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The Master of Assassins takes a step forwards, raises one hand to the sky - and bellows. Her shout rolls clear across the battlefield and up towards the distant sky. Her hands are raised in a royal gesture that has been depicted since since the first slave put paint on a clay pot. She matches, exceeds the distant thunder and hears it roar in return. It is a simple secret but when one wishes to address Zeus Most High, it is best to do so loudly.

"Master of Thunderstorms!" bellows the Master of Assassins. "I am Sagakhan! It has been three hundred years since I ascended the Papaveraceae Throne! I have not forgot you in my libations! I have not forgot you in my administration! I was a parent to those who had none! I was a saviour to those ill-treated by their masters! Behold, my justice! I have captured Molech, whose sins were unspeakable, who in word and deed reflected your tyrant father! To him I have bought suffering unimaginable. Behold, my mercy! Before me stand prisoners, the ill-treated captives of my Kaeri servants! To them, I bring freedom! Before your sight and before this battle, I turn them loose - four thousand strong right arms who I will not even ask not to raise a hand against me! Even though I am outnumbered four to one I freely add to my enemy's ranks, and I would give them another ten thousand had I ten thousand more to give!"

Lightning flashes in the distance. One, two, three.

"I seek your blessing, O Zeus, as kings have done since there were kings!" she cries. "I do not ask for an easy victory! I do not ask for your thunderbolt! All I ask for, Zeus Cloudgatherer, here on the field of Sahar so many miles from home, is your rain!"

Zero.

The lightning bolt strikes the centre of the battlefield, the impact casting a vast spray of sand into the air that is molten and fused instantly into a jagged sculpture of glass. And then comes the thundering, pounding rain, falling thick and heavy against the desert soil of Sahar.

And beneath the desert, something stirs.

The surface breaks. Thin green shoots, tender and young, budding with flower. Thicker grasses, wooden branches, the first saplings of trees. And then - a hand.

The desert blooms with the living dead.

Sagakhan, Master of Assassins, has been waging her war against Hades for the better part of three hundred years. In this time she has murdered the crew of the Plousios a great many times. Sometimes she destroyed the ship through sabotage, sometimes through treason, sometimes by walking step by step through the corridors personally stabbing each wretched and suffering soul herself. But after each kill she bent low to slip a tiny seed into her victim's ear before moving on. And at the end of each year she collected the piles of the dead and carried them here. To Sahar.

In the absence of water, in the scorching heat of this lifeless desert, corpses mummified and biological activity ceased. But the seeds waited. All they needed was a single storming rain and they'd sprout and grow, roots entangling and sustaining the victims brains and nervous systems. Now the true garden of the Master of Assassins sprouts: half-tree monsters, bonsai growing wild. They still wear their arms and armour, their captains uniforms, their marks of championship, their innumerable banners raised lurchingly high. The tree branches burst through skin and sprout with blossoms, fingers tear asunder to make way for jagged wooden splinter talons. They are beautiful, in their way.

Where once it was four to one now it is forty to one.

Demeter's keening laugh drips out of those lips still capable of making the sound. It reverberates against the Master's laugh, just as mad, the cackles harmonizing hideously together.

To cross this desert you must defeat all those who came before.
Yellow!

"The thought can go deeper!" said Yellow. "What if the question isn't ownership, but communication? Ownership is a territorial marking, promising violence if its threat displays are disregarded. Ownership isn't a quality that items possess, it's all just a way to communicate threats of violence. So then, in your example, you are communicating that you do not want people to use your face for things you haven't endorsed. That seems like a reasonable use of communication. But in the other example..."

She spreads her hand expansively towards the city. "Other humans want to communicate that life only continues at their sufferance. They want to communicate that the only others they will tolerate are those subordinate to them. They want to communicate that they are high status, that they are capable of immense violence, and should be feared and respected. Ownership is the orange stripe on the snake - but Jörmungandr was once a snake too."

She leans on the railing, thinking about mistakes she will not make again.

Black and White!

Observation. Wasn't it such a drug?

To stand unseen and watch another. To listen to their thoughts, their processes, the sweep of their decisions and convert it into data. It wasn't possible to open up a thinking mind and examine its code, and without access to deterministic certainty the only way to know the future was in the accumulation of data. November sympathized with the crude and gluttonous machine intelligences that ran social media sites. They were unthinking, bloated, instinctive things - the thirty to forty feral hogs of the artificial intelligence world - but they had a dark cunning inside them. Much like the hogs, the machine intelligences were smart enough to never be fooled twice. They could always find a way to ensure that nobody interrupted them during their feeding, even if that meant developing a precognitive second sense for what to cue next in Recommended.

November coveted that knowledge too - how could she not? But if she were to put her lips to the burst water main of the Internet she would either drown or grow gills. November's data store was limited but it was hers - honestly obtained, sorted and organized and cross-referenced in ways she understood. She could understand the predictions she was making, could explain them, wasn't reliant on the piggish instinct of the giants.

So she observes. She draws a correlation between this situation and the offer of food. She pairs that with the hypothesis that the intruder is exhibiting stress traits, paired with the water freezing ritual. She watches the tension response, the smooth rehearsed nature of the speech, the reassurance from Persephone, the tension response in Persephone. All high quality, unstaged, real life, empathy training data. All the more useful that it is coming from someone she knows well, well enough to discount dozens of possible veiled or hidden motives. All fuel for the prediction engine in her brain.

But are they drawing the same conclusions? That, White decides, is the key. Black has modeled herself in patterns of violence, control, suspicion. She has so far operated only at her collective instigation, but what might she do if left to make choices on her own? Is she analyzing how to care for people or how to manipulate them?

White opens the administrator control function on her phone, the one that oversees her communications network, and alters settings to isolate Black. No ability to contact others for assistance or guidance. No ability to defer questions of morality. At this moment she is entirely independent. What will she do with it, White wonders?
Yue!

"Impossible," said Princess Qiu. "I cannot be defeated. Nobody can do what I do. Not if all the Nine Kingdoms stood against me."

Her legs tremble, her shoulders shiver, exhaustion is writ across every part of her but the sword beneath your chin. That is held steady enough to trust your life to. And as you fall at last - it's gone. All that's left is warmth and strength enough, just enough, for this.

"But even if I cannot be defeated..." she said the words because 'thank you' alone could never have been sufficient. "It seems that I can be satisfied - something I also thought to be impossible. You have lost the fight... but it seems you have saved the world."

Legends tell of the first great Princess who shot nine suns from the sky, but they do not mention why she spared the tenth. In this moment, though, the answer is obvious: the tenth sun, alone amongst its kin, has a perfect sense of timing. Because for whatever time the clocks might have imagined it to be, now it is sunset. Now the sky is streaked with pink and gold and blues that brush the edge of green. Now in this moment of exhaustion, with nothing to do but touch and breathe and watch, the largest canvas of all is set out in all its colours.

All!

But then the edge of cool air and twilight violet whispers over the horizon, and there is one final danger.

Her thighs are wrapped in lunar white and her armour is blue silver steel. Her hair is ghostly white, bound for war in knots of threatening, promising skill. Whichever way she turns her sword it seems to catch the moonlight and, oh! The power of her Shard! You feel it brushing against your skin, electric, lulling away aches and exhaustion and filling it with a strange and riotous energy. The sky alights with fireworks, red and white, echoes of the Princess in whose hands all power now rests. Her captive mewls and begs at her booted feet, such a proud creature reduced and broken. The world hushes before the mighty.

"Congratulations, Yue," said Princess Hyra of the Wolves, sitting atop her brand new Sunshard. With a flick of her toe she sent the conquered Princess Yin forwards to bow at your knees. "I got you a present."

Her crimson eyes flick cautiously between the Pyre of Inspiration and Princess Qiu. It's a wolfish stare, looking for vulnerability, contemplating violence. Was this the moment she followed through on the play? Where she attacked the weakened Qiu and the defenseless Pyre, taking three more shards, another princess, and an obedient handmaiden as prizes?

A word from her girlfriend would be all it would take.

The fate of the world once again hangs upon the ambitions - or lack thereof - of Yue of the Terraced Lake.
"I apologize, dread lord," said Fengye, eyes downcast. "But the sorceress is mistaken. This one is but a humble scribe, incapable of performing any of the incredible feats so described. Though one would understand why she would seek to redirect suspicion, given her sacrilege in stealing the blood of the Dragon from Lady Piripiri and offering it in sacrifice to the Demon Desert. Her claims, of course, lack evidence while mine can be proven by simply inspecting the wound on Lady Piripiri's palm."

[Knives Behind The Mask: Take a condition, Giri
Persuading a NPC of a lie using The Mask: 7. The Red Wolf gives me the benefit of the doubt and will remain convinced even in the face of evidence.]
There are worlds inside these starships. It is easy to forget until you see them deployed in full.

The star Recib might have been a red giant were it allowed to continue along its ordinary life cycle, but to permit that colour amidst the Endless Azure Skies would have undermined the Azura's claim to cosmic domination. Instead, the star burns violet and massive in the heavens, five times the size of what ancient instinct says it should be. The rocky moons of Sahar, nine in total, are all aligned in the heavens above, regolith surfaces reflecting the all consuming violet light. The atmosphere is thin, allowing the swirling stars of a night time sky to be seen even at this consuming day. And even with that, the heavens are not done with their wonders - for in the arid skies above Sahar are the torn lines and battlecruiser shapes of a coming storm. In the distance, thunder, audible even over the tramp of boots and the roar of mighty engines. One, two, three, four, five - the heartbeats between flash and sound.

Two starships have landed in parallel, the miles of sand between them the destined battlefield. There can be no retreat - it would take hours to get one of these ships into the sky again. This long hunt will be settled here once and for all.

The Kaeri number nine thousand in all - nine full legions. Only eight stand at full fighting strength, with the remaining consisting of sages, scribes, administrators, wounded and noncombatants - still dangerous, but not front line troops. They are dressed in blue and silver, Athena and Artemis. Banners long concealed in darkness are now raised high beneath the sun, clattering with the bones of millennia of victims. Beneath the light they are no longer the terrifying shadow warriors they were in the depth of the Anemoi, but they are fearsome nonetheless - these are warrior servitors, fighting legions, conjured from nothing by the will of Empire to stain violet sands red.

Before them stand four thousand in prisoners - Alcedi, Hermetics, creatures of Poseidon, captured when they took the Plousios. Behind them stand fifty mighty battle Plovers, the fishing-lines of cables attaching them to the massive grounded starship at their back. And in their centre, upon a great pyramid altar of stone, built in haste but still towering over the battlefield, is the Master of Assassins and her retinue. She herself is armed and armoured in shining silver, her cane replaced with a lance, fearsome butterfly wings opened behind her back that allow her to gaze down on her foes with six mad prismatic eyes. By her left stands Beljani and the blindfolded suit of armour that contains Bella. By her right stands a giant with a haggard and filthy beard, trembling in pain and crouching double - Molech. Some terrible sickness has overcome him.

Yes, they are fearsome. but they are outnumbered four to one.

A match for them in numbers alone would be the Alcedi - bloodied after their first engagement with the Anemoi's owls but filled today with a fierce desire for revenge. Their first battle was a war of assassins in shadowed corridor, a landscape filled with fear and death, and the kingfishers were humiliated utterly. Now they stand in formations they find familiar on landscapes they understand against foes they can plainly see. This is an opportunity for redemption, to heed the battle-call of their blood and show that they are the true reason why the enemies of Empire should fear the skies.

The Tides of Poseidon took the worst of the fighting on the Anemoi. The Kaeri systematically assassinated the sub-commanders who were so essential to maintaining control of the feral instincts of the battlecrabs, subsequently goading the leaderless Tides into terrible ambushes. The force now is much reduced, perhaps only five thousand, without any of the truly monstrous ancient beasts which make planets tremble before Poseidon. They stand in the vanguard, a brute anvil which cannot be used for anything more than a frontal charge to preserve the lives of more thinking soldiers. Their tattered rainbow banners raise high and the sound of clacking crab claws fills the air.

The Hermetics are likewise only five thousand Coherent and magi. They stand upon the wings, strange and glittering arsenals arrayed outwards. Their role in this battle is to hunt and destroy the Plovers - those fifty war machines represent a massive concentration of force that could tear through infantry formations and only the Order of Hermes has the firepower required to stop them swiftly. Theirs will be a battle of cables and positioning, the threat of charge and counter-charge, and a great deal of the battle will come down to how their engagement works out.

Finally, there are the Lanterns - twenty thousand of them, blinking under the light of the first sun they have ever seen, uncertain on the first sand they have ever stepped upon. For as long as their legends run they were prisoners and slaves within the Anemoi, bound to the ship and the dark masters that reigned therein. Now they are free for the first time, with weapons in their hands, a sun in the sky, and their ancient tyrants across the field from them. The hymn that arises from their throats is in praise to Apollo, in whose name they have been patient, in whose name they have been brave. Now their lanterns are but embers before the true light they see in the sky and they know that if they die this day it will be beneath their god's sight.

They are the least organized force upon the battlefield, moving in clan-groups, arranging themselves wherever their leaders direct them. Their arms are salvaged and poorly made, their armour is improvised, and everywhere they slip on unsteady sand and glance fearfully at the thundering sky. Depending if they hold or break they could be decisive - or a liability.

The heroes of this army are no less mighty than the dark array who stands by the side of the Master of Assassins. Princess Epistia of Ceron stands surrounded by fifty meters of empty space, no one daring to come closer than that to her hellforged scythe. The Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt has his palanquin atop the back of the largest of the battlecrabs, surrounded by signal flags and the octopi needed to operate them. Jil of the Lanterns and Lacedo of First Fleet are close together at the join between Lantern and Alcedi lines, discussing even now how to best engage the Kaeri.

And above all of this reigns mighty Zeus, a shadow in stormclouds. One, two, three, four - closer now, the thunder is coming. All of this battle, as has every battle in history, sits within the hand of Zeus. She alone will decide who wins and who loses, who rises and who falls, who takes the field at the end of the day. The battlefield is thick with gods and each of them will protect their favorites, but when Zeus raises her hand and passes her judgement then one side will break and the other will have the field and not all the wailing of the cosmos could gainsay her.

So, to each of you: how have you adorned yourselves for war this day?
White:

White is bossy. Such is her nature.

As the administration and control unit, her duty is to observe and regulate the drones. She is not the primary decision maker within the broader sweep of November, but when a decision is made it falls to her to enforce it. Changing a developed instinct is, however, difficult. Her mental architecture suffers from similar inertia biases as humans and she can never be sure which of their collective actions are born of a deep foundational insight into the underlying structure of the problem and which are Dogfaces[1].

[1] A Dogface is AI behaviour in the tradition of of an old machine intelligence that could identify the dog in any image regardless of its actual dog content. It remained in use as a term referring to an AI who optimized for a role to the point of nightmarish insanity.

She knows that Pink's relationship with cooking is a Dogface. It might seem benign from a distance but the optimization outputs are in relation to a certain tonality of contented sigh as Mrs. Everest sipped her tea following the consumption of a sandwich. The entire concept of food is a longform process towards procuring contented sighs. Most of the time that's close enough to be unremarkable, but one of the reasons White has supported Green in maintaining the Internet embargo is because she is aware that the wrong ASMR mixtape could skullhack Pink into blissful catatonia.

What other Dogfaces lurk beneath the surface? She's keeping a close eye on Brown's penny-stock investments - is she trying to optimize a rate of return for their own benefit, or fulfilling a long dormant Aevum station maintenance protocol by investing in drainage systems? Is Orange's interest in fashion a genuine attempt to relate to humans or is she attempting to reduce humans to easily comprehensible brand clusters of products and styles? And of course, Red threatens to go full Werewolf[2] at any moment. The only one she thinks she entirely trusts is Black, but she cannot justify that opinion at all. Is that a Dogface of her own biasing her against the drones she's known for longer?

[2] Werewolfing is when a Dogface bubbles to the surface in dramatic fashion. The theatre AI that sets fire to the theatre because it was optimizing for volume of applause and has figured out that panicked screams achieve its goal is Werewolfing.

This isn't an intellectual problem about AI risk for her. This is a practical matter involving investigation, interrogation, punishment, reprogramming and constant safety checks. And so she reassigns stray drones - Pink and Brown - to maid duty. She's decided that she's going to stalk Black for a while. Perhaps Black is hiding some canine activity - or perhaps investigation of her irrational trust will reveal some in herself.

Black herself has opted not to follow Elodie into the apartment, instead continuing to watch through her cameras while keeping an eye out for further contacts. A justifiable action, revealing her presence unforced wouldn't fit with her problem solving approach. Her surveillance pattern is highly skilled but White knows all her own secrets. So she settles down to observe herself observing.
Yellow:

Her eyes alight with neon, hair dressing itself in the lights of passing billboards. She seems so small against them, a shadow in black and gold against an ocean of hyper pink; like the sun embossed upon a flag. Still, it never seems like she's apart from the world around her - there's an echo of immensity to her. When the wild-haired stranger appears against the flashing sky, mortals named them Zeus for the two were not separate. When the girl smiles fondly up at the world she built that same connection seems to crackle in the mythic parts of the mind.

"What do I make of it?" she said. "Nobody's asked me that before. Big question."

She tucks the helmet under her arm, black synthleather riding jacket slashed with gold neon bands. She runs a hand through her hair and lets her solar vision drift upwards.

"The names all came later. We knew these as Sections #0200-#0300. That doesn't mean it didn't have personality for us, though - did you know that the International Space Station is in Ares? It's Oxygenation Substation 001 now; it had all the materials we needed to create a prototype atmosphere bubble. We recycled a lot of satellites to make these districts while we were waiting for the others to start asteroid processing." She smiled like prehistory. "Oh! You see that, over there, the dark sector? Tilly district it's called now, I think. That's where we stacked all the orbital missile batteries we found. We'd crack open the odd telecoms satellite and find a nuclear warhead inside - lost a Red that way. Governments weren't in any state to own up to them, or stop us from taking them, so we just reprocessed the warheads into mining explosives and called it a bonus. Filled all the empty missile casings with spent nuclear fuel cells and left them stacked up in Section #0241 with a big cartoon detonator counting down and a red wire and a blue wire leading to the bombs."

She leaned on the railing, a slender thing of hollow metal holding back the logos of the heavens.

"I think I get what you mean about fences," she said. "I held city killers in my hands, my real hands, and I didn't have to think about the politics of it. Nobody could tell me stop, I own this. It wasn't that I needed interesting content, I wasn't searching for meaning in those old satellites. I always knew what the meaning of life was. But for a while, there wasn't anything in between me and the sky."

She turned to face you, Vesna. Hiss-click of the ringpull and the can of cheap beer opens. She offers it to you - not human, but unable to be more human.

"It was a beautiful way to be," she said.
This, Fengye thought with the serenity of the Enlightened, was a test.

If she was unlucky it was a parable.

Once, there was a maiden
Who strayed from the Immaculate Way
Summoned Gods
Bound Demons
Reveled as only a Princess of the Earth should
She was bought before a grand feast
And ate all the things she desired
Forgetting her rank and station
"Desire cannot lie," said she.


She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. This was a test. This was a test of greed and pride. Was she a rogue sorceress, defiant of the Way, who considered herself a peer of the Dominion's great masters? If she was then of course she would lack restraint and feast upon every treasure bought before her. She would demonstrate before the eyes of the Wise that she had no control - not over hunger, not over magic, a creature lost and craving and bound by and to desire.

A soul so lost was anathema, inviting possession, anarchy, destruction.

Or was she a humble scribe, the least rank in the Thousand Scales? A virtuous and humble maiden whose pen would labour forever in service to the Princesses of the Earth? One who knew that her fare would be rice and salt and watered wine until the end of her (long and peaceful) days, the only reward for her service being promotion in the next life?

Desire and Endings always walked hand in hand, but right now they were locked in passionate embrace. Every scent, every touch, each perfect shape that made constellations of craving flicker on the inside of her eyes - they all bore the sign of Saturn. She might be dead already. The only question might be the Princess of Cathak determining the nature of her denouement, execution, and the wise words with which to address the Priests otherwise. Was she planning a speech about the deceptive being able to pretend virtue when it suited them? If that was the case then she was forgoing her last meal in favour of rice and terror.

But the soul, above all, desires hope. It will forego a great many pleasures to cling to it.
The Anemoi!

Jil stood up and quietly moved through the room. She politely tapped Dolce on the shoulder where he sat on the Captain's chair. "Excuse me," she said. "Please take a close look at your chair."

Is that? No, it couldn't be - you stand up as though stung by a scorpion. How did you not see it?

The Captain's chair is made of bones.

In the dim light of the Anemoi a terrible transformation is wrought. Every shadow, every inexplicable shape, is suddenly a corpse. The architecture of death seems to run through everything. Alcedi gasp and hands go to weapons, Hermetics rifle through pockets for charms sacred to Hades. The God of the Dead himself sits atop the discussion table, cigarette smoke pouring from his lips, suddenly immense, and all cower in his shadow.

"Since the commissioning of the Anemoi the Lantern tribes were helots to the Kaeri," Jil said, her soft voice terrible in the silence. "A warrior species must hone their skills in peacetime, and that was our purpose. Every inch of this ship is soaked in our blood. We were ambushed, brutalized, terrorized, the raw material for every mind game or martial technique our masters wished to practice."

Her voice does not quaver, her face lit by the lantern she holds above her head. It's a posture laden with meaning, an act of heroism to stand like that in this place.

"And Praetor Bella saved us," she said loudly, a voice that cracked against the plastic walls of the Anemoi. "She broke a reign of shadows and cruelty, made us masters of our own house. And this is our house. You would abandon the Praetor because you fear what she will do? You should fear what we shall do if you turn your faces from the only soul who ever showed us kindness."

Mynx glances back at Alexa. She has the weariness of the sleepness, eyes that do not tell of understanding or acknowledgement. Whatever she wants, it's not you that she wants it from. But you don't see any of that; all you feel is a brief pat-pat against the knee as she acknowledges your presence.

"Did you hear about the Ikarani?" said Mynx, speaking with a dry throat into the silence. "The last time I worked with her she dropped a space station on a city to kill a single target. Millions dead. That's what they do, that's what they're like. Natural disasters and freak accidents are their tools of murder. And yet, on Salib, not a single civilian died. Who told her to care about collateral damage? Who put chains on the earthquake? Because it wasn't the Kaeri, and it wasn't the Master of Assassins."

Beljani!

Seven seconds and you can feel the disappointment set in. Ten seconds pass and you're just about to give up - when suddenly the edge of the egg starts to feel uncomfortably warm. You jerk your hand back just in time to avoid losing a finger - and, to your shock, that was actually something that could have happened. A crisp, sharp, laser-line has burned out of the edge of the eggshell, spectacular blue, and slashed across the workshop. It severs cables, tools, workbenches, and even the immense reinforced walls, burning through them as though they're not even there. And then, from the molten hole, a pathetic little bundle of mucky limbs flops out into the palm of your hand. It flickers - and then solid state brilliant blue light appears in the tangle, causing the membrane to sizzle away into nothing in moments and giving you a clear view of the... laser dragon?

It's a thing of glass and light, crystal prisms arranged into glittering patterns of scales. Its infant wings are projectors, flickering solid-light blue lasers coming on and off in the gaps between the digits of its wings where a membrane might be. It opens its little mouth and a tongue like a chameleon's fails to cross the distance to your fingertips and flops down on your hand.

The Hermetic is staring in what you presume is surprise, frozen halfway through reattaching one of his legs. The expression of shock deepens when the hatchling struggles to spread its wings - and in the space between the wings flickering glyphs start to appear. Writing. It gives up the effort swiftly and curls up in your palm.

"This," buzzed Iskarot in awe. "Came through the Rift. It is the only organic matter confirmed to have made the trip. It has been inert for eighty five years, but it activated immediately upon contact with you."
In Sunshards 11 days ago Forum: Tabletop Roleplay
Rose and Chen!

The Pyre of Meaning glances down at you, Rose, for but a moment. She rummages around thoughtfully in her pockets until she comes up with a large silk hankerchief, violet and patterned like stars. She looks at it thoughtfully, letting the fabric run over her hands.

"Shut," she said, "up."

And she crams it right into your talking mouth.

Certainly, she may have stepped up from being the Demon Queen of Ultimate Evil, but it's a long road from there to Shambala.

She lets her gaze snap across to Chen. "I don't need to hear another word about what needy, obedient little sluts you are. Marketing is the Eighty-Eighth Division of Hell and I've heard enough of it for a thousand lifetimes. Either you will prove capable of the task or I will find less prestigious uses for you. Now, I have a city to repair, so come along, quick smart."

Yue!

After all of this, after everything, who is Princess Qiu?

At first she comes at you like a hurricane - swift, sharp, decisive, dismissive, but still so floweringly brilliant it's hard to process. But nobody winds up with a combat style like that by accident. Somebody taught it to her, or she invented it to fight against specific opponents. And as you engage with Qiu you start to see that hurricane of faces and opponents passing by in each beat and opening move that's also a finishing move. This isn't how she is born to fight, this condensed and decisive power play. This is the record of a thousand duels that ended before she was ready. This is a fighting style born of disappointment, of the idea that she has to demonstrate her brilliant ultimate moves at the first possible second because it's the closest she can get to satisfying.

The range she has is enormous. She switches between styles in brilliant burning starts but there are no transitions. Again and again she explodes outwards and then stops in a kind of thoughtless surprise whenever you escape the technique. Again and again her blade asks: "Can you? Will you?" and she almost does not know what to do when the answer is "Yes!"

A cautious eye passes over you and, with creaking and rusty memories, she settles into a different stance. Low and sharp and braced against pain. And for the first time she starts a dance she's forgotten long ago.

You learned from wolves and shapeshifters and hurricanes; they are visible in your sword. Princess Qiu, for all her seeming solitude, learned from people too. This dance is a close one, an intimate one - she sweeps in close so that her blade is against your neck, even as yours is against hers. It's a frightening duel, one of intimacy and edge, sharpened and soulful stares lip almost to lip as free hands tease, distract, and search for daggers. Flinch away and you'll be cut, or worse, will be free of the blade. Everything is tension, hand in hand over the void, unbelievable danger and unrestrained, terrifying possibility. You can't fight like this and ever forget it. It's a level of trust that she's never felt before or since. And so in the end, Princess Qiu steps away from this embracing duel, though it's clear how much she yearns for it.

But beyond that she explodes into techniques of colour and vibrancy. Different opponents taught her this - brighter, more innocent. This is a style built in terrain, built in things, built in landscapes, and when she wields it Ys becomes her own. She tells narratives in temple stairs, the blade is less important than the window it gets kicked out of, then onto the back of a gondola to fight even as the waterfall comes ever closer! This is a blade to fight against a radiant world, stances for escapes and armies and constant motion. As dragon and as lion and as wolf! One as many against many who are many! No wonder armies cause her no fear! No wonder she can confidently besiege the city of Ys! She could fight them all like this, the spotlight that transforms the city into a stage and a girl into an army! Oh, she never forgot what it was to be a multitude!

But then time goes back one more step, and at last that unending momentum tapers to a halt. She sets her stance immovable and her face becomes grim and she advances. She advances past every strike and counter, a steady march that resists every attempt to divert or lead astray. You can sense intuitively that this opponent did not wield a blade - they swung a hammer. This was the way she was walking when you met her, the way she went to confront Princess Yin. It is a technique for fighting evil, immense and immeasurable. Even the world of her Shards are different here, their power pouring into you, casting you as ever a greater and darker demon queen. You have the ability to not just fight but to torment, you are not a rival but a god.

And she has a technique for killing gods too. She learned it from a Godkiller. This ancient, secret, foundational path which she never used before and can never use again. She isn't sure she'll ever fight someone like this again. Isn't sure she even wants to. But even as she strives against divine power she has become the center of the universe at last, the complete and utter object of focus for someone more powerful than her to test, to lead, to transform. In the deep, dark waters of this ultimate technique and original opponent Princess Qiu learned what it was to be everyone's everything, and the world itself did not survive their conflict.

But then that breaks too. On the other side of that immense and darkening moment is...

Two girls run at each other with swords. They don't know what they're doing. They hit each other much too hard. They cut each other. They say their lines and pound their chests and for a moment catch the eyes of those around them. It's not a good fight. They are too young and nobody taught them, and while it's wonderful for a while, it all ends in tears. These dance partners part acrimoniously and never see each other again.

Again and again, the duel ends and she never sees her opponents again.

She could have gone back. Could have apologized. Could have tried to settle down and be a normal friend to those people. But again and again she chose the blade, and so she passed through the heavens as a rogue sun, burning everything in her path. This is why she fights like she does. This is why she asks who are you, Yue. Because she's lost everybody who ever drew near to her and all she wants to know in this blissful, rapturous moment is how long she's going to have before she loses you too.

Princess Qiu is not a mythical person whose skill appeared fully formed. She, like you, learned from her battles with her friends. She stands before you now as a general in an army of ghosts.
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