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Fusing into the unknown


Current GM of World of Light. When it comes to writing, there's nothing I love more than imagination, engagement, and commitment. I'm always open to talk, suggestion, criticism, and collaboration. While I try to be as obliging, helpful, and courteous as possible, I have very little sympathy for ghosts, and anyone who'd like to string me along. Straightforwardness is all I ask for.

Looking for more personal details? I'm just some dude from the American south; software development is my job but games, writing, and trying to help others enjoy life are my passions. Been RPing for over a decade, starting waaaay back with humble beginnings on the Spore forum, so I know a thing or two, though I won't pretend to be an expert. If you're down for some fun, let's make something spectacular together.

Most Recent Posts

Film Those Freaks - No Pleasure Cruise I

Midna and Kamek’s @DracoLunaris, Geralt’s @MULTI_MEDIA_MAN, Level 8 Goldlewis (72/80)
Word Count: 4131 (+5)

”Yeah I do!” Jr replied to the question as to if he knew anything about tech and video making, before saying that ”I watch a whole bunch of stuff on UPipe back home when i get internet time. Stuff like Boyadi Piranha plant, MrDorrie, Chomps Jr. and- ” jr began to list off some of his favorite series and creators before remembering ”aaaaaand you have no idea what those are. Right. Obviously”

”But can you work these- Minda waved a hand at the torches rather than the camera as an added display of her ignorance ”-things to make this ‘movie’ with?”

Rather than reply, Jr instead let out a snort of a laugh, pointed at her head and said ”look at your helmet, it's huge!” before slapping his knee and laughing at her some more. As for what was causing his giggling fit, well, the diving bell had been made big enough to fit the princess’s helmet as well as her head, and with how much the top prongs added to her height, well, it was a touch oversized, something the increasingly dismayed twili found out as she patted it down with four hands.

”how… how bad is it?”

”Here, look” the prince replied, before picking up the camera, turning the device upside down, then turning the display around so she could see both it and, upon it, herself, which sent her groaning into 4 sets of hands. Goldlewis, who had been trying to hold in his mirth, broke down at this point and shook with silent laughter.

“It is rather large.” Geralt bluntly added, before looking at Junior. “So, I take it you’ll handle creating the…recording? While we handle defense and anything else you need us to do.” Geralt was more than okay with Junior taking the lead on this one, given that he was the only one here with any exposure to that sort of thing. Whether Goldlewis’ world had the kind of technology or not, if he had no idea how to use it, he was effectively in the same boat as Midna and herself.

”Can do” the prince replied along with a thumbs up as he turned the camera back around in his other hand and got a bit of a feel for how to get at least slightly decent shots on it.

Putting his hands on his hips, Goldlewis gave an affirmative nod. “Sounds like a plan to me. You’re the boss, li’l man.” Compared to the first minigame, the veteran felt a lot more engaged by this one already. Whereas his previous task amounted to little more than a rigorous physical exercise, this demanded expertise and creativity, and would apparently involve braving the ominously named ‘old world’. And who wouldn’t want to see a monster or two? He assumed that the actual scare factor would be low, given the Big Top’s whimsical aesthetic. Granted, Ballyhoo did say that there would be a hit point system involved, but actually having stakes just made things more exciting.

After grabbing a flashlight, which was black tech even he could handle, the veteran turned his attention to the diving bell that hung at the sky island edge. “Well. If y’all’re ready, I reckon we oughta get started.” On the way over, though, he glanced around the verdant garden, and not just to admire the flowers and fruits. He took note of a simple machine with a monitor and a large slot, some sort of receptacle for the camera judging by the helpful indicator. He suspected that was where the team should deposit the device once they were done. In addition to the power station, he spotted a freestanding touchscreen a good five feet or so in height, equipped with a coin slot. Curious, he moseyed over, and after a quick inspection decided that it must be a point of sale system. “Some sort of item shop,” he reported, running a finger over the coin slot. As the gears turned in his head, he pulled out the consolation token he’d been given after Connected Climbing Chaos, one eyebrow raised. “Huh, we’re s’posed to use these? Takes money to make money, I guess.” He looked through the shop’s offerings with greater interest, wondering what could possibly justify the in-game usage of his reward. For the most part, it looked like light sources or filming gadgets. “Anythin’ tickle your fancy?” he asked Junior.

”hmmmm” the prince mulled over the list as he used a knuckle (rather than a claw tipped finger) to scroll through the list of things commenting ”don’t need any defendy items we’ve got that in spades… I can heal stuff so we are fine there” before assessing that it might be worth getting ”a better torch so that we can see the stuff we’re filming, and one of those boom mics would let us get better sound? Would mean people are gonna have to carry those around instead of weapons though”

”I’ve got arms to spare for that at least” Midna offered, waving two hands while holding her currently removed helmet with the other two.

“I can focus on tracking and can try to slow anything down with Yrden if they prove a challenge.” Geralt added, completely lost on the kind of technology they were working with.

“That might come in handy.” Goldlewis shrugged. “As for me, after not doin’ so hot with that mountain climbin’ back there, I only got one Rift Token.” He stroked his whiskers while looking at Midna. “And you got third, but even then you only got three if I remember right. Well, it’s your call I guess. Me, I’m fine with what I got.” He flipped his token, caught it, and pocketed it in one smooth motion. Of course, someone could only look so cool with a big, dopey diving helmet on. “Pretty sure these glasses got a night vision mode anyhow.” He flipped down the tech lenses on his sunglasses to demonstrate, causing the built-in lights to glow red. If this mix of equipment gained from Jack-8 and Hank actually worked, it would be a stroke of good luck, and if it didn’t, well…at least he had that cheap flashlight.

”I can see a lot better in the dark than in bright light anyway, so I can help with spotting” Midna added, before saying ”but given that we only have to avoid coming last to get at least three more tokens, I’m happy to invest one of my winnings into improving all our odds of doing the same”

Following up on her word she opened a little portal on the ground which launched one of her coins up and out of it, before flicking the flying thing with a finger to make it fly perfectly into the slot. Actually buying the item too a little longer as she used the unfamiliar touch screen interface, but in a few moments she had acquired the very long stick with a fuzzy blob on the end

”So how does this-” Midna began to ask as she picked it up by the equivalent of the scruff of the neck and put the fluffy part right up in her face, only for her words to demonstrate how it worked by being a fair bit louder than they otherwise would have been

”I see” she said, before moving her hands down the stick and moving the mic away from her, and then saying, at a normal volume ”So it makes whatever is near the end louder. So we’ll be able to … hear what the monster noises better? Is that a good thing?”

”That- uh” jr began to reply with the information that that was not how microphones were supposed to work, before deciding that ”yeah sure” that was fine.

As for what it is for, he added that ”I mean, it’ll let us pick up anything anyone tussling with a spook says as well. So be sure to say something cool when you punch one. Or act scared? Cuz if we’re filming scary stuff and it's going on ‘spooktube’ then presumably the people watching want to be spooked as well? So we need to sell how spooky the stuff down there is instead of, you know, beating it up” hitting on the conceit of the minigame as he talked.

Goldlewis nodded. “Right, that follows. Guess that means I gotta act the part.” At first he’d wondered how complicated this whole ordeal could possibly be with just ninety seconds of film on the line, but there might be a lot of nuance to it. Regardless, unless Geralt had anything else to add prior to departure, it felt like a good time to head on over to the diving bell and get a move on. “Everyone ready?”

“Think so. So…we should act like these things are scarier than they are? Think I did well enough in that one play…” Geralt mumbled, though acting out a comedic play and acting terrified of something she could likely kill in seconds were two entirely different things.

”Something like that? Or just wary even? Basically let the spooky stuff be the focus rather than kicking its butt which isn’t very spooky” Jr replied, still trying to get the point worked out in his own head as well.

”It wouldn’t be a very good ghost story if the poor soul being haunted suddenly pulled a magic sword out of nowhere and stabbed the monster to death I suppose” Midna pontificate, before agreeing that ”So I think I understand it enough to get started”

Geralt nodded. “Agreed. Don’t kill any of the monsters, try to…show them being scary? I don’t really understand how you’re going to do that, Junior, but I trust you know what you’re doing. And then get back alive. I suppose after we have what we need, we don’t have to worry about holding back, though.” She mused.

With that, Goldlewis gave an officious grunt and turned to head for the diving bell. Even if Junior was technically the boss of this operation by virtue of his technical know-how, the little Koopa would be hard-pressed to keep up with his long stride, or outdo his commanding presence. Still, Goldlewis didn’t get too far ahead. Right now, he felt himself falling into an old pattern: the role of bodyguard. His job would be to protect Junior and make sure he got that footage back here, safe and sound, even if it meant being eliminated in the process. The veteran might not know the ins and outs of filmmaking, but dutiful self-sacrifice was something he was all too familiar with.

Once inside the diving bell, the big man stood by the door to close it and seal it shut once the others entered. While he waited, though, he laid his eyes on the terminal at the vehicle’s back. Its display showed vitals, including hit points and oxygen levels, for all four members of the team, as well as four measures of distance. They decreased as his teammates closed in, indicating their distance from the diving bell itself. Finally, just above the big lever that seemed guaranteed to begin their descent, he saw a selector with three options: the Factory, the Cruise Ship, and the Tunnels. Two of those sounded pretty ominous, but part of him suspected that the second option would be no pleasure cruise. After his last companion climbed inside, he swung the door closed with a squeak and cranked the wheel to lock it in place. “So, where we headin’?”

”A cruise ship? Are those spooky? I kinda wanna know” the prince said as he got up on tippy claws to take a look at the options while Midna shrugged, unsure as to what those were.

Goldlewis crossed his arm. “Why don’t we find out?” Using a knob on the console he selected the destination preemptively, but did not go so far as to pull the lever that would begin the team’s descent just yet.

Geralt hummed. “If it’s a ship, might be old or abandoned, with skeletons around to add to the ambiance. Tunnels are already dark, cramped places, so easy to understand how that might be scary. Not sure what a factory is, though…” She admitted, adding her two cents to the options. She wasn’t particularly attached to any of the three, though, and made no move to pick what she thought would be best, because she was out of her depth.

“It’s a kind of buildin’ where things are made. The same thing I mean, made lots o’ times. Mass produced.” Goldlewis waved his hand. “Don’t matter. If the li’l boss wants to see the ship, we see the ship, eh?” With a grin at the young koopa, Goldlewis reached out and pulled the lever.

With nothing to see and not much to hear outside of clunky machinery, Goldlewis and the others could only wait as the diving bell sank further and further down. It was a suspenseful ride, the tension growing each passing moment. The veteran had assumed that the crane would be lowering their vessel from the sky island to the ground, or maybe into the ocean, but from in here he couldn’t tell much of anything. Instead he considered the task ahead, gently stroking his whiskers as he thought.

“I ain’t ever made videos like this before, but I’ve seen my fair share of horror flicks,” he mentioned. “Most of ‘em ended up pretty schlocky. If ya ask me, the most important part of watchin’ somethin’ scary is the build-up. If you cram some critter down folks’ throats, it won’t end up bein’ frightenin’. Same if you keep usin’ jump scares, it gets old real fast. You gotta take it slow. Fleetin’ glimpses. Environmental storytellin’. Maybe somethin’ happens to someone, but you don’t get a good look at it. Then once you got them pins all set up, you can knock ‘em down with a big payoff towards the end.” He chuckled. “‘Course, I hope nothin’ ends up happenin’ to one of us. We could always stage it, though. Guess we’ll have to see how forthcomin’ these monsters are, heh.”

”If we need our own ghosts for the story, I’ve got two of those” Jr said, tapping two pokeballs while Minda offered a ”Skeletal knight on my end”

It wasn’t long after that that the diving bell slowed down. Eventually it stopped completely, but Goldlewis never felt any impact with the ground. Instead the vessel continued to rock back and forth slightly, as if suspended. He swallowed. “Why’d we stop? Is the damn thing broken?” Before messing with the control lever, though, he tentatively moved to the crank on the door. There was no water pressure holding it shut, and when he opened it, he revealed the side of a massive modern-day cruise ship. The diving bell was hanging in front of a huge hole in its side, connected only by its ramp. When he looked down over the edge, off to the side, or even straight up, Goldlewis saw nothing but infinite darkness, even with his goggles flipped down. “Guess we’re here, folks. Careful you don’t fall.”

Rather than test the ramp's integrity, the veteran jumped and airdashed into the hole. He landed in the ship’s interior, in what looked like a cross between a cargo bay and a junkyard, with crates and ruined automobiles stacked all over. Stranger still, everything was gray, completely homogenous in color and texture. It was eerily dark, with only ghostly light balls scattered around for illumination. Before Goldlewis could fully observe his surroundings, however, he spotted movement. With alarm the veteran registered something lurching out from the shadows, its form bulbous but humanoid, its stride slow and ponderous. “Well, that was fast,” he muttered before raising his voice. “We got company!”

A moment later the shape slumped into the light of the diving bell. When Goldlewis got a good look at it, though, he couldn’t help but be a little sheepish about his earlier alarm. It was a snail with arms and legs, exactly the same as the environment in color and texture, and though faster than a real snail it shambled around with such an awkward gait that Goldlewis felt like he could outrun it at a walking pace. Still, it was moving straight toward him, and the immediate encounter made him wonder just what else might already be closing in on his position. Making sure that he had solid ground behind him, he began to back away.

A moment after it came into view of the diving bell, there came the crack of gunpowder from within it and then a thunk as the musket slug slammed into the deck beside the snail man.

”How’d you miss from this range!” Jr exclaimed from behind the, going by the little green light, recording camera, as he pointed at the culprit: a briefly sheepish looking Minda.

That look vanished after a fraction of a moment before she lied ”I Swear I was on target?” to the face of the camera with the skill of a trained politician, before saying that ”Oh no, and now it's coming towards us!” as the snail man turned towards the source of the noise and started coming up the ramp.

”I’ll lead it away!” she insisted, before leaping off of the side of the bridge and into the void, only to land on the back of a summoned Flygon and use it as a platform to jump off of and then onto the ship herself. The slow monster turned to follow her as she led it behind some a stack of ruined cars, something the prince recorded after crossing a bridge of sideways cleaver swords held aloft by his Vespikan striker squad.

Then a moment later she asked ”How was that?” into a too closely held boom mic, causing Jr to whirl around with a little yelp to find Midna back among them again, the princess of twilight having shadow hopped back to them as soon as she led the monster out of sight.

Goldlewis scratched his head. “I dunno. That mighta been…overkill? It wasn’t all that threatenin’.” Just then, though, he spotted the same sort of movement in the shadows behind Junior. “Hold up…it’s back, right there behind ya!” He extended his hand in a dramatic point toward the snailman. When he realized that it approached from the opposite direction, he quickly amended his appraisal. “Wait no, it’s a second one! They got us in a pincer maneuver!” He turned out to be right when the first snailman slouched back into view, plodding toward the four Seekers. Of course, this was by no means a crisis, but Goldlewis was already beginning to see what the others had been on about. All this yelling and making a big, theatrical deal of the situation was actually pretty fun.

”You were saying?” Midna replied, with the kind of ‘I told you so’ tone reserved for when you were now stuck in a bad situation together and there was no positive but the ability to snark about it. She was also doing her best to maneuver the boom mic over whoever was talking to make sure their commentary was nice and clear.

“These things are smarter than they look. Dealt with enough monsters to know that. Even if they’re slow, one moment of distraction could be enough to spell your end.” Geralt gravely warned, definitely hamming it up, but the advice was still solid: Never underestimate your enemy.

Jr, having wildly swung the camera back and forth to get footage of both of them in what was maybe not the best camera-koopa-ship but which did imbue plenty of frantic energy to the footage, now swung it towards the scrap rest of the scrap and called out ”Maybe we can lose them in there?”

“If you got all you need, I got a better idea.” Goldlewis turned toward the snailmen and stood his ground as they waddled his way. “Y’all go on ahead. I’ll clean up.” He waited a moment more, then lunged forward. While the veteran left his coffin outside the scope of these minigames, he still had on the iron fists gained from his Jack-8 fusion. When he drove a mighty left hook into the monster’s ribs, the mechanism fired to add even more oomph to the blow, sending the snailman through the hole in the ship’s hull and out into the void with the sound of a shotgun blast. If these critters were both common and comically inept, the team had no further use for them.

The second snailman marched forward obliviously, and the next moment it met the same fate. With the threat passed, Goldlewis straightened up and dusted off his metal mitts. “There. No sense leavin’ ‘em around to bite us in the ass later.” He glanced at Junior, eyebrows raised. “Uh, pardon my French.”

”But we don’t have a donkey with us?” Jr replied with confusion, before saying ”Also I think I got the camera off before you kicked their butt, but might need to edit it a bit for the stuff you said before. If we can. Must be able to, right? Otherwise knowing when to stop filming and acting is going to be pretty tricky”

”Good idea, making sure we can toss them about though, and that they don’t just take hit points on contact or something cheap”

”Did it feel like you hurt it, or was it more or less the launching it out of here that did the trick?” Midna enquired as she ditched the gun she had indeed flubbed the shooting of into a portal.

Goldlewis scrunched his eyebrows together. “I didn’t feel anything break, to be fair. Like punchin’ a ball o’ dough. Guess I made the right choice aimin’ for the hole, but really I just wanted it outta here.” He crossed his arms as he looked at Junior. “Hey, cowboy. How much film we got left, anyhow?”

”We used just under a third, looks like?” the prince peered down at the camera, while Midna modded in thanks for the information about how to handle the virtual foes, before noting that they had ”about a fifth of our time down here left” after she checked her cheap watch.

“Then we’re makin’ decent progress,” Goldlewis declared. But they needed to do better than a couple of snails.

Though resolved to push further into the bowels of the cruise ship, the team didn’t get far. Barely did they get around a couple twists and turns in the cargo bay then the frontrunners glimpsed a strange shape just close enough to a ghostly light to be seen. Though difficult to make out at a glance, and motionless as its surroundings, its form featured obvious limbs, and other elements of clearly unnatural biology. When someone shone a flashlight on it, its beam revealed a freakish biped with scythe limbs extending from a round body covered in spiky protrusions. Most remarkable were its enormous bulging eyes, and as the light hit them their pupils dilated, shrinking down and then turning the Seekers’ direction.

Geralt’s face scrunched up in a bit of genuine disgust at the creature, which almost vaguely resembled a rotfiend, had one’s eyes ballooned to freakish proportions, and its hands mutated into needle-like stumps. “It’s spotted us!” She warned, stepping forward to put herself between it and Junior. “Ought to run, I don’t think we can fight this one!” Half-turning towards the camera and pointing behind Junior, she waited to make sure the others started moving before she risked turning her back fully on the monster. Ambiguous rules of the game or not, her instincts were fighting her on this the whole time.

With camera and boom mic turned in the monster’s direction, a recording light flickered green, and the show was on.

After stating his plan and resolving to try and stay more positive going forward, there was unfortunately not much more Lewa could offer to the strange band's ongoing conversation. What little the toa knew of society went straight out the window in this world, and he couldn't really speculate about either the nation or its inhabitants. Even with the current circumstances, he knew, one of his fellow toa might have fared a bit better in a situation like this. While Lewa fostered a connection with animals, Gali could connect better with the matoran (and humans mostly likely) by virtue of her keen and empathetic mind. Meanwhile, someone like Pohatu was a real people person, with a likeable personality and a knack for making pals. Among his brethren, the similarly gregarious Lewa counted the Toa of Stone as his best friend. Onua's sensibility and stout heart would have probably served him well, too. Only two toa might conceivably be worse off, given Tahu's aggressive, fiery temper and Kopaka's chilly, solitary nature. One would be more likely to get himself in trouble, while the other would probably isolate himself and go it alone. Regardless of their individual tendencies, Lewa missed them all. If he meant to reunite with them, he would need to stay strong and keep pushing forward.

To that end, he added some questions of his own to those posed by Sanae to the members of the caravan. Though he had a million questions in mind, he stuck to just those that concerned Lavielle. After all, this world's denizens were much less likely to understand his situation than his fellow fish-out-of-water, the otherworlders. And naturally, the greatest question -why me- he would reserve for the 'goddess' herself. Thanks to the merchants' cooperation, Lewa managed to assemble a crude understanding of Lavielle's position in this world and her relationship to the people, insofar as anyone in this world might know. This 'goddess' turned out to be quite the mysterious being, as distant and unknowable as the Great Spirit Mata Nui himself. The more he heard, the more Lewa understood just how unheard of it would be to meet with this being at all. It was a sobering realization, but Lewa kept a hold of himself. The impossible was just something that nobody had managed to do yet.

Gradually, Lewa settled in for the long haul. Days spent traveling agonized him almost as much as the days he spent languishing in and around the village, but there was one ray of hope: the possibility of actually getting somewhere. Compared to his island home, this world seemed immense, with much broader and less varied (not to mention less interesting) biomes. At least the journey spared Lewa one misfortune that it inflicted on his fellows: travel rations. Preserved meats like salted pork, hard tack that needed to be moistened with water or wine, young cheeses, trail mixes of nuts and dried fruits, plain beans, and just downright gruel did not make for fine dining, but that seemed to be how medieval travelers sustained themselves. As everyone journeyed, Lewa tried to foster good relations with the others, hard as it was. Those who already knew one another tended to be a bit insular. Anne interacted with him willingly, but the curiosity in her eyes as she examined him unnerved him somewhat--he wasn't some gizmo to be broken down and studied. The further the group got, the harder it would be for them to reach Millie again if she turned out to be important. Lewa didn't like total reliance on strangers for directions, but he did his best to memorize the lands he passed through. Very little broke up the monotony of travel, but when it rained, it poured.

On that day, things started slow, with a sighting of unusual slimes in great numbers. A quick scouting trip from Sanae suggested that the town had capable defenders in the form of an impressive tree monster and a human with huge pincers, but even capable defenders couldn't be everywhere at once. Lewa decided to help right away, reasoning that the caravan was slow enough that he could catch up easily, especially if the wagons gave the situation a wide berth. Of course, the toa wasn't the only one thinking about the commoners' welfare, and Fran was more than a little faster off the mark than he was. Watching her eviscerate slimes as he moved to insist, he couldn't help but wonder if there would be any left by the time he got there. It was a little disappointing, but there were more important things at stake than his personal pride. Instead of following in her footsteps, the toa heeded Anne's suggestion to help with the flank.

With a much smaller group of enemies, he could do his thing without worrying about Mokou blowing him up. That said, his axe didn't seem to be the best tool for the job; these bizarre creatures seemed to lack vital organs, or even a coherent form, and just chopping them only slowed them down. "Like fighting protodermis," he muttered. These slimes were more viscous than protodermis, though, and that gave him an idea. Working methodically, the toa used both bursts of wind and carving blows from his axe to splatter, then separate the slimes. Once divided up, the individual blobs could be flung even farther by his air currents, effectively negating each threat. Not as efficient as the others just vaporizing them, he knew, but Lewa was glad to be doing something, at least.
Minigame Roulette - Connected Climbing Chaos

Level 13 Ms Fortune (150/130) Level 8 Goldlewis (72/80) Level 7 Sandalphon (31/70)
Roland, Sectonia, and the Robot Girls’ @Archmage MC, Midna and the Koopa Troop’s @DracoLunaris, Geralt and Zenkichi’s @Multi_Media_Man, Pit and the Octopath Travelers’ @Yankee, Roxas and Ganondorf’s @Double, Juri’s @Zoey Boey
Word Count: 2751

After about a minute spent sitting by the penguin’s fire, its radiating warmth balanced against the slow rain of cold flakes against her skin, Sandalphon began to get restless. Of course, she’d only permitted herself to rest in the first place after forcing herself to accept the fact that winning this race really didn’t matter, but the feeling still agitated her. And no matter how much she reasoned that she didn’t need extra rewards from these games, and that they’d be better off in the others’ hands, or that her chances of winning were negligible at this point and only getting worse over time, her fretful nature wouldn’t change. The archangel had lived her whole life not just doing, but overdoing, holding herself to the highest of standards when it came to acts of service. Especially after already allotting herself an exceptionally generous break with Zenkichi today, capitulation at a time like this -game or not- would be nothing short of indolence. As the moments of inaction trickled by, Sandalphon fidgeted more and more, bouncing her leg and drumming her fingers, until she could stomach this slothfulness no longer.

She inhaled sharply, standing. Her sudden movement got the attention of Goldlewis, and he glanced up at his partner. “Well, shall we continue?”

The southerner stroked his whiskers, his lips pursed. “Y’know, I reckon we’re probably dead last. Ain’t a snowball’s chance in hell we overtake any frontrunners, so I don’t mind waitin’ it out right here. Besides, the snow’s mighty relaxin’. Don’t ya think?”

Sandalphon’s pupils turned to inverted triangles. “I am sufficiently rested already. It’s true we’ve encountered many setbacks, due largely to my own regrettable deficiencies. However, I can’t imagine that a man of your strength would be so easily cowed.” The archangel attempted to ply the man’s pride to motivate him, shouldering the blame for their failures at the same time. “Even if we cannot claim victory, let us not wallow in defeat, but put forth an effort we can be proud of.”

“I’m pretty proud we made it this far,” Goldlewis replied evenly. “Though truth be told, I mostly just don’t wanna do any more climbin’. Haulin’ this load around ain’t exactly easy.” He slapped his own belly with a good-natured chuckle. Then, for just a moment, he grew serious. “I don’t mean to say I got no fight left in me, of course. When it comes to doin’ my duty, I ain’t one to hold back, I know you seen that much.”

The veteran shrugged. “But this here mountain ain’t a battlefield–it’s just a game. Sure, there’s rewards for doin’ well, but at the end of the day we’re here to have a good time. If the youngins wanna tire themselves out runnin’ around, that’s their call. Me, I’d rather just sit back and let ‘em.” He leaned back, his palms against the ground to prop himself up. “That’s just how gettin old is. It don’t mean you’re weak–but it means ya gotta ration your strength.” He glanced at Sandalphon, raising an eyebrow. “I dunno how familiar y’are with the process, seein’ as you’re angel an’ all.”

Sandalphon crossed her arms, a thoughtful look on a face punctuated by ellipsis in her eyes. “Although I am several hundred years old, I believe you do have a point. As far as I’m aware, this body does not age.” She tilted her head slightly. “Though we angels can be destroyed, I suppose our lifespans are indefinite. That does mean I cannot truly understand the ‘gravity’ that comes with aging. I can only offer my sympathies. It must weigh heavily upon you.”

Narrowing his eyes, Goldlewis questioned her. “Hey, was that a fat joke?”

Though Sandalphon didn’t flinch, the empty circles that her pupils became said everything. “Not at all, I am quite incapable of humor. I merely meant…”

“Ahh, relax, I was just joshin’ ya,” Goldlewis told her, grinning. Then he let out a sigh. “You’re right, though. It’s scary. As the years pile up, time gets faster and faster. The years mean less. I’m plenty strong -stronger’n most folks my age, that’s for damn sure- but knowin’ I’m gettin’ weaker an’ weaker, ‘til I find I’ve lost my strength some day…it ain’t a cozy feelin’. And then…well, I’m sure I don’t gotta lay out how the story ends.” He looked up at the simulated sky, beyond the fluffy white clouds and violet horizon. “I’m a soldier, though. I looked death in the face many times, and I ain’t scared. But that don’t mean life ain’t worth livin’.” The veteran turned to Sandalphon and offered an apologetic smile. “I don’t mean to get all serious just to avoid gettin’ off my ass. Just mean to say we should enjoy the time we got.”

After another moment, the archangel reached her conclusion. “...I suppose I wouldn’t enjoy pushing forward any more than remaining here.” With elegance she seated herself by the fire once more, crossing her legs. “It would be nonoptimal to finish even lower than this if we happened to fall again, as well.”

Goldlewis nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

Just then, the deep, resounding blow of a horn echoed down across the rocky landscape, prompting both to look up. “Reckon that means someone crossed the finish line?” Goldlewis asked. Without any visual evidence to back up that hypothesis Sandalphon hesitated to offer any conjecture, but a moment later a second noise swept down through the snowy mountainside. Only seconds after that, a third followed it up, but rather than taper off like the first two the third noise grew more intense. All around, the terrain began to warp and fray, first distorting and then collapsing. Everything seemed to squeeze together like a balloon between a child’s hands, and when their reality popped, both Goldlewis and Sandalphon found themselves back on the giant roulette table. All of the other Seekers appeared too, banished from Balan’s wintry wonderworld and returned to the lobby.

“Whoooo!” Nadia cheered breathlessly, her voice more than a little horse. Though seriously worn out, the feral couldn’t look happier. “We did it, we won! I mean, not to gloat or anything, but we killed it!” When Captain Falcon inevitably looked down on her last minute cheating, she waved him off, her grin indelible. “What’s that? I can’t hear you over the sound of WINNING!” Once she settled down, the armless feral went around to collect her lost limbs, which had luckily been deposited in the lobby just like everyone else.

After about a minute, Ballyhoo poofed into existence, floating off to the side with his typical aplomb. “Aaaaand that’s a wrap! Congratulations to our winners! In first place, A and A! In second place, A and A! And in third place, A and A! Here are your WINNINGS!” Doffing his hat like a magician, he rolled it across his shoulders, then snatched it and held it like a party popper. A glittering gold projectile burst from it, then exploded in the air, raining down the correct number of rift tokens on everyone. Nadia gathered hers up, bit one more for show than anything, then stuffed them into her pouches. “And courtesy of our sponsor Vandelay Technologies, here’s a refreshing beverage! ON US!”

With a snap of his fingers he pulled a robotic refrigerator into the lobby, who promptly opened himself to offer everyone revitalizing green energy drinks. “Help yourselves!”

Far beyond questioning any of this by now, Nadia trotted over to accept a drink right away. “Mew-sic to my ears!”

Anyone else who wanted one would have to move quickly, however, because once Balan showed up again, Ballyhoo got the ball rolling–literally. The gamemaster launched another boo ball around the table, and the maestro made it spin. “Aaaaand your second minigame iiiiiiiis…!” Another few moments passed in eager -or perhaps tense- anticipation before the ball made its home in pocket number seven. When she looked to gauge their hosts’ reactions, Nadia was surprised to see Ballyhoo clutching his head with both hands in dismay, while Balan seemed frightened–though he might be just pretending.

“Film Those Freaks!?” Ballyhoo made a show of fainting, though the second he hit the ground he popped right back up again. “Is that a chill in the air? No…it’s another thrilling minigame, with a scrumptiously spooky bent! For this one, you’ll be split into teams of four and started off in cheerful sky gardens. It’s up to you to grab your camera, take the diving bell down to the old world, and use your precious ninety seconds of film to record as much scary stuff as you can! Once you’ve captured all those horrific happenings, it’s on you to make it back to the surface, upload your video to SpookTube, and rake in the ad revenue! Whoever gets the most moolah wins! Be careful though, ‘cause you’ve only got five minutes of oxygen, and a set amount of ‘hit points’. Run out of either, and it’s a one-way trip back to the island–lose your camera, and you’re out of luck!”

Nadia blinked, surprised. So these weren’t all going to be sporting events, after all? Maybe that was for the best, given how tough all that mountain climbing had been. Some of what Ballyhoo said went right over her head, but she knew that film and cameras had to do with movies. Having snuck her way into a theater or two, she’d seen the miracle of moving pictures for herself, and even if none of them had been remotely scary they were still pretty cool–not to mention black and white. “So we’re gonna be, like, hunting for cryptids? And making our own movies? Sounds fun!”

Ballyhoo nodded. “If you’re not a SCAREDY CAT, that is! Mr Balan? Take it away!”

Just as the gamemaster promised, the Seekers wound up scattered across five different sky islands, separated into teams of four. Each one looked like a big, well-kept backyard garden, with vivid greenery, huge hedges, sunflowers, and apple trees. They also came equipped with one little medical shed apiece, and from the porch of each cozy red house (where the camera and four cheap, low-power flashlights could be found) the Seekers could see both a power station for recharging electronics and the diving bell that would take them down to the Old World, suspended by a crane. Inside its spartan interior the Seekers could find a crank for operating the door, a button to initiate travel, and a screen with the O2 levels and distances of every team member. It also housed a selector with three choices for each team’s destination: the Factory, the Cruise Ship, and the Tunnels. Upon appearing in a garden, the soon-to-be amateur filmmakers would find their winter wear replaced by old-fashioned diving helmets, each fitted to their own heads.

The bright, idyllic scenery, surrounded on all sides by nothing but perfectly blue skies and fluffy white clouds, left Nadia blinking as she tried to adjust. “Agh, that hat guy’s gonna give me whiplash, I swear. Huh?” When she became aware of the weight on her head, she started pulling and prying at her new diving helmet until it slipped off, allowing her to get a better look at it. A sort of dark brass in color, it seemed old-fashioned but very sturdy, and it even featured hollow protuberances on top to accommodate her ears. “Oh, jeez. Are we really going swimming? These clothes are brand new! They don’t deserve to be fashion-derwater!”

Helmet in her hands, she looked around to see who’d ended up on her team this time. Right away she saw her true-blue pal Blazermate, which elicited a friendly smile, but her search also turned up Roxas and Captain Falcon, two of the competitors she’d just gone head-to-head with in the last minigame. “Huh, guess we’re falc-on the same team this time. No hard feelings, eh?” She didn’t really know either of them well enough to pun with them yet, but hopefully this minigame would change that. Her gaze landed on the handheld camcorder, the key to this whole challenge, and she jogged over to scoop it up. The feral held it up like a sandwich, one eyebrow raised as she tried to figure this out. After a moment, mostly spent workshopping jokes rather than actually examining the thing, she gave up and swiveled her head around to the others. “...Anyone know how to use this thing? People are always shilling stuff like this, but franc-ly, I can never make ‘cents’ of it. The dime-ensons just don’t work for me. Guess I’m just not tech-nickle enough.”

One island over, at a safe distance from the barrage of terrible puns, Goldlewis was sizing up his own team. It looked like he’d ended up with Midna, Geralt, and Bowser Junior. In other words, for this video-making contest, this crew was two old farts with barely any grasp on technology (though for very different reasons), one woman from a medieval fantasy world, and one little kid–who out of everyone probably had the firmest grasp on what this minigame was all about. Sighing, Goldlewis shook his head. “Figures it’d be black tech. Even after all this time in Midgar, I’m just about hopeless when it comes to figurin’ that stuff out.” The veteran crouched down to try and address the young koopa on his own level. “Well partner, I hope you know a thing or two about this whole video-makin’ business, ‘cause I reckon the rest of us ain’t got a clue.” At least right now they had some time to go over how things worked, since once everyone piled into that diving bell, they’d be on the clock.

When Sandalphon arrived in her own garden, she took stock of her teammates right away. The first she saw, owing to his remarkable size, appeared to be Ganondorf. While his immediate confrontation with Midna did not lead to the best first impression, and his inherent darkness created a natural contrast to her light, the archangel could not deny that he’d been the more level-headed of the two. Naturally, she planned to treat him with the same professional courtesy that she offered everyone else. The other man present interested her much more, since it happened to be Zenkichi. Just the sight of the grizzled detective, and the subsequent realization that they’d be working together, was enough to turn Sandalphon’s eyes into sparkles for a moment.

“Hello again,” she greeted him, bowing her head with a slight but irrepressible smile on her gray lips. “It appears that we’ve been matched together for this challenge. I look forward to working with you.”

That left the last person, who Sandalphon had uncharacteristically ignored in favor of greeting Zenkichi. Now, though, the archangel offered her undivided attention, for player number four wasn’t a Seeker, but someone entirely new. This stranger was a lithe young woman, her black hair done up in two pink-banded horns and her diagonally-cut bangs laid across mismatched purple-and-green eyes, wearing a very small white crop top that left her dignity to the mercy of black body tape, as well as baggy pants. Her appearance evoked the image of a martial artist with an odd fashion sense. Of course, this fighter was sizing up her teammates as well, and her expression made no bones about how she felt.

The archangel did not take Juri’s feelings into account. “Good afternoon. It looks like we’ll be working together as well.” Sandalphon inferred the reason why this stranger might be here. If Captain Falcon could end up in the Seekers’ lobby, it made sense that others could too, especially given how unevenly a roster of nineteen players could be sorted into teams. “My name is Sandalphon. Though we are not acquaintances, I hope you will enjoy your time with us nonetheless.”

Once introductions were out of the way, the team could focus on the task at hand: the creation of a scary short movie. Though unfamiliar with cameras, she felt confident that she could learn in a short amount of time, as she did with most technologies during her time in Midgar. The art of film-making, however, would be a whole other beast.
a meanie bo beanie has appeared

Looks good to me! There's some placeholder list items left over, but that's hardly a big deal. Welcome back Zoey!
Minigame Roulette - Connected Climbing Chaos

Level 8 Goldlewis (69/80) Level 7 Sandalphon (28/70)
Word Count: 1493

When the race began, Goldlewis and Sandalphon were of like mind. They stepped back to let the younger and more sprightly competitors charge forward, then set off through the wintry penguin village at the rear of the pack. Pairs like the thieves and Roland/Falcon scrambled up the first little cliff face at a breakneck pace, followed quickly by Junior/Pit and Blazermate/Bowser once those duos sorted themselves out. Goldlewis exchanged a knowing glance with Primrose, whose team had taken a similarly patient tact, while he cast a scathing look at Midna/Roxas, who’d instantly given up on any pretenses of fairness in favor of cheating. “Y’all got no shame?” he questioned, shaking his head. Ganondorf/Geralt would have gotten the same treatment if the warlord’s scheme worked out, but his plan fell flat, forcing the two to proceed normally. They quickly passed Sectonia, whose burdensome and inanimate partner slowed her down a good deal, as well as Rika/Kamek. While Goldlewis was well past his prime, he was no frail old man, and come hell or high water he’d give a good account of himself here today.

Following just after Zenkichi and Primrose, he and Sandalphon took each challenge methodically. The archangel timed each and every jump, even the easy ones, with mechanical consistency and precision in her typical deadpan voice. It came as something of a surprise that Goldlewis could jump higher than she could, even with his double jump disabled, but Sandalphon could slow her own fall and turned out to be so light that Goldlewis could pull her after him with ease. Once they crested the first cliff, they paused to watch other pairs slinging across -or falling into- the first pit, more than one of them demonstrating the ban on movement abilities. Since their large size meant the two took up a lot of space, they didn’t bother jostling for position, but hung back and learned from the others’ mistakes. “Slow and steady wins the race, as they say,” Sandalphon remarked.

Goldlewis chuckled. “The sayin’ that came to my mind was ‘monkey see, monkey do’.” He watched other teams flying ahead, in some cases literally. Already he could see which way the wind was blowing. “We might have a tough time winnin’ this.”

“Then I suppose we’ll have to settle for ‘every dog has his day’,” Sandalphon replied. “Still, let us do all that we can.”

With the crowd thinned, the two got their chance. They jumped to the platform and Goldlewis sat down, ready to serve as the anchor. Sandalphon dropped down and began to swing, building up momentum, then gave a comically stoic countdown as she whirled around in a loop-de-loop. “One. Two. Three.”

Goldlewis barreled forward, and together the two soared over the first gap. As he slid to a stop in the snow, he pumped his fist. “Alright, one down! That was fun, eh Sandy?”

Judging by the spirals in her eyes, Sandalphon was a little dizzy, but she quickly blinked them away. “Indeed.”

The unlikely pair pushed forward, following in their comrades’ footsteps. They worked their way across more tandem jumps, taking them in anything but quick succession, then performed another swing. This time, while Sandalphon could reach the ledge, Goldlewis fell short. Despite her best attempt to brace herself, he dragged her down immediately, and both fell a short way to some planks below. Goldlewis landed on his feet, relieved that Ballyhoo’s comments about fall damage held water, then caught Sandalphon in his arms. “You okay?” Her pupils looked like exclamation marks, but otherwise she seemed unruffled. She nodded, and he set her down, breathing a sigh of relief. “Well, that ain’t good,” he muttered, looking up. “Maybe if I did the swingin’ this time?”

Sandalphon thought it over as the two climbed back up. Even with her above-average size, the weight difference between her and Goldlewis was substantial, to say the least. The man was simply a behemoth. Normally she wouldn’t even consider supporting his weight, but if the strain couldn’t actually injure her, it was worth a try. “That’s our only option,” she decided, kneeling down in the middle of the platform. “I recommend jumping off the back to start your swing with momentum, instead of dropping like I did earlier.”

“Good call. Count me out.” On the count of three, Goldlewis jumped and swung. When his full weight hit her Sandalphon’s pupils turned into skulls, but as he arced forward she rose and jumped. Together they flew through the air, and once the veteran landed he pulled her up like a bucket from a well. “Nice goin’,” he told her, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “You good to move on?”

She nodded, and the two set off. By now Zenkichi and Primrose had left them behind, passing Bowser and Blazermate in the process, but it would still take some doing to catch up to those two. That left just Kamek and Rika down below. While not exactly happy with second to last, Sandalphon ignored the big picture in favor of each obstacle before her. When faced with the first overhang, she understood the intention at a glance–and that she would need to support Goldlewis yet again. He went first, allowing the archangel to swing up to the boards on the other side, and once she braced herself Goldlewis let go. Thankfully he possessed the sheer strength to haul himself up by climbing the rope, since it took everything Sandalphon had just to hold steady. Even then it wasn’t enough, as her own strength gave out before her partner could reach her. She tumbled off the planks, and the two plummeted through the ice-lined pit into a big pile of snow. Goldlewis just lay there for a moment, exhaling. “Dahh, hogwash.”

The snowdrift nearby, aglow beneath a conspicuous halo that floated over it, stirred before Sandalphon popped her head out. “My sincere apologies,” she murmured, her pupils shaped like stress marks. “I didn’t realize my weakness would be such a severe liability.”

Her contrition changed the veteran’s attitude instantly, and he sat up. “Nah, don’t sweat it none. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?” He narrowed his eyes. If he hadn’t left his coffin in the lobby, it might have come in handy, but right now he lacked both it and all the items that the UMA within could provide. For a brief moment he recalled his stunt with Roland in Port Meridian, but even if that would meaningfully increase his chances of winning it didn’t justify hitting a nice lady. “Up an’ at ‘em,” he declared, getting to his feet. “We’ll think of somethin’.”

Luckily it took only a few jumps and one swing to get back to the spot where they fell. “Once you’re up there, try stickin’ them gloves to the wall,” Goldlewis suggested. “If they can hold me, and you can’t get hurt, they oughta hold us both.” He turned out to be correct, and by trusting in the gloves rather than her own strength, Sandalphon held out long enough for Goldlewis to haul himself up. After adding that move to their playbook, the two pushed passed a second underhang, more jumps, and a team swing, only to reach a daunting obstacle. Looking down, Sandalphon could see that the penalty for a fall here would be rough, but not calamitous. Still, the two were already far behind, with only echoed voices from above indicating the presence of competitors.

The archangel steeled herself. “Let us begin.”

Unfortunately, the duo ended up falling twice, once when Sandalphon’s attempted slow-fall from the first overhang led to Goldlewis falling behind her, and once when he missed the jump to the second and dragged an unready archangel along with him. The two climbed and trudged back up from each fall, slower each time. “Nothin’ to it but to do it,” Goldlewis insisted. Even if this was all futile, his pride would not allow him to back down until he’d overcome this hurdle. Sandalphon, impressed by his determination, renewed her efforts. On the third attempt, the two finally made it, hauling themselves up to a little snowfield where a penguin sat by a campfire and spilled blood had frozen into a dastardly ice slick.

They took it slowly, but even then, Goldlewis slipped and fell on his butt right at the end. “Ahh, alright,” he half-laughed, half-gasped. He scooted off the ice to sit cross-legged by the fire. Sandalphon joined him without protest. “Mind if we join you?” he asked the penguin. It shook its head, and the two settled down for a break. Goldlewis chuckled. “We barely got anywhere.”

“Every victory is worth celebrating,” Sandalphon said softly.

Maybe they’d push on in a few minutes, or maybe the race would already be over by then. For now, they sat amidst gentle snowfall beneath lovely purple skies, in peaceful calm.

Despite his lonesome forays during the last couple days, there was a lot of this world left for Lewa to see, and a long, slow trip through unknown territories meant that he could grow more familiar with the realm he'd been brought too. His island home, divided into six wahi that encapsulated its different biomes, had nothing like these sprawling grasslands as far as he knew. Compared to the jungles of Le-wahi, the prairie seemed sparse and practically lifeless, but its size still impressed him. Out here, with no trees or cliffs to deflect them, the winds blew with unfettered strength, and Lewa could see them rippling across the fields, like rippling waves in a sea of grass. Faced with such boundless grandeur, he felt very small.

Of course, while the simple act of sightseeing both interested and centered him, Lewa's best source of vital information lay not outside the caravan, but among his fellow travelers. The hours spent traveling afforded him the chance to talk with anyone who'd listen, asking the most basic and obvious questions one could conceive of as he strove to understand a world with underpinning intimately familiar to everyone else, but almost totally alien to himself. Any such interview with the toa of air involved multiple interjections asking for additional definitions or explanations, and though Lewa did his best to not test anyone's patience, he kept a close eye out for any signs from his conversational partners that he'd better move on. Still, he found enough helpful volunteers that the toa managed to get a crash course on humans and civilization, impossibly broad as those topics might be. Not enough that he could brave this new world on his own, but he didn't feel quite so hopelessly clueless.

At length, some of the others began discussing plans for when they reached the capitol. It was, admittedly, hard to not overthink about this journey's destination. From what Lewa understood, the otherworlders were bound for a settlement of incredible size, many, many times larger than the likes of Le-koro, or even the village of Aventon. It was hard to imagine, and that made planning what he'd do there all the more difficult, but Lewa did have at least one idea once Remilia and Anne stated their intentions. "If you're going to see-visit whoever's in charge, perhaps I could search-seek anything related to Lavielle." He narrowed his eyes, sorting through his new vocabulary words. "If this 'goddess' is someone big-important to the 'people' of this world, surely she must have followers. Maybe even a place where they meet-gather." If he could track down humans who knew something about the being who'd stolen him, he could learn everything they knew about their 'goddess'.
Stealing First I

Level 7 Therion (261/70) and Level 13 Ms Fortune (135/130)
Word Count: 4108

Being "awake" in this world meant seeing a lot of things one normally would never get to see - from unique kinds of beings to ridiculous powers to being sucked into dreams. So it was that falling through the curtains into some kind of... alternate dimension? Wasn't all that surprising or strange. Therion doubted he'd ever really get used to it though.

He found himself in a wintery land along with everyone else. He looked up. And up, and up. Being so close to the base made it look larger than it was, but even after taking a few steps away to get a better view all Therion could think was, another mountain. Great.

On the bright side there would be no way this would be as rough as ascending Split Mountain. For one, there seemed to be all kinds of platforms and handholds, and no mountain could compare to the sheer size of the one that towered over the desert. The potential to fall would always be there, but seemed way more tame here than in the pits the Under featured. With all the cutesy animals and a whooping number of boisterous allies around, the atmosphere was upbeat too.

The thief let out a sigh and shook out his body, from ear to tail tip, limbering up and dispelling most of his negativity. He was good at games, and he was good at scaling things, and he had pride enough that he wasn't going to phone in his performance. The prizes up for grabs actually interested him less than doing well and feeding his small ego, since if he really, really wanted something he could just... steal it. But he wouldn't turn down tokens regardless.

The issue was being tied to another person. Almost any of the other Seekers would probably slow him down. Therion glanced at the rope around his waist, visible thanks to the shrinking of his poncho over time, and gave it a tug. Which is how he discovered that his randomly assigned partner was none other than Ms. Fortune. Was that on purpose? None of the other pairs seemed to have any kind of theme going on. Weird coincidence then. Either way, it was good news for winning.

A black and gray striped knit beanie was fit on Therion's head, though rather than holes for his ears like Ms. Fortune's hat featured, his was a longer hat that resulted in two distinct cat ear shapes pushing up from the top. Besides that and the climbing gloves, nothing else about his outfit had changed - though the tall collar of his poncho was pulled up to cover his mouth.

"We lucked out," he told her, with a not so subtle glance at the rest of the pairings. "Should be pretty easy for us, huh? I’m ready. Let's head right to the top."

Already full of energy and ready to trounce the competition, his feral partner agreed wholeheartedly. “Yeah, let’s go!” Even though Therion had declared himself ready, the speed with which Nadia launched herself forward on four legs still took him by surprise. With ten pairs in play -including Sectonia and her unfortunate but hilarious partnership with a literal rock- Nadia predicted that the first few moments of the Seekers’ competitive climb would be a helter-skelter stampede. If the two didn’t want to get shouldered aside or trampled underfoot by heavies like Bowser and Ganondorf, they needed to get out ahead of the pack with a burst of speed, and she assumed that her fellow thief knew that, too. In less than a second, however, she ran out the slack and the ten-foot rope between them went taut, yanking her backward and Therion forward, albeit only slightly.

Surprised, Nadia looked back for a split second, encouragement for haste on the tip of her tongue. Before she could say anything Therion huffed and picked up his pace, his gaze sharpening in focus. He might be part feline now too, but he was currently in human form and wouldn't be able to match her speed on all fours, and shifting would cost them a little time. "I'm good."

Without further delay, the two dashed forward, the feral running on two legs to match her partner. Their lean muscles, well-suited to this sort of exertion, sent them shooting through the penguin village in the direction indicated by helpful wooden signs. Nadia made extra sure to kick snow behind, hopefully to splatter in her frenemies’ faces, as she sprinted toward the first step in their long climb to the top: a thirty-foot sheer rock wall with a cheeky snowman on top. A five-foot ledge lay at its base, with two platforms of wooden planks arranged at different heights. To Nadia, the strategy was obvious, and when the two got close she sprang from the snow in the first of three back-to-back jumps.

Therion was less than a beat behind her, sizing up the spaces between ledges and coming to the same conclusion instantly. Both of them easily made the first jump. The second went just as easily. The third was a little trickier; Therion leapt up and kicked off the stone wall in order to account for the higher distance while Nadia leaped up with muscles coiled like springs, her legs momentarily separating in the process. She did it without thinking, just as she tended to jump a little quicker than Therion each time, and as she crested the ledge a split second early the rope between them almost went taut again.

When they made it to the top of the wall and spotted a suspended platform between it and the next ledge jutting out from the cliff, they didn't slow. Therion assumed that Ms. Fortune would continue on as quickly as possible and made sure to keep the pace, but only after getting closer and landing on said platform did Therion realize the next jump wouldn't be cleared as easily. Ms. Fortune might be able to make it - with her blood jets she definitely could, and he might have been able to clear it in his beast form - but he couldn't leap quite that far as he was now, and he skidded to a halt on the wood, cutting the duo's momentum.

His partner did no such thing. Right now the only word in her mind was go, go, go, and by the time Therion realized this she’d already hurtled across the wooden platform. “Hup!” Nadia took to the skies and attempted to airdash, only for the blood to come from her scars in a trickle rather than a burst, and the next second she plummeted downward. “Wha!?” The moment the thieves’ tether went taut, Therion underwent a terrible revelation of his own: that Nadia was almost three times as heavy as she looked. Without any time to brace himself, the thief got dragged right off the planks, and the two dropped with a hefty splat into the chilly snow below, between a penguin’s igloo and a large wooden sign.

“Puh!” Nadia spat out a mouthful of snow, then vigorously shook the rest from her hair. Luckily for all her bare skin, this winter wonderland wasn’t anywhere near as cold as it should be. “The hell? My blood didn’t work!”

Therion dusted the snow off of him, a flash of annoyance passing his face. "Remember the host said movement abilities were 'disabled'? That must be why you couldn't shoot your blood." Which meant that neither of them could get over the gap naturally right now. Actually, thinking back, Ballyhoo had already given them the solution to that. He glanced up, seeing a few other pairs arriving at the same crossing. At least they had messed up at the start rather than farther in. But before getting back to it...

"And 'what the hell’ is right - how much do you weigh...!? We're practically the same size," he said, completely devoid of tact. It would have been nice to know that she had swallowed a ton of rocks ahead of time!

Nadia reddened slightly. “H-hey, isn’t it rude to ask ladies that? Maybe you’re just ‘weigh’ too weak!” Of course, being sprawled out in the snow wasn’t very ladylike. She hopped to her feet, glancing upward with gritted teeth and a worried expression. “Drat, we’re losing time! All ‘cause I forgot about the blood thing.” Nadia gave Therion the side-eye. “Not to be a-negative Nancy or anything…”

Therion was not amused. "Alright, let's just go again. This time stop at the ledge, I know what we have to do."

“Okay!” Together the two scrambled back the way they came, up a convenient ledge to the top of the wall with the snowman. By now both it and the wooden platform were getting crowded. “Hey, hi, how are you? Ice weather today.” Neither of the two burglars were strangers to surreptitiously weaving through crowds, however, and they quickly managed to jump to and nab some real estate on the platform. She hunkered down, not eager to get knocked off while the others tried stuff. “Okay, now what?”

"Now just hold on to the rope," Therion said, preparing to jump and swing. Just before moving on though he realized that his partner would have to actually know what he was thinking in order to jump herself, otherwise neither of them would be going anywhere. Communication wasn't exactly either of their strong suits, he found. He changed gears, figuring it would be easier to have her swing than explain the timing.

"We’re gonna swing across, when you’re almost as far away as you can get," he tugged on the rope to make sure she knew what he meant by that, "I’ll jump too. Once in the air, the momentum should help pull us over."

Or so he hoped. He didn't have an academic level of knowledge of physics. Though it seemed Therion might say something more, perhaps doubting if he could actually support her weight even while ready for it this time, instead he nodded once and then executed the plan.

At his urging Nadia jumped off of the platform at an angle and swung beneath him. Above her, Therion served as the anchor for his much heavier partner, as much as that strained him, and as soon as possible he jumped after Nadia on the upswing to send her sailing across the gap. The thief followed, very neatly clearing the ledge himself.

“Whoo! Nice!” Nadia grinned as she skidded to a stop. By going in a single, decisive swing rather than building up centrifugal force (and confidence) over multiple spins, the two got a leg up on most of the competition. This was their chance to put some distance between themselves and the pack. Nadia popped off her noggin, flapping her ears like wings. “Let’s hurry up and get a-head!”

They moved swiftly on up to the platform above them, then across to the next, and across again onto and on top of a suspended hunk of rock. They fell into the same slightly mismatched pace they had at the start, Nadia a beat ahead and Therion one behind. The rope connecting them sometimes pulled for a second, and though it was never enough to hinder them on these simple jumps it had become noticeable. By the time they were moving onto the next ledge looking up at another platform they'd probably have to swing from, Therion figured they'd have to start actually trying to get into sync.

"We're gonna have to swing again. Me first this time, on three." he decided, his muscles still sore.

“Okay!” Having seen how Therion did this before, Nadia felt pretty confident she could do the same. However, she could also see that if they fell here, they’d plummet all the way back down to the igloo, maybe even smacking into another duo on the way. As funny as that would be, Nadia didn’t want to push her luck with excessive haste. She planted her claws (tearing through the fingertips of her gloves in the process) while Therion dropped, and after he began to teeter back and forth to build up swing momentum, she called down, “I wanna time this right, go for a couple loops!”

A moment later Therion was swinging around her in a circle, and Nadia took a deep breath. Gotta thread the needle. Or in my case, pick the lock. “One. Two…” On the third loop, as her teammate passed beneath her, she withdrew her claws and charged. “Three!” Unfortunately she went a little too early, and as Therion swung up he found Nadia leaping alongside him, their jump arc horizontally distant but not quite high enough. “Uh oh.” The next second, both slammed into the opposing ledge. “UGH!” Nadia half-expected the impact to drive the wind from her lungs, but with damage disabled, she could focus enough to grab hold of the ledge and drive her claws into the dirt-brown stone. “Got it, got it, got it!” With another grunt she hauled herself up, rolling onto the snowbank in front of a slab of ice. “...Just as planned!” After exhaling she turned to help Therion up if he needed it, figuring that since she hadn’t needed to drag his weight up with her, he’d managed to at least grab the ledge’s side with his gloves.

Well they'd made it, though not exactly as planned. "You can't just say three while you're jumping," Therion said. He was already most of the way up the ledge himself and wouldn't have any issues making it the rest of the way (the gloves were pretty handy), but after a moment's hesitation he took the hand Ms. Fortune was offering him. "...but it was close enough, anyway."

With no time to lose, the two pressed on. When they clambered over the hunk of ice, careful not to slip, Nadia’s body reacted with it on contact. Rather than freezing her, though, it gave her Multitarget, causing tiny green arrows to appear around her like hearts or sparkles which split and then disappeared. At the moment Nadia paid the reaction no mind, not even self-aware enough to count her own blessings, as her focus lay on the next challenge. In front of them yawned a small but treacherous-looking pit with walls of sloped ice, much deeper than it initially appeared. The only place to go seemed to be a plank attached to an overhang above. A sign stood next to the conundrum, but Nadia kept her eyes on the board, cooking up a clever idea.

“I think we can cheese this,” she told him. “I can’t purr-essurize my blood in here, but I can still stretch. If so, I’ll need you to jump right away, or we both drop. Okay?”

Therion's eyes flicked over to her after actually trying to parse the sign. He paid little attention to the odd turn of phrase the feral used while attempting to visualize what she had in mind. Snapping herself like the recoil of a band? He thought he'd seen her do it before, so that might actually work. The cost of failure wasn't that high at the moment either.

"As long as you know what you're doing." He shifted toward the edge of the rock. "Ready."

Nadia got down on all fours and turned around, then launched her legs in an explosive diagonal extension. “Legs-a-go!” This move, Fiber Upper, normally served as her armored reversal, but by now she’d already made ample use of its other handy quirk. Once her muscle fibers stretched out to their limit, they snapped back, but instead of pulling her limbs back they pulled Nadia up as Therion took a leap of faith. After snapping up to her legs she flipped once, then grabbed onto the plank with both hands. The next moment Therion’s dead weight hit her, which meant she couldn’t haul herself up, but once her partner climbed up the rope (and then Nadia herself) she could follow him onto the ledge. “There!” she gasped. “Nothin’ to it.” When she glanced up, though, she found an almost identical situation just ahead of her.

"Tired already?" Therion teased, as though they hadn’t both been getting a workout this entire time. He couldn't deny her plan had been a good one, but could they keep relying on it?

"Wanna try doing that again, or how we're probably intended to do it?" he asked, glancing down to where they'd come. He couldn't see the post with the traversal tip in it from here, but he could hear the next fastest pairs start to arrive there.

The feral wasn’t too proud to seek alternatives. “If you’ve got a better idea…”

Therion pointed up to the lower cliff face above. "Basically the same swing. We'll jump, you grab that overhang and I'll be able to make it to the plank." And from there she could figure out what to do. But for swinging to work this time, she'd definitely have to be the one to play 'anchor' first: she had a higher vertical leap than he did, and it would be much easier for him to keep hold of the tether for her and prevent them from falling if he was wedged between wood and stone.

"Got it? On three again. Actually on three this time."

“Okay,” Nadia grinned. “Three!”

Maybe expecting something like that by now, Therion threw himself after her with only the briefest delay. Nadia jumped up and smacked the wall with her gloves, where she hung by arms with the rest of her body dangling. Once again Therion swung beneath her, and after his arc brought him up alongside their destination, he grabbed hold and hunkered down. Then, at his signal, Nadia could release her grasp, hang down beneath him, and use the rope to climb. With their teamwork ever so steadily improving, the maneuver went about as well as it could have, and from there, only a few easy leaps and another horizontal swing separated them from the next, more intimidating looking section.

Nadia narrowed her eyes as the two ran up to the edge. Unlike the other two, she couldn’t see the other side of the overhang from here, and could only assume the existence of a matching handhold on its backside based on there being no other apparent way across. “Kay, let’s do it your way. On your mark?”

"Yeah. Here we go." Once Therion counted it out, the two jumped together. After they both grabbed onto the wall, Therion dropped down, then swung back and forth to build up enough momentum to fly up around the other side, where it became his turn to hold tight. Unfortunately he bounced off the wall before managing to get a grip, and Nadia let go the moment she felt the impact, resulting in both dropping. “Crap!” Panicking, Nadia twisted around and extended her arms in an attempt to reach the ledge they started on and salvage the situation. Her claws dug in, but when her and Therion’s combined weight bottomed out, her fibers snapped and both dropped. “OWWWwww!”

Their fall ended much sooner than expected, however. “...wugh!” A bowl-shaped formation below these overhangs turned out to be a lifesaver, preventing a sudden and unwelcome return to the penguin village. When Nadia looked around, she found a sign pointing to a chute they’d just jumped over, with scaffolding that’d permit a quick return. She let out a sigh of relief, then let her arms drop from the ledge so that she could collect them. “Jeez, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I shouldn't be rushing so much.”

As much as Therion wanted to be annoyed with her (and, alright, maybe he already was a little), he was self aware enough to know any mistakes they made weren't entirely her fault. If he'd secured a handhold, or they'd both extended their countdown call outs, they most likely wouldn't have fallen. Their saving grace was that this was a game, so they really didn't need to beat themselves up about it. Then again, they obviously both wanted to win.

"It's fine," he said, standing back up and shaking excess snow out of the folds of his clothes. He glanced at his partner with a competitive glint finally showing in his clouded gaze. "I'll let you know as soon as I'm ready for you to swing. We can make up the time."

“Yeah!” Nadia clenched her fists, her determination renewed by Therion’s understanding. If they could overcome a setback like this without infighting, a mountain should be no problem at all!

With that the couple of thieves bounded up onto the nearest platform, sending themselves across the gap and up through the narrow chute in order to attempt the steep underhangs again. Their plan hadn't changed at all, save for the one small detail. Once they were up there once more it took Therion two go-arounds to attach himself to the stone on the other side, much to his frustration, but as soon as he felt the gloves stick and braced his feet against the stone he called to Nadia. "Go!"

“Going!” A scary split-second passed after the feral let go, but her lifeline went taut and her drop turned into a swing. After the briefest of glimpses at Therion above her, she reached the zenith of her arc. “Now!” Then Therion let go, allowing Nadia’s momentum to carry her forward onto the next platform. “Yes!” From there, all the cat burglar needed to do was help pull Therion up. “That was great! We’re really getting into the swing of things!”

They saw themselves onto the two next suspended planks after a final vertical swing. From there the two got something of a break - without the need for deeper coordination with the tether they could both focus on sprinting through the smaller jumps and snowy straightaways that followed, leveraging their speed. Nadia had one other idea, as well; if her blood couldn’t be used to jet around, she could still use it to trip the others up. As she ran, she pumped blood from her scars to stain the snow red behind her, much to the horror of the penguin camping nearby. “Let’s give our friends the slip, eh?” The bloody slick would make it that much easier for the others to lose their footing. Therion didn't have any issue with the less than fair play. His tail twitched up behind him, the only sign that a small, approving grin had come over his face beneath the collar of his poncho.

Together they sped across a series of smaller cliffs with icy sides that spelled an embarrassing slide down for any that fell until they leapt onto a platform floating before the entrance of a cave carved into the mountainside. With one final swing, timed by Therion as the anchor, they launched toward the cave mouth. Though Nadia landed on the ledge, her partner smacked into the side below her, and by the time he got up both were breathing a little heavily. “Huff. We’ve been going non-stop,” she observed. “We’ve got a little lead, so maybe we should take a second to breathe? Don’t wanna wear ourselves out just yet.”

Therion pulled off his beanie, letting the cool air wash over his ears and head. "Sure."

A pause gave them time to gauge what would be ahead of them, as well as how well their competition was doing. At the mouth of the cave they could see that more of the same awaited them above, which bolstered their confidence. At the back of the cave voices echoed up from a vertical drop, signifying that a larger portion of the other pairs were making it to wherever it led out. Curiously Therion and Nadia looked out over the edge of the cave's entrance to see just what was going on with the others.
I have two more Lost Numbers, leaving me about 2/3 done with the NPCs I mean to make.

Carnival Town - Ballyhoo's Big Top

Level 13 Ms Fortune (130/130) Level 8 Goldlewis (66/80) Level 7 Sandalphon (25/70)
Roland, Sectonia, and the Robot Girls’ @Archmage MC, Midna and the Koopa Troop’s @DracoLunaris, Geralt and Zenkichi’s @Multi_Media_Man, Pit and the Octopath Travelers’ @Yankee, Roxas and Ganondorf’s @Double, Osvald’s @Dark Cloud
Word Count: 3057

After linking up with a bevy of allies, confirming the elimination of a sixth Guardian, and getting the good news about a new mobile base in the form of the Avenger, Nadia was riding high. Leading the pack to Ballyhoo’s Big Top through Carnival Town, she practically skipped through the streets, her smile indelible. She and the others who’d slogged through the depths of the Under had already been planning to reward themselves for their hard work, but a lucky break like this went beyond anything she could hope for. Even though the road here had been hard, paved with painstaking effort and more than a couple sacrifices, the feral felt completely confident that the Seekers really could do this. And with literal fun and games next on the itinerary, things were only going to get better from here. What a homecoming this was turning out to be–insofar as Carnival Town could be called her home.

By the time Ballyhoo concluded his introduction and explanation of the Big Top’s workings, Nadia was pumped to get started, but the heroes didn’t charge after the cartoonish carnie straight away. Someone new showed up to say hello, a larger-than-life hotshot with a braggadocious attitude, and for good reason. Even with just half an hour under her belt in Carnival Town, Nadia had seen her fair share of that distinctive blue racing suit, red helmet, and lantern jaw. As it turned out, he wasn’t just some highfalutin local celebrity, either. According to Ganondorf and Bowser this man had a history with the Seekers, or at least the few who challenged Galeem ‘in the beginning’. That turn of phrase left her intensely curious, since she’d never heard anyone mention anything like that, nor considered whatever preceded the worlds’ destruction. It seemed important. That aside, though, she understood the importance of this Captain Falcon, and that the Seekers should save him from Galeem’s grip. If he planned to join them for games, they’d probably get an opportunity to do so.

With that in mind, Nadia treated the Captain to a smile. “Sure! I’m game if you are. Just don’t expect us to take it easy on you!”

Given how much ground they’d covered, and how much they had yet to cover with one another, it made sense for the Seekers to take a quick break to get ready before plunging into a minigame bonanza. Some heeded Ballyhoo’s pleas and went to the snack bar to chat over some food, but the pita pockets Nadia bought in Al Mamoon had satisfied her, so she looked elsewhere. With a huge cast of twenty compatriots to interact with, the catty chatterbox found herself spoiled for choice when it came to conversation, but at the same time, she didn’t feel compelled to go after people just yet. After all, they’d have plenty of time to get friendly in the days to come, especially aboard this ship of theirs. Right now, though, something else occupied her. When Ballyhoo mentioned token rewards for doing well in the upcoming minigames, he ignited her competitive spirit. “Five tokens for first place, huh? Well, you guys better watch out then,” she declared, looking around at her friends with an air of mischief. “‘Cause if there’s money on the line, I’m all in!” With that in mind, the cunning catgirl set off to make some new friends: any bystanders who’d already played these games and could tell her a thing or two about how they worked.

Of course, Sandalphon meant to do some data collection of her own. With no need for food after the tasty pumpkin soup noodles she enjoyed back in Everdream Valley, she went the other way to see what she could find among the aisles of apparel in the Big Top reward center. If her efforts would be rewarded, it made sense to learn what she stood to gain. Most of these items offered no tangible benefit, but like Therion she took interest in what Ballyhoo referred to as an Orb Machine, and moved in for a closer look. She quickly confirmed that it contained real spirits, which cast this whole affair in an entirely new light–not in terms of macabre implications, but of value proposition. The random nature of distribution, paired with the fact that nobody could see what any of the spirits were capable of beforehand, would make efficient use of them tricky. She couldn’t fully believe what Ballyhoo said about customers getting ones they wanted either, since how could that possibly be quantified? On the other hand, if the players would receive one rift token per game for the mere act of participation, that meant only three games to attain the ‘guarantee’ he mentioned, and a whopping five guarantees for winning just three games. They were practically handing out spirits like candy.

Sandalphon quickly concluded that the people in charge here must not have the slightest clue about how valuable spirits could be. Of course, the average customer here probably didn’t know either. If they saw spirits as nothing more than sparkly but useless collectibles that faded after a time, it made sense that they’d spend their rift tokens elsewhere. That very ignorance, though, left an enormous potential bounty for the Seekers to claim, and they could not pass up this opportunity. If nothing else, they could trade the spirits they received amongst themselves, and maybe Roland’s ability to transmute spirits into more informative books would be of use. Pit had alluded to one other way that even the most undesirable spirits might come in handy, as well. “If all else fails, we can offer these spirits to the individual Pit mentioned, Vulgrim.” Something about that name and his alleged trait of eating spirits rubbed her the wrong way, but for now Sandalphon reserved her judgment. “That way we can transact unwanted possibilities for more certain gains, be they material or informational.”

Meanwhile, Goldlewis browsed the cosmetic rewards, wondering what sorts of incentives the team could redeem their tokens for. He found a wide assortment of outfits, mostly stereotypical getups associated with various professions like policeman, doctor, firefighter, biker, and so forth rather than anything he’d consider fashion. It reminded him of a Halloween costume shop more than anything else. It did feature an abundance of different hats, from what he’d consider fairly ordinary to stuff that looked downright wacky. “What in tarnation,” he muttered, shaking his head at a ridiculous propeller cap. Even if its propellers could actually be used to hover like the label claimed, he wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing. He did inspect the different kinds of combat fatigues, but overall Goldlewis wasn’t all that impressed. Where were the spurs? The horseshoes? The metal skulls and extra belts? He had a very particular sense of style that he couldn’t just toss out for ordinary garb like this. His fusions had already watered down his iconic look a little, and subsequent fusions would make it worse. At least if fusion messed with his hairdo, it looked like he could count on Karlie to fix it up. After watching her in action with a customer, he could only describe her as a miracle worker. How else could she not just cut, but also lengthen somebody’s hair to style it like that?

After a couple minutes Goldlewis headed back toward the curtains, where he found Nadia with a handful of strangers she’d accosted. Evidently the cat burglar had cornered them just a few moments after they pushed through the curtains, a round of minigames freshly concluded. Though she planned to pester them with questions, Nadia changed her mind when she saw the man bringing up the rear, a dour farmer with a huge nose, no chin, and a haunted, distant expression. “Whoa, you okay?” she asked, her genuine concern overriding her plan to get ahead. She raised an eyebrow at the curtains. “Was there something wrong with the games? Is this place actually some kind of carn-evil?”

The farmer shook his head, a little bemused by the pun. “Nah, it ain’t like that. Took some gettin’ used to, but it ended up bein’ pretty dang fun. I didn’t want to come, y’see, but my farmin’ buds here dragged me out.” He motioned to his companions, who’d made sure his new acquaintance seemed friendly before heading toward the snack bar. They were an odd bunch, consisting of a bipedal sheepdog, a mustached agave farmer, and a biomechanical warlock with black metallic flesh shaped into a hood over an inhuman face. Given his current company, though, Goldlewis knew he wasn’t one to talk. “I had a good time, though, honest. It’s just hard to get my mind off what happened, is all.”

Nadia knit her brows together. “Aw. What happened?”

Putting his hands in his pockets, the farmer took a deep breath. “Well, a li’l while back, a tornado came outta nowhere an’ tore up my whole doggone farm. My equipment, my crops, my animals, years of effort, all that money…all gone.” He gritted his teeth, his hands tightening into fists. “I ain’t never been angrier ‘bout anythin’ in my whole life. For a while I just about lost myself, ragin’ against the storm.” He sighed, shaking his head. “But it wasn’t any use. After things calmed down, my friends helped me get back on my feet. Reckon that’s why they brought me here, to get my mind off what happened.” He chuckled, a defeated look on his face. “But here I am bein’ a stick in the mud, like always.”

“Don’t say that!” Nadia interjected. Perhaps sensing he was needed, Chucho floated over to the former to be petted. Though surprised at first, the man obliged, and some of the misery drained from his face. “I mean, it’s totally understandable. You had your whole livelihood ripped away. But you still have people who care about you, and you’re still moving forward. I know I’m just some girl you just met, but to me, it looks like you’re doing alright. So…I hope things get better soon!”

Despite everything, the farmer managed a smile. “Thanks, miss.” He sighed again, much faster this time. “Guess I oughta catch up with the guys. See ya ‘round.”

“See ya!” Nadia waved as the farmer took his leave.

By that time, all the Seekers who’d dispersed throughout the Big Top’s parlor were gathering up again. With everyone refreshed, satiated, motivated, and somewhat informed about what minigames were, the team seemed ready to start the party. Nadia grinned as she looked over the gathered heroes, trying to imagine the likes of Therion and Ganondorf catching fruit or herding penguins. “Alright, team!” she sang. “Let’s have some fun!” With that, the twenty pushed through the curtains and tumbled weightlessly through a tunnel of kaleidoscopic color. After a moment spent stunned by the sheer sensory overload, Nadia and the others plopped down onto a solid surface, cold, hard, and shiny as a golden coin.

“Oof,” the feral grunted, more than a little dizzy. With some help from Chucho she got to her feet and looked as the discombobulation wore off. She and the others appeared to be atop a large golden disc, with red and black stripes radiating outward from its edges. Each one sported a rut separated from the next by small dividing walls, as well as a number. Beyond the outer rim lay a sloped ring of wood with perimeter walls, and above them Nadia could see only a strange expanse, less like a sky and more like a static texture boxing everyone in. Her immediate surroundings intrigued her more, though. “Is this…a roulette table?” Even if she’d never been rich or welcome enough to see one in person, she recognized the imagery from TV. That said, all this felt uncomfortably like getting trapped in a dream last night, so who could say. “Well, can’t roulette out, I guess.”

Goldlewis rubbed his head. “Y’know, for some reason I didn’t think it’d get this weird. We’re sure in for it now.”

After studying her surroundings for a moment, Sandalphon glanced at Nadia. “I was under the impression you’d done this before?”

The feral gave a nervous laugh. “Uh, heheh. I mean, I wanted to, but I never got the chance. It's no big deal though! We’ll just…y’know.” She shrugged. “Roll with it?”

Just then, Ballyhoo and Balan poofed into existence in a double blast of confetti, accompanied by a chorus of goofy party horns. “Welcome to your very own private lobby!” Ballyhoo declared to the Seekers. “The minigame roulette is about to begin! To find out what’s next, we’ll just have to SPIN!” Lifting his hand, the gamemaster conjured a white ball with a ghostly face on it and hurled it down into the table’s outside ring. It began to hurtle around the perimeter at high speed, and at the same time, Balan floated down to give the roulette wheel itself a push. Much to Nadia’s relief the plate beneath the Seekers didn’t actually spin, but the red and black grooves around them whirled for a moment before slowing to a standstill, and after another few seconds the roulette ball came to rest in one of the many pockets, number twenty-three. That number held no significance for the Seekers, but both Balan and Ballyhoo seemed to light up, smiling with arms spread wide.

“Connected Climbing Chaos!” Ballyhoo exclaimed. “For this minigame, everyone will be divided into teams of two!” He held up three fingers. “It’s a race to reach the top of a snowy mountain! Sounds like a breeze, but boy is there a catch! Each of you will be given climbing gloves and physically tethered to a random teammate. You’ll have to work together to make the climb, leveraging your weight to swing and fling around! All damage is disabled, but so are special movement abilities! Ready, Balan?”

His companion bowed silently, his toothy smile even wider.

Ballyhoo took this as affirmation. “Then away we GO!”

Before anyone could object, their surroundings dissolved in a wash of color, quickly giving way to a brand-new wonderworld of peaceful purple skies and gentle snowfall.

Much to Sandalphon’s relief, her feelings of queasiness and disorientation faded much faster this time, allowing her pupils to switch from spirals back to power symbols before anyone noticed. From the beginning she'd wondered how exactly the Big Top functioned from a practical standpoint, but after seeing Balan work his magic firsthand, she supposed that it all boiled down to dimensional trickery, with custom pocket dimensions serving as these ‘wonderworlds’ to host a variety of games. She didn't like the idea of being at this enigmatic entity’s mercy, but as long as it abided by the rules Ballyhoo laid out, the archangel reasoned that she could endeavor to be less suspicious for once. Plus, now that the Seekers had arrived, the competition was about to begin.

Sandalphon looked around. True to Ballyhoo’s explanation, Balan had deposited them at the foot of a small mountain, a couple hundred feet in height. Around them stood a smattering of tents, and plenty of friendly-looking penguins milled around the area. Soft, powdery snow covered the whole area in carpets and drifts, creating a winter wonderland where the flightless birds fished, threw snowballs, and made snow angels. Large rock formations surrounded the penguin village on both sides, reaching upward alongside the mountain to form an intricate vertical labyrinth of ledges, tunnels, wooden platforms, icy slopes, and death-defying jumps. It looked like a good challenge, especially if she couldn't rely on movement abilities like Vault or Heavensent like Ballyhoo said. Though that disappointed her somewhat, she knew that an even playing field was the basis of any true competition. Otherwise people like Blazermate could just fly right to the finish line.

After taking stock of her surroundings, Sandalphon noticed the more subtle changes on her person. She’d been given gloves with a very grippy material on their palms, but she'd also received a nice white scarf and a beanie, and a glance at the others confirmed that every Seeker had received a slight costume change. Nadia’s even had holes for her ears, while Goldlewis got one in red, white, and blue. He also spotted a rope tied around his middle, and when Sandalphon’s eyes followed it, she found that it connected to the rope wound around her waist.

She blinked. “Oh.” The archangel stared at Goldlewis. “This must be the tether.” She looked around with a slight frown on her face, wondering who happened to be tethered to Zenkichi.

Goldlewis took her expression to indicate disappointment with her teammate. “I’ll try not to let you down, ma’am,” he told her. “Even if they ain't gonna let me airdash, I reckon I'm a bit more spry than I look.”

“I know,” Sandalphon replied, shutting out distractions as she locked onto her teammate. “My only fear is not pulling my own weight. Let’s do the best we can and win this together.”

The veteran grinned. He's been pretty dubious of this whole affair since arriving, but after seeing that the first challenge was just a little rock climbing, he was getting fired up. “Hell yeah!”

Meanwhile, Nadia has been so distracted by the adorable penguins and not thinking about the implications of none of them being real that she didn't even notice that she’d been tethered to someone until she felt a tug on her midriff. “Huh? Oh, I'm with you?” The feral smiled, jumped to her feet, and looked up at the mountain as she fearlessly pumped her fist. “Alright, it's snow problem! Whenever you're ready, cl-I’m good to go!”

As bad as things looked for Lewa's fellow otherworlders from an outside perspective, the mercenary leader seemed to take things in stride. Apparently he subscribed to the notion that anyone whose pride outstripped their ability could stand to be taken down a few pegs, be that the Gensokyoites or his own crew. And with how definitively the otherworlders had humbled his subordinates, they'd more than proven themselves, and it fell to him to squash the smoldering resentment of the defeated and make sure they learned their lesson. He even went as far as to approve the request to travel together, in the process admitting that nobody on his side could reasonably have much say in the matter. Realistically speaking Lewa's side couldn't have asked for a better outcome, but the whole resolution did leave the toa a little incredulous. Though he did have only a few days' experience with 'humans' under his belt, were people typically that gracious to admit defeat, or obliging to the victors? For his part, he couldn't tell of Remilia meant to be genuinely encouraging or insultingly smug about the mercenaries' ability. Then again, this Syldon Hest could simply be trying to salvage the situation as best he could, giving up on any pretense of dignity as he attempted to appease the monstrously powerful fighters who'd effortlessly thrashed his crew. So far, it looked lost most of the other otherworlders were so mighty that this world seemed to bend around them. No wonder nobody else felt like a fish out of water like Lewa did--they possessed confidence borne of terrifying strength.

Regardless, with the 'sparring' concluded, Lewa couldn't very well wander away again now. He joined the others, his manner more guarded and wary. Forget soldiers, centipedes, and strangers; these people might be the greatest risk to his chances of getting home again if he ran afoul of them in his ignorance of human behavior. This went double for Sanae, who'd revealed that she possessed unseen guardians ready to appear from nowhere and, oblivious of the context, kill on her behalf if she couldn't stop them in time. Her explanation didn't ease his concerns any, as most of the lingo went right over his head. Few things frustrated him more than the fact that he seldom understood what anyone else said, and he found it difficult to maintain his typically carefree, friendly demeanor like this. The fact that the others could contact their home world certainly didn't lift his mood. Rayne tried to look on the bright side when it came to world-spanning connections, but her words didn't offer Lewa much consolation. Did anything from his home fit the bill? Mata Nui might be the source and sustainer of his world, but for all the veneration offered him, the Great Spirit never stirred from his slumber. Lewa was alone and in the dark.

As Anne brought up village defense with Sanae, the toa of air took a deep breath. The situation might be dire, but despair would only make things worse. As long as his heartlight still shone, he could keep moving, searching, and eventually return home. There had to be a way, and if anyone could find it, it would be this unbeatable band. If the Gensokyoites planned to run roughshod over this land until they discovered a method, he just needed to follow them, and their much greater power meant less risk for him if he let them take the lead. For once, Lewa reasoned, he could hang back and be smart about this rather than rushing blindly forward like usual. As long as he stayed on their good side, the others were his best shot at returning home. Until then he'd need to just...not worry...about what might be happening in his absence.

It's fine, he told himself. The Le-matoran have Turaga Matau to lead them, a far wiser and more capable hero than I. They can take shelter, or if worst comes to worst, consolidate their strength in Ko-koro or Ta-koro. After another deep breath, he stepped forward with a smile. "Very cool-strong, everyone. I do not know what a capital is, but if it has puzzle-answers, I am eager to make the journey."
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