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“... treat it with care, Pithy.” Bonesword held out his phylactery in his hand as he held the other out empty. “Put yours in my other hand. We’ll let go of ours on three.”

Pithy took a deep breath, stepping closer. Her mind raced. The phylactery she had produced had belonged to her first opponent, overlaid with a simply illusion to prevent the undead from realizing it had long ceased functioning. True to what he had told her, the cold that had come with the use of her power seemed to have gone unnoticed by him, but she remained wary.

Will the illusion continue to fool him once he holds the phylactery in his heart? Will he even allow things to go that far? It had become increasingly apparent from the company Bonesword kept and the way he spoke that he had yet to realize fighting his opponent was not the only way forward in the Crucible. If he was playing along merely to have her move within reach, she might well be at his mercy. Her gaze strayed to the swords by the fire—out of reach—then to the large snake beast studying her from behind the bone man. She did not know how fast that thing could move if provoked, nor Bonesword’s capabilities even if unarmed. Some skeletal undead might break apart with a sudden shove, but such beings did not wear armor or wield three blades in the first place.

She held the bitter knowledge that she would have to trust that glimmer of honor Bonesword had shown her—if she wished to betray it.

All too soon she stood before him, and she forced the torrent of thoughts to still. She reached out to the proffered phylactery, even as she placed the one she held on Bonesword’s waiting grasp.

Her gaze returned the skeleton’s own. She was committed. “One.”

The pause felt eternal, and Pithy searched those glowing orbs for a hint that she might be attacked, even if she doubted she could see such a thing coming. Grins were all a skull could offer her and reading such an expression was an exercise in futility. Bonesword, however, did not move against her.


She felt pity, then, for this creature chosen to believe her. Not enough to dissuade her from her course, however. She had already gone too far to turn back, and this trick was preferable to the alternative in any case.

”Three,” the two said in unison. Like that, the hearts switched hands.

Bonesword stepped back after taking Pithy’s phylactery. He stared at the object for a few seconds before he let out a chuckle. ”Heh, you know, I never actually stopped to hold these things. They’re incredibly weird.”

“Indeed.” Pithy stepped back as well, her free hand reaching up for the chain around her neck. The trap had been sprung and, simple as it was, Bonesword had been caught in it.

She pulled out the phylactery she had been wearing as a necklace, hidden under her shirt and robe. This time, Pithy thought she could see the thoughts forming inside the creature’s skull. As the skeleton’s head tilted, the shining wisps of its eyes angling first towards the dead heart it held in its hand, and then to the metal familiar still aiming at her, she could point at the budding confusion, the shock of realization, and the flare of outrage, all in but a moment. He had seen this all in Mountain Dew’s face that very same day, and much like that time, the result of the encounter had already been decided.

“I might have gotten it wrong,” she agreed. Just as she sunk the needle of her phylactery into Bonesword’s.

”FUCK N—” The skeleton’s exclamation twisted into a pained scream. ”GRAAAAAAAAGH! YOU FUCKING BITCH! WHERE IS YOUR HONOR?!”

Pithy’s attention focused to the snake beast as it finally moved against her. As the monster twisted to lash out with its tail, Pithy threw herself back, turning to land on her side, phylacteries held protectively in her arms. She found the beginnings of a spell starting to take form, when the pitch of Bonesword’s screams changed.

The snake paused in its approach, paralyzed by the desperation in those wails, and Pithy found her magic dissipating as she failed to give it form.

The lights in Bonesword’s eyes began to flicker as the skeleton curled up into the fetal position. ”I HAVE NOTHING! THAT’S MY TRUE SOUL!”

With that last proclamation, the screaming ceased. The snake turned back towards its master, slithering closer to the skeleton, and Pithy heaved a great sigh of relief. She glanced at her own phylactery, noting the new lights that had appeared on its side. Removing her phylactery from Bonesword’s, she pulled it over her neck, once again hiding it under her shirt.

The deed was done.

She heard Dew’s tentative approach, and she lifted her head to face him. He, however, was not facing her. His gaze was fixed on the snake and its skeletal master, a shaken grimace twisting his pallid features. Pithy needed no mirror to know she wore the same expression.

“Was that…” he swallowed, recovering his voice. “When did you switch the phylacteries?”

“I didn’t. I gave him the dead one at the start. Kept his eyes on it.” She found the explanation came quickly and readily, her adrenaline finding ways to work its way out of her system even without the expected battle.

“But that one was working. I heard the gears inside.”

“An illusion,” she stated, her gaze turning back towards the snake. She frowned as she saw the way it nudged Bonesword’s body.

Dew’s eyes finally turned away from the skeleton to give her an annoyed glare. “Illusions now? Are you just going to keep popping up with new powers out of nowhere whenever you’re stumped? That’s the mark of shitty writing I tell ya.”

“A good mage never reveals all her cards,” she answered impassively. The brunt of her attention still rested over the skeleton resting some distance away. The snake had curled around the body, hiding it from view. Something… something is wrong, is it not? “It is hardly my specialty, in any case. It worked this time, since the illusion was fairly close to reality and Bonesword confirmed he could not feel heat.”

“Then that cold breeze…”

“There was no breeze. What you felt was power leaking from the spell.” She stood suddenly. “You were not out for this long. He should have recovered by now.”

She approached the stump, only for the humungous snake to raise its head, hissing menacingly at her. Pithy’s fear flared along with her irritation. She took a step back, a hand going to the rapier at her waist.

“Let me through!” she roared. “Your master should be unharmed!”

She had not expected anything out of the outburst. Which was why she was surprised when, after giving her a slow, surly growl, the plant monster uncoiled from around the body, slithering back in such a way that she had a clear path towards it. It twisted in place on itself, its head angled watchfully towards her.

Pithy carefully studied its posture. “Can you understand words?”

The beast did not give a clear indication that it had heard her. Instead, its head angled towards the skeleton before turning to point at her. One did not need to be particularly perceptive to understand the intent of the gesture.

She glanced at Dew behind her. He had his longshooter aimed at the snake, but shrugged when he noticed her look.

Pithy swallowed with a dry throat and carefully moved forward, mindful of the beast studying her every move. Only once she stood a step away from the skeleton did she look down.

The skeleton she saw was much the same as the one that only moments ago had stood before her, but now the wisps of light inhabiting its eye-sockets had vanished. The invisible links that had seemed to hold the bones together under its clothing seemed to have disappeared as well, and the bones simply rested over the ground, unconnected.

Pithy kneeled over it and closed her eye, questing outwards with sorcerous senses.

A kind of magic had animated Bonesword’s body. Magic strong and complex enough to contain, or at the very least imitate, a soul, and give it fine control over an incomplete vessel. Even if its specifics were largely unrecognizable to her as a result of its otherworldly origin, such magic would have to leave traces she could find.

She nodded to herself. And it indeed left traces, but that is all I feel. Remains. Much like the corpse wasting away in front of me.

Pithy opened her eye. For a long moment, she stared mutely at the corpse’s grinning skull.

“He is gone,” she stated.

As if to crush any doubts regarding its comprehension, the plant snake rose its head to the sky and let out a keening, grieving wail. After a time, the cry died down, and the beast coiled into itself, spent, and seemingly uncaring of the pair’s presence.

“Hang on,” Dew said, approaching her. “What do you mean he’s gone? Gone like, dead? Dead, dead? You did that same thing to me and I’m here,” he paused for a moment, then scowled. “Don’t tell me you could have killed me when you pulled that shit at the gallery!”

“Perhaps,” Pithy said, before her mind caught up to her mouth. Before Dew could latch onto that, she quickly amended. “No. I did not know what would happen at the time, but I do not think it could have killed you. Bonesword, however, was different. The only thing linking him to this world was his soul, and whatever magic held it in place within his vessel. When one of those was disturbed…” Pithy closed her eye, then shook her head. “It would be simpler to say that the strength of your existence was greater than his.”

Opening her eye, she found her gaze being drawn to the phylactery clutched amidst the remains, the one she had taken from her first opponent in this ritual. The bones in the skeleton’s hands had scattered around it now that no magic held them together, leaving only hints that at one point it had been held protectively to the skeleton’s chest as though it would somehow soothe the pain.

Pithy delicately brushed some fingerbones away before reclaiming the dead heart. She returned it to its place at her belt.

“I did not intend for this to happen.” She was not sure if she was speaking for Dew’s benefit, the snake’s, or even her own. “The cooperation I envisioned was not the one he did, but this was not what I hoped for.”

Pithy searched herself to identify the emotion that now filled her.

Not regret. If her ploy did not work, she had every intention of killing Bonesword to obtain his soul. With that in mind, the events that had unfolded meant she had accomplished her objective without the need of a protracted battle, like her first two encounters with contestants in the Crucible. While she had been deprived of an ally, she could not say she could regret the outcome. While there was anger at that thought, frustration was not what moved her to speak.

It was shame that burned her. The fact that she had betrayed the naïve undead, taken advantage of his notions of honor and trust to make him submit, and could even then continue to think with the cold, calculating notions of benefits and costs when examining the taking of his life.

Or what remained of it.

Pithy smiled sadly. “I intended to tell him, after this. About his wish. How it angered me when I heard it.”

“Only you’d be angry at someone trying to revive the love of their life. Or maybe it bothers you that people have reasons to get in your way at all.” Dew let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, I’ll bite. What about it bothered you?”

“How generous of you,” Pithy responded, dryly. Gingerly, she wrapped her hands around Bonesword’s skull, holding it such that it faced her, as though she wished to have a conversation. “By itself it was not a bad wish. Why, it is straight out of a fairytail. A gallant knight braving impossible dangers to bring the one he loves more dearly than life itself back from the grip of death. Minstrels in the human towns I have visited love that kind of material. What I questioned was not his desire, so much as his involvement in this tournament.”

“I think I know where you’re going with this,” Dew said, sourly. “It’s about his world, right? Where ‘death is meaningless.’” Pithy looked up at him, wide-eyed, and Dew grimaced. “Come on, you don’t have to look so shocked. I was paying some attention.”

The elf nodded. “You are right, however. That inconsistency made me think he might be lying about his purpose.”

“Didn’t seem the kind to do that, though. Hell, if he was he probably wouldn’t have gotten bumped off like that.”

“Indeed. However, that makes his presence here even more galling.” She looked at the skull in her hands. “The dead have nothing but time. All the time he could ever want. He could have waited for another opportunity, sought another way. Instead, he accepted the College’s offer. Deemed the death of thirty other competitors an acceptable sacrifice, and set out to reap their souls. Never mind what this lover of his would think once she learned the price of her life.”

“You’re not much better, Pithy.”

“Neither are you,” she retorted, easily. “But we do not have a dead man’s time. Time is the one thing I lack, in fact. In the end, if there was a failing to this one, it was not his trust, nor the way he sought to behave with honor. It was that he chose the wrong battles—and sought the wrong peace.”

Dew chewed on her words for a few seconds, before letting out a huff. “Damn. I’m sure not letting you write my elegy.”

“Eulogy, Dew. I’m not a lyricist. You writing mine is more likely regardless, and isn’t that a terrifying notion.” She gently returned the skull to its resting place, before she began to methodically rifle through the objects that remained on the skeleton.

The armor she left alone, noting it would not fit her, but her eyes fell over a large, bracelet-like object that clashed with the rest of the warrior’s attire.

Perhaps something he found in this realm? Without Bonesword to answer, she could only guess. Nonetheless, it was small enough to take with her. “Dew, do you know what this is?” she asked, raising the device.

“Lemme look.” He said, bringing it close to his face. “Hm… not sure. Looks like a bit like a bulky-ass watch, but it doesn’t show the time.” He paused, then returned it to her. “The face looks like a big button, actually. Feels kinda familiar.”

Pithy took it, holding it pensively for a moment before she fastened it onto her belt, unwilling to wear it without any knowledge as to its function. With the body dealt with, Pithy approached the weapons Bonesword had set aside.

“Doesn’t look like we can see the stats,” Dew commented. “Damn, we might need someone to appraise them. I hate that kind of loot system.”

Most of the time, Dew seemed focused on the world around him, but occasionally he would suddenly begin spouting nonsense. It was worrying in that she was not certain if the man was afflicted by some kind of madness or if he was referring to something specific to his own realm. Choosing to ignore his rambling, Pithy knelt before the three swords.

She reached an arm out to touch one, and found herself shivering. “These blades are thirsty,” she observed.

“For blood? What, like they’re cursed?” Dew said with uncharacteristic interest. It seemed the idea of robbing Bonesword’s corpse had lifted his spirits.

Pithy grimaced. It was an overly simplistic way of describing it, but it was not entirely wrong. “In a manner of speaking, though I do not believe this was an enchantment placed by a mage. Rather, it is writ on their histories.”

“I get it. So they’re old.”

Pithy sighed. “Yes, Dew. Old.” She forced her hand forward and gripped the cutlass. The weapon felt heavy inside its sheath, and Pithy drew it to examine its edge. Once satisfied, she sheathed it and stood, still gripping the weapon. “Store the other two. It would be irresponsible to leave them here.”

“Oh boy!” he said giddily. “Does that mean I get a katana?”

“If you refer to the curved one, I don’t see an issue with you keeping it. Do not play with the black one, however. It may be properly cursed.”

“Oh. And you still want me to carry it.” The man paused, as if deep in thought, then shrugged. “Yeah, sure, what’s the worst that could happen at this point? The katana is clearly the better of the three anyway.”

As he went to claim them, Pithy was alerted to motion off the corner of her eye. When she went to look, she caught sight of the snake monster looming over its master’s body. It nudged its skull, rolling it towards Pithy and Dew, gently repeating the process until it was all but presented to the elf.

Pithy bent and, warily eyeing the beast, took it in her free hand. “What about this skull?” She doubted the snake was demanding a burial. Such a thing would hold no meaning for an animal.

At her query, the beast lowered its head. Pithy had to force herself not to drop the skull to draw out the cutlass from its scabbard as it moved closer. With the tip of its nose, it forcefully nudged the skull, making her stumble back a step.

“You’re way too calm around that thing. You got its owner killed. It might just gobble you up when you’re not looking.”

“I’m aware. Deeply aware.” Yet, if the monster still wished them harm, it had had ample opportunity to attack them. Had it been cowed by the death of its previous master? She looked down to the skull she cradled, then back at the snake. “Did Bonesword bring you here from his world?”

The beast shook its head side to side. Pithy was taken aback by the clear response. Just how intelligent is this thing? Yet the answer brought another question to mind. If Bonesword had not brought the snake along, why was it so attached to him? She doubted a stray monster would form such a bond in the two days the competitors had spent in this realm.

“Did he find you here?”

A pause. Then another shake. No.

“Did he make you?”

Vigorous nodding, enough to convince her the beast understood exactly what she was asking of it.

Bonesword did mention control over plants. Yet for this construct to continue to act as such with its creator gone... could he have placed a piece of his soul within it? It was a possibility worth exploring. If that was the case, the same constraints that applied to Dew might well apply to it.

“Dew, we are taking the skull with us. I’ll leave it in your care.”

“That’s creepy,” he commented, rising from his place near the burnt bush. The two swords she had left in his care were nowhere to be seen. He took the skull when she offered it, and it vanished into his pocket.

Pithy ignored him, glancing towards the nearby drone. “That machine may point us to the next enemy, but nighttime is approaching. I’d rather avoid navigating this city in the dark without good cause.” She gave the surrounding buildings an appraising look. “Our business here is concluded. Let’s find shelter.”

With that, she set off. Dew followed, and, to her satisfaction, so did Bonesword’s monster.
Pithy stumbled in her step, a sudden feeling of nausea assaulting her at the same time a crackling sound rent through the building. She glanced back at the inverted dome to see the large fissure that had formed along its surface. The disconcerting sensation left her just as soon as it had arrived. With an effort of will and a pulse of light from her focus, the broken ice bridged itself together again, but it did little to calm her thumping heart.

The memory of the sudden breach was still there, and the voice’s laughter only served to rattle her further. She gave her surroundings a hateful glare, but with nothing to focus her frustration on, she had no choice but to swallow it.

Instead, she strode through the open door.

It was there that she found her quarry. Not lying in ambush as she had feared, nor watched over by some other member of the College, Nero sat alone, bound and blinded.

I would have put more priority on a gag, came the distant thought.

The man stirred at her approach, sending a smile in her direction. Pithy answered it with a grimace.

“You made it, huh? My hero...I can't help but feel as if I've been thrust into a deeper hell, all of a sudden.”

“How droll. My thoughts ran in a similar direction.”

She was debating whether she should move to free him when she noticed a change in the walls around her. Pithy gripped her rapier tightly in expectation of another assault. It occurred to her that now that she had reached the hostage mage, the voice would bury them both under the building. Rather than collapse, however, the structure steadily began to disappear around her, along with the blindfold and pipes behind the mage.

Pithy bit her tongue as the voice spoke again, addressing both Nero and her in turn. She disliked the idea of leaving matters as such, whatever victory she had achieved feeling void and meaningless, but she had little choice in the matter. If the voice spoke truly and their business was unrelated to hers, surviving the ordeal would have to be its own reward.

As whatever had inhabited that space retreated, Pithy felt as though a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She let out a breath she had not realized she had been holding, the runes of her weapon finally dimming. The retreat of the energizing cold filling her mind left her feeling sore and lightheaded, to the point that the only thing keeping her alert was the memory of the humiliation the man bound nearby had put her through only a handful of hours ago.

Her gaze strayed from the room she was in, noting how it was now possible to see outside the lot from her position. It did not take long for her to catch sight of something that made her body tense once again.

She turned slightly, her cold regard falling over the new figures outside the building’s threshold. A monstrous, snarling snake and an undead warrior were not things to inspire confidence in the best of times, but the drone hovering in the air nearby all but confirmed her fears.

“So you did give a guide to everyone else,” she muttered crossly to the hostage. He opened his mouth to reply, hesitated, then closed it with a light sigh.

When she had seen the location of her next foe in the tower’s machines she had thought she would have enough time to finish her business with Nero before they arrived, but it was clear she had been too optimistic.

However, before she could think of a way to approach this new threat, the skeleton halted the plant. She picked up the rustle of whispered words before the being stepped forward.

"Miss, are you participating in this tournament?” came a male voice from the skeletal figure. “If you are, I'd just like to talk for a few minutes, if that's alright with you."

How polite. A welcome change. Now if only your timing was as fortuitous. Pithy narrowed her eye. “Where is the loud one?”

The man in question emerged from one of the nearby streets, lightly jogging past the skeleton as if its presence was entirely natural. “Yo, what was that?” He asked once he was close enough. Gesturing at Nero with his weapon, he added, “did he do that to the restaurant?”

Pithy shook her head, still looking past him towards the skeleton.

“No. Something else possessed the... memory of this place. It is difficult to explain, and I’m likely wrong in any case.” She nodded past him. “Is that the reason you fired?”


She broke eye contact with the undead to give Dew a weary look.

“What?” he asked innocently.

You know well what I want to ask, you ass. Instead of giving voice to that thought, she grunted. “Make sure Nero doesn’t try anything.”

Seeing Dew stiffen, Pithy turned, skipping over debris on her way to the bowl of ice resting over what used to be a kitchen. A wave of her hand made the crystal splinter and fall away, leaving what remained of the kitchenware to spill over the cracked tiles. Pithy trudged to the center of the pile and picked out her cloak, taking a moment to shake off grit from the decaying pans.

The sorceress paused in her inspection for a moment. The point of her rapier rose and stabbed through the cloth. She eyed the protruding silver before nodding, momentarily satisfied by her inspection. The voice had not decided to leave any surprises on the cloth, at least.

She withdrew the weapon and slung the familiar robe over her shoulders before giving the waiting skeleton a pensive look.

It was a peculiar specimen. The skeleton clearly belonged to a human, and it still wore the vestments of one. The pair of swords at its back gave an obvious hint as to the thing’s capabilities. The mushroom sitting atop its head was suspicious as well. Intuition told her that it was somehow related to the plant monster writhing behind it. The nearby stump and plants certainly had not been there when she had first arrived.

No matter the words it spoke, as long as it held a phylactery, a confrontation was unavoidable. That said, she wished to deal with Nero as soon as possible, and even if she survived the fight, there was no guarantee the mage would not use the distraction to flee.

“We may speak, as long as you and that monster keep your distance. But not in this ruin. This place may still be dangerous. Wait further down the street, and we will join you.” Her tone took on a touch of resentment. “You waited patiently for me to deal with this place, did you not? Ever since that warning shot. One more minute should not be an issue.”

”It won’t be,” the skeleton calmly stated as he climbed onto his pet and rode it down the street a fair distance away. Dismounting, he looked back at the two individuals he left behind, watching them carefully in case any hostility arose.

For her part, Pithy waited for the monstrous pair to stop moving before she returned to Nero and Dew. She looked down to the former announcer. “Rope and cloth. Why did you not free yourself?” she asked.

A quizzical but brief look struck her first, as if the young man expected a different topic of conversation. “...To put it simply, I couldn’t. I’m guessing magic is pretty general in your world, but in mine pretty much every wizard is hyper-specialized, with just one type. Mine’s curses. That’s it.” He went quiet for a moment before a memory struck him, and with a wistful look he added. “Oh, and Blackneedle. Either way, even if I tried, Kno One could attack me with anything. That cloth coulda squeezed my skull in, for instance.”

Yet you had little trouble using your curses on my ice. That thing must have scared you a lot more than I did. Was that confidence that I would not go that far, or that you could deal with me if I tried?

“The owner of that voice. He was long gone by the time I arrived, wasn’t he.” It was not a question. Pithy sighed, sheathing her rapier. She moved behind the mage and knelt to examine his restraints. She clicked her tongue when she confirmed the knot would hold to a struggle, then ran a hand under Nero’s shoulder.

Dew frowned from where he stood. “We’re bringing him with after what happened last time? I thought you said you were going to kill him.”

“Circumstances have changed some.” Pithy let out a grunt as she hefted Nero up to his feet. “Besides, I would rather not kill someone I risked my life to save, even if I had no choice in the matter.”

She glanced at the man in time to see his mocking smile. “You know, you keep saying those things and not doing them, people might stop taking you at your word.”

“I shall keep that in mind.”

“You gonna do any of the other things you mentioned? Poke his eyes out? Cut off his hands and tongue?”

“Having a conversation after that would be difficult,” she commented dryly. “Better to choose one. What would you rather do without, Nero? Your hands, your eyes, or your tongue? If I was asked I would personally choose the tongue. Few people seem to have an interest in what I have to say, after all.”

Dew quirked an eyebrow, sensing the barb thrown his way. “Maybe I should start calling you ‘drama queen’ instead of ‘ice queen.’”

Pithy’s wry smile had a touch of irony to it.

For a few moments, meanwhile, Nero remained dead quiet, trying to contain an aghast look and avoid sputtering. Not wanting to think Pithy was serious, perhaps, he replied with nothing.

Pithy gave him a light shove from behind. “Come now, we are off to meet the next being with a vested interest in taking my head. I expect it will want to hear about this last blunder of yours.” With another shove, Pithy set the man to a walk, setting out towards the waiting figures at the edge of the street.

Dew stood back, expression twisted into slight grimace. After a moment, he asked, “does it smell like rotten eggs to you?”
The wall ceded so readily against the push of her magic that Pithy started when the tiles slammed back against the floor, leaving the way unimpeded. In hindsight, it was easy to see the purpose to this less than lethal experiment, something that became even clearer when the voice chimed in with the conclusions it had drawn.

Had the voice’s tests all been such simple explorations of its own power’s nature, the sorceress might have even inclined to participate of her own will.

It is a shame then, that this one has seen fit to test me as well. That I will not welcome, much less at the risk of my life. She strode forward at that, once again seeking her objective.

There. That must be the entrance Nero spoke of.

“That's one of my last questions answered,” the source of her grievances continued, prompting Pithy to hasten her pace. She had a good idea where this one-sided conversation would lead. “I suppose all that's left is a proper send-off: a brute-force test for both you and me. Let's see now...”

She had barely reached the center of the kitchen when the cooking implements that had formed the sides of the wall suddenly came to life again, spinning outwards to bar her way. Other objects lifted off from nearby tables and stoves, including the knives and cutting boards with their assembled ingredients. Pithy hesitated as even the pots she had used to lower the wall were lifted from the opposite end of the room to join the swirling cocoon of metal that hovered around her.

Her eye narrowed as the metallic instruments clattered against each other. There were only so many ways the situation could develop. Please do not let a spark ignite the gas yet…

The lone icicle she had held back until then sped outwards, crashing against the wall of steel. A pan broke, handle snapping off against the blow. The pieces rejoined the wall in the following moment, but Pithy had already moved on to her next spell. A blast of frigid wind crashed against the steel in front of her, sending the debris flying backward, but the hole quickly filled in again.

She could jump through, she thought. If she timed it well enough, she could blast an opening and make a beeline for the exit. Only I’ll find it locked, with a wall of metal at my back because I would not play the game set before me.

The debris suddenly halted in the air. It sped towards her. Her stomach lurched.

The spell that formed in her mind was as much conscious thought as it was panicked reaction, as a powerful vortex blasted outwards in all directions. The discs of ice she had held aloft until that moment slipped her sorcerous grasp, the blast pushing them away as it did the surrounding avalanche. While the ice simply clattered out of sight, however, the metal simply slowed, as though they were objects reaching an arc in their flight before they fell back to the earth.

Pithy knelt, one hand reflexively reaching for the rose-shaped clasp of her robe.

I need a barrier. But could she form a strong enough shield before all this weight fell over her? Her magic had been bleeding enough cold into the air that the spell would come readily, but if she misjudged the pressure, if her hasty construction faltered before she could fortify it—

The cocoon began to converge once again, and Pithy realized the argument was mute. The barrier would not be complete if she began now. Another blast, then? No—

She fell to her knees as she curled up, hood falling over her head. In the back of her mind she wondered if the owner of the voice could see her figure under the deluge of cooking implements, as if prostrating herself in the face of that assault.

How insulting, she thought, shamefully. Those were the last words that passed through her mind before every light from the outside was blocked by the avalanche.

The clatter of crashing metal drowned out the quiet click of her hood’s clasp, and just as quickly swallowed the light coming from her rapier’s sigils.

The cocoon contracted, swallowing the woman inside. The objects pressed together, the presence of the one underneath it outlined by a small, circular hill.

One could imagine the curled figure underneath if they but looked at it, back bent, shoulders drooping under the pressure. Yet if that was the shape it hid, perhaps the incline was too circular for that.

The metal shifted, implements clattering against one another as the hill began to rise. Or expand, rather. As the metal spread out, the vibrant blue of the elf’s fabric peeked from under the steel. It was soon followed by the reflective light of frozen crystal as the dome expanded. The wall of ice continued to grow, the hexagonal plates that formed it growing even as they pushed outwards, steadily rising against the pressure exerted by the entity possessing the metal.

In but seconds, the structure had grown large enough for someone to stand inside it.

At that moment, it shuddered, the plates shivering in place. Rather than crumple, however, they rose outwards like an umbrella being blown inside out, the crystal suddenly rising and enveloping the debris that had until then single-mindedly pressed against it, trapping it against the ceiling. There was a crackling noise as the ice touching the ceiling thickened at its base, and the seams between the plates fused together, fixing the shape of the structure.

Pithy glared at the inverted barrier from below, one hand raised high as if to touch the ice. After a moment of this, her hand lowered. She let out a long breath, willing her trembling fingers to still themselves. The headache that came from the constant pressure against her barrier, she ignored, though her rapier’s guard continued to glow in her other hand.

That armor she had prepared under her robe had come into play rather differently from how she had expected.

Perhaps if she had not been as hesitant to unveil her magic, her cloak, along with the rose-shaped brooch that adorned the clasp, would not had been trapped inside the dome. She almost felt naked without it, the harness with the six-shooter, as well as the knives and phylactery strapped to her belt, exposed for all to see. It gave her the inexplicable sensation that she was displaying something unsightly.

Will I be able to return for it?

“For your sake, I pray your lectures are not as aggravating,” she commented dryly, affecting calm. “Am I free to fetch that idiot?”

She gave the kitchen — now oddly bare — a cursory glance, stopping as she found the exit she had sought.

She found it unlikely at this point, but if Nero and the voice were indeed collaborating, this would be a good time to spring a trap on her. Not that the voice could not have done that earlier, had it not been as obvious with its attempts at attacking her as it had been so far.

It was a chilling thought. So far, she had been warned and given the chance to react to most every threat. Had the voice’s owner wanted nothing from me, I would have likely met my end at the doorstep. If his efforts truly shifted towards killing her, she was not certain she could defend herself.

She hesitated, then approached the opening.
“It became obvious the moment the door locked behind me and the dishware attacked,” the elf muttered quietly as she walked, too absorbed on her magic to take note of the scolding tone the voice had taken towards her. It also helped her ignore the ever-present sensation of menace that now filled this new enemy’s territory, sinking into her limbs like tiny pinpricks. The effort made it easier to keep herself from trembling.

And when I do tremble? Certainly not in fear. It is simply cold.

The lattice of crystal forming under her robes ceased expanding as the magic ran its course, allowing Pithy to merely hold it in her sorcerous grasp. It hovered as a single object, rigid under her cloak in a way that was sure to give away its presence if she moved carelessly, but she expected such a hidden layer of armor would be of use. The runes on her rapier’s guard continued to glow brilliantly even as the ice formation spell came to an end, her focus still divided between carrying her shields, her one remaining icicle, and in maintaining the freezing magic that even then continued expanding the sheet of ice layering the floor under her.

The voice seemed eager to talk as she moved, readily agreeing to her request. “Of course! Though since this is not a lecture, you'll have to figure things out for yourself. Feel free to think of Kno One as an ordinary ghost, if it helps you understand that you cannot harm or interact with it.”

For a brief moment, Pithy was sorely tempted to correct the speaker on his assumption regarding ghosts. There were entire schools of magic devoted to the study and use of incorporeal entities in her realm, and whether this Kno One was incorporeal at present was debatable, but she was under no obligation to say as much. She was more interested in keeping the voice talking on the off-chance that he might be distracted enough for some kind of opportunity to present itself to her.

What kind of lapse she might be looking for, she did not know. So far, the all too pleased way the voice spoke in only served to grate on her.

As she followed the passageway into the next room, Pithy paused, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. A moment later, her features morphed into an irritated scowl.

Along the walls she could see a variety of tables, one with a pipe running up and down in an arch, which she assumed would deliver water, most others either empty, or laden with kitchen implements and cutting boards. Some of them had ingredients over them, as if placed there by someone and then promptly forgotten.

Alongside these there were also large metallic boxes, reaching almost to her waist. Metal pots simmered over them, bluish flames feeding heat to the bubbling water inside them.

It was cleaner than she was used to, so much so that a part of her had trouble thinking of the room as a kitchen. The fact that half of the room had been fashioned into a wall, starting with the tiled floor and ending with a patchwork of steel and cast iron, had not helped her confusion.

“Now, take a look at this. You've figured out the building itself is invincible, but does that still apply to parts of it I've moved? The tile was part of the floor, after all.”

As the voice receded, movement came from the nearby pots. Pithy started, a vision of boiling oil being poured over her flashing in her mind, but instead of that, she saw strands of what she assumed to be dough beginning to rise from the pots to hover in the air.

Suddenly wary of the rapidly increasing amount of food floating in the air, Pithy allowed more of the cold power to pour out of her and muttered an unintelligible word under her breath.

A frosty breeze suddenly spread out from her position, sweeping over the cooking pots. The flames under them suddenly vanished, as did the sound of bubbling liquid. For the barest of seconds, the dough snakes continued to rise from their burrows until, with a crackling sound echoed from every pot, the water inside froze. The strings at the pot’s mouth still stretched outwards, as though attempting to free themselves.

In that time, the strands of dough that Pithy had originally thought to be a threat simply continued to float lazily through the air, seemingly uncaring of the intruder in their midst.

Pithy shook her head, failing to find a reason for this particular act of levitation. What did the voice expect to do with these? Scald her? Strangle her? Or were they meant to distract her from something else? Perhaps it would have been more apparent had she allowed all of them to rise.

Her eye turned towards the box the pot had been sitting on, noting the ring of holes where the fire had once been. If she listened intently enough, she thought she could pick out a soft, hissing sound over the phantom howl of faraway wind in her mind.

She was not entirely familiar with the cooking apparatus, but she thought she recognized an echo of this technology. The City of the Blue Flame. She recalled a human city, known for its beauty and technological acumen. A city of inventors, it was said, that had been built over a humongous cavern of flammable gas. In that city, massive tunnels had been dug out for the networks of pipes that delivered fuel to the street lamps that lined all the main roads, coloring the city with the blue pallor that had earned the it its title.

I also recall it being funneled to smithies and alchemical labs. I recall stories of great fires caused by carelessness. I recall tales of invading armies besieging the city only to stand down and retreat when the lunatic ruler of the time threatened to send the city and army sky-high if hostilities continued. A popular fable, often accompanied with the jest that it was called a free city for a reason.

A thought occurred to her.

Would a gas explosion have any effect on this place?

Perhaps not, but if the owner of the voice was within the building, it might well air them out. All she needed to do was ignore the leak.

It was a dangerous gambit—one that might quite literally blow up in my face at that—but if she could finish her business inside before the gas became dense enough to be a danger, or at least before an explosion was triggered, something could come out of it. She would have to trust in her magic, otherwise.

Pithy let out a long breath through her nose, looking back to the checkered wall and hoping that if the voice could indeed see her, it had not noticed her gaze lingering on the stove. Or worse, that the voice noticed the leak and used it for its own purposes. Choosing not to block off the gas slowly pumping into the room from the multiple stoves meant she had a time limit, and so she focused on the newest obstacle.

Nero had spoken of a window in the kitchen, but the only opening she could see in that room was the entrance she had used, and there had been no other open passageways before that. If such a window existed, it was on the other side of this wall.

It seemed she would have to play the voice’s game.

Pithy pointed her arm forward. Her remaining icicle sped towards the wall, slamming against the center of a floor tile. Pithy grunted as the ceramic remained intact.

She levitated the icicle back to the air, pondering the problem. She had seen plates and tables break in the first room, so the qualification for this extraordinary durability was clearly not the spook’s control.

I cannot harm it. I cannot interact with it. It is this building. That was what she had been told, and it seemed to hold true. However, the distinction between what was and was not a part of the edifice seemed arbitrary to her.

There is a possibility that the distinction comes entirely from the user’s perception of what is a proper part of this place, she mused. If so, it was not a hypothesis she could voice readily. If it so much as approached the truth, this haunt would become even more dangerous.

Another thing of note was the fact that to bring the tiles up in such a manner, the mortar connecting tiles to the floor would have had to be detached. Did this mean that the mortar connecting the tiles was not considered to be a part of the building?

Her icicle floated forward, parting through the floating dough. Even now it did nothing to deter her, simply floating dumbly through the air, and so she continued to ignore it. Once the bladed ice had come close enough to the wall, Pithy pressed the ice into the gap between two floor tiles. After a few seconds spent mounting on the pressure, she realized the adhesive would not break. She would have heard a crack already had that not been the case.

Pithy recalled her blade, glaring at the obstacle in front of her. It was when she looked up, to the place the makeshift wall connected with the ceiling, that a change became apparent to her. It was slight enough to make her doubt her memory, but she could swear that the wall, once rigidly upright, had taken on an incline. However, the tile and mortar at the bottom, where the floor bent at an incline to raise the wall, remained unharmed regardless of the shift in position. That makes no sense. Had it moved, something should have broken, unless…

The pipes that had attacked her suddenly sprang to mind. “I see. That would allow one to twist metal freely,” Pithy spoke in a low voice mostly aimed at herself. “Then, the way these tiles were moved…”

The mortar indeed seemed to be considered a part of the building. That which had been broken had been broken under the haunt’s own power. The rest, however, had been altered for malleability.

What was more, it seemed like this alteration allowed her to interact with the wall to a certain degree, deviating from what the voice had said earlier.

She glanced back to the two discs hovering behind her, then frowned. Not these. Might need a shield soon. Looking past them, her eye alighted over the pots.

Pithy snapped the fingers of her left hand. The three pots nearest her suddenly trembled before rising in the air, the ice stuck to their interior forcing the metal up with it. The three moved in unison towards the upper end of the wall and turned sideways, their bottoms pressing against the ceramic.

The sorceress breathed, feeling the strands of spellwork drawing their life from the torrent of power at her core. She isolated the spells grasping the ice in the pots and, as if diverting water from a stream, bled the strength of that current into them. The pots pressed against the wall with tremendous force, seeking to push the floor tiles back to their original position.
At this point, the character’s personality and actions have been dictated almost entirely by you two, in a way that pretty much makes her your own. I’d prefer it if one of you two kept her now, though if anyone insists on me controlling her, I could help out with collabs, or simply supplying information about her backstory’s setting or her powers or physiology as necessary.

Now, ignoring what I just said, I think it would be appropriate if she went with Runch. I’m not sure she would be quite as judgmental about what Crue did as BC wrote, at least as I first envisioned her, but she would most likely follow Runch in the split. She’d like the pirate more as a person and would feel he is in more need of help than Crue is, at the very least because he’s still in the running.
Ice whirled as Pithy made her retreat, shards of ceramic and glass crowding the floor as dishes, drinking glasses and even wall decorations were flung her way.

It seemed the layer of ice covering the floor had left the assailing pipes stuck in place and prevented new ones from rising below her, but her narrowed eye now flicked towards the numerous shards that cluttered her retreat. So far the entity had failed to make use of them, hinting at the possibility that it might have been unable to make use of objects in the building once they had been broken, but if this was simply a mere lapse in judgement, she was not eager to deal with swarms of smaller, sharper projectiles being thrown her way.

Finally, she reached the door she had been aiming for, only for the knob to come to life at the last moment, giving her fingers a chastising slap. Pithy stifled a frustrated snarl, giving her hand a pained shake.

I am being mocked. Again.

Pithy slammed the pommel of her rapier against the lock, more out of anger than any desire to smash it open, but like with the window, the spike on her guard did not so much as scratch the metal.

The sound of the long-shooter echoed from outside. What is it now? she thought, letting out a hissing breath through clenched teeth. She could only hope whatever her ally outside had seen was not related to what she was already dealing with. Her position was precarious enough as it was without bringing in her aggressor’s allies.

A painting flying towards her head interrupted her introspection, and Pithy ducked her head, dashing away from the hostile furniture towards a corridor off to the side.

The respite from the raining projectiles lasted only a moment. A sound like rending metal froze her in her tracks. The appearance of a large turbine suddenly tumbling into the hallway and spinning her way saw her backpedaling back to the previous room. Pithy threw herself bodily to the side as the ceiling fan spun past her, crashing into a group of tables.

Once again, random objects began to fly at her. The sorceress brought her floating ice to bear, but a few objects slipped past. Pithy covered her head just in time for a painting frame to slam against her arm. A sharp impact from a metal candle holder drew a hiss from her lips, and Pithy rose to her knees, twisting as she swept an arm towards the incoming projectiles. An uncontrolled gale swept over the room, throwing the floating cutlery, decorations, and even a few nearby tables aside. Before she had something more painful to look forward to than a new set of angry welts in the morning, the mage took the chance to scramble back into the hallway.

In the silence that followed this latest attempt in her life, a voice she recognized came from the locked room. It seemed Nero was close enough to hear.

“Can't get in that way, window in kitchen! Don't relax for one instant Pithy, Kno One is this entire building!”

A trembling sigh escaped Pithy, one she was not certain was borne of relief or frustration. Certainly, a part of her mind screamed out that this could be yet another trap. Some haunts could very easily create sounds or cause hallucinations for people inside their territories. However, the truth of the matter was that it did not matter if this was a trap. The door refusing to open, leaving her with only one choice of direction made it clear that she was being herded. She would not be able to deviate from the voice’s chosen route for her unless she found a way to divide its attention.

As Nero’s voice receded, her captor’s voice returned. The laughter that seeped from the building’s foundations made her features darken, the pleasure in the voice fueling her irritation at this upstart.

He speaks as though I’m unfamiliar with the threat of death. Stay calm. I have had a sword hanging over my head for far longer, that terrifies me far more than anything this fool can concoct. If there is a thought I should latch onto, this is it. “I am aware of my position. It is unsightly for a ‘man of learning’ to be so proud in stating the obvious,” she added contemptuously as she began to walk towards the kitchens.

What would find her there?

Fire and knives, I would expect. Why, the kitchen is just another battlefield, she replied drolly to her own thoughts. The exercise helped steel her nerves.

“Yet I am curious. A good learner’s value is diminished if they cannot teach. If this is truly an experiment, share your observations. From what I’ve seen so far, this understudy of yours behaves much like a particularly violent poltergeist, but there is more to it, is there not?”

For example, a common poltergeist would not be able to make objects harder to destroy. There was also the matter of both the voice’s and Nero’s confusing statements. The voice was the building and so was this ‘Kno One’, which would mean that the voice and the other entity were one and the same, and yet they were treated as separate by the voice. At least if she took all that had been said at face value. The whole mess screamed of possession, but possession could only go in so many directions.

Her rapier glowed, forming yet another disk of ice to follow her as a shield. Surreptitiously under this spell, she began to create smaller, hexagonal sheets of ice beneath her robe.

Mountain Dew had barely found a place in a nearby alleyway that had a good view towards the restaurant’s entrance and side, when he caught quite the peculiar sight approaching from one of the adjacent streets. Or rather, two peculiar sights.

The most outlandish of the two, a large, writhing snake following in the wake of a gaunt, skeletal figure wearing domed hat. A look through his rifle as the pair drew nearer only served to confuse Dew further. What he had at first taken to be green scales were in fact a varied assortment of vines and greenery, revealing that the snake was made entirely of plants, and the gaunt man approaching the restaurant was not simply skeletal – he was looking at a proper skeleton man wearing a mushroom over his head. Furthermore, where the snake dutifully followed its master like a trained pet, the skeleton was following one of Nero’s drones.

Dew drew back, smiling ironically at his new boss’s luck. At first, he’d wondered if Nero had been lying about sending drones to the competitors, if only to keep them in place waiting for the machines to come, but it was clear now that only Pithy had been spared the luxury of seeking out her own enemies. It was the price for being a bitch, he supposed. He felt a sudden itch on his trigger finger, and he scowled, taking it off from his weapon.

After waiting for a few moments, Dew chanced another look around the corner.

The spooky scary skeleton had stopped at the side of the building, the snake hovering idly beside it and the drone hovering literally at his side.

Sharp sounds of cracking glass and ceramic had begun to filter from the entrance, evidence of a struggle inside, but he had yet to hear the rapport of Pithy’s revolver. The itch on his finger spread to the rest of his hand as he recalled the instructions he had been left with.

Think she was mostly thinking of people running out of the restaurant without her knowing, but yeah. I suppose this qualifies as ‘something wrong’.

The sound of his rifle firing over his head thundered over the street corner. Belatedly, he realized that he had just announced his presence to everyone in the block, and wondered if Pithy’s actual intention had been for him to play the role of distraction for whatever crept up outside. Something told him that kind of ploy would be right up her alley.

Still got to deal with the skeleton sitting right there, he reminded himself. Dew forced himself to walk out of cover, forcing an easy smile onto his lips. His rifle cradled in a relaxed grip as he walked out of the alley and onto the streets.

“Heeellllo there, Mr. Bones. That little drone back there tells me you’re looking for someone. You the next one up in the Crucible?” he asked cheerily. After a heartbeat, he frowned, smile slipping. “Ehrm, you can speak back, right? I get that might be a bit hard without lungs but I can’t believe the College would manage to get a brainless corpse running for the tourney. I mean, figuratively brainless. I’m not sure if you’d be a skeleton or a zombie if you happened to have only your brain.”

Either way, it seems like I should have Mountain Dew react to Bonesword's appearance next time I write.
This place is them? Is that meant literally? Pithy pondered. Then where did this ‘know one’, understudy fit in the scheme of things? Was the voice simply making up lies as she went along? Some part of her still held onto the suspicion that the situation she found herself in had somehow been orchestrated by the announcer, but she could not imagine why he would set up this scenario to toy with her like this. Having another player leap into the stage like this made things complicated, placing her in a position where she would need to take things at face value until she was able to make judgements about what she had seen and heard.

She felt the rumble underneath her before she heard the grinding noise. Pithy stepped back out of reflex, the trained motion all that kept her legs from being entangled as metal pipes suddenly phased through the floorboards below her. Pithy grimaced, uncertain about the strength that twisted the pipes. If it could bend metal like that, having a single one wrap around her could result in broken bones. That was not the kind of wound she was willing to chance.

Pithy drew away as two of the tubes snaked towards her feet. Two of her icicles thrusted downwards, failing to pierce through the metal but banging it off course. Nearby pipes swarmed around the ice, wrapping around it and adding the sound of cracking crystal to the cacophony of groaning metal.

She almost didn’t notice the cutlery trembling above the nearby tables until one of its wooden legs bent and it shifted, as if testing its weight. The mage gave a panicked glance around her as the two closest tables suddenly loped – there was hardly a more accurate word to describe their motion – towards her, knives, forks and plates scattering over the floor with the jerking motion.

Pithy made a split-second decision and sucked in a breath before jumping towards one of the tables. Her back hit the flat surface, knocking away the last few knickknacks that remained atop it as she began to roll with the motion. She pulled her robe closer with a panicked flick of her left arm, bringing the cloth above over the edge of the table just before the two crashed into each other. The impact made the table tilt dangerously, the sudden impulse sending her flying out of her roll.

Pithy angled herself to land even as she heard a groaning sound below her, the pipes nearby seeming to rattle with excitement. More tubes suddenly rose out of the ground, raising to catch her. They crashed against the disk of ice she had made instead. Pithy landed atop it, almost slipping as the metal pipes carried her and her platform upwards, and, seeing a chance to escape, she threw herself forwards.

A pained grunt escaped Pithy as she landed, the strain on her shoulders making itself known as she rolled with the fall and brought herself to her feet. The blade of her rapier stroked downwards with the motion, giving life to a bluish spark where the point touched the ground.

Ice spread out from it like a wave, smoothly covering the floorboards and even creeping up the closest wall. It swept over the floor, past the writhing pipes, ice rising and clinging to where it touched them as though to hold them, doing the same to the legs of nearby tables.

So far, the voice had only exerted control over things within the building. Things that did not originally belong had been left untouched, those being herself and her ice. If she was correct in her assessment that those could not be affected by this haunt-like magic directly, barriers of ice could at least prevent the pipes and other objects from moving through walls.

Pithy scowled, air gusting heavily through her nose. She would have to keep her eyes on the ceiling from then on as well.

She had expected more plates, but it was clear that the owner of the voice was less interested in gathering data than they were in flexing their muscles. So much for ‘experiment’.

It was beginning to dawn on her just how precarious the situation she was in was. Had she been only slightly less alert or agile, she would have been smashed between the tables. She had thought at first that the voice’s curiosity would ensure a measure of safety for their perceived guinea pig, but now she began to suspect she was only there to entertain for as long as she lasted. Which meant she either had to find Nero and get out first – and pray to all Lords that this one keeps their word – or to find a way to stop the owner of the voice themselves.

The sorceress recalled the disk of ice and her one remaining icicle before she moved at a brisk pace towards her initial target. The runes of her rapier glowed brightly as she made the ice covering the floor spread below her, and Pithy ignored the low droning of wind she could hear under the screeching noise of writhing metal.

“Nero!” Pithy yelled out as she reached towards the door, hoping against hope that the voice did not decide to use it for their next surprise. “You had best shout back if you’re still alive!”
Like many other edifices she had entered since she had been summoned to this alien land, the one she entered now appeared to have been abandoned suddenly and recently, as though only a few minutes before her entrance the restaurant’s staff had prepared the tables for a grand feast, and retreated into the kitchen. For all that, no food sat on the plates, nor guests sat at the tables.

The large reception was wasted on the single traveler, and the cloying scent of an unknown sorcery brought her pause as she scanned the utensils on the tables through a narrowed eye.

A soft click alerted her to the fact that the door had closed behind her. The rasping sound of the bolt sliding into was more obvious.

Pithy reached towards it at once, confirming her fears. It refused to move, as though affixed in place.

A curse danced on her lips as she turned, studying her surroundings with renewed intensity. The locked door itself did not upset her as much as what it meant. Her presence was known.

The voice that greeted her as she slowly stepped away from the front entrance turned that into a certainty.

“Welcome, Pithy.”

The voice echoed around her, seeming to bounce off the cutlery.

The woman froze, listening attentively. It was a familiar voice, even through the reverberations, and her first thought was that Nero had lain in wait for her. The longer she heard the voice speak, however, the less convinced she was. Gone were the ill-timed jokes and irreverent tone she had come to associate to the announcer.

Still, they knew her name limiting the possible suspects. Furthermore, while she was not familiar with the word ‘camera’, it was clear that they had left a means to spy into the announcer’s tower, meaning the owner of the voice had been a party to her conversation with Nero, and conceivably her later attempt to locate him. It was possible such a device was being used to observe her at that very moment. Was the owner of the voice even present in the edifice?

The announcer’s drawling voice echoed in her mind. There’s shifty business goin’ on in the College. Some of ‘em ain’t so bad, aside from bein’ willing to sacrifice a lot just to research all the nonsense that’s goin’ on in this place, but some want that wish for themselves.

The magic swelled around her with such intensity that it made her nose itch, disrupting her train of thought. The runes in her rapier shimmered, frost appearing over nearby plates as the blizzard inside her swelled in response. Pithy shivered.

It dawned on her that the voice was trying to intimidate her, and her lips twisted in a spiteful grimace. Her eye went to the shooter in her left hand, mindful of the weight it carried. She needed only pull the trigger to alert Dew to these unexpected developments. Her finger twitched, her hand tensing.

She brought the weapon up, returning it to its holster.

Not yet. It was not the time. She did not have a target. Even if Dew was able to cross the boundary to this territory she had walked into, it was likely that she would simply end up stuck with him as company. After all, if the voice knew to wait for her, it would also know she had her own pawn nearby. She doubted the voice had heard the exchange she had had outside, but revealing her hand too early could cost her dearly.

Instead, she drew her rapier from the hoop at her belt, the blades of ice she had summoned fanning out around her, wary of unseen danger.

“To rescue Nero...” The irony of the task the voice had left her with was not lost on her. She was reticent to take any promises this mysterious addition to her worries gave her at face-value, but at the same time she was unwilling to leave empty-handed after she had tracked down the announcer’s location.

Is that the arrogance of newborn power I hear? How vexing to listen to it myself is. Just what had the foolish boy done after he’d slipped away from her?

The plates in the nearest tables trembled, eight of them slowly rising in the air.

The first two spun towards her head. Pithy ducked, the plates crashing against the door as she spun to the side to keep all the floating discs in front of her. She brought up her rapier.

The next two were turned away by her ice, two blades batting away the projectiles before they reached her.

The third set met the same fate. The last two plates crashed against a solid surface, a thin disk of ice that now levitated before her, its rapid formation aided by the cold she was still bleeding to the surroundings.

As an afterthought, one of her blades spun around her and lanced towards a nearby window. The glass shuddered in its frame against the impact, but for all that, it bounced off, leaving not so much as a mark.

Pithy frowned as she reeled the ice back towards her. That was hardly a threat, but if I’ve been truly sealed off, for how long will that last? I do not believe it is my limits that are being tested.

The avenue of assault the voice had chosen bore thinking about. Levitation, at first glance. That could prove problematic if the power was able to touch her or her ice directly. She would need to be watchful of that, until she knew if the voice had not yet bothered to do so because it was unable to, or because it felt it unnecessary. Considering the objects moving as if of their own will, combined with the fact that she seemed to have been sealed inside the building, along with the roiling power suffusing her surroundings and the allusion to an entity other than the voice, her first guess was a haunting. Had a poltergeist been bound to this place?

Pithy walked towards the nearest wall, hesitant to wade between the tables, and followed to march towards the back of the establishment, wary of more sudden projectiles even with her own conjured weapons trailing behind her. She quickly caught sight of an array of doors, some featuring the images she now knew signaled the restrooms, and moved towards the unmarked ones.

“Does my voice reach you?” she asked out loud as she walked. She wanted to keep the voice talking for whatever information it might betray. Ought I to play to their expectations, then? “How did you get to Nero? I admit to feeling as though the chance to properly humiliate him has been stolen from me.”
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