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"What just happened?" asked Rurik.

Princess Heron could be witty sometimes, but she could also be a conversational brick wall. Moments like this she didn't wisecrack, she just asked basic question after basic question until an obvious target for ultraviolence appeared or was made clear. Whatever Rurik personally thought, the duty he held to the Princess' disguise was far more important than any (scoff) personal flair he might add(1).


Shut up a second I'm looking at lizards.

These are Void Fireworks. They range from five to thirty centimeters, zygodactylous feet with specialized suction caps, and ultratensile jumping musculature. Their second most notable feature is their obsidian fangs; extremely powerful but extremely brittle, hollow-tipped and capable of suction, a lot in common with a mosquito's proboscis. They can puncture flesh through clothing, and sink into wood or even stone with extended effort. That then leads to their most notable feature: once a Firework is attached it drains the colour from its prey. The subject loses colour from its distant extremities first, cast increasingly into a blue-greyscale[1]. Note that the Firework does not actually drain blood or other fluids despite being inclined to puncture flesh; that seems to be entirely for the purposes of grip, and it can draw from the clothes someone is wearing even if there is no direct fabric bridge to the Fireworks' mouth. Once the prey is completely drained of colour then the Firework will drop off like a filled leech and scuttle to safety.

[1] the Fireworks don't seem to enjoy the colour blue, though they'll eat it if there's nothing better. They really like yellow and incorporate it into their scale patterns.

This whole process is mostly benign. There is a lot of superstition regarding being colour drained and how it enlists you in Sayanastia's army, but that was correlation rather than causation. Her conscription/mind control/corruption was a separate subsystem. These creatures are the shards of one of her great monsters, the Light Eater, and they follow in her wake but are not active contributors to her schemes. Modern medical treatments and careful exposure to the Outside can restore lost colours without too much trouble, but objects are much harder to restore and generally have to be repainted if possible. Which is to say, nobody likes the Fireworks; they're considered pests and people generally try to swat them when they notice them. But that's when the Fireworks' defensive adaptation comes into play.

When a Void Firework is directly threatened or attacked then they perform an emergency expulsion of the colour they've stored. This creates a 1-5 meter radius detonation of ultracolour, like the explosion of a rattlecan full of paint, particularly with a mistlike residue that lingers afterwards. If this gets in living eyes it results in complete blindness until washed out with tears/cold water/eyedrops, and this can occur from the lingering mist residue as well as the initial detonation. Colours applied tend to be a mix of whatever the Firwork was eating at the time, and it has a permanent effect on what it impacts. Applied to skin it looks a lot like a shitty tattoo and will last for several weeks until replacement skin has grown in. The Firework uses the distraction to escape, sacrificing around 60% of its collected meal to save itself and the remainder.

That is all to say, they are regarded by the general public as extremely obnoxious pests that can completely ruin an outfit and presentation. The emergent implications are rarely considered. If these creatures emerged from the breaking of the Light Eater, what does that say for Sayanastia's other great defeated monsters? Is the trend for Void Fireworks to get larger or smaller over time, and does that indicate consolidation, continued fragmentation, or true speciation? Did they come into being with native migratory instincts that carried them to different waystones, or are they actively trying to follow Sayanastia out of residual loyalty? Collectively, are they more or less effective than the Light Eater itself?

And what's really cool is that these ones have little dragonfly wings. Associated atrophy of their jumping musculature. The Light Eater only had wings in its second stage - what does that mean? The elemental affinities of the Light Eater changed when it changed form, she needs to set up an experiment to confirm if that's the case with these too.

And - alright, fine. Work mode for a second. Glance at the situation - the idiots are bugging Kalentia for cures, dad's doing the ceremony bit, Sayanastia is not obviously gearing up for an attack. That meant whoever was going to attack the ceremony - and it was going to be someone - was doing the bare minimum to cover their tracks. Rather than looking into it, Tsane rolls up her left sleeve and draws a couple of glyphs on her skin with rainbow markers. Red, switching to purple, switching to cyan, switching to bone yellow, swirling and circling symbols. When the shit hit the fan she was going to be ready.

Once that was done, she turned her attention back to the Void Fireworks. She had another few minutes to do what she was really interested in before the proverbial phone rang again. Every second was precious.

The regalia, it must be confessed, has more chain than fabric.

The prismatic heavens roar and crash. Nebulae flash and groan with the sparks of protostars struggling to ignite. Gravity tears and distorts, hurricane winds of oxygen and hydrogen course through the void. Mix every strand of light together and you get white; mix every colour of paint together and you get black. Here in Poseidon's realm you feel the rainbow darkness across your scarcely protected body.

In the distance you see the thundering of eight hooves; a horse in scale to the Eater of Worlds as a horse is in scale to a turtle. The horse, the rider, and the cyclopean eye - all scale beyond imagining. Necessarily vast because imagination has grown far indeed.

Teardrops fall from his eye, each containing runes. The ones you see read CIVILIZATION IS BUT THE EXPORT OF ENTROPY.

Against this storm the Plousios is small indeed, and you are smaller. But the ocean has a mouth to consume everything offered to it, no matter how vast, no matter how insignificant. And as the storm flashes your dragon arises from its depths. It is golden, sleek, fast, ascending from the depths below to catch you and your ship below. Out of respect for your divine beauty, Poseidon has sent a divine beast: an Angelshark.

The regalia has more chain than fabric. Unfortunately most of the fabric involved goes towards covering the mouth. Yet, you must negotiate with this creature nevertheless.


"Then it is necessary for you to take the assassin you are offered," said Artemis. "Her line is named for Diomedes, a warrior from ancient times. Have you heard of him? I'd be surprised if you had - he is overshadowed in every telling of his story despite being the one who objectively accomplished the greatest feats of all his peers. I think that even those of my kin who met him have forgotten him, and that they were relieved to have done so."

Artemis licked her finger and turned the page on her newspaper. "I remember the past, though. And I suggest you learn it too. There is always a delay between an arrow being fired and it hitting its target, and the length of the shot can be surprisingly flexible. Firing from out of someone's recollection can be just as dangerous as firing from outside of their line of sight."
In her left hand she holds her second javelin. In her right she holds a book. Lancer's emerald rimmed glasses glint as she shakes an escaped tress of brown hair out of her eyes. All of her attention is on the book as she hefts, and throws.

Another weak and halfhearted throw, as idle as the first.

It is almost a relief. After the barrage of Bohemond, the assault of the Handmaidens and the ferocity of Berserker it is pleasant to be fighting someone who is clearly your inferior. Whoever Lancer was in life, she was no legendary hero. The skill on display here slew no dragons.

Her hand freed, she brushes the escaped hair behind her ear. It does not fit into her elaborate braids but it is enough for her to take another sip of wine, conjure another javelin and with her eyes never leaving her book for a second, she takes another throw. It has the force of her Class container behind it, more than mortal strength, but nothing from her own legend adds to this. Time enough to gain position, to gain every advantage, to bring this play battle to a close against this unserious competitor before -

- her emerald eyes flick up from her book. It tumbles from her emerald-painted nails towards the ground. Her leg sweeps out to the left, sweeping out her dress into a flowing cascade, bringing her down into a crouch.

Her left eye winks shut. It helps her focus through the sights.

Her next javelin is a FGM-148.

Missiles streak up into the sky, pivoting on a dime and raining down a cascade of anti-armour shaped charges. Explosions and fire fall like rain.

"Did you know?" said Lancer, silhouetted by fire as she picked her book up, snapped the page back open, and hefted her rocket launcher over her shoulder. "that these weapons were so effective at destroying the atheist Soviet Union that the Church worshipped them as saints?" Lancer's eye flicked up from her book to look through the sight again, and she thumbed the trigger from top fire to direct fire. "Once again, they ascribe religious meaning to a perfectly serviceable spear."

There is how Rurik, Seneschal of the Hero, would handle the problem. That would be a matter of discipline and diplomacy within the household, a moment for intervention with a firm voice and intimidating stares. He would break things up, calm things down, and generally do everything Civelia wished he would do. Tragically, Rurik was not present, and Civelia had allowed her faith in him as a man to blind her to his duty as a Handmaiden.

What would Princess Heron do in this situation? Why, she would go over to Cair, put the remainder of the soap in her mouth, kabedon the Lunarian and flirt with her while chewing. "Hey babe," he said. "I'm sorry to say you're not the only one who's Fallen Far recently~"

Now, Rurik was not Heron. The disguise was very good but there was a certain... je ne sais quoi that made the Princess more than the sum of her Handmaidens. In particular, Rurik could never quite disguise his eyes, which had a kind of perpetual ferocity to them that made everything he said come across as a mafioso's threat. Under those circumstances, his kabedon felt more like the beginning of an actual mugging instead of a sexy mugging.

(In the back of his mind, he is prioritizing the ceremony over this. In his mind, he does the Heron move which makes the girl go weak at the knees and then ditches her mid-swoon. In his mind, he gets the soap out of the situation in one quick bite and it doesn't taste like anything and he doesn't start involuntarily blowing soap bubbles while fighting down the urge to scream for the team healer while standing dutifully for the ceremony. In his mind, Rurik is a dutiful and loyal Handmaiden, and not a braincell timeshare investor.)

Within the light of Mars it is time to discuss maps and logistics.

Liquid Bronze's fleet is on an intercept course. Five Imperial-era battleships, one modern supercarrier, and a support fleet of fifty smaller Warspheres, cruisers and destroyers. A precise tally of their resources is irrelevant; in terms of force applied to this problem their numbers are effectively infinite. That is not to say they operate without constraints.

First and foremost, they are the hunters and have limited ability to force an engagement. This means that Liquid Bronze has split up his fleet into twenty different battlegroups. Any one battlegroup might make an even match for the Plousios, but the cold Martian logic implies that a fair fight will cause so much damage to both sides and attract sufficient notice that the rest of the force will be able to close in on the damaged survivor.
Secondly, they will be operating at the end of their supply tethers. Liquid Bronze, in a desire to settle the matter quickly, has only allotted space for two of his battlegroups to be resupplying at any given moment; that means the rest will be running lean. Any expenditures of exotic resources will be difficult to replenish in the field.
Finally, the political context is a limiting factor on Liquid Bronze's activities. That was how Dyssia's Pix originally escaped their own Decommissioning - the Biomancers do not have unlimited remit to disrupt inhabited and productive planets in their search for rogue agents, and the relationship with various sector governors may be strained. The death of the Crystal Knight is both a positive and negative in this regard; she was personally invested in your destruction, but she was also capable of reining in the Biomancer-General if he went too far.

The plan at the moment is to hide inside a star. This will not end the chase, but it will transition it into an advantageous defensive siege. This is a valuable delaying maneuver - Liquid Bronze's insufficiently supplied ships will not be able to spare the exotic cooling materials required to engage on anything but the worst terms. Given his impatience, it is predicted he will force an immediate engagement despite the risk, and a humiliating defeat will be valuable in destabilizing his position. And that is the only endgame that makes sense for this kind of hunt: against a foe with infinite resources it must become politically untenable to continue to the pursuit.

This means, then, engaging the battlegroup containing his supercarrier, The Cancellation of Florence Nightingale directly. Damage to that glorious ship on the field of battle would be an affront to Mars; if it is to fail, it must be at the hands of a nightmare beyond the normal context of the battlefield. And so it is that you have decided to call on your divine uncle Poseidon whose terrible hooves shake the stars themselves. For this kind of blessing a rare and treasured sacrifice must be prepared.

What do you have that is rare and treasured, Ember? (Hypothetically, would you describe yourself as rare and treasured?)


"Love, then?" said Artemis, again with a distant dagger-smile. "You think that's what it comes down to? I don't believe it. Not from you. You had love before this adventure began and you'll have love after it. Love isn't what sent you out your door. Love isn't what made you throw in with a renegade Princess and the God of the Dead. Love isn't what made you step into the Lethe, risking everything you ever were. No, Dolce, you give yourself too little credit - it's not anything as simple as love that drives you. Everything you are doing, every decision you've made, from the first day you left the comfort and safety of the Manor, was driven by something far deeper and more powerful than mere love. And though you don't want to give up on your love, on your softness, on your sense of morality - I think what you're really hoping is that it won't be necessary to do that."

Artemis leaned forwards. Demeter is in the background, smiling. To Demeter, Artemis is an ally. She doesn't see the knife even when it is this close.

"I can't promise that it won't be necessary to risk any or all of those things," said Artemis. "But what I can promise is that I will prevent you from sacrificing anything unnecessarily. If - and this is the only prayer I require - you tell me I'm right. You don't need to say what truly drives you," Demeter is tilling the soil, earth running through her fingers, searching for seeds. "You just need to tell me that you need to finish what you have started."
It can be hard to remember what her anger had felt like.

She remembers the Dark; the dreaming dragon-place. She remembers the warmth and the quiet, the murmur of sleeping breaths, the shift and rustle of scales, the heat of hearts. She remembers her dreams in full; they still fill her, still animate her, unforgotten by waking. The problem was that waking made her smaller. She became too small to fit those dreams in her head. Once she had been as big as they were, now it was like looking at a forest from inside it.

She remembers the Light. A dreaming infinity had inevitably heaved forth its opposite. It had risen above the dark in at the top of an endless pyramid, and it had said I AM. At first the pyramid had been made of light, but the Light had said I AM, and the pyramid had become stone instead. The pyramid had dominated the void, but then the Light had said I AM, and it had broken itself from the sky. Each time it had declared itself to be it forced everything to be other than it was. Each time it had made her smaller. Each time it had broken her further and further away from her dreams. And they had been such good dreams too...

She feels the anger inside her. It lies like a stone, smooth and hot and mirror-polished. There was no flaw in that structure, no weakness in her argument. She had been right. She had suffered injustice. How dare it wake her? The edifice of rage was still there in full, a fury she felt in her teeth. She could still feel the jaw-shattering impact from when she'd gotten those teeth on the light and answered its helpless I AM with a screaming, biting YOU SHOULD NOT BE. She'd crushed it, splintered it, torn open the stone pyramid that had supported it and filled it with every hatred she could imagine.

All futile. She had not said, 'You are not'. No matter how she'd ripped and torn and cursed and raged she still had no answer for that desperate, proud declaration I AM. It was, and she had hated it; her hate was consequence of and proof that it was. She had scrubbed the mold and in so doing spread its spores. Everywhere it had grown. It announced itself more subtly now but it was still there. From the sky, still stained blue from the broken light her jaws had made, all the way down to this infuriating little puppet demanding her attention. Pardon me - just as she had broken light into the spectrum, so she had broken the raw declaration of I AM into this twist of sound that meant the same thing. And then, the delegation - not only was she supposed to give this man the right of veto over her dreaming infinity, she was supposed to acknowledge this box. It declared with its existence I AM just as surely as the Light once had, and by its existence it demanded her attention. Just another assault on her senses, another distraction, another reason to rage. Another reason to destroy. Another thing to wish she could be free from. Another opportunity for failure. Spurn the gift, infuse it with her reality by hating it. A failed stratagem that had taken her so far away from the peace she had sought to win.

She hadn't been wrong. The stone was perfect; a gleaming marble of internally reinforcing logic. She could roll around in it for a thousand years and find no flaw in it. She had been right to be furious. It was an injustice that no amount of fury could solve the problem. The only way left to her passed through surrender, injustice and madness.

She let her left hand take on the aspect of her dragon talons (the right was tricky; too close to Civelia even now) and she tore off the paper. Looked at the soap. Another declaration, another demand - now she was to acknowledge Civelia, now she was to force her mind down paths of memory and wit and insult to decode the statement, another long moment where she was not free to think as she wished to think or be as she wished to be. A gift.

She opened her mouth and took a bite of the soap.

"Uh, Yana?" Kalentia said. "Uh, that's not for eating."
"I know," said Sayanastia. "I am making a point."
"O-oh. Can I ask... what it is?" said Kalentia.
"No," said Sayanastia.
"Oh! Oh, you really don't have to take another bite," said Kalentia. "I'm sure your point is made."
"I am," said Sayanastia grimly, "committed to this course."
"Because that really doesn't look that - oh no - it really doesn't look like you're enjoying it."
"I am not," said Sayanastia. "This was a mistake."
"Then are you going to stop - oh, well, I guess not."
"I will not give her the satisfaction," said Sayanastia.
"But I don't understand, what point are you trying to make?"
"I don't want to talk about it. It was stupid. I overthought things and - well."
"Oh, okay. Uh..."
"Do you want help?"
"Well, it can't be healthy to eat that much soap on your own -"
"I am a dragon."
"Okay yes. Okay. It's just that, um, you've asked me to use healing magic to help with your digestion before, so I think you've got a regular intestinal setup -"
"Fine! Eat some if you must."
"Okay! Thank you!"
"Don't mention it."
"Oh wow, this is really bad."
"I know."
"And you ate like half of it on your own?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I'm not going to be able to get more than a few bites of this down I think."
"That's fine. Just give it back here."
"Hey guys, whatcha eating?"
"Oh, hi Cair - we're just eating some soap -"
"Word? Let me try."
"Oh - oh you shouldn't -"
"Oh wow. Terrible."
"You don't have to -"
"Nah, what kind of friend would I be if I let you eat all this soap on your own?"
"We are not friends." said Sayanastia.
"Uh doy, how do you think people get to be friends?"
"Hey Tsane! Wanna eat some soap?"
"C'mon, it's a team building activity!"
"I am leaving."
"No problem, let me see if Fally wants some -"
"Okay," said Aeglesia. She took a deep breath and banged her sword against the edge of her shield. "Okay! Here I go!"


"You can - duck!" shrieked Fallweaver as the spear came in.

It was a halfhearted throw, entirely lacking in killing intent - it wouldn't have made contact even without the warning. The balance of it was off - something was tied to the end. A flask? Lancer grins, modern clothes starting to burn away in emerald light to reveal the elaborate armour of an Emperor.

"So, Saber, I was thinking," she said, foot sliding wide, tracing a long arc through the rough dirt in front of her with the javelin she was holding. "We're not allowed to directly interfere in that Princess battle - but there's nothing that says we can't have a friendly duel of our own at the same time. And if," Lancer said, tying a leather wineskin to the end of the javelin, "we happen to get a little drunk while we fight, and if that has implications for our accuracy, then I don't see how anything that comes of that would be our fault."

She took a deep draught of wine herself. Then her easy grin hardened and her stance became sharp and focused. Still playful, but with an edge. The play for her Master's affection had not gone unnoticed and this was her opportunity to establish her superiority.

She slapped the offered hand.

"Oh damnit," she said, sticking out her tongue. "Instincts, you know? Heron and I started doing this high-five, down-low, too-slow game at each other and it became a whole thing. Now I'm just conditioned to slap any hand I see in the microsecond for which it's available. Don't spread that around, it's a real liability in contract negotiations." She stood up. "But it's cool. Would have been nice to spend another fifteen minutes clarifying some things but too late now, we're signed and sealed."

To prove how cool and with it she was, she offered her hand to the Lunarian in a gallant sort of way so that she could use it to stand up. If she took it, this would give her a better opportunity to get some handfeel for what that material was, it would prove that she had the strength of mind and will to resist the urge to snatch her hand away at the last microsecond, and it'd make a great shot.

"Sicksuit huh?" she added. "So, like, are you sick, or is this place sick in general, or is there a heightened risk of getting sick that happens here? I ask because if something happens in the Stacks and your breach gets worse, I want to know if I should be running towards you, away from you, or hanging back and letting you deal with it on your own."

"Water would be a huge help against the Summerkind," Sagetip said thoughtfully. She was alit with a crimson light, flickering like bloody ink from her projector. "They are creatures of lightning reflexes and evasion; slowing them down would make them easier prey. We can easily take on more water and flood the entire ship. If they adapt then we can drain the ship and render their entire lifetime of military experience irrelevant. That's a good idea, Princess Alpha."

"But -" and here she falls deeper into the crimson, the buttons on her uniform gleaming silver even as she seems to bleed into the crimson light of her projector slide. "- I disagree on targeting Liquid Bronze. We don't have the numbers, don't have the assets, don't have the materiel. It would be expensive to create an opening like that with no guarantee of success once it is created. We don't know the full extent of the Biomancer-General's tricks, but we know he has guaranteed a form of immediate reincarnation for his Legions, and that was accomplished centuries ago. What if his research into that field has borne even more fruit? What if he has made himself immortal? He might be so directly, or perhaps he has done as some Biomancers and created clone backups. We are not up against an Azura Knight, we cannot fight as though we are."

This is her final challenge on this point; after this, she must agree with whatever course is decided by her Alpha so the pack might have clarity.


Artemis folds her newspaper - an an ancient thing of cheap paper and cheaper ink. She takes the time to smooth the crease and lay it across her knee as she sits, arms folded and legs crossed. A familiar shift of her head sends the shards of brown hair from her face.

"Once, a long time ago, there was a woman who wove the most splendid snares," said Artemis. "She had a genius for knots and was able to twist thread and twine into moments of suspended strangulation. She would walk through the woods weaving her traps and bought forth from them a bounty. I admired her. I admired her skill, her craft, her focus. So one day I decided to reward her - I sent into her snares a prince of rabbits, with a coat of silver and moonlight. She was delighted with her prize, ecstatic even. She called out my name in gratitude and joy."

Artemis flicked a smile, a cynical, distant thing, like a dart. "And then she sold the fur, purchased a house in town, lived comfortably for the rest of her days and never hunted again. I understood what I was in that moment, what the hunt was: necessity. Necessity alone. Nobody wants to crouch in the dark and mud with a wooden spear in trembling fingers. Nobody wants to learn the migration patterns of termites so they can be ready to eat them when they swarm. Nobody wants to work for endless hours to extract the means of survival from a uncaring forest. Once the concept of female property rights and divorce caught on in society recruitment for my wilderness cults dropped off a ledge. The second any individual or civilization can ditch me, they ditch me. Nobody wants to hunt."

She unfolded her newspaper again, straightening it out and looking up over the edge with silver-lined glasses. "But, sometimes things are still necessary. Even in the midst of all this plenty people find ways to make it so. So instead, I ask you a question: Is there something that is necessary for you to do?"
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