The Lady in White
Location: Governance Hub – Echoed Tower@Lazo
The ingenius use of Pithy’s silvery surface provided a full view of the room at the tower’s top. Just as Dew reported, it contained a couple desks stacked with unknown technological devices, their tangle of cables and assortment of random objects not unlike a snake pit. A pair of flat screens, very much like the projections of Oren’s drones, sat in the mechanical mess’s middle, but the chair in front of it contained nobody. Seeking her aggravating adversary with intentful haste, Pithy continued her search, and on the other side of the room spotted the man in question by the door. A cabinet, filled with supplies judging by the packages and bags spilled on the floor, had been upended to serve as a barricade, and the perpetrator of that barrier leaned with his back to the wall right beside it.
In a single instant, it became clear to Oren that he was being watched by the face reflected in the mirror, and to Pithy it became clear he’d positioned himself to be hidden from whoever might break through the stairway door and to keep an eye on the window. Faster! Before he moves!
She loosened the grip on the sphere holding her phylactery, and, as if taken by an invisible hand, it floated after her mirror.
This marked the first time that the Lady in White could get a full view of the detestable individual who to her embodied the nebulous designs of the College in this tournament. Skinny as a rail, pale and with blonde hair platinum enough to almost be considered albino, he dressed in oddly antiquated clothes: the fanciful garb of a mage, with a gray halfrobe over a dark blue turtleneck and long johns, and a zigzag purple cloak. A slight but noticeable jolt passed through the strange man’s body as he stared back at Pithy through the mirror, but it wasn’t a moment before his face developed a sinisterly jovial grin.
The details whispered a grim premonition at the back of her mind, but she understood she had no time to dwell on them. The sphere reached the opening, and with a sudden burst of speed lanced towards the man’s face.
In a clear voice he spoke the words, “Law of Retrogression.”He is a mage,
came the dull realization. There was little time to dwell on her surprise, as circles of gray-white energy appeared to either side of his head. There was just enough time for Pithy to see their shine—a bizarre, unnatural glow that seemed to sear itself into her eyes—and sense a sudden surge of impossibly yet undeniably magic power, before her body began to steam. At the same time, Oren twisted sideways and threw up his arms, unable to devise any better way of protecting himself with the split second left for him. There came a sickening crack, followed by a scream of pain.
The sound of breaking bone barely registered in Pithy’s mind, the detail buried under the alarm that filled her head at the pressure that bored down on her body. More alarming still was the sensation of compression.Interrupt him.
She pulled on her magic without reserves—Not as much as I wanted
—now, the platform she was on lifting her towards the window. As she did, her left hand reached for the large shooter—Larger than it should be
—at her chest and pulled it out. The ice wall dissipated—It broke like glass
—as she leaned forward, throwing herself bodily into the room. What she had aimed as a forward roll turned into a messy sprawl that scattered shards of ice into the room—and why not? How could she move properly when it felt as though she was being buried alive?
Growling at the burning feeling in the arms that had cushioned the fall—barely had she avoided falling over her injured leg—she relinquished control of the platform and mirror, leaving them to fall. Her sight was on the man in front of her, and the crystalline sphere slowly rolling towards her. Pithy pointed her rapier at Oren, drawing on power to bludgeon the man once again.
The crystal refused to move as she willed and instead, the weapon fell from her hand, pulling with it a too large glove for a child’s hand. Pithy stared at the the small digits and the large, baggy sleeve that drooped back with growing horror, noting for the first time that the pressure had disappeared.
The six-shooter, now too heavy in her hands, pulled the other glove away and clattered to the ground. Her gaze fixed on the weapon, and the woman, now no older than a girl in her sixth year of life, dove for it.
A series of small, dark objects flew toward the gun. Several embedded themselves into the floor like arrows into a target’s backstop, and a couple struck the gun with enough force to send it spinning away. The child froze, and when she looked toward the source she could see him standing with one bloodied arm clutched against his chest and his remaining hand extended outward making a finger-gun. His smile was grim. “Don’t try it! I’m not much of a fighter, but I could beat the snot outta a kid like you.” The pain afflicting him could be heard in his voice, but the spark in his eyes said that he felt assured of victory.
Pithy’s lips set on a tight line as she froze. She tried to draw power from her inner wellspring, but the cold wind slipped out of her grasp. Her good eye roamed the interior of the room for any other tool that might give her a chance to gain an advantage, but it was difficult to halt the bitterly familiar feeling of hopelessness that rose from her chest. Searchingly, she brought a hand to her face, the motion awkward and unsteady in a body that felt too small for her. Cold crystal met her fingers, and the feeling served to steady her. Even without her magic, she was not as she had been near a century ago. There had been a time when she had truly been helpless, but as long as she bore the mark of her rebellion, she could not accept defeat.So think. You don’t need a healthy body for that, do you? Think!
She was confident that the nature of the curse was not a permanent one, mainly due to the fact that it had succeeded. Further than that, even after reducing her to such a pitiful state, Oren still had his wits about him. The energy required to steal the last seventy years of life from an elf with no previous preparation would have been unfeasible even with the seemingly endless torrent of power she had taken into herself. No, this curse is not that. A complex suppression spell is more likely, designed to make the target harmless. He must be sustaining it himself.
If so, Oren was no inexperienced mage, with enough focus to both hold the curse in place and cast simpler offensive magic at the same time. But that need not be a surprise. There had been many a human talent her own realm.
She was not equipped to dispel such magic, however. If a direct confrontation was not feasible, she would need to surprise him. Mountain Dew was still unaccounted for, and she had not been completely disarmed yet, a fact she hoped her tattered robe would conceal. She had options. What she really needed was an opportunity to use them.
Her hand slowly drooped, and Pithy, still lying on the floor propped on her hip and hands, slowly drew her limbs back to herself. The child gave the man a cautious stare.
“This is quite the curse.” Pithy scowled at the soft, thin voice that left her throat, but forced herself to continue. “It’s not the work of an amateur.”
Her words evoked no response on the announcer’s face, though he proved as quick as ever to reply. “I should hope not. And it’s not the only one, either. I could slap ya with a couple curses far worse than Retrogression, or even layer them. If I really wanted to, little miss In White, I could change ya so thoroughly that… er…” For a moment he struggled to find a suitable turn of phrase. He gave up in very short order. “Well, let’s just say I can change ya beyond any recognition or return.”
Pithy frowned. Unless the man’s magic operated under completely different principles than those of her own world, she was certain he was exaggerating. If she could feel the flare of power as clearly as she had coming from him, the difference could not be that great. However, under her current circumstances, neither could she take it as a bluff.
“—Or just stab ya to death with Blackneedles; I’m not a great shot, but I’d hit an eye or throat sooner or later. But I don’t want to do any of that, ‘cause I’m not your real enemy. I mean, I do kinda want to curse ya to hell ‘n back ‘cause you’re an uppity pain in the ass, and ya broke my damn arm, but I’m not as petty as some people I can name.” He cast a baleful glare at Pithy. “And there are more important things at stake. I’d explain if I didn’t think ya’d try to interrupt my monologue.”
“Oh?” She saw her chance to buy time. “Do test me. If I did not wish to have you speak, I would not have used a blunt projectile.”
The wizard’s eyelid twitched, interrupting his squint for a fraction of a second and revealing a trace of the black eye beneath. “Right. That ‘blunt projectile’ woulda cracked my skull.”
“You are alive, no?” The child gave him a smile much too cruel for her angelic features. “It is difficult to balance power and speed when you need haste.”
“Uhuh. Sorry, but I’m treatin’ ya as hostile. And don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinkin’.’ He extended his still-workable hand, the index and middle fingers pointed straight at Pithy. “You’re awful composed for the situation you’re in. Means you’re plottin’. Your magic’s compromised and your body’s too weak for sword-fighting, so you’re goin’ for the pistol again.” His voice descended into an unintelligible mutter, and magic circles of red light appeared beside him with a sound like an ethereal snarl.
Another wave of compression enveloped the young Pithy, whose eye burned from the circles’ harsh glare before she could twist her head away. Pithy cried out in protest as she began to shrink once again, smaller and smaller until she sunk into her clothes. Dark fuzz seemed to sprout from her visible skin before she vanished under the fabric. A few moments later, a fluffy, grayish ball dragged itself from under the robes. The owlet, fuzzy and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, shook itself, then paused to look down.
It shivered, and closed its eye. Pithy’s child voice droned past the bird’s beak. “Do you expect me to bow and beg, then?” As if she would give him the satisfaction. “Careful, Oren. You are rapidly approaching the limit of what I can forgive.”
She poured ice down on her thoughts. The only part of this situation she could directly control was her state of mind. Panic was strictly forbidden. So instead, she analyzed the circumstances. Oren’s magic worked too quickly, overcoming her natural resistances as though they were not there. He must be bypassing them somehow. Is it an illusion? No. Reasserting my form in my mind would allow me to contest it. Is seeing those lights the trigger for it to take hold, then?
The usefulness of that information was dubious at this point, true or not. One way or another, she had been left without her daggers—quite literally disarmed, in fact. She still had one card under her metaphorical sleeve, but it was not a reliable one, and it was no longer up to her if it came into play. The fact that Oren thought she would go for a weapon suggested he somehow did not know about her accomplice yet. That gave her hope, but she could not assume Oren had not left traps on the way up the tower. Dew might never reach them, but what else could she rely on now?
The bird spread its tiny wings, as though presenting itself. “Well, then. Do you feel safe in your superiority now, or are you as scared of a bird as you are of a child?”
A sagacious nod greeted her barb. “Yeah, I think so. All that’s left is figurin’ out whatcha meant by ‘limit of what I can forgive’. Are ya so full of yourself that not just lettin’ ya kill me is some kind of unforgiveable crime? Pff.”
“Do ask the owlet sitting on her pile of discarded clothing.”
He shook his head, and winced at the fresh shot of pain from his arm. “Aagh...jeez. Well, I’ll give it to ya plain. My name is Nero, and I’m not whatcha might call ‘from around here.’ I was here before the College, and when they set up, I saw my chance. If I’m guessin’ right, your beef with me ain’t much deeper than the crap I’m talkin’, but instead ya want to try and get at the College through me. I can tell ya this, in the one place my own drones ain’t recordin’: there’s shifty business goin’ on in the College. Some of ‘em ain’t so bad, aside from bein’ willing to sacrifice a lot just to research all the nonsense that’s goin’ on in this place, but some want that wish for themselves.” The traveler called Nero breathed a heavy sigh. “I’m not...disillusioned ‘bout how much my life is worth. A while ago, all I wanted was to make people happy usin’ my Curse Laws, but it was all to feel wanted myself. But now I know what I gotta do: stop the power-seekers from gettin’ what they want. And I won’t letcha stop me.” He pulled back his free hand to adjust his glasses, which had slid a short way down his nose from the sweat.
She wanted to punch him. Heavens she wished she could knee him in the crotch right then. This man had made her go through all this trouble to make him talk, only for his tongue to loosen when just about all the cards were on his side of the table. The little owl took a breath, it’s plumage flaring irritably. “Ore—Nero,” she corrected herself. “Such creativity. Is there a particular reason you did not tell me this over the drone?” She thought she knew the answer, but wished to hear it from his own mouth.
Nero narrowed his eyebrows, as though the answer was obvious. “All drone footage has to be submitted to my bosses. This ain’t public knowledge, and it’s gonna stay that way.”
“I thought as much. You also said you had ‘invited’ others to your tower. Were you hoping to enlist their help with whatever you wish to do?”
“Nah, it was mostly a show of bravado for people pissin’ me off. If that ogre came by, I woulda tried to turn him into something squishable, but I banked on him stayin’ on the total opposite side of the city. And he did, right up until he got killed by a little girl.”
The bird made a disgusted sound. “Nero?”
“I hate your guts. I thought you should know.”
A snort escaped the dark mage as he placed his hand over his heart. “Aww! I hate you too, Pithy. Wanna hear a pun about owls?”
“Not today, douchebag!” A sudden cry came from behind the door, followed shortly by a bullet’s explosion. The wood about a foot to Nero’s right blasted apart and a stone brick across the room cracked apart in a spray of powder and a web of cracks. Panicked, Nero dove to his left, only to release a howl of pain as his arm his the ground. Without delay Pithy’s down began to steam, just as her skin had a moment before, and a powerful sense of fullness surged through her. Meanwhile Mountain Dew was forcing his foot, bit by bit, through the aperture his rifle’s blast had created.
“Careful, he’s a mage!” Pithy warned.
Otherwise occupied, Nero could spare her nary a glance. “No I’m not!” Squinting, he hurried to make out who his new acquaintance might be, and managed to snag a look through the rapidly-widening hole in the door. “How’d you
get here!?” With teeth gritted he attempted to leverage himself into a position both less painful for his arm and more advantageous for spellcasting at the intruder. Just as he turned himself to have a better view, agony struck like lightning. A choked squeak left his throat.
A moment later, Dew appeared inside the room, teleporting through the space he had opened. He scanned the area with his weapon high before lowering it in confusion.
A large, snowy owl sat in front of the window. A thin man he took to be Oren was curled on the ground, one arm held tightly between his legs, and a reflective sphere was slowly rolling away from his lower body.
Mountain Dew stared at the scene for a moment, then turned and teleported outside of the room. A few seconds later, he reappeared inside. The owl blinked at him slowly.
He massaged his jaw with one hand, as though trying to puzzle out the scene he had found. “Nope. Still makes no sense.”
“It does not have to.” The owl blinked again. “That was impressive timing.”
The man stared at her in confusion. “Wait. Pithy? Why the fuck are you an owl? And why can you speak?”
The bird’s plumage flared, the black spots at the ends of its white feathers almost making it look like a spreading pinecone, then smoothed again. Dumbly, he realized it had shrugged. “He’s a mage.”
“No… I’m… not...” came the wheeze from the prone Nero.
“Men.” Pithy grunted, giving the man an irritated look. “You break their arm, and they keep going without a care. You touch their pride, and they fold. Bring out the painkillers, Dew.”
“You were somehow brought here too? Hmm.” The woman in white narrowed her eyes, thinking. “In that case, we have no quarrel with you, so long as you watch yourself, Malveil of the Silverlocke Blood. I am Penning.” She glanced over her shoulder at the cloaked griffon-rider.
Moving her arms and twisting herself to the side a touch, the harpy performed some sort of pose. “Humble servants of the Skydiving Prince, Carreau. As for what you seek, M̴ar͜ơt͢te̢ told us of a an ogre, a musician, a kitsune, and a shark with limbs of metal, but no armored swordswoman.” Penning resumed her normal stance, arms crossed once more. “Since you are new to this place, I can only assume that you haven't seen a slime woman? Rosy-pink color, ridiculous bust? No?” She shook her head, as if it were foolish to hope.
From behind, the blue-haired woman spoke up in a low voice. “There's a tournament going on right now. My sister was 'otherwise engaged' when our ally Clotho, who was brought her to compete, told us all she remembered.” A pointed look flew from Penning, though Margot ignored it while continuing to speak to Malveil. “She described a woman in dark armor, with some kind of sword, at the college off this City's southwestern shore. She won't be there, but there'll be someone who knows where she is.” Margot signaled her griffon to take off by pulling the reins, putting an abrupt end to the conversation.
Still sporting a sour expression, Penning produced her wings and flapped upward. “You have indeed come to a strange land, where it would appear worlds have collided. Farewell, Malveil.” With that, she was off, in pursuit of her 'sister' and headed back toward the huge crow floating overhead.
The Crucible, Day Two – Late Afternoon
Not a word had been exchanged between Juniper and Cyril after the two left Dr. Bill's medical van behind them, the former clinging to the latter's back. Were there anyone to see, they would have made for a bizarre silhouette. To his halberd, which he had utilized as a walking stick, the vanguard had fastened the remnants of his layered plate cuirass on the off chance the smith could mend it., and as he trudged down the streets in the direction of what the brutish doctor had called a 'train station', he'd leaned forward enough so that his former opponent wouldn't have to worry about sliding off as long as she held firm. For more social or self-conscious people, the trek and ensuing train ride might have been awkward, but neither Cyril nor Juniper minded the silence. Their mutual silence persisted until their automated, rail-bound mode of transportation came to a halt in Oldtown.
When Cyril turned his back to his new ally and knelt so she could grab hold, he found himself waiting for longer than he should have. An inquisitive glance backward made visible to him the look of anguish on Juniper's face as she sat, motionless. He wondered if reality was setting in for her, and if so, why it took so long. Either way, he could practically feel the woe radiating from her, and it was a stark contrast compared to the impenetrable confidence that filled her before their fight. A pang of discomfort lanced through Cyril's heart; he'd expected before and during that battle that knocking the chip off this boisterous, derisive girl's shoulder would be good for the both of them, but seeing her a shadow of her former self like this told him that he'd been wrong to think of her solely as an enemy deserving of punishment. He didn't know what to think or do, and the meddlesome influence of the screw in his head wasn't helping. The vanguard took a deep breath to try and clear his mind. In a low, gentle voice, he murmured, “He shouldn't be far. Let's go.”
Juniper did not reply, or even nod her head, but she reached up and wrapped her arm around Cyril's neck. He stood, retrieved his weapon from where it leaned in a corner, and plodded toward the nearest exit door.
From the first moment he stood on the platform of Oldtown's station, he could tell that even though he was still in the same city, this area might have just as well been from a different era. Rather, it would be more accurate to say it was from numerous eras, for the only constant between the buildings that ringed this big, square, cobblestone plaza was the inconsistency of their style. It made no sense, save perhaps as a sort of homage to antiquity. It was here that Bill had told the two that they'd find a smith who could forge them what they needed to survive.
The Fungal Knight
Location: the Big Top@Banana
In the wide-open halls of the clowns' curiously quiet ship, the angry roar of Bonesword's new pet resounded well—too well. Only a few moments of pacing passed by before one of the wacky spiral doors slid open to admit two clowns. One, a bulbous creature with a giant rainbow afro, took tiny steps while holding his hands out in front of him. The other, moving ahead, stood comically short and bore a nasty expression on his wrinkled face. Sharing strange, garbled intonations unintelligible to Bonesword, they approached the giant machine.”What's that noise? The only fodder we caught was that woman.””Not so. Bobo found a skeleton and a strange plant nearby. Took them for the fun of it, then forgot to clean out the holding tank.”
Through the tinted plastic, their dull yellow eyes stared at Bonesword and his Basil-lisk.”Instead of hanging it on the wall, they can both go in the funhouse, then.””Do it quickly before we leave, then. This area's empty except for the woman, and we couldn't even eat her. Tickles found a school toward the other side of the city with lots of people.”
Already having turned to walk away, the short clown disappeared through the spiral door. His companion plodded to the vacuum-thing's console, where he proceeded to yank one oversized lever after another. Ten feet straight above Bonesword, a plastic hatch popped open. Above loomed what appeared to be a giant claw machine, its bladed digits perfect for digging into and holding dense cotton-candy cocoons but doubtlessly deadly for something without such fibrous protection.
While wide enough to facilitate a quick getaway from the claw, the hatch appeared to be far out of reach. With no soil in which to grow plants, and only the smoothest walls one could imagine available to climb, Bonesword would be hard-pressed to escape the claw's grip unless he could engineer himself a way out of the situation.
Location: what lies beneath@Kapuchu
Even taking Lily's exceptional mobility into account, darkness and unknown footing for hundreds of meters straight down made for one arduous descent. Seeking the train track expedited the journey's initial stage, but it hadn't taken long to find the point at which the subway tunnel abruptly ended and empty space began. Way, way below, the daylight shone upon the wreckage of a subway train, splayed upon a dark rock face like a dead snake swung against stone. Though its lights had gone out a while ago, its steel reflected the sun well enough to give a pretty approximate view of its location. With the track cut off, all that remained to the kitsune and the hammer head was a steep and perilous climb down the vaguely cylinder-shaped hole.
Brucie's mechanical limbs worked well when it came to grabbing hold of a purchase, but agile he was not. His accompaniment made for slow going, but having assured Lily that she could proceed without him, he was left to make his way down at his own pace. So haphazard were the walls' layout that manifold places to catch a break existed, but the going was unpredictably and treacherous. At any moment, a loose chunk of rock or debris might slide loose to plummet downward. During the course of the climb, the shift in perspective made Lily's surroundings more clear. About an hour into the trek, and a third of the way down, half of the hole' opened up into a gargantuan cavern, while the opposite followed the cavern wall until it eventually began to slope toward the floor. Numerous cliff-like outcroppings extended from the rough curve, and it was upon one such that the train lay. To her misfortune, however, Lily could see precious little of the cavern. She could perceive a strange purple radiance in the distance, but it was thoroughly obstructed by countless cave columns, the product of stalactites and stalagmites growing toward one another and merging over the course of eons. Together they made a sort of lattice, picturesque but frustrating. It was a short time before she was due to reach the beginning of the slope that the way was made clear.
The sunlight all but blinked out as an enormous shape appeared overhead. Black and inscrutable from below, it plummeted downward through the pit. As it passed into the open air it curved suddenly to level off, and Lily got her first good look at it. Before her swooped a colossal crow, upon whose back rested what appeared to be a fortress complex. It spread its wings and barreled into the cave columns head-on, plowing straight through. As it moved onward, its path allowed the kitsune to see what had laid hidden. At least a mile of cave floor away, across expanses of water, boulders, and iridescent fungi amid the trunks of the shattered columns, there stood a great town
of black iron, red brick, and brilliant purple fumes.
Bearing its citadel, the giant crow floated toward it, but for Lily it seemed her search was almost done. Compared to the exhausting and dangerous task that had occupied her for a hefty portion of the day already, the final descent down the slope could be walked in a leisurely if alert fashion.
Following the stream through the forested canyon proved to be a dependable if monotonous route. In some places the clef widened into a gulch, the brook in its bed deepening into a river. Never, however, did the terrain become unmanageable. Aside from some steps here and there, a few guard railings, and a handful of bridges, this region of the City of Echoes appeared to be in almost pristine natural condition. Of course, such a thing in and of itself was odd; what kind of metropolis set a fraction of itself aside for so extravagant a nature preserve? Yet, navigating it felt remarkably like a voyage through a real jungle, and sightings of other animals every now and then reinforced the feeling.
Throughout the journey, however, Jin couldn't help but get the feeling that he wasn't the only one looking. Time after time, the sensation of being watched would creep over him, but never did he spy anything out of the ordinary. Once in a while he could see other tree-shadowed cabins perched on the top of one of the canyon walls, very similar to the one he'd visited, but he could glimpse nobody inside or nearby.
After a long time the walls of the canyon began to creep downward, leveling out with the stream. They came together right in front of where the river dropped away into a waterfall, splashing into a giant lake a ways below. Ringed in gloomy mist, the water's surface was so still that it reflected the sky and surrounding plain like a mirror. Even the city, clearly visible in its enormity beyond the Park's grassy expansive, had the peaks of its skyscrapers upended in the lake from Jin's point of view.
In the orange hours of fading day, when late afternoon became early evening, and when bellies were beginning to hunger for dinner, a tone rang out from every competitor's phylactery. It echoed from the top of a beautiful waterfall in the Park; it chirped through the still air of the behemoth cave beneath Downtown; it could be heard in the Historical District and a little too close to the announcer's tower; its cry pierced the silence in the brutalized amphitheater and received an annoyed look from a clown in a floating tent on its way to the School.
Thereafter came the following announcement.
“Well hey there, lucky man slash woman slash hell-demon, maybe! Congrats on makin' it to the second round, once again. And congrats to me for makin' all this stuff work again after a certain someone summoned a tornado in my room! I'll confess, the effort left me a little 'winded.' Ahem. I'll keep it brief: as ya mighta guessed, we've been trackin' ya this whole time. Now, however, the drones are getting' a little update. Simply put, the drone keepin' an eye on each of ya will automatically orient itself to point toward the trackin' signal of your next opponent. Just follow it, and wham! One step closer to fulfillin' that big wish! So protect your drone, 'cause ain't any more where they come from. Round 3 begins when the update rolls out in ten minutes. Then semifinals once all four winners are decided, then the grand finals. Good luck to each one of ya, and watch out! Some smart cookies have been busy amassin' allies and artifacts. Later!”