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She was too full of words for just tears, and before long they spill forth from her too.

“I never remembered any other name.” She clung tighter. Wolf didn’t complain Or even noticed. She could’ve squeezed with all her might, and she doubted she could bend her an inch. “And, it couldn’t be right. Jackdaw isn’t a fox’s name. Jackdaw’s the name of, of,” Funny, how the words clawed to stay in her heart, when it was just the two of them, without a thing more to lose. But it was much too late for anything less than honesty. “A...cruel little bird. A thief. Who steals away treasured things it has no use for, and preens itself up like it owns them. Like they make it special. And, important.”

“I just thought...it couldn’t be right. If I had my real name, I could, somehow, know who I really was. Except that wasn’t it. That wasn’t really it.”

Why did you come down here, Jackdaw? What would bring you to this awful place?

“I wanted to know I wasn’t that. I wanted a name I could hold up as proof.” No great quest. No real prize she was after. She just...wanted to know she wasn’t trash. That she was something. And not just a stupid pile of other people’s treasure. And now that she’d said it out loud, she could truly appreciate what a vain, horriblereason she’d risked her life for.

Wolf didn’t complain. Or even noticed. She sat and stroked her head with the same care as when she didn’t know Jackdaw was a wretched, pitiful thief. Which was wrong of her, of course. Mistaken. Confused. Blinded. Deceived. Tricked. Duped. Fooled. On the cusp of regret.

Instead of saying any of those or other equally suitable words, Jackdaw put her paw on top of Wolf’s, to stop her, and.

Left it there.

Maybe...she did have one more thing she wanted. Or, rather, seeing the miserable wreck of her dreams, she wanted something more than that. Wanted to want something more than that. It didn’t feel fair, in this moment, to moan about her own troubles exclusively.

So. She left it there. And waited for Wolf to take her turn.

[Rolling to Speak Softly with Wolf: 5 + 5 - 1 = 9. What is her treasure? What is it that she wanted, all this time?]
The Plousious wanted for two things: Crew, and raw material.

With a fraction of the wealth arrayed in the cargo hold, raw material would no longer be a concern. And the crew, they’d have sorted out momentarily.

She had her prize. But her priority was her people. And so Captain Vasilia flew deeper into the station…

**************************************

Ah. He was afraid she’d say something like that. Or run off. To receive both was...regrettable.

“I’m sorry, Mynx.” Dolce bowed his head, speaking to the empty air. “Would that the gods have arranged it any other way.”

He had little time to mourn; the Master may be after him at any moment, and while they were no longer together, Mynx’s idea had been a good one. Perhaps he could lose his pursuer amid the Magos’ defenses, or find some way to aid his friends from afar. He receded into the background, and padded silently to the central bunker.
Nothing.

Silence.

The audience awaits.

Like a puppet without strings, Jackdaw slid down the wall until she collapsed to her knees. “What did I do wrong, to me instead of them?” She asked the Heart, and left no room for an answer. “They weren’t older than me! They didn’t have anything I didn’t! They were generals, lovers, heroes, Archmages! So why am I still sitting here on a useless pile of words, just, still me? Why?! Is it something I’m doing right now? Did I mess it up a long time ago? Is that why-”

Why what, Jackdaw?

Why your memory runs clean as a fresh river, until one day it just stops?

Why your earliest moment was spent alone?

Why no one ever came for you?

She fumbled through her pockets, fishing out a precious scrap of folded-up paper. A list, started by a friend. With a recent addition, in a shaking hand.

Jackdaw: Worries about a lot of things, but her friends will do anything to help and protect her. Worries a lot about what others might think, because she cares very deeply. Good listener.

Ruined the Vermissian Line.


“...is that why every name I try ends up a disaster?”

She cast her tearful eyes to the waiting darkness.

“Please. Just. Tell me what I’m doing wrong...”

****************************

Metal on metal. Blade on blade. Heroism on Dominion.

“Oh, so I’m broken without you, is that it? I'm only whole if I waste my life under your heel?” Her blade dances through the air, catching yours at every turn. “Gosh, I almost forgot what a piece of work you were. Couldn’t just tell me to leave, so you wake me up every morning with a fake gun in my mouth? Who does that?!”

“Getting away from you was the best decision I ever made. And your Jackdaw? Your Jackdaw’s a fool for giving up all this to stick around with a dumpster fire like you."
Dolce went limp as she shook him, his wool bouncing to and fro. It felt like she needed that. Like she needed to say what she was saying now. Wasn’t it nice, to be useful?

A servant, being outside all other social standing, and bound by a sacred trust, is the most ideal listener in the world. Do not waste the opportunity. Always seek to better fulfill your duty.

“I can’t say for sure.” He lightly patted her jagged exoskeleton as if it were the softest cotton. “I can say, at least, her judgement was sound as far as it concerned you. She was fortunate to have you as a friend.” Not a coworker or a bodyguard either. The Princess rarely described her as such, so neither would he. “Her heart is strong though, and I tell you before the gods that it has not broken yet. Perhaps, if it would help put your mind at ease, I could look help after it in your stead? For until she returns.”

He rummaged about in his pockets. “I could swear it on an oath, if you like.” And if he could find the right material; another candle, a few bits and bobs, surely there had to be something in here that would please a god?

***********************************************************

The unloading bay belonged not to the Anemoi, but lived for the honor and glory of Demeter. Here gathered her attendants, in the inevitable march of life enduring. None were wasted in a fruitless chase. A phalanx of bonsai, planted immovable in the gate. Grasping roots to line every surface of the passage. Bouquets of flowers, dripping with intoxicating aromas, swollen to bursting at a breeze. Here her rightful prize would come. Here, she would be halted. Life would persist. Life would renew. For it was the glory and right of Demeter, Lady of Seasons, for whom all things were bound.

But Captain Vasilia did not come unprepared.

A line of violet lightning carves an arc through the room. Plants do not so much burn as instantly turn to ash, their toxins and thorns vaporizing harmlessly. Vasilia parts the smoking clouds, flying by her grav-rail down towards the exit, but the work of Demeter cannot be halted! Already, the bonsai are growing thicker hides. Vines spring forth from the ash to grasp at her limbs, to pull her down and hold her tight. She is forced into a wide, corkscrewing turn away from the exit, burning away vegetation as fast as it could grow, but no faster. To blast the arm from one bonsai gave three more the chance to heal back stronger. Again and again, she sallies the exit, and again and again she is turned back. The seconds tick away to Demeter’s victory; the engines of the Anemoi are almost firing. Soon, they will be away, far beyond hope of rescue or escape. Demeter will not be denied! All living things are bound to the Lady Demeter! Her victory is assured!

One. Two. Three.

And the bonsai are all but gone. Gone in a volley of perfect shots. Herded, by careful approach, by tantalizing opportunity, baited into changing in their formation just so, until a clean line could destroy them completely. Destroy them faster than even Demeter can mend them. Her legion is only one. It drops to the deck, roots shooting desperately outward, spreading with all haste. The engines ignite, the whole ship rises from its mooring, gathering the impetus to hurl itself across the stars. Vasilia grips her pistol in her teeth, draws the glaive from her belt, hurls towards the exit and strikes the hammer-blow! As through mere air! The bonsai is not cloven in two, it is annihilated. And Demeter’s servants are no more. For the price of precious seconds, Vasilia buys the Lanterns safe passage to the stars. No abomination of life will remain to threaten them.

But how precious those seconds! Already, they pull away from the Yakanov! She cannot stop. She will not stop. There is no time to worry about missing. She dips her flight low, tucks her legs to her chest, and kicks. Her feet find the bare edge of the exit ramp, closing, as the ship accelerates away beneath her. She is off! She hurtles towards the hangar, and no wave of Poseidon will set her off her course!

Ah! Within the hangar, a welcome awaits! Two Coherent phalanxes, drunk on their battle-song, wait to catch her. Space distorts around twin MRUs, charging to full. All they have to do is wait to catch her, but the Coherent philosophy does not abide waiting. The air howls with SP fire, and crackling chunks of spacestuff. Vasilia weaves a tight spiral around a bolt of molten light, and every scar on her body burns in remembered agony. She finds the SP fire when she rams straight into it, a hundred stringing blows striving to push her back. She bends. She flips. She corkscrews so violently she nearly snaps in two but she does not return fire. She does not turn away. Her direction is down. Her mass is unstoppable. The grav-rail screams at the strain, driving heavier and heavier, and she does not intend to land gracefully.

She hits the deck, and the deck loses.

The beat accelerates to a rapid staccato. The Coherent line dances back and forth, ready to spring. The smoke clears, and instead of a victim there is a great gaping hole in the deck. They’ve lost her! The music shifts to a marching tune; find her! Do not let her escape! But my dear coherents, you will not have to look far. The ground bulges and breaks beneath their feet as she soars through deck and air alike. With one motion, she hurls her glaive like a meteor, with gravity to match, and it pierces through both MRUs. Technicians scramble to escape the smoldering wrecks, only some remembering to pull out the power tethers before they can catch fire.

Now, she draws her pistol.

Now, she is close enough to place her shots.

How kind of you, Coherents, to display your bodies so proudly! To adorn your additions with gold and silver inlaid, bright glowing lights, thumping bass! How could she miss? You race ahead to keep time with the music; did no one teach you how to dance? Have you never had to improvise the steps? You stumble! You fall! You are predictable. The music is your master, and you have mastered nothing. See what the Starsong have made, in the centuries you spent in contentment! Above the thunder and screaming, Captain Vasilia sings. She sings the notes your music begs for. She takes lead in a dance of hundreds. She twirls, and her pistol finds the soldiers leaping at her the beat their feet leave the ground. They fire, ten steps behind, and she is already gone. Their comrades litter the dancefloor, screaming and clutching the smoldering remains of their pride.

What greater defense could they muster? Eccentrics behind phalanxes, on their own ground, every flank protected? What more could the Yakanov bring to bear against a single skirmisher? But no philosophy, no tactic, no intelligence borne of mortal imagination could withstand her. The Coherent line shatters. The music that once spurred them onward now drives them ahead in madness and terror. Run! Flee! Flee the coming wrath! We came with song, and she wrested it from our hearts! We came with bodies born of the Path, and broke against the broken! All is lost! All is lost! The Yakanov hears their cries, and their hearts fall to despair. Rallies go ignored. Messages go lost. Souls scatter to the winds, struck by fear beyond their understanding.

So lands the first battle-stroke of Captain Vasilia, honored of Zeus, bearer of the Starsong.

Woe to those who dare remain for the second!

[Overcome: 3 + 4 + 1 = 8, damaging Blood to upgrade to 10+.]
“See, Leelee? I got tough! Just like you wanted!” Evil Jackdaw cackles with your hands tight around her throat, and you are confronted with the terrible possibility that you have not hurt her in any way that matters. “Alllllllllllllllll your lessons worked! The long nights, the early mornings, the skipped classes, the missed opportunities, the wasted years, it was allllll worth it in the end.” She says two words at once. She’s says the dumb boring words to you. She says a Name. It turns her coat’s collar into a hundred piercing spikes that only grow sharper the harder you squeeze, and she says it all in the same breath. “Aren’t you proud? Come onnnn, let’s see that smile!” Her hands shoot for your face and she squishes your cheeks in the rough approximation of a grin and she is drowning in the deepest satisfaction you have ever seen her enjoy because the word is cruel.

Did you think that Jackdaw could ever grow to be cruel, Ailee?

******************************************

Jackdaw let out a panicked yelp, gunshots and Angels and claws pressing into her all crashing in at once. She squirmed in Wolf’s arms, flailing with what little freedom she had, but for naught. She could breath. She could try not to whimper under Wolf’s claws. She could realize where they were.

It didn’t stop her from springing to the nearest wall as soon as she was let free. “Coleman? Coleman!” She hammered at the substance with both her scrawny arms, for all the good it did. This was all the world they had now. Dim light. No sound, past these unspeakable walls. And yet, they could be heard, the two of them. A listening ear was waiting, and would not wait for much longer, so would she be so kind as to carry on?

And the word was ad-lib.

“What do you want me to say?” Jackdaw spoke, her forehead falling against the wall. “Is there something I’m supposed to say here? Please, genuinely, I know that sounds like I’m being difficult, but, I don’t know what my lines are. Honestly, I’m trying! I’ve been trying! I’ve always been trying, but it never comes out right! Or, no,” Now? Of all times, now, Jackdaw?! “It’s not, the delivery isn’t the problem - well, it’s not always the problem - it’s that I don’t say the right thing. I never pick the right one. I’ve spent all my years memorizing, and when the time comes there’s a hundred hundred choices and I never pick the right one, and if you could just tell me! Tell me, and I’ll say it! Please! There’s no time!”
Dolce did not answer right away. It was a big thought, and it deserved due consideration, which was hard when every spare thought seemed to turn to how agonizingly slow they were advancing. Still, he thought, and still, he puzzled, but in the end, all he could do was shake his head. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t see how that matters.” Imperial politics? Future murder? He didn’t specify. “You have to do this, because Bella has her job, and so do you, and it’s the only way you have to getting all your friends back, or even seeing home again. I have to do this, because I have my job, and it’s the only way I can keep my friends. We don't have much of a choice, do we?”

She tucked them in an alcove to hide from an advancing patrol. Neither of them so much as breathed until the sound of boots was just a distant echo, no louder than their own heartbeats.

“...still.” He murmured. “I wish we could have met under better circumstances. The Princess speaks well of you, and I think her judgement has been sound thus far.” He offered up a little smile that couldn’t quite banish the regret misting in his eyes.

*********************************************

Vasilia will commit to conceding nothing, least of all this seemingly-restrained act of the Thunderer’s ‘benevolence.’ Gift! Really! Knowing her, she was probably lurking in one of these lockers, waiting for the proper moment to burst forth and receive Vasilia’s weeping, awestruck gratitude. Any moment now! Get ready! Here it comes!

Anyyyyyyyyy moment now!

...well! Were she not so pressed for time, she would throw open every last locker until she found her generous patron and, and, she’d let her know personally what the great ruler of Olympus could rescue her from next! The top culprit may well shock her!

A dim, wearied voice of reason reminded her Demeter was no longer harrying her so directly. Which was a point in Zeus’ favor, all things considered.

Which, well. Yes. But. She distinctly remembered only having the one pistol before, which would have matched perfectly to her current repertoire of usable arms, had Zeus not been so blindingly obsessed with the aesthetic qualities of a matching brace of pistols. So. Perhaps it’s all a wash.

The lockers were, ultimately, not spared her coming. Many were slung open far faster than was traditionally acceptable, until she found one stocked full of weaponry in potentia. From here, she selected two short spear hafts, and along with the last remnants of her once-proud jacket, they made for a makeshift sling. Though perhaps 'half a straitjacket' would have been the better term. She expected the battle before her to stay grounded only as a temporary measure, and of the options available, fixing her bad arm tight to her side was the least painful.

The rest of her gear, she donned with haste. The glaive, collapsed at her belt. The musket, slung across her back. One pistol, in its holster. The other, clutched in her right hand. Nowhere else to put it. Nowhere else to go but forward.

With feet beyond the grip of gravity, she loped down the last hallways of the Anemoi, bounding though the loading dock, off the deck, the wall, the ceiling, back again, back again, onwards and forward!

Hold fast, crew of the Plousios! Your Captain fast returns!

[As Vasilia is racing to return to Dolce's side, she now rolls with Hope.]
“She can’t kill you! All she can use is violence! Take care-!”

Dolce’s warning echoed down the long corridor behind them. Would that he do anything more to help, but that would rather defeat the point of getting him away from the Master, wouldn’t it? The best thing he could now was be as unobtrusive a burden as possible, and let Mynx spirit him away someplace safer.

Yes. Yes, that was. All he could do, for now.

“...thank you. Again.” All he moved was his mouth. He was just a lump of soft cloud, no sudden movements to throw her off. No loud voices to spoil any schemes. “Terribly sorry that we couldn’t meet under better circumstances.”

********************************

An arm shattered. A thousand fiery needles blistering her skin. One of her best coats in tatters. Only a thin shirt offering token resistance to a legion of biting plants. No weapons. No gear. No one coming to save her.

None of it mattered. Not really, anyway.

Demeter was against them. This was all a divine ambush. She’d meant to stop them here. She knew what name to give Artemis’ assassins. Her work had started the Yakolov’s engines, when they should have remained silent. The cannon must be firing. Aimed for Redana. Alexa and her Dolce would be in danger too. What kind, she couldn’t say. As bad as the knife at her hip. As bad as a time cannon.

And Demeter. Couldn’t. Kill her.

What more did she need to know?

One step. From a dead stop. Lift the foot. Move the foot. Set it down again. A plan of three parts. The first, she paid for in sweat and shouting. The second, ah! The distance! Her limbs were iron and her body couldn’t hold, hold it in its socket, it would fall, and she would fall, but not if she chose to fall first. Forward. Push off. Throw her weight and catch herself at the last and it’s done. The first step was done.

Two steps. But not from a dead stop. Not from a dead body. Two becomes three. Three becomes five. And more! And more! And again! And her feet hit the deck with a booming of thunder! Laughing is so far above her current capabilities. Her mouth shows too many teeth to smile either. So all her heart pours from her eyes, blazing, alight, shining like twin suns! Burning plant and animal alike! Look upon her, if you dare! If you can!

“I think.” She spoke, in a voice not quite her own. “There may be a third option to consider.”
At the Aquarium!

“Um. Excuse me?”

Jackdaw’s quavering voice stepped between the three of them, and instantly regretted its life choices.

“I, yes, I know, I’m interrupting, but, there’s not also another Ailee and Lucien running around, is there?”

She gulped. Just a gulp! How was it the loudest noise in the entire room?!

“We, kind of have a lot going on already today, see...”

*******************************

At the Tent!

“Ugh. This is just typical, Ailee.” Jackdaw sighed, shaking her arm furiously to try and dislodge a frustratingly determined mouse. “The first time we’ve seen each other in ages, and you go and spoil the moment. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we weren’t even friends anymore.”

“Oh! Wait!” She smacked her forehead. “I do know better!”

The bolas whirled ‘round her ankles, tying tighter and tighter and stop. Frozen. Suspended in midair by a scowling Rebuke. “Tch. That makes one of us here who does.” The glyphs on her coat blazed to life, swirling around her fur before lifting away entirely to fill the air around her. Pages upon pages, books upon books, dreams upon dreams shed from her body, and still the Names that filled the tent could be counted on one hand. With fingers to spare.

“I got you a present, Leelee! Be a good girl now, and share with the class!”

And the word was regret.

A million million familiar whispers flooded the tent; rust-red, hungering, and more than enough to drown two mice.

Enjoy!
Dolce politely shuts up until she was finished, as per her request. A spark of hope, warm and invigorating, grows in his chest until his whole face is alight with it. “Understood. You save the Princess, I evade the Master, and the cycle is broken beyond repair.” Simple! Marvelous! Wasn’t it a miracle, to have things work out so well? He dips his head to Mynx, for who else could this be? “Thank you for your assistance. I will stay alive to the best of my abilities.”

And, please, forgive him the indiscretion? He knew what a dangerous game they were playing, and how perilously important every second was, but, let him stop you? Let him take your hand? For just a moment? “Pardon, may I ask; if I am next in the cycle, and my Captain after me, then..." Just a moment, just a moment longer. It’s, there’s so much, he’s trying the best he can to understand, but he needed to know for certain. “...will she be safe, so long as I am safe?”

[Auto-success on Speak Softly. Dolce wants to know if his wife is going to be okay.]

**********************

She can’t see.

Where are they? How long have they been walking? Had she gone the wrong way? When is it safe to breathe? What is she going to lose next? Will she tell her? Will she tell her? Will she tell her? Will she tell her? Will she tell her? Will she tell?

She can hear.

Arms don’t make those noises. They make them once, then they stop being arms. Now it is heavy flesh and shattered bone, whose only purpose is pain. Demeter doesn’t stop talking. The words come in the wrong order. Or are they missing? Did she miss something? Her voice. Screaming. Again. And again. And again.

She can feel.

Agony to move. Worse to move on purpose. Demeter’s hands. Always, they are there, through every break she piles on. They are there, and their touch is life, vibrant life, and no wound can dull beneath them. One more crack. The world lurches. Spins. Stops. One foot, stinging, planted square on the ground, trembling with the effort.

She knows.

If her knees touch the deck, she will not get up again. She will lie here, lost, and Demeter will break every bone in her body, and her mind besides, and leave her in anguish until her pets come to put her out of her misery.

And she knows.

Demeter is not going to kill her. Not now. The only way she dies here is if her knees touch the deck.

Absent of faith and absent of confidence, an ember of defiance burns bright in her heart, and will not be snuffed out. With her one good arm she grips tight the arrowhead tucked away in her coat until it tears through the fabric and presses into her skin. She beats her screams into prayers, and fires them full-draw at the goddess who ought to have warned her. Who ought to be by her side now. Who answers the call of those devoted to seeing the job done.

Unless Artemis, too, cannot see.

[Damaging Courage, paying a price for Working Alone: Vasilia has lost the use of her left arm. Rolling to Look Closely: 6 + 2 + 0 = 8. Question: Why does Demeter want her dead, without doing the job herself?]
The trick was, you had to look and listen without really looking or listening at anything. Your eyes would see and your ears would hear, but you weren’t really doing either. You’re there, but not there, ready to come back when called, and all the memories (well, the ones that made sense) would be waiting in a pile for you when got there.

Today, Dolce was called back to the kitchen by the departure of the gods and the entry of a familiar face. “Alexa!” Thank goodness, he’d left her in such a state. Artemis had assured him she’d be safe, but, still! There was a long way between dead and safe, and he hoped she hadn’t fallen too deeply in the divide. Except...

He titled his head, eyes full of quiet concern. “Alexa, what’s happened to Princess Epestia?”

************

She wished every moth were a knife. She wished the scarf would pull tight around her throat. She wished Demeter would stop beating around the bush and start ripping arms out of sockets for fertilizer or whatever it was she did with her free time.

Tear her apart or leave her alone, just don’t keep dragging her back to the present.

“Given up so easily on the murder, have we?” There’s no banter. Only bitter weariness. “Suppose that makes two of us tired of...” Vasilia trailed off, Demeter’s clever fingers feeling the tangle of words lodged in her heart.

Tired.

Gods. She was so tired.
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