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The word is familiar.

Did you know? The body can survive for a long, long time without enough food. Longer than you’d think. You see, it’s important to say ‘without enough food.’ Because you have to eat. You’re going to eat. If you don’t have food to eat, you make due with what you have. Garbage. Fat. Muscle. Bones.

Mind.

In the end, it all goes. You eat, until you have nothing left to eat, and only then will you die. Only, there’s a point before that where you may as well be dead. Where no matter how much food you eat, you can’t get back what you’ve already lost.

She hoped they weren’t too late. Please, let them not be too late. And, while she was at it, let her not screw this up. This might be their last and only chance.

Jackdaw put a kindly paw on Coleman’s shoulder. “Friend.” Loud and slow. Speak clearly. Don’t stutter. Don’t you dare stutter now. She tucked a paw to her chest. “Friend.” See! They were the same! Same sort of people! Same friend! “Friend!” She offered her paws, outstretched to the wolf. No sudden movements! Friends wouldn’t make sudden movements, would they?

Nice and slowly, she reached into a pocket - keeping one hand raised, no funny business here - and produced that most holy of salvation for the late-night study session: Jerky. Rich with protein, salted and spiced, the food that stays fresh forever. (And, coincidentally, the food that is nigh impossible to eat too quickly.) She placed it on the ground in front of Coleman, stepped back, and pointed at the wrapped treasure. “Food.” She pointed to the wolf. “Friend.” She pointed to the jerky, then to the wolf. “Food. For. Friend.”

When the first packet was devoured, it was replaced with another. And another. Then, when the edge of the wolf’s hunger had faded, just a little bit, she produced a satchel of dried potatoes. Rich in vitamins. Rich in carbs. Fuel. Energy. Filling. Then, a handful of nuts and raisins. A cupful of water from her canteen to wash down the salt. All the while, repeating, without fail.

“Food.”

“Friend.”

“Food. For. Friend.”

Please, friend. Won’t you come back to us? Won’t you tell us your name?

[Rolling to Talk Sense to the Wolf: 6 + 5 - 1 = 10. Please be friends and also don’t eat us. Spending 1 Food as a gift.]
All things considered, Vasilia thought she deserved a medal for only jumping in her chair and hissing an oath.

It was, perhaps, not the first thought she ought to have had in the electric silence that filled the shuttle. Other strong contenders included: “Is there any chance we’ll all survive that cannon firing?” “How far was it to the ground?” “Did that thing really sneak up on us, or did I let this happen?” To name but a few. Just about the only thing this thought had going for it was that it certainly didn’t make a disastrous situation any worse. That was worth something, right? Right. And so, she did the only thing she could do to keep that sterling streak alive for them all.

Captain Vasilia raised a hand, and gave the robot a stately - if lightly dazed - wave.

“...how do you do?” She greeted the robot, manners holding by a thread.
“Always, darling.” Vasilia agreed from the helm. “It’s one loss, then straight to the nearest lonely mountain peak. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say their newfound meditative piety was more a newfound meditative tantrum.”

“Maybe losing is an important part of a balanced diet.” Dolce offered.

“The Fates certainly seem to think so. The moment you declare yourself invincible, every person in the system with so much as a pointy stick takes it as a personal challenge to prove you wrong. The wise weaponmaster would hire a bouncer or three to keep out the riffraff.”

Vasilia didn’t need invincible; that was a fool’s errand. You didn’t win by being invincible, you won by being just slightly better where it counted. She’d gladly take surviving, thank you very much, but even that was looking to be a tall order. The weeks since the Armada had been difficult for all of them, but every new problem demanded the Captain’s attention, and didn’t care much if she was ill or healthy. Apollo’s untimely reprimand had greviously taxed her constitution. Though her regalia was as spotless as always, though she sat with back straight and perfect poise, each breath came harder than it ought to, and her attention threatened to slip away with the slightest lapse in focus.

It had taken one miracle to escape, and another to get them this far. She sincerely doubted her ability to deliver a third.

What they needed was more. More hands, more capabilities, more tricks to hide up their sleeves, more leeway for things to go wrong without dooming the whole voyage. All they had was a battered old ship, a miniature phalanx, and a barebones command staff. If they could find something and someones in the ruins of Molech’s keep, that might be just the thing to keep them all going. She didn't care to entertain the future where they came back empty-handed.

Dolce, meanwhile, sat cleaning the valves and workings of his favored instrument, the saxophone. At the terrible sight of the Spear, he’d thought some music might help steel their nerves for the journey ahead, and Vasilia couldn’t have agree more. It was good to have something to occupy himself with. Something...simple.

He’d gathered, from the limited resources aboard the Plousios, that it really wasn’t that difficult to put a machine back together. The problem was putting it back together without hurting it worse. A Stage Machine, for example, might be repaired night after night after night, but every time it rose, it would be as if it was its first performance again. To keep the memories and self intact, that would take a skilled hand.

Stories told of such hands, devised - or perhaps recruited, as some tell it - by Molech himself. Machines with a high purpose, with skill and knowledge beyond even their makers. A machine, to create machines. Revered, respected, feared, by those without hearts of flesh. And when all others declared a mechanical thread ended, they could prove it had not. The Fates, in mechanical form.

And all the legends agreed they’d been lost when Barassidar fell.

It was good to only have a saxophone to worry about. He doubted he’d have the luxury for long.
Let us not speak too closely of the hours to come.

A start will be needed, certainly. A moment where the will to move overcomes heaviness of heart, that the next moment might come easier than the last. The first bone, touched. The first bile, swallowed. An honorable final rite, cobbled together from the safest he knew, thought up in the spaces between the idle tasks. Care, in repetition, lest it shield him from the dead.

What part would Hades play? When would he first freeze his new servant cold? Would he even mean to? Would he give him a respite from his gaze, or would his presence weigh unforgettable upon him? How hard would he fight, when Dolce tells him this one is not dead, merely sleeping? Will he let the matter pass? Will he press him mercilessly against the iron bounds of service, until only the timely aid of Hera could keep him from being crushed?

Let us not speak too closely of the hours to come. There is too much to know, and too little to guess.

Let us speak instead of the certainty of tonight. That Dolce would return to his Captain’s chambers, as soon as he was dismissed. That he would climb into bed with her, knowing of sweat and snot and shiver, and curl up beside her anyway. That he would not wait long, before she stirred in her sleep. That she would roll over, strong arms wrapping ‘round her Dolce, and pull him tight against her. That he would find peace in the crook of her neck. That no terror known or mystery unknown would get past her on this foul night.

That though the morning would not banish the dark, they would sleep long. Sharing last thoughts, and first dreams.
The word is why?!

They were in a train station! And a desert before that! She’d just started to remember what it was like to be dry every morning. To not have to flip through her books and find the lingering pockets of damp. The Flood was many things, but she wouldn’t have thought impatient would be one of them!

She scampered up the sparkling dunes and instantly regretted it, her paws stinging from a thousand tiny cuts. Maybe, the walls? Could her staff reach that far? No, no, they were all solid rock besides, there wasn’t anywhere to get purchase. A wave slammed into her, sending her spinning in the glittering depths and robbing her of all sense of direction. Where was she going? Which way was up? How much air did she have?! Not again, not again, no no no no no no no-

And stop.

Freeze.

She panted madly. Fresh air. Not water. Water was over there. Water was going down. She was not. She was held. She chanced a peek downward. Black, scaly hands, ending in worn and weathered claws held her steady.

In one great sigh, she limply wrapped herself about his shoulders. “Th-thank you, Coleman…” Lucky thing she was shivering; he’d not catch the wince at her stupid, trembling voice.
Hera’s hands still grip him. Feel her gentle fingers glide from shoulders, to collar, to neck. The silken noose draws tight. He is gasping for air. His heart screams, but no word, no sound escapes his lips. Hera is watching. Hera is keeping him from insult. How else? How else to explain it?

This can’t be right. This can’t be here. Why is this here? On their ship, in this wonderful place, why keep this den of tragedy and dishonor? They’re dead. They died. They died, alone, and no one - not even the god of death, the one they’d served - was there to care for their end. Was that what he was to do? Bury the dead? But, but, there were so many traditions, so many rites and rituals, and, the timing. The timing would be all wrong, they’ve been here so long. Who did they worship? Who were they honored by? Did Hades even want them moved? He’d had all the time in the world to, and, and…

He walked lost among the dead. His hooves rose, and his hooves fell, and he counted not where they landed. No bones were trod upon. No flowers disturbed. Hera, kind Hera, bore him onward. Past rubble, past ruin, to the center, to the heart. To a flower blooming and binding.

His hands drew to his mouth in horror.

How...how did they die?
Dolce stood pole-straight among the tumbling flowerbeds, frozen under the weight of what was Not.

This was not a stroll through a pretty garden. This was not an outing with Hera, kind Hera. Hera, who had not ever abandoned him or done him wrong. This was not an adventure. He was not a fluffy barnacle. He was not standing still, nervously smoothing his arm over and over and over. He stopped and forced his hands to his side, and they were not content to be still. This was not safe! This was not right! And, and...

And Vasilia was not to have her bouquet, would she?

His chest puffed out with a great intake of air, and he let it all out in a stiff whoosh. Pull yourself together, Dolce! Stand taller. Stop lollygagging. Step proper, and quit dragging your feet, it’s unsightly. You’re tidying up for a god, do you know that? How often do you get to aid the divine so directly? Hades looked so angry, imagine what a relief it’ll be to see his things to rights. Maybe he’ll smile, even. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that lighten your heart, just a little?

So go on, Dolce. Mind the flowers, and step inside. Work waits for no one.
It had been ages since Dolce had a good cherry blossom.

They didn’t taste like cherries, you see. No, they were far milder. A speck of sweetness, a fancy of the flower’s scent, yet it did not hurry away from you. A single petal could stay on the tongue for minutes. A whole pile of them? Well! For that many, you’d better have a comfortable place to sit, a nice tree to lie against, and a friendly river to listen to.

He was in good company; a particularly fluffy barnacle among his peers. They weren’t sure where all the water’d gone, and they weren’t inclined to believe his wild tales of a sythe made of sunlight and a Princess out for a stroll. What were they to expect? Soft and silly all the way through with this one. Though, he seemed to know something of proper patience. Perhaps his wasn’t a completely lost cause. Some time, some quiet, maybe he’d amount to something yet.

To their deep satisfaction - though they’d never admit it out loud - Dolce heeded the wisdom of his elders. He had time, quiet, and quite the pile to work through. He let the world come to him, drifting in a steady, uninterrupted current. Trimmed riverbanks, yet unharmed barnacles. A winding path, yet squared banks. Flowers! Fresh flowers. Bright and colorful and wonderful. Wouldn’t Vasilia like a bouquet when she awoke? Wouldn’t she love a picnic here? Beautiful, purposefully beautiful. Maintained meticulously, within limits.

A building. Standing alone.

An open door.
The lower decks! An entire half of the ship he’d not explored yet, recently occupied by an empire of space crabs! There’d been so many fires to put out after the incident with the Princess last week, he’d only been down there for to accompany Vasilia for a brief, entirely professional inspection. To walk those halls with Hera herself-!

The bed shifted beneath him. He thrust out a hand to steady himself, slowing it at the last minute before he slapped the bedspread noisily. The mound of quilts shifted restlessly, to and fro. Vasilia’s eyes screwed shut, wincing tighter under some invisible torment. Her breathing accelerated, and each exhalation was a pained prayer beyond any mortal tongue.

Hush, dear Lady, hush. You are not alone this long night. Feel the whisper-softness of your Dolce against your cheek. Can you hear him? Can you hear him humming a lullaby, all for you? He’s holding you close. You will not slip loose into those dark dreams again. Breathe. Breathe easy. He is here. He is by your side. All is well, and all will be well. Sleep, and be at peace…

Only when many silent minutes had passed, did Dolce dare speak again. “I would love to walk the lower decks with you, Hera. But, Vasilia, she…” He smoothed away an errant hair from her now-still face. “...she dearly needs her rest. Could you keep her sleep peaceful, until we return?”
A kobold? Like Coleman? What would she be like, as a kobold? Would she get a new coat of scales? Would she be built strong like a conductor? And the tail, what about-

No. No, the tail would be different. And she’d be different. And if she was different - really, truly, permanently different - would her own name recognize her? She couldn’t say for sure, but the risk? Too great. Much too great. Nevermind the bit about being a bug.

It’d...been some time since she’d heard that argument. Had to make that argument, to be precise. But hearing it again, her feet settled on two solid facts: She could not let this silly, stuffed-up, mouse turn her into a kobold, or a bug, or whatever struck its fancy. And she could not let go of all her precious things. Not yet.

“Alright,” she said, kneeling down to their level. “I’ll tell you what I know. Here, come closer, I can’t be too loud...”

She told them of every night they’d ever sat alone in the dark, and wished in their secret heart for the sound of another soul. She breathed to life the memory of cold, digging through skin, through bone, through sense and reason. She spoke the words of comfort they kept only for themselves, and they pierced all the more to hear them on another’s tongue. Ached, for the sea of storm surrounding them, forever around them, until at last they go to where they will never feel the wind and rain again.

She spoke the name of the Flood to a heart unprepared.

“It’s...not a matter of wanting and taking.” She said quietly, tears flowing freely down her own face. “You have to want it, yes, the original want is quite important. But, you’ve got to want to hold onto it once you’ve got it.”

“...do you still want to hold onto the rest?”

[Rolling to Finish the Grand Squeaker with Grace: 3 + 6 + 2 = 11]
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