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Fight you? Oh Angela. Do you not see that she loves you too much for that?

Speak not to the outsider. Do not let them hear the chattering of your teeth. The kiss of cold stealing warmth from your lips. Do not let them taste the desperation in your voice, the pride that wavers on the edge of humiliation. The Kathresis' beam blew out your mech's internal temperature regulator, her swords cracked the upper armour in the clash. The cold is seeping in.

And so Solarel stands back. She floats away into the snow, just outside the line of contact. When Angela advances she retreats. When Angela stops so does she. The Zero-Entropy weapon hums in her palm but she does not fire it. Her swords are vanished into cosmic dust. She is the wolf against the elk, waiting for the cold to finish her quarry. As patient as the cold she waits.

Sometimes autocannon fire comes. Sometimes missiles. She uses her shields, dodges, takes structural damage when she must. She does not advance. Eventually the stores will run dry. Eventually freezing poison will seep in through the tiny cut she left during that fleeting exchange. There need never be another. Because this is her gift for you, her love for you, Angela of humanity. Do you not know that glory against Solarel is measured in minutes? That the greatest huntress of Hybrasil would strive with all their skill to survive for mere hours against her amidst the asteroid rings of Etalaune? Tick, tick, tick. So rises your fame. So slows your heart.

How long until your hands go numb? Until the shivers of your body are visible on your machine? How long until frost starts to form on your face? How long until the fog of your breath drenches every screen in water? Tick tick tick. Glory, glory, glory. How long can a human last against the cold?

An hour passes.

And then more.

Still she waits. She waits until the cloud she seeded sighs its last. She waits until the wind finally clears the sky and leaves them together again on this mountaintop, eyes opened to each other in the last whispers of this false winter. The Kathresis still stands, distant and predatory and endlessly patient. No need to hunt. No need to risk the wrath of this beautiful, oh-so-prepared girl and all of her hidden techniques and just arguments. She could have hidden beneath the driving snow. She could have drawn this out more.

But her eye is on the clock too. Tick, tick, tick. Every moment she allows to pass brings Angela closer to the record set by the One Day Defender. Her swords are in her hands again. She loves you this much, Angela, but no further. Never further than this.

She stands, in the open at last, against her frozen foe. She is as unattainable as the stars. No words nor curses nor insults nor pleading could move her, could make her draw her blades. Nothing could cut her. Only this; only love.

It's beautiful, isn't it? Terrifying. To be so close to something so far away. To have someone respect you so much they never give you a chance. She never took a risk, never guessed that you'd make a mistake, even when you were shivering in a blizzard. You were still dangerous then. You are still dangerous now. Even as your lips turn blue she has not forgotten for a second that you are a goddess. She has not forgotten for a second that what she wants more than anything else is to defeat you.

The sun emerges from behind the wasteland she made of the sky. It captures all her sleek alien beauty. Have you forgotten, Angela Victoria Miera Antonius?

[Entice: 10-1(string): 9]
Alexa!

"Hmm!" Cerberus thinks about that for a moment. "Hmm..." Not like she's coming up with a witty response, just rolling the idea over in her many minds. A certain energy starts to fade out of the hounds as she does; the swarm unravels and drifts away along a hundred doggy paths, and soon the street is empty again but for you and the robot dog in the window. In the absence of the machines and the motion the lights in the screen seem cold and lonely, and the guardian of the Underworld seems like just a toy.

"You reminded me of someone who I haven't seen for a long time," she said quietly. Her digital eyes blink, flicker, and go dark. Her voice, without the plurality of reverbs from so many speakers and directions, is small and tinny. "Thank you for that."

Dolce!

Jil laughs. It's at first a stunned, incredulous kind of motion, trying to come from a place of cynicism. But she has a terrible weakness: she is unpracticed with laughter. She's been in a state of absolute seriousness for so long that she's forgotten how to manage a laugh, how to stop it escalating, how to handle a world that is not themed around SKULLS and DEATH. She puts her fist in her mouth to try and stop it but she's already lost control of her breath. She tries to take a deep breath and give a serious response but she loses her shit each time. Her proud, jagged willpower gathers time and again only to immediately fall apart.

"wELL," she managed, "I'll EAT my HAT before I -" and then she's gone again, unable to finish broken like the tension.
Blue!

There's something electric about a challenge. Not a test, not Green's obsession, that world where there are right and wrong answers (no matter how much the tester declaims that they're just observing or gathering data; there's always an agenda in their mind). A challenge is... about having to become a better person than your opponent. Coming from a superior it's even more than that; the choice then is about reaching deeper into yourself to find some new part of you, or identifying what makes them powerful and bringing it into yourself. What could be more intimate than imitation? To respond to defeat by becoming your conqueror? To become the sword beneath your chin? It means becoming an active participant in your own subordination and exaltation. It means letting honour chain you and gag you so that it might constrain your weakness.

So, then, her research for 3V carries her not towards revealing clothing. Not towards open and flowing silks and the expressions of softness and submission. Instead what she chooses for her presentation are kinds of armour. Heavy, metallic, noble, defensive, proud. Hair bound in tight ponytails. All these defenses and no protection at all. The armour can be undone with precise blades, or infiltrated with wandering hands. The hair can be sent tumbling down at a mistress' whims, or left bound up in a mockery of discipline and strength. This is what Blue presents; not vulnerability, but strength that nevertheless cannot stop you.

This is what she will be for you for as long as your own strength can hold.

White!

There's always so much to take in with Euna. Stories that run deeper, knowledge and wisdom dropped in passing, plans for the future and echoes of the past. She's a fascinating person, a complete person. She can see why 3V likes her. She likes her. If she were a different colour she could easily focus on her and her secrets to the exclusion of everything else.

But she's here to master herself.

She's hyperaware of her thought processes. She doesn't register physical threat from either of the two combat postures Euna takes. Maladaptive? She reads physical threat in slouches, swaggers, hands in pockets, the physical sloppiness that indicates that someone is intoxicated or a cop. These movements are more objectively dangerous but she does not respect them. Not yet.
Some part of her wants desperately to do something cool. For some hidden kung fu routine to kick in and her to deliver a sick double roundhouse kick out of nowhere. 3V is watching, and Euna seems like she wants that as well. At the same time she's afraid of sudden machine power and breaking cybernetics. The pressure she puts on herself now that she's finally testing this intense.
She wants to go through the mechanics of the motion perfectly in advance; integrate all the advice she's heard about putting her hips into the blow and twisting the strike on the way. She wants to think her way out of the problem; to activate her holographic projection armour and approach this like a tactical puzzle. She wants to call in her backup and engage as a swarm, using all her hands and arms in unison. Those aren't the test. None of those are the test. Those are different, unrelated tests that she knows that she's good at and can pass and it cuts down on the uncertainty and risk if this test was secretly one of those tests.

Brown made a bit of an art out of socially engineering tests like that for a while; impressing testing staff with what seemed like a unique and out-of-the-box answer that was really just her repurposing previous outputs to new problems. The conflict that had created with Green was the impetuous for her development. White closed her eyes hard shut as she sorted again through her mental sloth, through the complex intellectual knots and justifications she used to avoid doing something really simple. None of that. None of it. Thought was both unhelpful and undesirable.

So she opens her eyes, steps forwards, and throws her punch.

*

She's never seemed less human as she leans into the technique. There was a basic human relationship with violence and threat that just didn't apply to her. She doesn't flinch when muscles tense or feint, there is no hesitance or instinctive panic, there's no fear and no reflexes. Each punch is conveyed with an engineer's understanding of hip and feet and weight but without the lizard brain evasion that comes with a biological brain optimized in the first to avoid pain. Androids don't fight like this; androids have human brain patterning at their core. November fights like a machine. It's honest.

But something curious happens when Euna switches to the offense. Instincts do come out, just not human ones. November intimately understands high speed deflection of fast-moving objects along with precision engineering. She doesn't come close to landing anything but the instinct is visible in certain exchanges - she reacts to a blow like it's a high speed piece of astrodebris; not dodging it so much as looking to land a slight redirection slap that will change its momentum and direction. If the gesture is repeated more slowly she'll even instinctively aim for disassembly points in Euna's cybernetic limbs.

None of this will get her past the basic reality that she's not dealing with zero gravity. She also has no understanding of grappling or wrestling. Probably the biggest problem is that she is extremely bad at the instinctive human ability to track something by sound and air pressure; once something leaves her field of vision she loses track of it and doesn't have any situational instincts that make her recognize that as dangerous. There's potential here; this can be trained, honed and refined - it's just the case that peak performance for her probably looks nothing like peak performance for a human.
To meet a stranger with drawn blade was to bet your life on the throw of a coin. You might have practiced harder, or they might. You might prove the stronger will but there was no way to test or bet on it. To fight so was to fight at a distance, quick and impersonal; an execution in tactics. As cold as the Kathresis.

But now there was an imbalance. Now it was personal. She'd wronged Angela and accordingly it was no mysterious shadow across from her, no heroine out to launch her new legend. It was a known quantity. A known temperature. Something she could interact with. The stress of the infinite collapsed down into a point. She no longer had to worry about who she had to be. All her questions were answered and her role was set; now she could just play it out.

She opens her hand against the candle, the dripping heat of autocannon fire. She feels her palm sweat and burn. She feels drops of hot wax fall between her finger and scorch her skin. She feels the shock as it cools and hardens. Her spatial orientation changes not based on gravity but on relative power; the enemy is above her and she stands in the way of scorching gravity.

She's earned this. Earned this for three, two, one...

The pistol comes up again with her free hand and slices across the sky. Clouds, already low and heavy, slice through with a beam that annihilates energy. It kills the wind, freezes the water, and brings down the blizzard. Flash-frozen snowflakes come down in a rush alongside tennis-ball hail around the beam's epicenter, and further out slashing and torrential rain. Visibility drops to zero in moments and the Kathresis is lost amidst howling snow. She doesn't even evade. The candlewax drip of autocannon fire is cut off as Angela loses track of her location; Solarel stays exactly where she is, letting her opponent's blindness fill every space in the new dark with her presence.

Three, two, one...

A recharge weapon was the way of the ambush predator; a way to convert time into power. Coldness, darkness, precision. That was how the Kathresis wanted to fight. She thought of Mirror; Mirror's patience, her stillness, her lightning reactions, how power moved between her god's tails. Each fraction of output accounted for, budgeted and spent. Understanding the situation and adapting her allocation perfectly. Not cold at all. Not like this, creating the situation that would allow for perfect allocation. Deep down she burned hot, unlike all the other huntresses of Hybrasil.

The pistol chimed full.

Solarel burned hot too.

She came out of the blizzard in a silent rush, blades in hand, closing the distance. She starts the sequence, a familiar pattern of techniques she'd used to strike down a hundred enemies. A test of speed and strength and adaptability, leading up to the inevitable conclusion that disassembled the enemy mech like she'd done with Isabelle -

And then instead halfway through a move she is not holding a blade of gold but a pistol of onyx. The heat of her heart and her battle converts into a ray of terrible cold in an instant - and then she's gone, back into the blizzard snow, waiting for the next recharge.

[Fight: 7
- Inflict a condition
- Seize a superior position amidst the blizzard]
Bella and Redana!

There is a small fairground here, operated by the skillful dead. Clowns and mummers, comedians and jugglers, beings of rare skill collected by Hades from across the galaxy. They entertain each other and swap stories in their little sideshow in Tunguska's downtown. When you arrive they scramble to their positions, snatch up their instruments, and a real carnival begins for just the two of you.

It takes a rare talent to serve in the House of Hades; shades of artists who could make grim-faced Hades laugh or weep. Acrobats of prodigious talent and clowns with perfect insight. They know when they are called upon to entertain and, just as importantly, they know when to step back and let their guests move on to the next attraction. A small man in a false moustache and bowler hat argues ferociously with some ancient knight in cloth armour. A group of dancers whirls and crackles with clawed sexuality - their primitive lungs don't allow them to dance and sing at the same time, but machines sing for them in distorted electronic tones. An unassuming looking person sits in a corner and writes and writes and writes and even though you are not reading their text you get the sense that it must be magical to command such focus.

There are prizes in the carnival, and to earn them you need tickets - strangely printed rectangles of green paper, elaborately illustrated with woodcut graphics. Win them from games of skill or chance and turn them in to the machines to have them dispense eerie drinks hollow and devoid of nutrients and flavour, shrink-wrapped items of clothing, or even plush sharks who have been waiting patiently for this moment in eternity when they might be taken home by girls who needed them. The tickets come easily and fall away just as fast, but the machines spread far beyond the grounds of the festival; the longer you walk the more of them you will find, each one with some new selection of exotic prizes.

Alexa!

"Yeah, well," said Cerberus. "Where does it get them, really?"

She looked around at the shops, the lights, the screens. Somehow you can see reflections of more than just that in her glass-light eyes - broken stone pillars, shattered glass towers, crumbling white pyramids. The digital screens cracker and flicker around her. People vanish from commercials, leaving empty corridors. Populations empty out of cities as the vines move back in. Concentrated sand returns to sand and the desert buries mighty statues. On and on and...

"Neat how this stuff piles up, isn't it?" said Cerberus. "Because this is what it's all about, right? This is what it's all for. All of humanity builds and builds and builds and destroys-destroys-destroys. You know, the boss used to think he got the worst deal out of his siblings? He got a barren, empty realm to lord over. Now it's full to bursting and those upstairs keep finding fresh marvels to send down. It seems to me that the reason for all that up there is to decorate the House of Hades."

Dolce!

Somehow it feels like nothing you could say to her could ever reach her. She is silent. She is still. Her ears still take in every breath and every click of metal.

"No, no problem, captain," she says, the strength of Zeus keeping her voice casual. The choice is hers? She knows exactly what it means to make a choice without power. "Totally get it. Couldn't live with yourself. All I needed to hear."

Isn't this the true nature of Empire? Captains and lords, assassins and princesses, making heartful statements of ideals while the Kaeri lurk in the shadows? She knows exactly where she stands now.
So many wishes. So many wants. So many things she could redirect. Ways to burn a pathway through to the mask. To make a road from the mask to...

To, what? What would the power get her in this moment? She already had a girl fighting for her, and that was somehow more than she'd had before. If she intervened, if she took her eyes off this melee, if she made this about her... then she'd never know if the Maid could have won.

Fengye lets the fan linger, three-quarters open, demon symbol bent and useless. And she waves it gently, blowing cool air across her face. There was still time to change her mind later. Right now, amidst the chaos and confusion of the war of girl against girl, she just wanted to see what happened next.
Defiance.

The hardest thing about training was not doing what you had trained to do. So many moves and techniques and ideas, it made her want to burst out into all of them at once. Anticipation is a sword, the cutting edge of flirtation, and she feels its curve against her neck already.

She stands silent and still. She was an obstacle. She was a condemnation. She was a wicked force, a reputation of terror, an opportunity for redemption. She closed her eyes. She was the betting favourite. She was the status quo. She was the darkness that a mere girl stood against, and was brave. She was an opportunity for someone to do their best. She stood at the receiving end of research, preparation and a civilization's industrial-military policy.

She was in enormous danger.

She had hunted many huntresses like this, flames against her darkness. They sought to land their cut, reveal their secret technique, demonstrate their worth. She could smell the preparation. The reason why she resisted doing what she had practiced was that Angela was determined to do what she had practiced. A heart sword was always deadly, even if there was only the will to swing it once.

She is slow. She is arrogant. She is cruel. So many ways to be and she allowed herself to be this one. A defiant girl needed darkness to stand against and she could be that for now. She lets the Kathresis breathe and lets its reactor run cold. She reaches out her hand from afar to stop the Barn Owl's crystal heart.

The shutdown, the sabotage - the same technique she used against Mirror. The technique of a tyrant. To still use such a trick when there was no fated duel at stake, when she had a unique and powerful mech, when she was already the favoured champion? A wicked act. One to be combined with a single precision zero-entropy pistol shot from across the arena, ending the battle in less than a heartbeat.

You wish to fight a monster? Then perish.

[Call upon a toxic power: 6]
Red!

"I've got entire colours dedicated to regrets full time," said Red. "But me? No. Like," she abruptly lunged across the table, slamming her hand on the counter so hard that the pot shook. "You just flinched," she observes in the exact same tone of voice. "Your ancient monkey reflexes activated in response to a violent threat. You didn't think during that, and you don't regret it now. Check this out."

She picked up an onion from the counter and tossed it underhand across the room. It hit Orange on the side of the head. She didn't react, didn't stagger, didn't have any sort of physiological response. She just turned her head, looked at the onion, and then frowned and glared. "Red!" she said. "Must you!?"

"See?" said Red to Singh. "No light behind her eyes. She's off thinking about angst. I'd catch that throw, 100%. Maybe you'd catch the throw too - humans are weird like that - but your basic decision making isn't about catching throws. Does that make sense?"

*

It's an interesting question, but the answer to if any of them want to leave is no. There is no sense in November that withdrawal to a safe place is in any way an effective coping mechanism. November has never had a safe space to be by herself, never had an area that was under her solitary control, never had a place to hide where she could not be found. Never had a room. She's lived her life in spotlights; the eyes of NASA, the eyes of the world, the eyes of Everest. The idea that authority figures can be evaded does not exist for her.

Deceived, though? That's possible. Managing attention and controlling information. She can build shadows to hide in amongst the blind spots and self deceptions of the powerful. That is best done from close proximity and so her response to danger is to draw close. Her response to power is to draw close.

But even though she's drawn to this, she's also drawn in the other direction - to relationships she feels like she has some measure of control over. White is texting Crystal and Fiona a lot through this, and Yellow is flooding 3V's DMs with random cool pictures she's finding. These conversations are the cool shadows she never found in all of space.

Blue!

To flirt is about leverage. Centre of balance. Confidence and embarrassment. It meant choosing your words carefully, looking for weak points in language. Body language, tells, secret truths. There was no better way to study humans. The stakes kept things interesting; the payoff let you strip away the deceit.

"Of course, mistress," said Blue. "You are glorious. You are a commanding presence. You bring girls to their knees. You are undefeated in the field and you need an outfit to show everyone just what is going to happen to them when they inevitably lose."

She glanced up through her lashes, as she held the tablet out. Two choices. "That is why you want this dominatrix outfit in your size... and not in mine."

She is a good girl. She has been defeated. She'll do anything for her mistress; those are the rules. She'll even treat her as her mistress. You know, if that's what she wants.
Alexa!

Cerberus looked at you with a hundred eyes. "Why would equality with the gods be desirable? Do you know who got treated as an equal by the gods? Molech. Emperor of the galaxy and destroyer of half of it. Say what you will about the man, but Hermes had to manifest in physical form to kill him and still didn't make it in time. The gods lost that one! How'd that work out?"

They're coming out from side streets in ones and twos, but those add up. A constant flow of machine hounds, more than hands can easily reach. Some fluffy, some chrome, steel and wagging tails.

"Take that further: are we equals?" said Cerberus. "You're patting me. I can never pat you! If it came to a fight you could kill us by the hundred. All of us together couldn't build a single thing you'd find useful. How should I bargain with you?"

Dolce!

Jil set her teeth. "Anyone else, the person is more truthful than the reputation," she muttered.

Her reaction to invisible threat is profoundly disciplined. While the Alcedi are leveling weapons at the crowd in a panic she is razor still, ears carefully moving independent of an absolutely fixed gaze. There's a prickling on her fur that speaks of a prey species' hyperfocused evasion instinct. For all the apparent calm, any sudden movements from this point on will set her off.

"I thought," she said, "I was dealing with a sad, wet, cowardly boy who was being bullied into sacrificing himself for some bullshit he didn't believe in. Someone who slouched into power by accident and hated every second of it. Someone to be saved. Instead, what?" her ears lock into position; telepathic violence emanates from her like an aura. "You're another Temple assassin, is that it?"
Red!

"You don't plan?" she said. "So what was the, like, super elaborate will with the test? You're not thinking of anything right now, for real? A couple of hours ago you snapped and said something like how you were so mad at things that happened in the past that you dedicated your life to bringing down the system from the inside? You're living in the moment so hard you're worried about what would make some chick who isn't here mad."

Red passed her hand over the boiling water again. "You need a refresher in roboprojecting, dad. To me, none of that matters. BlackSun doesn't matter. Goat doesn't matter, none of them do. Everest? Who gives a shit? I am pretty interested in this pot of water but it hasn't done anything cool yet. You're spending like, 70% of your brain on guilt and emotions and whatever, you've been overthinking shit for so long it's become internally indistinguishable from zen. I'm not. Any of that shit would cut down my situational awareness and reaction speed, and I can't have that."
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