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3 yrs ago
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This is the first strike she truly feels. The first one that makes her feel sluggish instead of powerful. The first one that makes her crumple, and not immediately rise with a fresh howl. Bella's head strains as if it wants to split in half. Her vision strains through bursts of high-noise static and bleeding, misaligned colors. The room slurs together and she just manages to make out the sound of a dull thud before all she notices are the grasses growing out of the floor.

Yes. She is a broken camera. And this time there are no hands to lovingly put her back together.

The smell of dirt and cigar smoke is everywhere. The stench of blood lingers inside of both, but there is no call to react to it. No surge of disgust, no fiery energy driving her to spill more of it. It is simply there. They gave her these senses to notice everything; it is not up to her that she does. There is... no more point to having feelings about it. Thoughts hurt to much to have, so she discards them as quickly as she can.

Her body strains for something she can focus on that might be able to push her to her feet again. There is more to do, her blood whispers even as it pours out of dozens of oozing wounds, you must stand up. You must. But the acrid haze that drew her here had always been a trap. The bite of honey and the twisting of her ear had never been motherly advice. And the smell of ozone, the sensation of the thunderbolt remained a source of fantastic, ultimate terror because chief among all the tools of the universe it wanted her dead the most.

No sunlight shines down to force her eyes open. The forms of meditation fall uselessly from her tired mind. If she fell asleep now, it would be forever. But even the sound of the shovel does not whisper her lullaby. The salty air wafts without care from the bowels of the ship, too consumed with its own troubles to even notice her. The fluttering of peacock feathers is nowhere to be heard. No ringed hand lifts her chin to point her through these impossible Games.

And now, a new sound comes rolling over the room, audible over her own useless snarling and the pounding of someone scrabbling through the vents. It is the sound of pen on paper. The tip strikes the page with the fury of a thrown spear. Every letter is dotted or crossed with unnecessary, violent force. As if... conflicted. But no more than that. Moonlight does not light the way. The names do not settle on her skin. They go on the paper, that smooth and creamy paper, stacked in pristine piles (they must be) on a flawless wooden desk. The pen clicks shut, with finality. There is no salvation here.

The room goes dark. The smells trail into indistinction. Sounds snuff out like candles in the night. Even pain flickers out into numb nothingness, except for one thing. The stubborn rush of her blood. The frenzied heart pumping it, harder, harder, harder still. Her body is furious. Her clawed hands twitch, and dig through the dirt. Cracking plates of bone fuse into new armor as she pushes herself off the ground. Blue-black hair falls across her face in messy, matted sheets. Her spine pops as she whips it back, rising to full height in the same motion.


Her voice is a hoarse croak. She coughs. Sputters. Pulls the poisons up her throat and spits them on the flowers. Her hand rises to her mouth and she flicks her lips with the tip of her thumb. Bella snorts. It is a proud, and angry noise.

"If the gods have rejected my prayers, so be it. If even everything I am isn't enough to please just one of them... that's fine. I always knew. I was nothing in their eyes."

Her voice is sharp and prideful. She swings it as a whip. Her muscles strain, and carry her heavy feet forward one step, two, then three. With a boom, the Thunderbolt fires off again on lethal reflex to the return of the threat. Bella pivots on her feet and punches the bolt out of the sky. Her hand smolders and twitches uncontrollably. The arm it's attached to falls limp at her side. And still she steps forward.

"Did you hear me? I said so be it! So what?! So what!? If I have to fight all of Olympus, that's what I'll do! We're not done here, Mynx!"

The heat rises in her body until it cauterizes her wounds. Shards of armor splinter off every joint and fall to the ground as she moves. In this singular moment, even the moonlight shrinks from her. She is free to speak, to pound her chest, to stomp her feet until the ship itself rattles with her fury. Bella curls downward and slams her claws into the ground, driving up great sprays of mud. Her mismatched eyes burn with the heat of stars. All this power, she uses... to reach her hand through the air. Toward Mynx. She strains her fingers with longing.

"If no god will answer my prayers, then I! I will pray to No One! I will cross this fucking rift for no one's sake. I will finish whatever mission is left to me on the other side, with no wish on my lips except an end to this curse that's plagued them all their lives. I will do. Whatever it takes.

"But give her back! Even if she kills me, make her do it as herself! GIVE ME BACK! MY SISTER!"

The first thing people tend to notice about Gym Euna (...get it? eh? ehhh???) is that it is sparkling and immaculate. The smell of sweat permeates the air, but of stains or signs of wear and tear there's just... nothing. It's so pristine looking that it takes a second glance to notice that most of the equipment inside is far from state of the art. There's brand names aplenty, no helping that, but all of it is multiple product generations out of date.

That hardly matters, though. Weights and benches don't exactly benefit from "smart" technology, after all. So even though the air's as saturated with wireless signals as it is with workout sounds, most of those are coming from the clientele. The only ones that can be sourced to the building itself are coming from the upstairs office and the VR booths near the back of the room, which are connected to the official @SARAHPHIM bullet curtain rhythm game servers.

But, distractions! Immaculate. That's the word for this place: immaculate. Not just for cleanliness standards, but in terms of organization and arrangement, too. No space on Aevum is especially expansive, so a lot of care and attention has been spent optimizing useable space, with an eye for balancing saturation of equipment with safety. Every gym mat and dance pad is arranged to double as a landing zone for the various bits of climbing gear (there's a cargo net, ropes with varyingly worrying levels of sway to them, a simple rock wall, and even a salmon ladder). Only the balance beam and its associated foam pit are part of a one hundred percent specialized area, and even that seems connected to some other purpose.

The walls are lined with mirrors that are splitting time and space with a meticulous schedule that glows blaring lights in various colors, depending on where you're looking, announcing the active portion of the roster that indicates what equipment or courses are on offer. At 1700 hours almost everything shuts down for something called 'The Gauntlet'. Whatever that is, it needs the entire gym.

Is all of this impressive? Is any of it? It depends on who you are. Depends on how close you're looking. At first glance it's nothing more than a glimpse into the mind of a person who seems to live for nothing but fitness in a world that increasingly has no particular use for the label. But it's here. The equipment is rated for the output levels of some of the highest grade cybernetics in the world, and there is absolutely no charge when you enter. Just a hand painted sign explaining that, if you like what you found here and have the cash to spare, feel free to contribute what you thought the space is worth to help keep it going.

...There's a second sign beneath it that looks much newer, with different and angrier handwriting. It looks like burn etching, actually. It simply reads, "And if you don't I will FUCKING get you, nerds."

"Cinders!" barks an authoritative voice, "Cinders I swear to god. Both hands. Both! Hands! If you don't distribute the weight evenly you're going to tear something! Yes, I know it looks more impressive but don't-- for the love of! No! You are setting a bad example for the students! Even distribution, Cinders! Even development! Your back is literally begging you to take better care of it! Just because your arms are rated Class III doesn't mean the rest of you is! Now come down and lead the cooldown stretches, please. Do we need to repeat the lecture?"

Euna Kim sighs and runs both of her matte black hands through the pristine sheets of her silver-painted hair. As casual as the motion is, her feet are planted as if she were trying to draw power from the ground beneath her and convert it into some kind of bone-shattering martial arts strike that connects from multiple angles at once. That's the kind of aura she's got around her. In her black biker shorts and neon yellow crop top, it's hard not to notice all the little details of her body. Four artificial limbs shine with golden lights embedded in the surface like an attempt at wearing jewelry. At the corners of her waist, there's a thin, crossing line of black mesh that weaves underneath the skin. And the rest of her... is muscle. Not bulk, per se, her frame doesn't really allow her to be massive, but the overall impression of her body is extreme density. When she moves, her back ripples with a clarity most people find off putting.

When she spins around, her abs come into view and... woof. Wow. You could sharpen knives on those things. Seems like they extend up forever until her chest takes over and whoops ok it's time to look higher now before something bad happens. Euna's face, at least, is soft and smooth with a quality that makes it very difficult to tell how old she is. But right now it's taken on a sharp quality that's down to the anger in her eyes. She snorts and zips across the length of the gym to meet you at the front.

"Hey, hey! How many times do I have to tell you, she's NOT HERE! No loitering! No photos! I don't know when or if she's coming again so either pick a station and get busy, or get the fuck out of my-- ohmygosh, EEP!"

Her hands fly up to her face in a mortified gasp. Her honey-brown eyes open wide with equal parts shock and shame. She leaps a solid six feet in the air and lands, bouncing nervously in the air. And just like that, if she had an aura of iron or intimidation, it's gone. She laughs, a tittering and nervous sound that ends with an undignified snort. November, meet Euna Kim, the world's strongest nerd.

"Threevee I'm so sorry! I'm so, so-- I didn't recognize you! I thought you were another one of those! I mean, it's just, the other week Dami was spotted in here and... yeah, like, that Dami and just-- oh, sorry, no, you don't care. Of course you don't! Hahaha, of course you, ahhhhhh god, I'm so sorry. It's just, like I said, and every day since there's been all these fucking paparazzi types sneaking in here trying to get photos like it's anybody's business what she--

Oh, but what am I saying? It's been so long! I'm so sorry! I keep meaning to turn up at your place but Sara's just been exhausted lately and if I go alone she'll kill me. But you're here! And oh!! Oh gosh! Look at you, you're dressed for a session! Ha! I thought I scared you off! This is amazing, I'm so happy! I, but, oh! Hold on, hold on, I don't know this one! Hi, hello, welcome! Threevee, introductions! Who is this? Did you bring your girlfriend here with you? You look adorable together!"
"...Interesting. Very interesting. Is that how I come across to you, now that you've met me? Hm. Does it surprise you to learn you're the first person to accuse me of being cautious? In my life, in fact."

A ridiculous question with an obvious reply. Naturally she is not surprised in the slightest. To say she was would be to break the sanctity of her read. It would mean that Marcina Villajero respected the perceptive powers of the average pilot to match her own, when plainly she did not. And in the absence of that respect, it would mean that the observation was not significant. And it needed to be significant. That was a requirement.

Because it was not an accusation in the first place. It wasn't acceptable to laugh this off as a joke or let it melt into another misunderstanding or misfire. 'I see through you'. That was the intended message of this casual aside. 'I see through you, where others have not. You are a layered and subtle creature and I respect you enough to reveal that I recognize that.' It was meant as a challenge, to give optimal time for Mirror to add new and ideally unreadable layers to her performance before they met in a match. It was a seal of confidence, that they would inevitably meet in a match. And it was an apology: revealing the insight negated a strategic advantage and reciprocated a similar concession Mirror had already made earlier in the conversation.

But Mirror laughs, as if she'd been told the funniest joke in her life. She laughs, knowing Marcina Villajero will not be fooled into thinking Mirror doesn't understand what she did. She laughs as she reaches for her drink, and drains the remaining portion with a grin and a firm slam on the table, the kind you see in Terenian movies. Because in the end, this last move in the game had been the one that impressed her the most. Because her heart was pumping blood through her veins as swiftly as if she were a Huntress, finally blessed with worthy prey. Because this is the least and only kindness she can offer Marcina Villajero in such a strange and crowded setting.

"You have a way with words, Marcina Villajero! You should have been born a Fisher. We might even have been sisters! Extraordinarily careful, hahahaha. I'm going to tell my mechanic you said that. Does yours charge overtime? Because mine..."

She whistles, a noise she is not particularly adept at producing. She can make one note, an upward slide that desperately wants a downwards follow to complete it. But her lips can't make the shape. She can't adjust her air inflow. And not for lack of practice. This is simply... beyond her. She smiles and shrugs it off.

"She is... expensive. I should try harder to live up to your idea of me."

Why do this? Because the exchange would end unequal, otherwise. Because Marcina Villajero was surrounded by hangers-on with varying levels of sharpness and curiosity, and some of them would start asking bothersome questions about one or both of them. It would, in the end, say things about Marcina Villajero that would harm her. Her advantage in the arena did not deserve to be eroded by a conversation in a dive bar, and certainly not by a random failure of a war hero worth a quarter of the attention due to an arena champion.

So here you are, then. A joke, told to a silly cat who held on through cinnamon poison just long enough to get drunk and debase herself. Let them say that Mira Fisher is a fool with delusions of grandeur but a hot enough ass to make up the difference. Or let them say that a pair of strangers met by chance and exchanged puns across language barriers before departing as friends. Let them say that each has found a worthy rival, if they much. So long as they are bored. So long as the talk that spreads is no more than bar gossip.

You may not appreciate it until much later, Marcina Villajero. But you will at the very least not misinterpret it. Mirror is confident of that much. She rises with an exaggerated sway that hits at least ten people with her fluffy tail, and gives several others that turn around a brief but memorable glance at the body of a model. A girl of many, but not ubiquitous talents. What a shame she can't stop getting in her own way. What a shame Hybrasil culture is so... limiting. What a shame, what a shame, what a shame.

She waves behind her as she sways her way to the bartender, and whispers something in their ear. In the end, it was her account that would be credited for the drinks. In the end, it was Marcina Villajero that would have to decide how she felt about the service. Proactivity wins wars, didn't you know?
Her jaw hangs open, loose and bloody against her slumping neck. Bella lifts her sword arm to her mouth and squeezes it until the bones crunch back into place. Already the sinews and fibers of her skin and muscles are stitching themselves back together. Already fresh teeth are growing in over the broken ones, as sharp and lethal as ever. Already her joints are spitting out glimmering shards of metal and bone. Her body hurts. Her body twitches and crackles with power, power, power. Her body sings a song of ecstasy that demands she speak it aloud.

Bella tosses her head back and laughs. Guttural, wet, mirthless. She drags her tongue across her bloody claws. Ever the cat, concerned with cleaning herself in the middle of a battle. Do you see how far she's fallen, Mynx? This is why she needs you. The elongated knives at the ends of her fingers whistle as she stretches them in front of her face. Whip-crack, the thunderbolt of her tail. One, two. The slow ramping of power that is her trademark. Whip-crack, the warning of her flesh. With every drop of blood spilled she grows faster. Each fresh injury grows into new swords.

She lashes out at the shield in Mynx's hands, and the air itself cries in pain in her wake. Her claws catch against its gummy surface, sinking where they should tear. She tilts her head in surprise, and a moment later drives the thrust deeper until it carries the pair of them straight into the wall with enough force to shake a hundred tendrils of fresh ivy loose from a badly worn bronze mural. A woman with her face worn down to blurry, anonymous indistinction appears above them, shedding fresh shards of her shoulder, dress, and bust as Demeter's desperate, clutching grasp withers at their feet. The face has no lips, though it must have once. But it seems to be smiling just the same.

Bella snarls and grunts with every strike; the sound almost more terrifying than the force of the blows. Each strike tears her other hand free from the consequences of the one that came before it. Each strike Rips large chunks of the shield away into sticky blobs of protective mass, necessitating more blood to replace it. Her fingers flex, and with brutish strength she pulls the fibers free and leaves a hole large enough that her eyes have space to meet Mynx's for the first time in a long time. She couldn't see at all, back then. But this time there is no mistaking it. Her sister is not here. She snarls, drooling with evil animal hatred, and raises her fist to strike a deathblow.

It does not fall. She grunts with surprise, instead. Her head turns to behold Redana's sword buried deep into her chest, the notches on the blade catching against her ribs.

"Re... Da... Na..."

She does not pull the blade free. Bella drops an elbow like the wrath of Zeus down onto Redana's forearm, and knows before the sound reaches her ears that she has shattered it. A battle of regeneration, then. She twists around and smashes her knee into Redana's stomach over, and over, and over, and over again. Her claws rake down Redana's back and she kicks the Princess into the air before grabbing her by the hair and slamming her against the ground.

The sword slips free of her body against her will. A knife joins it; Redana has claws aplenty, too. She takes a cut across her face, only barely flinched away from in time to avoid cleaving her demon-red eye. A bloody gouge rips across her thigh all the way down to her knee. She plants her feet and howls her challenge anyway. Something strikes Bella in the head and sends her spiraling to the ground, where her shoulder blades tear open on a nest of fresh thorns.

Thorns. She sniffs, above all the blood. The honey scent of Beljani's venom. The sweaty reek of battle that should have long since ended. Rising above it all, the perfume of perfect, red roses. Bella chuckles the way the Master of the Kennels used to before whipping her. It is, even now, the most evil sound she can think of. She grabs fistfuls of the gaudy flowers and scatters them like darts. Their scent hangs heavy in the air. Their petals drift across the room like Imperial rain, sensory confusion at defies any attempt at identifying any sort of complex information.

Her fingers close around a hardened and gnarled root the size of her leg. She pulls, and it struggles against her. Her! Bella screams as she pulls with all her might, spattering blood everywhere as the efforts of her body push the stuff through every wound in terrifying quantity. But roots snap free and soil crumbles under her might. Bella trembles and, with shuddering breaths, snaps free this hymn to the infinite power of Demeter. She hefts it in both hands and lunges high into the air.

Her spear thrust catches Redana full in the stomach. She twists, plants her feet, and lifts. Redana dangles from the end of the root like a doll. But a doll that, even now, has fight in it. Is already grasping at the sharp surface to pull herself free, or even down its length to smash Bella's skull open with cries of Avaunt!

But for a moment, the pair of them simply breath. Sway. They pour their heavy scents into the air, among the roses and death. Eyes over here, Mynx. Your attention is called. What was it you were trained for? What did your heart desire, once? Think! Open your eyes, your true and beautiful eyes!


[Keep Them Busy: 11]

That single word, like a knife thrust in the air. Alone, it hangs there. She does not follow up on it, does not elaborate. Several times she lifts her glass near her lips, and several times she lowers it without swallowing any of its remaining mouthfuls. It hangs in her hand, never touching the table or anything other than her fingers for even a second. Moving back and forth between different points of commitment and never usefully reaching any of them. It is a weight. A burden. A small one, but hardly alone.

She locks eyes with Marcina Villajero, and says nothing. Though she opens her mouth as if to several times, and even takes a breath to feed the sentence, it never comes. Her answer is this single too-sharp word. And yet she stares. Her attention may wander to the lumpy steel surface of the table or the movement of her fingers on its surface, or it might flicker to the press-types and the hangers on for an instant, a moment, or even a while, but it is never truly off of Marcina Villajero.

She does not elaborate. She does not move as if to leave. She does not permit further conversation, but neither does she end it. You. That was the word she spoke. The shape of the thought that attaches to that word is a swirling dust storm inside her head. Liquid eyes dart this way and that, but her face keeps still. She holds them open without ever so much as blinking. Her tail pounds some random woman in leathers in the back and she makes no notice of this whatsoever. Not that it is happening, or what the reaction to it might be.

"Want me to be right."

Ah. Repetition, then. No true answer but simply a mirror held up to a thing said five minutes ago over drinks. Curt and vicious, and only valuable as information insofar as the nature of that reflection reveals their true meaning. Insult and anger, arrogance and injured bravado. Revelation piled atop revelation and still the gall to keep staring, keep pushing, keep pestering as though fresh secrets will come tumbling out with a poke. Breathiness, exhaustion. A failure to understand the meaning of the words until they drift minutes apart from each other, spiraling out into the depths of space desperately reaching hand out for hand even knowing those fingers will never close around one another's again. It is cold out there, and dark besides. A terrible place to die.

"You. Want an opponent."

Her fingers curl overtop the table. Clipped claws tap out messages to no one and for no one with impossible rapidity and desperate insistence. She could be piloting. She is piloting. And nobody will ever know this. She could be sewing. She is sewing. An nobody will ever know this, either. She might be comforting something, herself, a lover, an old rival in some strange ritual, and nobody will ever know.

The moment of learning. Of taking someone new inside herself and becoming more whole. The moment of teaching. Giving it all back tenfold and helping some promising new face catch up and pass her. Tethers and chains, weaving together into an inscrutable mesh holding her in place. But only in the way that gravity holds one in place. Particularly in the galactic sense, defining the boundaries of where she might roam at any point for any reason with any warning or none, scattered so far apart that she becomes invisible to each of them and yet expects the fact that the tether still exists to matter when it someday pulls her back. She is at once too caught and too loose.

"Like I claim to fight."

Always the question. The prodding. The assumption. Digging around for more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more. More. Digging for more. For more. Digging. Eyes meet eyes, and there are no smiles. The drink hangs heavy in her hand, and the clinking of melting ice slipping and hitting the glass is the only thing that counts the time or insists that the conversation move forward. She breathes, quietly. Her tail whips that same back, insistently. She does not turn around.

The failure of communication. Not of words to be understood, but a heart to be seen. Open the bag to let out some light, and a hand immediately reaches for the opening to snatch something new. To ask her what it is she loves, as if that's a question with any sort of answer. As if the answer could be held in a single palm and carried off like a heart ruby. As if there was even a heart to take as a lesser prize to make up for the gem tumbling away ages ago across some shifty chain of museums. Admired and learned from, though never actually.

Fashion. Crystal Etching. Anime. Riddles. Crafting laser arrays. Fluid dynamic study. Mecha construction. Maintenance. Upgrade. Piloting. Strategy. Racing. Swimming. Dancing. Chess. Quietly reading, but only the same handful of documents in an ever-tightening loop. Woman after woman after woman. And Solarel, who was different from a woman in some way. Different from a lover in some way. But not enough to fully escape either label. A blustering goddess straining to wear a crown before she's learned to crave the collar. A soft starlet of a priestess with a heart large enough to forge pathways in the stars. A soft and vulnerable kitten, even now catching hiccups while she tries to figure out a way to ask the wishes of her secret heart in an e-mail of all things. An older, better friend than any of them still waiting for her chance to shine as brightly. Solarel again, and the promise of her lethal, rapid growth.

Foolish. What an impossibly stupid question. Don't you know? It's bad luck to place a Mirror in your bedroom. All it can do is absorb and reflect the entire universe. It cannot love. It is a hole in the fabric of reality that rejects love. It reveals the truth of everything, but only in the way it lies. And in the end it shatters into shards so sharp and deadly that it cuts your entire being to pieces. A dangerous thing to allow so near to your heart.

Love. What does she love? How could she? To love she would have to understand what it meant in the first place. If it were possible to love, then at least one of the many things that fit the description so perfectly should have been enough to fill in her reflection and finally fucking keep her in place. But nothing ever keeps her in place. Only in orbit. And there is no answer more monstrous to the question of 'what do you love?' than everything. It is the exact. Same. Concept.

As nothing.


The word again, and just as sharp. But now, followed with a shrug of the shoulders and a turn of the head. She puts her shoulder between herself and Marcina Villajero. A shield, is what that is. For... someone. That is the riddle of the moment.

"Have no need to hope. If I am not in this moment the opponent you long for, then watch me Marcina Villajero. By the time I reach you in the arena I will have become her. Do not. Let words. Like Hope or Claim stain your lips again. You are far, far too beautiful to let that kind of ugliness stain your soul."

She sets her unfinished drink on the table at last. Reaches into her bag and pulls a large fistful of coins out before dropping them next to the glass with a clatter that draws every eye in the bar to the exchange.

"For the drinks." she says.

And even still, does not rise to depart.

[Mirror is reducing her feelings by 2]
Blood. So much blood in the air. Thick and rich, sweeter than wine. Oily, cloying, the memory of bile painted across her tongue. Also like wine, in fact. The only wine that ever came to mind when she thought of the word. The taste of home.

Bella twists her now shattered sword in a slow circle. The grip is still cool in her palm, even now. The balance is still perfect despite no more than a shard. Less an extension of her arm, but still an extension of her claws. Her bloodied face is reflected in the steel: scarred perfection is still perfection.

A sudden rush of blood pulls the strength from her leg and shakes her out of her reverie, forcing her onto all fours to push her hardened bloody claws through equally bloody mud. The slick, wet material slides between her fingers with a squelching sound that calls to mind the sighs of corpses. Sword and claw dig eager grooves in swirling patterns in the velvety soil, and flower blossoms spring with astonishing speed in their wake.

The light here is dingy and gray. Smoke and haze in suffocating clouds, and not the thinnest sliver of gold or silver spiral to be found. The smell is dirt, is wine, is sweat, is perfume, is fur, is chitin, is scale, is smoke. Love and life rule here: what was meditation but surrender? What was the hunt but nature, red in tooth and claw? The Temples themselves were nothing but monuments to the power of love. And so love was all this was. And so love was all she could do. Bella's wounds harden into uneven, ugly armor plating covering her skin and pinning the tattered remnants of her priestess' dress to her body. She drags a freshly grown, gnarled knee spike through the mud before pushing up with all her might and leaping high enough into the air to scrape the ceiling.

Redana or Mynx? Redana or Mynx? Who did she love, and how? Stupid. Foolish. She is a comet hurtling with burning inevitability toward the only conclusion she was ever built or raised to reach. Her howl splits the skies. Her knee plunges into Redana's thigh as she crashes down on top of her. Her voice cracks and gargles with fresh pain and a sword point plunged through her abdomen. She crawls up its length to deliver a crushing headbutt to the Imperial Princess' skull. Hard enough to short circuit nerve, to derive even an Auspex of the connections it needs to guide. To turn the duel, however briefly, into a contest of pure will.


Foaming spittle flecks from her mouth, and she wrenches herself free from the jagged blade. She twists her leg around and lifts Redana off the floor only to grip her by the leg in one hand and drag her dazed body into the sky behind her. Up, up they rise. Toward the great chimeric dragon. Toward Mynx. Ask her to choose. She will not. She will not! She hurls Redana like a javelin and plunges down into the fray.

Claw and spine meets fang, spine, wing, burr, and pincer. She tears bloody red gouges across Mynx's face and neck. Needles the size of her arm sink into her shoulder in response. She sucks a breath in, anticipating pain, but the agony is so close to ecstasy she can't tell the difference anymore. She shudders, convulses. Toxins drip like honey into her blood and fills her with a sense of wetness so pervasive she can no longer be sure if she's growing numb or if she's actually melting into nothing.

Her smile is savagery. Her punch shatters teeth. She tears fangs free from her ribs and shoulders and plunges them like spears back into their owner, and they are falling, falling, falling toward soft welcoming mud and bright blossoming flowers growing around prism-crystal bones. For a moment they slump against each other and fill the room with the sounds of exhausted animal breathing. Already their bodies are purging their weakness, swapping it out for new weapons and armor to overcome the others. Already ears and tails are twitching in anticipation of Redana's coming counterattack. They were, after all, a trio. They would do this together, or not at all.

And this, O Aphrodite, is what it means to love. And this, O Demeter, is what it means to live. And if these are the only two rules of the universe, then so be it. She will master them yet. She will pray until the moon shines down on her again. She will pray until one of you answers.

"NOT DONE YET!" Bella howls and tears whole plates of twisted armor off her arm, ripping clumps of matted, bloody fur up with it, "YOU DON'T GET TO RUN AWAY! MYNX! REDANA!!"
Silence. In the aftermath. The question considered, the question ignored. Silence. Awaiting the replacement drink. Silence. Deep frown, sharp stare, hold for eleven full seconds, break. Retrieve tablet from effects, clear screen. Clear screen. Clear screen. Call up program: white canvas. Retrieve wand. Lines deliberate. Slow. Silent.

The question ignored. The question considered. The question devoured. Draw the glyphs. Turn attention away, acknowledge bartender. Single nod, pause. Thumbs up, slight tremble. Unfortunate. Belch, poison. Shake head. Wince. Inhale air over fresh glass, flowers, grasses, spinach. Sugar, perfect. Flavors to bury a ludicrous amount of intoxicant. Also perfect. Single, delicate sip. Soft sigh.

Turn tablet toward Marcina Villajero. Display glyphs: "The One-Day Defender".

"I do not share this with you as admonishment, nor as recompense. This is not a tool by which you may correct your ignorance. It is not how I shall reveal mine. It is a secret, told in confidence, and if you spread it beyond our talk tonight I shall find you in the night and tear secrets you did not even know you had from your brain until I am satisfied I have gotten my fair share back. This trust is offered you because we are kindred. Nothing more or less."

She places her fingers on the screen and pulls apart the layers of the glyph. Complex Hybrasilian glyphs, like the ones used for names, were constructed out of multiple simpler ones that either all or mostly built the meaning of the larger one, though not the way it was spoken. Mira lifts her hands and is left with the glyphs for 'shield', 'shelter', 'time', and 'friend'.

"War records will show that I clashed with the pilot of the Aeteline outside the territory of the Hybrasil Research Station [Dappled Sunlight, Rippling Water]. She and I engaged in single combat lasting approximately one full solar cycle. Though I failed to gain any definitive advantage over her in that time, occupying her attention was the difference between a successful raid by the Zaldarian task force and a full civilian evacuation plus data backup and excavation. I am a hero among my people, and this title is proof."

Mira grins with sadistic glee, and pauses to take a long but gentle sip of her drink. Her eyes drift shut and her ears wiggle from the sheer pleasure of it all. And while this happens, her hands blindly strike glyphs from the screen until only 'shield' is left. She turns it on its side. She plucks the wand back off the table and twirls it in her fingers before carefully adding glyphs that read 'shattered', 'food', and 'traitor'. She pauses to look Marcina Villajero in the eyes, and pushes the layers back together.

They form the same glyph as before.

"At the end of our duel I was defeated and taken captive. I spent the rest of the war as my conqueror's personal hostage. I lived in her tent, I followed behind her on a leash, though I would not have disobeyed even if she had removed it. I ate her food. I learned her culture and her way of speaking. And I watched as she tore through my people's lands at the tip of a spear of destruction, theft, and humiliation. Jewels far greater than [Dappled Sunlight, Rippling Water] were plucked and broken while I did nothing. It is debatable if I am the greatest pilot in Hybrasil. It is an absolute fact that I am among them. I accomplished a single great deed, and then I, a hero, sat by and watched my people suffer. I am. Despicable. And this title is proof."

Another sip, a slash of her tail through the air, a quiet and contented sigh. Nothing about her posture or demeanor suggests she is particularly bothered by the conversation or the memory of it, except that the liquid in her eyes seems all of a sudden to have frozen over completely. She rubs the stub of her thumb-claw around the edge of her glass, and laughs.

"Everything I do, I do to the best of my ability, be it matches, maintenance, love, or anything else that strikes my interest. But Victory is a goddess with very distant eyes, Marcina Villajero. And her name, too, can be fashioned out of many words. I do not owe my opponents the respect of crushing them. Wins and losses are irrelevant, except as a path to facing you. I desire you, Marcina Villajero. Sister from a far-distant star. You have calculated that when we fight, you will be both enriched and victorious. And this is wrong. Dear heart: I will swallow you whole. I will fashion you into a new tail for my Gods-Smiting Whip. And when I do. I promise. I will teach you every secret lesson you desire. That you do not know you desire. That you cannot even shape the words to ask for. Your power will be mine. And I will make you invincible."

Her words hang in the air again as she takes dainty sips from her drink. It is strong enough to melt her body and sweet enough to thaw her eyes. She smiles through a face soaked through with watery inscrutability. She wipes her tablet clean and puts it away again, but makes no motion toward leaving.

"And we will," she adds in a quiet voice, "I hope. Depart our battle as friends."

[Figure out a person: 7. "What do you love most?" and "What do you truly hope to get from me?" Out of respect for a superior opponent, Mirror will answer a single question in exchange]
The blade feels heavy in her hand. The loops of leather on the hilt are cool against the insistent heat of her palm. Even as she squeezes tight enough to make it groan and squeak under the pressure, it holds its temperature perfectly. The material feels smooth, but grips into her skin without shifting. It's like holding an ice cube that's been polished and then later etched into a work of fine art. The blade is long and heavy, but balanced with the kind of precision that manufactures starships the weight feels as natural as her own arm. An extension of the limb.

The blade whistles with every flick of her wrist. Bella's eyes are locked on the blade across from her in Redana's hands. She watches the way it twists, the flash of the light across its edge, the tremor running through it that proves it's being gripped too tight. The subtle shifts in the muscles holding it that are unconsciously taking advantage of that tremor, that show the saber is no less a part of Redana's arm than it is Bella's.

She cuts away her sandal straps with a pair of clean slashes at her legs, and kicks them across the floor. The soles of her feet dig into the grass as she plants them in the soil. The leaf-blades are slick against her skin and wet against her fur. It is softer than any bed she's lied on, but cuts her feet open on hidden prickles as she slips across it. A soft bed to welcome her, when she falls. A bed of knives, grinning in the dark. Demeter is everywhere.

The air is thick with perfumes of all sorts: lavender and goldenrod and seemingly every pollen known to Empire except for roses. Bella sniffs deeply, and kills each one in turn. Farewell to flowers. Farewell to crisp pools of water. Farewell to soil. She focuses all of her attention on the blend of salt and metal that tells her what Redana doing, feeling, thinking at every moment of the duel.

Her eyes flit briefly away from the plan... from Redana to behold Aphrodite watching over them. Of Artemis there is no sign to be found. Apollo is just as absent. No moon, no sun to guide her here inside this garden. She slashes with her blade through the dirt in front of her, kicking up a massive wave of dirt clumps, leaves, and flower petals.

"If this doesn't work, then just... there's no one else I'd rather be killed by. Redana."

Bella stomps her foot and lifts her sword up into a stance that's no stance at all. The blade is kept high above her head where leverage and power can turn it into a stroke powerful enough to cleave even the ship open. Her eyes burn with battle-fury. The air around her wavers from the heat pouring off her body.

"...This is the last time I will ever hurt you. One way or another, it stops with this. So endure it, Princess. And don't you dare, don't you dare, don't you fucking dare hold back!"

Bella screams as an animal would. She screams to be heard by the entire ship. She screams to split skulls open. And then her hair and dress whip behind her as if caught in a gust, and she appears in front of Redana with no intervening frames. Rather than taking advantage of her momentum, she pauses just long enough to plant her feet. Her hips twist with her shoulder, and the full power of a Diodekoi comes screaming down on top of the Imperial Princess.

The dueling swords keen horribly as they clash. This is a blow neither of them are meant to endure, but they hold all the same. The floor buckles under their combined weight; Bella's sword slides all the way down Redana's until it catches against the guard. There is a struggle: sweat against sweat, muscle against muscle, steel against steel, breath against breath. Bella's laugh is guttural and her smile is full of teeth. She lifts her sword again and the pressure abates instantly.

Every blow rains down faster than the one that preceded it. It crushes even harder, trades more and more skill for raw brutality. Each one countered more desperately, but (the scents tell her) more determinedly as well. The skill of an Olympic athlete who trained her entire life to fight with blades like these is on display, and it is enough to hold against the terrifying fury of an unleashed assassin. It is enough. You are enough, Redana. You're all that's needed. All that's ever been needed.

The ship shudders with the force of the battle happening inside of it. Swords sing their terrible death songs as metal grinds edge off of metal. And then something slips. The dull, wet sound of flesh splitting open briefly sounds through the ears of those straining to listen for it, and the pitter patter of blood dripping down follows just behind it. Bella squeezes Redana's blade in her palm, and wrenches it from her hands.

Her fist is a meteor aimed at Redana's ribs. Time seems to pause in an instant of exquisite pain met by the snap of a rib exploding into dust. Bella snarls and pounds the attack again, a knee this time with enough force to send her Princess sprawling backwards as though shot out of a cannon to crunch against the far wall. Bella twists on the ball of her foot and whirls about in a full circle and launches the sword as a thunderbolt that bites into Redana's shoulder on its way to burying itself in the wall up to the pommel.

Steam pours out of Bella's mouth in a sigh. She brings her bloody hand to her mouth and drags her tongue across the wound. Her eyes constrict with a wave of nausea that almost staggers her, but willpower or something darker conquers it. She flexes her fingers with a series of loud cracks and crunches.

Her claws have grown longer. They cover her fingers up to the third knuckle like a chitinous gauntlet covered in wicked, curving spines. She pauses to stare at it. Snarls. The edge of her sword cuts through the air with a snap and a rush that pulls air in all around her.

"Re. Da. Na. BLEED! SCREAM!" her spine curls with the effort of her war cry, "REDANA!"

Show her. Show her what she means to you. Beautiful's plans are perfect, but did you notice? They are also suicidally dangerous. Maybe no one has the power to fight against a god. Maybe it's impossible to defeat the one god among them that's wrapped the rest up tight to wear as a ring around his finger. This whole endeavor might be doomed from the start. But Bella is pushing herself to the edge of her own limits because she believes in that plan. But her body is a hideous bomb the same way Mynx's is. You're against the clock, Princess.

Do you understand?
"Marcina Villajero? Arena champion. Pilot of..."

Intentional delay of five point seven six seconds. Implied struggle of recall, affected look of concentration. Tap finger on air as though across surface of a desk: accepted gesture of consideration among certain small circles of Fisher culture, limited in popular use to a handful of frontier research stations. Easily misconstrued among outsiders as taunting. One, two, one two three, one two. Feels almost like piloting. Single nod, smile as practiced. Lip curling toward the left side of the face, good, good.

"The Jormungar. To call out a nobody like me, on sight, in the middle of a crowded bar? That's so surprising it's almost suspicious! I wonder, could you be my mysterious saboteur?"

Pause, again. Allow the accusation to linger in the air. Gauge reactions, smile. Longer. Tap tap, tap. Long enough to make it awkward. Three. Two. One. And: laughter.

"Only kidding, of course. It's an honor, thanks for the drink."

It's natural that she would be prepared for this meeting. Any combatant with intentions to win the tournament would be an idiot not to consider interactions between key competitors, and the reigning champion stands as the most obvious of all. At the barest minimum one would hope to see profiles built detailing combat capabilities and off-field tendencies to be sufficiently prepared for what amounts to increasingly inevitable confrontations. And Mirror is vastly more disadvantaged than most. And vastly more serious than most. So her preparations are comparatively more thorough.

This is not about that, though. This is a battle, but the opponent is not Marcina Villajero. Impossible to defeat an opponent of this caliber in a bar before the main show, in any event. But she represents an opportunity. The world. The galaxy. That is an enemy she can defeat. Let the crowd watch. Let word spread. Let the strengths and weaknesses of Mira Fisher be known, so she can observe who attempts to take advantage of them.

Always. Always one layer of defense. Never more or less. She sits at the table with an awkward slouch, pours her own drink from the offered bottle, and stares at it instead of drinking. Swirl. Watch the liquid. Entrancing. Terrifying. Dip little finger enough to break surface tension, but no more. Shake until nearly dry. Trepidatious lick. Immediate gag.

"Cinnamon," she spits, "Vile stuff. Poison. Did you know? The revolutionary warrior Delinata Seven Rhea would send gifts of cinnamon to enemy camps before battle? They say she liberated the Grasslands with only a single stroke of her spear. And you... like this? What kind of steel-blooded queen are you?"

That is a true story, by the way. Cinnamon is used for warding off evil spirits and, more practically, for marking unsafe zones in construction zones or experiment sites, say. The smell is repugnant. The flavor, somehow worse. In high enough concentrations it might even be useful as a non-lethal incapacitation device. As a spray it would... not bear thinking about. Brr. But the nasty trick of it all is that Hybrasil culture is universal and unrelenting in its insistence that a gift is not to be denied. In the ancient days it was punishable by death, and the modernization of the culture has mellowed that threat only a little. That was the true shape of Delinata Seven Rhea's blade. Perhaps it was Marcina Villajero's, also.

Deep breath. One. Two. In. Out. Grip the glass, tight. Clench. Wince, before even lifting. Drain the glass in three large gulps. Wretch. Swallow. Swallow. Swallow! Dizzy. Place hand on table, stabilize. Deep breath. Regret. Head on table.

"...Thank fuck for the fire. I might be dead without it."

Slump forward, head turn. Grin. Excellent adaptation. Mira Fisher is weak. Mira Fisher is reckless. Mira Fisher is bold enough to accuse the champion of crimes but too polite to turn down a gift she plainly despises. Mira Fisher is a melodramatic creature with an overly sensitive, easily overwhelmed body. Mira Fisher is a rookie. Has a lot to prove. Is Fierce. Risky. Willing to expose herself, in more ways than one.

Let them speak. Let them speak beyond the limits of her own imagination. Let. Them. Speak.

"You know. You are a person many accuse of overcompensating. Small stature, large machine. A... chip on the shoulder? Is that how you say it? But. I do not think so. You know my name. You know my face. Well. Do you know what that says to me? Your talent is not natural. It is the result of drive. Practice. More than all the rest. There is an opening when you fire your main weapon, but you are not exposed. You have trained the release timing. I suspect you even have a counter prepared if someone defeats your straight thrust. It is a tragedy that nobody has forced you to show that yet. You are... an exceptional woman, Marcina Villajero."

She pauses to let out a weak, shaky little breath. It's Solarel she's really thinking of. Solarel, who will be at this exact moment sharpening herself for the next confrontation. Solarel who is preparing to slingshot far enough ahead that Mirror will never catch up again. And then... they will never be together again. Their relationship was built atop the dance, after all. That's why Mirror is fighting against the world. Anything less will result in too blunt of fangs. It will cost her the woman she loves, that fills more of her holes than anyone else.

Someone almost enough. Well. That was another reason to fight the world, wasn't it? Mirror waves a shaky hand at the bar, calling for a different drink. Something sweet, something herbacious, something the farthest thing away from fucking cinnamon, if you please. Anything, now. No, it does not matter how strong it is. No, she can't be more specific. No, she doesn't care. Just give it.

"Too exceptional, in fact, for Mira of the Fisher Clan, Whose Star Name is Whispered Promise. So I must ask you three questions. One, what is your interest in me, Marcina Villajero? Two, how many matches must I lose to earn you as my opponent? And three..."

She smiles, and her watery eyes are dreamlike. Cunning. Dangerous.

"Would this please you, if I did you that disservice? If I fight you, I will eat you. Is that the secret wish of your heart, that the Arena could not grant you the first time?"
Tatters of coattails stick to her claws. Bella's hand closes around ruin and empty air.

The rush of blood through her head roars in her ears, keeping time with the furious pounding of her heart. Joints tense, crack, and scream. She doesn't hear them. There are words being spoken, by someone. To someone. She doesn't hear those either. There is her pulse, her sickening traitor's heart, the slushing proof of her guilt. And that is all the sound that can fit inside the world.

Bella's legs shift uneasily underneath her. The weight of her body rocks one way, and then the next. Her muscles coil and then relax without picking a target, without choosing attack or escape, without even moving her from the spot where her feet have been rooted to the ground by the weight of her failure. Is she breathing? Her body is convulsing, and that might as well be the same thing.

Her claws itch. Her fingers close around them and squeeze tight, as if to tear them all off. Again, the motion of her legs: the bend, the pivot in place, the curling of her foot to put her on the ball when she can chase the silver spiral and the Hunt once more. Where she can disappear from all senses and all thoughts and all failures. Her skin itches. Like her claws do.

There is a moan escaping from her lips, but she feels it in her throat more than she hears it. Her hands open just enough to let her bury her face in them, instead. The sharpness pressing against her temples feels like relief. She can let pressure out this way. She can stop the noises this way. All she needs to do is squeeze. Squeeze until the memories stop. Squeeze until her heart bursts. Squeeze until there's no more room for love and the poisonous hurt it brings.

And she is about to, when the fingers close about her wrist and pull her face back into the open air. Bella looks blankly into the worried eyes of Beljani. The Oratus says nothing. The Diodekoi wouldn't hear it anyway. But she does shake her head, and point. Something is twisting inside of Bella. It feels like the heated point of a knife broken off inside her skin. She tries to wrench her arm free, but it's pointless. Her power is broken. Even the sound of blood in her ears has gone quiet. There is a war inside of her: half wanting to explode and the other half wanting to relax into oblivion. It hurts, to stay where she is. But Beljani keeps here there.

She feels a nudge on her back, and the gentlest of pushes. Suddenly she is free. It would be the simplest thing to disappear with the opportunity this affords her. The push wasn't enough to even shift her weight; she could turn easily and disappear through the door faster than any eyes in the room could follow. She has that power. She does. But the blade inside of her tugs in the same direction as that quiet, warm push. And at last her feet unstick. And she moves in the direction they both lead.

The knife point turns into a hiccough. Bella's face is wet. One step. Two. The room is full of sounds again. Full of breathing and the word, "center". The warmth of bodies huddling against the coolness of the air. And she...

She wants that, too. So she takes it.

Bella's arms are long enough to wrap up Redana and Beautiful together. They are strong enough to lock the both of them in her embrace. But her legs can't hold her weight, and she slumps until her face is resting in Dany's hair. Her tears are hot, and loud.

"I'm sorry," she chokes, "I'm sorry..."

She says it again and again as if caught in a loop, or seeking the absolution that only a perfect utterance of the words can bring. Not these weak, sniffling attempts but something proud and strong and invincible enough to be vulnerable. The way that everyone expects from her. And like she expects from herself. But her voice is small and weak. Only the tears seem loud enough to say what it is she needs to say.

"I just... wanted things the way I-- I just! Everything... just hurts you. I only... make it worse. But I don't want to lose you! Not either of you, not again! Not again! Not... Dany. Y-you're always... such an idiot. I never wanted freedom. Just you. Just... you."

The miracle ends, and tears steal her words from her again. Bella sobs into her embrace, only stopping to cough and repeat the words 'I'm sorry' over and over, on a loop. But she doesn't let go. Even though she doesn't deserve this, any of this, not the scent or the warmth or the feeling of being this close again, not forgiveness or to be allowed her confession, but she holds tight anyway.

And when Beljani joins them, Redana really is in the middle of it all. And everyone is well and truly trapped. Everything would be perfect, in its crazy, fucked up way, if there was only one more piece here to slot into the shape.
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