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As though emerging from underwater, the distant sounds of battle that had suffused the march through the forest came into sharp relief the moment the group of three reached the battlefield.

The beast that walked with the human and the demoness only allowed itself a moment to scan the scene, a moment to see the maddened charge and retreat of demons and angels that brought to its mind scenes of a frothing wave, before it threw itself into the current with a snarl.

It did not wait for the command of she whom he had gifted the right. That had been given when the Imp had confirmed their objective, and there was little doubt in the beast’s mind or instincts that the key the demoness wished for would be found inside the besieged mausoleum.

It could not have stopped were that not the case, regardless. Fenn had been forced to reign himself in when the angels had threatened his chosen Warleader, and this new outlet to his aggression was too attractive. The call of the battleground was much too strong.

The Hellhound plowed through the back ranks of demons pouring into the field. It killed with its weight and its jaws. Blood coated the inside of its mouth when its fangs found the amphibian heads of the small monsters before him. Innards coated the ground when tree trunk arms fell over them as though it was stepping on frogs. No flames escaped its blackened scales even then. It had been told to restrain itself, after all, and this command had not yet been lifted.

Fenn’s loping run quickly overtook the pace of the current.

It was unavoidable. Even as the Angels sought to fortify the Mausoleum, they could not so rapidly cede ground to the demons without breaking formation. A large enough crack would result in a massacre. The demons were slipping past the openings they made, but many ended up tied down in the skirmishes surrounding the structure, slowing the tide. Such thoughts of battle did penetrate the red haze of the obsidian giant’s mind—and this fact was a trait that had made him the deadliest in his prime—but were quickly discarded when deemed unimportant. Those on the path could barely penetrate its scales, never mind block its advance.

A pair of Assault that managed to clamber onto his back quickly came to regret it when steel snakes split from the beast’s arms and constricted around them, unyielding bodies crushing their limbs. Angels that saw the savage hesitated, for what could the obsidian giant be but another monster come to take their lives? Then they aimed their weapons at him, but their arrows of light were answered by the terrified screeches of the monsters held in chains when they were brought to the fore as shields. Those winged soldiers that dared approach were tossed away in great sweeps of his arms strong enough to shatter stone, and that was a great mercy in the eyes of the giant, for he wished to do worse.

The beat of larger wings entered his ears as he caught sight of an Orto—exotic meat—and its rider wheeling around for another pass at the monsters below. The chains still holding the smaller demons writhed and twisted before snapping into the air, tossing the creatures up towards the flying beast.

A surprised cry escaped the winged creature when its rider forced it to swerve, and the blast of holy energy that would have crashed against the hound instead seared the monsters just in front of him and raised a plume of dust.

Fenn did not slow for a moment, his large body sweeping the cloud away with his passage in his charge to the mausoleum.
Sorry for the delay, and the long post. Also sorry if it seems somewhat rough around the edges. Had a bit of trouble writing it all out.
On the mouth of the tunnel, where the kaleidoscopic lights threatened to make her vision swim, Pithy finally moved past her up until then host and guide. She did so silently, her furrowed brow twisting her features into a scowl made sharper by the odd light shining upon the room.

She could not hide her disappointment. Where Pithy had hoped to find a treasure that would tip the scales in her favor, all she had found were sand, bones and a jackal beast-man with better manners than most humans she had come across on her travels.

Better than just sand and bones she told herself, but blunting the edge of her irritation was no simple feat. The information she had gathered had barely kept her trek underground from becoming a colossal waste of time, but she still was not certain how much she could trust the word of Actaeon.

Not that the beast had done anything to garner her mistrust. Much the opposite. It had spoken to her earnestly and without reservations, answering her questions with a zeal that made her think he deeply wished to be useful to this random traveler.

It’s maddening.

Her inner cynic whispered in her ear, suggesting that Actaeon had simply pretended at servility so that he might convince her to turn back on the catacombs he called home, but the same could have been accomplished much more simply—not to mention permanently—by killing her. It did not take a discerning eye to know that the creature was well-equipped for violence.

“Actaeon,” Pithy called out before he could retreat into his tunnels. She turned around, narrowing her eye slightly as the light played off the creature’s adornments. She was not sure if it was the effect of the beacon in the center of the room that made the words form in her lips, but she would not have been surprised had it been so. She had not thought the answer important before, after all. “Did you know of the prize offered to this tournament’s winner?”

The hunter regarded Pithy with a look of ambivalence. Though she hadn’t been uncivil with him, he could sense her frustration in the tone of her voice and the hardness of her face. Moreover, he could intuit that some of it was directed at him, yet Actaeon spoke with only a touch less of his former geniality when he replied, “I do not. That, at least, was not mentioned in idle conversation.” Trying not to appear too eager to maintain the attention of a guest on her way out, lest he give off an air of possessiveness, the creature gazed into the floating cube with its undulating amaranth corona. His ear remained Pithy’s though, and he anticipated that she might have more to say to him than a simple ‘farewell’.

And that should have been that. Telling him any more could place her in a dangerous position. “The people of the College claim to have found a machine that grants wishes.” She surprised herself when she continued. “They have promised the winner of this tournament a wish of their choosing.”

The morsel of information picqued Actaeon’s curiosity, causing him to give his species’ equivalent of raised eyebrows. “...Is that so? A shame I did not participate, then. Our chance meeting has reminded me how sorely I long for proper society. Still, such a thing scarcely seems possible.”

“Truly?” Suddenly, the beast’s earnestness made sense to her. It is lonely. How… pathetic. She did not try to hide her contempt. “How foolish. You do not need a wishing machine for such a thing.”

A stiffness entered the hunter’s body abruptly, noticeable before he turned his eyes back on her a moment later. Those pale blue orbs held very little kindness now. When Actaeon replied, a barely-detectable rumble had entered the back of his throat. “Now, now. You needn’t be presumptuous as well as ungrateful. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how monstrous I look. Very few imagine me to be anything but evil and violent, and respond accordingly should I dare step out into the sun.” His explanation, succinct and dispassionate, belied a sudden lack of concern for what Pithy thought. Being looked down on for being a Noctis was something Actaeon was accustomed to; it was an old wound, scabbed over. He’d never yet been looked down upon for wanting something more. Yet, it hurt just the same. Another one who doesn’t understand, he ruminated, unshelving his earlier, hidden misgivings as he looked back into the floating cube’s light. I am foolish—for thinking this woman valued anything but my knowledge.

I may be too close. Should it become violent, will I be able to draw in time?. Pithy found herself tensing, but held her voice steady. A part of her was already thinking of how she might use this knowledge to her benefit.

“What would you have done had you participated, then? Wish to become human? It seems to me you have yet to grasp the possibilities this place has presented you. That there are worlds other than these, with inhabitants much stranger than you or I.” She shook her head, making her hair sweep to the side. For a moment, the changing lights played over a crystalline surface before it was hidden once again. “You may be fortunate, in fact, that you were not given a chance to throw your lot with the rest of us.”

“What I want most is rather personal. Either way, I don’t think I ultimately would have participated. From what I gathered, this tournament has a high chance to end in death for most entrants, so the risks don’t outweigh the reward for me.” He tilted his neck from side to side in a casual manner, working out the stiffness. A predatory species seldom stood still, but having company meant being presentable even at one’s own expense. “Perhaps that is why I was not chosen.”

How wise of him. Unfortunately, I cannot use wise. Her thoughts went to the empty phylactery still tied to her belt, the one she had taken from her first opponent. Actaeon claimed that he had not been chosen. Perhaps this was true, if one thought on the College staff organizing the ritual, but Pithy did not believe he and his home had found their way to this where purely by coincidence.

“A very rational decision.” Pithy nodded, agreeably enough. Neither was it a lie, for she truly envied him the choice. “But I have to wonder if those are merely your thoughts after the fact. What if the choice to participate was actually given to you?” Almost as though discussing an hypothetical scenario, she placed her hook. “If, let us say, I had the means to make you a contestant?”

Actaeon’s eyes held for a moment, locked with Pithy’s. Then, with resolution, he shook his head. “I am not a hypocrite. Besides, why would the College allow a contestant to bring additional contenders into the mix? Seems like it would hurt their structure, and their plans. You must have concluded that they’re planning something, right?”

“Naturally.” The elf smiled bitterly. It seemed this beast would not be so easily blinded by his desire, so she answered honestly. “A wish for the victor? Rubbish. I am inclined to agree that such a machine may have fallen into their hands after seeing this city, but I am not optimistic enough to believe humans would honor that deal. However,” she said, “the tournament itself is a façade. From what I have pieced together, these battles are for the sake of a ritual needed to wake this miracle machine and the tournament merely helps the College guide the procedures to their desired conclusion.

“In the same way, who takes part in this process is not truly up to them. The entrance of a new player may well make the opening the participants need. So I ask once again. Do you truly have no intention of participating?”

Actaeon tilted his head sideways. “My friend, I am a beast of my word. I’m not chasing after some fairy tale. I’m not risking one hair on consecutive fights.” He turned halfway around. “Besides, you speak of ‘the participants’ as though you’re a cohesive group. You’re a couple dozen separate groups dead set on making one another dead. Good luck, though. And good night.”

Pithy watched the creature recede into its tunnels, and for a moment thought she could hear the sound of her teeth grinding over the drone of the extractor machine. “You had best not regret this,” she murmured before she, too, vacated the area.

The staccato rhythm of her rapier against the wall breached the silence of the citadel, and was followed by a quiet thrum coming from every direction, as though the very air had grown agitated. Then, the silence returned.

Pithy took the chance to fall on one of the available chairs, starting slightly when the wheels at its bottom carried it slightly backwards with her weight.

As the creature in the tombs had told her, Pithy had retreated to one of the higher floors, choosing one of the available offices to camp in. The mage had walked around the vicinity, tapping her rapier on specific points along the office level as she weaved a threshold around the area.

It was a weak thing, not a barrier that would bar the path of those who approached, but a subtler spell that would alert her should something approach her campsite.

She pulled herself closer to the office desk, and deposited the three items she had gathered that demanded closer inspection. First came the phylactery she had been given, the thing beating rhythmically like a real heart. Then came the one she had taken from the badger. This one was completely inert, as hers had been when it had first been presented to her. Lastly, she placed on the desk the family portrait Oren’s drone had left for her.

Pithy leaned back, looking at the three items. Distractedly, she reached for a small pile of wrapped bars she had found while rifling through the nearby offices. If she had found a bottle of liquor in one of the upstair offices, it was not terribly surprising when in some of the rooms she found small envelopes of what purported to be cereal, chocolate and what she assumed to be candy.

Taking a moment to savor the rare treat, Pithy picked up the badger’s heart with her free hand. Sharpening her focus on the object revealed little she could make sense of.

She frowned slightly as she turned it over in her hand. Was it different than the time she had examined her own? Part of her felt that the enchantments woven over it had weakened. The possibility existed that, had she given it to Actaeon, it would have served as little more than a bauble.

Not that I ever intended to let him wear it, she mentally added. It did her no good if the beast was bound by the same rules as her. That was the reason why she had not alluded directly to the phylacteries, saying only that she had the means to make him a competitor. The beast would have had to keep her alive if he wished to be made a part of the Crucible. It did not matter, in any case. Actaeon had made it clear he wanted nothing to do with her ploys.

She removed her gloves, holding the cereal bar with her mouth, and ran her fingers down the rubbery length of the heart replica, stopping only to tap at the glass surface at its center with a sharp nail.

Setting down her food, she grasped the beating heart. It may have been her imagination, but its surface felt cooler to the touch than the other one.

Having acquired both an active and dormant artefact made this a perfect opportunity for study. A single sample of an alien enchantment told her little, but as she focused her senses on the two objects, she began to see where the threads of energies connected, and where they pooled and flowed. It was a far cry from revealing the entire purpose of this magic, but rather than needing to decypher every single thread in the tapestry, she began to make out the distinct parts that comprised the spellwork.

There was one part of the phylactery which seemed similar to other connections, but in both cases was inactive, and in the physical object seemed to lead off into nothing, as if incomplete. Pithy turned it in her hand, looking at a metal point jutting out of the object.

’If one of you dies, your killer’s phylactery will absorb your soul. There are other ways, but I can sense I’m going on too long already.’ An interesting thing to gloss over. Was it undesirable for the College that the participants found these other ways? If so, why would they mention them at all?

Even then, Pithy angled the empty phylactery over her own, bracing herself.

Then, she pierced the rubbery belly of the beating heart.


Nothing, not even a tingling down her spine. The heart continued beating, even with the metal stabbed into it. Pithy separated the phylacteries, setting both of them down on the table.

She leaned back, staring up at the ceiling.

Did I guess wrong? Or do both artefacts need to be active for a soul to be collected in this way? Even if it worked, what would it do to the owner of the soul? If her soul had been separated from her body and placed on the device, and indeed she had felt something very much like herself in her own phylactery, she suspected they could survive the transfer as well. The problem with the idea was that such a thing by itself would leave the enemy alive as well.

Unless that was not how it worked.

‘You’re a couple dozen separate groups dead set on making one another dead.’

“Groups…” she mouthed. Not individuals. Why had Actaeon said that? Was there a possibility that he knew more than he had said? What had he overheard during his forays to the city that he had thought was unimportant, or decided not to share with her?

Pithy grunted. In any case, she would not learn more from the phylacteries themselves. She needed a test subject, and the closest one was back in his lair and likely on guard against her. Knowing this, she slipped her own over her neck and once again tied the badger’s heart to her belt.

That left the portrait she had been given after defeating her first opponent.

Pithy had hoped her mind had been playing tricks on her, but under the calm light of the office building, the features of the two adults were unmistakable. The woman forced herself to breathe evenly, trying to soften the tension that had crept onto her shoulders.

She could not remember their names, nor their family name. Like her own, those had been stricken from her memory upon her exile, but those visages had not been taken away.

There had been a time where she had been prepared to never see her parents again outside of her memory, but this city had a way of toying with her expectations.

The crispness of the image was outstanding, beyond that of a painting, making her believe that this might have been achieved by the mysterious technologies of this place. Such a portrait had not existed in her own world, she knew. The couple was facing her, smiles filled with a radiance that felt blinding to her, and the two flanked a smaller figure, arms resting on its shoulders. The child between them was—

Not me.

Pithy closed her eye, then opened it again. The features of the smaller figure were blurry, so that she could not see them properly. It did not matter. There were only two individuals who would pose in such a portrait, and they wore the same face. All she knew was that she would not be the one who should be in such a thing.

Her fingers caressed the image, as though tracing the white sleeping gown the child in the center was wearing.

Then, she extended her senses. The moment she touched the portrait, a sob wracked through her. The paper slipped through her fingers, and a hand instinctively went to her chest, as though trying to still her heart.

The feeling that had gripped her when she had graced the enchantment in the image did not leave her mind as she forced her breathing to slow and willed her lips to cease trembling. She reached to her good eye with one hand and found an errant tear streaking down her cheek.

She glanced meekly at the portrait, the image facing down on the ground, and gingerly knelt to pick it up.

The desire to go back. Longing for a better time. Intense and pure, like that of an ailing child. She understood that what was housed in the portrait could not be called spellwork. It was closer to a wish. A desire held so strongly that it had manifested in the world as a kind of miracle. One would not be wrong in saying this scrap of paper is haunted.

Judging by the impression dwelling in the scrap of paper, it would work to preserve something. This much she could tell, though the nature of the phenomenon made the conditions upon which this power would be unveiled unclear.

She also understood that the enchantment would not had had such an effect on her if it there had not been something within herself that echoed the sentiment. She turned the image on her hand, studying the smiling faces of the ones who had raised her.

Thinking back half a century, she could not deny that that had been a time of light and warmth. Her family had coddled her, given her everything in their power even in her weakness. It was more than many could have asked for.

But a gilded cage is still a cage, and tenderness and goodwill are not enough to lift a curse or heal disease. Though she had seen those smiling faces, there had never been pride when that gaze reached her. There had been affection there—she had long become unable to lie to herself about that—but there had also been a sadness that had haunted her since she had first become able to perceive it.

Mayhaps the issue was not in having a noble soul, but a proud one. No matter the warmth it was surrounded by, such an existence could only be miserable if it could not find worth within itself.

In that regard, the latter majority of her cursed life, moving on her own power, had been filled with both greater freedom and satisfaction.

It was much too late for such thoughts, in any case. The rest of her kind may have had eternity to nurse their regrets, but dwelling on them would only rob her of that luxury.

Knowing this, Pithy stowed away the paper and reached for the switch that controlled the room’s lighting. She would need rest if she was to fight at her peak, and felt that this office was as safe a place as she would find in this city.

Within the sandy tomb, Actaeon returned to his room. With practice born of habit, he pulled a bone from an urn to gnaw on as he lay upon his chair.

“Gain every soul, child,” he murmured aloud through his chew, “Wake the machine, and I will see you again.”

A woman’s body convulses.

Human, though that is not what matters. Despite the pained grimace twisting her pale features, it is clear she is still young. Short, auburn hair plays over her closed eyes as her head shakes. Her clothes are coated with dry blood, torn above the gut, but the flesh under it is whole and healthy. Not too long ago, she had been lying over a small mound of corpses.

A thin, silver blade is poised over her form. It twists, and sigils drawn on the dirt under the woman flash for an instant. A sound like chiming bells is heard.

Eyes fly open. Lungs drag in a ragged, needy breath as though their owner had been moments away from drowning. The woman turns over, coughing, gagging, head hung low so that the evening’s shadows fall over her features.

The one holding the blade, an elven woman of long raven hair donning a blue cloak, merely waits..

Eventually, the coughing ceases, and the woman cranes her neck to look up at her company. As shadows flee, a wry smirk is revealed on the woman’s lips, teeth glinting like white knives.

“Ah, if it isn’t the elf that extended such gracious courtesy to my host. I should thank you.”

“I’m not doing this for you.”


“The girl isn’t aware of your existence.”

There is a spirit hiding inside this woman. The elf had come across a ruined caravan not too long ago, and had found the creature among the corpses of the guards hired to defend it.

“And yet you knew the moment you laid eyes on us, didn’t you? And to be able to call me out like this… hah. Most impressive.”

“Not as impressive as what you must have done to possess her.”

At this, the thing with a woman’s face cocks its head. “I’m afraid I don’t follow, dear.”

“There was a broken spear besides her. Her armor had a hole going from front to back.”

“And there was blood, bile and piss everywhere, yes?” The thing chuckles. It must have found the thought amusing. “Death is rarely dignified.”

“So you revived her.”

A widening smile answers the elf’s statement. The elf knows it would be useless to ask how such a thing was possible. She knows there was a wound going through the woman’s abdomen, and that there was none now. So she instead probes for a motive.


“You should know better than most.”

The elf’s eyes narrow. “What is that supposed to mean?”

The thing lets out an uproarious laugh, loud and sudden enough that it makes the elf start. “Ah, you are delightful, but you don’t need to play coy here. Don’t think I can’t tell why you are so interested in us.”

There is anger in her now, and it can be clearly seen in the cast of the elf’s shoulders, and the way the grip on her rapier tightens. Still, she plays along. “Oh, and what would that be?”

The thing tilts its head, ‘is it not obvious?’ written plain on its host’s face. “The soul can be likened to a fire, elf. You have taken something within you, just like this girl. A gate from which a blizzard rages, fanning the flame. Such wonderful opportunities can be born from such an arrangement.”

“This power is my own,” the elf hissed.

“Indeed,” the thing readily agrees. “For now. Until the day it drowns your flame. A Wraith understands, you see. We must! That which binds is bound in return!” it says, and erupts into another round of cackles.

The woman gestures with her rapier. The thing freezes, eyes wide in surprise, before they roll back. The woman slumps, unconscious once more.

The elf maiden glares icily at the unconscious woman before her. A flash of white at the edge of her vision grabs her attention, and she about her surroundings, a pair of blue eyes darting across the forest scenery to ensure there had been no witnesses. There is nothing there to be found.

It is almost night, and there is a nip in the air.

A low rumble, and the feeling of small particles falling from above her roused Pithy from her slumber. The woman opened her bleary eye and glanced up, only to spit out a curse as more dust fell from the ceiling.

Pithy stood, fumbling slightly as the office chair wheeled back on the opposite direction. Before she had even steadied herself, the tremor ceased as quickly as it had started.

The elf glanced about warily, deeply conscious of the fact that she was still deep underground, but the building seemed as steady as they had been the night before and there was no indication of another quake starting up.

As her concern began to dissipate and the cobwebs left her mind, her thoughts slowly turned towards the dream she had seen.

It was an old memory, one that came to her more and more often as of late. The dream in and of itself had not been terribly accurate. She had not yet gotten ahold of her rapier at that point in time, for example, but there had indeed come a time where she had found an existence that was similar to her own.

As dreams were wont to do, the gaps in the dialogue she had failed to remember had been filled in, but she could clearly remember what the spirit had said through the woman’s lips.

“A flame, a blizzard, and binds…”

This chance meeting had taken place before side-effects had began to appear. When the woman had awoken the next day, unaware of the conversation Pithy had shared with her passenger, Pithy had agreed to escort her to the next settlement. The pair immediately parted ways once they reached civilization.

Had Pithy found the woman today, she would not have let her out of her sight.

However, this was once again dwelling on things she could not change.

She parted her long hair with one hand, combing it with her fingers, and froze. Slowly, she picked at the flowing hair, revealing white strands hidden within the raven locks. There were more urgent matters afoot.

It took her the better part of half an hour to work her way back to the Justice Hub’s surface.

She had entered the citadel before the first drop of water, but the appearance of ponds large enough to block some of the facility’s made it clear that the previous night’s weather had been fierce.

A crackling sound from nearby made her flinch, and her hand went to her weapon.

“Good morning! Your friendly, neighborhood announcer here!” Oren’s voice slipped out from something on her person. Pithy pulled on the chain on her neck, withdrawing the phylactery from its resting place.

“Before you ask, lemme just say: we don't know what the hell that explosion was for sure. Honestly, a lot of weird stuff is going on, and the grand old Inquisitional College has let me know that we're not standing idly by.” Pithy confirmed that the announcer’s voice was not also coming from the phylactery tied to her belt. Perhaps it was seen as unnecessary now that the badger was dead.

However, Oren’s message piqued her interest. An explosion? How large must it have been for me to feel the tremors while underground? It occurred to her that one of the other participants may have had something to do with it, but if the College did not know of its cause, that seemed unlikely. Perhaps it was for the best. Pithy was not particularly enthused by the idea of facing something with such destructive power.

She listened attentively to the contents of the message, some of which she had already learned from the tomb-dweller Actaeon, down to its conclusion, and held the phylactery up in front of her once the message was delivered.

Up until then, the announcer had communicated with her using familiars, so it had not occurred to her that the phylactery would be a means to deliver information to the participants. What was truly worrisome was if, as Oren had implied, the link was two-ways.

She licked her lips, hesitating for a moment, then spoke into the artefact. "Oren, has my enemy left the Governance Hub?"

There was a moment of silence before Oren answered. "Not yet, but he's moving quickly. He asked for something to do, so I sent him after a disturbance in the northeastern end. He'll be there soon if he doesn't hydroplane into a brick wall."

Pithy nodded stiffly, then put the device away. She was not entirely sure what ‘hydroplaning’ was supposed to be, but that hardly seemed relevant. If sounds could be communicated through the phylactery, it was entirely possible that her exchange with Actaeon had been overheard.

But when he spoke of Echoes, he said only locations had appeared. Would that mean Actaeon lied to me and did not come with those tombs, or that Oren is not aware of his existence? She grimaced. It was possible he had simply not mentioned it to make her believe she had not been overheard.

One way or another, she had been naive to think the College would not have means beyond the familiars to keep the participants under surveillance. At the very least, it would pay to keep in mind that Oren had the means to listen in on her. Perhaps more, if the phylactery held other hidden functions.

Pithy began to walk, heading for the direction she knew to be east. She had failed to find anything of note under the citadel, and with a deadline imposed on her, it would no longer do to sit and wait for her opponent to reach her. Perhaps she could make a move on the enemy while they were busy with whatever objective Oren had left for them.

In any case, the announcer had suggested she head that way in the first place. Finding where Oren was housed could open its own set of options.
I'm back, and will try my best to make a new post in the next few days. Please be patient if I don't, @Lugubrious, as I do have multiple other things to catch up on besides The Crucible, and not just in RP Guild.

Other than that, I don't know if it's a relevant question to ask, and I feel like I might have asked it already besides, but I figure it's worth asking anyway: @Lazo, since Erika is technically your character, would you want to write her perspective from now on (outside of battle scenarios), or would you rather I kept her going instead?

I actually don't know. You did a very good job with her, and it might be better for me in terms of time if I didn't have to write for different characters.

Maybe I could give you dialog for her in collabs, or just answer any questions you happen to have about what she might know or do in given situations. Up to you.

EDIT: Her name is Erina, though.
As she made her way through the sandy labyrinth, Pithy could not help throwing the occasional concerned glance over her shoulder. So far, the blades of ice combing the path before her had turned up nothing of note, beyond the occasional bone buried in the dust, and the only sound that reached her was that of her boots sinking in the sand, a sound that seemed to rake at her ears no matter how carefully she stepped forward. Not even the magelight floating ahead had managed to draw the attention of any beasts that might dwell in this darkness.

For all intents and purposes, she was alone in these tunnels, but she still could not keep herself from seeing sudden, fleeting movement in the shadows ahead and behind. Imagining, not seeing, she told herself. That was more likely, but it did little to dispel her concern. If she was forced to retreat down this maze, she was not certain she would be able to retrace her steps.

She almost did not notice when the light of her magelight began to merge with the warm, flickering light of fire, but when she did, she warily drew it back to herself. Because fire often means life. It could not have lit itself.

Pithy paused, listening for any sounds that might clue her in to another’s presence, but only the sound of her own breathing reached back. After a moment, she nodded to herself and, with a steadying breath, allowed the magelight to vanish. The corridor was immediately plunged into darkness, held at bay only by the fire coming from the room ahead, and by the faint light coming from the runes on her rapier. With a thought, the blades of ice ahead of her slid out of the sand and rejoined the weapons that hovered behind her.

Pithy approached the passageway slowly, cursing the awkward footing she had in this sand and the shuffling sound that inevitably rose from her footsteps.

Soon, she found the source of the rotting scent she had followed within the room opposite to the flame. Corpses of… things. Much too large to have made it into the tunnels normally, which meant that whatever had killed them had taken the trouble of reassembling the carcasses once it had brought them there. As for the purpose of that, she could not tell. If they were to be food, keeping them assembled meant little. If they were to be bait for different prey, the stench would be just as powerful if not more were the innards carelessly expose to the air. It was this focused analysis that prevented her from retching at the sheer smell of rot, but she could not get rid of the rancid taste in her mouth.

Having enough of the sight, she inched closer to the passage from which light poured out. She peeked into the room and blinked.

At most, she had expected a bonfire in an otherwise empty room, but what greeted her eye was proper furniture and mounds of scroll and paper. It seemed that she had chanced upon someone’s studio, one that reminded her far more of her own world than the offices of the Citadel.

Just then, her own blue eye met the piercing gaze of the creature sitting within. Pithy froze when she realized the room’s only occupant had noticed her, had likely been aware of her presence long before she became aware of his. Pithy reflexively licked her lips and found them dry.

Rather than show hostility for her intrusion, however, the beast spoke.

“Good evening.”

Politely, at that.

“I mean you no harm, I assure you. I thought I detected a new aroma on the breeze, one far more refined than the malodorous repugnance of those bloated spindlelegs. Welcome to the humble lair of Actaeon. You must be here for the tournament. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Its body reminded her of the werewolves she was familiar more with, but rare among them were those that managed to string together a coherent sentence in their transformed state. This one, however, was quite talkative. It was likely something else entirely.

Thinking it best to play along, she stood at the door’s frame, allowing the creature—Actaeon, it said. Treat it as a mindless beast at your own peril, for it is clearly not one—to get a good look at her. Her blades of ice held still, hovering outside of the room where Actaeon could not see them.

Had she not seen its like among those called by the College? She realized she could not quite recall. The memory felt muddled. Had something happened when she was transported to this strange city? Pithy shook her head. She had held the impression only participants and College staff would be within this city, and as far as she had seen that staff had been entirely composed of humans.

“Are you not a participant?” She answered the question with a question.

Giving no evidence of being offput by his visitor’s standoffishness, the hunter shook his head. “No. I do not know why, but these catacombs and I were whisked here out of the blue some time ago. It felt like a dream—a dream of blood and hunger, and when it faded away, I was here. The spindlelegs were here before me, but I exterminated them. If I had the proper chemicals I could make better trophies of them, but alas, I’ve been more focused on shadowing the personnel of that institute when they’re in the area.” Unprompted, Actaeon treated Pithy to a torrent of information, perhaps seeking to establish himself as personable and—despite his appearance—not a threat.

Pithy grimaced as she sifted through the creature’s words, latching on to the most important part.

Namely, that this tomb had been transported here separately from the Crucible’s contestants. That would account for the sudden shift in the architecture between the Justice Hub’s building and this crypt. Had the Justice Hub itself been brought over from a different world as well, then? Too soon to tell, even if this one speaks true. In that case, he could have learned of the Crucible when stalking the College staff.

Whatever the thought, she knew better than to put words into the mouth of one she hoped to interrogate, so she continued, “How did you come to know of the tournament?”

Actaeon’s gaze did not deviate. “During my frequent trips throughout this citadel and its surroundings, I have encountered people from the institute a handful of times, and they mentioned the tournament often. I expected it would only be a matter of time before others started arriving.”

Word of mouth will sell a battle royale even in a deserted city. Pithy grunted, mildly annoyed by the idea. Still, if the beast spoke true, he could prove valuable as a source of information. The woman took a breath, deciding diplomacy would yield the best results.

“Actaeon, you said?” she began, “As you have deduced, I am a participant in the College’s tournament. That said, I only recently arrived in this city, so I would ask you of your time spent here, and about these tunnels. Will you speak to me, even if I have little to offer in return?”

A moment of silence passed between the two, and the hunter’s expression changed. If a ferocious fanged maw could be said to be smiling, his was, without a doubt. “The company alone is reason enough. I would be happy to talk to you.”

With those words, the dim light faded from her rapier’s runes, and the rustling sound of something sliding into the sand came from outside the room.

“Good,” Pithy said as she moved past the arch.
The first round of Motley Vs Erina is here. @Lazo, if I've misjudged your character's acting, please do say so; I'd like to ensure I get her as accurate as I can for the time I'll be manipulating her actions for.

No worries, it looks good from here.

It's not like I had extremely specific expectations over what people would write for the character either way. It's your show at this point.
This does not belong.

Pithy frowned as sand poured from the steadily enlarging opening, strange, shifting lights dancing from within the generator room. Not a corpse, as she had initially guessed, but something even more out of place.

Soon enough, the door had been opened enough for her to squeeze through. She sent three of her hovering blades first, waiting for movement from the other side of the room, but when none came, she pushed forward, the rest of her blades floating in behind her like a gaggle of bodyguards.

Pithy blinked a few times as she looked at the contents of the room, the kaleidoscopic illumination threatening to make her vision swim.

Sand was not something that happened to be piled at the entrance, but rather covered the entirety of the room’s floor, shifting underfoot as she walked in. She felt sure that the builders of this place had not left this mess, if only because she could not imagine workers needing to use an iron crow on the door whenever they needed to enter the room. Openings on the walls, out of place yet large enough for someone to walk into them, gave her a clue as to where the sand had come from.

Far more attention-grabbing, however, was the source of the dizzying lights. Pithy narrowed her eyes, trying to make heads or tails of what she was seeing, but she could see little beyond the beacon’s porous, outer layer from where she stood.

She took a step forward, approaching the small chasm across which the strange machinery was gathered.

Pithy almost stumbled as something gave under her weight. Stepping back, she looked at the sand at her feet and knelt. A moment of digging turned up a yellowed splinter. She turned it in her hand, finding the shape oddly familiar, yet unable to quite place its origin. She brought a hand to her mouth, biting on her glove’s finger to remove it, and held the shard on her bare hand.

Bone. Worn and brittle. But it could not be because of time, could it? This space is closed and dry… and these markings…

Seeing a mound in the sand nearby, Pithy began digging, quickly finding what she had hoped. The upper half of a human skull greeted her, easily recognizable even with most of the teeth gone and the bite marks on its surface, as though a large dog had been chewing at it.

She let the skull fall on the sand with a muffled thump, barely audible above the machinery’s clatter. She shook her hand, put her glove back on, then spat some of the sand that had fallen on her mouth.

Then again, with worn bones strewn all about, perhaps this was not sand at all. And if so, she might have been right in her initial assessment of what was blocking the door. Just not in a way she expected.

She spat on the ground again for good measure.

For the moment, the state of the room itself was a secondary concern, so she returned to her inspection of the machinery. From there, she could barely see the shape of something vaguely cube-shaped in the center of the beacon.

Her eyes went to the cables that held the apparatus in place snaking up into the ceiling, and she found herself recalling the cables that had connected the box-like apparatuses in the Lieutenant’s office several floors above her. If she recalled correctly, all of those had been connected to the walls as well. So had been the lights, and, she now suspected, the elevators themselves.

In her mind she saw an image of cables spreading throughout the whole Justice Hub, almost like a sewage system. Except that instead of water and waste, it carried what the machines needed to function.

She had been confused when Oren had mentioned a generator room, but as a practitioner of sorcerous arts , the concept of syphoning energy from a source to be used as fuel for a spell, or even a network of enchantments was not a foreign one. The term she was familiar with, for facilities designed to gather this energy from a magic core, was extractor.

In that regard, the object that was at its core seemed much like what she would expect from such an energy source, but the surrounding machinery seemed as alien to it as it seemed to her. While the core seemed completely arcane to her, the devices shackling it still felt bizarrely mundane in comparison.

Was this something the builders found, or is it yet another strange device from the same people, only different in how it appears?

Pithy could not truly give an answer to that. Instead, she marked this location in her mental map as a point of interest, and turned away from it. Perhaps later she could examine the core in greater detail, perhaps even bring it with her for study, but if her hypothesis was correct and the device fueled the Justice Hub’s machinery, removing it could leave her without a way to operate the elevators. She would need to find an alternate route to the surface first.

With that in mind, she made her way to the opening in the wall. As she approached the gaping maw, the stench of rot struck her nose.

She grimaced, recalling the announcer’s words. She was to find a vault after the generator room, but ‘creepy crawlies’ had prevented the College’s staff to go any further.

A magelight formed in her palm and she threw it forward, the will-o-wisp illuminating the tunnel where the core’s colorful light began to fade. The light paused a few feet in front of her, silently hovering in the air.

Unlike the entrance to the tunnel itself, which seemed to have been created by something forcefully tearing the wall open, the way forward was surrounded by stone walls, too shapely to have been created naturally, or even by some huge, burrowing creature. The hand of man was clearly visible here.

But was it the same ‘man’ that built the Justice Hub?

She wondered at that. The generator room seemed to her like a place where the echoes of several worlds had collided at once.

Her lips twitched.

Two of her escorts sunk into the sand in front of her, sinking in the powder until the blades touched the floor. When Pithy began to walk forward, the ice and the magelight followed her pace, the former combing the sand for traps or critters hidden beneath, the latter illuminating the path in front of her.
It did not take long for the elevator doors to part before her, presenting the same empty yet illuminated interior it had shown her when she had summoned it on the rooftop. Haltingly, remembering how the doors had closed on their own the first time she had used it, Pithy leaned her body forward, trying to catch a glimpse of any controlling mechanisms before she locked herself inside.

It did not take long for her to discover the panel besides the elevator doors.


Pithy started and began to pull back as she heard the noise. She heard the mechanism controlling the doors whir into activity, then quickly halt a moment later.

Pithy frowned, studying the open door. It seems these remain open for as long as one stands in the way. Good design. She wondered as to the trick behind it. The devices within the Justice Hub did not have the feel of sorcery to them, but she wondered how one would accomplish such things without the use of magic.

Gaining confidence, Pithy walked into the elevator, studying the buttons adorning the control panel, along with the accompanying sigils. She ignored the buttons at the very bottom of the panel, finding the markings unhelpful in elucidating their usage, but rapidly deduced that the buttons with numbers represented each of the building’s levels. The notation changed when the numbers reached the ground level, but it was simple enough for her to locate the button corresponding to the lowest level and press it.

The doors closed and the metallic cage shivered, making Pithy throw out a hand to the wall as though expecting the floor to crumble beneath her. A moment later, a low murmur and the rising feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that she was descending.

Pithy was forced to wait for the machine to deposit her where it would. The process only took a few seconds, but her hand never abandoned the wall she was using for support, and her eyes kept scanning the walls and ceilings for possible exits until the bell chimed and the doors opened.

Pithy stepped out into the dark hallway warily, holding her rapier at the ready.

As she did, the lights on the ceiling came to life, illuminating her path as they had done in the upper floors. Her stance relaxed when no threats made themselves known.

As promised by Oren, a plaque with words and arrows hanged on a wall, one labeled MAINTENANCE in clear, bold letters. A few other labels stood to attention right under it in smaller font. Pithy’s eyes immediately fixed on the one that read Generator Access.

Marveling (yet slightly perturbed) at the convenience of it all, Pithy began to walk down the corridors.

Barring the lack of windows, the first hallways she walked down reminded her of some of the upper levels. Like above, the few doorknobs she experimentally tugged on refused to budge, but the occasional glass pane revealed offices much like the one she had entered earlier, along with the occasional large table surrounded by chairs that made her think of meeting rooms.

It was only once she discovered and began descending a set of stairs that she began detecting a change in the clean, business-like environment.

Ever so slowly, her surroundings began to look more and more like she had expected a dilapidated ruin to look. Cracks on the walls, open doors, and lights that could no longer tap into whatever mysterious power source allowed the others to remain lit.

It was what she had expected at first, but while part of her mind urged her to feel relieved at the ever so slightly more familiar atmosphere of a ruin, she could not dispel an almost instinctual feeling of apprehension. Abandoned buildings were much like corpses. Rotting ones were not something most would call pleasant.

Still, she had to wonder. These lower floors are not connected to the elevator. Were they added later, or were they purposefully built such that one would not have easy access to this place from upper floors? And this damage… is this how this building looked while it was operational, or has it deteriorated since the place was abandoned? Is it somehow outside of the sphere of influence of whatever keeps the upper facility running smoothly?

Pithy caught herself. The last thought was predicated on the assumption that the place had been abandoned for a meaningful length of time. Her instincts suggested that was the case, but the evidence pointed at a recently abandoned facility.

The maintenance sector, which she knew she had arrived to courtesy of a large sign on the wall, proved to be much less orderly than the administrative sectors of the citadel. Rather than hallways and cleanly arrayed rooms at each side, Pithy was forced to navigate a confusing array of rooms filled to the brim with containers, jugs and bottles of liquids she largely failed to recognize from their labels, and the occasional broom or obvious cleaning instrument that made her suspect as to the purpose of the complex. That said, if probed as to the function of the large boxes with circular glass panes on their front, she could give no satisfactory answer.

She followed the signs through a few more strange rooms, corridors and stairs before she reached the room he sought.

She felt the reverberating drone of machinery before her eyes fell on the closed door. Pithy was deeply aware that, while she knew the word Oren had used to describe her objective, she had no idea as to what the clearly active machinery ahead was generating. There was no telling what she might find. At the very least, something that had managed to scare off the College’s investigators.

Pithy drew some magic into her rapier, shaping a spell. Six blades of ice coalesced behind her, hovering at her flanks like half-spread wings.

With her weapons readied, Pithy tried the door.

The handle turned easily enough, but when she applied force, the door refused to budge. She frowned and shoved her shoulder against it. The door parted ever so slightly at the blow, the latch slipping from its nook.

Not locked. Barred. And by something close to the ground. It immediately crossed her mind that one of the College’s researches may have died pressed against the door, but she was not sure a corpse would account for such a barrier.

She took a step back, considering the obstacle for a moment, before pointing at the door with her rapier.

One of the blades at her side hovered forward and pushed at the uppermost corner of the door until it lodged itself into the crack between it and its frame. At that point, the ice slid down towards the actual block, forcing the slight opening to enlarge as it approached. When it reached the bottom, Pithy made a gesture with her rapier. The crystal suddenly twisted, applying pressure to the center of the barrier as though she was prying the door open with a crowbar.
The floating familiar finally answered her, as though its owner was taking his time coming out of a stupor. The see-through image of the announcer had lost some of its joviality, and what Pithy had taken to be the machine’s eyes were conspicuously angled away from the badger’s carcass.

She felt a swell of irritation at the thought that the young man overseeing these deathmatches could be having a pang of conscience. You who risk nothing and stand to gain everything through the sacrifices of strangers, and yet can’t stand to lay eyes on the price paid. How dare you cheapen this struggle so?

Still she managed to hold her tongue, understanding there was little to gain and much to lose from antagonizing the boy. When she was offered congratulations and an unexpected boon, she accepted them with an impassive gaze.

She gave the image she received a cursory inspection, but her heart skipped a beat when she recognized the larger figures. A slow breath escaped her nostrils, and she put away the small family portrait as though pouring cold water over her apprehension. The people of the Inquisitional College had already proven they knew more about her and the other competitors than they had any right to. Examining the matter could wait.

And so she found herself listening to the wistful words of the young announcer.

“I’ve often found myself wondering: do animals have noble souls? We think of them as so far beneath us, but in my experience, animals can be every bit as noble. It might seem silly to ya, but ya know, for a while I lived in the wild with ‘em. Wolves, ravens, rats…”

Pithy did not know whether to take the boy’s words at face value. She supposed it did not matter. Whether he had been raised by wolves or not was not the crux of the issue.

“If they have souls, some of those souls may be noble,” she admitted. Even then, the distinction meant little to her. Her concerns were ever more practical. “If they do not, I nearly died for nothing.”

The announcer let out a restrained laugh. She was not sure if her matter-of-fact words had roused him or if he had caught himself, but he quickly recovered the irritating persona he had first greeted her with. Pithy sighed, forcing herself to listen through the forced plays on words for whatever useful information the young man saw fit to give her.

Soon enough, the announcer had said his piece, and the image fizzled out, the familiar hovering back and studying her through mechanical eyes.

Pithy promptly spun on her heel and began to walk away from the burning storehouse, heading for the illuminated path.

The announcer had outlined her options. West to the coast. North to the city proper. East to her next enemy. South was out-of-bounds, whatever that meant. Would she find some kind of barrier or wall were she to head that way, or would she be disqualified from this tournament, whatever that entailed? She did not feel eager to see what would happen if she tried. However, not matter what she chose, there was a simple matter the announcer had neglected to consider in his explanation.

Under the cloudy skies of an alien world, Pithy had no immediate way of knowing the direction of the cardinal points.

It was because of this that she was making her way back to the citadel she had first appeared on. She had lost her bearings while chasing her previous opponents, but she had seen the beach from the rooftop of the building and as such could use the structure to orient herself.

Pithy allowed herself to consider her options as she walked.

The announcer had hinted at another ‘gan’-wielder. Whether they were as proficient as the badger had been remained to be seen, but the words of their overseer led her to believe they had the tools to be even more dangerous.

Staying in place and preparing for an assault brought its own difficulties. Even if she had time to prepare within this military facility, how likely was it that her enemy might find ways to turn the battlefield against her, as the badger had done? If the roiling skies above her finally caved and released a downpour, she might be able to take advantage of it. Would the water affect the weapons? It turned the shooters from her world even more unreliable, but she doubted that would apply to the ones the competition wielded. There were also plenty of places to hide from the rain.

Would the open space of a beach make for a better battlefield, then? She found herself recalling the final moments of the fight with the badger. The hastily conjured shield she had brought up had been destroyed by the beast’s shooters. Simply standing in an open space while facing an enemy with this kind of ranged weapon would be the height of stupidity. The sand would also make for treacherous terrain. If she could lead the enemy into such a position, however…

A pang of pain interrupted her thought, and she brought a gloved hand to her head. The cut she had sustained ached, but it was small. A burst of cold like ice numbed the wound.

The citadel was not far away now. She could see it rising over the buildings before her, but she kept walking. She recalled the corridors with words signaling underground access in the citadel’s ground floor.

The announcer had also asked a favor of her. Ordinarily, she might have placed more weight on the idea of being owed by an organization whose work seemed rooted in the study of mysterious machines and magical artefacts, but ordinarily she would also be working under the assumption that she would be able to call on those debts at a later date.

There will be no later if I am killed by whatever is down there. Or by another competitor. Should that not be my priority?

There was, however, no telling what she might find in the Justice Hub’s underground. There very well might be a device capable of aiding her below. Or at best hinder her next opponent, should they find her. She would not be surprised to learn the announcer had already informed her enemy of her position. It was possible that if she chose to explore the underground, she would have to fight her enemy in this area once again.

Her footsteps eventually drew her back to the citadel’s doors, the drone hovering a few paces behind her. She placed her hand on the swinging door, then grunted, the words of an old fable running through her head. If she did not know where she wished to go, it did not matter which way she turned.

“Announcer,” she called, pulling her hand away and turning to the watching familiar. Belatedly, she realized she had no clue as to the young man’s name. Asking had not so much as crossed her mind. She had a good idea as to the reason for that. “Hey. Kid.”

Her words went unacknowledged by the unthinking droid for a few quiet moments. The rumble of distant thunder resounded through the heavens, and a moment after, a nigh-indiscernible beep accompanied the illumination of a tiny green light next to the drone’s main optic. Something that sounded suspiciously like the slurp of a drink reached Pithy through the communicator, and after it came the voice the cryomancer had come to know and hate. “I gotta name, ya know. Don’t wear it out. They ain’t paying me the big bucks to be a living F.A.Q.” He likely realized that she had no clue what he meant, but did not seem too bothered by it. “Oren. Erumel. My old buddies—and yes, I did have buddies—called me the Genie, ‘cause I always tried to help people out. Nothing like the Wishing Machine, though. What’s eating ya?” His image leaned back in its chair, and he clasped his hands behind his head in a position of relaxation.

Oren, then. Whoever had given this one an affectionate nickname had clearly been armed with more patience than her. “I’m thinking of checking underground, but I expect some support if I do. There’s no point to doing work that’s already been done. I want a guide to the ‘generator’ room and help with the machines I’m not familiar with.” Namely, most that she had seen so far, but she felt that should best remain unsaid.

The easygoing smile on Oren’s face broadened. “Neheh, that’s funny. As it happens, I’m not privy to the College’s inner workings. Truth be told, I don’t think they like me. Can ya imagine?”

Oh, I can imagine.

“There should be lots of signs around to guide ya, and I saw ya use the elevator, so help yours-’elf’. I think you’ll be just fine. As for support, you’ve seen everything my drones can do, and they’re not all that great indoors.”

Pithy clicked her tongue. She had not expected armed help, but if the boy had no knowledge of any previous expeditions to the facility, he would be of limited use.

“I imagine your bosses won’t be too enthused by how little you did to convince me to do the College’s work for them,” she prodded nonetheless. There was little meaning to the jab at that point. She was merely fishing for reactions or information.


Gods I hate him.

“It’s all bonus.” Oren evidently took the woman’s reaction as dismissal. “Guess ya don’t want any reward. Favors aside, coulda been anything down there, like more artifacts.”

“Or more turrets. Or more of what spooked the College’s teams. I suppose if I die in that hole the tournament can keep going without a hitch, then. Or are you that confident in the abilities of the freaks you brought here?”

“Are you? I thoughtcha guys were supposed to be strong enough to claim a wish--the best thing there is. Handling a trigger-happy badger wasn’t the best showcase of your abilities, but ya seem tough enough. Tougher ‘n me, that’s for sure.” He shrugged. “Whatever. Means more for us!” The announcer chuckled for a moment, then leaned forward into the camera, his voice growing low. “Speaking of which, since you’re free...if ya ever make your way to the Governmental Hub, where your next opponent is, there’s another little something ya might busy yours-’elf’ with, neheh.”

Pithy rubbed at her temple. “Stars, quit that. I heard you the first time.”

Oren’s eyelid twitched. Had he really already used that one? He needed to pay better attention, lest his humor begin to grow annoying. “A-ah, I see. Well. Better deal than poking around beneath the fort if ya ask me.”

She sighed. Her enemy would have fought their first round somewhere in the Governmental Hub. They would have some knowledge of the terrain and the possibility to prepare ambushes for her if they chose to wait.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Thank you, Oren,” she added to her dismissal, if only to maintain the pretense of civility. The announcer’s face faded out, and the little light by the main lens went with it, leaving Pithy alone with the soulless automaton once again.

The relief she felt at her solitude in an alien military facility was more than a little telling. Still, that had not been as productive as she had hoped. All that talk had earned her was a headache, and the knowledge that there were more opportunities for her to risk her life to the east. Fantastic. Just what I needed.

It did not make choosing a course of action any simpler. Which also meant it was the simplest thing in the world. If she already stood to lose everything, how much meaning was there to hedging her bets? If she was to find a shaved knuckle in the hole, her most immediate bet was what was under the Justice Hub.

With that resolution, she entered the building and headed for the elevator as Oren had suggested. The wait that ensued once she had pressed the button afforded her ample time to reflect on how many ways her plans could go sideways.
Hey, we got Binding of Isaac pick-ups over here.
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