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The group had gone through a few doors on the first floor before finding a suitable room, the keys they had taken from the reception giving them what amounted to unrestricted access to the apartments. The first few they had tried had not been furnished, and at Dew’s insistence that they could do better, they had continued searching. The first fully-stocked apartment they had found had been discarded by Pithy since it faced outwards towards the street, and the lighting would announce their presence to any who bothered to look at the building.

Eventually they had found one fully furnished apartment with windows facing towards an interior garden someone would only be able to see if they entered the building, earning the approval of the two squatters.

The living space itself was spacious by Pithy’s standards, with an entry area immediately after the door that spread out to the side to make room for a seating area and a desk with yet another machine like those of the offices at the Justice Hub and Nero’s tower. Deeper in, there was the kitchen, stocked with appliances similar to those she had seen during her encounter with Kno One. A counter sectioned it off from the main living room, furnished with a low, rectangular table surrounded by thin, wooden chairs and a long couch wrapped in a black, comfortable fabric. All seemed to be arrayed before a large rectangular screen hanging from the side wall.

The random paraphernalia littered around the room in haphazard decorations gave some clues as to the previous inhabitant’s interests. These ranged from pictures of white, sleek sailboats, to stacks of hats arrayed atop a long table situated under the windows (Dew had snickered at the sight of those and called them ‘Fedoor-ah’s’), to machines that looked like bulkier versions of the boards with buttons so common to the machinery she had been coming across, to a prop sword with the word “Lionheart” engraved on the blade.

Dew had taken an interest on the decorations, eyes lighting up like those of a collector at a curio shop while Pithy continued to inspect their surroundings.

Directly opposite to the screen was a sliding door that led to a bedroom occupied by a single, queen-sized bed, situated in such a manner that Pithy suspected the room had been arranged in such manner that someone could look at the rectangular screen while lying down. Dew gave suspiciously little resistance when she claimed it for herself, merely glancing to the couch and the nearby screen and giving her a shrug.

Finally, a short corridor framed on both sides by wardrobes led from the bedroom to a large restroom.

While Dew broke away from his fascination to continue his tour, Pithy returned to the kitchen, walking stiffly. She had left the cutlass she had taken from her previous opponent on the counter, and then begun rifling through the drawers, quickly locating the utensils, pots, and dishes that would be used in preparing a meal. Even if the materials were different from what she was used to, the practical, utilitarian aspect of the tools served to center her.

She let out a long breath, bleeding the excess tension that had been accumulating since she had entered the apartment. No matter the realm, some things stay the same where humans are concerned.

She felt… anxious. The feeling was not related to their relative safety in the building, or to any threat she had perceived within the apartment, but she could not shake off a feeling of wrongness. As much as she hated to admit it, she suspected her unease was simply borne of the disconnect between what she expected of human dwellings in her realm, and what she saw in front of her eyes.

The space itself was not terribly impressive. It could not match the estates and manors of the wealthier denizens of human settlements. It was the smaller details.

Clean water circulating directly to each living area. Compact containers that refrigerated food without the need of stockpiles of ice. Light from lamps feeding from wires sinking into the walls instead of lantern oil and candles. Heating units that regulated the temperature of rooms. Complex machinery simply sitting where any could see it. Worst of all perhaps, was the sense of dull normalcy that permeated the whole of it. Magic as she knew it had no place within these walls, and that thought terrified her most of all.

She had managed to take the strangeness of this realm in stride before, but this was not a mysterious place whose purpose she could only guess at, nor some long-abandoned ruins of a previous age, nor was her mind occupied by the presence of an immediate threat. These were someone’s dwellings, and felt recently lived in at that.

She kept trying to picture what kind of position the one who lived here held to afford such luxuries. Not just this one. There are many rooms in this building with the same amenities, and this is only the first floor. If there are any similarities between this realm and mine, the cost for purchasing the space must increase as one moves upwards. Are there that many people who could afford to live in such comfort?

“We got hot water!” came a muffled shout from deeper inside the apartment.

Pithy glanced up from her inspection of the kitchen area towards the sound of Dew’s voice, the motion mirrored by the coiled snake resting nearby. The snake and the woman shared a look, and Pithy wondered if the beast could sense her distress.

Enough. Unexpected luxuries are still luxuries. We should count ourselves lucky.

Pithy turned, pushing the unease away, and walked to the living room.

“Come here, Dew.”

“What?” A moment later, Dew appeared at the bedroom entrance. “You didn’t like this one either?”

“It will do.” She shook her head. “Show me your arm. The bandaged one,” she added as Dew began to move his left arm.

His face scrunched as he presented the correct limb. “Fine, but don’t go poking into it.”

Have I the look of yon village cutter? she wondered as she took the offered limb, beginning to work on the knot holding the bandages in place. A damp line was visible along the side, proof of the wound that rested under the covers.

After a moment of unwrapping the fabric, she broke the silence. “You are more familiar with the peculiarities of this realm than I am. Do you come from a similar place?”

“No, mine is way better,” he answered flippantly. Then he added, “Though if you’re talking about the technology, I guess it’s the same for the most part.”

“So living standards such as these are common in your where?”

“Well… this is a very nice apartment. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was on the costly side, even with the meh view. The apartments on the other side of the street probably have smaller, cheaper places.”

“Would those also have clean water and power for these devices?”

“You’re in the middle of the city, so sure. What kind of hovel would it be if you couldn’t get running water or electricity?”

Pithy paused in her unwrapping, giving Dew a long look.

Dew blinked. “Ah. Medieval Fantasy girl. Right. Well, as long as you pay your utility bill, you’d get those. Shouldn’t be a problem if you got a full-time job and you get an apartment that matches your pay. Why? You looking to move?”

Pithy blew a gust of air through her nose, tickled by the thought. Staying in this realm? It was the first time the possibility crossed her mind. There was unfinished business for her back home, but a part of her had long begun to think that it would long remain unfinished. Beyond that, there was precious little to return to. Alas, there is little point to thinking about the future when you have none. This train of thought may well only decide my final resting place. So easily did the thought lose its charm.

Refocusing on her task, Pithy gently pulled at the now loose bandages, pulling the fabric away from Dew’s arm. The insides were coated in red, as was the arm they had been wrapped around. However, there was something immediately out of place. Pithy blinked her good eye and drew the arm closer to her face, eliciting a pained grunt from Dew in the process.

While the forearm was indeed caked in blood, the wound itself was barely there. Brushing off some congealed red from the surface, Pithy realized that all that was left of the long slash she had inflicted was a thin, pinkish line, occasionally marred by tiny scabs—a cut days in the mending.

“Dang, not all healed yet. It’s taking its time.”

Pithy scowled at the words. “Humans do not normally heal this fast,” she observed tightly.

Dew laughed. “It really depends, though. I thought for sure that with painkillers and bandages it would heal in a flash. I once had a zombie bite a chunk out of me, but after some pills and a cloth I was right as rain!”

A dubious story, did I not have evidence right before me. It is more likely to be an extension of Dew’s abilities, however. The painkillers did not advertise this side effect, nor do I believe these bandages are more than simple cloth. She shook her head, still glaring at the offending limb. “I find that difficult to believe, but then again, humans do not normally wield powers such as yours.”

“Makes sense, since I’m so special. Perks of being Chosen,” he said smugly. “Looks like you’re starting to realize how lucky you were when we met—Ow, quit it!” the man yelped as Pithy pressed a sharp nail against the tender cut, drawing a droplet of blood.

“Mind your tongue, Dew. I do not need to be gentle,” she said as she withdrew the finger. Blood pooled in the small divot for a moment before the flow ceased. Healed well indeed. “Furthermore, had I been lucky, our encounter would not have been a battle at all. Luck had little to do with it.”

The man grunted, his lips forming a thin line. “Sure, whatever.”

“Granted,” she continued, as her hand went to her belt. “Your physical ability is exceptional. Were you to polish your offensive technique, few could match you in a swordfight. Your defense is exemplary in comparison, as if nothing could reach through its front.” As much as it pained her to admit it, some allowances had to be made if she intended to continue using the man.

“O-Oh…” Dew blinked, as if shocked into a stupor by the sudden praise. “Well, yeah. I was holding back. To block, I mean. And honestly,” he said, recovering his usual boldness, “In the other sense too! I’m supposed to be much stronger, but I got nerfed when I got here. One of the College people told me it would, and I get the point of it, but man, screw balance patches. They always ruin my builds. Now I have a cooldown between teleports and shit.”

Pithy merely frowned and nodded along with the rant, trying to decipher the strange language he was using. She thought she understood the general idea. It was likely that Dew had taken to exaggerating once again, but the annoyance in his voice was real enough. More than that, if he spoke the truth, it raised another concern. “This… seal, on your powers. Was it placed by the College?”

“No. Maybe? I don’t know.” He snorted. “Honestly, it would be real convenient for them. They wouldn’t be able to get in my way if I had my usual strength.”

And so he touches on the heart of the matter. The thought was far from amusing for her. They would do well to dwell on it, for the implications were far from pleasant. Had other competitors also had their strength adjusted in such a way? Was the purpose of such a thing to make them manageable?

“Did it also happen with you?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts.

No, she answered in her mind, before speaking. “It matters not. We do what we must with what is available to us. Straighten your arm.”

As Dew complied, Pithy grabbed the watch she had taken from Bonesword and wrapped it around his wrist. The clasps grabbed onto each other, tightening around Dew’s wrist with a whirring sound. “Woah, what are you doing?”

The man rapidly withdrew his arm, clutching at the straps with his other hand. The latch was released with little trouble, and much of the tension that had crept into Dew’s expression bled away as he held out the device.

Pithy stepped back, smoothly sidling back to a position that conveniently placed the counter between the two of them. “Is it not obvious? I need you to test it. I suspect you will have an easier time of it, seeing as you claimed you were familiar with it.”

“I said it felt familiar. That’s a world of difference. What if it blows my hand out?”

“We have pills and bandages.”

Dew gave her a sober look and held out the wristband. “You aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are. You do it.”

Pithy tilted her head. Funny? Ah. He thought I spoke in jest. “Do you feel yourself incapable?”

“Hell no I’m no—”

“Then you must be a coward to shy away from this.”

“Fuck off.” The man turned a baleful glare to the stoic woman. “I’m none of those things, and I’m not stupid either. I don’t have to take this shit.”

Pithy was quick to douse the flicker of dread that rose up her spine. Dew’s words fed into suspicions she had nursed ever since Dew had failed to cut off his tongue after her impulsive command, and had only continued to grow with every exchange she had had with him so far.

Did I misunderstand the strength of my hold over him? Or has it weakened since this morning?

Pithy hid her misgivings beyond an impassive expression. “Very well,” she said coolly. “Perhaps I am being unreasonable. I shall test it myself.”

Relief evident in the smile that came to his features, Dew made to pass the item along.

“Of course, since you refused to operate the device yourself, should its function happen to affect the wearer’s surroundings, I will not hesitate to use on you.”

His hand froze, and he stared at her owlishly.

Pithy continued to eye him steadily, voice level and calm. “Given that I expect to face other opponents, experiments on a living human would be the fastest way to determine its effects. How fortunate of me to have one in this very room.”

Dew grimaced, then sighed. He grudgingly brought the device back to his left wrist and wrapped it around it. It whirred as it adjusted to fit him. “Right, on second thought, I guess I could try it out. Who knows? It might do something cool.”

Pithy closed her eye, hoping her relief at his acquiescence was not immediately apparent. “If it will put your fears to rest, know that I would not suggest this if I believed you would come to harm. You are of no use to me crippled, Dew.”

“Yeah, well. Might want to start with that next time,” he groused, but Pithy ignored the quip in favor of following the movement of his fingers over the small buttons surrounding the dial at the center of the apparatus.

The motion set off the device, and with a small whirr, the centerpiece smoothly rose from its indent. From her position, Pithy could barely see the green and gray symbol atop it shift to make space for a black silhouette. Frowning, Dew grabbed the jutting piece and spun it, prompting the image to change. After a few turns, he held his hand over it for a moment, seemingly intent on pushing it down, but hesitated.

Pithy frowned, fighting down her impatience. “Is something the matter?”

“No. Just wishing we had a quicksave feature.”

More nonsense. “You are wasting time.”

Dew shot her a disgruntled look before finally pressing down the button.

The sudden flash of light all but blinded her. Pithy hissed out a curse, the tone all but mimicked by the plant snake sitting nearby, and she reflexively ducked behind the counter. She was about to prompt Dew to say something, when a voice reached her ears.

“That… don’t… feel right.” The sound was high pitched and oddly laborious, as though the person had difficulty stringing the words together. “Pi…thy? What happened?”

She furiously blinked her eyes to drive away the remnants of the flash before swinging her gaze over the counter to see what had become of her companion. She recoiled at the sight that met her.

The creature standing before her was similar enough to a human at first glance. Its build was similar, and the clothing it wore no doubt belonged to Mountain Dew. His appearance, however, particularly his facial features, had changed drastically. The creature’s skin, had a deathly, ashen pallor, and the hair on its head had turned a vivid crimson. It grew only from the sides of his head into a bramble of curls, leaving the thing’s pate and forehead exposed. What she had first thought to be a red splotch of makeup surrounding the creature’s mouth was in fact the proper color of the flesh around the lips, and a red, rubbery globe had replaced the man’s nose.

More subtly, she noted that the creature’s exposed skin along its neck seemed wiry and taut, hinting at powerful muscles. Looking into its eyes gave her an oddly reptilian impression—she half expected a membrane to fall over them whenever it blinked—but the confused cast of its gaze left little doubt as to the creature’s actual identity.

Dew brought a hand to his nose, tentatively touching the red circumference, “What is… this? …ugh, I actually feel it… when I… touch it.” The sound, reedy and off pitch as it was, still carried some similarities to the man’s original voice.

An angry hissing sound interrupted his examination.

Pithy whirled to see the snake monster rise, sinuous body coiling and angling itself menacingly towards Dew. The man made an alarmed sound somewhere between a yelp and a burp as his eyes fell on the snake.

Seeing its intent reflected on its stance, Pithy sucked in a breath. “Stop that!” she shouted.

The creature’s hissing grew at that, almost turning into a growl. Realizing it would not simply listen to her commands, Pithy blanched. Dew’s hand was already fumbling inside his pocket, and she knew that in the next moment a fight would erupt.

I need him alive! came the urgent thought, power rising within before she restrained herself. Casting a rushed spell in such confined quarters was foolish at best. There was no telling who would gain the advantage should she do it, and if the snake became hostile towards her, there would be no choice but to kill it.

Her eye fell over the cutlass on top of the counter, and an image of her interposing herself between Dew and the snake crossed her mind. She balked at the thought.

That hesitation costed her the initiative.

The large snake lunged forward. Dew fell to the side, narrowly avoiding thorn-like fangs, but the fall was less than graceful, and it left him sprawled over the floor. His hands had left his pockets, and were instead clutching something close to his chest.

The snake let out another hiss, turning from its missed attempt and slithering closer to the man, coils drawing closer as it prepared to lunge again.

Letting out a curse, Pithy grasped the cutlass and raced forward, the weapon’s sheath falling away with the motion. “That is enough!” she commanded, a frigid light playing sinisterly over the fingers of her left hand.

The snake let out another hiss, turning to look at the approaching threat. What passed for its eyes appeared to focus on the weapon she was holding in front of her. It hesitated.

Pithy allowed some of her tension to bleed away. Yes, that’s it. Stay calm…

On the floor, Dew shifted ever-so-slightly.

The creature tensed instantly at the motion, and Pithy knew she had lost its attention. The snake closed in on the prone man.

A spell danced on her lips, moments from being unleashed.

The snake froze.

Pithy held her breath, rushing wind at her ears, the magic pressing against her rapidly erected mental barrier like a river against a dam. The creature had not reached Dew, instead pausing to stare transfixed at the object he held in his hands. Bonesword’s skull stared back at its former pet.

After a dozen seconds held in utter silence, where neither party so much as twitched, Pithy released her breath. The wind in her mind ebbed and died as she slowly approached the frozen pair. Dew’s unsettling eyes quickly glanced her way before returning to watching the monster all but sitting over his lap. There was a pleading note to them, and his red lips twitched, as though he wished to speak, but thought the sound would only set the snake off again.

Pithy bent down slowly, placing the cutlass on the ground, before approaching the creature.

The elves of her realm, particularly those that made forests their homes, had a reputation in human lands for their closeness with nature. It was not unearned. There were many a tale that claimed they were born with the knowledge to speak the language of animals, and could speak to them as easily as they could to each other.

Pithy knew this to be an exaggeration. Whatever affinity elves might have had with the creatures of their woodland home, the ability to communicate with beasts—at least without arcane means—was borne largely out of observation and dedication, perhaps even an obsession, to develop such talent.

Alas, I hardly had the time or interest for such a pursuit. Whether it would even matter when it comes to a creature created through magic that seems capable of understanding the common tongue is another matter entirely.

Pithy knelt beside the pair and tentatively placed a hand near the base of the creature’s head. The snake tensed, but otherwise did not react, and Pithy was surprised to find the vines warm to the touch. She began to sedately rub her hand along its body, making soothing noises as she did. After a few moments of this, the tension seemed to bleed away from what passed for muscles, and was instead replaced by a light shivering along the tendrils that formed its mass.

Is it… afraid? she wondered, before bringing her head closer to its own. Off the corner of her eye she caught Dew’s impatient eyes flitting between her and the monster. She ignored him, instead murmuring softly at the creature. “Come. Get off him. You are safe.”

The snake remained still, making Pithy wonder if it had not understood, but a moment later its coils began to shift. The man turned monster let out a long, wheezing breath as the creature clambered off him.

Pithy watched cautiously as the snake slithered away into the kitchen and out of their sight. She looked down at Dew, noting that even with his bizarre features, his relief was palpable. Anger tinged his face a moment later. “Next time… I kill it.”

Pithy looked in the direction the snake had gone. She could not muster an answer to Dew’s comment. “I must commend you for your quick thinking,” she said instead. However, before either of them could dwell on what she had said, she rose. “Now put that away and find yourself a mirror.”

“Wait. Say… that again.”

“You are hardly deaf, Dew. Go.”

Dew grunted and clumsily clambered to his feet, the skull vanishing in the process. He hobbled towards the bedchamber, making for the restroom.

From her position, Pithy glanced over the kitchen counter. The snake creature was resting near what she guessed was the oven, coiled into itself, its head turned downwards. Had it not tried to attack one of them moments ago, she would have found its exaggeratedly dejected posture almost comical.

“HOLY, NO—NONE OF THAT!” A flash from the bedroom brought her gaze back just in time to see the man storm back into the room, his features returned to normal. Before she could so much as question him, he tossed the armband at her.

Pithy caught it in the air and gave him a pointed look.

“I did what you asked, it’s NOT my problem any longer, YOU deal with it!” with a huff, he stormed past her, and sat on the couch, eyes glaring down at the center table. A part of her saw some similarities between this and what the snake had been doing last time she had seen it. She quickly dismissed the thought.

Rather than inquire as to his outburst, she asked, “How did you reverse the transformation?”

Dew grunted and shrugged. “I dunno. I just saw myself, thought I was done seeing that, and it flashed. Almost fell on the freaking tub.”

It obeys one’s will, then? Pithy studied the device in her hand for a moment before wrapping it around her left wrist as Dew had done. As it had done for him, it adjusted to her size.

The man looked up at the sound. “You’re gonna do it too? Fine. Up to you if you want to turn into a horrible freakazoid.”

Pithy ignored him, instead repeating the motions she had observed him do to operate the device. When the dial rose, Pithy stared at the figure that formed over it. Humanoid in shape, with odd shadows along the side of its head that must have been the creature’s hair. As she had seen before, turning the dial changed the silhouette displayed. She saw another humanoid figure, this one with no outstanding features, another with a strangely shaped head and a tail, and another, much smaller than the rest with small wings that almost obscured the body itself. Another twist brought up the first inhuman figure, with its long body coiling along the display space.

Pithy frowned and glanced over the counter at the snake creature. Could it be… she wondered. It was already clear that the device possessed the ability to transform the user into a different creature, but what determined the options available? Seeing a snake-like creature on the display, and thinking on the snake’s reaction when she had seen Dew transform, she thought she knew the reason. It records the creatures it comes near to, then? Perhaps Bonesword came across these creatures, and the snake remembered them.

Giving the device another turn, a black splotch appeared on the display, as if someone had dropped ink over it. Pithy frowned. She could skip this figure and choose an aspect closer to her current self. However, Dew had already done that, and while he may not have been satisfied with the transformation itself, the device seemed to have performed perfectly.

By that token, a more radical transformation would make for a more thorough test. Taking a deep breath, Pithy closed her eyes and pressed the dial down into place.

The sensation was similar to what she had felt when forcibly transformed into an owl by Nero, except compacted into a single, dizzying instant. So quick was it that any specific sensation of stretching, shortening, or loosening that her nerves fed her could only be described as ‘uncomfortable’ and only mildly so, at that. Whoever had designed this mechanism had accounted for the toll the forceful restructuring of flesh took on its target.

This much she had seen from the transformation Dew had endured. However, when it came time for her to open her eyes, only darkness greeted her. More than that, she felt… compacted. Restricted. She tried moving her limbs, but all she managed was a slight shiver.

What is this? she thought, ignoring the dreadful images of a soul displaced and her own, vacant body staring off into space in a room in an alien realm. Was this what it felt for a living soul to be affixed to a phylactery?

“Pithy? Yo, Pithy? Uh… don’t tell me that thing just dissolved her…”

I can still hear him. Which meant she was still in the same room. However, the sound came from all around her, as if passing through a membrane, and she could swear the vibration of the sound was making her skin tremble.

My skin? Blast it, if I could only see my surroundings—

Almost as if in response to that thought, light streamed into her vision. It was brilliant at first, as if seeing it for the first time, but she quickly acclimated to it. However, what she saw was anything but calming, overlapping images of numerous sides of the room reaching her at once, as if she had a dozen eyes but none of them could see straight. Remarkably, the disorientation she expected from the alien sensory input was not present. Another gift from the device’s maker, she suspected.

Moreover, what she saw gave her an idea as to what she had become.

She focused on the result she wished for, and with instincts that had not been there moments prior, her new body acted. The goo that comprised her form began to stretch out, rising from the ground. Tendrils separated from the slime, taking on the aspect of limbs. Her vision focused in one direction.

Dew, which even then she could see peering down at her—it seemed he had risen from his seat when he had not seen her standing there after the flash—stepped away from her, his expression twisting into a disgusted grimace.

“Oh no. Not another one of these. Dammit Pithy, you look like you came out of a… you look like…”

As Pithy’s form resolved, Dew paused, frowning.

“You look like a freaking Gumby.”

The slime creature looked down once it reached its usual height. The material her body was made of was see-through, and had an off-white, blue-tinged coloration. Parts of her apparel remained, almost as if glued to her body, including the phylactery, the strap for the six-shooter and the belt with her rapier and knives. The face of the armband she had used to transform rested over her featureless, almost flat torso, within which swam a small sphere of jagged ice. The arms she had formed were similar in shape, bending where she expected them to bend when she sent the nonexistent muscles the familiar commands, but the hands had no fingers beyond a thumb and a slab of goo. Her legs followed the theme, except that rather than feet they sunk into a puddle of… well, myself, I suppose. Perhaps I could use some practice.

“Ehrm.” Pithy looked up to see Dew still staring at her. “Just out of curiosity, do you happen to have humanoid slimes where you’re from?”

Pithy made to speak, but quickly realized she had nothing to serve as a mouth. Her brow scrunched with focus—or at least she thought it did—and she sent the mental command. A depression formed in what passed for her face, quickly taking on the shape of lips and a mouth, complete with a facsimile of teeth and a tongue.

“No,” she said, and was surprised to hear no difference to her usual voice. It was as if her body remembered the shape of her normal vocal chords and had managed to recreate them. “No, there are not.” She reiterated, marveling at the way her constructed throat managed to recreate the sounds. “Slimes exist, though they are largely mindless and live only to feed and multiply. They are considered a pest most everywhere, but their ooze is a popular reagent for alchemists, and so slime farms are maintained in some laboratories. There have been some reported cases of slimes finding unused sets of full-plate and donning them as a protective shell, however.”

There were some other shapes they could take on, but they were far from human-like in any case. Pithy focused on her hands, and the sheet of slime separated into four more fingers. Another command had them lengthening and losing their recreated joints, moving like an octopus’s tentacles. The degree of control she had over them surprised the former elf.

Pithy looked up at the man, and found him staring at the appendages with a queasy grimace. “Why?”

The man blinked after a moment, only then seeming to realize she had spoken. He looked away from her, oddly bashful. “You know.” He said, noncommittally. “Just wanted to know what kind of world you were from is all.”

And that is the question upon which you shall base your judgement? Pithy stared at the man for another moment before she gave up on making sense of his thoughts.

Her attention returned to the tendrils sprouting from her hands, and she brought one close to her eyes—Ah, what an odd time to recover depth perception—for inspection. With a mental command, the tendril straightened, its point becoming more defined and losing its transparency as it became denser. With such limbs, smaller slimes could kill faster pray that ventured too close, like mice and birds.

Of course, if they ventured farther than that, what such a creature could do might be far, far worse. With another thought, the tendrils reformed as the fingers of her hand.

“You said ‘another of these’, Dew. Am I not the first slime you have encountered in this realm?”

“Ugh. No. My first opponent was a slime girl.” He glanced away. “It wriggled and jiggled… everywhere.”

Pithy tilted her head. “Have you a slime phobia?”

“No! Of course not.”

“Some do.”

“Well, I don’t,” he retorted, stubbornly crossing his arms.

The slime frowned at looked down at herself again. Dew’s first opponent had been a slime in the shape of a woman. Moreover, there had been a slime recorded into the armband. Is there some significance there?

“What happened to this slime?” Pithy asked.

“I vaporized her. What else? Wasn’t going to let that thing have its way with me.”

Ignoring the odd choice of words, Pithy’s hand brushed the armband’s insignia over her chest. Perhaps some creatures had been recorded beforehand, then. Unless Bonesword had come across one since he had received the device, but then there must have been slimes other than this one.

If that was the case, it mattered not. Her brand of magic was convenient against such opponents, if they were even large enough to warrant concerning herself with them. That did, however, bring up another point.

Pithy brought her hands together a simple spell in her mind. A small magelight appeared in the space between them, and Pithy held it out for a few moments.

Good, my magic is not affected by— No sooner had she began that thought that she had an odd feeling of displacement.

Then her right hand fell off from her arm. The spell died as she flinched at the dull thump congealed goo plopping onto the ground.

Dew let out a chortle, but Pithy was too shocked to chastise him.

She fell to her knees, holding the stump close to her chest for the few seconds it took her to realize there was no pain coming from the wound. “This is… ah.”

Looking down, she saw the solidified slime slowly begin to regain its normal consistency. Bringing her left hand down on it, she saw the goo sink into her palm, quickly being sucked back into her body. With another effort of will, her right hand reformed as if nothing had happened.

What a convenient body, she found herself thinking. She would certainly find uses for it. However, the way her magic had interacted with it was hardly promising, if perhaps predictable.

A thought prompted another flash, and Pithy looked down at her familiar body, finding her apparel where she had left it, and thankfully not coated in a layer of goo. She glanced at the armband, noting that it seemed to have returned to its deactivated state.

“Such a frighteningly effective device,” she commented. “Some of the arcane scholars I’m acquainted with would have given their souls to study it.”

“You just gave someone else's," Dew commented. "So? You’re going to keep it?”

Pithy considered the object resting on her wrist, then nodded. She had collected a fair array of strange objects since she had arrived in this realm. What was one more, never mind one so potentially useful?

“There are some things I must take care of,” she told him after a moment. “Will you handle preparing our meal in the meantime?”

Dew smiled. “Actually, I saw a neat little food place outside and I’m really hankering for what they got.”

Pithy nodded. “Very well. You take the key, in that case, and bring what you must back here. This may take me some time, so be sure to be back by the time I return.”

“Aye aye, ma’am” he said, obnoxiously cheerfully from his place behind the couch.

Pithy grimaced and turned to leave. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the snake beast stirring, turning to follow her. She stopped to study it, debating whether she should instruct it to stay, and if it would even listen, she merely sighed and stepped out of the apartment, the creature slithering close behind her.

She would have to keep an eye on it, but doubted she would see another incident like the one before on this outing.
While Pithy had suggested they find a place to rest, actually settling on a specific choice was difficult for her. While the see-through glass on the first floor of a good portion of the surrounding edifices, paired with the signs with names for the nearby establishments gave her some clue as to their purpose, she was not familiar enough with this otherworldly city’s infrastructure to decide on the best place to set camp.

If by shelter one meant walls and a ceiling over one’s head, she was surrounded by an abandoned landscape worth of such spaces. However, the dull ache from the many bruises she had accumulated that day pleaded for her not to relax her standards to such a degree.

One building in particular caught her attention, its unusual façade setting it apart from the more utilitarian buildings surrounding it. The exterior walls were composed of a multitude of erratically aligned blocks and cylinders of different colors and sizes, resulting in a dizzying collage readily drew one’s attention.

Peering into the windows, Pithy’s visible eye widened. Numerous books rested over display cases aimed at passerby’s, but the amount paled in comparison to the shelves upon shelves of tomes lining the walls of the building’s interior. Her eyes narrowed as she began skimming the titles of the closest tomes.

No, that is not so strange. I already had a chance to see how plentiful this kind of parchment is in this realm. Yet… Seeing all those books in one place, for sale of all things, if the signs for offers and discounts on the display could be trusted, still managed to stun her.

“Hey! Pithy!”

The sorceress blinked, Dew’s voice breaking through the spell. She turned at his call and saw him standing on the opposite side of the street where the mysterious Kno One had taken on the appearance of a long-gone building.

“What is it?” She called back as she strode towards him.

He pointed his thumb over his shoulder towards a nearby building. “We got some apartment buildings over here…” He paused. “You got those where you’re from, or do I have to explain?”

Pithy shook her head.

“Well, if we’re looking to rest for a while, the place looks nice. I’m guessing there must be some rooms that are already furnished too and since no one’s really here to stop us…”

“We can make ourselves at home?” she completed. She glanced at his face, searching his expression. The fact that he seemed to be looking for her permission given the way he had behaved towards her throughout the day felt mildly disquieting, but the prospect of a proper bed was terribly attractive. “Fine, let us search through these. There is something we should do first, that said.”


With a tilt of her head, Pithy gestured towards the lazily humming drone hovering nearby.

In a white, snow-strewn landscape, a small, furred creature continued to trudge over the white. The blue cloak it wore dragged over the ground, much too large for its petite stature, but the warmth it provided was invaluable. Whenever a gust of wind swept over the featureless plain, pulling away at the cover, the creature immediately began to shiver.

Those’re getting more’n more common too, Jo found herself thinking. She was not sure for how long she had been in the snow. Neither was she certain if it was truly the weather that had taken a turn for the worst, or it was simply her disposition. The foggy landscape around her drained at her enthusiasm with its monotony.

However, even as she prepared for the next thousand steps forward into nothingness, something came into her field of vision. It was a silhouette at first, large, but little more than a dark splotch in the distance, faint enough through the mist that she wondered if she was merely hallucinating.

But as she approached, the figure darkened, and gathered a shape. Large, cylindrical, with shapes sprouting off from its top like frozen tentacles. As she approached, Jo realized that she was looking at a tree and its bare branches, the trunk bizarrely wide for its stature, which did not go higher than a two-storied house. In fact, she quickly made out a dim light coming out from a hole in the trunk—a window—and grooves that indicated a presence of a door.

If I weren’t seeing things a’fore now I sure am. Yet it was not the strangest thing she had seen in this place—or in her previous life at that—and the fact that it was the only thing she had seen in what must have been days filled her with relief.

As she moved closer, the snow thinned under her feet, revealing a dirt path. Another detail she had missed due to her fixation with the tree-house also became apparent then. Small mounds of snow littered surroundings of the house, flanking the road. There were enough that she did not bother counting them.

What she did count, was the single hole that remained empty even while exposed to the elements. It was the farthest out, nearest to the path, and it did much to elucidate the meaning behind the surrounding mounds. It killed what budding enthusiasm she had mustered.

She had almost reached the doorway when her feet tapped against something. Unexpected discomfort and jingling drew her gaze downwards, to a diminutive silver bell. Jo frowned and bent to pick it up. It was simple and unadorned, small enough to fit in her paw—perhaps a child’s toy. Without putting much thought into the action, she gave it a small shake.

A wave of dizziness suddenly assaulted her, threatening to knock her off her feet.

Then it was gone, as quickly as it had come. She shook her head and glared at her surroundings, but the tree and mounds remained as they had been. After a moment’s consideration, she stepped towards the door. The moment she touched its handle, she froze.

Voices were coming from within. She instinctively pressed an ear against the wood.

There were two voices. One was light and higher pitched, bringing a young woman to mind, while the other was steadier and deeper, the voice of a man. The two spoke in a strange, sing-song language she could swear she had never heard before, and yet she found she could understand every word that seeped through the door.

“Is that truly for the best?” asked the woman’s voice.

“I do not know” answered the man, “but it is all we can do. Last time I spoke to the sage, she said she would not be coming again.”

“What? Why? She always seems better after a session.”

“‘Seems’ is the right word,” the tone took a cast of despairing humor. “According to her, the tonics and enchantments she prepares are no longer having an effect. Just a placebo. She said that if all that could be done was to keep a girl company—“

“Her family would be better suited.” The younger voice finished somberly. “This must be more difficult for her than I realized.”

“You speak of the sage? It is very like you to take her reservations into account.” The man sighed. “But I would not fault you for being angry.”

“How could I be? She has failed. The shame burns her, and thus she cannot bear to look upon those who depended on her. Why cast judgment when her own cuts deepest?”

There was a long pause, heavy with the sense that the man had held back an instinctive response. “Yes,” he said eventually. “You are right, of course, ■■■■■.”

The one behind the door frowned.
The hell was that?

“I'm glad you think so. It's hard to tell, as of late.”

“Indeed.” Another pause. “She cannot be a part of the ceremony.”

It should have meant little to her, but something in the eavesdropper’s chest twisted. Shock, mixed with a foreign sense of outrage began to fill her, rooting her on her spot.

“...does Mother agree?”

“Yes. The Circle would not stand for it either.”

“But...” the voice struggled for the first time. “This is all she has been looking forward. She has worked harder than anyone else even in her state!”

“She is in no position to assume the duties required, not anymore.”

“You know that isn’t the point!”

There was a sound of footsteps as one of the room’s occupants began to pace. She knew from the weig—
from the familiar footfalls—that it was the ma—the father.

“We have a responsibility we cannot turn away from. Our duties cannot be twisted for our convenience. Should we allow her to become a part of the rite, it will destroy the one that will bond with her when the time comes. And it shall come soon. Do you understand?”

The other voice was quiet.


“I understand.”

“Good.” The man sighed. “She lasted for longer than we thought. That must be worth something.”

“Five winters more. A pittance.”


At that, the pair fell silent. Confusion at the contents of the conversation whirled within the eavesdropper’s mind, but another, deeper part of her wailed in grief she could not understand, tinging her every questioning thought. Who were they talking about? What was this tightness in her chest, this pressure behind her eyes as though she might burst to tears?

It was the sound of footfalls that brought her out of her reverie. With a start of panic, she realized that one of the room’s occupants was heading for the door she was hiding behind. She did not know why, but her heart quivered at the thought of facing those inside. She needed to leave, return to her bed as fast as possible.

Except, there was no bed to return to—and that thought belonged to someone else in the first place. The white expanse remained behind her, an invitation to oblivion was all she needed to realize that. The encroaching thoughts belonged to a different person, in a different place and different time. So she quashed the fearful impulse—the phantom of memory urging her to follow its script—and she finally twisted the door handle.

With the drone safely stashed inside Dew’s pocket dimension where it could not get in the way, the duo, with the large snake creature trailing behind them, made their way into the building.

The entrance was lit warmly, the sources of illumination affixed to the ceiling and of the same kind as Pithy had seen in most other establishments she had seen since coming to this city. The walls were smooth stone, either marble or polished granite, and had an orangish hue that matched the vibrant red carpet that led past the reception’s desk.

Dew had quickly moved behind it when the group pushed through the glass doors.

“Lower floors only?” he asked as he ducked under the counter. Almost immediately she heard the sound of drawers opening, then quickly being closed.

“Yes. It will make leaving this place easier should the need arise.” Pithy leaned over the short barrier, getting a glimpse of the top of Dew’s head. “You’re certain they’ll have spare keys back there?”

“Yeah, just need to see which drawer is locked… aha!” Something out of sight rattled as whatever handle the man had pulled on resisted his efforts. “Gimme a second, I can get it open.”

Pithy let out an unconvinced grunt and stepped away from the counter, leaving Dew to his work. Swinging herself around, she found herself tensing as her gaze fell on the plant monster that had taken to following them.

The tight flowerbuds that passed for its eyes seemed to be angled squarely at her, though Pithy herself suspected those to be a simple mimicry and the creature was aware of its surroundings through other, likely arcane methods.

Frowning, she lifted the sheathed cutlass she had taken from Bonesword, then slowly waved it before the creature, prompting it to follow the motion in an undulating dance. Do you focus on the movement, as a normal snake would? Or does this catch your attention because the blade belonged to your master?

“Say,” came Dew’s voice from under the desk. “I almost forgot, what with you accidentally killing the skeleton warrior, but I wanted to ask why you let Nero go.”

The snake’s dance slowed, a sibilant sound escaping its facsimile mouth. Pithy stilled her arm, suddenly acutely aware of the fact that there were no guarantees that this creature’s freedom had been affected by the taking of its master’s soul. A moment later however, the beast seemed to lose interest, turning and slithering off towards one of the lobby’s corners.

“I… see,” she finally answered, warily eyeing the plant monster.

After the pause that followed, where only a soft sound like clicking metal could be heard from behind the reception’s desk, Dew prompted, “So?”


“I’m asking a question here.”

“Were you not making a statement?”

“You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?” he groused, a touch of annoyance seeping into his tone. After he had so tactlessly baited the snake, Pithy was not exactly sympathetic. “Fine. Why did you let him go? You didn’t believe him when he said he was going to go home, did you? He did say he planned to stop the Crucible, so he’ll probably get in your way later anyway.”

Pithy did not answer immediately. She debated whether it was worthwhile giving an answer at all, in fact, but after a moment, she found herself speaking regardless, turning back towards the counter.

“I am not so certain. As much as I hate to admit it, he had a chance to kill us when we were at his tower, but he did not attempt to do so. Did he not have it in him to bloody his hands?” She sighed wearily. “If there are indeed other College members at large attacking the other participants, he does not need to. This situation is a mess, Dew. I left him to his own devices in the hopes that he would interfere with whatever the College has planned.”

“Huh… I kind of see what you’re doing.” Dew tilted his head up from his work just high enough that he could make out his curious eyes looking up at her. “Sounds like it will come back to bite you in the ass later, though.”

“Yes,” Pithy agreed, softly.

She knew that there was no guarantee that Nero would not eventually stand in her way again. Even Dew could see through to that fact, but that hole in her reasoning was only natural. After all, the truth of the matter was that these were simply justifications she had fashioned after the fact.

The truth is that, while I was contemplating that my wish may have been already taken from me, the idea of cutting short yet another life for no reason at all felt like driving a knife through my chest.

It seemed that Dew’s thoughts had turned to a similar direction, for after a moment he looked back down and off-handedly asked, “So what happens if it turns out the College staff actually managed to kill another competitor?”

Pithy gathered herself. “It is my place to worry about that. Until we know for certain, we simply carry on as we have today.”

“Honestly, I’m more afraid of how you’ll react if that happens.”

Pithy let out an unladylike grunt. She chose to ignore that comment. “Are you done with that lock?”

“Almost. In fact—” There was a cracking sound. “—uh… never mind. I guess I didn’t level that skill as much as I could’ve.” He rose and brought his hands to his pocket. Where there had been nothing before, an iron crow suddenly came into existence. “Left my gravity gun at home, but I guess this will do.”

With a practiced motion, Dew slid the bar into place and pushed, a crack and a sound of sliding metal revealing his success. Pithy gave him a half-lidded look, half convinced that the man had been delaying the matter simply to hold that conversation with her while there was a barrier between them.

“And you only want the keys for the first floor…” Dew’s eyes had begun to glaze over even before the sentence had come out of his mouth. He grunted. “Know what? I’m just bringing the whole drawer with.”

Pithy shrugged as the box disappeared into Dew’s pockets and he vaulted over the counter. Still full of energy, this one.

“Come,” she said, turning towards the door with the ‘Stairs’ sign attached to it. The snake lying nearby rose its head at the command, then followed the pair as they continued up into the apartments.

When the professor finally called for the end of their ‘football’ match, Sand found herself letting out a small sigh of relief.

She was not sure who had won. The game had turned rather confusing half-way through, though perhaps dangerous was a more apt descriptor should one look at the tattered remains of clothing that dangled over some of her classmates. It made her wonder if Trad had destroyed his shirt at the very beginning of the class simply because it was a foregone conclusion that it would be unusable at the end of it.

She had been spared part of the chaos near the beginning, something she attributed to the fact that she and the person she had chosen to mark looked like identical twins. A disappointingly small number of balls were thrown in their direction. That had changed for some minutes when her clone had slipped away and left the class, but it quickly became the case again when the other team realized every ball that came vaguely close to her invariably ended up glued to her hands.

Catching balls with her semblance had at one point been a routine exercise of hers, and this was little different. There are reasons why I am never allowed to play goalie, she thought with a feeling somewhere between embarrassment and pride.

Thankfully, unlike some of the more passionate students in her group, she and her attire had gone relatively unscathed throughout the debacle, meaning all she had to do before the next class was to pick up her duffle bag and head out. As the gaggles of chattering students filed out of the class, she merely pulled her Scroll out for directions and, not waiting for Trad, set out towards Practice class.

As the throng of students dispersed, heading out from the gymnasium towards their other classes, it became easy to single out those sharing hers. She followed that particular group at a calm pace until she caught sight of two larger groups of students milling about.

Knowing she had arrived at the training site, she looked over the gathered faces until she caught sight of a familiar one.

She began to walk towards him when a familiar voice drew her attention. The other student from Atlas, Jer, approached the group she was moving towards, before instructing them to be ready in a minute.

Ah, so this is what he was talking about when he left. At least he’s wearing his own face this time. Having a person that looked near identical to her overseeing her training would have been a bizarre prospect. Though I never did get an answer to my question.

Putting that out of her mind for the moment, she sidled next to the person she had recognized before. “Robert,” she greeted amiably.

No answer came, as Robert’s eyes remained glued to his Scroll’s screen.

Arching her eyebrow, she leaned closer, peeking over the redhead’s shoulder to see what had consumed his attention. Colorful graphics and multiple gauges with numbers on them greeted her, with small pictures of characters that moved across the screen. Sand’s eyelids drooped as she realized he was completely engrossed in a video game.

“Class is about to start,” she said dryly, giving him a firm poke in the ribs. “Will be hard to practice with your Scroll out.”

@Guess Who
A sudden cold spread from the hound’s chest. Fenn’s eyes angled downwards, towards the steel tip poking out of his chest.

Ah, he distantly thought, the snake makes its move.

The steel slipped out of the wound, leaving behind a strange void, and the demon staggered. He had known their foe would be lying in wait, hoping to gain an advantage over them. Why had he not seen this coming? Perhaps he had been too confident in his hide’s toughness.

The fight continued to rage around him, its focus now shifted towards the new appearance, but Fenn suddenly found it difficult to follow the action. His eyes unfocused, and cold continued to spread from his center. A metallic flavor filled his mouth.

Willing fire into his limbs through the languor that filled him, the hound turned, ready to pounce on the vulnerable snake.

Before he could do so, darkness swept over him. Whatever strength he had summoned left him, and the demon’s large body collapsed under its weight.

Fenn forced himself to look up at the new enemy, this one vaguely female in shape. A strange but familiar scent filled his nostrils before the dark swallowed him again. He felt a feeling of weightlessness, followed by pressure against his limbs.

He resurfaced before the snake.

Fenn tried to summon strength into his arms, willing them to grasp the small human and crush him, but the darkness holding him did not relent, presenting his underbelly to the enemy.

The pair traded words, but they were drowned by the blood rushing through his ears. The snake turned towards him, brandishing the cursed sword.

A low growl seeped through the demon’s chest, muscles trembling as he struggled to regain control over them. The snarling grew in volume as the blade sunk into his stomach, and then suddenly tapered off into a hacking cough. A scalding, tar-like fluid bubbled from the hound’s maw.

The man dug into the wound, cutting deeper and wider until the orb Fenn had swallowed fell to the ground.

The blade retreated. Fenn felt himself grow limp in his restraints. What felt like an eternity later, the restraints fell away, letting him fall over the large lake of blood that had formed under him.

Darkness encroached on his vision. The snake was gone, likely off to destroy the seal now that he had the means to go through the gate, which meant he had failed in his mission.

In that space at the edge of consciousness, every blink of his bleary eyes took an inordinate amount of time. The view before him changed without him noticing, a pair of feet standing at the edge of his blood. The Imp spoke. When he blinked again, she was gone.

He wondered if this cold he felt was death coming for him. Pierced by the cursed blade of a demon swordsman from behind, then gutted like an animal in plain view of both friend and foe.

An ignoble end. Perhaps one all too fitting for a dog of war well past its prime, and so he would not begrudge it.


He wondered why, if this was death, he was suddenly so aware of the pain in each an every of his wounds.

Of course he realized, his mind regaining some clarity, as the poison recedes, the body repairs itself. This flame is too damn stubborn. Can you not leave me to rest?

With the orb gone and the deadening magic of the interloper fading from his body, he found his strength and faculties returning to him. Smoke began to bubble from his wounds, stemming the flow of blood. Fire sputtered to life over his fur, and the dog began to lift itself on unsteady limbs. He felt a lurching, sickening sensation at the pit of his stomach and brought a paw to the wound on his underbelly, trying to keep his entrails from falling through.

That would not do.

The fire on his fur flared outwards, growing in brilliance and spreading over his fur until the vast form of the hellhound could barely be made out under the conflagration. After a moment, the flame began to move towards the two beings still locked in a confrontation.

The Umbra Witch and the interloper had begun their battle, rushing to and fro in bursts of gunfire and nebulous energy. The witch’s contracted demons surged into the fight from large portals formed from her hair, weaving in and out of existence as they tangled against the strange being’s blackened magic.

Both seemed too engrossed in their duel to take note of the flame’s inexorable approach, small as it was compared to the unfolding chaos.

Two large fireballs, long contrails like comets trailing behind them, separated from the pyre and raced towards the combatants.

The witch, standing with her back directly towards the projectiles, sensed the heat behind her and weaved away with a fae grace, leaving the interloper to face the fire.

The only hint that the fire had been registered as a threat was the nebulous energy that swept out in a wave, extinguishing the flames in an instant. Of course, it did nothing to halt the tightly-packed coils of chains hidden within. The creature started and crossed her arms in defense before a deep darkness engulfed her. The chains fell into the void, meeting no resistance.

The click of metal on metal came from besides the flame. The fire shifted slightly as Fenn turned to regard the witch pointing a small firearm at him.

“I do not take kindly to interruptions, love.”

Fenn’s voice came in the hoary whisper of a ravaged throat.


His chains trembled a warning before the two metal coils were violently expelled from the inky blackness that had covered the interloper. The witch stepped back as the chains swerved back and were swallowed by the hound’s pyre, just as the enemy stepped out of her barrier, unharmed.

The witch turned to aim at her original enemy, but the mysterious being’s focus was no longer on her.

“Beast of hellfire, your actions are unwise. Engaging me in combat will not change the outcome of today's events. I suggest retreating.”

“Aye,” he agreed, haltingly. “You speak the truth... alas, the seal does not matter to me. And… you brought me great pain. I wish to taste your blood, now.” Fenn let out a soft grunt disguising a pained cough. “Do you need this one alive, witch?”

“Why yes, if at all possible,” she answered conversationally.

“How… disappointing.”

The enemy did not seem interested in the exchange before her. Instead, she spoke calmly. “It appears I am outnumbered now. However, the difficulty has not increased. I will allow you to exercise your futile actions.”

Nebulous magic swelled at the words.

This time, it was Fenn’s pained cough that hid hoarse laughter.

Fenn’s eyes opened, then quickly closed at the light that assaulted them. The feeling of stone floors underneath him along with the roiling sound of magma gave him a clue as to his current whereabouts.

The large demon shifted and stretched his long arms forward, feeling the muscles quiver under the tension. New aches accompanied this awakening, mostly centered on his belly, chest, and along the side of his neck.

Finally opening his eyes, the demon chanced a look down.

Puckering, grayish scar tissue had formed over the wounds dealt by the demonic blade. The latest marks on his hide, the veritable tapestry of old injuries that laid bare the violent history of its owner. He knew that for how excruciating the experience had been, for how exceptional the make of the blade that had dealt such damage was, it would not take long for the scars to become indistinguishable from some of the larger wounds he still bore proof of.

Fenn brought a claw to his chest. Saw the thin trail of smoke that arose as the flesh parted under the sharp point when he applied the softest of pressures.

“I see the family’s pet is feeling better!”

The announcement was accompanied by a shrill laugh as the watcher that continued to shadow him poked its head from the wall besides him.

Fenn wasted no time pulling his fist away from his chest and hammering it against the source of the offending sound.

Dust fell from the ceiling at the blow, but a moment later, the specter flowed out through his arm, regarding him with that mouthless sneer he had come to associate from the creature. “Yes, indeed, this is more like you, mutt.”

Fenn scowled at the watcher, then shook his head.

He took a glance at the room he was in. Bare, stone walls, and a pool of lava flowing into the room from an opening at the wall. He searched his memory for when he had made his way into the room, but came up blank. The hound grunted, pushing away the feeling of disorientation that suddenly pressed down on him.

If he tried to dredge up the last memory he had... it was battling that interloper. We fought for some time, to little effect, and then... the ground had begun to shake. The enemy had taken the chance to make themselves scarce then.

“Was I... carried here?” He asked slowly. The thought brought shame to him. The only one who would be capable of such a feat would be the Imp. Her burdens should have been his to carry, not the reverse.

“Cracked your head against something?” The specter let out another of its obnoxious cackles. “Of course not! You managed to make it all the way here all on your own! You even responded when spoken to, but the minute the portal back opened you slipped away all by your lonesome to this room while the others went to report. Why, I might have been the only one with an inkling of what poor shape you were on!”

“Aye?” Fenn responded by reflex. He had no memory of any of this.

“Of course! You did not try to smash me when I came by to rub your failure on your noses. What greater hint could there be?”

He grunted. “And the Imp? Where is she?”

“Your master, you mean? Gone to Earth once again. It would seem the loss of one more seal has not made the place go to hell yet.” It giggled. “Who knows how long it will take for that to happen? Not long if it’s up to you fools, I would imagine.”

A hum thrummed in the hound’s chest as it narrowed its eyes. “Does the Council tolerate such venom, or encourages it?”

“Bah!” The watcher made a dismissive gesture. “The Council could care less about what I think as long as I do what I’m told. You should keep that in mind, mutt. This latest failure puts you on thin ice.” The creature giggled at that, as though enjoying a private joke.

“I am not beholden to the Council, pest.”

“Hah! But! Your master is,” it crooned. “Take care you do not lead the two of you to an early grave.”

Aye. And, pray tell, what shall your Council do without us? Will it finally count on their vaunted Horsemen? Fenn withheld those remarks.

There had been a time when he had thought the four Nephilim, the supposed last of their race, had been held back from the current conflict because the nature of their appearance on Earth would imply the beginning of the true end-war. Now, however he was not certain that was enough to explain their absence. The mission before their last one had not taken place on Earth, after all, and the last mission had seen the appearance of an interloper with a very particular scent and an agenda of its own.

He was beginning to consider taking the matter to the Council itself. Would I even survive bringing such matters into question?

“You became quiet.” The watcher’s observation roused the demon from its introspection. “Did I perhaps touch a sore spot?”

Fenn huffed through his snout, relieved the creature had not thought more of his pause. “Leave, specter. I am finished entertaining you.”

“I do not take orders from you, mutt. You are but a servant’s pet.”

The hound gave the watcher a half-lidded stare.

Moments later, fire erupted from the entrance to the room. The watcher’s shriek followed on its heels.

“Ahrg! That’s too bright, you stupid dog!” It screamed as it floated out of the room, spindly fingers covering its eyes.

The place had been empty, for the most part. Whoever had designed it was definitely no connoisseur of architecture, Cassandra thought, thinking that, compared to this, a Spartan room was positively luxurious. The most extravagant thing she had found was a smithy, at that point unused, but with signs of recent use.

Since she had parted with her mother, about an hour had passed, and so far it had been less interesting than she had expected. This was a new realm. Not just a different country, but a veritable dimension of its own, connected to Earth through whatever magical or cosmological means! And yet, the monotony took some of the wind out of her sails. Charred bricks an equal mix of black and sulphurous red just got boring after a while. One would expect an ancient citadel like this, to carry some secrets within its walls.

She sighed and took off her—or rather, her mother’s—hat, fanning herself with it. This place was unimaginably hot, she had to admit, and were it not because of her light clothing she had no doubt she would be suffering a heatstroke. And she was a half-demon of all things, naturally far more resistant to heat than other humans thanks to her maternal heritage.

She would have congratulated herself on that fact, had it not been for the sudden flash of light and the indignant screech of… something, coming from down a hallway just ahead of her. Suddenly intrigued, she took off after it, passing by one of the same beings that had brought her to this realm. It ignored her, but judging by its facial expression—or what she could see of it—this being was what had been indignant.

She suppressed a chuckle and continued down the hallway until she came to an enormous doorway, one that could, as her mother had put it, fit an elephant. She peered into the room hesitantly, keeping the rest of her body out of sight.

At the sight of what was within, her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “Sacrébleu!” She exclaimed and stepped into full view of the beast within. It truly was the size of an elephant, but a beast of fire and scale and black fur. Chains wrapped around the lower part of its front legs, covering only a miniscule amount of the numerous scars that covered its body.

Her mind raced with information new and old, comparing old stories to the sight before her. Those slitted, amber eyes resting upon her, gleaming with intelligence, and the overall canine appearance of this creature told her much of what she needed. “You’re a hellhound,” she said, walking into the room and halving the distance between them. She wasn’t sure who this creature was, and if he was aggressive or not. Her money was on the former, and though she was confident in her ability to defend herself, the Hellhound was enormous.

“How did you get so big?” She asked.

Petty as it was, Fenn had to admit to a certain satisfaction at finally eliciting such a response from the small watcher. Mayhaps theaps the shadowy creature would think twice before bothering him again.

The hound rose from his haunches, moving his massive frame towards the archway. As tempting as it was to simply lay there in an unused room where others would need to find him to interrupt his rest, there were things he wished to discuss, and thoughts he wished to put in order.

Which made the appearance of the wide-eyed, humanoid female barring his way out a touch irritating. Had it not been for the fact that he did not recognize this one, either by face or scent, he may well have chosen to barrel over her. As it was, there was something decidedly familiar about her.

Fenn paused, regarding the small half-blood with guarded interest. When the woman began a careless approach, Fenn raised his lip, exposing teeth in a silent warning. She stopped right outside of his reach.

“How did you get so big?” she asked with childlike wonder.

The old dog could not help but feel discomfort at the eagerness of her approach. He lowered his head to bring it level to her. “I fed well as a pup.” His nose twitched, sampling the fresh fragrance wafting from her. It carried with it the impression of forests, grasslands and wide plains, and part of it immediately brought the Imp to mind. However, even with all her time spent amongst humans, he would never confuse that one for a halfling.

“Have we met, Pixie?” he asked gruffly, seeking to put the strange feeling of familiarity to rest.

The girl walked into the room proper, slowly circling him while keeping a respectful distance. She didn’t appear afraid, merely showing respectful caution in the presence of Fenn. “We haven’t,” she said, her brows furrowing, “but I think I maybe have heard stories about you. But you never answered my first question.” She stopped, at this point near his hind legs, and looked back at him with a faint smile, waiting.

Stories of me? Told by whom? There are only so many kinds of attention such tales can bring. “Which question?”

“Whether you’re a hellhound or not,” she said.

Fenn’s tail swayed, betraying his impatience. “That should be evident,” he drawled. The path out of the room was vacant now and the hound was not in the mood to play with the stranger. He sauntered forward at a lazy pace, not bothering to turn his back away from the short woman.

“What’s your name?” She asked, the pitter-patter of her feet follow in his wake, and soon reaching up beside him.

He glanced to his side, saw the expectant look of the woman trying to match his stride. “Fenn,” he stated, knowing she already had the answer and was merely looking for confirmation.

“I’m Cassandra,” she replied, happily, “nice to meet you… So, where are we going? I only just got here.”

“I have yet to decide.” The hound paused suddenly and regarded the woman with an intense stare. “You are not fit for this environment, yet you have not been granted protection to the elements. You have not stood before the Council. Why are you here, Pixie?”

Her face lit up into a brief smile, as if what he had said amused her, or she was privy to a joke he was not, but it faded soon after as she addressed his query. “‘Their protection’?” She asked, scrunching up her face in seeming bewilderment for a moment or two, before it lit up in comprehension. “Oh! You mean the Charred Council. Well… I haven’t really met them, and the Thing that took me here didn’t mention it.” She shrugged, meeting Fenn’s gaze unperturbed. “And I’m here because I want to help. Susanne told me that the Charred Council had hired her to help protect the Seals that prevented some war between Heaven and Hell. I have the ability, so why not use them to protect my family?”

“I do not know that name,” the dog stated, eyelids drooping slightly. “It seems I am to believe that you were brought here and then left to roam by your lonesome, unmindful of what problems might arise from a stranger traipsing through these halls unaccompanied. Have I understood correctly?”

“She means me, Fenn,” a voice said from around the corner. A short woman of asian descent, carrying a large bag and a long, cylindrical package stepped into view. “Susanne was my previous name.” She walked closer, sizing up Fenn and Cassandra, a smile on her lips.

“Imp,” he greeted. Aye, I had an inkling. Then... “You must take better care of your spawn. Another may well have treated this one as an intruder.”

“You know as well as I do that intruders here are impossible. But let me introduce you to my daughter. This is Cassandra Fayette Bellerose. And Cassandra, this is Fenn. I think I once told you of one of my oldest rivals.” She then turned to face the Hellhound. “I also have a present for you, Big ol’ pup,” Lily said, and threw the large bag towards Fenn.

The hound may well have complained that intruders were always impossible until they were not, but catching the proffered object in his mouth made that a difficult task. A pleasant aroma wafted from an opening. The hound let the present fall to the ground in front of him before tearing the bag open with a push of a paw and his sount.

“I do not ask for gifts, Imp.” Fenn regarded the offered meats with a critical eye. “In fact, I have to ask myself if you have not begun to believe some of the other’s misconceptions that I am in fact an exotic pet of yours.”

“Who’d ever want a pet like you?” She asked with a chuckle. “But the point of a gift is that it’s not asked for. Consider it a token of goodwill, and some actual proper food. Angels aren’t very tasty, last I checked.”

The hound grunted before he lowered his head and dug into the offering.

Cassandra gasped beside Fenn, her expression one of disgust. “You ate angels?!”

“Tried. Once,” the Imp replied casually. “I bit him in the throat, to be precise. Tasted like oil.”

“Charcoal,” Fenn corrected through a glob of fat.

“Everything tastes like charcoal if you burn it enough, Fenn.”

The Pixie let out relieved sigh. “Still, though… Ew.”

Lily chuckled, then walked over to give her cub a pat on the head, as if she were a pet. “I’ll be heading off again, trying to find Souta. And Fenn?” She stopped in front of his snout, staring him straight in the eye, and spoke in a steely tone, “Make sure she doesn’t get hurt.” A wave later, and she was gone, off to wherever.

Fenn’s ear twitched at the frost in her words. When she left, he glanced up from his meal to gaze consideringly at his new charge. His tongue slipped out of his mouth, sliding over some dribbling blood.

“Your mother should have kept you out of this if she feels so strongly about your safety,” he said bluntly.

Cassandra shrugged. “I didn’t give her a choice. Plus, she cannot beat me in a swordfight—Hasn’t been able to since I was thirty.” She glanced up at Fenn, a thoughtful look in her eyes. “I think she might have meant it as a… request, for you to keep me safe, or something to that effect?”

“What she has done is made you my responsibility, and if you are at all like your mother, it shall be a tiresome affair.” The demon huffed. “So be it. Do not stray too far, at least until you have met the others who have pledged themselves to the Council.”

“I’ll be sure not to,” she replied cheerily. “By the way… Can I pet you?”


“Can I ride you?”

“You have me mistaken for a horse.”

Cassandra shook her head, her smile too bright for the place they were in. “Horses aren’t the only thing you can ride,” she said simply. “There’s this game where people ride giant wolves, too.”

“Then tame yourself a wolf, Pixie,” he grunted, returning his attention to what remained of his meal. The meat disappeared at a frightening rate, torn into large chunks and often swallowed whole into the dog’s large gullet.

“If I could, I would,” she said pouting. “Pour le meilleur ou pour le pire, I suppose.” She glanced about at their surroundings, and squinted off down one of the adjacent hallways, then quickly glanced down at Fenn. “So… You don’t mind if I go exploring? Mother didn’t tell me to stay with you, after all.” She paused. “Don’t worry about what she said to you. I don’t think I’ll be in any danger here. Unless, of course, I piss up the wrong tree.” She turned to Fenn, grinning. She then winked at him and took off at a run down one of the corridors, leaving the hellhound behind.

Fenn’s ears twitched at the sound of retreating footsteps, glancing over the direction the whelp had ran off to. Letting out a slow sigh, he swallowed the food still in his mouth and sedately followed after the Pixie’s trail, leaving the remains of his gift to be cleaned up by another.
“... 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.
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