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2 mos ago
Current The world is full of obvious things
2 mos ago
A great first week of posts for my new Persona RP. Now's a fine time to join in!
3 mos ago
He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence
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12 mos ago
The world is full of obvious things.


Current GM of World of Light and Soldiers of Fortune. 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 helping others enjoy life are great joys. Been RPing for over a decade, so I know a thing or two, though I won't pretend to be an expert. Ready for some fun? Let's make something spectacular together.

Like my words? Maybe you'll like my pictures. I'm pretty new, but I hear the exchange rate's good.

Most Recent Posts

Team Mao

Location: Al Mamoon Northeast - Rocket Inc.
Midna’s @DracoLunaris, Sectonia’s @Archmage MC, Mao’s @Potemking, Jesse’s @Zoey Boey, Joker, Fox, Necronomicon, Braum

Shadow and Ciella, all too eager to tear into one another, launched into an all-out bout without delay. Throughout the northern half of the arena the duel between harpy and hedgehog, a cat-and-mouse chase in constant motion, made for quite the spectacle. It took the Agito only seconds to get a grasp on her opponent’s strategy, but stopping it was an altogether different beast. Again and again Shadow launched himself in a homing Spin Attack, quickly closing the distance on Ciella no matter how she dodged and easily evading her arrows. Well before he entered the range of her conjured wing-arms, however, he and Nastasia vanished into a vortex of distorted space, becoming an untargetable crumplezone of brutal damage to chew through anything in his way. Even a glancing blow from the mobile anomaly shredded skin and feathers, spraying blood into the air to shower down on the sand below.

Yet even in the midst of her mad fury, Ciella still possessed her cunning streak. A well-timed burst of speed right before the Chaos Burst hit her would bear her to safety, allowing her to charge an arrow or summon an ice boulder to try and hit Shadow as he emerged. After taking one too many such opportunistic strikes (which is to say, one) Shadow began warping and throwing Chaos Lances after re-appearing. Though Ciella possessed impressive firepower of her own and did not mind a shootout, Shadow’s efforts kept her on her toes. “Grr!” the Agito growled, wiping blood from her lip after a lance’s explosion scarred her face.

“What’s the matter?” Shadow taunted. “Having trouble with my strategy?”

“Your ‘strategy’ is as brainless as it is repetitive! Cease this insipid flailing and fight me,” Ciella threw back.”

Shadow smirked. “You’re calling me a spammer? Well, if it’s so cheap and easy, why can’t you do anything about it?”

Trading such barbs every so often, their fight raged on. Their single-minded focus on one another at the very least gave the victims of Ciella’s devastation time to regroup and rearm themselves. A little too eager to return to and end the battle, the Phantom Thieves paused at the edge of the destroyed section of colosseum floor. Looking back, their team seemed to be in pretty bad shape. Most of them needed healing before they could fight again, and not the gradual, piecemeal regeneration offered by Sectonia’s items, either. If the Thieves rejoined the fight right now, they realized they would be alone. Mona and Fox turned to their leader. “What’s the plan, Joker?” the feline asked.

The young man had already decided. “This is too serious for us to go it alone and leave them high and dry. If that lunatic does another wave attack, our allies might be done for. We’ll help ‘em out.”

Together the three headed back to the others. Mao lay front and center, seemingly on his last legs, and Mona hurried to heal him. “Joker, all the way?” When his leader nodded, Mona understood his task and called upon his Persona. Zorro manifested in a burst of azure flame, his dancing blade whipping up a restorative Diarahan. Unlike Diarama, this spell offered a full heal, but it consumed so much mana that Mona would be completely unable to participate in the fight itself. In just a few casts he’d go from a refreshed reinforcement to even more drained than his friends. Nevertheless, he moved between his fallen allies, casting one Diarahan after another. Gunnar and even Fuse, brought to near death right after his friend hearting by Ciella’s Veil Piercer, were quickly brought back to full. “You newbies better make the most of this!” he told them, having assumed by gleam-free eyes that Fuse was a newfound ally just like the Dragonborn.

Mona paused when he came to Jesse. The redhead seemed only lightly hurt, thanks to her barrier, but she was in intense conversation with the remains of Sven. “Oh right, that might work!” he murmured, watching as the spirit resonated with Jesse’s words. It reached out with threads of prismatic light, binding itself to her, and in the span of a few short moments a new Striker had been recruited.

For the moment, however, Mona couldn’t reach Midna. He’d assumed she would avoid Ciella’s onslaught by hiding in the shadows, but even with terrible injuries the imp was determined to make a difference. She gathered up her magic to hurl her shifting sands across the battlefield. In just a few moments a screen of sand gathered around both Ciella and Shadow, buffeting them with minor but constant damage over time and obscuring their vision. As incredibly annoying as it was, the Agito knew that to ignore Shadow for the sake of her indignation would invite destruction, and tried to focus on her enemy. There was just one problem--she couldn’t tell where he was. Suddenly on edge, Ciella whirled around in an effort to spot him, but her enormous wings and feathered hair made it difficult enough to see even without the sand. It quickly dawned on the Agito that it was taking her too long. She was going to get hit.

With all her might she twisted herself around a full one hundred and eighty degrees, spinning just in time to witness the sand-wreathed locus of distorted space bearing down on her from above and behind. Her intuition had been correct; Shadow’s pattern of attacking from behind whenever possible held. But it was too late to dodge now. She clenched her teeth and braced for impact, bringing her legs and arms together into an almost fetal blocking position, manifesting a Karmic Shield, and the next second Shadow made contact.

“KYAAAAAAH!” Ciella shrieked, feathers and blood flying as the Chaos Burst ground like a spatial blender. Thanks to the Karmic Shield’s reduced damage and her general toughness, however, the Agito persisted where Sven succumbed. Shadow pushed harder, digging deeper, and Ciella’s life drained away like water through a sieve. As she fought desperately to withstand Shadow’s brutality, Ciella brought her Siren arms around, their ethereal hands closing in on the distorted space itself. It was a terrible agony, as the harpy’s screams attested, but against all odds she endured. One hope kept her going: that no matter how bad it got, she needed to hold out only one second more. Just one...more...second…!

Shadow’s Chaos Burst ended, and the hedgehog disappeared from distorted space. Instantly he launched himself forward in an Air Shoes-propelled kick, smashing Ciella right in the eye, but then her hands closed around him. “Grah!” Five great arms of enchanted water snapped shut around his limbs and head, with the last yanking Nastasia off to squeeze her like a stress ball. “I am...the wings!” With a final pump of her wings Ciella rose higher, then fell backward. With her enemies in her clutches she hurtled downward in a deadly spiral. “Of DESPAIR!”

From within the Agito’s grasp howled a desperate, pleading cry. “BLEEEEEEEECK!”

Then the three smashed into the ground in a typhonic explosion of water. The whole arena shook beneath the impact, swaying wildly, and sand poured through the holes in the floor as the runoff washed most of the colosseum clean. Thanks to Midna’s efforts, Mordecai and Reinhardt had been retrieved and brought to safety in the lower part of the arena along with Braum. Shayne and Orendi’s spirits, caught up in the flow, drifted almost to the edge but did not descend. When the maelstrom died down it revealed Ciella back in her sylvan form, her arms and face very badly injured. All around the arena her Feral Shroud, the barrier cutting off escape for anyone in the terrible skirmish, broke down.

It was hard for Joker to imagine anyone surviving that, but at this point, it barely even surprised him that Shadow remained.

The hedgehog was down on one knee, his Chaos Boost dispelled. In front of him lay Nastasia, unmoving. Necronomicon reported her findings from a quick scan. “Unbelievable. She’s still alive. Although, I think her neck’s broken…” The morbid realization caused the Persona to trail off for a moment. “I’m not detecting any unusual brainwaves from Shadow. But he’s still-!”

Joker didn’t need her to say it. Even from her he could still see Galeem’s influence burning sunset-red in the hedgehog’s eyes. The fight wasn’t over. Shadow floated up with a smug look and began summoning a Chaos Spear to finish Ciella off for good. “Alright, rabbit stew!”

He and Fox were already on the way, but they had a lot of ground to cover, even just to get close enough for a shot from Joker’s Leena. Any allies with greater speed or long-range attacks, be they magic or technological, would be able to take decisive action.

Ms Fortune

Level 4 Nadia (100/40)
Location: The Maw
Blazermate's @Archmage MC, Bowser's @DracoLunaris, Ace Cadet's @Yankee, Sakura's @Zoey Boey, Mirage’s @Potemking, Link’s @Gentlemanvaultboy
Word Count: 1269

Nadia, taken aback by the sight of so many ghoulish, bloated restaurant patrons, scooted over to a crouched screen. Until she got her bearings she wanted diner and server alike to see neither hide nor hair of her. Naturally, just a moment after taking cover she did get spotted, but for once she was glad for some unexpected company. “Ace!” she beamed, just about hugging the boy. Instead she settled for bonking shoulders with him, just like on the docks before the day’s whirlwind adventures began. In the conga line of trials and tribulations since the Depths she’d lost sight of her new pal, never even getting the chance to check on him after his unsafe and unpleasant flight courtesy of Moreau. Since then she’d been mostly concerned with either dying of hunger or the chefs determined to make kids food in a different way, and she felt bad for instinctively looking out for number one again. But here he was, pretty okay all things considered, and with the Koopa Troop back in the sudsy washroom it was just Ace and Nadia against the world once more.

Having gotten a couple extra moments to view the stomach-turning scene ahead of them, Nadia shared what she’d seen. “They’re packed wall to wall, like sardines,” she told him, the deliciously salty, oily fishes still on her mind. She could feel the weight of the tin she’d snatched, but just as with the Cadet, witnessing the grisly feast evaporated her appetite. “Its dark under the tables but we might be able to sneak under, between the legs of the benches and stools. I don’t think we wanna go up top. Those things aren’t picky about what they eat.” In fact, the guests reached for whatever happened to slide or plop down into arm’s length, scarcely even looking at what they mindlessly shoved toward their gullets. They didn’t even seem to notice when morsels got caught on one another or slid back out of their mouths onto the table, and just tried to push it in once more. It was a slovenly, morbid, almost dispassionate act of excess, without taste, without need, without end. Nadia shivered. “Its like food is their whole existence. If this is the curse, I’m glad I stopped when I did.”

Sooner rather than later, however, she and the Cadet needed to confront the feast. Observing for a few moments rewarded the pair with a realization. The Volbonians who regularly replenished the Guests’ interminable meal could only come from and return to a single food source: the kitchen. All Nadia and Ace needed to do was follow them.

Nadia led the way, scampering over to the tables. She ducked out of the lantern-light and into the shadows beneath, only to find after a moment that her plan had a flaw. The guests, messy as they were gluttonous, had allowed an incredible amount of food to drop to the floor, and a few of the eaters had followed suit. Like slugs they pulled themselves around on their bellies, sucking up and slurping down everything in their paths. “No good,” Nadia hissed. With poor visibility and no room to move, the kids could just as easily get lost as cornered down there. Sighing, Nadia climbed up onto an empty stool, and onto the table itself.

The guests didn’t really react. Nadia doubted they even saw her. As long as she and Ace could stay out of the way of their stubby little arms, she figured they’d be okay. That just left what route to take. From here she could see the route the servers took across the tables, although she wondered if they brooked no response from the guests because they weren’t edible in their eyes. Either way, it gave her a pretty good idea, and once she saw a Volbonian head down some stairs she pointed a silent finger in the direction she and her friend ought to go. Then, they had nothing left but to get there.

Nadia walked quickly to avoid making too much noise, staying close to untouched food where possible in the hopes that it currently lay beyond the Guests’ reach. She didn’t think twice about climbing on top of the loaves, fishes, cutlets, and stacked dishes to get a leg up. The first time she got a little too close to a Guest and the horrid creature reached out to her with his grubby hand, wheezing and whimpering in desperate lust, she just about had a heart attack and fell off the table. A little help, however, would get her back on track. “Thank you,” she whispered emphatically, and pressed on.

Caution gave the two steady progress, but not quickly enough for Nadia’s liking. Not with lives on the line. Before long she couldn’t suppress the thoughts of her friends getting cooked and butchered any longer. To hell with safety. She needed to rescue Sakura and the others now. She clenched her teeth and changed tact, suddenly jumping off the lid of her stewpot onto a Guest’s back. The beast of habit, hunched over her meal, straightened up in surprise, grunting as she flailed her arms. Nadia jumped to the next one over, and though it reeled like a stepped-on seal when she landed the feral moved on long before she could fall off. Then an idea hit her. Once she landed on another diner she slid her claws into the flesh of its neck, and with a gurgling cry the guest bucked backward. Nadia allowed its momentum to send her flying, and while the Guest toppled to the ground she soared over an aisle to land with a roll between two more monsters. One reached for her, but she shoved a ham into its paw instead and squirmed away.

This was the last set of tables before the stairs. In front of her sat a row of hungry Guests shoulder to shoulder, and the eyes of the one dead ahead had already lit up with greed. With a moan he launched herself from his stool as best she could, clambering onto the table to pull himself toward Nadia. Taking initiative, the little thief grabbed hold of a wine bottle like a club and rushed forward to slam it right into the Guest’s face. Nadia jumped on as the diner blurted out an exclamation of pain and fell backward off the table, riding the Guest through his stool all the way down to the floor for a very cushioned landing. She bounced off and rolled to a stop at the head of the stairs, where she turned to look back for Ace.

After a moment, however, the fallen guest stirred. He flailed and kicked wildly, smacking the already bent stool out from beneath a neighbor, who then fell alongside him. With beady eyes on Nadia the two slugged across the wooden floor toward her, forcing her to run for the stairs. She sprinted down as the ravenous tide rolled after her, barely making it in time to avoid the Guests that then plowed into a waiter. Fresh sushi dishes littered the ground around them, seizing their attention, and Nadia moved on. She’s reached the first floor.

Though this area was a single large room compared to the many smaller rooms of the restaurant upstairs, its added vertical space would do little for Nadia, and plenty of Guests remained between her and the dumbwaiter on the far side. Her heart pounded in her chest from both the tension and the chase, but as long as she was with the Cadet, she could make it through. Probably.

After Nadia and Ace the dishwashers had assumed that whoever came in did not mean to bother them, and with a very important task at hand, they planned to return the favor. Bowser’s loud and unexpected announcement, however, startled them unexpectedly badly. All of them jumped, with one koopa so surprised that his plate flew from his hands. It shattered against the floor with a loud crash, sending him into a panic as his coworkers flinched. A storm of hissed, urgent warnings flew Bowser’s way.

“Not so loud!”
“Shut up!”

Despite his proclamations the washers did not believe him to be their king, and right now they had other issues. Now that Bowser got a good look, he could see that many of these rather high-strung troopers bore scars across their faces and arms. In just a few moments he could get a sense that these koopas lived squarely under the thumb of the chefs, and for how long was anyone’s guess. Fidgety, furtive, and meek, they seemed to possess almost no will to fight, except maybe when it came to getting a potential troublemaker in line. The nearest one jumped down to menace Bowser with a half-scrubbed pan. “Are you trying to get us killed!? You know the chefs are looking for any excuse to make us into turtle soup! We’re already in hot water ‘cause of the plates!” He pushed the pan into Bowser’s arms along with a scrubber, then tossed a dishrag to Junior. “Here, hurry up and get to work before they come in here and see you kids goofing off!”

Seeing Sakura heartbroken brought Bella’s spirits almost as low. She felt like weeping herself, whether from empathy, the pain of hanging by a rope around her wrists, the smoke in her eyes, or all three. With plenty of distraction and difficulty seeing it was difficult to take stock of the situation and arrive at any conclusion other than ‘this is bad’. Being cut off from their friends and left dangling over a blazing cookfire, with a heaping portion of killer butchers on the loose, made for a pretty bleak situation. But was it really that much bleaker than the other ones? They’d already gotten past a headless shadow monster and a flooded factory full of aquatic abominations. Armed with this information, Bella staved off despair, reasoning that if she, Rika, and Sakura could just keep it together they could hold out until their rescue.

With that in mind she craned her head around to address Sakura. “Don’t blame yourself, mon cheri. It was just bad luck. Could have happened to any of us, oui?” Any more encouragement than that, however, would have to wait. Her young friend had noticed something else, a detail that slipped away from Bella in the relatively brief time since the cafeteria, but a big one nonetheless. “I am?” As best she could, the Water Princess looked herself over, then glanced at the other meals-to-be, trying to get a frame of reference. “Humm...I think you may be right. My limbs...un peu plus long.” Though she couldn’t see it, her leviathan tail had benefited the most from her growth, straining against the bonds that tied its throat against her wrists.

She spotted Mimi, but unless the pokemon could lift all three girls off their hooks and over the fire to safety without Larry noticing, the situation wasn’t much better. For the moment, all Bella could do was wait and think. Something Sakura said got her gears turning, and one detail in particular concerned her. “Actually, I ate quite a lot,” Bella corrected. “I wanted to..” she paused to cough, straining to get her head away from the smoke. “Agh...I wanted to see if zere were...any effects. For ze team, remember? My tail and I just dug right in.”

Sakura’s plan seemed solid initially, the team’s current inability to eat food notwithstanding, but for reasons Bella couldn’t quite articulate something bugged her about it. She spent a few moments in quiet but furious contemplation, trying to put it together, before she realized. “Hold on, it may not be zat simple. This turned back time, yes? Zat explains everyone’s clothes. But remember zose other kids? They did not want to eat, yes? Zey must have known it would make them big...big enough for ze Janitor zat chef mentioned to send zem to ze kitchen. Like agneaux to slaughter.” Another coughing fit wracked her less-little body. “Z-zey weren’t cursed like us. Maybe ze food does not turn forward time to undo curse, but instead stimulate ze body’s growth.”

Her brows furrowed as she tried to puzzle it out. After a moment her intense expression turned on Sakura. “Listen, you trained as a child, right?” She awaited confirmation. “Well...if I am not wrong, eating could ‘skip’ us through many years of our lives. It would be like you reached fourteen without having ever trained a day. Or...” Bella became more worried. “What if we missed ze mark? We might pass our ‘current’ ages. What would happen if ze curse is zen broken?” At this point, without a lot of concrete knowledge on how exactly the food worked, she was just spitballing, but even then she found no end to the alarming possibilities.

Though Mirage could not resist the cheesy temptation laid before him, the boys reached the main kitchen’s first floor unharmed. Once there, however, they discovered even more trouble than they bargained for. Even with the added firepower of a magic nail, a sharp kitchen knife, and a bottomless dart gun, this didn’t seem like a fight they could win. If this ‘King of Cuisine’ character held sway over not just the stretch-faced chef but Larry too, it was hard to imagine him as a weaker combatant. The sushi chef didn’t look too deadly -or even very imposing- but the tempura wizards’ use of actual magic tipped the scales. Stripped of all their equipment and powers and locked into weak, frail bodies by the pervasive curse of the Resentments, the Seekers already had little to work with. Being transmogrified into actual food was more than anyone could stomach.

Unable to vent their fury in a straight fight, the trio strategized beneath their cabinet, wary of attracting the ire of chefs, wizards, and coffee cups alike. In a succinct fashion they bandied around a couple ideas, including the use of a decoy, but they soon settled on the stealthy approach. With the numbers and the area knowledge that the kitchen staff possessed, there wasn’t much of a choice. Luckily for the marauding sneaks, this place featured an incredible amount of clutter. At any time a good half-dozen projects seemed to be in progress at once.

The sushi chef possessed an entire station in the southeast corner near the dumbwaiter, complete with hibachi grill, and he also seemed to be in charge of plating. With a fastidious eye for detail he arranged and deftly sliced each roll, adding a dash of actual artistry that it was hard to believe would be appreciated by either his coworkers or his clients. In the eyes of the intruders at least, he could be written off; his station stood in the opposite direction from the stairs, meaning a trip in that direction could be a sizable and risky detour

At the central chamber, the stretch-faced chef labored at the pot roast to which he’d been assigned. Sizzling over a fire pit in a massive, green-sided cauldron of a pot, the stew existed in a state of flux that demanded constant attention, both ladling out its contents into tureens for delivery and replenishing the ingredients. Moving as quickly as his ponderous, doughy physique would allow, the hideous butcher threw in chunks of tough meat to soften, peeled potatoes, chopped carrots, and scattered seasonings. The carrot heads and potato peels went to the Tempura Wizards along with anything else the chefs didn’t need, transformed into deep-fried food to be stacked in heaping bowls and served. All three remained more or less stationary, unlike Antoine. The gray-haired King of Cuisine scuttled around like a beetle, attending to various dishes. He moved unpredictably between the ovens, shelves, stovetops, and mixing bowls, always on the hunt for some ingredient or another, spending a few seconds at a time before hurrying on. He presented a wild card, but as long as the kids were observant, they could make do.

The counter they found themselves under in the kitchen’s northeast corner harbored a selection of spices, vegetables, and herbs, as best they could guess. It featured at least one chopping block, although the one on the upper middle cook station served Stretch-face well enough for his carrots and potatoes. It was there that the communal knife rack stood, as well. All that meant that the chefs didn’t come by the kids’ hidey hole that often. Going west would bring them to a set of dirty sinks, going under which meant navigating past the various pipes and drains only to arrive at the stovetops and prep space that Antoine most frequented. Four large ovens lay stacked facing east in the northwest corner, offering nothing but impediment. Next to them stood a trough full of various meats, heaped indiscriminately beneath a chute in the wall probably fed by the efforts of the butchers above. Then came a row of drawer counters with various well-used machines, including a sausage maker, a pressure cooker, a fryer, a blender, a toaster, and a couple mixers, all dingy metal and very much in the crude style of the Maw. The stairs began right below where the counter ended, while mostly cupboards existed beneath the staircase itself, going all the way to the southeast corner where Fujimoto bent to his painstaking task. The drawer knobs looked rather climbable.

The lower middle station, on the other side of the fire pit, was where the Tempura Wizards did most of their work. Using some sort of hexes, they kept a couple metal carts rolling in a counterclockwise circle around the kitchen, offering convenient transport of both ingredients and refuse, which they took for transformation when the carts rolled by. Overhead shelves and racks kept a smorgasbord of pots, pans, and tools all readily available above just about every counter and sink. Less than perfectly organized, the chefs appeared to have just left various things lying everywhere, too, used and reused. Hopefully the disarray was merely the byproduct of a dinnertime rush, but the kids could by no means be sure. Dangling chains and needlessly long sausage links, some seemingly hanging from the second floor railing, swung hypnotically in the Maw’s gentle heeling. It was a lot to take in, but it made for a lot of options.

Old Mill

Location: Frozen Highlands - Alpine Skyline / Wildwood Glades
Linkle’s @Gentlemanvaultboy

For a few moments Albedo’s eyes lingered on Linkle as she used it to take a flurry of pictures of their surroundings. Without a single dull angle available to either of them, she really could just hold down the button and let her new badge work its magic. In his own world of Teyvat plenty of people shared her enthusiasm when it came to the newfangled devices known as Kameras, delighting in their ability to capture a forever memory in but an instant. Albedo himself never partook, instead finding greater fulfillment in the painstaking act of artistry to immortalize the creatures and landscapes that captured his interest, but she did have a point. This composite world offered an unprecedented amount of variety, a canvas splashed with the colors of countless different places in remarkable density. Even if he managed to make a drawing a day of the fascinating things he encountered, it would easily take a lifetime to depict everything. He did not have that kind of time. So when it came to Linkle snapping pictures as she frolicked among the wildflowers, or even up in the Alpine Skyline, he did not mind one bit. However cruel the World of Light’s origins, it would be a shame to pass its wonders by.

Able to admire the scarlet forest later, the duo managed to reign in their enthusiasm and focus on the gardener. After Linkle gave her and Albedo’s names he introduced himself in turn. “They call me Tuley.” He bent down to pull out a scraggly weed from between a few fresh buds, which he flicked into a bucket of other unwanted flora he’d pruned from his own little slice of paradise. “Freya…” he repeated, stroking his whiskers. “Sorry miss, I dunno anyone by that name. If anyone does though, it'd be the Witch o’ the Woods.”

“A witch?” Albedo prompted him, hoping for more information.

“Mm-hm,” Tuley confirmed. “She watches over the valley. Most kind-hearted lady there ever was. Treats birds ‘n beasts like her own children. Even cares about the plants. Not many folks do.”

The alchemist was already writing in his notebook. “She sounds like just the person to ask. Do you know where she is?”

At that, Tuley shook his bearded head. “‘Fraid I don’t. I don’t get out much, but I heard her house’s tucked away somewhere secret. Can’t find it if ya go lookin’. Maybe you’ll run into ‘er, though.”

One benefit of showing little emotion was not looking discourteously disappointed. “I see, thank you,” Albedo told him. He gave a stiff wave goodbye, then rose to head over to the river of grass and flowers flowing between the trees. It looked like he was already leaving, but in truth he only went out of Tuley’s hearing range for a little privacy, where he waited for Linkle. Her arrival prompted the delivery of his plan. “This valley is quite large, especially for one who does not wish to be found. If this witch is secretive but loves animals, we may be able to draw her out with one. The cries of deer, boar, and elk can carry great distances when distressed. Perhaps we could hunt one.” He considered Linkle’s own kind nature. “Or pretend to do so. A nonlethal wound would achieve the desired effect. Either way, the plan is predicated on your crossbow.” He scrutinized her expression, wondering what Linkle thought.
Barney Rynsburger, Caelum Harrington

Though fear and stress hounded Barney’s every step, almost as bad as the guards scuttling around this place like insects and threatening to expose him at every turn, the would-be engineer took things one step at a time. Since it worked for him before he hid himself among prison lines whenever he could, aided in his deception thanks to an empty, discarded iron mask he found in the central ditch of his path between pens. Once disguised with the same ghastly helmet as the inmates, he was elated to find that the guards barely seemed to register him, even as his prison line walked right past them. Those pit-like faces seemed to be so fixated on searching for the frantic movement of runaway fugitives that none stopped to pick out any finer details on the people right in front of them. Maybe cartoonishly incompetent security came along with the territory of a cartoonishly evil overlord? Feeling a little braver, Barney managed to make pretty good time through the Proving Grounds, even as the blood loss from the wound on his arm began to take its toll.

By the time he finally reached his destination he’d started to feel a little dizzy. A hand clapped over his injury did not a bandage make. Maybe, Barney realized, he should have ripped up his shirt or something to stem the flow early on, but the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. As he climbed the steps to the doors there came a blaring, almost bleating noise from the courthouse behind him, and a panicked look over his shoulder confirmed that the Pondwater’s ‘Vision’ was operational once more. The radiant yellow light swept across the judge’s domain with furious speed, hastening not just Barney but also the incoming Caelum and Mila on their way. Though it looked like the redhead had taken a baton swing to the forearm at some point, she and Caelum were still very much alive, and Barney was glad to see that they made it. Still, he couldn’t relax just yet, not while that awful searchlight could rove his way any moment. With the others behind him he hastened up the last few stairs and into the cathedral doors with a thud. It was too late to worry about the abnormality of such a place sticking straight out of a jailhouse, or it being a potential trap, or even the other escapees he’d now lost sight of. He, Caelum, and Mila needed somewhere to hide.

Unfortunately for them, the door wouldn’t budge. It only rattled as Barney pushed on it, kicking back before he gained so much as an inch of progress. “W-what the!?” For a panicked moment he thought he might have gotten too weak to repeat his feat of pushing open heavy doors, but just a second’s worth of critical thinking told him that the door must be barred from the inside. When he looked again, however, he spotted a recess in the door with a small panel on the other side, right at eye height. With the searchlight getting closer, Barney threw caution to the wind and pounded on the door repeatedly, calling, “Help, open up! We need refuge! Help, please, let us in!”

He didn’t expect it to work. Just a few moments into his ruckus he heard the sound of a latch, and a second later the panel slid open. Inside Barney saw a shadowed but undeniably human face, belonging to a man pretty much the same height as him. He wore what looked like a hood at first glance, but appeared to be more of a hat with a head covering that descended behind it, plus a gleaming silver crown. A pair of yellow eyes stared back at him. “I’m here, I’m here, not so loud!” came a deep, bassy voice, shrunken to an urgent whisper. “What do you require of me?”

Relieved to have found someone who wasn’t a monster, Barney just about pushed his face into the recess. “Just let us in, please! We need a safe place to hide!”

Furtive eyes darted across him, Caelum, and Mila, then on the courthouse beacon overseeing all, before a kindly, understanding sort of expression dawned on the priest. The panel slid closed, the noise of wood sliding across metal came from inside, and the door swung ajar. One after another the fugitives squeezed inside the grand, wax-white cathedral.

A moment later the door closed behind them, but even though it shut out the baleful glare of the judge’s Vision, Barney did not feel at ease. In fact, he felt like he’d just stepped into the courthouse again. Although this place had a very different style, it seemed every bit as ostentatious, making even a big guy feel small, dirty, and unwanted. When it came to aesthetics, at least, he could appreciate its ornate, intricate archways and patterns over the gaudy gold and velvet lavishness of the courthouse. Whereas that other place felt oppressive, meant perhaps to convey the strength and authority of the one in charge, this cathedral sought less mundane, less worldly glorification. An incredible array of statues, all of them stooped or kneeling in worship, stood over countless candles, braziers, and little shrines. A single towering statue of a bearded man with the world on his back stood before the stained glass window at the far wall. Piles and even a few wagons of offerings could be found here and there. Maybe the others wouldn’t see the distinction -he honestly didn’t know if he could describe the difference himself- but he didn’t feel too bad about it. Then again, maybe it was just the halo effect--elation that he’d found a safe place, away from the deadly searchlight.

Caught up in examining his surroundings, Barney almost forgot about his host until the priest approached the newcomers. “Welcome, my lost lambs, to the Church of the One Most Worthy.”

Barney’s attention returned to the man, using the candlelight to take in the man’s features. For a moment he could not respond, suppressed by an inexplicable confusion. Something about this guy, about the same height as Barney, this priest looked heavier, with a bigger and redder beard, was terribly familiar, giving off the impression that Barney saw him somewhere before. He didn’t recognize those weird yellow eyes though, rather like the judge’s, if not quite as intense. Or that strange resonance to his voice, making it sound a little off, and hard to identify. Now that Barney got a good look at him, however, he saw the myriad clasps and chains that bound him. “You’re a prisoner, too?” he asked, letting slip a spur-of-the-moment question.

Expression grave, the stranger bowed his head. “I am. In my infinite charity I have accepted all bondage so that others may be free.”

Not much less confused, Barney asked his real question. “Do I know you?”

The priest gave a curious nod. “Why yes, my child. Though you have often turned your eyes from me, I have always been by your side.”

Barney gulped. No way. It couldn’t be. “Wuh...what are you saying?”

“Hahaha!” the priest laughed. “That’s right. I am the worthy one. The holy one. The faultless one. He who shoulders the burdens of the helpless. He who suffers selflessly under their weight. The only one to whom the gratitude of the world itself is due...” Slowly, the priest extended his finger, pointing at Barney right in the heart. “...You.”

Barney blinked, taken utterly aback. “M-me?”

“Yes, you.” Spreading his arms wide, the stranger lifted up his arms, allowing his chains to glitter in the candlelight. “He whose very presence shines blessed light upon the woeful blight of the inferior. Saint Barney Rynsburger, at your service.” With a broad smile he clasped his hands, looking between the students. “You may now commence the thanks and praise.”

Dakota Rhett, Vincent Cawler, Nick Waller

After narrowly avoiding the guards, Dakota and Vincent kept moving. For all of the veteran criminal’s experience against law-enforcement personnel of various stripes, the monstrous sentries of the Prison of Indictment somehow seemed to operate on movie logic after all. Though tireless as they were vicious, the guards lacked perception or large-scale coordination. Anyone with a few moments to think about the situation whilst hiding might note the lack of a general alarm, despite the presence of fugitives surely being common knowledge at this point. As odd as everything was, it afforded the escapees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they needed to make the most of it before the searchlights flared up once more.

Dakota could feel as much as hear the slight, ephemeral beat on the wind. It reached him again and again, faint but steady as a metronome. With Vincent beside him, Nick a ways behind, and the need for refuge growing every moment, he allowed it to guide him closer and closer to the entertainment center. A wary and a stop-and-go strategy kept them out of the way of the roaming guards until they finally reached the unusual structure. Jammed right in between two jailhouses and very different from them in construction, it seemed even weirder up close, but there was no time for second thoughts. They needed to get in.

The sheltering darkness within was a major relief. It promised to hide the fugitives from both the guards and the searchlights outside, giving them a chance to sink down for some long-overdue rest. From inside the venue, however, everyone could hear the music much louder and clearer than before. Following it even farther would lead to the music hall itself, a live performance in the dark awash with colorful spotlights. Nebulous, shadowy formers bounced in the audience before a stage with but one rockstar performer, playing as if there was no tomorrow.

Jin Ifriti, Harriette Moore, Alina Sanford

Constantly harried and forced to scramble for any means of escape at every turn, Jin, Harriette, and Alina ended up ducking into one of the imposing jailhouses. After running past rows and rows of caged inmates, all either asleep in their beds or hard at work after their desks, they finally found a cranny to hide in. A single cell, larger than the rest and open, beckoned invitingly, like the mouth of a mysterious cave. One after another the three hurried inside. Pounding footsteps and angry shouts grew near, went by, and finally faded away. At long last, muscles burning from exertion and throats ragged from hyperventilation could rest, and all the pain accumulated since their arrival in this crazy, hellbent world could start to ease.

At least, that was the hope. The fugitives were not, sadly, that lucky. Once sure that their pursuers were long gone, they could turn on their phones’ flashlights to find that the cell was no longer open. Somehow, amidst all the commotion, metal bars had snaked across the door to form an impenetrable barrier. They were blocked in. Worse still, their lights told them they were not alone in here. Once directed downward their lights revealed human bodies scattered around the floor, contorted in horrific positions. Despite the initial shock, however, these ash-gray bodies featured no faces, and one touch was sufficient to reduce them to piles of dust. The real problem came after their lights flickered and died, in too quick a succession to possibly be coincidence. In the dark they could see two piercing red lights, side by side, casting them in a crimson glare--the eyes of some unknown horror.
Let's give this another shot, eh?

I'm going with a sorta amalgam here, taking aspects of the character from both the first and second game, not a lot of changes - allowing powers from the first game that didn't come over the second, and keeping a plot point that had been resolved at the end of the second, but still changes nonetheless!

Overall, a good sheet. Gives the impression of a solid all-arounder whose main focuses on adventuring and mental health will bring a fresh perspective to the team. Hopefully he's able to heal more trauma than he has to endure himself. We can go over an entry point later but at this point in the RP it would be less straightforward to stick him in Blue Team, what with the situation aboard the Maw. But if you wanted we could probably make it work. Accepted.
Dead Zone Recon II

Starring Banjo & Kazooie’s @Dawnrider, Pit’s @Yankee, and Yuri’s @Gentlemanvaultboy
Word Count: 6142 (+7)

Only after the trip across the Land of Adventure was about twenty minutes underway did Nero really get a grasp of its scale--and realize he’d made the absolute correct choice gunning for a vehicle to cross it with. These rolling plains, verdant forests, and breezy hills went on forever. The Bowsermobile made steady progress through the picturesque scenery under Banjo’s direction, skirting around craggy rocks and fording sparkling streams when need be, but they had a long way to go, and offroading was never a comfortable prospect. Nero dreaded running of gas but said nothing, since he couldn’t see how it would help. Instead he kept his eyes on whatever creatures he spotted from his rear seat throughout the course of the journey. Occasionally he glimpsed a creature from his own world, like buffalo or prairie dogs, but more often his searching eyes found fauna on the fantastical side. He could see prehistoric monsters from the long-necked giants to the raptors to strange ones that daffled his powers of description before they disappeared from his view. Unfamiliar birds walked the land or soared through the sky alongside bizarre mantas whose rumbling noises could be heard even on the ground. Once, an aggressive troll-like brute charged at the Bowsermobile from behind, but a number of well-placed shots from Nero and Pit convinced it to stay away.

Other than that, the trip across the Land of Adventure remained mostly uneventful. The majority of creatures that the team encountered seemed determined to mind their own business so long as the intruders minded theirs, and when the four encountered a small team of Lumbridge adventurers out on some quest they either greeted each other without stopping or simply moved along. Since they didn’t need supplies or have anything to do there the mercenaries skipped a stop at Lumbridge altogether and carried on northwest, until the green greens of the Land of Adventure finally gave way to arid badlands. It was about noon when the Bowsermobile finally choked its last, totally out of juice, and slid to a stop. Nero sighed and hauled himself from the car to land on the dusty road and stretch the cramps from his muscles. “Well,” he said, looking a few miles ahead to where an edifice of white concrete and gleaming metal rose stood alone, “We almost made it.” He regarded the weighty vehicle with a dubious stare, wondering if the others would be much good if push came to shove.

After a few moments of contemplation the devil hunter raised a finger and tapped it in the air a couple times, as if drumming up buried memories. “You know what, we might not have to push the damn thing. I remember seeing a giant, bright yellow truck at the gas station. It had to have been a tow truck.” He glanced between Banjo and Pit and settled on the latter. “Hey, you’re a speedy kid, right? Care to use all that energy to run down and let ‘em know we’re stuck out here?”

"I'm not a kid," Pit huffed. Despite the whole 'Kid Icarus' thing! He crossed his arms and leaned towards Nero, eyeing the devil hunter up and down. "Your gray head doesn't fool me, you're like, what, twenty? I'm probably older than you."

Nero rubbed his hair, a little embarrassed. “Ah. Sorry.”

The angel waved dismissively, taking no real offense. It might have been telling that even while Pit was rebutting the "kid" comment, his feet still started moving. He was a servant of a goddess, emphasis on servant, apparently. He thought Kazooie might be faster since she was a... roadrunner? No, what was it. Bre... something? Oh well. Considering she and Banjo were a package deal though, lugging the bear along might be tiring. "I'll go let somebody know!"

A half hour later the four arrived at Hammerhead. They were hot, tired, and sweaty, but things could have been a lot worse, and they’d made it to the waypoint Nero spoke of at last. Here they could rest and refuel both their ride and themselves before heading for the Dead Zone. The tow truck brought the Bowsermobile to a stop by a fuel pump and hopped out onto the tarmac. The truck driver, which he knew to be the daughter of the owner, gave the mercenaries a cheerful wave. “Y’all have a good one, folks! Lemme know if ya need anythin’!”

Nero waved her off, then wiped his brow. “Whew. Could use some water after that one.”

At their stop, Banjo withdrew the Lance from the floorboard that he had been using to reach the pedals from the driver’s seat and disembarked the Bowsermobile. He didn’t get in any hurry to refuel it, however, not knowing what the machine was powered by, and having never (canonically) dealt with refueling any vehicle he had ever driven. Not exactly the most acceptable excuse to be lazy for the moment, but he took it anyway to follow Nero’s lead on the afforded moment of downtime.

“Is that a restaurant over there?” Yuri said in between breaths, extending her finger out toward the nearby Grillby’s. The prospect of shade and a nice, ice cold drink sounded wonderful.

“Uh huh,” Nero replied, but his eyes only touched on the diner for a moment. Instead his focus lay squarely on the all-too-familiar van parked in front of the gas station. Though dirtied by ash and mucilage, dented and dinged all over, and scratched by monstrous claws in the course of its perilous journey, there was no mistaking it. A certain someone’s prized, tough-as-nails Minotaurus, in the flesh so to speak. A heavy sigh of relief welled up deep within the devil hunter, releasing the knotted-up tension in his core. “Go ahead, I’ll join ya in a second. Gonna see about our ride.”

"Aw, no more convertible?" Pit lamented. It had been kind of fun cruising around in King Bowser's car.

He was fanning himself with his wings, but it did little to fight the heat. He had no qualms about leading the way toward the restaurant, where hopefully it was a little cooler inside.

Nero made for the vehicle at a brisk pace, seeing nobody in the driver’s or passenger’s seats as he approached. When he slowed down beside it he thumped the door with an open hand. “Hey! anyone home?”

From inside he heard assorted thumps and clatters as fallen objects hit the ground, followed by a rush of footsteps. A moment later the door burst open, only narrowly missing Nero’s unmoving nose, to reveal none other than the sassy gunsmith he was looking for. Nico crossed her arms and gave a toothy grin as she looked down at him. “Hey, honey. Miss me?”

“About as far as I could throw you,” Nero told her, idly scratching his head, but his friend had no trouble at all discerning his true feelings. As she smirked he ran a hand along the van’s doorframe. “Guess you and your junker made it out of there in one piece, huh?”

With a haunted look she scoffed. “Barely! I beat that damn blast by just about ten minutes, give or take, an’ it still keeled my van right over and knocked me on my ass. Just about blinded me, too! When my head finally quit achin’ I went ‘n looked, an’ the whole stinkin’ city was one big crater. But it was startin’ to storm, so I flipped the van an’ hightailed it back here.”

She leaned against the doorframe, running a hand through her hair. Nero guessed it left quite the impression, but his mission was to see that same sight for himself. “So it’s all gone? Everything erased by the explosion?”

“Not quite.” His friend narrowed her eyes. “It’s crazy, but somehow, the Qliphoth’s still there. Just pokin’ right up out of the middle and reachin’ right up to the sky, all alone. Thing’s tougher than a two-dollar steak, that’s for damn sure.”

Nero grimaced, shaking his head in disbelief. “Great. Well, guess we’re not done after all.”

Twice Nico blinked in surprise. “What, ya mean we’re goin’ back there? You go off your rocker or somethin’?”

Shrugging, the devil hunter told her, “The Seekers wanted to check to see if they still needed to take out the boss, and I volunteered. Was hoping to run into you on the way.”

“Aw, so ya did miss me! I ain’t huggin’ ya, though.”

Nero treated her to a derisive snort. “So can you give us a ride or not?”

“Hmm…” With a mischievous grin Nico stepped down from her van. “Maybe if ya buy me lunch.”

Though he rolled his eyes Nero turned in the direction of the diner, and Nico followed him after closing the side door. “Jeez, you’re gonna squeeze me dry. Well, come on. The rest of us went to get something anyway, so what’s one more addition to the party.” They crossed Hammerhead’s dusty lot and stepped inside.

It wasn't hard to find the rest of his crew. They were seated together at one end of the bar, where someone had taken the liberty of ordering a whole pizza for the group. The pie seemed to have just recently arrived, soft steam was wafting from it, and a squeak of "hot!" came from somewhere among the four.

Pit had a slice in front of him, as well as a milkshake and a plate of sweet cake, making for an unusual pairing. The angel was swiveling on his stool slightly, not even close to tall enough for his feet to brush the ground, and he looked over at the door when the bell chimed. He noticed their new addition and smiled brightly at her. "One down, one to go! Hi there!"

Though she didn’t recognize the angel Nico was quick to return the smile. “Heya! Looks like we’re already in business!” With Nero following behind, who was trying not to think about how Pit seemed to be enjoying his savories and sweets in the same mouthful, she headed over and planted herself on an unoccupied stool.

Once the devil hunter joined her she treated him to an expectant look until he flagged down the waiter. “‘Scuse me. A breaded cutlet, please. And...a Grease Monkey’s Schnitzel Sandwich for the, uh, lady.”

The fellow nodded and went off to tell the cook. Nico crossed her arms in mock reproach. “Har har. Just ‘cause I do work for truckers don’t mean I eat like one.” She didn’t seem too put off, however, and Nero said nothing further. Instead he took a look around, both to see if the bear, bird, and medium were getting on as well as Pit, and to check out Grillby’s other patrons. Given the remoteness of the place there wasn’t exactly a crowd, but he noticed a portly old biker, a blonde girl who reminded him of Cindy on her phone, and a group of three very lost vikings enjoying a midday feast.

Yuri, much like she had on the car ride over, sat with her arms and tucked in close to her body as she picked her way through an egg fried crustacean bowl. A cup of coffee, steaming hot as per Heat-Man prerogative, sat half empty beside a plastic bottle of water that was completely drained. Every time Pit swiveled in her direction she swiveled away just as slightly, turning the pair into an odd metronome. Still, she looked pleased as punch that she hadn’t been necessary to find Nero’s friend. “It’s a pleasure to see you okay, miss.” She said. “My name is Yuri.”

Cordial and cheerful as ever, Nico greeted Yuri with a warm grin. “Nice to meetcha too! Reckon grumpy here told y’all all about me, then? Gotta say I’m kinda surprised. Wouldn’t a-thought he’d go and make even more pals.”

“We’re just trying to do what’s best for everyone,” Nero gruffed.

“Uh huh, sure.” The machinist didn’t buy it for one second. She leaned over to make sure that Banjo and Kazooie were still in two pieces. “Hey again. You two remember me, right? I didn’t do any fightin’ out there, but if ya need somethin’ made or fixed up, y’all won’t be forgettin’ my artisanry.”

With a nod, Banjo assured her, “Yes, ma’am. We remember,” save for her name. “It’s good to see you made it out okay, Miss.”

Two more plates arrived at about that time, the breaded pork for Nero and the sandwich for Nico. Despite her earlier protests the machinist dug right in, and when her friend looked at her askance she shrugged in reply. “You’re just lucky I’m the kind of sophisticated lady what likes German food.”

Nero snorted. “That stuff’s about as German as you’re sophisticated.”

“Huhuh! Thanks!”

“Hmm… All this food looks kind of familiar,” Banjo casually remarked when a filling entree he could still eat with his oversized hands was set in front of him. Sparing the reference little thought, Kazooie began pecking away at the plate-load of a singular side dish that came with the order, while both wondered who would be picking up the tab and how.

“Anything useful you can tell us about where we’re heading?” she asked Nico between beakfuls, taking her on her offer to help in not the most gracious of manner (nor considering the specifics of the offer). “Like, do we actually need to go back still, or...” While the idea of a return trip to the freshly obliterated Dead Zone didn’t exactly scare her the way it probably should have, she would be less keen to find out upon arrival that they were backtracking for little to nothing. She awaited an answer, expecting disappointment…

With a mouthful of sandwich, all that Nico could say for the moment was mmph?

“There are still the people who are missing. Seven, now that we found Miss Nico.” Yuri said, thinking back to the list of names on the mission bored. She turned her attention back to Nico. “Did you see any evidence of them on your way here? Ratchet? Noctis? A Doom...Slayer?” She had precious little information about these people besides their names and the mental images that those names called to mind, which wasn’t a lot to go on. Beside her, Pit was doing a poor job of hiding his snicker at the last name she listed off.

After downing her food with the help of a drink of water. “Uh, Noctis, yeah. I was curious myself, so I done asked around a bit. Guess he an’ ‘is friends took our warnin’ to heart ‘n hightailed it outta the Dead Zone. Came by here while we were still muckin’ around in there, then went eastish. The others, I dunno.” She bit off another piece of her sandwich and set the rest down, chewing while she thought.

“Thank goddess.” Yuri said.

“As fer the Dead Zone, it’s basically a big honkin’ crater, but somehow the Qliphoth’s still standin’. Dunno how it survived the nuke, but there it is, right as rain.”

“Figures.” Kazooie responded flatly, Banjo nodding with a soft sigh. They both knew better than to think it would be that easy.

Nero bristled, his expression sour. “That means our target is too--the Dead Zone’s ‘boss.’” He shook his head ruefully. “Couldn’t just give us a break and go down with the city, I guess. Since we’re on scouting duty, we should drive there and see what we can. Clear the way for the takedown team.” Raising his glass he finished off his water in a few long gulps. Kazooie wasn’t the only one who wanted to avoid the place, they couldn’t push their duty aside. Not given the state of things.

"Wait, what's a kly-fodd?" Pit asked, looking between those that had seen it before. It didn't sound very fearsome, but if it could survive that huge explosion... and wasn't even the area's boss? "Are we gonna have to deal with it while we're on clean up duty? Is it a demon? Zombie? ...zombie-demon?"

“A demon tree, more or less,” Nero replied. “We’re just handling recon, so we’re not taking it down just yet. But we’ll probably still need to defend ourselves at some point, so don’t relax just yet.” The devil hunter took a moment to consider his current surroundings. “Or, get your relaxing done while we’re here, I guess.”

"Don't have to tell me twice," Pit laughed. He returned to his food, but thoughts about the "demon tree" were still spinning around in his head. He ended up looking back and forth between his plate and his companions, pausing in his eating whenever a question came to mind.

"D'you think it's weak to fire because it's a tree, or since it's kinda demon-y it's used to fire?" He turned to Nico, eyes bright. "Could you make a flamethrower? Oh, does Nero's hand already shoot fire?"

He stopped after the words tumbled out of his mouth, another thought suddenly popping into his head. "I guess thinking about it doesn't exactly count as relaxing. Hehe, sorry."

“Can it shoot fire though?” Yuri asked, genuinely curious now that Pit had asked. “Or rockets? Laser beams?” Apparently nothing was now outside the realm of possibility.

"That would be so cool!"

“Hold your horses, partner!” Nico laughed. “I don’t suspect the tree’s weak to nothin’ after takin’ that nuke, but if y’all need flamethrowers, ya got the right gal! I can fix up a simple doohickey like that in my sleep!”

At the risk of inviting a relevant practical issue back to the table when advised to relax, Banjo decided to get ahead of their travel arrangements. “So… do we still need both vehicles, or would we rather carpool there?” A prudent question to be sure, but it would be a lie to say he wasn’t looking to subtract further operation, care or maintenance of the Bowsermobile from his list of responsibilities. Better to leave it with more qualified people in a safer area, lest it turn out, in the worst case, that the wrathful king held it dear, but mostly Banjo just wanted to take the trip a little easier. With already another on the itinerary, he figured it would be difficult enough.

Nero thought about it. “I think we should all take the van. Plenty of room, more storage, more protection, more everything.” He noticed his friend wheeling her hand around expectantly, and with a quick sigh added, “And a better driver.”

“No argument there,” Banjo concurred amicably.

Yuri smiled at the decision. The Koopa car had been too cramped for her tastes. It was just a quick turn or a sudden bump away from her brushing shoulders with the person seated next to her, and there was an inherent risk every time that happened of her seeing something she wasn’t supposed to see. “None from me, as well. A friend of my mentor had a van he would loan to us occasionally when she had to travel for work. They’re very comfortable vehicles. It should make for a pleasant ride.” She had no idea what she was in for.

A few minutes more and the freshly refueled mercenaries made their way to the freshly refueled van. They piled into its shaded, temperature-regulated interior, and once all were aboard with Nero riding shotgun and Nico behind the wheel, their driver revved the engines. A moment later the weighty vehicle was rumbling down the open road, Hammerhead left in its dust.

The roads of the Paved Wilderness lead steadily northeast through arid, craggy badlands, past sandy riverbeds and giant caterpillars of hardy shrubs. Despite the blasted hellscape that awaited them at the end of their journey, Nico’s passengers couldn’t do much but pass the time until they arrived. The terrain outside, at least, offered some distraction. They passed anthills several times taller than the average man, complete with rather large ants. Much taller were the strange curled spires that rose above the scrubland, inviting much wonderment. Some time later the van rolled through a region that looked as though it was made of cheese, though how sanitary said cheese might be was up for debate. There certainly seemed to be a couple vehicles parked here and there, be they tourists’ camper vans or trucks for hauling off nature’s cheesy bounty once harvested.

Most eye-catching, however, were the manmade elements of the region. Racetracks littered the terrain, weaved over and around one another. At one point, Nico nearly had to swerve to avoid an odd-looking machine as it soared off a natural ramp nearby. As it flew through the air the group could see a vehicle styled after a grasshopper, which landed a moment later on the next part of its racetrack and sped off down the road. Those who took it on themselves to look backward would find a frog bot, a stag beetle, and a whole host of other animal-themed racers in hot pursuit. The frog pulled away from the others, a mechanical arm extending from its top to reach out and grab a pole that stood up from the ground. It span at high speed, rising higher and higher, and finally launched back in the direction of the track to overtake the grasshopper in an impressive display of both courage and skill. The centipede tried the maneuver too, but ended up missing its mark and wiping out against a wall of rock. As it exploded in a shower of twisted metal Nico glanced in the rear-view mirror, eyebrow raised. “Well ain’t that somethin’. Sure hope people weren’t actually drivin’ those, huh?”

“We can only pray.” Yuri stutterd out. She hadn’t seen the crash. She turned away and shut her eyes tight the moment she had realized what was about to happen but that hadn’t blocked out the terrible, familiar, sound of the impact. It made her feel queasy.

Eventually the wastes gave way to rocky hills, their coats of green grass suggesting that at last the mercenaries had left the Paved Wilderness behind. Along with it went the sunny blue skies, clear as crystal, in favor as gray cloud cover. The team drew closer to their goal in near-silence; both pleasant exchanges and idle distractions were behind them now that they could see their target. Nero, Nico, Banjo, and Kazooie remembered the Qliphoth from their time in the Dead Zone prior, the coiled demonic trunk that rose like a colossal pillar from the ruined city’s center, its highest reaches unwound to interlace with the lowest point of the blanket of darkness that hung over the Dead Zone in a mad spiral. Now, however, the Qliphoth defied comparison. It hung over the city like a colossal balloon, or another planet, moored to the ground by countless cords, its ‘surface’ the interlaced canopy threads of pale trees whose trunks came together to meet at a single core. Only its bottom reaches could be seen beneath the storm clouds, but it couldn’t be much less wide than the city itself. When the van reached a hilltop just beyond Redgraccoon’s outskirts, the team could step outside and see from that overlook what lay below the Qliphoth--or rather, what didn’t. Of the cursed city nothing remained. Just a crater. Ashen stone blotched by a vast tract of tar, the shape of which Nero thought rather resembled a gigantic handprint.

The devil hunter could hear the rumble of thunder. It looked like it was raining over the city, liable to sweep his group’s way any minute now. He sighed. “Well. At least there’s no more zombies.”

"Yeah but there's that! Jeez, you guys weren't kidding!" Pit had been openly staring at the Qliphoth since they'd parked. It was exactly as they'd described, a demonic tree, but was so much bigger than he'd expected. No wonder it had survived the explosion. He was surprised they hadn't seen it way earlier during the drive, but the storm clouds prevented that he guessed.

Eventually he tore his eyes away to look at the crater around it. "Looks like there's nothing else, at least from up here," the angel said, "we going to take a closer look anyway?"

As hard as it was to rip her attention away from the demon tree, once she did Yuri was far more disturbed in what lay below it. Barren and lifeless, nothing to draw the eye, except for the liquid and its disquiting shape. “Black?” she said to herself, transfixed on it. She raised the Camera Obscura to her eye and peered through it down into the crater, using the camera's meager zoom to get as close a look as possible at the tar. It couldn't be the same thing. The Shadow Spring was sealed, forever, but Yuri wasn’t willing to give that liquid the benefit of the doubt about being natural. Not with that shape, and not with the feeling she was getting. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as the chill coiled up around her spine like a serpent.

“No, there is something down there. I can feel it. That crater is not empty.” she said anxiously to Pit, lowering the camera so as not to provoke anything. It was as she had feared when she had learned the name of this place. After an explosion like that, the only thing left were the ghosts. “I can’t tell how many, or how strong, but if we get closer I might be able to lead us around them. If not…”

She looked back at Nico, an idea inspired by their earlier conversation in the diner. “I don’t suppose you have a ‘ghost-busters’ arm stashed away in your van?” She asked. That was a cinematic special effect she wouldn't mind at all seeing in real life. “My Camera Obscura can drive off spirits if they attack, but I don’t know if all of your weapons would work on them.”

The inventor was forced to shake her head. “Sorry, hun. Ain’t a lot of ghosts where we come from, an’ bullets work pretty much fine on those we do got.”

"Guess you'll be depending on me then!" Pit said, puffing his chest out proudly. "I've got plenty of experience with spirits, specters, and all kinds of Underworld baddies. Ghosts won't be a problem!"

Yuri’s warning, meanwhile, had prompted some extra caution from Nero. The devil hunter couldn’t see what she saw or feel what she felt, but it was hard to deny that an odd feeling hung over this place, more palpable than those rainclouds. Even if he couldn’t see any active threats across the miles of desolation, the atmosphere was heavy, even disquieting. Like the sensation that gnaws one when visiting a site of historical tragedy, a place where vast amounts of people died. Nero knew that feeling from his last stint in Redgrave City, seeing all those flaky, human-shaped masses of bloodless matter. It was a heavy feeling.

“It doesn’t look like there’s anything else,” he confirmed Pit’s assessment after a few more moments. “Don’t know if we can get away with not taking a closer look, though. There could be pits or trenches we’re not seeing, or unstable ground, or hidden dangers of some kind. If we go back without at least trying to get an idea of any hazards, anything that happens to the strike team’s gonna be on us.” He rolled his shoulders and tramped forward, headed down the slope toward the crater. “Up here with me, Yuri. If there’s ghosts we’ll need you handy.”

The team proceeded in the direction of the Qliphoth. Though the rough terrain proved to be annoying enough to demand a bare minimum of attention paid to one’s footwork, it was hardly hazardous, and with no enemies whatsoever to be found the trek quickly got boring. Whether through instinct or response to that earlier sinking feeling, however, Nero kept his guard up and his eyes open.

As his crew drew closer to the crater he noticed only one real oddity, which took the form of the area’s vegetation. The land for a good distance beyond the crater’s perimeter on any side but the west -which opened straight into Empty Space- was green with low-lying grass, but that band contained no trees or shrubs of any kind. Way to the east lay the forest at the foothills of the mountainous area that eventually swelled into a range of peaks that separated the Dead Zone’s region from the Sandswept Sky. Its trees cut off in a notable abrupt fashion, not at the edge of the crater, but at the band. Though no botanist Nero thought that the trees right at the forest’s outer reaches facing the crater looked unwell; their color and stature set them apart. Some kind of radiation, maybe? Not a pleasant thought.

A grumble of thunder turned his attention forward, to where he could see a curtain of rain advancing out from the devastation to greet him. He peered into the oncoming rain, too paranoid to be at peace, and soon enough noticed something else that struck him as odd. He could see distant birds taking off as the wall of precipitation drew near, and they flew away from the city center with what appeared to be haste. And he couldn’t be sure, but Nero thought he saw the couple of flapping black dots that got caught in the rain suddenly fall but to earth again.

A handful of the crows flew overhead, their raucous cawing breaking his focus. Nero slowed to a stop, his expression cloudier than the sky overhead. Raindrops were starting to fall here and there, splashing on the grass and exposed stone. Suddenly he became aware of something descending a few hundred feet away. One of the noisy birds that had fallen behind now dropped to the earth, its wings and legs in the grip of spasms. A chill ran down Nero’s back. Something wasn’t right.

"Erm… Kazooie?" Banjo started, upon observing the ailing avian stock dropping like rocks in the rain. "You wouldn't happen to be allergic to rain, would you?" he asked in a half-assed attempt to rationalize the approaching phenomena.

"Not that I know of..." she replied simply, somewhat nervously. The sensation that something was dreadfully wrong was shared between them…

Yuri felt it too, and it piled on to her mistrust of the water. As a drop landed near her she instinctively took a step away from where it had fallen. “We should go back to the van.” She said, a sense of urgency rising in her voice as she began backing up. “There’s something wrong with the water.”

“Yeah, let’s go, go, go! Now!” Nero’s voice became a commanding yell that, along with the general sense of tension and disquiet, shocked everyone into action. The small group took off as if they had springs in their heels, sprinting over the disheveled ground back the way they came. Seeing the team headed her way in a real hurry, Nico quit lounging around the hood of her van and made for the driver’s seat. A moment later the engine of the formidable Minotaurus roared to life, but as it reached the mercenaries the swelling sound of rainfall was coming up behind them.

Like hellhounds at their feet, grasses and flowers sprouted from the naked earth in mere moments, growing to full size and then wilting in an impossibly short span of time. Frontrunner drops spattered against them. Just a few turned cloth ragged, then threadbare. A droplet’s touch could turn hairs gray, fray feathers, or age a body’s epidermis, making one’s skin thinner, paler, drier, less elastic, and even wrinkled or spotty. Of course, it lay beyond any unfortunate soul’s power to realize just what was happening, and they only felt the sting of what might as well be acid rain as it came down.

As Nero approached he could see slight blotches of discoloration on the roof of the van, but he focused instead on the door. Nico had thrown it wide open in preparation for abrupt departure; everyone could jump inside. But would that be fast enough? Nero, Banjo, and Pit all moved with superhuman speed, but Yuri had no such luck. The devil hunter turned and readied his Bringer to Wire Snatch the girl to safety.

Kazooie carried Banjo on the fleetest of feet in the scouting party, but in so doing faced her partner to the sky from which oily black droplets of stinging entropy fell upon him in their efforts to effectively outpace the encroaching storm that brought it. Banjo shielded his face as best as he could as splotches of grey burned into his fur, wore frayed threads into his shorts and backpack straps, and lightly weathered and rusted his belt buckle. Kazooie bounded for the van’s open doors, turning over to avert Banjo from further rain blight while she receded into the relative safety of his backpack, and Banjo tucked into himself to shield his from the rain and impending impact as he unintentionally became a living cannonball, clumsily barrelling in dangerously past Nico hailing them in.

"Ow, ow!" Though skeptical at first (after all, how dangerous could rain really be?), once the first droplet of water touch him Pit pulled his wings in as tight to his body as possible and ran all the harder. He was thoroughly convinced after that moment. What is wrong with this rain?! he thought, swatting at the falling water for all the good it did. He bodily threw himself through the doors of the van, probably leaving a dent in the interior where he'd collided with the steel. Dazed but unfazed, Pit scrambled up and out of the way, peering out of the opening. "Come on come on, hurry!"

Yuri wrapped her arms close to her body and kept her head down as stinging raindrops caressed her head and shoulders. Even the rain on Mt. Hikami had never been so accursed as to hurt like this. Was it the demon tree? The explosion? Or was whatever entity had left that print responsible? Regardless, all she could do was grit her teeth and run while knowing she would catch the worst of it.

Before she could get soaked, though, she felt something wrap around her chest. She could only see it was a wire before she was suddenly yanked through the air by a force strong enough to throw around whole demons. Luckily she was already mostly tucked in, so Nero was able to catch her and deposit her onto the van floor like a football. She looked up at him, breathing heavy, streaks of grey standing stark against the raven black of her hair. “Thank you.” She said.

Niceties could come later. Rather than reply to Yuri Nero hauled himself up to the front of the van, shouting, “Gun it, Nico!” even though he barely needed to tell her. Like an prodded beast the engine of the Minotaurus roared to life, sending the wheels into a frenzied spin that tore through the moss and loam of the former Dead Zone’s peripheral plains to speed the van on its way. The rocky terrain jolted it occupants violently, demanding their full attention just to avoid ricocheting around like billiard balls, but no amount of bruises compared to the threat of accelerated aging. With Nico at the wheel and the pedal to the metal, the van rocked and rattled toward and past the stormfront. It wasn’t long before they reached the road and could really start to pick up speed. The timefall, meanwhile, slowed down behind them.

Once the brutal jostling gave way to a smooth if not leisurely ride, and the mercenaries had the inclement weather squarely in their rear view mirror, they could steady their breathing and calm their frenzied hearts. Nursing a bloody scrape on his forehead, Nero cast one last, long look back, into the misty haze of deadly rain and the sky-high Qliphoth that loomed within. “Scary,” he breathed.

With the ice broken, Nico did not hold back. “You gotta be shittin’ me with that rain!” she fumed. “That bullcrap turned a coupla my curls gray and gave me a big ol’ wrinkle smack dab on my forehead! Lookie here, see? Just like my grandma’s, bless ‘er heart!”

“Caught a couple drops myself,” the devil hunter said dryly. “We got out in time, though, and we’ve got a hell of a report to give.” With a sigh he turned his gaze on the dusty road ahead. “And a long way back.” After wiping a backhand’s worth of sweat and dirt from his brow he got up, removed his coat, and went to hit the onboard shower.
Team Mao

Location: Al Mamoon Northeast - Rocket Inc.
Midna’s @DracoLunaris, Sectonia’s @Archmage MC, Mao’s @Potemking, Jesse’s @Zoey Boey, Joker, Fox, Necronomicon, Braum

Without wasting time on deliberation, Joker’s two allies engaged the Resistance fighters that threatened his plan to go after Nastasia, and as ever Mao did not hesitate to get his hands dirty. Protected by his shield, Braum was just about invincible from the front, but with only scattered pieces of that navy blue armor on his person he could not boast an impregnable defense from other angles. Being much, much smaller than his target, the little overlord had only so many options when it came to picking a target, so with sword in hand he struck at Braum’s calves. After all, human fragility means that a single slice through the right tendon would topple the big man where he stood. In the heat of the moment and poor light of the arena, however, Mao only realized that his opponent happened to be wearing greaves when a metallic clang rang out and the impact jarred his hands.

The failure of Mao’s surprise attack alerted Braum to his presence, and as the demon backpedaled to avoid a guaranteed counterattack, the Heart of the Freljord spun to deliver it. The weight of his enlarged shield meant he couldn’t lift it fast enough to strike normally with, so instead he left it standing there and came at Mao with a giant hook. He poured enough strength into the dizzying punch to scatter Mao’s teeth across the arena, but the blow came slow enough that the overlord could flee the danger zone and live to chew another day. A second later his longsword carved through the air once again, this time aimed for a more exposed part of Braum’s body. The hunk of scrap metal that slammed into Braum’s back, nearly doubling him over, gave Mao the perfect opportunity. But even then he couldn’t catch a break. His steel drew blood, but even with demonic might stopped short of bone, stymied by dense muscles, tough sinews, and formidable gristle. And even as pain twisted his face, Braum threw his diminutive opponent a manly smile. “Come now, friend! It’ll take a lot more than that!” He then grit his teeth, and with bulging muscles lifted his oversized shield high enough to slam it into the ground, creating a tremor strong enough to throw Mao off his feet if he didn’t jump. In a way, his efforts seemed almost more like showing off than a real attack. Not every human, it seemed, was made of tissue paper.

After hurling some debris into the fight between Braum and Mao, Jesse turned her attention to settling her score with Sven. He’d hindered her with an unwelcome transformation last time, but without a brainwashed defender getting in her way, the FBC director saw no reason to change her plan. This time, it went off without a hitch. Electricity flew far faster than glass vials, and the old alchemist couldn’t prevent Jesse’s reality-altering revolver engorged his already-sizeable midsection. After only a handful of shots his stubby legs could no longer support him, at which point his last ditch attempt to throw a potion at Jesse caused him to teeter forward onto his stomach, where he could to little but wheeze and wriggle, totally defeated. Even then the parautilitarian took no chances, recycling the metal she’d pelted Braum with to nudge her corpulent opponent further away from the fight.

Joker, meanwhile, had reached his target. Though he’d launched into a sprint the moment he’d landed after jumping off Braum, kicking up sand with each footstep, he slowed as he got closer. In his peripherals he caught sight of billowing mist as it filled the colosseum. Remembering Ciella’s attack from the conference room, he readied himself for any purple circles or blue charged shots, but other than that did not trouble himself too much. It wasn’t just caution that took the wind from his sails right now, either; rather, the sight of Nastasia all alone invoked a mixture of contempt and pity. Without any allies left, the little secretary was trying to pick up one of the alien rifles a Vandal left behind, but it was too heavy for her. She couldn’t so much as get it out of the sand, let alone wield it. Joker approached at a saunter with his hands in his pockets, watching without sympathy as Nastasia strained to raise the weapon. “Out of bodies to throw at us?” Unceremoniously Joker kicked the rifle from her hands to slide across the floor, and when his own hand came down it held his new revolver, leveled at his enemy’s head. It was empty, but she didn’t know that, and a gun offered a lot more intimidation than a knife. Sure enough, Nastasia fell flat on her rear, whimpering. Though pretty sure by now that she needed to get her hands on his head in order to brainwash him, Joker remained a good six feet away. “Game over. Release everyone you’ve enslaved and announce your surrender, or else.”

The next few moments, however, made it a challenge to keep his focus on Nastasia. As it turned out, despite Jesse’s best efforts, Sven’s part in the battle had yet to conclude. Sectonia, generally annoyed by her nemesis and frazzled by the explosion of his Chaos Lance after she’d blinked out of the way of a direct hit, decided to take a little revenge for being used against Ciella earlier by doing a little using of her own. Sven craned his neck upward in confusion as the giant wasp appeared before him, only to disappear again a moment later. Her departure, however, revealed a sight that made his eyes go wide in terror. A nebulous vortex of distorted space, like a malignant rift in reality itself, bore down upon him like a bowling ball careening toward a lone pin, but something in Sven’s gut told him that he wouldn’t be spared. Spittle flew from his mouth as he shrieked, his panicked voice pleading, “Shadow, stop! STOOOOOOOOP-!”

His cry for mercy gave way to a wordless howl of death, but only for a brief moment. The next he was gone. Destroyed. The Chaos Burst tore through the arena’s metal floor, leaving a hole in its wake. A moment later Shadow flew back out, totally ignorant of what happened, to engage Sectonia once again. “All you do is run!” he snarled, and after curling up he launched himself at his foe in another Spin Attack. This time he did not use Chaos Burst, but relied on his Spin Attack’s homing ability to chase Sectonia down wherever she fled and slam into her like a spiked wrecking ball.

Neither Shadow nor Sectonia got very far. After Ciella disappeared into her mist, Midna got busy trying to prevent whatever she had in store. Thanks to the healing received from Mona’s persona she could hustle over to the fight by the arena entrance without too much pain and enact a plan to reveal the Agito before she struck. The beat of her Twilit Vibrava’s wings swirled sand into the air, reminiscent of the storms she’d endured while fighting the Flygons the previous day, and Midna fanned the flames with some extra sand pulled from her own realm. Despite her front-row seat to Sven’s disturbing demise, she managed to whip up a bonafide sandstorm, purging Ciella’s mist from the bottom-most portion of the colosseum. With her machinations laid bare, the Agito couldn’t possibly launch her surprise attack.

It was a clever plan. But the wrong one.

Right on schedule, Ciella revealed herself, but not among the combatants at the bottom of the arena. Instead, she appeared at the top in a spinning flourish, then with wings fanned out and claws outstretched, began a quick charge. In front of her a gargantuan purple AoE appeared, covering the whole arena except for the areas beside and behind her. It filled much, much faster than the circular ones created by Hail of Arrows, almost fast enough that someone could blink and miss it. “Sink into the abyss of despair!” Ciella cried, and she fired.

A hundred arrows blasted forth, a veritable spike wall of water that stretched from floor to ceiling, flooded the arena in a single colossal wave. They pierced everything in their path, including support columns and the arena’s walls, creating so many holes that the entire structure groaned under the weight. Heroes and villains toppled end over end, a huge chunk of their collective vitality depleted in an instant.

After a few moments, a wounded cat reached out a plaintive paw. “ him!”

As Mona’s Diarama went off, Joker coughed a mixture of blood and water, then got up to his forearms and knees. Soaked, sandy, and nearly skewered, he still lived, but his first thoughts were not of himself. “Fox? Fox!” Remembering his friend’s acid burns, he feared that not enough of Fox’s health remained for him to survive Ciella’s onslaught. His panicked gaze, however, landed on his friend’s outline, hurt but alive as well. “You made it!”

Breathing heavily, Fox nodded. “Before it struck, Mona managed to restore me.”

Joker’s eyes landed on the little thief. “Great job, bud. Seriously. Make sure you heal yourself up, too.”

“Sure thing,” Mona replied, wearing a smile despite his sorry state thanks to the rare praise.

The Phantom Thieves rose shakily, watching Ciella as she flew over. Assured of victory perhaps, she maintained her composure, even as that vicious spark still burned within her eyes. Nastasia saw her too, having staggered to her own feet ahead of most of the others and noticed the lack of barrier about her person. “My overshield…” Unprotected and alone, she looked around in fear until her gaze landed on a black-and-red hedgehog. “Uh, hello? Earth to Shadow? Save me already!”

Shadow grunted in anger, but he could not disobey. He teleported to Nastasia’s position, and the secretary jumped up to cling to him like a koala.

Gnashing her teeth, Ciella extended a claw. “No, you don’t!” A chunk of ice appeared above them, being one of the fastest attacks the Agito could get out, but even as it fell Shadow and Nastasia disappeared into distorted space. It devoured both ice above and floor below, and as Shadow propelled it forward from within Joker was forced to dive headlong out of the way, lest he share the same fate as Sven.

“Drat. I was so close…” As he got to his feet he realized that the arena itself was shaking dangerously. The damage already done to the support pillars and walls plus Ciella’s assault and Shadow’s destruction of the floor combined to make the whole place a lot less structurally sound. Entire sections of ground had been cut out by now, limiting the space non-fliers had to work with. How a hypothetical falling floor would interact with the Ciella’s Feral Shroud Joker couldn’t say, but he didn’t want to find out. “We’re on the clock.” A quick look around confirmed that Ciella seemed to be focused on the last of the Resistance, less a fight and more of a hit-and-run chase. It looked like Shadow couldn’t keep himself and his boss inside that black hole of his for long, although that hardly made up for him being able to pull all this crap in the first place. Whenever he emerged, disoriented by his blind charge, he invariably executed another Spin Attack at the nearest enemy that became another Chaos Burst on the way. That could be capitalized on. But how?

Joker’s assessment terminated on the spirit of Uncle Sven, floating above a section of uneaten ground. “There,” he said aloud. “Necro, tell me everything you say about that morph potion he used on us.”

After deflecting an incoming call with a muttered we’re kinda busy right now the Persona complied. “Based on my scans, it was a total physical change. No attack, no defense, none of my buffs, nothing. You were basically helpless. Are you thinking…”

“That’s a win condition,” Joker nodded. “If we can just tag them with that power, we can beat them.”

Necronomicon contacted him again. “Hate to rain on your parade, but there’s no guarantee that anyone’ll get that power from fusion. Even your luckiest Persona could end up with, I dunno, just that bouncy potion.”

Sighing, Joker readied his knife. Mona and Fox stood by his side. “Guess we’re doing this the hard way then.” The Thieves ran and jumped their way across the arena toward where Ciella and Shadow were going at it. This was the final stretch.

Tora and Poppi

Level 9 Tora (56/90) Level 9 Poppi (56/90) Level 4 Big Band (12/40)
Location: Al Mamoon Northwest - Obelisk Temple
Primrose’s @Yankee, Fox’s @Dawnrider, Yoshitsune and Sora’s @Rockin Strings
Word Count:

The news that the other half of Yellow Team was neither picking up nor returning Fox’s call was all that Tora and Poppi needed to ready them for another long run. When asked if the rest could help them out sans their resident space animal, they collectively stood behind Skull’s response. “Yeah, no sweat! We can go another couple rounds!” The boy smacked his fist into his palm. “You go on ahead while we mop up the rest of those Resistance jerks!”

“Take care now,” Panther added, addressing Fox, Band and Goldlewis together. “Make sure those goons don’t try any funny business. We’ll be back before you know it.”

Arms crossed, Azwel looked indignant. “Goons!? We’re right here, you know.”

Ignoring him, Tora jumped into the air, pumping his wing like a fist. “Meh-meh, let’s go!”

With the dutiful Es as their guide to the main base and Sora as extra firepower the Seekers ran off, leaving the stay-behinds, Grimleal, and Lautrec to sort things out. Throughout the proceedings the knight, freed from his jail cell down in the Khamoon dungeon only to be apprehended by the Grimleal as a precaution, had kept quiet, but after watching Yellow Team go he approached the remainder to explain his own situation and plead for his release. As it turned out, the Resistance had captured him while he was minding his own business and locked him up, waiting for their boss to come and hypnotize him. With Robin reluctantly backing him up, Lautrec received both a pardon and his release from Kan-Ra, and the embraced knight strode away with his brazen armor gleaming in the afternoon light.

It didn’t take much running for Tora, Poppi, Primrose, Yoshitsune, and the others to start feeling the fatigue accumulated by all their running and fighting since lunchtime. Luckily, Skull and Panther had a solution ready, which the dancer recognized as the same that rejuvenated them after their post-palace hospital visit. Al Mamoon, the fair desert city of anachronism, featured more than a few vending machines along its dusty streets, and the Phantom Thieves came to a stop in front of the first machine they found. “Okay, just a second,” Skull said, retrieving from his pockets the coins dropped by the shadows encountered in Madarame’s Museum of Vanity. “It ain’t just ‘cause I’m thirsty, either. This stuff’s got power in the Metaverse. It’ll perk ya right up, for real!” The machine rattled and dispensed an Udagawa Soda, which he pulled out before turning to Panther. “Whaddya want?”

“Uh, Earl Green for me.” Once the Thieves had their drinks, they stepped away from the machine to down them in a hurry. Sure enough, the beverages restored some of their health and spirit, replenishing enough stamina that they could fight at pretty much full strength again.

Though healthy as could be, Tora liked the sound of more energy, and stepped up to the machine next. He scoped out the choices while he scrounged up money. His options were Second Maid, a sugary lime juice, Manta, a salty-sweet juice cocktail, Earl Green, an energy drink based on tea, Ultimate Amazake, a liquid dessert of fermented rice, the banana-flavored Udagawa Soda, Miso Starfish (which appeared to be invertebrate brine in a can), and Dr. Salt NEO, a workout supplement. Predictably he snagged an Ultimate Amazake, which proved to be just a little too sweet for even his rather immature palate. Still, it did the job. He felt refreshed and ready to run.

Being relatively fresh himself Sora need not try anything, which was lucky since he had no money on him, but unless the rest wanted to lag behind they needed to slurp something down quickly. After that, they were on their way. Short and very quick, Es turned out to be difficult to follow, and holding back to make sure nobody got left behind didn’t fully solve the problem. With the work day drawing to a close the streets were crowded with people on their way home from their jobs, out shopping, or on the hunt for a place to eat. After a while of dodging and jostling Tora and Poppi nearly lost Es after a super-sized duo of futuristic wrestler and blue-collar alien separated them. “Not so fast!” Tora wheezed, running out of the way of a snake-in-a-mech. A musical fracas by the side of the street momentarily distracted him, but the Nopon managed to reorient himself on Es’s mop of blonde hair. “How much farther, meh!?”

“There,” Es deadpanned.

Not much farther ahead stood Rocket HQ, the office building that housed the Resistance’s primary headquarters. Judging by the skeleton crew of Grimleal acolytes, Yellow Team had come to the right place. Once through the open doors they came upon a scene of utter havoc, with acolytes here and there picking through an office space utterly demolished by breaking waves and wanton weapons fire. Laharl reclined in one of the few remaining office chairs, somewhere between sulking and relaxing. Tora ran over. “What you doing here?” he asked. “Where everyone else?”

Without a word the surly demon pointed in the direction of the stairs where he last saw Mao’s team. The rest was up to the Seekers.

Ms Fortune

Level 4 Nadia (97/40)
Location: The Maw
Blazermate's @Archmage MC, Bowser's @DracoLunaris, Ace Cadet's @Yankee, Sakura's @Zoey Boey, Mirage’s @Potemking, Link’s @Gentlemanvaultboy
Word Count: 1634

Practically the moment Nadia went quiet, Mirage spoke up. He cut through the panic-fueled indecision and quickly got the situation back into perspective, noting the various options at hand before choosing one for himself. Rather than deliberate further, Geralt -looking a lot more mad than Nadia had seen him thus far- started barking orders. Nadia knew they had the right idea. There wasn’t time to stand around and think about what to do; they just needed to do something. With their numbers, they could afford to spread out and try some of everything. Ace seemed really out of sorts for some reason, appearing pretty much normal despite his accounts of changed arms, but the others leaped into action. The Koopa and Blazermate started attacking the door. Link, Geralt, and Mirage, armed with various weapons from nails to knives, fretted not about their own lives but forged onward into the unknown, squeezing themselves one after another inside the vent.

Nadia found herself envying their decisive selflessness, wishing she had it in her to be so noble. But self-deprecation could come later. Now was the time for heroics. “I’ll go around,” she announced. “Gonna claw those assholes’ eyes out!” As the boys and Mimikyu disappeared into the narrow passageway she turned tail, putting the locked door toward the south in her sights. Since Blazermate seemed more focused on Bowser and son’s attempt to beat through the door by force, Nadia decided to get the key. As she scampered toward the door she held her magnet up toward the central table, willing it to show the same power it revealed while fighting Moreau. Obligingly the key slid off the edge and into her waiting grasp. Though a little wet with blood for her taste she held tight long enough to chuck it at Kamek, who’d positioned himself right below the hanging padlock. A young koopa might not be able to do much, but he could grab and jump, and with all the energy his starving body could muster Kamek leaped upward to drive the key home. As he dangled he wrenched the key sideways, which both unlocked the mechanism with a satisfying click and slipped it free from the latch. He fell straight into Nadia’s arms as she ran below him, and with a swift kick the door swung inward. Though a small victory, the efficiency of the whole maneuver, having taken only a couple seconds, hyped her up. “Nice! One step at a time!”

Two steps into the next room Nadia’s feet flew out from under her, and she went down. A last-second toss spared Kamek a full-bodied splat onto the ground, hard enough to drive the wind from Nadia’s lungs. As she gasped the feral looked around, trying to figure out what happened. The ground was weirdly slick, and it quickly became apparent why.

This place appeared to be a washroom, its tiles soaked with soap suds that gathered into foamy drifts around the sinks piled impossibly high with dirty dishes. Still recovering from her fall, Nadia had a moment for an incredulous stare at the precarious pillars and pots, plates, and bowls, stacked way, way higher than even the tallest chef could reach. Her upward gaze brought her attention to a large porthole window above a white cupboard, although she couldn’t see anything beyond it but a deep, dark blue, occasionally interspersed with bubbles. Outside? she mused, having almost forgotten that this whole place was one mammoth submarine. Maybe her time on the docks of Little Innsmouth explained how she’d gotten used to the gentle heel of this place in the water. Her examination of the place also turned up two more doors to the east and west, with the westward one accompanied by what looked like a food delivery cart. If her spatial awareness served her well, that door led out into the hallway the crew originally came in through, the same one that bordered the dimly-lit cafeteria on one side. A big, smelly bucket labeled ‘scraps for Moreau’ on the other side of the door suggested that the kids weren’t the only ones served by that cart, either. Neither were the chefs the only ones at work. Throughout the washroom a crew of living forks and even a couple toque-wearing koopas seemed to be hard at work, so busy soaping and scrubbing that none gave more than a cursory glance at the intruders

Since none of them felt like getting in the way, Nadia focused instead on the other door. Going eastward, it granted access to a room directly south of the one the butchers fled to, which hopefully offered a north-facing door of its own. As she rose to her feet, however, Nadia realized that getting over there might be tricky. The soapy tiles might not warrant a second glance from those heavy-set chefs, but for a lightweight child they presented a real issue. Kamek might try asking the koopas for help, but time was of the essence, and Nadia planned to solve this problem herself. But how? Even if tiptoeing or dragging herself on her belly worked, the kitten knew, it would take more time than she had. Could she climb up onto the counters and go around the sinks, maybe? Or…

A lightbulb went off in Nadia’s head, and with a smile she knelt, then reached back to switch on her fan. The next moment she was sliding right across the floor like a hovercraft. In doing so she cut the trip down to just seconds. Ahead of her she could see light pouring both beneath the eastward door and through its keyhole, but rather than faceplant while trying to jump up and get at the knob with soapy hands the feral fixed her eyes on the slot on the side at head height. Dirty dishes came through to land on a small conveyor belt and be dumped into the nearby sink. Trying to jump would lead to another painful fall, but Nadia already had another great idea. Man, I’m on a roll! She shut off her fan, then while still sliding took it off and put it in front of her. After climbing on top she got boosted up to the conveyor. From there she could fetch her fan with her magnet, then push it through the dish slot before squeezing through herself. She nearly got stuck halfway through, no doubt thanks to all the food she’d gobbled up, but a little extra effort popped her through.

Nadia landed with a roll, realizing the moment she hit the ground that it wasn’t tile, but carpet, and a narrow stretch of carpet at that. She found herself on some sort of wide balcony, mostly wooden planks, that overlooked a long, two-story hallway running north to south. Speaking of north, Nadia looked that way to see no door leading into the kitchen where her friends had been taken, and smacked the carpet in anger. “Rats!”

A curious grunt sounded out from the other direction, drawing her attention instantly. Her eyes went wide as she spotted another hideous chef, twin to the first. Where his brother's face stretched wide, however, his mushed inward, forming a fishlike pucker beneath a mop of greasy hair. Having been leaning against and looking over the balcony in the southeast corner, a lit cigarette in hand, he looked over slowly enough that Nadia could skitter away just in time and hide behind a decorative vase. Her tail protruded, but the chef didn’t seem to notice. Instead he gave a heavy cough, put his cigarette out on the railing, and turned to take hold of a meal cart behind him, laden with a very large, bulbous sack. He pushed it into the room to the south and closed the door behind him.

That left just one option. Nadia scurried over to the balcony railing, where the carpet that extended in front of the washroom door proceeded over a bridge across the hallway, no doubt the way the second chef came in. As she crossed she spotted a dumbwaiter on the floor below, left side, right beneath the butchers’ kitchen. “Bingo!” It was currently open, with a few Volbonian waiters removing its contents to distribute throughout what Nadia just now realized must be a massive Japanese-themed restaurant. She wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, I hate sushi.” Then again, what this place actually seemed to be serving revolted her a whole lot more. Furthermore, she recognized the decor--the same sort that she saw at the Maw’s entrance. The realization lit a fire inside her. We must be near the top! Once her friends were safe, they might actually be pretty close to escaping! She glanced back as the Runaway dropped down behind her, then looked back at the path ahead. Nadia just needed to get down there without breaking her ankles or alerting the staff. She couldn’t fit or break through the bars of the railing either, so that meant traversing the restaurant itself until she found a way down.

After crossing the bridge, however, she found that the trip might be a whole lot easier said than done. The moment she stepped inside the dining space she beheld a scene of breathtaking gluttony. Rows and rows of Guests, the same sort that waddled out of Tyl Regor’s sealab, sat hunched in booths and benches that creaked beneath their weight, shoveling food into their faces. Whenever one even got close to running out, a Volbonian came by with a ‘fresh’ platter to top off their never-ending feast. The sight robbed Nadia of her appetite, although she gulped in apprehension. It wasn’t hard to imagine one blindly snapping her up as she climbed by. Still, she had no choice. For the sake of her friends, the little feral sprinted onward.

After padlocking the door, Larry and his calloused accomplice hurriedly tied the hands (and in Bella’s case, the tail) of their new meat before hanging them by their ropes over the blazing cookfire that dominated one wall of the two-story kitchen they’d fled to. “No wiggling now!” Larry cautioned his catches. “Unless you wanna roast early!” Laughing, he sauntered off until a sudden uproar alerted the cooks to a concerted effort to batter down the door. “Huh?!” Taken by surprise, Larry motioned toward the stretch-faced chef. “C’mere, gimme a hand!” Together, the two dragged a laden cupboard in front of the door, blocking it so thoroughly as to crush and chance of smashing through. “Bahaha, no need to rush!” Larry cackled, patting the shelf. “Once we’re done with the appetizers, we’ll grab you for the main course!”

His laughing trailed off as a racket resounded up from the nearby stairs, and a moment later Chef Antoine appeared. “What the hell’s all this ruckus?” he seethed, wiping his fingers off on a bloody apron. “You both should be working, we’re barely keeping up as it is! The King of Cuisine does not disappoint!”

“Just some extra ingredients,” Larry leered, poking Bella in the tummy. As she whined, Sakura might realize for the first time that her friend looked both taller and heavier than she remembered. If she’d been a girl of four before, she now looked maybe six, or even seven.

Her attention shifted back to Antoine, who did not look pleased by Larry’s suggestion. “Lunatics, what use is meat like that? Woeful that it is, our clients care not for quality, but quantity! We must focus on greater portions!”

“Some King of Cuisine you are!” Larry shot back. “We oughta be proud of our craft!”

“Craft? What craft!? A back-alley bloodletter like you wouldn’t know quality meat if it hit you in the face!” Though smaller than the butcher, Antoine got right up in the man’s face. “And if you don’t finish your fillets right this instant, I’ll show you exactly what I mean!”

For a moment there was silence, save the crackle of the flames and the simmering of the cookpots. Then Larry turned away in a huff to head back to the giant fish he’d been cutting up for Fujimoto’s sushi, grumbling under his breath. Antoine glowered at the blocked door before addressing the stretch-faced chef. “Come with me downstairs. I need you to handle the pot roast.” The two departed, leaving Sakura and the Abyssals alone with Larry. In anger the butcher struck his cleaver against the bars of a cage filled with Aggrolls, Minimakis, and Noodlers, then grudgingly returned to his task.

The trip through the vents turned out to be more complicated than any of its crawlers would have liked. A few feet brought them to a T-junction right in front of the vent’s opposite end, but rather than a hatch it terminated in a grate, screwed on both very tight and from the outside. From there none of them could do much but take in the kitchen’s smells and the chefs’ argument, then turn to go down the other way. After another dozen feet it turned right and sloped downward at a forty-five degree angle, steep enough that it would be tricky not to fall straight down. At this point the sheer coldness of the metal also started to take a toll, hurting any exposed skin that came in contact with it. Nevertheless, the little heroes carried onward, making their way down to the main kitchen’s first floor. There the frontrunner found a miracle: a hatch rather than a grate. Through it he could emerge beneath a counter. They were in.

Immediately there was a problem. Beneath the counter lay five mousetraps, arrayed right around the vent. Three of them offered chunks of cheese, and two morsels of meat, but the cheese in particular provided a strong temptation thanks to its potent small and far less dubious origin. Unlike the food in the cafeteria, Mirage couldn’t just ignore this. It lay right in his path, demanding confrontation. Still, simple mousetraps would not be the end of the vent-goers’ story.

Once past them, the heroes had only the entirety of the kitchen’s first and second floors between them and their friends. On the first floor they spotted Antoine, stretch-face, and yet another chef hard at work, with the unfamiliar face single-mindedly focused on making sushi. Once he finished a batch and plated it, he pushed it into a dumbwaiter and closed it, causing the other side (presumably facing a restaurant of some kind) to open. The others worked on dishes of their own, including a jumbo-sized meaty lasagna and a huge pot roast. The roast featured a slab of meat far too large to be a child, but that did little to abate the newcomers’’ fury. They thought only of revenge and a way forward, but even that turned up a couple issues. Scattered around the place were Scalding Coffee Cups, superheated caffeine spirits that served double duty as chef stimulants and pest control. Though quite hot, they presented only a minor threat compared to the duo of Tempura Wizards who busied themselves using their magic to transform otherwise worthless scraps of food into tempura. It didn’t take a genius to intuit that the same might apply to any unwelcome guests. Still, with all of the stuff around there were a huge number of both places to hide and potential weapons to find, offering the heroes many ways to go about their business.

Old Mill

Location: Frozen Highlands - Alpine Skyline / Wildwood Glades
Linkle’s @Gentlemanvaultboy

Albedo paused and quietly turned to face Linkle as she approached the cats. Though she possessed only good intentions, she did not let them off the hook easily, but instead did her best to make them realize the foolishness of their actions. As she revealed to them the degree to which she could have destroyed them and went on to describe the brutality a less merciful victim like the Stranger might inflict, the fuzzy burglars listened with round eyes and mouths agape. Her final words of advice provoked a vigorous round of head-nodding, the young gang thoroughly intimidated and ready to mend their ways. When Linkle asked for Albedo’s pouch, which the alchemist himself actually forgot about in favor of his sketchbook, one cat returned the stolen coinpurse sheepishly before scampering off to hide behind her toy drum.

A moment later the Skullgirl joined Albedo on the edge of the cat burglars’ loft, and received from her new friend an impressed nod. “Well done,” he told her, his voice soft and flat as ever, but Linkle could tell that he meant it. With the situation handled the duo, delayed but not aggravated by the feeling of totally wasted time, could leave the old mill behind. Without a windglider, getting down wasn’t as easy as it could have been, but neither Albedo or Linkle had too much trouble. Plus, during the descent they divert more attention to picking up pons, and by the time the pair reached terra firma all their climbing had amassed them a decent stash. “That’s probably enough for another badge, if not two,” the alchemist observed. “If you want to ride back over to the village and get them, feel free.” He held his chin in his hand as he looked out through the crisp alpine air at the lively little mountain town. “I had considered sketching the village from afar anyway, so I would not mind.”

Whatever Linkle decided to do, the next step of their journey lay on the opposite end of the old mill’s plateau, and it began by taking hold of the flagline that plunged downward into the sea of clouds that blanketed the misty valley. As he descended, hanging once more for his life from a mere rope, Albedo could feel the air getting steadily warmer. It remained cool, but no longer freezing, and he could appreciate the change if not the manner in which he encountered it. Before too long the clouds swallowed him up, and for a few moments he could see nothing but pure, unadulterated white, in every direction.

Then came the color.

Click for music

Emerging from the whiteness in a puff of fog, Albedo descended into a valley of breathtaking splendor. Below him stretched a forest of bone-white trees and vivid scarlet leaves atop a blanket of gorgeous wildflowers, their petals crimson, azure, indigo, and violet. Mossy green boulders dotted the tough, golden taiga grass. The flagline came to a stop at a tree in the front yard of a quaint little hut covered in clovers and yellow flowers, its white-bearded dweller out front tending to his garden. The sight of Albedo, moving gingerly among the flowers as if afraid to dispel some beautiful illusion, made him chuckle. “G’day,” he said, holding up a paw in greeting as he leaned on his hoe like a staff. “Lovely bit o’ forest, eh? They call ‘em the Wildwoods. Some folks live here ‘n there but for the most part it’s pristine. Makes every day a blessin’.”

“Indeed.” Albedo looked around slowly, trying to take it all in. “No matter what my time in this world amounts to, I expect I won’t soon forget this.”

With a soft smile, the gopher held onto his stick. “I reckon you won’t.”

His mission momentarily forgotten, Albedo left it to Linkle to inquire about Freya.
Barney Rynsburger

As he barreled toward the demonic storks that stood between him and the grand courthouse doors, Barney found himself hoping that the shadow judge was right about one thing: that in life or death situations, even the most ordinary person could do amazing things. Although he couldn’t explain it, something had fired him up, reigniting that tiny bit of fight buried deep within him. Where just moments ago he stared death straight in the face, resigned to a messy end between the grisly canines of the Stygian monstrosity that Pondwater called Naberius, he now ran headlong into danger in the hopes of a new lease on life. Maybe it was the example of the courageous police girl, emerging suddenly from ominous, half-remembered dreams to confront the monstrosities with a wink and a smile. Maybe it was spite that fueled him, a semblance of the same anger that burned red-hot in the hearts of Nick and Jin against Pondwater’s callous philosophy. It might be adrenaline, or he really might be crazy. Barney couldn’t say. All he knew was that he was doing this. Dream or not, he was going to live.

The Shaxes both reacted once he got within range. Bright orange glyphs formed in the air around them, gathering some sort of power. Forced by the circumstances to just roll with it, Barney did not shy away until, one after another, both demons spread wide their wings to launch their offensives. Two blades of dark energy, awash in bubbling darkness, rose like shark fins from the ground and raced toward him. They ripped forward fast, but not so fast that Barney couldn’t realize that they traveled in perfectly straight lines. Rather than take his chances trying to withstand the accursed waves, the young man stepped off the line, allowing both to go right by. Without sacrificing any momentum he carried onward, barging right past the first Shax before it could strike back. It let out an horrid squawk of protest, but it was in the past, and Barney looked ahead to the doors. He tightened his arms around his head as he charged past the second shadow, dimly aware of movement in his peripherals. Nasty claws sliced into his tartan jacket and raked his sweater, but did not penetrate his thick clothing. A sudden pain lanced his upper forearm, right below the elbow, but nothing he couldn’t handle. The next moment Barney left the monster’s effective range, and another moment brought him right into the courthouse door with a slam.

As he began to push Barney realized an unexpected problem. It was heavy. “Aghhh, come on!” he growled through gritted teeth as he heaved his weight against it. He noticed nothing of the sort coming in, although considering the impact left in the concrete by the captain’s baton, the guards must have remarkable strength. Enough to make opening this door look easy. For Barney it proved difficult but, as the groan of the hinges announced, doable. Knowing the Shaxes could come at him any second, he shoved the grand door shoulder-first with all his strength. A crack of orange, dusky light appeared, and quickly the opening grew larger. With a grunt of triumphant exertion readied himself for a final push and to slip through.

At that moment, however, he heard yelling from behind him, and Barney couldn’t resist the impulse to look over his shoulder. What he saw took him by surprise, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have. The others had followed him. Even after Pondwater’s condemnation to all but certain death and being sandwiched between two groups of monsters, not a single one of them had slumped down, defeated. Instead, though battered and mentally taxed, they followed in Barney’s footsteps and made for the exit.

Though much smaller than Vincent, Dakota had risked his neck to help the older man out, the sight of which shot a pang of guilt through Barney for forgetting all about him in his rush to save his own skin, even though Vincent did get everyone else hurt. Together the pair hobbled straight for the storks that the bearded frontrunner left behind, with Vincent even mustering up a burst of energy to strike out at his attacker’s eye. With a screech the Shax flapped its wings, exposing its blood-red head and serpentine neck enough for the criminal to shove it away. Though it floated in the air under its own power the demon reeled, giving the duo an opportunity to get by. At the same time Mila clashed with the other one, whipping her leather jacket at the Shax while it lashed out with its rending beak and claws. Those same weapons snagged in the tough material, allowing Mila to stretch out its limbs as she swept by. With both shadows momentarily discombobulated Nick, Jin, and Caelum stormed through, avoiding direct confrontation. For a moment Barney feared that the schoolgirl, frozen by fear, would be lost, but Harriette risked her own life to take Alina by the hand and pull her along. She even bounced a couple shoes off the head of a Shax, delaying its recovery from Vincent’s push. No matter how they did it, in heeding the police girl’s words, the would-be defendants showed that they craved life just as much as Barney did.

In Barney’s moment of hesitation he noticed something else, as well. A growing pain in his arm drew his attention to the spot that the Shax pecked with its beak, prompting a double take. Thanks to his adrenaline it hurt a lot less than it looked like it ought to, but it turned out to be a pretty bad wound. Blood gushed from a stab wound at least an inch deep, and the sight of it shocked him. “Ahhh...ahhh!” He clapped a hand on top of it, squeezing down on his torn jacket to try and stop the flow, but his mind buzzed from more than pain. He’d already been hurt, but just now things were really starting to sink in. Dreams and nightmares could be vivid, but they were ultimately as ephemeral as the imagination that crafted them. Things were unclear, constantly shifting, and seldom held up under scrutiny. But Barney’s breathing was ragged. He could feel the warmth of his blood, taste the subtle smokiness of the air streaming in from outside, hear every panicked footfall as the others ran his way, and see the steely glimmer of the police girl’s needle as she struggled against the demons behind them. This was too real. Maybe it wasn’t reality, but despite all his self-assurances, and the fantastical spectacle around him, this couldn’t possibly be just a dream. Something in the very core of his being told him that lives were really on the line.

Barney glanced back at the others, hesitant, but only for a split second. He knew what he needed to do. Earlier he didn’t want to consider the possibility, but now he had no choice. It was past time he started actually doing the right thing. As Vincent and Dakota approached he redoubled his efforts, pushing the door not just wide enough for himself, but for the rest as well. Once he had it open he pitted his full weight against it to keep it that way, and with his hand waved the others through. “Come on, come on!” he urged them. Only once everyone made it did he let go, and as the door swung back he glanced one last time at the police girl. She stood alone, surrounded by monsters on every side, with the Pondwater’s shadow himself bearing down on her. A dark shape much larger than the judge himself loomed behind him, and though Barney could see little in the brief instant afforded to him, something about even that momentary glimpse made his skin crawl. Then the door slammed shut, sealing everyone else outside.

Once out in the open Barney quickly realized two things: that what seemed like an age had in reality been less than thirty seconds, and that everyone had a long, long way to go before they could even start considering themselves ‘safe’. The Penitentiary of Indictment stretched before the group in all its inhumane misery, crawling with awful activity, and this time Barney couldn’t keep it at a distance for long. He, and everyone else, would need to confront the Proving Grounds as they sought to take the police girl’s advice. Get your sorry butts outta here, she’d told them. But where to?

Not to the right. The massive ray from the colossal searchlight atop the courthouse had settled in that direction, and as Vincent’s ill-fated flight earlier revealed, there could be no escape once in its glaring glow. Barney half expected it to sweep right on top of him any second now, but for the moment there seemed to be something wrong. It twitched violently, flashing red in a manner that suggested some malfunction. From here Barney couldn’t see the beacon itself, but he remembered what the police girl said. “She took out his ‘Vision’...the light!” he realized. “He must not be able to track us. Not until he gets back up there, at least. We oughta get as far away from it as we can!”

Since the docks formed a dead end in front of them, going left seemed to be the only option. Barney jogged away from the courthouse doors, trying to find somewhere, anywhere that the group could go. He took in the row of buildings across the Proving Grounds, identifying a few odd buildings out scattered among the jailhouses. His eyes settled on the small cathedral that he spied earlier, before entering the courthouse, and it struck him once again how bizarre it was that a godforsaken place like this would have such a facility. Then again, if this place somehow symbolized the real world as he suspected, maybe it stood for the little chapel squared away in a corner of the Barclay campus? Either way, right now the escapees needed a safe place to hide away from the guards. How exactly they would actually leave this hellish plane and return to the real BWU was a bridge the group could cross when they came to it. Barney raised his voice to offer his suggestion only to get cut off.

“Freeze! Hold it right there!”

Speak of the devil! From the direction of the beacon’s flickering light, more bow-legged, hole-faced guards were running. Judging by their cattle prods, they’d been monitoring the prisoners before the alarm was raised. Luckily they didn’t seem too fast, but there was no more time for deliberation. “Crap!” Barney practically exploded. “Run for the hills!”

Though he hardly intended to be a leader, he led by example. Though his wounds made running hurt, Barney had stamina to spare after a day of mostly sitting around, and with surprising speed he took off toward the left. Maybe it was his bias showing, but he didn’t really have a lot of options, so he fixed his eyes on the cathedral. Something about it called to him, and given the circumstances trusting his instincts seemed as good a plan as any. After just a few seconds he left the pavilion and entered the Proving Grounds. All of a sudden he felt like he was in a corn field. The chain link fences, topped with barbed wire, rose higher than he did, and the moment he ran in between two pens the alerted guards were sure to lose sight of him.

Of course, that left the guards who roved between or kept watch over the inmates themselves. Though his nerves told him to run like the wind, Barney heard running footsteps ahead of him, slowed to a walk to avoid attracting too much attention. A line of chained inmates trundled along the same path directly to his left, so close he could touch them, but not one among their number acknowledged him in any way. They just marched onward, their helmets bowed, focused solely on the inmate directly ahead. As the footsteps grew louder, nearing an intersection between pens, Barney ducked into the prison line. He hid himself as best he could, with the fence on the left and two inmates on the right. Though terrified that his red tartan jacket would give him away, Barney watched two guards run right by him. Hopefully anyone behind him followed his example.

The prison line marched on. Through the fence to his left Barney could see the machines, rigorously pumping unknown, venomous-looking fluids into the ports on the prisoners’ helmets, whilst sucking money out through the front. It was revolting, and though the inmates suffered in silence, they did not do so without consequence. Here and there Barney spotted shriveled husks, human bodies somehow deflated in an almost cartoonish fashion, like balloons. Some had been thrown over strung ropes like towels, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase hung out to dry. So too were the racks of ownerless helmets. It occurred to Barney to grab one for a disguise, but there were none handy, and his prison line was just about to enter one of the pens under a watchful warden’s eye. He slipped out and made a run for it, keeping as low a profile as he could. He got into a cycle of waiting, watching, and dashing, able to distract himself from the wound on his arm for now. If he could keep this up without being spotted, he could reach the cathedral in just a couple minutes.
Alrighty, thanks for sating my curiosity. Kiryu is accepted!
@Potemking Unsurprisingly, another great sheet. Everything seems to be in order. What really does seem like an implausible inability to kill is a double-pronged sword and one I'm sure will be interesting. I just have one functional question. To what does extent does Kiryu's refusal to hit females apply? To just humans? Humanoids, like say, Zora? All females of all species? Just sentient species? What about machines like Blazermate? A weird question I know, but one that bears asking.
Ms Fortune

Level 4 Nadia (97/40)
Location: The Maw
Blazermate's @Archmage MC, Bowser's @DracoLunaris, Geralt’s @Multi_Media_Man, Ace Cadet's @Yankee, Sakura's @Zoey Boey, Mirage’s @Potemking, Link’s @Gentlemanvaultboy
Word Count: 1813

Easy, Nadia, the excitable feral told herself, taking one breath at a time. Though certifiably creepy, this chef wasn’t nearly as bad as Moreau or Bongo Bongo. Getting around him might be tricky for a cutlet-sized child, but she had food in her belly and fire in her heart. I can do this. “We can do this,” she said aloud, correcting herself in a whisper strong enough for her gathered allies to hear but much too weak to reach the chopper’s ears. With renewed vigor she could afford to wear her most confident smile while she not just broke but totally annihilated the tension. “The steaks are high, and we don’t wanna risk a meat ‘n greet, but we’re stroganoff to make it through.”

Rather than waste time making her allies reconsider the value of their lives with terrible puns, Sakura got right down to business. The savvy girl shushed Nadia with a finger to her lips, then emerged from hiding with a plan of attack in mind. Spurred on by both the restlessness of hunger and an even stronger desire to contribute, she maneuvered across the room in search of a distraction. Nobody really knew what the plan was, if one even existed, but it was clearly time to hustle. After the chef proved to be pretty much fixated on his work, the rest of the children fanned out even more, crouch-walking to various hiding spots to avoid the telltale slap of shoes and soles against the cold tile. Assuming that the gaggle of kids would be heading for the unlocked door, rather than try and tear the chef away from his butchery long enough for someone to grab the key, Nadia circled around behind him going north. She almost scurried over the meat parcels piled up in the northwest corner, but realized that their paper wrappings would crinkle if touched, and settled for padding with almost cartoonish delicacy across the open floor.

Keen-eyed as ever, Nadia spotted Sakura as the brunette hefted a jar, and in a flash she realized what was about to happen. Using drawer handles like a ladder she rushed up onto a nearby countertop, then dove into a (mercifully empty) pot. Then a terribly loud crash shattered the peaceful quiet of the kitchen, and a sound erupted from the chef that froze Nadia stiff. It was loud, sudden, like the blast of an elephant, an abrupt yet windy scream that sounded almost as afraid as it did angry. With that outburst the chef spun around, cleaver in hand, and slouched forward toward the source of the noise. As they felt the ground hudder with every footfall the children scattered through the kitchen shrank into their hiding spots in fear. A moment later the chef came to a stop in front of the smashed jar, looming over the wreckage. In apparent frustration. He scanned the counter, looking back and forth. After a moment he seemed to note the shadowy space beneath the countertop, just behind the debris, and with a grunt he knelt down to extend a pudgy arm and feel around down there for any unwelcome visitors. When his search turned up nothing, however, the chef gave a frustrated grunt and stood. With his loathsome head mere feet away from Sakura’s hiding place, he reached up sausage-like fingers into the folds of his chin, then beneath them, slipping underneath a layer of doughy, jaundiced skin to scratch at the flesh beneath. If the small street fighter risked a peek, she could catch the most fleeting glimpse of much darker, gray-blue skin underneath what could only be a ghastly mask.

Just then the east-side door slammed open, a commotion far less expected than the reaction of the chef. Into the room barged an even bigger butcher, albeit one more identifiable human. Foregoing the proper if rumpled chef’s attire of his coworker, he favored a shirt soaked by both sweat and blood stretched thin by his remarkable girth. “What was that noise?” he demanded, looking straight at the malformed chef. “You drop something again?”

The chef made an angry noise, somewhere between a growl and a honk, which left the newcomer irate. Two missing front teeth added a little hiss and a little spit to everything he said. “Bah, why’d I bother? Bumbling fool. Keep this up and you’ll be the next main course! Ahahahaha!”

Bellowing another elephantine retort, the chef reached an arm across the counter and swept up a whole stack of bowls, slinging them across the kitchen. Being made of cheap wood they clattered harmlessly against whatever they hit, be that the tiles, the door, or Larry Chiang himself, who laughed it off. “Ahaha, that’s right! Just like that...HEY!”

He thrust an accusatory finger right at Sakura, who in a most unfortunate turn of events the chef had unwittingly revealed. Whether she took off running or attempted to fight, the chef turned and lunged with impressive speed, seizing the wriggling girl by the throat and ankles. Like the jaws of a bulldog his meaty mitts locked around her, totally immovable.

The Abyssals reacted immediately and without hesitation. From her vantage point Rika appeared with guns at the ready, while Bella emerged from hiding with a spin, looking over her shoulder as her tail prepared to fire. Nadia, still hiding in her pot with only her fingertips, folded-back ears, and upper head over the rim, watched as the Abyssals took their shots. Just as planned, Rika blasted one of the hooks to knock off its load. With the nearest being one on the hookline, that meant dropping a meat parcel right onto the chef’s head, crushing his toque in the process. At the same time Bella shot the chef right in the chest. With an alarmed yell he flinched, staggering backward from the tiny explosion, but he did not drop Sakura. Larry, meanwhile, drew back his off hand and with a grunt of exertion hurled a kitchen knife straight at Bella. She got out of the way not a moment too soon, and the blade embedded in the wooden leg of a table behind her, but as she readied another shot Larry lowered his head and charged like a bull, arms extended. “MEEEAT!” he howled, zooming across the kitchen. Before Bella knew it he clasped a hand around the throat of her leviathan tail and hauled her into the air, dangling like a hooked fish. In his other hand hung Rika, grabbed by her gauntlets. “Live ones!” he marvelled, sounding surprised. He gave both a good, violent shake, quelling their struggle. “That damn janitor must be getting lazy!”

Nadia’s grip tightened on her pot. Part of her, maybe figuring that these crazy cooks could only hold so many kids, wanted to leap out and join the attack. If everyone struck at once, their numbers advantage would surely put them on top, right? But at the same time, her heart was beating wildly, like a drum in a hailstorm. Larry had just inadvertently let slip a small but crucial detail about the meat, one that chilled her to the bone. And even if she managed to shoulder that terrible knowledge, there were more practical concerns at hand. These enemies were tough, strong, fast, and perhaps worst of all, clever. When it came to horror, not being an idiot meant even more for predators than it did for prey. What could she honestly do?

Then again, could she live with herself if she did nothing? Although she’d known them for less than a day, these people were her friends. How in the hell could she cower and let these freaks turn them into hamburger? No doubt the others felt the same. Not one of them would stand idly by. As all the cafeteria kids except the Runaway fled Nadia clenched her teeth and leaped from the pot, her fan held up like a shield. “Hey, uglies!” she yowled, running over to a few loose carrots. “Over here!” With one airburst at a time she sent the carrots flying, a volley of orange missiles.

As soon as children started appearing in force, wielding various weapons, Larry reconsidered the situation. The arrival of Blazermate, however, sealed the deal. “Gah! They’re everywhere!” The outburst of his fellow chef caught his attention, and when he made a run for it, Larry followed suit with another armored charge. Nadia ran after them, not even thinking about what would happen if she actually caught them, but it quickly came to nothing. Amidst a hail of projectiles the butchers absconded, slamming the eastward door behind them. Nadia slowed to a stop as she heard a padlock click into place on the other side, at a loss for words. Just like that the children were alone again, down three of their number, and armed with the knowledge that the three little girls might end up as mincemeat any second.

“Ahahaha, you kids settle down, now!” came Larry’s voice from the other side. “We’re gonna take our time makin’ the most of our fresh meat! Just sit tight and wait your turn. Hahahahaaaah!”

With the way east sealed only two options remained. One was the locked door to the south, the key by the cutting board now unprotected. The other, Nadia realized as she looked around, was a tiny vent not too far from the door. She scurried over and yanked it open, but even after leaving her fan behind, she realized that she could not squeeze through. By the smallest of margins, she was too big. “Grgh!” she grunted, trying in vain to fit her shoulders inside. Even if she somehow manages to clear the entrance, she’d be too stuck to advance any further unless painfully shoved through one centimeter at a time. “I can’t…guh!” It took some help to pull her back out. When she stood, frustrated, she realized with a little surprise that she stood taller than any of Mirage, Link, or Geralt. “Wait, what? I thought...I mean, nevermind! We’ve gotta save ‘em! Hurry and squeeze through”

Peach laid a hand on her shoulder. “Just a moment,” she squeaked. “I want to save them as much as you, but not everyone can fit through there, and those butchers could be waiting right on the other side! If we blindly rush in we could be throwing our lives away!”

“But we’re practically throwin’ theirs away if we don’t! Ugh!” Nadia kicked at a nearby table leg in frustration, predictably stubbing her toe. “Ow, oogh!” She shook her foot out and winced after placing it, her anger plain to see. “Well...what are we gonna do? Push through? Go around? Look for a key? This might be the only way in!”

Doing her best to keep her composure, Peach did her best to come up with an answer, giving the others a chance to do the same.
Thanks for the notice. I wish Enkryption a swift recovery.
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