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As the drone intruded on the scene, Pithy finally let the phylacteries fall apart, letting the now dead heart fall to her side as the tension fled her arms. She could not muster surprise at its appearance. Oren had likely been keeping an eye on the both of them since before the fight had started. Instead, she let the excited chatter of the announcer wash over her in silence, using it to keep her mind off the aches that plagued her body.

As the drone questioned how she could have known she could steal a soul directly from the foe's phylactery, it occurred to Pithy that she could tell him that she had been delving into the secrets of devices such as these phylacteries for longer than he had been alive. That intent and structure arose from everything that came from a maker's hand and purpose followed if one but knew how to interpret the signs. It occurred to her that she could tell Oren that when it came to artifacts of magic she was likely better suited than any in the College's staff for their study.

But he had not asked her to boast, and in any case she lacked the breath for it.

"I didn't," she rasped instead. It was the truth, for all she had had before she had stolen her enemy's heart and stabbed it with her own had been a hypothesis.

And then she noticed her foe stirring. Pithy stared with something near amazement as the man slowly stood, features lost as though he did not know where he stood. At least until his green eyes fixed on her. He moved fast, his weapon cradled in his arms and aimed at her in the blink of an eye.

Pithy had drawn on the white maelstrom that fueled her spells almost reflexively at the fury that confronted her. The shards of ice she had used to bait the green-eyed man lied scattered behind her like so much broken glass, and they trembled as though an invisible hand had passed over them. She did not will them forward. Even as the dark eye of the shooter's barrel stared at her, a sense of calm filled her. This man cannot harm you, spoke a knowing voice inside herself.

The premonition proved itself true a moment later. The man's face twisted with bewilderment, followed by frustration. He dropped the weapon and stormed away. The thought of halting him before he could leave the building crossed her mind, but she did not act on it. Furious as he might have been, she was certain he would not leave the gallery's vicinity without his weapon. The sound of the closing doors echoed inside the art gallery.

This time she did not deign the drone's prodding with an answer. She had had some guesses as to what would happen should she succeed in stealing a living person's soul. A coma had seemed the most likely. Perhaps immediate death. The extraction had been all but gentle, and for a moment she had had suspected the stress might take the man's actual heart. That he might survive with his faculties intact had not been a likely possibility, but this was more than that. The announcer had called it 'suppression', but she knew better. The man had been made into a thrall.

She almost failed to notice it as Oren's drone dipped deeper into the gallery's entrance to claim what it had come for, so taken was she by the implications of what she had learned. By the time she thought to consider the drone's last action, she was already the last person in the room.

Pithy sighed, resting her head on the floor. An encroaching heaviness at the tips of her limbs urged her to rest, muddying her thoughts. The fire in her leg roused her.

She forced herself to sit. Muscle stretched, and a lance of pain all but froze her, all notions of rest chased out of her head. Setting her jaw to suppress a pained gasp, the elf began to drag herself across the gallery's floor.

It is well that I've been left alone, she told herself. There is no one to witness this indignity.

Her hands finally grasped the robe that she had thrown at the enemy in her ploy to blind him, and her fingers held the silken blue fabric before her. The surface had been peppered with holes from the projectile weapons she had been faced with, some only a day old from the fight against the badger and others newer still.

A rare feeling of sadness gripped her. The robe itself had been replaced before, the fabric torn, burned and disfigured beyond recognition several times through the years. At this point, only the silver clasp shaped like a rose remained from the original, but it still hurt to see it in such state. It had been passed on to her as a gift before her exile, from people whose names had been taken from her along with her own in punishment, a gift that broke many of her people's laws. She had resented it then—still did, at times—but she could not bring herself to part with it in full. It was the last physical link that anchored her to her past, and its weight was too large for her to cast off.

Nonetheless, a tool was meant to be used as necessary, and the weight of that conviction ran deeper still. She pulled a knife from her belt and put herself to work.

A handful of minutes later, a blue and gold bandage peeked from the tear in her bloodstained leggings. The robes once again rested over her shoulders, much diminished. Pithy inspected the fabric wrapping around her leg once again, dissatisfied yet knowing she could do no better given the circumstances. Purple had already began to spread as the cloth soaked in the spilt blood.

Pithy tested the leg, trying to move it through clenched teeth. Even ignoring the hot pokers that burned under her thigh,the the limb barely moved.

Crippled. I can't fight like this. She closed her eyes and swallowed with a dry throat, forcing down a surge of panic. It's passing left behind cool contemplation.

There was nothing to be done for it, she told herself. Her magic could keep the rot from settling in, if nothing else, and bandages would stem the flow of blood until she found a healer or surgeon to take proper care of the wound. It did not bear thinking what would happen to the limb if she found no way to treat it. Neither did she dare ask how she would deal with the coming battles. Not yet.

It's the only option available to me. The cynical thought brought a bitter smile to her lips and with it, cold comfort.

With a whispered word, a crystal rod formed in her hand, stretching and curving until it had taken the shape of a cane. She set it against the floor and tried to use it as support to stand, letting out a curse as the damned thing slid out of place. Another word steadied it. Pithy stood with some effort, distributing her weight between the cane and her good leg. Once she was sure she could move, she began shuffling towards one of the foyer's sculptures. Taking the chance to lean against its podium, she fished out her phylactery.

There had been a certain concern that had come to her mind at the beginning of the duel, and now that the battle was done, it once again rose to the surface to flutter with the rest of her apprehensions.

“Oren,” she called into the phylactery. The metal familiar had retreated some time ago, but she was confident the announcer could still hear through the heart-shaped device.

“What is it, ice queen?”

“I’m not in the mood for jests.” The steadiness in her voice satisfied her. She was glad she had not immediately pursued this line of questioning when the drone had first intruded at the end of the battle. “Answer plainly. Are you trying to get me killed?”

His reply was immediate. “Nnnope.”

Pithy drowned out the first response that came to mind. It seemed she was not as calm as she had first thought. “Could have fooled me. Why did you call out when I was about to ambush him?”

“I’m not supposed to let fights end like that. ‘It wouldn’t be fair’, or somethin’ like that.” The announcer’s tone was a mixture of placating and dismissive. “Don’t be flattered; if he was about to put a bullet in your head from a mile out, I woulda hotlinked your phylactery and given ya a heads-up before yours turned into red chunks. Besides, ya still coulda taken him out then and there, even with the warning, but it looks like ya weren’t fast enough.”

Not fast enough, he says, from the safety of his viewing room. He dares try to turn this on me.

This time she did not contain herself. “Bullshit!” she hissed, her hand tightening around the phylactery. “We just need the souls to make the machine work. Where does fairness of all things come into play? Or do you just enjoy watching us struggle?”

The sound of a sigh came through the microphone, corrupted somewhat by static. Oren’s tone had shifted to one of irritation. “I mean, a little? But it’s not my call either way. You’re not moral-high-groundin’ me, lady. Ya wanna dispute how the stupid phylacteries or the machine work, ya take it up with the College. I’m just doin’ my job. If ya wanna get mad about the unfairness of it all, feel free to drop by my tower and show me what-for.” Oren chuckled, as aggravatingly self-sure as only someone of the opposite side of a mic could be. “I know I’d enjoy watching that. I’ll even throw it in for free: Governance Hub center, medieval-looking building, can’t miss it.”

Pithy closed her eyes. Her grinding teeth were audible in the silence. Not his call the words repeated in her mind. Was it somehow a requirement for this machine to awaken for battles to take place? Or was it as she had first feared, and she had been led into a gladiatorial game purely for the amusement of others?

After a moment, her voice slipped out, softer than before, almost silky in its smoothness. “The invitation is tempting. Know then, that should I make for your tower, it would be to kill you before you could put my life at risk again. Is that hasty of me?”

To the announcer, Pithy’s tone came as mocking, and he did not appreciate the ignorance at work. “Last I checked, you’re the one voluntarily puttin’ your life at risk for the sake of your wish. But come and try to kill me, if ya think ya got a chance. You’d better be hasty about it if ya do, ‘cause after tonight, we’re gon…” Oren trailed off with an uncharacteristic abruptness. When it returned a moment later, his voice had cooled off completely. “Hm. Well...let’s just say, I’m not the enemy here. We both want somethin’, we both gotta play by the rules. Nobody acts of their own free will. Sorry.”

Pithy loosened her grip on the phylactery, sensing its slowing heartbeat. “You will not be, should you see me before sundown,” she told him. After a moment, her voice still quiet, she added. “And you have the truth of it, announcer. There is nothing so quaint as volition at play here.”

The doors of the art gallery swung shut behind Pithy. Her rapier was back in its hoop at her belt, and the six-shooter was safe in its holster.

Near the base of the stairs, she saw her defeated opponent had turned to look at her. He gripped his injured arm close to his body, a grim expression fixed at her. She noted a crack on the pavement close to where he stood.

The cane in her right hand tapped at the stairs as she began the tortuous trek down the steps. The long-shooter, held in her other hand by the barrel, struck the stone in time with her step. She saw the man’s face twist to a displeased grimace at the sight of his weapon being used as a crutch by another, but he didn’t speak out. In any case, Pithy was much to preoccupied hiding the pain that lanced into her leg with every jarring step to care about his displeasure.

After what seemed like an eternity, Pithy reached the gallery’s courtyard, standing face to face with the man of the green eyes.

She offered the long weapon for him, and he roughly pulled it off her hand.

“I want a rematch.”

She did not miss a beat.


Red filled the man’s cheeks. “Like hell am I just gonna sit back and accept losing to some prissy elf girl and her stupid toothpick. I bet you wouldn’t look so smug if we went at it again, without these stupid nerfs this time!”

Smug? Is that how I look to him? Bleeding, barely able to stand on my own feet, and still have more rounds to go on this thrice-damned tournament, and mine is the face of pride?

She shook her head. “You lost your chance.”

Pithy saw the man’s expression twist. He snarled a curse. “I see, I see. Elsa’s… ning scared, little slo… deserve it but—”

She blinked, confused by the shrill droning that rose in her ears, drowning out the man’s words. He kept speaking, unabated. Did he not hear it? She was feeling faint. Dimly, she wondered if she had not lost more blood from her injury than she had thought at first.

Her gaze roamed the furious, contorting face, marvelling at the anger and frustration that had surfaced in those features as though seeing it for the first time. Had his right arm not been wrapped around his midsection, she knew he would have been gesticulating wildly at her. As it was, the long-shooter bobbed up and down, striking the ground as though providing a beat behind the tirade.

More than anything else, she remembered the tone of voice that had seeped from her Phylactery only a few minutes past, the confidence in the safety afforded by distance, the misjudging of threats as empty, and the bravado borne of not truly seeing the face of the one you antagonized. In the face of that, she was struck by how little she cared about this child’s unsightly display. Her gaze left his face, hopping between the few fountains in the courtyard before losing interest and dropping down to look at herself. Her eye stopped on the blood on her leggings before moving on to fix on one of the knives sheathed at her belt.

Not truly understanding why she was moving as she was, her free hand slowly wrapped around the handle of the weapon.

The sound vanished at that very moment, the void of sensation nearly knocking her down from her feet.

“—elves were supposed to be skinny dudes with Orlando Bloom’s face or curvy, stripperiffic rangers, but instead I got you half-assed ice queen—”

The knife made a rasping sound as it left its sheath. The tirade stopped. Pithy’s bombardier eye locked on the man’s own. There was apprehension there, and rightly so. She could do as she pleased with him.

Pithy turned the knife on her hand, holding it by the blade and offering the handle to him. His expression turned puzzled.

“Cut off your tongue.”

A groan escaped a pair of furred lips, the sound riding on the cold wind. Within a bank of white, a black figure rose to its feet, shaking away the snow that had piled up over its small form. It suppressed a shiver.

"Ugh... dun’ tell me. Dumbass doc better not have slipped something in my drink while I wasn’t looking.Oughta teach ‘im badgers and guinea pigs are different things." Trickshot Jo looked around herself, glaring at the offending white. She brought a paw to rub at her fiercely throbbing temple. Hrm. No hat. "The hell am I at?!" She looked down at herself. "And what slippery Jimmy made off wit’ my pieces?!”

Jo began to dig at the snow, suddenly nervous. If she had dropped them near her 'pass-out' spot, she could get lucky and find them. If she had shed them elsewhere, suffice to say, she did not like her chances of finding them in this featureless wasteland.

Jo cursed and kicked at the snow. A small mound in front of her stirred, and Jo started, paws reflexively looking for her holsters. The badger tsked testily as she found nothing at her hips, but it seemed nothing was needed, as the mound remained still.

Now curious, she approached, brushing snow away from the top. A pale, slender arm greeted her. Jo hesitated for a moment, thinking she had stumbled into a corpse, before she realized the mound was weakly rising and falling.

"Shoot. Yo, stay with me!" Her own discomfort forgotten, Jo gave the arm a shake, some more snow falling to reveal small, girly shoulders and a white nightgown. "Girl ain'tchu got no clothes on?" the badger muttered. Jo had the benefit of a coat of fur, but all she could see on this one was the single piece of thin fabric.

She dug her out, trying to rouse the girl, for it was a girl Jo had come across, not yet into her teens as far as the badger could tell. She had not noticed before, but the edges of her limbs had darkened, as though rotting, and the veins coming up from her arms and legs seemed dark to her, sickly.

"Yo girl, you's still alive?"

Long, black hair covered the girl's features, and Jo pulled it back to better see the girl's face.

A stern face, sharp, with a single blue eye stared at her. The other eye was encased in ice, along with a good portion if that cheek.

Jo blinked. No. Familiar as it was, this was a girl's face, not a woman's. Rounder and more innocent in its sleep, eyes closed. Both eyes.

But the sight had awakened a memory in her. Jo's paw went to her midsection, where a woman in white had blown open her stomach with a shot from a revolver.

Jo stared down at the phantom wound for a moment, silently processing the idea. Then, "Damn. Done in the first round. Cap'n's gon' be pissed."

For the first time since she had awoken in these white wastes, she recalled the last hours if her life. But then, what was this place she had found herself in? The afterlife? It certainly was white enough, if she was to believe some of those preachers she had heard droning on in the cities, but she would have expected clouds instead of snow if that was the case. She didn't feel dead in any case, whatever dead felt like. It seemed more and more likely that she had hallucinated the whole thing. It simply did not
feel like she had.

The weak breathing of the unconscious girl in front of her drew her attention once more, and she shelved her misgivings for the moment.

"Hey, come on!" Jo pulled at the girl's arm, trying to jostle her awake. She was not prepared for the pull to actually move the girl's body, and the badger fell on its rear.

"Damn," she muttered, alarmed. "Girl ain't got no meat on her. How's she still tickin'?"

Problem was, her being alive meant that she could not simply leave her be.

Jo nuzzled under the girl's arm, drawing herself up under her armpit as if to support her. She would need to get her out of the snow if she wanted to stand a chance. But where would she take her. Glaring at her surroundings only revealed more featureless white.

Finally, Jo cursed under her breath and strode off in a random direction, shouldering the light burden of the sleeping girl’s weight. "Anyplace'd be better than dyin' in here, I guess.”

The Lady in White vs. Gaben's Chosen Round 3

The man with the green eyes’ flight was halted when he was caught in the outstretched arms of one of the sculptures in the foyer. The statue, a reedy thing of twisted metal that resembled a metalsmith’s representation of a scarecrow, tipped back on its concrete stand, then slowly toppled back in a slow fall. His bewildered eyes met Pithy’s gaze for a split-second before the sculpture fell from its stand, obscuring the both from view.

Pushed him away from the frozen floor. He won’t have issues maneuvering. Pithy began to hobble back, inching closer to another such statue and the concrete pedestal on which it stood.

The clanking echo of the toppling sculpture had barely begun to fade before, the man stood behind the pedestal, a small shooter in his hand. Pithy recalled her sheet of ice just in time to shield herself from the barrage of projectiles that suddenly assailed her, still inching back towards what cover she had seen.

The barrage ended as quickly as it began, and in the short lull, Pithy caught the man’s eyes straying off to the side. Following his gaze, she saw the long-shooter lying a short distance away from him. It did not take much thought to see what the man was planning.

He vaulted over the pedestal, dashing straight for the weapon.

The badger had managed to destroy a hastily formed shield with two well-placed projectiles from her weapons. I’d rather not see how many it takes this one.

A trio of icicles came into being before Pithy and launched themselves at the running man, sharpened points aimed at lunges, neck and kidneys.

His gaze swept in her direction, fixing over the incoming projectiles, and the man threw his body back. He slid over the polished floors, lances flying over him, and snagged the weapon with his uninjured hand. In a fluid motion he rose to a crouch and braced the shooter against an arm, and the barrel swept to face her.

The rapport of the weapon was immediately followed by a hoarse curse. A quick glance spared Pithy a view of the long-shooter’s barrel resting against the floor and the man’s bleeding arm wrapped painfully around his midsection. She saw as the man’s face hardened. He slouched back to a sitting position and braced the weapon against his other shoulder, the barrel held up against the man’s raised knee.

“Can’t believe I gotta try-hard this shit.”

It looked to be an incredibly awkward position, but something told the duelist that she could not count on him missing another time.

Pithy hurried her pace, gritting her teeth at the pain that lanced up her leg like hot pokers under her skin. Only a few more feet, dammit...

Another icicle appeared before her, launching itself at her enemy.

The man twitched, almost imperceptibly.

Just one more step—

Once again, the weapon thundered.

Pithy realized the flying arrow had exploded in the air, but that was only an afterthought. The bladed barrier she had brought into the gallery, expecting a ‘ganfight’ as she had been, shattered inwards as the projectile punched a fist-sized hole through it. Just then, she felt something pulling from her left shoulder.

But there was no sudden surge of pain. A glance at her shoulder revealed a large hole had been ripped open on both sides of one of her empty sleeves. When the man had shifted his aim to the incoming projectile, he had lost a proper bead on her.

And then she allowed herself to fall behind the pedestal.

Even as her back hit the concrete wall, her magic snatched a piece of the shattering barrier, almost as large as her hand, and brought it close to herself. As it passed by her outstretched right leg, Pithy found herself struggling not to stare at the red stain that was blooming in her leggings.

She heard the weapon firing once again along with the sound of stone cracking, but the loud swear that followed told her that her cover had proved thick enough to avoid being penetrated.

Breathing a relieved sigh, she looked at the crystal she held in her magic and whispered a lilting word. Its surface shimmered like a ripple in water, then swiftly stilled. Her reflection’s blue eye stared back at her from the crystal.

She levitated the sorcerous mirror over her cover, and turned it until she found her enemy. The man was still where she had seen him last, but his shooter was no longer trained on her. He held something else in his hand, a dark, yellowish rectangle. Pithy realized she had seen that kind of item protruding from the long-shooter’s underside.

Her mind went to the special ammunition the badger had used in her previous encounter and Pithy felt a ripple of unease run through her. She could not let him take the initiative.

She held a fist up, drawing from the wellspring of her magic, and five crystalline daggers appeared between her fingers. Without so much as glancing over her cover, she flung them upwards.

The knives spun carelessly into the air, their glittering reflections drawing the eyes of her enemy away from his task. Almost as if noticing his regard, the blades stilled, points turning to face him.

The man began to move just as the blades flew at him. He rolled to the side, flinging himself out of the way and onto his feet with surprising agility, but rather than clattering against the ground where he had stood, the knives turned in unison and fanned out, homing in on him from different angles.

In her mirror, she could see the man mouth a single word.


The first blade whizzed past him as he stepped aside, swinging his shooter at another pair of knives. They were turned away, spinning out of control until Pithy reasserted her will on them. The swing returned the shooter to a holster on the man’s back, leaving his hand free. The fourth was aimed at the man’s head, and he ducked under it, veering straight into the path of the fifth. At the last moment, he turned, putting his injured arm in the way of the blade. It sunk into flesh, deep enough that it touched bone, but before Pithy could drive it in deeper, his gloved hand closed around it, wrenching it out of the wound and flinging it away.

Pithy could faintly see red welling between his uncovered fingers.

His face turned in her direction, and his hand suddenly blurred, something coming into being where once there was nothing. Before she could either redirect her knives at him, or see what he had conjured to his hand, he brought it up to his face and made a chucking motion in her direction.

A clattering noise drew her attention away from her floating mirror, to the cylindrical object that had dropped next to her.

Alarm bells rang in her mind. She pointed her rapier at it and let out her strongest gale. The object flew off towards the gallery’s entrance, exploding in the air in a conflagration of sparks and lightning. A rush of warm air buffeted her face, forcing her to close her eye.

She cursed, blinking rapidly as she sent a searching glance at the mirror she held aloft.

Her enemy was nowhere in sight.

Pithy swore in alarm and gave shape to power as swiftly as she could. The ice mirror lost its reflective sheen, growing from the center into a hastily constructed barrier like the one it had come from. Pithy began to stand, using an information sign by the statue to pull herself up.

She heard shoes stomping against the ground before she saw her enemy rounded the sculpture she had hidden behind, and Pithy pushed the sign towards him as she tried to move away. The man cleanly side-stepped it, green-eyes keenly focused on her retreating form, and he raised the orange blade in his left hand.

Pithy’s hastily-formed barrier came between them.

The man’s blade bounced back, but a spiderweb of cracks had formed on the shield’s surface at the impact. Pithy grunted. It’s all I can expect from such a hasty construct.

She found herself shaping another gale within her rapier to blow the man back once more, but stopped herself. Even if the man did not predict such a move now that he pressed her, flinging him away again would only delay matters.

She keenly understood that their duel had nearly reached its end. Who would come out on top would depend on the next exchange.

With a flash of her rapier’s runes, the barrier in front of her shattered along its cracks. The pieces spun, a myriad glittering surfaces seeming to expand from a center as though they were floating in water. Her enemy paused in his approach, glaring at the crystal shards that suddenly ceased moving, sharp edges all facing him at once from only a step away.

Pithy gave the man a cruel smile, watching his fragmented image from between the floating shrapnel and knowing that he was doing the same to her.

“I admit,” she told him, “you are slippery, but not as much as you’d think. I’d like to see you get out of this one.”

The young man answered with a tight grin. “Leave the shit-talking to the pros, Elsa. You suck at it.”

Pithy heart soared, but she kept the triumphant feeling away from her face. Instead, she scowled at the enemy’s dismissal, bringing an arm to her chest as though containing her outrage. In her hand, she surreptitiously grasped the clasp of her robe.

Coolly, she answered. “Very well.”

The runes in her rapier flashed, prompting the suspended shrapnel to converge towards their target. Pithy had a moment to see the man’s expression turn smug before he disappeared under the deluge of blades.

And then she ducked under the orange sword that slashed out from behind her. Pithy undid her robe’s clasp with a practiced flick of her fingers and the fabric billowed out, slipping away from her shoulders.

“What the f—” came the frustrated cry before a sudden gale of wind threw the blue cloak at her enemy’s face.

Unbeknownst to him, among all the pieces of crystal that she had spread to limit his approach, one had remained facing horizontally at her. And that one piece had been enchanted to work as a mirror in the moment that her enemy had answered her provocation.

She had seen it when the man had appeared behind her, and responded to the blow aimed for her neck.

Such a ploy could only have worked on a man-child as massive as the one before her.

And so Pithy twisted around, ignoring the fire in her leg as she lunged at the covered figure’s torso. The man fell back, throwing the robe aside, and his wild eyes fixed on the silver lance aimed at his heart.

The speed of the orange sword stunned her. It flew up as though of its own volition to protect its master, pushing her rapier away such that it only scraped against her enemy’s vest.

Unable to stop her lunge, Pithy swore and pushed forward, locking the blades between them, knowing all the while that she was the weaker of the two and would not be able to use her weight with a wounded leg. Which left only one choi—

The enemy found his balance and pusher her away from him with his blade. Before she could retreat to a safe distance, a foot crashed against her stomach.

Air exploded from Pithy’s lungs. She was flung back. The impact on the gallery’s smooth floor sent a tremor through her, and she felt something tear inside the wound in her leg. A scream tried to pry itself out of her throat, but it found no air to ride on. Her grip on her rapier failed, and it clattered away.

Pithy squirmed, turning so that she lay on her belly. Short, pained gasps rose from a sore throat, and her wide eye blinked away unbidden tears.

Behind her, she dimly heard approaching footsteps, accompanied by a mocking laugh.

“You really had me worried for a moment there, you know? Ambushes, Stage Hazards, homing projectiles and throwing a fucking cape at my face to blind me? That’s some next level cheese right there, but I guess that’s the best I can expect from—” He paused. The approaching footsteps stopped. “Why are you laughing?”

Am I laughing? Oh, these gasps… no wonder I’m having trouble breathing. Fool, why does it matter why I’m laughing? In what realm could it ever lead to something good for you?

Pithy turned herself over, glaring at her latest enemy in this blasted tournament. In one hand she held her own phylactery, having dug it out of her shirt while she was facing down. In the other she held its twin, the heart beating rapidly as though alarmed. The length of chain from which it had dangled from her enemy’s neck was broken.

“You talk too much,” she rasped.

The man looked down to his chest and understanding dawned on him, followed by a dark rage. He took another step towards her, raising his sword.

“Give that back, you bitch!” But Pithy had already driven her phylactery’s needle into the other heart’s rubbery flesh.

The man stopped in his tracks, his injured arm reaching to his chest as though a new pain had all but overridden the old one. He stumbled back, the orange sword falling from his hand as his left hand joined his right. His breath sped up, rapidly reaching the levels of hyperventilation until a keening scream tore its way out of his throat. His legs crumpled under him, as if they could no longer hold his weight, and spasms began to wrack his body.

Pithy continued to watch from her place on the floor, wide-eyed as the man’s scream slowly died, only for it to start again at the next gasped breath. All the while, the beat of the heart she had stolen from him gradually slowed.

It was not long until the man lost consciousness, but Pithy held onto the two interlocked hearts for long after her enemy’s had stilled.
As the Charred Council’s Magus appropriated the key and turned its power against the Hatred that had claimed it, the Angelic Champion saw a chance to slip past the demon’s defense. Wings flared and boosted him forward over the corpses of his command, golden blade lancing forward to plunge into the enemy’s center.

Mid-stagger, the Hatred tilted imperceptibly to one side, and the blade that would have impaled it skittered instead over its crystalline hide, carving a groove along its path. The angel had no time to dwell on his failure before he was forced to duck under the demon’s whirling scythe. The second arc came on the coattails of the first, and a desperate parry nearly saw the blade wrenched from the soldier’s hands.

In a split-second decision, the soldier leaned closer and low into the next arc, trading the scythe’s singing blade for the crushing weight of the weapon’s staff slamming against him.

The blow knocked the wind out of his lungs and sent him flying back to the entrance. Forcing himself to his feet by using his sword as support, the champion eyes wandered to the mausoleum entrance.

A towering demon was charging through, arms like tree-stumps sending tremors along the stone walls as it loped forward, and the soldier knew that the baleful amber eyes and the wolf’s grin were directed at him. But for a member of the Hellguard to meet an end in war against the old enemy was nothing strange. If all he could do in the end was to buy time for the Council’s Agents, then he would do so with steady hands, staring death in the face.

The champion readied his blade, steeling himself for the moment in which the beast would be close enough to smell its breath.

It was then that he realized that the monster’s focus was not on him, but on something behind him. The idea had not even occurred to him, so outlandish it seemed in his mind, but he had no choice but to entertain it as the monster vaulted over him.

The Hatred rose its weapon just as the monster fell, and the Hellhound grabbed onto the staff, bearing down on its target. The smaller demon’s needle-like legs sunk into the floor, sending cracks and raking the floor as it began to be forced back under the monster’s bulk.

The hound opened its maw, and an orange glow began to emanate from its gullet, along with the tell-tale sound of crackling fire.

A moment later, the glow receded, and the hound closed its jowls, instead twisting its grip on the Hatred’s weapon in an attempt to wrestle it to the floor. This proved to be a poor tactic, as the scythe suddenly spun between the two. The hound stood to its full height, avoiding the blade suddenly arcing upward towards its neck by a hair’s breadth, and then surging forward with a raised fist with the whole of its weight behind it.

Dust and stone erupted from the impact, and the Hatred landed several meters to the side, its sharp legs making a scratching noise against the floor as it rose from its sudden leap.

The Hellhound slowly turned to face it, shoulder’s cracking as it fell back to all fours. Its scaled tail swished back and forth menacingly, in a manner that reminded the angel of a cat considering what to do with a mouse it had caught.

A grave voice grated from its maw. “This one has fed well.”

Barely had the words left his mouth before a nearby wall exploded inwards, carrying with it dust and blood, and the remains of some, as of the moment of impact, indistinguishable demon. As the dust settled, in stepped creature more draconic than either angelic or demonic, over eight feet tall and powerfully built. Only its face - the only part not covered in black scales - betrayed its femininity.

“But has it fed well enough?” Asked Lily, flexing her wings casually. Her eyes scanned the room, taking note of the presence of Akoni, some human, Champion and Hatred. The sight of the scythe-wielding demon seemed to catch her interest, causing her slitted pupils to widen, if only slightly. “A demon wielding a weapon? Now that’s rare,” she all but purred.

The hound grunted, eye rolling to fix on those that had been fighting the demon until then. "Mage! Either get that bauble out of here or do something with it!"
The Lady in White vs. Gaben's Chosen Round 2

The two contestants circled each other, slowly coming closer amidst the duplicate sculptures of the gallery’s foyer with mismatched gaits. The man moved carelessly, the sword dangling loosely in his hand pointing at the floor. An easy smirk etched on his features. The woman moved precisely, rapier in hand held at a ready stance, facing her enemy. Her brow was knitted into a stern scowl.

At an unspoken signal, the threshold was crossed. Pithy’s rapier suddenly streaked out, silver blade lancing at the man’s eye like a lunging snake.

A metallic clang answered her strike. Sparks flew off the man’s blade as her rapier was batted away with enough force to shoot a lance of pain up her wrist. She ground her teeth, desperately holding onto her grip as the man swung back to slash at her unprotected torso.

Pithy fell back on instinct, cleanly stepping out of the orange sword’s shorter reach and resuming her guard as the enemy surged forward.

She deflected a diagonal slash, avoiding the weight of the blow by ducking under it and maneuvering towards her foe’s right where his triangular shield could not be brought to bear. A searching slash at the man’s flank was pushed away as easily as her first strike, but just as her enemy began to retaliate, the sheet of ice spun out from behind Pithy, forcing him to step back to avoid its sharp edges.

The young man did not pursue as Pithy passed by, spinning around to face him. Instead, he rested his sword on his shoulder, the orange particles surrounding it glancing off of his clothes. “Forgot to put some points in agility, Elsa? I thought you’d be faster than this. That’s what happens when you don’t specialize!”

Pithy grunted, too short on breath to answer the man’s nonsense. By contrast, the brat doesn’t even look winded, she thought.

Some things had become clear from the rapid exchange. Her enemy possessed strength and reflexes beyond the norm, but his technique was sloppy in turn. A dullness born of overconfidence, of reliance in superior physical capabilities, or a lack of proper training?

It would not be the first time Pithy crossed swords with a superior opponent. Many warriors in her world found ways to enhance their abilities beyond their natural limits, be it with magic or a god’s favor. But it was more than that. For the first two decades of her life Pithy had thrown herself against such enemies again and again, and her body still remembered the struggle. Back then, her enemies had surpassed her utterly. This time, Pithy knew she had the benefits of experience and skill on her side. Those could bridge the gap.

The man clicked his tongue and lowered the sword from its resting place. “If you’re just gonna sit there, I’ll move first.”

Her eyes fixed on the man’s phylactery, chained around his neck and visible to all who cared to look.

She could defeat this enemy in a duel of blades, but it would be a close thing. However, skill with a blade was not the only tool she could count on. There was no need to give an enemy the benefit of a fair fight. Particularly when it would not be her last. The runes in her rapier lit up.

He was on her in a flash. The sword streaked forth in a downwards slash, but it met empty air as Pithy spun to the side, sleeves of her coat flaring like a ballerina’s arms. She had seen the man tense before his lunge, read the movement of the blurring arm, and began to move aside at the same time as the man sprung forth. Rather than streaking out in retaliation, her sword swung down with the spinning motion.

Where the tip struck the floor, a tide of white spread, suddenly the engulfing the floor around them.

Her enemy, who had charged after her, suddenly stumbled, plain surprise written in his face. Comprehension and irritation quickly replaced it. Already committed to the lunge, he threw out a slashed, but unbalanced as he was by the slippery ice that covered the floor, it carried none of the previous vigor.

Pithy parried the half-hearted blow with ease, steady as a rock even on this terrain, and sidled up to his flank. She rose the arm that held her six-shooter in her left hand and struck out with a vicious backhand aimed at the back of her enemy’s head.

Which was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Pithy’s arm flew through empty space, losing her balance as she was carried forward by the momentum. What just—

“Nothing personal, ki—SHIT THAT’S CHEATING!”

Pain flourished from her right thigh. Shocked and struggling to regain her balance, she placed her weight on the injured leg. White filled her vision.

For a moment, she clearly understood what had happened. The man had somehow appeared behind her, and she had called the shield of ice to protect her when she heard his voice. It had crashed against the orange sword, offsetting an incoming slash, so that instead of finding her unprotected back, it had dug into the back of her leg.

And then she was in the present again. She was turning, regaining her balance. Her mind was in a jumble.

It can hold my weight. Did I faint for a moment? It can hold my weight. Stand as long as you can stand you can live. He got past the shield I fainted so I didn’t see.

She could see baleful green eyes boring down on her, and the danger galvanized her thoughts. The hand with the six-shooter was extended, so she aimed the weapon at the approaching foe and unloaded.

The weapon’s rapport rang in her ears, but the enemy had raised his shield and the projectiles crashed against it as he approached. When he got close, the shield swung outwards, striking the shooter’s barrel and wrenching the weapon out of her hands.

She saw it as the man began to shift his weight, drawing his blade forward for a stab. Unbalanced by the ice he stood on, Pithy had just enough time to react.

She barely managed to plant her feet below her, white threatening to drown her vision once again. Her rapier flashed, deflecting the opposing sword in a shower of orange sparks. She angled her blade forward, once again aiming her thrust at the man’s exposed flank. The man’s right arm blurred as he brought his blade back into position.

But this time, he had been baited. Pithy flicked her wrist, completing the feint and weaving past the orange blade to stab into the arm that held the sword. Blood welled as the tip buried itself in flesh, then tore open a long gash as Pithy slid past.

The smirk that had appeared on the man’s face as he moved to obstruct her attack converted into a pained grimace. “Gah, fuck, that cut!? These hard mode nerfs are bullshit!”

Pithy wasted no time as the man backpedaled. Wounded as she was, and with an enemy capable of something akin to teleportation, a close quarters duel had become much too risky. She needed to create some distance fast.

As the man broke away from her, she drew out her power and pointed her rapier at her enemy. A focused blast of wind suddenly erupted from the tip of her weapon, crashing against the man like a wall of bricks, sending him flying several meters back into the art gallery, a stream of profanity following his wake.
@LugubriousAlright. I'll get to it soon. I expect this week will be busier than usual.
The Lady in White vs. Gaben's Chosen Round 1

Pithy blinked, fighting some dizziness as the surroundings suddenly stretched, the bizarre phenomenon momentarily tricking her mind into believing that she was falling at breakneck speeds. There is something unnatural at work here, she thought, though she had seen nothing but a subtle glimmer in the air as she approached.

She shook the mental image away, refocusing on her target. A man stood with his back to her, a large shooter cradled in his arms. His attention seemed to be focused on the other end of the building, now far enough to make it difficult to discern with the naked eye.

Pithy brought up her left arm, pointing the six-shooter at the man’s back. She was not certain that this man was her foe, but he did not wear the trappings of the College, and she doubted that there was anyone else in miles. It was better to be safe than sorry.

Just then, a familiar voice rang out.

“There can only b—”

Pithy did not wait for Oren to finish. The rapport of her weapon echoed in the space, drowning out the announcer’s voice. Too late. Her enemy—for it could no longer be anyone else—had been alerted to the danger and had turned to the side.

Her projectile whizzed past, crashing and shattering one of the sculptures within. Pithy was already on the move, crossing the ten feet between them with a speed that sent her cowl flying back and revealed her face.

But the man’s shooter already bore down on her, the darkness within the large barrel staring out squarely between her eyes. She could not make it in time to stop him, and had too much forward momentum to change direction.

The smirk in the man’s lips told her he knew this.

So it was not strange when the smirk turned into a surprised gasp when the sheet of ice Pithy had launched forward in an arc with the first bullet suddenly crashed against the side of the weapon. The thunder that erupted from the long-shooter put to shame Pithy’s own weapon, but as before, the shot went wide, this time zooming past her. The sudden strike made the man lose grip on the weapon, and it skittered off on the gallery’s polished floors.

And then she was on him. Her rapier streaked forward, a silver line seeking the veins of her enemy’s throat. The man had been taken by surprise, had been disarmed, and in the end, instinctively thought to retreat backwards in a futile attempt to backpedal out of her weapon’s range. The duel would be decided in a single exchange.

Pithy’s eye widened when, instead of flesh, the point of her blade met a metallic surface. It skidded along a triangular shield as the man swept to the side, spinning out of the way of her lunge.

Her instincts screamed in warning, and she ducked her head, angling herself into a roll. She felt the tell-tale rush of wind that followed a long, sharp object and knew that she would have died had she decided to second-guess herself.

Drawing herself up on her feet, Pithy recalled the large sheet of ice towards herself as a barrier, but instead of the man pressing his advantage as she had expected, her enemy stood a few paces away, looking at her with a pleased smirk.

He toys with me, Pithy understood with a flare of irritation.

“Heh, can’t believe I got so distracted by the bird I forgot to check the minimap,” the man chuckled, lazily twirling the orange blade that had appeared in his hand. He began to slowly pace sideways, eyes glimmering with supreme confidence, and Pithy mirrored his movements, not willing to expose her flanks. “Oooreeeen, old buddy, old pal, you keeping an eye out for me now?”

Pithy grunted, wincing slightly at the pain that suddenly pricked at her cheek. She brought her left hand to her face and rubbed it against the back of her glove. A reddish stain clung to the fabric as she withdrew it. That wound had not come from the sword.

The long-shooter. I almost lost my head twice in a matter of seconds. The smug smile on the man’s face told her that he had guessed at her thoughts.

“Good thing you can’t scratch the paint on that. It’s a very rare skin.”

His posture was relaxed and open, almost insultingly defenseless. Pithy could close the distance between them and slash at his throat in a heartbeat, but refrained from making an approach. The lowered guard could well be meant to get a rise out of her. She had seen first-hand how fast this man could move and knew well that the time for an easy victory had passed.

“We’ll have words after this, Oren.”

We’ll have words after this, Oren. Ugh,” he mocked in a girlish voice. “You’re bumming me out, Elsa. Not to mention you’re getting ahead of yourself. That right there was your best shot at winning and you blew it. How about you just give up instead and save us both the trouble?”

She bristled at the stranger’s light words. Give up? I might as well fall over my sword instead.

“I rather like my chances,” Pithy retorted dryly. “In fact, I should be the one offering you a chance to surrender.”

“Pfft. Cute.”

Pithy’s brow twitched, her pride burned by her opponent’s irreverent dismissal. Has this one been taught nothing of respect? “You’d do well to take this seriously. You won’t find it as funny when I put a hole in your gut.”

The man scrunched his face. “Geez, pull the stick out of your ass, lady. I guessed at your powers when I saw you back at the College, but I didn’t think your ice queen color palette would fit your personality so well. Though it beats me why you’d make a floating surfboard out of ice.” He rolled his eyes. “Know what? Scratch surrendering. 1v1 me, bitch, I’ll wreck you.”

She let out a breath, discarding with it any retort she might have had. The circle they had been walking had steadily grown smaller during their exchange. Soon, one of them would be forced to make a move. With luck, the fool would shut his mouth when that happened.
@Hostile Forgot to mention you on my post. Edited it in, but I don't think that actually notifies people. Anyway, I finally had Pithy reach Dew.
As Pithy delved into the Government Hub, and scattered puddles leftover from the previous night’s storm continued to increase both in number and depth, she allowed herself some relief at her choice to leave the stranded vehicle she had come across. Whoever had engineered the plumbing system of the Justice Hub had done better than the one who designed this area of the city. She was not certain how the mechanism that moved it would have fared against some of those bodies of water.

On foot, however, traversing a flooded district was simple for a spellcaster of her particular affinity. Rather than wade through knee-deep water or seeking different roads, crystalline platforms rose from the still water to meet her stride, holding her up and melting back into their puddle as she walked past them like footprints covered by a blizzard.

The area Oren had pointed her at had been closest to the Justice Hub, but his directions had been vague at best, referring only to a large sector of the Governance Hub. Had she known where exactly her enemy was heading, she might have even arrived before him and lain in ambush. Provided they traveled on foot, at least.

As it stood, she walked with no clear aim amidst the abandoned streets, her rapier on her right hand and the six-shooter on her left. The mismatched weapons offering a degree of comfort as she glanced suspiciously at the myriad possible corners, windows and hiding places an enemy might be peeking from in this abandoned city.

She had a mental image of crossbow sights peeking from one of the surrounding building’s shadows, a quarrel aimed at her back looking out from the Governance Hub’s stately architecture. Oren had said the enemy wielded ‘gans’, after all. If the aim was to kill the other, victory could simply go to the one who saw their foe first.

Pithy swallowed, giving her head a slight shake. Paranoia was fine as long as it reminded her to stay vigilant, but she needed to be careful not to let it eat away at her nerve.

Nonetheless, after some more searching, she allowed herself to duck into a nearby building. The door was unlocked, though she would have broken in through the large display window with the word ‘Theo’s’ written over it in exaggeratedly round letters had it not been. She gave the place a cursory inspection, noting from the arrays of tables and the counter at the back that she must have walked into an eatery, before turning and spying out from the door she had come from.

There was no movement outside, and after a minute of staring at the unchanging form of the abandoned district, she withdrew into the building. She worried that something might have been following her, be it one of Oren’s drones, wildlife like the monster bats in the Justice Hub, or a foreigner to this city, like her or the other competitors, but if anything had been tailing her, it had not revealed itself in that moment.

The elf sighed, pulling away from the door. She could not make herself feel at ease in her current circumstances, even if her precautions made her feel as though she was chasing ghosts.

There was food on display at the counter, including some fruits she recognized from her own realm and others she did not, but her appetite was not roused. Instead, she sat for a moment on one of the chairs, taking the chance to rest her legs. She pulled her phylactery out from under her tunic, turning the heart in her hand and considering an option she had not wished to give much thought.

I could always have Oren tell me where to go.

There were two things stopping her. The first was the simple fact that speaking with the boy gave her migraines. The second was that if Oren was to be believed he would only offer assistance two more times. Whether that meant two more times until the next round began, or for the duration of the tournament, he had not specified.

At first, she was so deep in thought that she did not notice the low rumble growing louder outside, but the breached silence was difficult to ignore for long. Pithy rose from her chair, eye going towards the exit and hands towards her weapons, then had to stop herself from vaulting over the counter when a blur sped past, showering the window with a torrent of water.

Pithy ran outside just in time to catch the tail-end of the vehicle vanishing from view as it turned the corner. After a moment of stunned silence, she chased after it.

A few blocks later, a panting Pithy stared at the courtyard of a large building decorated by fountains and odd looking statues of a style she could not recognize. The building itself shared a similar architecture to many other structures in the Governance Hub, but it was larger, and held a more prominent place on the city block than others. A church? she guessed.

That was not important. What was, was the large vehicle parked at its entrance. She had lost sight of it more than once, but in an abandoned city such as the one she was in, the growling sound of the speeding machine had guided her footsteps for much of the way.

Steadying her breaths, Pithy righted herself, once again drawing her weapons. She took the chance to check her six-shooter, making sure that she had loaded new projectiles.

There are two choices here, she thought as she performed the simple task. Whoever owned the vehicle would have to come back for it eventually, and she could ambush them when they did. However, if this was her enemy, Oren had sent them to this place with a task in mind. If they returned with an artifact capable of aiding them in battle, it could be used against her in ways she could not predict.

The tip of her rapier touched the surface of a puddle, making the water ripple. When she rose her arm, a crystalline shape followed as though coaxed out of the water by the blade’s sharp point, settling into a long, oval sheet of ice which followed after her as she set towards the entrance.

The doors of the structure had been left open, and so Pithy walked up the steps as quietly as she could manage, her hand steadily gripping the handle of her shooter. If she was lucky, she could settle the fight in an instant, without a struggle.

@CrimmyI'm around. Sort of. To be honest I sort of lost the thread of what was happening. Is it still the same day as it was 4 months ago?
Following the road east eventually brought Pithy to a checkpoint, or at least, something that made her think of those she knew. It was a small complex, like a gate arching over the concrete, and a fence made of meshed metal wires extended from its sides, barring the way around the structure.

Aa metal and glass box stood to the side of the road, a place from which she could picture someone sitting and inspecting the incoming traffic. A single bar was held at chest height in the middle of the street, providing little obstacle to any who wished to walk past. The wheeled crate that sat before it would have collided with it were it to inch forward another meter, however.

Pithy moved closer to the vehicle, recognizing it as the same kind as the one that the badger had attempted to ram her with the previous night. In the light, she could properly see the mossy green coloration, and the thick, rubbery wheels that held its weight.

It seems serviceable enough, she thought, deeply aware of her ignorance regarding the machine. Still, the clock was ticking, and it would take time and effort to search the city on foot. This might save me some time.

The elf jumped over vehicle’s railing and took a seat at the front, clucking her tongue in disapproval at the thing’s interior. The top of the vehicle was open to the air, so rain had pooled on the floor and between the two front seats. Choosing to disregard that for the moment, her eye roamed over the panel in front of her, trying to make sense of the knobs and levers on display. She quickly identified the wheel before her as a steering device, but that was the only component of the machine she was sure of. She discovered the pedals beneath the dashboard when her feet struck it as she tried to adjust her position, but when she attempted to step on them, she received no response from the machine.

Frowning, she set to experimenting with the buttons in the panel. Several minutes of mounting frustration at her unsuccessful attempts at starting the machine resulted in a surprised gasp when turning an object under the wheel elicited a rumble and a coughing gasp from the vehicle. Encouraged, Pithy turned the key again, but it only repeated the wheezing noise, no matter how long she held the device in place. Attempting to use the pedals or the steering wheel as it wheezed offered no new results, and after a few more failed attempts, Pithy finally let out a frustrated grunt, leaning back on the seat with an irritable expression.

How did the badger get one to work?

“Maybe it’s just broken,” she muttered, giving an answer to her question. It was possible that the rain had seeped into the machinery within and ruined something she could not see. Pithy glanced behind her, noting something like cloth at the back of the car. It was likely meant to be used as a tarp in occasions such as last night’s storm, but the driver had never gotten the chance to use it.

Earlier, she had assumed that there was something maintaining the citadel in the Justice Hub in good repair, but that seemed unlikely to her now. It seemed likelier to her that the tidy offices, the abandoned barracks, the vehicles left out in the roads, all those things had only recently arrived to this City of Echoes. It seemed possible now that it had not been people who had abandoned this place a long time ago, but that this place had abandoned its inhabitants. Recently enough for the desks to be clear of dust.

Just what is this place? The magic involved to move a whole location from one realm to another belongs to an older Age… Though perhaps that was incorrect. Even before thinking of the scar it would leave on the source worlds, such a method would not leave the inhabitants of a place behind. Not moving, but copying? Synchronizing?

“Echoing…” she mouthed. But an echo required a source. One may very well say that the location itself would be a source from within its own world, but what could anchor it to this one? Among myriad realms, why should the echo of one world appear over any other, if it should appear at all?

Actaeon, the beast in the tombs appeared in her mind in a flash of intuition. What if we make the assumption that he did not arrive with his tombs, but that his tombs appeared in the city because of him?

Then the state of the supposedly abandoned Justice Hub would make more sense. After all, the city had had a recent influx of otherworldly beings. Which could, in turn, mean that each of these had caused an Echo to appear within the city.

Pithy sighed.

Of course, her guess at the logic behind the phenomenon still offered no hints as to its cause.

But that does not matter. It’s not what I came for, she roused herself. With some relief, she noted from the position of the sun that her contemplation could only have taken a few minutes. Indulging her curiosity was dangerous. Time lost its grip on her kind much too easily, but there was not enough sand left in her clock to afford such a thing.

Pithy exited the vehicle and ducked under the barrier, crossing the threshold of the Justice Hub.
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