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Once upon a time a little mouse had made the decision to save the world.

People would ask her 'from what?' as if heroism was about waiting for opportunity to come knocking on your door. She'd always thought it should be the opposite. Evil hid, after all. It filled pits and archives and dark places, swarming and multiplying until it burst the seawalls and its creatures stalked the streets of Grand Jelt. They're fearsome enough while they're up here, how terrible must they be when they're down there?

But that was a lack of vision. The fingers are far more terrible than the Heart. She determined she was going to slip by them and plunge her golden sword into evil's core. Everything else, including becoming Evil's own avatar, was mere stratagem. Her deception would need to be perfect to fool the emerald eyes of King Dragon, the eyes that she herself wore. Be proud, Ailee. Be wrothful and judgemental and wasteful and curious. The fire alone is not burned.

"I'd like to let you in on a little secret to these formal events. Always ask for your glass to be topped up every three sips, make sure you always have something to nibble on with it, and nobody can tell how much you're really having. Well. For a while, anyway."

And at first Lucien had seemed like just what she'd needed. A ruthless, thuggish mind wrapped in a smiling face and hideous shirt, no different from the rest of his government. Here, she had thought, is a henchman - exactly the kind of person I won't have to mourn when he dies within the Heart. Exactly the sort of person whose life I can spend wastefully at some critical moment to prove to King Dragon that I am his creature and slide the celestial sword one step closer towards the Heart.

And that's exactly what happened - or close enough to the plan that she can run when she has to. She'd known that when the moment came she couldn't afford to hesitate or let regret - or Regret for that matter - slow her down. She'd known she'd step over the bodies of all her friends before the end, and here she was doing just that. She'd allowed herself all those dark and melancholy moods on the promise that when the time came she'd have done her crying in advance.

But now the Sword of Heroism was no longer a blade from a fairytale in her hand. Now it was a six-shot revolver. A hidden weapon, one she could conceal within the folds of her shirt until the time came to shoot evil itself in the spine. He'd gotten there first but she'd bring down the bigger game.
Redana!

It is your Auspex they turn against you.

A golden strobing sequence of lights is projected into your eyes, shifting and morphing trails of light and it catches the attention of your Auspex in a way you have never felt before. It feels like your eye is awake and curious by its own will rather than yours and as it focuses in on the golden light it tries to drag your whole self into its curious contemplation like a whirlpool.

"Anomaly scan finalized," wheezes the Magos as she drags the projector towards you. "The Extrasensory Organ is intelligent, with its own memories and will, which allowed the subject to interface with the Regret at an intellectual remove. This data indicates the value of the Extrasensory Organ and the importance of its immediate removal. May Hermes smile upon this surgery."

The Magos' back unfolds into an arsenal of terrifying medical implements. When you walked the streets of Tellus you heard people whisper that Hermetic doctors were skilled enough to steal a woman's kidneys as swiftly and painlessly as a thief might pick your pocket. And worse, with the Auspex disabled by that strange light, you feel yourself coming untethered and skinking back into the depths that you briefly emerged from...

And then the light switches off.

The shattering beam from the Yakanov goes dim. You're back in the jungle, back in the present, back in the Alcedi compound. And while the Coherent are here in force they are very outnumbered by the hundreds of awakening Alced.

That could be it, if you wanted. You could stand by and watch as the enraged Alced tear the Coherent apart in a fit of vengeance. It would cost you even less than a thumbs down in the arena, Redana Nero.

[Damage your Auspex]

Alexa!

"Now?" said the Master of Assassins, sweeping her hair backwards to loop it into a ponytail. "Honestly you'll probably wind up wishing I killed you. I'll try again, of course, Demeter hates taking chances, but you'll be just as dead if I spend the next few months curling my eyelashes. Urgh, helmets!"

"Helmets are sensible," said Artemis.

"And elegance is the opposite of sensible!" said the Master.

"I like sensible," mumbled Artemis, putting her hands in her pockets.

"But yes, even if you somehow slip through my fingers - and in fairness, it has happened a few times - you're still just as doomed. Lord Aphrodite, in his wisdom, has quite literally cut the entire galaxy in half in a rather spectacular fashion. Like the explorers of ancient days you are sailing directly off the edge of a flat world - and I can say from first-hand experience that there, in fact, be dragons."

Vasilia and Dolce!

The world no longer resists you. In a moment you are together again. Scorched and broken and bitten and bloody, soft and sad and filled with heartache. For a moment there's quiet and stillness and so very much to say.

Bella!

For a moment Mynx's presence is huge; she fills the room like a sensory supercomputer smelling for blood, listening for your heartbeat, scanning for injuries, tensing to wreck violence on anything that might threaten you.

But she senses that you're not mortally injured and that there are no targets. And she breathes out. She relaxes, fuck her. How can she still relax after everything?

"Bella, you're okay," and her voice is filled with relief. Like things are better, like this even counts as okay. "You're okay! Oh, Hera and Aphrodite, thank you for keeping her safe! This whole station was a trap set by the Master of Assassins, but I'm here now and I won't leave your side again."
You're starting to get the hang of it, Yue! You've got your friends together and you're on your way out of the weird marble pillar field and even the Assault Ribbons are starting to fall off the side of the car.

But then you hear a new sound. Impossible over the roaring engine - and yet. Low and heavy and steady and...

You glance at the rear view mirror. You see the black armoured helicopter bearing down on you from behind. Princess Qiu is hanging out of the side, aiming a shoulder mounted rocket launcher.

Well, she is a traditionalist after all.

You pull the wheel hard to the side, sending the car screeching around a corner as a missile impacts on a nearby pillar causing a spectacular fireball. A moment later the helicopter rushes past, gaining altitude so it can come around for another sweep. You desperately recover from the stall and floor it again and before you know it you're out of the Qiu final boss stage and back onto the freeway.

It's not enough to shake her. That helicopter follows you intently, coming down low so Qiu can fire another rocket.

[Roll to Defy Disaster with Daring!]
"I dunno, for all your gloating about how great it is to get away from me you're still here," said Ailee, face settling into a smirk.

Ring ring ring. She has her blade overhand like a samurai and rains down blows from above. Crash crash crash! Slowly she's accelerating and the pace and a frenzied smile is breaking out over her face.

"So stop whining!" she said as wrothful fire blazed around her feet, prideful peacock tendrils exploded behind her, and regal judgement wrapped in purple vines around her falling golden sword making it hammer and broadsword all at once. "You want this! You want to throw yourself into my fire! You want to test yourself against me, blade to blade, word for word! Well here I am! Here's your moment! And if you don't enjoy it while it's here I'll fucking kill you!"
Chen!

Qiu catches your sword in her teeth.

With a single toss of her neck she sends you and it tumbling head over ass over the balcony and down the side of the pyramid. You've got a long couple of seconds skidding down the glassy stone with which to contemplate the sheer precision of that action and the ease with which she threw you aside.

Are... are you actually talented, Princess Chen?

Well, the objective answer is 'yes' because no sooner have you hit the terrace you're attacked by a dozen guards and a swarm of Assault Ribbons and you're able to hold your own - but that's it. You said armies and demons wouldn't matter and here you are neck deep in both, not even worthy to fight Qiu herself. She hadn't even given you a show. That's perhaps the most cutting thing of all - for how extra she's been every time you met her, here you are, unceremoniously thrown to deal with the help. After you'd finally offered her the duel she wanted so badly!

What emotion had that been in her eyes before she'd done that? Disappointment? Sadness? Resignation? Perhaps, the thought arises, the ceremony had been the point. The whole buildup and the speeches and the pipe organ... maybe that was the point for her, more than the fight itself. And you'd kind of thrown all of that preparation in her face and offered her a pity duel afterwards. And maybe you'd hurt her by doing that.

You're skilled enough when weighed against these guards, though. You'll be able to fight your way to secure an escape vehicle and hold off the guards long enough for the others to arrive with you. But you can't shake the impression that somehow you didn't hold up your end.

[Princess Qiu inflicts Guilty on you in return]

Rose!

The Way has surprised you with a moment of uncomfortable complexity. Luckily, it is not in the habit of those. Most of the time the Way is simple. Where one is attacked by many, defend the one. When Princess Chen is being attacked by a swarm of goons what better moment to re-assert that you are in fact a powerful and wise sage who can wield both righteousness and a staff? That thing with Qiu had been a one-off. You are now as you should be. Nobody saw you slip. Maybe not even the Way?

And besides, if anything can make you confident that you are still good at your job, it's spotting Cyanis as she tries to sneak out amidst the chaos with a painting tucked under each arm while wearing as many necklaces as she can fit around her neck. You catch her by the ankle, hold her upside down, and shake her causing a truly ludicrous amount of loot to fall - matched only by the ludicrous outpouring of lies explaining where she got it. And then, relieved of your earthly burdens, the two of you are on your way to the car.

Yue!

Somehow it's you who winds up behind the wheel.

It's not your fault! The passenger side was closer and it kind of would have spoiled the moment to walk all the way around the van to put Hyra in the drivers seat, and not just because you're not sure your arms would have held out. And now you're here and she's watching you with wide eyes, and it's your turn to have another awesome movie moment - throwing the stick into first gear and slamming the pedal.

Wait, stick? Uh. Yue? You've driven a manual transmission before, right?
Response Level: 0

Redana!

As you conduct your holy work shapes move through the war of armageddon. They are not a part of this world and the energies of Regret do not infuse them; instead they cloak and shield them, escalating them from Coherent soldiers to the greatest perils of the age of myth. This is how the Hermetic weapon operates; while it paralyzes its victims with visions and crushing emotions, specially shielded soldiers can walk amidst the fallen placing cuffs and collars.

You fight them now, half dreaming. They come wearing the face of Mengekai, of Thriss, of the golden rooster, of fallen space craft, of the fire that consumes islands. The heavens roar with the might of the silver spheres and clatter with the footsteps of a MRU rendered into crashing starships. You catch glimpses of their true nature here and there but you must fight them as though they were the apocalypse itself.

Alexa!

It's over.

Somehow it just stops. The madness that fills the air fades away and Demeter's hiss is distant. The Master of Assassins backs up a defensible few steps and lowers her weapon and she's done. It's an agonizing anticlimax, the cold calculation of Artemis ending a hunt when what your soul craves is battle to the finish. You take involuntary steps forwards but she matches them evenly, backing up with her spear sweeping low and wide to deter further advance.

Once distance has been established she takes off her helmet with a bouncing toss of black and bushy hair, skin like the savannah and eyes like the river bank. Budding white daisies open and bloom around her head in a simple little crown. She lights a cigar one-handed, incongruously large against her feminine features, and takes a puff.

"Really?" she said. "You sit as unchanging and lumpen as a literal statue for three hundred years and I'm the idiot for not predicting you'd flip out and invoke Ares? Every other variable was accounted for but I literally got attacked by a dues ex machina."

Vasilia!

The Thunderer grants you victory, crowned with lightning. The Thunderer, too, is your victory. You and she are inseparable; your glory is her glory for she is glory itself.

The Thunderer, too, grants you spoils. Are you not a pirate, Vasilia? Are you not breaching the vaults of a most rare and precious archive? Those who have to make decisions about winning fight or getting away with the loot are not truly cut out for the Starsong.

What is it that you snatch in passing as your prize for this encounter? This can be something small and precious, or a huge mass of raw materials enough to fill the cargo hold of your ship. After all, the Anemoi's docking berth is laid out with treasures in massive piles ready to be loaded.

Dolce!

"Until she - I am not letting go of Redana again!" said Mynx. "Take your oath and shove it because I'm not going anywhere - me, or Bella! You've got no idea what she's been through to catch up with Redana! Even if Redana's not heartbroken, Bella is -"

She stops. The wild air is quiet. The steel floors are still overgrown with grass and cherry blossoms have still erupted from water pipes but it's no longer overwhelming.

"Bella," Mynx breathed. And she is off so quickly you lose track of her in seconds.

Bella!

It is Apollo who smiles at you amidst the ruins.

Servitors are made for a purpose. Dopamine washes over adrenaline-scorched nerves, a biochemical reward for fulfilling that purpose. You have broken every other machine in your path and Saved Redana. For a moment the lights are dark. For a moment the air is quiet. For a moment the breeze on your fur is cool. For a moment your Auspex is not flooding your soul with data. For a moment it's just still, and a shuddering and righteous pleasure is trying to sooth your hypersensitive nerves.

It isn't working. You pushed too hard. You are a broken machine amidst the ruins of a broken machine. You are in the dark and quiet and solitude, feted by no gods and feared by no mortals. And all that is here for you is Apollo.

The god of the sun! A relic from an unimaginably ancient time where there was but one of those and it was warm and life-giving. Oh, but you have learned better, haven't you? You've learned that there are billions of those and their light is so cold and indifferent. People once celebrated Apollo as a god of kindness and virtue but this, this - this is his true face. That same smile here in the dark. That same smile here in the cold. That same smile despite the poison pleasure that mixes hideously with the aftershocks of your anger. Only a fool would have believed there was anything special about the sun in an age where stars are tamed for Engine cores.

Compassion? Kindness? Warmth? All of those things that made you feel alive? Apollo smiled the same smile then as he smiles now. Like nothing has changed at all.
Chen!

"That's rough, buddy," said Qiu, sitting on the railing and watching you sincerely. "That's... look, Chen. I've got an understanding with Jessic. If you need to hide out for a minute while you work through all this then she'll put you up and hear you out, she's way better at it than I am."

There's a gentle firmness to her voice. She's not being dismissive or deflecting - on the contrary, she's treating this with absolute seriousness.

Rose!

Princess Qiu drops something into your lap. Something small and soft, yet with cold and hard dots.

A collar, with a nametag.

Yue!

With a crash, Hyra is hurled through a plate glass window. She flips and lands perfectly, one hand lashing out to snatch the Assault Ribbon from the air inches behind you, the other aiming her sword directly at Princess Qiu. Princess Qiu for her part stands lazily with her sword resting across her shoulders, the gleaming light of the full moon raised above her. The full moon! It hangs low and huge in the sky with the cinematic grace of a celestial body who has learned its lesson about disappointing Princesses.

"Oh?" said Princess Qiu in her best villain voice. "I thought I was fighting a wolf and not a guard dog."

"You okay, Yue?" said Hyra, quietly, intensely. "I'm sorry - I can't beat her either."
It's an odd thing, giving responsibility to a dog. Even a working dog will first look at you like - are you sure? After receiving confirmation, though, they leap to their task with the riotous enthusiasm of having their Good Dog status affirmed so unambiguously. Only the goodest of dogs are trusted with a Quest, let out of eye-sight to sniff and to bark and to chase. The simple joy the dogs emote in response to her giving them her trust strikes Robena as a curious analogue to how much she's enjoyed her recent penances. Service to the right master is a strangely wonderful thing, and no master has been better to her than England herself.

It's to them she entrusts the hunt, and it's to them she provides the credit when the beast is slain. The Mistress of the Hounds will be forced to stand alongside her horse and together they will sigh and roll their eyes as Robena fox-slayer again surrounds herself with the hounds to distribute pets and praise a cynic might suggest was excessive for the task performed.
"Give it up you fucking clown!" said Ailee, and her word was Wrath. Don't you see how this works, how Language works? It's not just sound and it's not just symbols. Sometimes you need a thesis to say a single Word, sometimes a scream is sufficient. "I didn't want to make Jackdaw tough. I wanted to make her give the fuck up! I thought that she just wanted to tag along because she was clinging to me and that if I gave her a taste of what the Heart was going to be like she'd think fucking better of coming on this shitty suicide mission with me!"

She backs off for a moment, Vice fire wreathing her and... oh, that wasn't fire, was it? That was something... brighter.

"But you know what the truth is about Jackdaw? Beneath all that shyness and all those books, beneath that cloak of indecision there is a shard of fucking iron. I did everything in my power to try to make her choice for her and yet she's still fucking down here. And you know what that means? It means that you're not Jackdaw, because there's no way she would have broken. And if you're not Jackdaw then that means that you're just like every other thing in this damn world: Breakable."

And Ailee spoke the Word. The Word was the Blade, and the Word was Heroism.

And then she does her level best to fucking decapitate Evil Jackdaw with her angelic flaming sword.
Redana!

Zeus freezes for a moment - and then gently, so gently, starts to relax.

"I killed my father," she said. "And he killed his father before him. Some part of me expects every embrace to contain a knife - some part of me thinks that despite all my striving I've somehow made my family as toxic as his. So... thank you, Redana."

And as you turn and run you know her smile will stay with you for as long as you ask.

*

You emerge into war.

This is not the war of the modern age, the thing of glorious phalanxes and terrible poisons. This is a mythic war. This is the battle of Ridenki as remembered in the chants and stories of the Alced. This is the war where the golden rooster and the world-shattering wolf battle in the heavens and the fleets burn upon the surface of the waves.

But oh, how the Alced move in their storming flocks! They fly like birds but when they cut below the waves they swim like fish. They swoop and dive as mirrors to the burning skies, falling in time with the voidships falling from the skies.

It's a moment of overwhelming scale and violence, and all the more overwhelming for the inaudible lament that runs through it. We failed, we lost and this was how our world burned.

Alexa!

Just as rapidly as her initial assault tried to carve through you, the Master of Assassin's plan shifted to trying to disengage and go around you. The matter shifts from duel to something more like wrestling, where she tries to slip by you and you need to position to block her.

The entire nature of the fight has shifted, now it is like trying to hold onto an oil-slick eel. Success is no longer measured in blood, it is measured in inches and intersections - when the corridor opens up to allow the Master to sprint away across open ground. Violence proper has become incidental but still Ares pours his blessings upon you. He has offered them to you for so long it would be churlish indeed to make them anything other than glorious in this moment.

Dolce!

"Her what has what?!" said Mynx, lifting you up and giving you an experimental shake to see if your senses had been knocked loose. "Redana is a precious and naive little goofball who once cried because Bella drew a stick figure with a sad face. She stayed up for two nights wondering what made that stick figure upset! Her judgement is not sound! She is not prepared to see all of this!!"

She sounded genuinely agonized by the idea. The idea of Redana's heart breaking was causing Mynx genuine and real hurt in turn.

"And she's not the only one her departure is hurting..." Mynx said. "You don't understand, but she doesn't belong out here. Bella's been... Everyone would be so much better if she just..." the shapeshifter sighed. "Why am I telling you this?"

Vasilia!

Tell us a legend, Vasilia. Tell us of how you cut through those cursed by Demeter and Artemis. Tell us how you leap from the Anemoi moments before it decouples from the Yakanov and sails out into the Void. This moment is your aristeia, your moment of excellence when the tale stops and all marvel in your skill. Tell us of it.

[Roll to Overcome]

Bella!

It is a long moment in the bloody red emergency lighting. Then, finally, the lights flicker - off, and then back on to their normal pale glow, casting everything in a surreal and sterile light - everything that is, except the green-yellow verdency pouring from the open door to Magos Birmingham's vault.

Machine Intelligences are not alive (Dionysus' blessings notwithstanding). They're exceedingly complicated difference engines, clattering pistons and whirring microfilm scanners - Rube-Goldberg machines of transcendent complexity, analog computing in raw and heavy metal. The Magos performed calculations and managed a mighty starship but it was continuously maintained and updated by a council of senior engineers and programmers who would carve in new priority cylinders to load into the fiendishly complicated device. They have been dead for a very long time.

The inside of the Magos' vault is a garden. Soft and fresh grass runs underfoot and cherry blossoms fall in sheets. Amidst the wildflowers, bones. It's so soft, so quiet, all the machine gears muffled by moss - and it sends a shiver up your spine even without knowing that this same environment is unaccountably replicated in the depths of the Plousios.

But your golden eye tells you that the golden heart upon that table is what powers the mighty weapon that will kill Redana. The heart you know you cannot break for it is as divine as your eye - but the brilliant wire-weave mesh that the Order of Hermes built to surround it, so full of crunchable crystals and tearable steel? Oh, that is so very mortal.

[You must Pay a Price to Finish Magos Birmingham]
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