drew herself up on the bed, raising her right hand up to part the stream of black hair that had fallen in front of her to rub at her temple.

She winced as fingers clumsily thumped against her brow and groggily looked at the offending hand. Thin, pale, lady-like digits stared back, as they always did. However, they did not respond when she tried to move them. In fact, she felt nothing from her wrist up.

“Woah there, butterfingers,“ Dew’s voice echoed in her ears.

Her breath caught in her throat as the dread lurking in the back of her mind rose to the forefront, and she clutched the hand close to her chest tightly, as though a crushing grip might restore the sensibility in her nerves.

It did not.

A knocking at her door startled her, and she looked up just as Dew slid it open. “Pithy, we got a problem. Come see this.”

She was secretly glad for his interruption. Even as his uncharacteristically serious tone caused its own kind of disquiet, focusing on something other than her own condition gave her a chance to compose herself.

Dew did not wait for her, quickly retreating back into the dark living room.

She threw the sheets out of the way and swung her legs off to the side of the bed. She went to put on her boots, but hesitated as she began to reach out to them with her bad hand. Reconsidering, she stood and headed out, pausing only to snag a knife from the belt on the nightstand.

The sight of the plant snake silhouetted against the window greeted her. What passed for its snout was pressed tightly against the grass, while the rest of its body shivered, occasionally shifting and roiling with nervous energy atop the paraphernalia-filled cabinet right below it. One of these shifts sent a leather-bound suitcase tumbling down to the floor, joining a growing jumble of detritus and revealing to Pithy the source of the noise that had woken her.

“Dammit man, did no one train you not to climb over the furniture?” Dew clicked his tongue as he approached the window.

The creature gave a plaintive whine in response.

Curiosity overwhelmed her, and Pithy too walked closer to peer down to the streets below. She tensed as she saw the figures moving about. When she recognized what she was seeing, she cursed under her breath. “When did they appear?”

“Not sure,” he answered. “I woke up when the plant thing over there started knocking stuff off the table. That’s when I saw them.”

That must not have been too long ago, yet you seem wide awake. Has this rattled you, too? As far as they knew, these things could have been there since dark fell. They did not seem to be illusions either, or at least, she could not see nor sense anything that would indicate as much. She might have barely missed them the previous day.

Dew shivered. “This is creeping me out. I’m not the only one that recognizes some of those things, am I? For better or worse, that dragon girl is seared into my mind, for one, and I don’t need to tell you what has the snake all riled up.”

Indeed, he did not. She had already picked out the slim figure of a skeleton standing at the street corner, with various lumps growing on its figure. She had little doubt that those were fungi. Pithy saw multiple of these creatures, in fact, leading her to believe that the only thing keeping Bonesword’s snake from crashing through the window and leaping off the building to meet its ‘master’ was sheer confusion.

“It’s like someone took a pick of mobs and spawned a bunch of identical ones on the map. Boss mobs at that.”

“What do you make of it?” she asked.

Dew shrugged, grimacing. “I don’t know. I don’t like them. Everyone we saw when we got to the college felt like… people, you know? These guys, though? They give me a bad feeling. I kind of want to shoot them.”


“I only said I wanted to, no that I was going to. I’m not stupid, okay?” He scratched at his chin. “You have any idea what’s happening?”

“Ideas?” she repeated dryly. “Dozens. Each scares me more than the last.” Pithy glared at the figures milling about below. “I left wards in this building to detect intruders, but as far as I can tell none has been tripped. They seem to respect dwellings, at least.”

“So… what do we do about them? Who knows what’ll happen if we walk outside while they’re all out there. Are we just gonna sit tight until they leave?”

“As long as they do not threaten us…” Pithy frowned, glancing away from the window look at her companion. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Dew paused, features gathering in a pensive frown. “Guess it’s mornin’ as usual, then. Time to use the restroom.” Having proclaimed that, the man made a beeline for the bedroom.

Pithy ignored his frivolous tone, giving him a wide berth. The snake writhed besides her, letting out another sibilant whine. She grimaced at the piteous tone.

“Bonesword is gone. We all saw it happen. These things are… something else.”

The creature let out another complaint at that. To Pithy’s relief, however, it threw one last longing look out of the glass before retreating from the window, dejectedly coiling into itself in a corner of the room.

That left her free to focus on what was in front of her. Though what that was, she was not entirely sure. As she looked out the window, she brought the knife she still held close to her free-hand, beginning to absent-mindedly clean the dirt from under her nails with it.

What she saw was a troupe of mysterious figures taking the shapes of the Crucible’s competitors. Those who had been defeated, she assumed, given that she could see no copies of herself from her vantage point. Or perhaps, those who died she amended. Neither could she spy another Dew from where she stood, but there was no telling if there were other kinds hiding somewhere else.

The reason for their appearance was less simple to discern. As she had told Dew, a number of possibilities had occurred to her. The first was that their opponent had mobilized the night before, and had used some mysterious power to bring about what she was seeing now. She did not think that was the case, however. Had her opponent been searching for her, the building would have been breached long before Dew had roused her. Moreover, she expected to see one of Nero’s automatons flying around, had that been the case. Given that she had yet to see one of those enter a building, she had long come to the conclusion that the drones Nero had assigned to them performed poorly in enclosed spaces, and if her enemy had done as she had and hid the drone somewhere to hide their presence, they would have no way to track her.

The second, more worrying thought, was that this had been brought about by the powers of the College’s renegades. However, the same issues as before stood. If she was being hunted, the building being untouched when the doppelgangers may well have been milling about since night had fallen was highly unlikely.

If she abandoned the idea that she herself was being hunted, however the presence of the figures below took on an even more sinister cast. Taking a step back from her present circumstances, Pithy entertained the notion that this was not something localized to her area of the city, but rather that these things had manifested themselves throughout the entire City of Echoes. Was it possible, then, that these creatures were not only the means to an end, but an end in an of itself? Is it possible that the purpose of our battles was to gather information on our abilities? Could the gathering of souls be a pretext for getting the materials necessary to create these things? It would finally explain why the College had gone to such lengths to recruit beings from other realms.

Was the Inquisitional College attempting to build an army?

She shook her head. The idea did not line up with what she had heard from Nero regarding the College’s activities. If the rebellious scholars truly wished to stop the Crucible, they could not be linked to what she was seeing. Perhaps Dr. Barnaby had an inkling regarding the true workings of this Crucible, but even as he pursued his own plans, he had seemed as clueless to its proceedings as the rest of the College’s staff to her.

However, if she was to believe Nero, the College was not alone in its machinations. Someone had given the College the competitors’ names. Something had ensured they would reach them across worlds. She could no longer ignore the possibility that the College itself had been manipulated into hosting this ritual.

But then the question remains, why us? There are much greater powers than I in my own realm, so if whatever rests below this city has the power to peer into other worlds, to amass all this information about their inhabitants, why not another?

An answer she was far from fond of was quick to come to her, and that was that they were chosen because they would willingly play along for as long as was needed while the promise of a wish remained.

She smiled ruefully, painfully aware of the way doubt had insidiously crept up upon her. She had paused at every step of the way to try and work out the angle those who had set her on this path were working towards, and what had it availed her? See, Pithy? You have thought yourself into a nightmare. And still you would carry on because what other option is left to you aside from—

“What the hell are you doing!?”

Pithy looked up, startled by the exclamation. Dew closed in on her from the bedroom door, roughly grabbing onto her arm. Shock turning into anger, Pithy forcefully pulled away. “Get your hands off…” she began, but at that moment she felt something humid slide down her limb.

Her temper cooling, she looked down to her right hand. A red hue covered it, glimmering under the weak light drifting up from the streets below. Blood welled from deep gashes on her fingers, cuts she had performed mechanically, unconsciously, as though mindlessly scratching an itch. Drops of the viscous liquid dripped from the knife on her other hand, but for all of that, she had not—still did not—feel a thing from the mangled hand.

Dew grabbed onto her again, leading her to the kitchen counter with a serious expression, and this time, she did not resist.

They sat down on a pair of stools, with Dew bringing her arm close to examine her wounds. The first-aid kit they had pilfered earlier that day was already on the table.

The man’s attention shocked her. His eyes roamed over the cuts before glancing to her left, expression hardening into a scowl. “Of all things, the ice queen has to start cutting herself. Put that shit away already.” Blinking, she realized she was still holding tightly onto the dagger. The man grunted. “I can’t see anything like this. I’m turning on the lights.”

Pithy stirred. “No.”

Dew halted mid-way through standing up. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

Pithy let out a slow breath, placing the knife on the table, and held her good hand up, palm facing upwards. A weak, cold globe of light appeared over it, floating over the counter.

Grimacing, Dew sat back down. “Damn, how the hell am I supposed to bandage that…”

His expression took on a confused cast as he looked at the wounds, occasionally glancing back up to her as though to confirm something. She knew what he must have been thinking.

Cuts such as these should have been exceedingly painful, yet no such thing registered in her expression. Her arm was steady, not trembling in the slightest. Strangest still, the flow of blood was already stopping, and what had come out had a viscous, half-coagulated appearance. As though it had been left out for a night.

“I can’t feel it, Dew,” she confirmed. “But I need to see something. Can you clean off some of the blood, and hold one of the deeper cuts open?”

Dew wrinkled up his nose. “Are we supposed to be playing ‘Operation’, or something? I don’t think this is how it goes.” Nonetheless, he pulled out some cloth, and began wiping away at the red fluid. Once enough was wiped away that they could make out the wounds clearly, he began to do as he was told. “Is that… is that ice?”

Pithy nodded. She could also see the crystal that protruded from deeper in the scarred flesh, only slightly shallower than where bone would have been. “Good. It could have been worse.”

The man gave her an incredulous look. “’Could have been worse?’ Are you nuts? How aren’t you freaking out right now!?”

“And where is the point in that?” she hissed, before catching herself. She looked down at the mangled hand, tone growing somber. “Do you remember what I told Nero up in his tower?”

“Yeah,” Dew nodded. “You said you were sick, and you found a cure for it. For a while, at least. Now it looks like your cure was a new disease, and that’s how the College ropes you in. So, is that what’s gonna happen to you? You’re slowly turning into an ice sculpture?”

“In a manner of speaking. However, if I had time until the whole of my body was turned to crystal, I would not be in such a hurry.” Pithy sighed, glancing at the human besides her. He almost seemed concerned for her, which served only to make her more conflicted. She supposed it would not hurt to humor him now, however.

“It is unclear how magic contamination of this kind works, or interacts with the body, Dew. One would think having entire body-parts replaced with crystal would leave on in a state of constant agony. Or at least, that the cold would have an adverse effect on the rest of the body, but truth be told, I can hardly feel the crystal.” She frowned, then brought her good hand up, parting her hair so the mask of jagged crystal encasing part of her face was clearly visible. “No, let me correct that, I can feel the cold when I place my hand close or near to it, but I cannot feel the connecting tissue. It just feels like there is nothing there. In that regard, I suppose I must be fortunate.

“When I first lost my eye, there was no ice to speak of. One day, I simply could not see from it. It took some time for the crystal to spread like you see now, but when I first saw it, I realized that even if there was no pain, I was still losing parts of my body to it. And it has only continued to grow. You can live without one eye, but tell me, what would happen if this ice spread down just a little further? What if it covered my jaw, locking it in place? I would die of starvation, and that is merely one of the more merciful ends I envision. Imagine now, that this rot spreads to the brain—it is already very close, is it not? When I woke and could not feel my hand, my first fear was that the worst had come to pass, and I was only seeing the first, most innocuous effects.”

“So when you said it could have been worse, you meant—”

“Sensory deprivation is nothing. Partial paralysis? One can live with it. Physical distortion of the psyche and memory? Insanity? Or worse…” Pithy added in a low voice, before snorting bitterly. “Outright death would be better. Seeing ice in these wounds means I still have a chance.”

She could sense Dew’s regard for a silent moment, before the man sighed. “Pithy, I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve been thinking.”

“A truly shocking turn of events,” she drawled.

“Hardy-har-har. Seriously, though. I’ve been thinking that I don’t really need to be following you around. I probably could’ve bailed at any point where we split up yesterday.”

Pithy found herself tensing. Admittedly, she had hoped that the man would be too oblivious to notice it. However, the fact that the man had not only put it together, but confronted her about it left her confused and unbalanced.

She might have needed all the allies she could find, but Dew had made it patently clear that he wanted nothing to do with her. Why was he still with her, then?

Her disconcerted expression must have been visible even in the poor lighting, as he added, “Yeah, figured you were just bluffing.”

“It occurred to me as well, after a time.” Pithy replied, at length. “There is no doubt there is some compulsion at work, but no matter what I said, you remained too uppity for a proper thrall.” She glared at him suspiciously. “If you realized, why are you telling me? Is this where you attempt to extort me?”

“Uh… no.” Dew gave her an incredulous grimace, shaking his head. “Geez, lady, you just expect the worst out of everybody.”

The comment, coming from the buffoon that had been trailing after her for the previous day. He who had disrespected her at every turn, and almost ruined their best chance to find Nero again. If it had not been for him, she may never had had to play the guinea pig for Kno One’s wielder.

She had to throttle the urge to reach for the knife again.

Pithy spoke through gritted teeth. “Feel free to prove me wrong,”

“Look, when I joined this tournament really, I was just looking to be the best quickscoper out there. ‘Be,’ not ‘become’, and that’s important, because getting there’s not really something I want taken from me. For the most part I just thought that getting in on this and cleaning floor is what the greatest quickscoper would be doing.” He paused. “Well, there was also the bit about stopping all hackers forever, but you sort of screwed me out of that… you know, pretend I never said anything.”

“I have had ample practice,” she drawled.

“With what?”

“Get to the point, Dew.”

“Well, it’s just that at this point I’m not really against someone else getting their wish granted. Besides, I’m starting to think that the College people have a point when it comes to stopping some omnicidal maniac from getting his wish. I mean, you don’t know what sort of people are in the running.”

Pithy eyed him dubiously. “If I recall correctly, you were of a mind that I was such a person.”

“Yeah, well.” The man glanced away. “After the whole weed debacle I got to thinking that, maybe, juuuust maybe… I was too quick to judge. Who knows, maybe getting cured will finally make you less of a bitch.”

At her continued silence, the man began scratching the back of his head. “Well, it also occurred to me that if you lose I’ve no idea what’ll happen to my soul or whatever you sucked out of the heart-thingy. I really don’t want to have a repeat of the end of our fight.”

Pithy blinked. It had not occurred to her until then that Dew might suffer in any form from her defeat.

Which is telling, in many ways. Pithy looked at her hands over the counter, noting the contrast between the two. One deft and delicate, the other mangled and inert. Is there to supposed to be some symbolism at play here?

“I see. Since you claim this is for your own sake, I sincerely hope you do not expect gratitude,” she said somberly.

Dew snorted. “From you? Hah, never in my wildest dreams!”

"Good." Her lips turned in a wry smile as she turned her face to look at him. “I have a feeling that today, this will all come to a close. Let us get ready.”
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