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Redana and Bella!

Mynx bites her finger to stifle the giggles. "You two are so cute like this! Oh, I should have done this much sooner. And maybe I should find a way to keep doing it even longer," she daringly puts her finger under Bella's chin to affectionately scratch. "After all, from that expression I might be in danger if I were to let you go! You know, I told Redana that she should train you better."

She reaches into one of Bella's pockets and takes her time rifling around until she comes out with a silk handkerchief. She uses it to dab up the saliva from the maid's mouth, and then steps around to provide the same service to Redana - with the same handkerchief.

"You know the Empress didn't trust me with this?" she said. "She didn't even trust Bella. You should have seen how hard Bella worked to get to be out here with you... but don't worry, okay? It's not just us two. I've got assassins from all five of the temples standing by. I'm teasing now, and later when I'm pretending to be the King I might have to be really mean... but you're safe, okay? I'm going to get you and Bella back home and things can go back to normal." She grinned widely. "And then you can punish me as much as you want! Oh, should I start giving you some ideas? There are all sorts of things I can show you now so you know how to really discipline me when the time comes~"

Alexa!

"Oh, so polite!" said the Assistant Secretary. There's so much to keep track of - so much movement and motion - that you almost don't notice when it starts squeezing out through the bars. Despite its bulk, the rubbery body of the octopus is capable of deforming even through this narrow space. It takes a while though, the cage isn't entirely useless. It continues its cheerful patter while it's so doing. "And yes! A system like the Eater of Worlds doesn't collapse just because one office building is destroyed. Admittedly after the decades some systems will have grown cancerous and need to be put down, and resource scarcity will have done for some non-critical functions, but there's life in these old bones just yet, ha ha!"

For all the cheer in that burbly voice, you manage to finally spot the eye of the brainsquid as its core bulk emerges on the other side of the prison. It's nervous. Darting around frantically in all directions. It's latching onto politeness because it's terrified of violence, and what it wants more than anything is confirmation of its own physical security. The tentacles continue to move erratically - octopi are distributed intelligences and every single one of its limbs has its own brain that only works vaguely in tandem with the others.

"Anyway, it's been ever so pleasant to meet you Alexa, but I really must be going -" and oh whoops, that's the rooftop vent clattering down besides you, and before you have time to blink the entire Assistant Secretary has lifted itself up and crammed itself into the air vent. "Please put your request in through the proper channels - Form 20185 I think you'll need - and I'll make sure it's processed. Ta ta -" and it's slithering away into the vents.

That's what you should be cautious of.

Vasilia and Dolce!

They're still moving, yes, still coherent - but they're so slow. You can escape from them in moments if you have to and that might be desirable because the objective is whooping away down through an air vent. Alexa isn't going to fit down that but one of you might - if you're prepared to climb into a cramped air vent currently occupied by a giant octopus. The rest of you might be best served going upstairs into the palace and trying to cut it off.
"Try again," said Ailee, "but arguing against my actual position this time. I didn't say that there should be no laws or enforcement. Like you illustrated, having laws is in the interest of the community because otherwise it's just strongmen. But say the Duke d'Nauvair starts that civil war at last and overthrows the King of Grand Jelt. From what Lucien says that might already be happening. He'll have proved himself through politics and warfare an exceptional individual - or at the minimum the most competent of the closed circle of land owning magnates who have a voice in the political system. The laws by definition won't apply to him, what with him being the king and head of a massive army. And yet his reign would immediately be constrained by laws he had nothing to do with! Laws that weren't far-sighted checks and balances placed upon an incoming magnate by a visionary founder-figure, but shit like 'the clerical estate has a veto over legislation' and 'thou shalt not regulate intercolonial tariffs'."

She leans down through the railing, stretching out her hand - and the gleaming magical talons that extended from it - and ran them through the sand as it raced by. She withdrew a handful of silver sand and looked at it thoughtfully.

"I mean, what's the point of having that civil war in the first place if the new king is exactly identical to the last king? Why are the laws vested with any sort of moral authority if they can't even perform their basic function of stopping a usurper? When an individual so exceptional they can single-handedly overthrow society arises, why would anyone hold to old, failed laws and traditions as inherently moral? Why not totally remake society in that instance?"

She's watching the sand fade through her fingers.

She's worried.

She's not arguing this in the abstract. She's arguing this while she's thinking of her family at home, trapped in a nation on the verge of civil war.
There are other presences, but none as overpowering as Marianne. Canada can drown in that flow - the ferocity, the confidence, the musical and flowing speech and motion. She seems like genius made manifest. Each sentence she wants to replay in her head, first listening to the rhythm and grace of it, and then descending into the meaning. Each glance between the shadows and light, each act of transdimensional acrobatics she wishes she was filming. The eyes that flash out of that shining mask like thunderbolts see not only her but her futures as well - the ones she seeks, and the ones she will not attain.

She's stomping her feet a little. Letting the armour rattle. So direct and lumpen in comparison, a castle amidst a sunstorm, hoping the noise and regularity steadies the rhythm of her pounding heart.

"I-I didn't know I could do this," she said, and what an embarrassing coincidence that she stepped into this puddle of shade and shivered right as Marianne was talking about punishment. "I never had to before."

Some part of her wonders if she regrets the wishes of her youth. She'd dreamed of who she was now - the speed, the face, the curves. She'd wanted to be this - exalted that she was this. But there was something about the motion of that tail, the creak of those broken wings that made her struggle not to stare. How did they feel to touch? Would it be rude to touch them? Were they like hands or shoulders or... something else?

"Well - uh," she swallowed. "It's not that I'm twisting myself, Marianne," she said, raising her head and speaking clearly - and oh, in that moment she does not know how clearly she's speaking. How commanding. How bright! "My heart is set. I know the world I wish to create. As long as that remains unchanged all that's left is building it. Shield, spear, they're both tools and I will wield whichever one I must."

Replace every colon with a question mark and you will know the shape of her heart, though you would not know it from her voice alone. She still struggles with the lesson of the Cat.

[Canada is explaining how she thinks the world works, looking to shift your Superior down and Danger up. Accept her words or reject her influence.]
"I get why it's in the interests of the community to create a whole stifling raft of laws," said Ailee. "I don't get why it's considered a moral good for exceptional members of the community to obey them."

She's not snappy, authoritative, demanding. There are no dramatic finger-points or declarations. She's got her arms folded on the rail, looking out at the desert with a pensive expression. Her hands twitch - twitcha twitcha, tappa tappa, conducting some imaginary symphony or playing air piano. She sometimes tilts her head like she can hear the invisible music.

"Once you get a group of seven or more somebody has to be in charge," said Ailee. "And that somebody then immediately does everything in their power to make sure they're in charge forever. In extremis they'll sell their souls to the clown god to make sure that it really is forever. Hereditary monarchy is just a primitive form of immortality. It's this fucking brain-worm that grows inside the head of anyone who so much as joins the student council. And then all the garbage that pours out of their mouths becomes tradition and morality and law - and none of that shit even prevents crime or civil war, it just means that when those things happen the new guy is chained by the same bullshit. Exceptional people," pause to admire herself in her hand mirror, "have to spend so much effort figuring out how to game the system in order to make even the smallest improvement. It's why civilization advances at a crawl."
Redana and Bella!

"You will leave us," said the voice of Admiral Odoacer. "Form a perimeter outside and do not enter unless summoned. Further, you will collect all the shuttles from the surrounding area and consolidate them immediately outside on the training field, under guard. Dismissed."

As the Ceronians leave, the Admiral approaches Redana. A menacing smirk crosses her lips, the kind that makes you feel afraid and hopeful all at once. Hopeful because it suggests that your seduction is working... afraid for the same reasons. She hooks a finger under your chin and looks into your eyes. Her finger slipped up around your mouth, tracing where the skin met the leather of the gag. "Well then, princess," she sneered. "I've finally got you right where I want you."

For a moment everything seems like it could go in a very different way.

Then a viper-quick tongue slips out from between her lips and licks your nose. Aaah! Phbit! Mynx!

"You dummy!" said the shapeshifter, falling back into her natural(?) crimson reptilian form, sweeping you (and Bella, by proxy) up into a massive hug. "You see how close you got to getting caught? You had me worried sick! Are you -" she pulls back and scrutinizes your face, "you're not okay!" She's immediately tearing open your shirt - oh um, Mynx, you needed that shirt - and looking at the still fresh scorch wound where you were hit by the Thunderbolt earlier. "Redana!" she said. "That's it! I've had it! Bella was right! You obviously cannot take care of yourself and you are going to stay gagged until I get you home."

She leans in close, head coming down to your neck. You feel her breath for a moment - and then the tiny pin-prick pain as she bites you. It's soft and sharp, piercing skin. Mynx's fangs contain extremely potent antivenom substances and you have been running your barely bandaged open wound through the mud of an alien environment. Precautions are necessary. The fact that these precautions take the form of intimate kisses to the neck being taken while you hang mostly shirtless, bound and gagged are neither here nor there.

Again there's a moment where things feel like they could go a very different way.

And then Mynx is looking up at you with a smile and tracing around your jaw with a finger until her hand passes across to Bella's face. Again she coils it under Bella's chin, smiling brightly. "Don't worry, kitten~," she trills. "I'm taking this all very seriously, but you've left me with such a mess. Good work on catching Redana, but now it's my turn to drive. I'm going to have to disguise myself as that King you killed and take the two of you to the Admiral as prisoners, and then work something out where I spring you once we're closer to Tellus. It's a rough plan but the entire Armada will be running a blockade outside by now and I can't evade that. It does mean that you and the princess will be spending a couple of weeks bound and gagged, but who knows?" she pats your cheek in a way that would be absolutely perilous if you had access to your fangs. "Maybe you'll come to enjoy it!"

Alexia!

An enormous bulk loomed over you through the prison bars. Dark tendrils extended through the gaps, reaching out to grasp the construct woman who had stepped a fragment too far over the red-painted line on the floor. Tentacles seized your arm and - shook it. Up and down. "Good morning!" burbled the strangely pleasant voice of the enormous octopus in the jail cell. "And hello! A pleasure to meet you, I am the Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt. Welcome to my office! I do hope I can assist you!"

Vasilia and Dolce!

The phalanx of the dull-eyed Ceronians is in total disarray as they try to pull themselves from the impact of your grav-glaive. They're in no position to stop you - but they've also got the keys to the cell somewhere in that mess. They're not really a threat right now but you can act to make that a more permanent victory if it suits you.

You can move in with a Finish while they're too disoriented to stop you, or you can devise some other way to open the cell door.
He was here for her.

From the moment she'd heard the news she'd known. No, from the moment she'd seen him in the telescope she'd known. He'd seen her and whatever he'd seen had been enough to tear him from the stars. This was a gesture of enormous respect - terrifying respect. It meant that Shamash was bringing his full attention and fury to her directly without any games. She was being treated as a once in a century threat by an alien god.

And now she had to earn it.

She's been half-dreaming of this moment. She choreographs the encounter in a hundred ways. He might move like this. He might speak like this. She writes him lines and writes herself responses like scripting a movie. She imagines the pain - for there will be pain. At night she lies awake in bed and imagines in vivid detail the breaking of her arm and how she'll fight on despite that. She needs to get this right.

New techniques are called for.

She can't come at this through the physical world. She's too obvious, even veiled, to get through security of this level. So she walks through the border of the mirror realm, wrapped in the void of her own heart. She has never done this before and there is good reason for that. It seems as though she is walking through the real world but every mirrored surface glows, the source of a strange black light. Where this light touches it's not reality she sees but the other place - deepest night and occupied with more true incarnations of everything within it. The streets are slashed through with lines of mirrored darkness - every gleaming suit of armour, every fine pane of glass, every pool of water creates a puddle of alternate reality where everything is different. The rules change with every step between dark and light.

She wonders if this whole idea is a mistake, and rather than solving her problems she's actually doubled them.

She wonders if the dark version of Shamash will be scarier than the light.
Redana!

All is chaos. The world does not function. The foundations of the heavens are but water. Tears and shouts are at once swept away by the storm. Things are at their worst.

Or so you thought before the Solid Projectile volley hits.

Human skin has long been proof against the mere ministrations of physics and smokeless powder. Assault rifles long ago joined the blowpipe and sling in the museum of obsolescence. Instead the military demand for ranged firepower has been filled with the noxious battle-chemical cocktail known euphemistically as 'solid projectiles'. They seem harmless enough in the hand - little glass marbles filled with multicoloured and swirling colours, like a bite taken from a rainbow. They seem harmless enough when they impact - certainly they sting like being struck by a paintball, and might leave painful bruises if they happen to strike unarmoured skin. But the bite of these weapons comes in the highly reactive gases that billow outwards when those hideous chemicals react with the open air.

The red ones merely detonate with sound and light, converting their contents into magnesium flashes and point-blank thunderclaps. The blue ones gust forth in clouds of smoke thick and heavy with poison. The green ones contain electrochemical lightning that overwhelms the nerves like a thunderstrike. Heightened senses and keen servitor hearing and smell renders one even more vulnerable to the sudden deafening, blinding, foul-smelling explosion of sensation. In time the body can adjust. In time one can deaden ones nerves to the point where even this detonation of suffering is no more than the wind. But there are many demands on one's time in this moment, not least of which are the hurricane charge of Ceronian warriors.

They have come equipped for capture. They laid down their spears long ago, but they have long since herded and trapped the squidlike Secretaries of the leviathan and other benign creatures to serve as workbeasts. The same trapping techniques and lashes are applied here with expert practice. Limbs are caught in rope snares and sprinters circle in leaping unison to entangle and net the disoriented targets. Finally, the strongest martial artist close from behind to twist and lock joints pending the final click of chain. The gagging is not an ordinary part of doctrine but they have their orders.

Firm and muscular hands wrap around your neck, tracing up your jaw to settle into a full and harsh grip, pinching down to open your lips. Shouts of defiance are cut short as the gags are pulled roughly into place, pulled harshly back like a tug on the reins by the Ceronian straddling your back. You're held firmly in place while the leather is twisted into place and buckled into position. Then it's to be seized roughly by the hair and turned to face the rain to wash the mud and blood away. You are to be presented to the Admiral, after all, and your bodies have value even if she has decreed your words do not.

By the time your senses have cleared themselves you are free from the rain and mud - the one positive to this moment, though you are still both soaked to the bone. You hang by your wrists with your feet just off the floor, back to back with each other, tied together at the wrists and the ankles, intimately aware of each others' attempts at struggling. You're in the tacky and backwards little throne room (the Empress' throne room is so vast one can hardly make out the distant side of it, this is barely a bedroom by comparison).

"Excellent," came a cold voice - cold, but not quite cold enough. "You have served me well."

Vasilia!

There are indeed guards. A squad of ten, eerily hollow-eyed, with none of the chatter or small talk or moments of distraction normally demonstrated by such guards. With Galnius' squad their numbers are even with yours but that is not a situation that favours you - they stand within a long, linear corridor with room enough for three soldiers abreast. They are not in a shieldwall formation now but it would take moments for them to manage such a thing, and once they have it will be as though the corridor is blocked with a gate of adamantium. Narrow environments with no possibility for flanking are the ideal conditions for phalanx stalemates - were such a thing to form those ten could hold against a thousand.

Fortunately and unfortunately these soldiers do not seem inclined to patrol, meaning you have plenty of time to develop a plan.
"Good idea, Lucien," said Ailee. "This fucking noise makes me want to shoot myself too. Listen to these idiots! They're missing every, whatsit. Note? Bar? I could do much better. You know what? I will do much better!"

Her eyes ignite a brilliant green. As forgetfulness seeps into her mind the only things left to her are those supernatural concepts bound to her soul, chief amongst which is of course pride. She clambers up onto the bow of the train, clears her throat, and begins belting out her song at full volume.

"OH your man won't dance BUT I WILL
He's just a cup of punch that you'll spin
You're gonna hang him from the sail of a sinking sloop
Something something something and the dope you do
You get NA NA NOTHING FROM ME"

While she may not be the musical genius she thinks she is and didn't fully remember the words to this song even before the antisirens began to sap the memory from her mind, she makes up for it with total shameless from-the-diagphram loudness that will drown out the hypnotic music for just a little bit.

[Keep them Busy: 7]
Redana!

"Just?" chuckled King Jas'o, silhouetted in polar lightning. He looms above you like the shadow of Cronus. "You offer the gods justice? What an offer, princess! Perhaps you will allow me to make a counter-offer?"

He strode a step or two away, arms held wide open, looking up into the sky. "Zeus, Mother of Athena! I offer you a temple! I shall carve its pillars from the bones of a mighty planet! I shall fill its sacred fountain with blood from ten million sacrificed species! I shall populate it with a million slaves, and have them sing to your glory every hour of every day! I shall have a hundred barbarian kings collared and yoked, and together they will melt their crowns down into a great golden statue made in your likeness! Grant me freedom, o Zeus! Grant me freedom to travel the stars and make war as is humanity's birthright, as is humanity's purpose! I will carve from the bloody wreckage of the galaxy a new empire, far grander than the prison world of Tellus, and it will all be in your name!"

The King swung around and kicked you in the chest as fast as the lightning that filled the void. You fall on your back, splashing into the wet and mud as those heavy booming footfalls come towards you one final time. Boom. Boom. Boom. The final earthquake strikes you directly in the head, the boot of the king resting across your cheek as he leans down to look at you like a prize hunter standing atop a trophy.

"You offer the gods justice, little princess?" said King Jas'o, a wicked grin on his face as he pressed your face into the mud. "I offer them wealth and sacrifice and glory everlasting. Zeus blesses me with an army and victory after victory, whereas you cannot command the loyalty of a single slave. So much for justice. So much for you."

*

Vasilia!

Galnius froze for a moment. There was nothing there to righteously stand against, nothing for him to get morally outraged over. He clearly didn't like it. His Imperial pride was clearly looking for something, anything he could use to denounce you as a barbarian servitor whose orders and council he could ignore but it didn't come. And with the idea alone, without any evidence to support it and an important job to do...

He touched his symbol of Apollo, took a breath, and put palm in fist. He dismissed that pride with the focus of a votive. Visibly the haughtiness fell from his features and the scales fell from his eyes and when he looked at you again he was calmer, more focused.

"As you say," he said. He waved about and the phalanx's members picked themselves up after their rest, folding their spears in half so they'd be more suitable for tunnel fighting, and falling back into order. "The Admiral cannot be allowed to triumph here. We're ready to follow in your lead."

The corridor to the castle's dungeons were not far ahead, but you do not doubt there will be guards waiting for you there.
The Twilight Market!

The Annunaki don't believe in idle hands. All must labour to strengthen the Great Chain. Idleness is freedom, and freedom is an abomination, so purpose will be found for all - even if it is as one of the multitudes kneeling for ten hours a day in the great cathedrals to the Gods. During the day the streets are clean, wide and open - the luxury of space and solitude afforded to those atop the Chain. It is only when the sun rests that the teeming mass of humanity is hurled out onto the streets en-masse. During this liminal moment of contact and transition the Twilight Market forms - slow-moving street stalls run by vendors on their ways back to their homes. Only a scarce few hours exist for this trade before the streets empty out again - this time because of crime rather than the whip. In between has to fit the entire human cultural experience. People make do.

There are the Scrapmongers, those rickshaws heavy and laden with kitchen scraps left over from the Annunaki's feasts - sugars and berries and tarts turned stale or over-ripe but still desperately sought by those who can't stand another day of the gruel. There are the Sharpeners, those fleeting shadows who offer broken weaponry to those terrified for their safety or plotting doomed rebellion. There are the Gossip-Shouters, carried atop the shoulders of their fellows, calling out the news of the day, reading lists of births, deaths and missing persons. There are the Chainsmiths, who have enough connections with the authorities to arrange for a soul to be moved to a different place on the Great Chain. New times call for new occupations and the market has a way of adapting.

There are old occupations too. Canada rides her bicycle rickshaw, pulling along her mobile workshop with its sides plastered with photographs. Smiling faces, pictures of cats or beautiful places or angles of the landscape and sky that are not yet filled with the grandeur of Annunaki architecture. Bicycles are more in demand - a customer will take over pedaling her rickshaw while she takes their bike up into the workshop in the back to work on - but that is only because pictures are so expensive. The chemicals she requires to develop them are irreplaceable, and besides, few even have access to a camera. But it, too, is known that she makes exceptions for the needy and there's oftentimes a small cluster of children following her cart and speculating loudly about the people and places in the coveted photographs. They do their best to come up with heartrending explanations for what those wonderful photographs mean to them - "that bowl of soup was made out of my best friend, Ricksty the Dinosaur, oh I wish someone would give me that picture so I could remember him," - but playful imaginations and unpracticed deceptions made the attempts at begging more comedic than sad much of the time.

Today there are no freebies. Today is a time for bargains of her own. She's not looking to just get by this time - she's looking to acquire, and a photograph goes a long way in the modern economy. Her eyes gleam with feline hunger as she haggles with the Chainsmith, stepping to the offense with uncharacteristic intensity. The picture of the smiling Ugandian man isn't his beloved, but he looks close enough to make it too precious to pass up. Hands are shaken and promises are exchanged and a little scrap of chemically treated paper changes hands in a strange echo of how commerce used to function. For a strange echo of how love used to function.

Of how it would function again.

She felt bad for playing on his emotions. She felt bad about the moment when she'd hinted that the picture might wind up with one of the children - a particularly loud and obnoxious one - if it didn't get sold soon. She'd talked about his beloved in the past tense. She hadn't warned him that she intended to use this connection for rebellion and that it might get traced back to him. She'd built a false sense of urgency and then gouged the man for everything she could get and it felt cruel.

But that was the cost of wishes.

She had to change the world. She had to. Whatever it takes, the Cat had said. Everything she had broken needed to be put right and it started here, with the access a bribed Chainsmith could get her and the Phantom Thieves.

She just needed to make sure she was too tired to dream. If she trained hard enough she could outrun even the nightmares. If she ran just fast enough she might outrun the person she was afraid she might be becoming.
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