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PostSubject: Break   Mon Jul 08, 2013 11:37 pm

Skyward


I think the weather finally, truly, looks angry.

We’re coming to the end. The sediments whip against our dome and the flat land outside in short bursts, and they’re some dark color – some is vaguely reddish, the rest bluish. All the light in here is diffusing in from out there, which isn’t much at all. Only the ventilation’s still going in this room. It’s not as if we couldn’t breathe the air outside. To say that, there’d have to actually be something we could call air.

Cedrus is standing, I’m sitting, and I look at him. His expression is flat, but there’s obviously something wrong with it… maybe the look in his dark eyes. “It’s a sight, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” I agree, and there isn’t much else to say. It is a sight, and not much else. Outside, it’s “daytime”, and the sun looks about the size of a book from here, casting more of a sheen onto the dark landscape than any actual illumination. More or less in the foreground, the hollowed-out shells of the stages of our onetime vehicle are strewn. N.S. Colevita.

There’s a crack in the dome already, and the wind shrieks against its outside edge, just audible from in here. I glance up at Cedrus again, but he has his chin in one hand and his arms put together in a certain way that tells me we might die before he says anything else. He’s the one other person out here – we’ve been together a long time in the emptiness, and I still don’t know what he thinks of it all, or of me even. I never will.

“I wonder if the stuff’s more like clay or sand,” I say, and he doesn’t react at all.

We’re waiting out here in the atrium, the cracking clear dome making up half the wall. Behind us are the rooms we cook in, live in, store everything in. It’s just this outer viewing dome that’s going to blow, the window that has let us see so many storms and a panorama of the land. We could seal ourselves in the smaller-windowed back rooms, and live a reasonable life there without this “living room”. Why not? It was just a window.

We aren’t going to.

Half of the back end is already uninhabitable. We lost all the supplies and machinery in that end when we first landed… along with Tiro. The Check probes that we eventually sent outside seemed to show that the whole section had buckled (we can’t see it ourselves), and Tiro’s body is probably buried deep somewhere under there.

The other side is nearly identical, and should have everything we need to live. Our food hasn’t run out yet and the generator seems fine. Problem is, no one’s ever coming out for us.

Our operation was meant to be an entirely recoverable one. Though ours was to be the farthest-reaching mission ever undertaken with people, we were to have more help than previous efforts. Ours was, of course, the first stage: CTN for short. Cedrus, Tiro, and me, Nike. The second was meant to be KMQ, for Kaisat, Misaki, and Quil. They never made it.

A month after our departure, we received an unsettling transmission from Home – not from Cr. Reyso, who should’ve been the one communicating with us, but apparently from Quil himself. According to him, our base back Home, Wyrka, was partially gone. It was simply not there anymore. Quil described it as having “ebbed away”. There wasn’t much left of it, certainly not enough to launch another craft after us, and a lot of the personnel were gone – including Reyso, of course, but also Kaisat and Misaki.

At that point, we were horrified by the news, and it was too late and dangerous for us to attempt turning back. We were close to landing already, but Quil’s message meant that no reinforcements would be coming through for us. Back then, the three of us were together in the main section of our craft prior to unpacking occurring, and I remember Tiro saying that, though someone Home would attempt to reach us eventually, “we’ll be alone in the dark for a while.”

I still wonder if our own little disaster would’ve happened without the news from the base at Wyrka. Our descent here was not properly controlled, unpacking was too early, and Tiro died. It’s been just Cedrus and me for a while now, eating our rations in silence, staring out at the dark sky and darker land for hours, uneasily sleeping next to each other to keep our sanity in the long night. We liked each other once, but we’re just bored now, and tired of everything.

It was a few days ago that Cedrus realized the atrium window was breaking. I’d been in the kitchen, but the way he called “Nike” from the living room, I suppose I guessed immediately what he was on about. Almost tacitly, we’d decided that this would be the end of things. We had enough food and water for a longer stay here, but we couldn’t get out, and if there were no reinforcements ever coming…

So now we’re here, watching the crack in the bubble worsen by what passes for the light of the sun, here on our dark little world. We’ve turned off and sealed off the area with the kitchen and sleeping rooms, and all that’s out here in the atrium now is us and the clothes we’re wearing. I suppose sealing the other sections is just a habit, but it’s probably just our resistance against wasting absolutely everything. If anyone ever comes out here again, why not leave our habitation dark but usable for the future? It’s the only thing we can leave for anyone anyway.

“You know what they say,” says Cedrus unexpectedly, breaking our near-trance.

“What?” I’m surprised.

“They say love conquers, or they say death wins, or they say the night is the end of things.” He shifts, but he doesn’t look at me, just at the window crack. “But it’s entropy. We’ve got nothing going for us or against us. It’s just the world not noticing us, either stepping over us or stepping on us.”

I don’t know what to say to that. Was he getting philosophical here at the end? People sometimes did that, but… when I first met Cedrus, he had a bright outlook, a wry but uncrushable joy. I think this might be some sort of verbal shrug from him, a commentary on how things are, rather than an admission of defeat. His hands are loosely together behind his back, and I consider reaching for them, but I stand up next to him instead, watching the break in the window grow.

“We only ever said our goodbyes to the friends and family we didn’t expect out here, Nike.” Cedrus narrows his eyes at the dark view of the outside. “Tiro, Kaisat, Misaki, Reyso, they were all gone before we thought they’d ever be. We’re too far out to transmit anything properly without the KMQ half of the responder. I think only Quil really knew the end of things.”

“Or knows,” I say, but Cedrus is right. We might as well have met the same end as Tiro, as far as Wyrka and all of Home were concerned. We’re so far out and so silent that if we were mourned back Home, it’s been a long time already.

There’s a peculiar groan from the window, and I look up at it. It’s just about done for. The storm is picking up outside, and when it rises in a gust, it’s the last I ever see of the sun… the star I took for granted back Home. It’s all a dark swirl through the window now, with just the faintest gleam.

“Hello and goodbye, Nike.” For some reason, Cedrus puts his arm around my waist, pulling me closer to his exact vantage.

“Hello and goodbye, Cedrus.” We’re almost too close beside each other for me to see properly, but I twist slightly to look at him. He’s still looking at the storm outside, and his face is caught somewhere between the smile he used to wear and a stare of utter hatred. I guess this is how he’s meeting his death. For a second I wonder what I look like, before deciding that it doesn’t matter to anyone.

I turn to face front, and the hemispherical window shatters.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Thu Jul 11, 2013 4:43 pm

Corrupture



Everything is in place, and Dr. Lorenzo MacCarlos nearly can’t believe it.

He stands over the bed of the motionless Trakvan, mulling over the past. How long has it been?

A year, maybe years, have gone by since the day when Darkness exploded in from the sea like a lightless storm. The time before that is less than a memory, and BAW is over… possibly along with the whole region. One doesn’t hear much these days, though, now that everything in the area belongs to Darkness.

There’s no more resistance (or Resistance, if you could’ve called it that). Captain Flowers or Caon is dead, of course, ground into dust under the heel of a Wyrm. The so-called Spectral Figure was walled off in the part of his precious library the Flames hadn’t gotten – so much for his “banned administratorship”, he almost undoubtedly suffocated. Slushie was finally executed, without much show. And despite the moderator’s defiance, a SPAMaster got the best of Hothead. Darkness spoke little, but on that occasion, the entity had expressed a thought: A hot head is better than no head.

The only one who might’ve made it was Arty, who was said to have made a break for the Icy Mountains with his “wolf pack”, though Darkness tried to quell those rumors. Personally, Dr. Lorenzo knows that the Mancers were already massing in the north by then, and likely enough they could’ve mistaken the fleeing moderator for a frontrunner of Darkness’s forces. There’s not much chance that Arty survived unscathed, whatever way you look at it.

But none of that really matters.

In these Dark Years, Lorenzo MacCarlos has not been idle. Officially tasked with monitoring (and keeping sedated) the long-catatonic administrator Trakvan, the doctor has worked so predictably and regularly that Darkness’s eye has drifted away from him. And even Darkness makes mistakes.

With all the moderators gone, only four of the remaining members seemed to secretly share Dr. Lorenzo’s defiance. He organized them, carefully aided them in draining the last reserves of administrator power, and set them up with a plan: to open a Ban Portal of sorts, but for themselves, and thus to kick the five of them somewhere far from Darkness’s reach.

Despite Darkness’s conquest, the entity still operates from BAW, and Dr. Lorenzo knows that this plan will have to work exquisitely even right under the storm of Darkness itself. Simple but difficult: whether by nature or conceit, the vast cloud cast by Darkness has a gap in the middle, just as a hurricane does. The five of them will have to make their portal there, right in the Centra of what was once BAW… right under Darkness’s eye.

So here Lorenzo is. Each of the five of them needs a different diversion, as they’re all in different places and Darkness’s attention must be drawn. Crystal will collapse some rooms of the fortress; Phil will get the Flames to burn down the Library’s door; Khyn will explode the former administrator-power converter; Roset will do something, though no one’s sure what. All will be good distractions, surely, and even if they’re a bit obvious, Darkness will have to pay attention if order is to be kept.

Of course, Dr. Lorenzo has the trump card.

Each of the others’ distractions will require proper involvement, direct or indirect, and Darkness will know that it’s them. Phil, for instance, will have to guide the Flames to the Library, and it is entirely possible Darkness will find him and cut him down (literally) before he reaches the Centra to complete the portal.

If no one else, Khyn would undoubtedly make it in time, based solely on proximity. But each individual’s leftover administrator power is weak, including Lorenzo’s. He knows that no one of them can be lost if any one of them wants to get out. They cannot betray each other, and they cannot fail.

But there is one thing remaining in the fortress that Darkness cannot ignore, a failsafe distraction. That’s Trakvan.

Dr. Lorenzo leans over the bedridden administrator. Trakvan’s androgynous face is just what one would expect from someone who’s been comatose for this amount of time. Once they looked slightly tanned, beautiful in a baroque way, confidently indescribable as if they were sure they were better than anyone at anything. Now their face just has the wasted lines and curves of someone who’s been mute and immobile for far too long.

There is no more sedative coursing through the shapeshifter’s veins. Dr. Lorenzo has not administered any medicine at all to Trakvan for a week, and given the usual health of a shapeshifter, the administrator should be waking soon. In fact, they should alrea-

Trakvan whips upright, sitting rigid in bed, and their face has already changed shape by the time Lorenzo stumbles backward. The administrator’s features are blank now, with nothing but two monochrome metallic eyes meeting the doctor’s glance.

“I am well aware I have been absent or absented, Doctor. There is no need to tell me that I have been gone for a long time. It is not difficult to realize what the feeling is. Have the staff managed without me?”

“The staff are dead. Darkness killed them months ago or more.” Lorenzo stares back.

“Then Darkness will have to tell me of this, while still possessing the ability to speak.” Trakvan stood, changing again to a male shape – black-and-white hair, narrow face and body, brown skin – and blasting open the infirmary door.

Lorenzo watches the administrator go. An abrupt reaction. Trakvan is back, and possibly on an insane rampage.

Now they’re safe.


--------


Phil races southwest down the hallway, trying his best not to curse at the top of his lungs.

His diversion had seemed simple enough: get some Flames to the Library. The fiery creatures are usually kept back from that section by SPAMinions or, even better, walls. The Library serves to block off the former domain of the “Banned Administrator” or Spectral Figure, and even Darkness refuses to destroy some of the remaining books in the intact section. Flames, on the other hand, will gladly burn up the entire Library if you let them, and even Darkness can’t staunch that inborn nature.

So letting them get at the Library would be a great diversion. The problem is obviously how to help them do that. Phil had been lucky the Flames had been kept back by walls instead of SPAMinions this time – it’s quite enough to deal with one unpredictable enemy. He hadn’t been so lucky otherwise, because you can’t herd Flames… you have to lead them. And in his case, that meant getting chased by them.

He pants raggedly, tearing past countless open doors on his way to the Centra. It still means letting himself be chased. He’d thought the Flames would all be drawn to the Library like magnetic arrows, but not all of them could get in, and some contented themselves with chasing him instead. He’s not glancing over his shoulder now, but some are almost undoubtedly still back there behind him. At least there weren’t any Mega Flames…

But he’s nearly at the Centra, and that’s his ticket out.


--------


The hallway should not be collapsing this completely.

Crystal is sprinting, but she can still hear the clatter of blackbricks crumbling in behind her. Yes, collapsing an area of the fortress was a great idea for a distraction. Just too good of one.

Why in Malliad’s hell would this part of the fortress be this shoddily-made? She’d had no idea BAW was so poorly built here, and she hopes the unexpected total collapse won’t let any Wyrms or anything break free behind her. Oh, or let the ceiling fall right on top of her. That’d be almost as bad.

Her breathing is coming irregularly, and Crystal wonders if anyone else is having to run this fast from their own diversion. This is already about as quickly as she can go, and the collapse is still following her like ugly, deadly, unicolored ceiling dominoes.

She clenches her fists and heads for the Centra.


--------


Do all explosions have to involve this much fire?

Khyn knows he is astoundingly lucky that the generator itself didn’t immediately go up in a hallway-consuming blaze. Yes, he’s fairly sure that there’s shrapnel embedded in his back and arms, but he’s still here and he’s still running. The problem is, parts of the generator actually seem to be in the walls leading back to the Centra, and sections are still exploding behind him. Would BAW ever have been large enough to need all this extra capacity for power production? Khyn doesn’t think so, but the generator might still kill him. Wonderful.

He can feel the beginnings of a stitch in his upperside as he dashes east, and between breaths, he wheezes to himself. “Oh gods… not here, not now…”

But already the hallway floor is angling up, and he’s drawing closer to the Centra.


--------


Roset cannot believe herself.

All the other had planned for their distractions: Khyn with his generator explosion, Crystal with her room collapse, Phil with the Library. Lorenzo had overridden the others’ concerns about her and told Roset she’d be fine if she couldn’t plan her contribution beforehand. They all know she works outside the former BAW walls, and conditions change out there – Darkness’s armies can be going in or out, and there’s weather to consider, too.

But it ended up that today, Roset had been near panicking, though she wouldn’t admit it. She’d still had no diversion in mind by the end of the brief break she was given, and it was almost time to head to the Centra. If she didn’t make it, none of the five would get out, and Darkness would probably kill them all. Except Lorenzo. He might just be tortured and sent back to minister to Trakvan.

So Roset smashed aside a SPAM Tank Driver with a sledgehammer and commandeered a tank.

Up from the cockpit, she can see everything she needs to, and she narrows her eyes as “her” tank smashes BAW’s gates and charges forward. The Centra is ahead, and she will not be late.


--------


The Centra.

Lorenzo flips his hand outward, dusting the floor clean with a tiny fraction of his modest administrator power. The others will arrive soon, and he is ready. Trakvan has gone somewhere, and so has Darkness, he presumes – perhaps, in the case of the latter entity, to many places.

Phil is the first one to burst in, on a southwest heading. His clothes are singed and he looks frantic. “Flames! Close it…!”

Lorenzo kicks the door closed behind the man and shoves it shut. “Glad you could make it, Phil O’Fireball.”

Though out of breath, Phil looks like he might’ve laughed otherwise. As he sucks in air and straightens, Crystal enters from the northwest. She’s apparently slowed down from a headlong run, and far behind her there’s a distant crashing of BAW’s blackbricks. Lorenzo nods at her then turns west expectantly.

Sure enough, Khyn is next, crashing up the long incline into the Centra and whipping the door shut behind him. He’s as winded as the other two, unable to get words out. But he’s here.

Lorenzo nods again, more to himself. “We’re all here, good. All we need is R-”

A tank crashes right into the room and obliterates the east wall. Phil and Lorenzo are knocked backward, hitting Crystal in the process. Khyn, unaffected, wipes his brow and steps back nervously, but it is only a rattled-looking Roset who climbs down from the vehicle’s top.

“Go, start the process!” says Lorenzo from the floor, urgently motioning the others as he gets up. “We don’t have time for anything else.”

The other four hastily form a broken circle in the Centra’s middle, beneath the eye of Darkness, and hold out their hands to channel their administrator power inward. Lorenzo pushes himself up to join them, his brow furrowing as he funnels his power into the void they’re creating.

It’s not one of BAW’s classic Ban Portals, rimmed in purple and empty in the middle. Slushie is long-gone, and the color influence she’d once had on the fortress’s energy is gone with her. As for Trakvan’s administrator power, Lorenzo has never been sure of the natural color of that, but this rainbow isn’t it. It seems the four he’s chosen to take with him have actually taken control of their scraps of power, and there are multiple colors pouring into the growing portal. A white noise begins to hiss from the opening – it’s working.

He concentrates, and his own emerald-green joins the others’: Roset’s cold yellow, Khyn’s coffee hue, Phil’s ember-orange, Crystal’s dark blue. The Exit Portal is larger than the five of them now, but their power is starting to sputter.

“GO!” Lorenzo jerks his head, and after a wide-eyed moment each of them begins to disappear. Roset Ard is first to go, simply leaning in to be swallowed by the void. Phil O’Ferrell soon follows. “Don’t wait, Lorenzo,” shouts Crystal Radiath from the doctor’s right, and she’s gone.

Lorenzo looks over his shoulder, expecting the expected. And it’s there. By the southwest entrance, Darkness is manifesting.

It’s more of a cloud than the shape of a person, though it’s easy to tell that it’s a figure rather than a storm. Darkness’s eyes are always red just to frighten lesser beings, but right now they’re truly glaring, a boiling color.

It knows it can’t put all its energy here, and Lorenzo knows too. Trakvan is somewhere else, and Darkness might even be fighting them now. But the entity has to see what is happening in the Centra, the real reason why Trakvan was let out.

Good afternoon, Doctor, it says coolly.

Khyn Ecauth nods at the doctor, having waited his last seconds, and disappears into the portal.

Dr. Lorenzo MacCarlos finally turns away from the Exit Portal, smirking at Darkness’s physical avatar as he backs into the now-vanishing portal. “Goodbye, Darkness. Have a nice time.”

The traitor-doctor winks out of the Centra of BAW before the cloud of Darkness can begin to descend on him.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Sat Jul 20, 2013 8:21 pm

Backbone

 
The Stone King.  How... disappointing.
 
There are singe marks down his right arm, a tear in his royal overshirt, jagged pebbles fused around his booted feet.  He is not what we were expecting, and we have to confess that he seems unsuited.  If neither age nor we are to be kind to him, will he manage under pressure?
 
“Our king.”
 
There is silence in the semidarkness, the cavern quiet as dust.  We begin to wonder if he is not dead already.  But finally…
 
Address me as Gutenberg.
 
“Gutenberg, then.” We incline our head but nothing else.  A courtly bow would be below our position in the kingdom.
 
I have waited long. Our king raises his stony head, the waved and shatter-edged crown wholly a part of it. Do you come before me intending to WAKE ME?
 
His whisper becomes a hollow roar, a roar like an automaton, and we stumble literally and figuratively. “G- Gutenberg, we must raise you.  A girl has come before us whom… we shall have you judge.”
 
You CANNOT take me for a jury to be summoned! King Gutenberg raises a hand as he gains his voice again, vague outlines of rings crumbling off onto the floor. NEVER forget that I am out of time.  I live in yesterday until I am needed in today.  Am I NEEDED TODAY, RACHIS?
 
We… I… wince at my name… but we compose ourselves.  No one shall speak to us as if we are only a servant. “Define today, Gutenberg!  You are needed, never mind the now and the singular.  Time slips out for everyone with the Fragment! and do not deny our authority!  You are summoned and you will judge.”
 
I am not at the service of a mail-order princess. Gutenberg’s fist closes, and he rests his hand on his throne’s stone-sinew armrest again. If the girl is any less than the Heretic, then what reason can I have to rise?  GET OUT.
 
“A mail-order princess?  Do you take us for a commoner?” We barely manage to keep from lunging forward and breaking his hewn head. “We are the kingdom, the heritors of the Old Magician in truth and fact.  Your chosen lineages were weak, King Gutenberg, and we have superseded the need for them.  Respect us, decrepit one.  We are your master, no matter the land from whence we have come.”
 
He hisses at us, the harsh sound accompanied by a spray of coal.  But his power over us has passed, and we stand straight-backed before him with our arms crossed behind our back.  What he thinks makes no difference, and with the Fragment in place over us his carboniferous spittle passes right through us.
 
“We do not believe the Heretic will surface to challenge us or our subjects in this lifetime, given the Fragmenting.  This girl is merely a Thorn,” we say.
 
A Thorn, he says in hard tones.  But he’s beginning to consider.
 
Thorns are groundwires – they can reach through the Fragment to touch those of us under that protection, potentially with intent to harm.  Before this girl we have only met one Thorn, a young man who casually took our hand and seemed not to realize how incredible that was.  That boy is long gone.  We have no wish for physical contact with others, else we would dismantle our personal Fragmentation.
 
This time around, we are calling upon Gutenberg to judge a Thorn’s fate.  Thorns of any station are suspicious to me.  However, some of the nobles are themselves Fragmented Thorns, a strange combination that is primarily useful for those wishing to defend themselves against all possible attackers, or for those unable to give up earthly vices.  We have no interest in their pleasures, but we allow such people to exist; it is easier to monitor them if we keep them within the circle of nobles rather than banishing them.  The problem with the new Thorn is that she is young.  Quite contrary to the “wisdom” of others, we believe that the young are more difficult to influence than the mature.
 
And though Gutenberg does not seem to believe the Thorn is worth rising for, he yields. I will raise myself, Rachis, but do not think this is about a Thorn.  It is time for me to see my kingdom again, and it is MINE to judge where I shall arbitrate.  This stone land was not forged by a Fragmented feather such as you.  Regardless, prepare for my arrival.
 
Having experienced this once before, we are all too prepared to get out of the way of an Arrival of the Stone King, and we turn and sprint up the stairs.  The floor begins to shake even before Gutenberg disentangles himself from his throne, but when the true earthquake tremors reach us, we know he has truly left his throne.
 
We, Tyrans the Rachis of the Stone Book, shall see that our will is done.  No matter a King, and no matter a Thorn.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Mon Sep 30, 2013 1:48 am

Silver Bullet


He is a spike in my shoulder, and I clench my free left hand as tight as it will go, the knuckles paling over my napkin.  19 years and Rather still tries, still manages to enrage.

My head is down, and I don’t even acknowledge his hopeful salutation.  I’m eating, I’m busy.  I look up in a minute, finishing my bite, and two backs are receding down the sidewalk from me, I guess him and his girlfriend.

I set my fork down – cheap tableware, but what do you expect from this place – and reach for my water to take a drink from the edge of the glass.  Some days he’s easier to ignore, but he took me by surprise this time.  And I almost forget how angry he makes me.  The rage that wells up inside even when all he says is “Hi, Remi”.  It’s just a reaction, but I can’t shake it, and haven’t ever.

Remington Trigonos.  Most people named their guns after girls way back when, so I was just the inevitable girl who got named after a gun (though my dad always claimed it’s for the meaning, “raven’s town” – not like anyone believed him).  Like a gun, I don’t have a lot of friends.  At least not anymore, and I guess that didn’t used to be the case.  But I think with this amount of time everyone’s realized that they might not be able to be around me safely.

It’s not that I’ve changed.  I look the same – slight and sort of small, flat-chested, silverish hair in not quite a bob and not quite properly loose (yes, the color’s a permanent physical condition).  And of course I act about the same.  Either I didn’t manage to grow up or I didn’t ever have to.  But now people can see it.

Back in Rather’s case, he always got a rise out of me.  He doesn’t even try – really, he should seem like a nice guy to me, so polite to me and so persistent even now, whatever the hell for.  I think everyone thought I should like him.

I don’t even know what he still wants from me, he has other people there for him, and I’ve never shown him any kindness.  If my life were a nice concise little book, I guess we’d probably end up together or something stupid like that.  But even if I look like a damn fairy, eternal youth and all, this isn’t one of those fairytales.

I’m still seething at his interruption, but I finish my lunch salad and pay the still-discreet waiter like any polite customer before stalking out of the restaurant’s outdoor seating.  “Nice day for a walk”.  I head left, away from Rather, and I’d better not run into someone I know while I’m in this mood.  Doesn't mean I know where I’m going though.

These days I’m just looking for something okay to do in general.  I’m between jobs, but I’ve been promised an opening at Strixcorp soon – got that in writing, too, so I’ll be set in a few weeks.  But while I’ve got this off time… There’s always stuff to read on the internet or whatever, but all I really read there is a couple of webcomics, Ossifer and Proceedings of the Vancph Tanurax Academia.  Right now, both of those are on break, and PVTA has been stalled for a while, so the internet doesn’t hold much for me – people are boring there, and there are no good games anymore.  Life’s boring too but it’s harder to avoid that.

I push my hands into my trousers’ pockets, and I can feel the sun scorching my blood-diamond-half-full shirt – nice print, got that from the Ossifer online store a while ago.  It’s probably too hot out for a t-shirt this dark, but I’m already giving up something by not wearing long sleeves.  Maybe I’ll head to the Arch Mall just for the air-conditioning.

Thankfully, it’s not hot enough today to feel the burning sidewalks through my running shoes, and the walk to downtown is pretty ordinary for a spring day.  The city’s a clean one – I guess I could call it “my city” if I wanted – but a weird one.  An office guy emerges from a small newsstore, using a handkerchief to wrap what looks an awful lot like a giant knife, and I wonder if he’s heading down to the Archeomuseum.  Across the street, fog drifts out of another doorway before the door gets closed.

Ahead of me, the shiny Arch Mall sprawls across several blocks.  I’ll probably just head in this end and stick around by the 4th-floor sushi place, but there’s a whole lot of stores in the rest of the building and the adjacent mall annexes.  Walkways stretch over the streets, connecting the parts of the mall together as a whole, and people spill in and out of the more accessible ground entrances.

I’m obviously not here for the stores, myself.  An afternoon of shopping is the most boring, headache-inducing waste of time I can think of, especially on my lack of income (but also ever).  I don’t want or need new clothes, I already ate lunch, and everything else is frivolous.  Hell, I’m only heading up to the balcony by the sushi restaurant because the owner’s nice and the regular customers are sometimes actually interesting.  Though I might end up getting something there anyway.

I weave between the people entering and exiting, trying to seem small as I push through one of the sets of doubled mall doors.  I’ll sometimes hold doors for people just for their sake, but never at the mall – it’s not like I get anything out of playing doorman for all the lackwit teenagers and slack-jawed spree-spenders who cruise into the mall like bloated flies.  No one here deserves it.

Ignoring the escalators and elevators as usual, I make for the innocuous stairway door and head in.  It’s funny how stairwells like this one are always cold and echoey and smell of artificial cleaner, almost like they don’t want people using them.  Never stopped me though.  I head for the 4th floor and take the stairs two at a time, dashing past the fire extinguishers and metal plating in the walls.

I get there soon enough and shove the door open with my back, hardly out of breath… I make this climb plenty often.  Out through the stairwell here, there’s fewer people, and probably down this particular end of the mall too.  A sushi restaurant at lunchtime will always get business around here, though.  I stroll across to it, looking for the regulars.

And there they are, at least a few.  I don’t know them that well except by name, but they’re pretty okay: dark-skinned and disarming Cleo, spidery intense Yves, uncomfortable-looking Misaki.  Investigator Calx isn’t here today, and I wonder what he could even be doing?  I guess he got a case for once.  He’s really great, as a person and as a detective, but there’s not been much work for him lately.

I smile briefly and nod at the three who're here today, going to sit on the restaurant’s inside windowsill.  Only Cleo ever really talks much, but she’s still eating and just waves.  Fine by me.  Yves is watching the passersby below on the sidewalk, Misaki’s staring into space and sipping an alcoholic something.  There’s plenty of room by the window here today.  Most of the customers are up at the sushi bar.

I guess I’ve cooled off from Rather dropping by earlier, because all I feel now is sleepy.  I take off my shoes before putting my feet up on the sill – shouldn’t be rude – and I lean back against the support column that divides this window from the next.  Some clouds seem to be passing over the sun, and I close my eyes, considering actually sleeping.  It’s so far back to my apartment…

But I straighten to a sitting position, blinking my eyes open and trying to shake the feeling.  Can’t infringe like that, what am I thinking.  The restaurant owner’s understanding, but there’s got to be a line drawn somewhere.

I look over again at the three, and Misaki meets my eyes, smiling a small sympathetic smile.  She must be sleepy too, probably even more so if she’s been drinking by noon.  I wonder where she lives, anyway.

I’m still sleepy, and I look outside to keep from mentally drifting, following Yves’ gaze.  Down on the sidewalk, there’s still plenty of people, and I wonder if Yves actually watches individuals or scans the crowd for something.  Sometimes I ask him what he sees, but I hadn’t thought to ask how he sees it.  There’s nothing terribly interesting to me down there right now, though.

Eventually I turn back and direct my gaze over toward the restaurant’s entrance.  More people are coming in to get lunch – it’s probably at least 45 after midday by now, and they must be hungry.  I don’t have a watch though.  I don’t pay much attention to the people either.  They don’t invite much interest – although right there, there’s someone I know.

It’s Alexei, and she looks healthy for once.  I wave my hand high, and she sees me and cuts over from the entrance.  We’re not continual friends these days, partly because we live in different parts of town – she’s at the university now.  She’s nice though, and even if she wasn’t I’d like her.  I could always tell just by the way she obstinately spells her name in the masculine form.

She grins once she’s close enough to me. “Remi!  You’re never in the mall.  When did I last see you?”

“Plenty long enough ago,” I say, and I’m not fast enough getting on my shoes to give her anything but an awkward one-armed hug. “You’re looking good, finally.” It’s true, too, the waves of her red-brown hair don’t look lank anymore, and her face doesn’t look drawn.

“Well, I’m getting along.” She smiles a little, but doesn’t quite acknowledge.  That’s her. “I don’t need to tell you how you look, you know.  Anything new these days, other than coming to the mall?”

I laugh, going with it. “I actually come up here a fair bit, right here.  I-”

“Oh, really?” Alexei nods, and I guess she’s thinking of trying to catch me here again.  I don’t mind… much.

“Yeah.  I don’t have a lot going on until I start at Strixcorp, so just walking around today.  Not much to it.”

“Well, it’s a Saturday, so that’s pretty much everyone’s thing today.” She leans back against a table awkwardly. “So, are you still trying to get a renter?”

“Yep, not very hard,” I say wryly.  I can barely afford keeping my apartment, at least not yet with my Strixcorp job pending, and my parents are still helping me out a little.  I should get a renter, but I haven’t looked very hard, and I only put out one very bland little advertisement that (maybe surprisingly) got no queries.  And truthfully, of course, I don’t actually want a renter.

Alexei doesn’t seem surprised. “Hard to find a good or a reliable one.  They only help if they hold up their end of the bill.  Good luck if you do look… Hey, have you had lunch yet?  I was just going to sit down and get something.”

“I did have lunch, but it was small.” I shrug and finally slip on my shoes. “I could get a little something still, I wasn’t planning to get going too soon.”

“Great.” She leans towards me conspiratorially – what is she, a newly minted drama queen? – and says “There’s so much to tell you.”

I nod and swing my legs off the sill.  Looks like I’m in for a long afternoon.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Tue Dec 10, 2013 3:36 am

Torchbearer




I wake, head apparently rattled in my skull quite thoroughly, just where I don’t want to be.  Or at least, I realize that once I’m able to think again: the hammer gangs got me.
 
The only real sensation I have right now is headsplitting pain.  Curse the cladding Issamith put on us!  This situation isn’t completely my fault… the hammer gangs were out when I was patrolling last night, and I wasn’t fast enough – I’d gotten too far from the Tower, and couldn’t outrun the gangs’ frontrunners.  If I’d had mag in hand…
 
Well, right now, I’ve got to get out of here.
 
Where am I?  It’s dark, and there’s a faint swaying.  By the gods, I can’t have been put on a boat.  It must be a prison carriage, the suspension keeping the car upright.  No gang could afford the new spring suspension, but the hammer gangs have grown strong enough in the panic over the Manx’s coming to be able to steal whatever they cannot buy.  Right now, though, I’m more concerned with whether I’m alone, and I don’t seem to be.
 
Along the walls are a handful of others taken by the gangs: someone whip-thin (man?), a pale but snaky person (woman?), two or three teenagers, a stocky one whom I infer is a gentleman from his clothes – I’ve never been good with gender, even my own (being called both “witch” and “wizard” probably doesn’t help).  In any case, all the others seem to be unconscious still, and they’re bound with ropes – like me, I realize as I look down at myself.
 
More curious than any of them is a figure down at the other end, restrained with metal cuffing and complicated armor, like a physical version of the cladding that cuts me off from my particular mag.  Whoever that is, they are obviously powerful, and their restraints seem more or less permanent – they’re bolted into the carriage’s front-end wall.
 
I have to close my eyes against the still-undulating pain in my head (my captors aren’t called “hammer gangs” just for the labor they do…) as I rise slightly, testing my tether.  I can rise almost to my feet, as the rope isn’t too short, but I suppose I’d hit my head if I could rise completely, anyway.  And I do not want to hit my head further.
 
There’s not much point in straining.  The rope seems far stronger than I am: the hammer gangs undoubtedly were able to tell I’m one of the cladded wizards once they captured me, from the combination of my bones-thin physique and the ink along my collarbone.  They’d want me for my knowledge, not my physical ability – and that means they won’t need to refrain from injuring me.  If Issamith has any awareness I’m gone from the tower, he’ll be coming for me posthaste.
 
But it’s going to be easy to get this rope off anyway.
 
My feet are bound together like my hands, but I do a slight hop to kick out the blade attached to the end of my right boot.  It springs out satisfyingly, and I awkwardly sit down to begin sawing at the rope with my foot.  As I glance over my shoulder, I notice Snake Woman seems to be stirring, and I speed my cutting.  Why not finish early and let the others think I freed myself with mag?  Though I suppose I’ll have to free all of my fellow prisoners eventually anyway, if only as human shields for my eventual escape… whether Issamith comes or not.
 
It’s a few minutes before I’m done – boot blade probably duller than when I began – and my second task (once I’ve risen painfully) is to check the metalbound prisoner at the carriage front.  Luckily for me, this car is still moving so no one’s coming in to check on the prisoners – but it doesn’t help my balance as I sway to the other end.
 
The metalclad permanent prisoner is in a rather strange situation indeed.  Whoever they are, the silvery restraints cover most of their identifying features, including all of their torso and face except their eyes.  Their smooth but red-welted legs (from a little below the knees) and down-pointing arms (below the shoulders) are entirely bare and pinned with a series of metal loops instead.  It’s even possible they’re naked below the cladding, especially given the apparent extreme security they’ve been bound with – why would the hammer gangs bother leaving clothes.
 
As I approach… him? her? I said I’ve never been good with gender – I notice that their short-eyelashed eyes are glaring at me, and I drop into a sort-of-bow before them, though my head throbs with the motion. “Excuse me.  I’m investigating how to free you.  Can’t afford to be shy.”
 
I check the shoulder portion of the cladding holding them in place, and their eyes narrow but soften in expression – not in a nice way, more in grudging acceptance of a helper.  The cladding is well-made, sealed to the wall almost professionally.  Compared to my now-sawn-through rope, this is a serious barrier.  I don’t think I can get through it without mag, or perhaps Issamith’s help.  I scan the smooth surfaces of the facial restraints, ignoring the stare from the prisoner, before I drop to a crouch and inspect the bands binding their slender feet.
 
From behind me, there is a groan that suddenly cuts off.  I turn to see Snake Woman pretending to be unconscious again – she must have mistaken me for a guard.  That’s a rather amateur thing to do, and a rather amateur mistake to make, which makes me wonder who she is.  Surely if she were the thief I assumed she must be, she’d know better what to do in the face of capture.  But I’m as poor a judge of character as of appearance – on second thought, she must just be one of those fleeing the city from the Manx.  Yes, that must be right, she looks well-to-do. She’s more curvy-thin than starved, and pale like a society sort.
 
“You’ll need to learn better acting,” I call back to her, turning back to the metalclad prisoner. “I’m just a… wizard.  A real guard might’ve taken advantage of you in your sleep, or kicked you in the side when you groaned.”
 
“A wizard?” she mutters, her words indistinct.  Evidently she’s as hurt in the head as I am. “Then why aren’t you getting us out of here?”
 
“A cladded wizard,” I amend, ignoring the defeated noise Snake Woman makes upon hearing. “I’m waiting for Issamith to arrive.”
 
“N’t many ’f you wizards now.  Which’n’re you?”
 
She must be particularly sick from the blow to her head, I suppose, for her to truncate her words that much.  I lie, “You wouldn’t know.  Sometimes I’m called Naulithe, but that’s only a corruption of the auldreth for Nameless.  My name isn’t public.”
 
Snake Woman sits quietly after that, collecting herself, and I focus completely on the metalclad prisoner.  Getting this person out may end up being quite difficult, because it’s now quite certain that that’s going to require something magic.
 
Mag (and anything magic, really) is different than the cheap books say.  Half the time it helps, half it doesn’t… it’s not discrete like keywords, nor is it quite continuous like willpower.  There’s may be no ranking system for wizards, but I certainly feel like just an adept at magic things much of the time, and that’s even without Issamith’s anphysical cladding.  I do have to remember, though, that fewer than a dozen people in the city have any mag at all… I’m magic compared to most.
 
In fact, I’d be powerful if I weren’t under the cladding, and that’s all I can say.  But speaking of which –
 
I hear singing outside and the light-metal door of the carriage explodes open all the way through the other side.  To her credit, Snake Woman muffles her yelp as she scoots away from the newly-jagged doorway; the other prisoners begin to wake as Issamith himself stomps up onto the ledge.
 
“Nyctes!” he says to me, his voice perfectly normal even as his narrowed eyes find me standing next to a naked metalclad prisoner. “I see you didn’t need me for your own liberation.  In khast what are you looking for there?”
 
Ignoring the casual use of my real name, I reply coolly “Any chinks in this prisoncladding,” unnecessarily indicating the prisoner as they glare at me again. “It’s almost too good for the hammer gangs.  Why would they imprison someone like this anyway?”
 
“On the subject of cladding, you’re out of yours, Nyctes: all is undone –” I feel nothing, but if Issamith says I can use mag again, I can – “but on this prisoner,” he says, striding over, “let’s just ask her.”
 
I wince helplessly… it’s more personal knowing the gender of the prisoner I’ve just been indirectly staring at.  Issamith doesn’t notice my weak reaction or that the prisoner’s annoyed gaze is switching to him, and he seems to be lost in contemplation of the prisoncladding.  So he must be composing a song.
 
The thing with Issamith is that, though it sounds far from magic (especially compared to the rest of us), his mag is actually based on song.  Most of the time, borrowed lyrics from who-knows-where suffice as his incantations, because he’s just that powerful.  But with something as difficult as unlocking prisoncladding like this, he has to compose for himself.  I really don’t want to hear his depressing songs right now, so I turn and go to free the ordinary prisoners, bracing myself to ignore Issamith once he starts.
 
“What’s your name?” I whisper to Snake Woman as I kneel to cut her rope.
 
She hesitates. “Arcadia.”
 
I nod, though she looks nothing like my idea of anyone who would get named Arcadia.  A quick slash frees her to stand, and I move on to the others, making short work of the bonds on Whip Man, the teenagers, and the Gentleman.  All of them mutter a quick word of thanks except for the Gentleman, who knifes through the ropes on his own legs once his hands are free, then makes a deep bow to me.  I bow back and turn to Issamith again.  It’s beginning.
 
The mirror’s given up on me
My only friend within these bonds,
Sent forth again sings Issamith, his song obviously made in haste.  His eyes are lidded but he’s focusing on the cladded prisoner.
Reflecting the inner shadows within her
I see not for the time but for the flame here
Metal gives way, molding it to her own will
She’ll hold it still
 
If you won’t believe it, then release it
Sparks off the steel, what is real is never simple
Gunpowder on the match, see the act attack
Cast off your armor…
 
Issamith cuts off his own song partway, mostly because the cladding has already clattered to the floor, crackling defeatedly, but also because what was previously a woman inside the metal is now momentarily a column of flame.  I step backward along with the prisoners, but Issamith just gives a moment’s thought to the stationary blaze, then asks “Why would you be here?”
 
In a moment, the blaze becomes a humanoid female again, but now in a shiny silk collared-jacket, her legs armored in glassy black scale-mail from boots to waist.  I feel I should recognize her by her red-gold staring eyes, but her sleek dark chin-length hair falls over her gaze, and I have to turn questioningly to Issamith, who stage-whispers “IT’S ERISI KEMET.”
 
At this revelation, all the other prisoners pile out of the carriage frantically.  It doesn’t matter who Erisi Kemet is - she has two given names, which means she’s a god.  I admit I have the urge to tumble outside with my fellow prisoners and take my chances with the hammer gangs, just to get away from an unpredictable, flamebursting god.  But unlike them, I have mag, and Issamith needs me here.
 
“Yeah, I’m Erisi.” The god sounds bored, flicking her head to get her hair out of her scarlet eyes as she leans against the carriage wall. “And I’ve got a few better things to do than sit here.  One of them’s beating down the hammer gangs that got me here.  You wanna chat before I get to that?”
 
“Why yes, dear god.” Issamith folds his hands into his sleeves like a monk and matches her oozing, sarcastic tone. “It’s lovely to meet someone who violently assaults criminals.  Let’s talk.  What brings you here in hammer-gang style?”
 
“I got lazy.  They got greedy.  Thought they could steal a girl like me, no problem.  They ended up being dead wrong, and it took a NotWizard to wire me up proper.”
 
“Issamith,” I mutter out of the corner of my mouth. “Aren’t they supposed to have been de-spirited?”
 
“Shush, Nyctes.” Issamith doesn’t change his tone of voice at all. “A god like you couldn’t even outdo a NotWizard, Erisi?”
 
“Shut up, ’mith.” But the god grins a sideways grin, looking fashionable instead of lashing out. “You’re Issamith, yeah?  Anyway, here I am now.  Forget what I said.  I just got taken by surprise.”
 
Issamith laces his fingers sharply together. “It is forgiven.”
 
“Then that’s all I’ve got.  I’m out.” Erisi Kemet balls her fists and stomps out of the carriage with flame beginning to flicker down her sleeves.  Issamith and I have to drop our calm and scramble after her.
 
Outside is a disaster brewing.  The freed prisoners from the carriage haven’t gone far.  Several hammer-gang lowlings and one officer have noticed the breakout, and though there aren’t many of them, they’re armed.  Only the Gentleman has so much as a dagger, and a dagger is nothing against hammer-gang force.  Everyone I’ve just untied is cornered.
 
And into this situation strides the red god, a look of absolute violence on her face.
 
To everyone’s surprise, the hammer-gang officer is the first to speak. “Oh lordy, not you again, you affected god.  Who’s the old man?”
 
“I am a god and I can literally damn you.” Erisi is livid. “You’re the lead man’s second, yeah?  He’ll pay and if I’m in the mood you’ll pay too.”
 
“Weeelllll,” says the officer in a provoking drawl. “I do like you out of that cladding.  You’ve got an attitude going for you, if not a good mode a’ speech.  You do know it was the NotWizard’s idea, that cladding?”
 
The god turns her back on him entirely and spikes two coils of flame onto the ground, punching the rising fire into a two-walled corridor leading straight back to the distant center of the city.  It takes me a second to realize that she’s creating an exit from the hammer-gang camp, but when I do, I spring forward and push the former prisoners toward its entrance. “Go, go!  It’s the way out.”
 
“But-” “Aren’t we-” With a few protests, the six of them bolt for the flame route, only Arcadia and the Gentleman glancing back at me before they sprint away.  I raise a hand to them – I’ll try to find them again once we’re out of here.
 
Right now, the officer is calling out again. “I think we can work this out some otherwise way, unless of course you have anger issues to get over.”
 
“They’re your problem now,” snarls Erisi, and raises her fist.
 
“Oh lord K,” mutters Issamith, and I step forward with him, finally drawing on my mag, the strange feeling of gear-grinding starting up.  This surely won’t end well.  But it is our job as wizards to change that outcome.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Thu Jan 09, 2014 1:52 am

The Royal Group for Gentlemen's Collaborative Media




In the farthest corner where the sun slanted into the room in the oddest way, the oldest man in the room grunted and rustled his newspaper. “Hrmf.  According to the scandalmongers, a certain Parliamentary member known for his opposition to restrictions on private life has just married his would-be biographer.”
 
Against the shaded interior wall, the most dashingly dressed of the younger men glanced up from his book and grinned, blue eyes glinting. “ooh, sordid.”
 
“Hmm.  Quite.” With a frown, the older man looked down at the newspaper again.  The three others in the room said nothing for the moment, reading their own things.
 
It was a little while before the short, angular gentleman sprawled in the black leather armchair looked up from the letter he was writing. “Ah yes, all romance is bad romance in times like these.  Or should I not have said that.”
 
“You’re one to talk, Chance,” said the elegant one from the southwest corner, seeming to suppress a wink.
 
The angular gentleman shrugged apathetically. “Not really at my rate.  You’d be one to talk too, if you had said what I said, which you didn’t.”
 
“How amusing.” A sound of folding newspaper came from the far sunny corner.
 
Silence descended again.
 
“Geist, didn’t I talk to you about finishing the writeup on Clairvoyancy?”
 
The elegant one – Geist – looked up, frowning absently at the angular gentleman. “I don’t recall the details.”
 
“Well, it could do with reviving.  We’re all in the project, technically speaking.” Chance, the angular one, glanced around the room. “Apollo was nearly a founder, and you told me that Bilius was interested too… then there’s Morrison of course…”
 
“Hmf.”
 
“We didn’t have any true plan,” said Geist. “You began most of the writing, so it was up to you to set the tone.”
 
“I’ll help if only for the great Mr. Proudman’s sake,” came Apollo’s voice from the cooler part of the room where he sat.
 
Bilius looked up from his grimoire. “Seems like you guys need some mayhem to begin with.”
 
“there is a foolish allegory brewing in here,” muttered Morrison from his sunny corner.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Tue Jan 21, 2014 6:50 pm

Quake Raven


You look up and around again. The mist-like rain is an irritating cold touch against your skin, beginning to soak your gray felt coat, and already dripping off the blades like beetle wings on your back. Overhead looms the terribly familiar statue… the depiction of the figure you once studied, it stands against the side of the great cubical temple. Always the same weapon. But there is nothing at the top of the temple except centimeters of moss and stray herbaceous vines.

Your contact is nowhere to be seen, and is no doubt late again. Judging from his past procrastination, it’s a pattern, but you allowed for his usual delay. It has to be something different this time. Unless, of course, he arrived on the other side of the temple… and you would rather not go through the temple. Except if you have to. And it’s beginning to look like that’s the case.

Reluctantly but firmly, you duck your head under the gaze of the bizarre statue of the unpredictable patron of justice. The sandstone steps are hard under your booted feet, not smoothed or dissolving, not showing their years. There is no door to the temple hallway, and the chill from the mist follows you in. You shiver in your too-big coat but walk on.

About two meters along in the passageway, you see the deterrent bars. The old iron rungs form something like a ladder or a grille, the lowest ones crisscrossing the hallway at your chest height. Once, before you were born, an expedition went to climb the iron ladder. Though all returned safely, they reported that there was an enclosed maze at the top, and none of them were able to find the end of it.

You grimace and duck under them, ignoring the few flecks of rust that crunch on the stone floor. There is nothing to it – you have to get through the ground-level part of the temple, and you will. But if your contact is not on the other side of this temple to justice, you will not be happy. Oh, not happy at all.

The hallways twist from here on, a betrayal of the cubical exterior of the temple and the geometrical inclinations of its patron figure. Betrayal seems appropriate. There are already so many repeating patterns in the things you see, not to mention in the way you think. Life is monotonous sometimes, and so is this temple now. You close your eyes and intuit the way ahead, not stopping or looking again. It is possible for you to trust you will not hit a wall, and you will take advantage of that ability.

When you feel cold mist on your face again, you finally reopen your eyes to find yourself standing in an open doorway. Yes, this is the other side. There is a small semicircular clearing outward from the base of the cubic temple, and dense rainforest all around outside it. In a moment, you see your contact melting out of the plant cover at the clearing’s edge, and you fold your hands, waiting for him to come to you.

“You are Rus Allendi?” Your contact sets down their bulky package in the coarsegrass before bounding up and shaking your perfunctorily-offered hand.

“Yes,” you say. You are not one of many words.

“Excellent, excellent, I shouldn’t have expected otherwise.” Apparently your contact is excited about the delivery, and he fidgets as he explains. “Just got through the jungle there… Well, technically not jungle, but whatever. As long as I made it! Certainly important.”

You are also not one of great patience with people. “Do you or do you not have everything I asked for.”

“One large incubator containing 33 Crab-bane eggs, safely packed. A North Hemisphere star chart plotted for Marígndar. Over 300 seeds of Nitid’s Kathnut. Two limited-edition and banned action figures of Doctor McFacepalm. A soft crow plush toy. Demet’s Chronon. So yes.” Despite your misgivings, your contact lists off your requested items carefully rather than eagerly. You were right to choose him.

But just in case… “Describe,” you say.

“I guarantee they’re fertilized extra eggs from Nyctanassa carcinocatactes nests as I identified them in the field. Official seasonal star chart from VT Press astronomers. Paracarya neuronotus germplasm that I was present for the collection of, was stored in VT cold-units and is ready to plant immediately. In their original packages, taken from a stash in a Facebook warehouse. Cute and cuddly. Dangerously horological and I can’t say anything else on it.”

You shake your contact’s hand again and wordlessly descend the temple stairs to retrieve your package. The deal is done. Time to get everything where it needs to go.

As you whip around and sprint back into the temple, the package safely scooped in your arms, you hear the first PGP blasts hissing as they impact on the temple wall. There’s a yelp from your contact, then pounding footsteps as he somehow manages to catch up to you amid further blasts. “Russai! This was supposed to be a safe meeting!”

“You haven’t gotten hurt yet,” I say as I skid to a halt in front of the rusty ladder. Regardless of my contact tagging along, it’s time to make an exit. I take hold of the ferrous rungs, clambering up one-handed and clamping the package against my side.

Below me, my contact scrambles up, swearing as he just manages to avoid a heavier round of PGP fire by swinging aside. “Kálán’s unholy ge-”

“This is a sacred place,” I say as we pull ourselves up into the semidarkness of the next floor. “Use some propriety.”

“An unsafe, confusing sacred place.” My contact looks defiant for a moment, then deflates and planes his hands together in prayer. “Yes, I know. As this he avenges the great things, he forgives the small things.”

You accept his contrition in silence, looking around for the route through. Among the many doors, you know where to go. It’s all a matter of puzzling out what the temple’s “god” would do, and years of knowledge on that matter are behind you… in fact, you can and will navigate it with your eyes closed, just like you did with the hallway below. You pick up the package, shut your eyes, and move on, leaving your unconscious to sort out a route.

The shadow of long-lost sleep takes over your conscious half.

When you revive, there is no telling how much time has passed. Days are long here, and the light mist on your face is falling from just as grey a sky as before. But you must have been a while: now you find yourself on the top of the cube, near the center. Your contact is hauling himself out of the trapdoor-hole opening that leads up to here, looking weary, and he glances at you. “And now you’re awake. Nice dreams? Brainstorming a psychedelic adventure while we traipsed through pitch-blackness? I was lost in there.”

“You and your sanity have arrived safely,” you say, leaving the conversation at a curt end. Certainly your contact had the worse end of it. That you already know.

But he’s not satisfied with just that. “Very well, I’ve made it here, that’s all quite good. Allow me to ask why, Rus.”

“My head has no answers,” you say, “save for what I must do.”

Instead of erupting with impatience, however, your contact stares at you, and begins to smile. “What you ‘must do’. Oh my. You fancy yourself the summoner, do you, Rus?”

“I am.” And you mean it, because that is all there is to say. It is time.

You pick up the package again and walk the 8 paces forward to the sunken and strangely clean circle on the roof, setting down your precious bundle in its middle and stepping back to wait. It’s never said how this is supposed to work at this point, or how quickly. This will be a test, you suppose.

“Why would you be a summoner, Rus.” Your contact is somehow not really asking a question.

“I never said I wished to.” You glance over your shoulder at him. “But if I did not, it would be counterproductive.”

“Yes well, whatever.” Your contact shrugs. “I'm not here for you to bounce cryptic thoughts off o-”

And that’s when the air sunbursts black and spits out a man with an unstable outline and opaque glasses, who coughs and jerks upright again.

You blink, but it’s as if he’s evaporating or the air is freezing around him… jagged tendrils and cracks like heat distortion sparking in and out of focus. “You’re Judgment Dude. The summoning is here.”

“No,” says the man, though he looks at you interestedly. “No, Judgment Dude doesn’t exist, friend, not here. Or if he does, no one knows.”

“I would know if anyone could.” You step back. Something’s unstable about the atmosphere around him, something’s not right. “And I came here expressly to summon him.”

The man folds his arms, and despite the neutral daylight, his outline becomes darker as the broken lines around him get stronger. “The important thing is that I’m not in his image, isn’t that so? You know I can’t be him.”

“Then who are you?”

“Someone who lived much longer than he was supposed to in the first place,” he says, and his cloud of fractures explodes.

Your question wasn’t answered, but you grab your package and sprint inelegantly away from the shattering sky behind you, in the wake of your fleeing contact. It’s time to give up for today.

Time to give up again.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Sat Jan 25, 2014 8:37 pm

The Sheriff and the Seraphim, Part I


ray

it’s the first word i remember when i wake up, so slowly. shattered i guess. on the slippery rocks below a causeway. it’s funny because why would i think that now? i don’t even think my body is capable of proper rage right now, just pain. i hurt. why?

and when i realize it, i wake up, all the way, with a jolt. right then, agony. i’m suddenly completely nauseous, and i go from lying prone to lying contorted with pathetic, quaking spasms. if i had anything in my stomach i’d retch. when did i last eat anyway?

after some probly long time, i start dealing with the pain, and uncurl myself just a little less pathetically. looks like i’ve got a bullet vest under a lab coat under a leather jacket, how spiffy. whatever, the wind off the water is pretty cold and three layers is better’n one. – hey, yeah, that’s right, i’m along a causeway, or a bridge. my eyes’re watering in the breeze and i figure i’d better stand up and stretch my shoulders out. unrelatedly, i’ve got a name, don’t i?

once i stop puzzlin over that, i crawl up to the road, which en’t eventful, just me ’n my raw hands finding a way up the stone jumble. where’m i?

my arm muscles still hurt plenty but i manage, and i pull myself onto the road, standin up when i feel like my legs will hold up. it’s all gray today, all clouds ’n no sun, and the road’s deserted. en’t a good sign, this, ’n i have to shiver even in my triple layers. this causeway thing i’m on cuts across an inlet’s mouth, and the thought hits me as i stare at that black water that there might well be a whale down in there. kinda disturbing, but there it is. anyhow i’m reminded to move on by all this. which way?

i make a good old executive decision and head myself left on the causeway. there’s an instinct? … nah, proper thought, somewhere in my head, tellin me that i just need to move on, ’n things’ll come back to me if i get to hq. question right now bein, what’s hq?

oh jesu, suddenly i know what’s goin on.

got myself a concussion.

well i can’t worry too much about head injury. got to get myself to hq, which by the way is short for headquarters, ’n get myself sorted out.

this is suddenly much more serious’n i thought. i was entertainin the notion that i might be a stupid kid fallin out of a truck and onto some rocks. but this was deliberate. somebody beat me and dumped me. and something in my currently addled head tells me that that en’t nothing to take lightly.

i brace myself, then take off into a hobblin sprint, the wind whippin uncomfortably in my eyes. the outskirts of town are just a distraction as i run down Artesian Street. i think where i need to be is goin to be on the… left. yeah, i think. but my legs and head en’t cooperating as best they ought, and… i slow down, the soreness from before hits me again, and i cough violently and accidentally collapse right on the street. god damn.

vaguely, i’m aware that someone is frantically coming to my aid, but even though i know it’s dakin – wait, dakin…? who’s…


--------


upright. i blink and focus, sway and catch myself on the edge of the bed.

“Rin!!” A young-faced harpy with dark blue wings is sitting in a chair facing me, leaning forward with huge concern. “You need to tell me what happened.”

‘other than my gettin beat i don’t really know.’ i fold in half at the waist and put my head on my arms, ignoring her gaze. ‘you’re dakin right?’

“Oh gods – Yes, I am Dakin – are you going to be okay?? Please say yes please say yes. I don’t know how to treat a concussion Rin.” Her wings rustle as she leans forward, pleadingly and helplessly.

‘fine… jesu.’ my head is throbbing plenty already, and i don’t need this dakin harpy’s excitable pleas to make it worse. ‘urk. i was lyin a little, i remember you, but my head en’t exactly clear. just let me sleep it off.’

“Well okay Rin I’ll try. I’ll get that ice pack now. But you need to tell me what happened with the Reale when you remember, okay??” Another soft rustle of wings, and i hear her get up and walk towards the kitchen. “There are enough amnesiacs in the world!!”

‘well you en’t the concussed one, you figur’tive harpy,’ i say to no one in particular, my head swimmin thoroughly. amazingly i do manage to fall onto the bed before i pass out again.


--------


“So your memory’s okay, you remember what happened now??”

i sigh and lean on the counter, blinkin in the fluorescent kitchen light. ‘yeah, i remember now. as much as i did in the first place anyhow. couple of suits stopped me when i was on patrol by bike, i politely asked them what their business was, and this hooded one shot me with some kind of ray from under his hood. the ray was rainbowy, and that’s all i remember.’

“Well, you know… was it actually Reale??” Dakin leans forward on her perch with some kind of cautious fervency.

‘i don’t know. we’ve been after’em forever, dakin, but not for violent offenses. first of all this is more serious, i truly got beat up. second of all they’re quasihuman and i didn’t know them to have rainbow eyebeams. something else’s goin on with this.’ i tap my fingers, restless syncopated noise. ‘and i don’t want to be cooped up here waiting for too long! whether it’s actually them or some new crony, we’ve got to stop this before it all escalates.’

“Yes, teaching them a lesson. But what are you seriously thinking, Rin?? There’s only so much we can do!!” She nervously hits the kitchen counter with the “wrist” of her right wing.

‘this chapter is gonna end, dakin.’ i stand up, pushin away the stool from the kitchen counter. ‘tomorrow we lay siege to wish house.’

“Oh jeez what are you thinking.”


--------


seven o clock. it’s goin to be light soon. or is that ‘gonna be light soon’. dunno about the grammar of it. probly both’re wrong.

i’m up, gatherin food and anythin else i think ought to be part of our toolbox if we’re really goin to do this thing, really goin to set siege around wish house. which we absolutely are: the reale who live there are just corruptly decadent university adjutants, who’ve been my nemeses for years now. but if they’ve gone and graduated to terror and physical harm against the law, i.e. me, then it’s time to go and take them down, no more wafflin.

“Uugh really, this early??” Dakin stumbles into the kitchen, her navy hair messed up. “Okay okay, you don’t have to reply. As long as I don’t have to be awake until we get to Wish House.”

‘dakin, i told you to get ready twenty minutes ago.’ i stuff one last sandwich container and bag of crisps into the food pack. ‘also, you’re driving.’

“What?? No way, I’m not even half awake!!”

‘jesu dakin, we don’t have a car and the motorcycle is built for your feet not mine.’ i sling the food bag over my shoulder and grab the sack of assorteds. ‘i can’t even drive anyhow.’

“Gods, fine. How’d you even get to be sheriff if you can’t drive??” Dakin smacks her forehead with her wingwrist and turns to leave. “Let’s go then. I guess I’m operating The Motorcycle.”

we slip out into the garage, and i push the door open while dakin revs the electric cycle. there’s a reason she refers to it in capitals, i definitely wouldn’t be able to operate the thing. the handlebars are forked weirdly, with no controls on them, built for harpies to hook their wingclaws into for stability. the real controls are the other handlebars at the bottom of the bike, designed for taloned feet. overall the whole thing takes some getting used to even for its intended drivers, and is kinda amusing cause harpies can fly in the first place. we’re only taking it cause it’s faster, and unlike dakin, it can carry me.

From the driver’s seat of The Motorcycle, she hisses, “Hurry up, Rin!! I’m supposed to be the DEPUTY here!!”

‘obviously i’m coming back over.’ i jump on the back and secure the food and tool bags, making sure i’ve got at least one gun in the holster at my waist. ‘now you hurry up.’

evidently dakin’s more ready for this than she lets on, cause she awkwardly pulls on a pair of night vision goggles before locking in her wrists and rocketing us out of the garage. i barely have time to hit the trigger on the cycle’s side (it springs the garage door closed) before we cross quifer street, east towards the northern side of the hill.

dawn’s risin as we rip eastward. best get there sooner’n later.


--------


crunch as we hit Wish House’s front drive. dawn’s just about arrived.

scene’s deserted, and i s’pose the only vehicles are somewhere in the garage of the place. wish house is a monster, honestly, big eye windows and a sprawling lack of form… pale oldish walls, intricate carpets, ’n so on indoors. i’ve barely been inside the place myself, but people who used to maintain here said that the interior’s literally byzantine. way i see it, if we have to, we’ll take this place floor by floor.

“Okay we’re here Rin, now what are we doing??” Dakin switches our cycle off as we come up to the entrance turnabout, and she dismounts, hair mussed all around her night goggles.

‘we’re police dakin, first we attempt to tell them we’re here, then we kick the door down.’ i step off the cycle, makin sure the food and tools’re stowed. ‘let’s go, you’re backup.’

she nervously hovers behind me as i go approach the front double doors and pound on them. “residents of wish house, open up! i’m here on business of the port curac sheriff authority!”

there’s no sound but a faraway creak, and dakin and i shudder in unison. jesu, this is why we police a small town, we en’t got the stomach for the real creepy big-city garbage. this better not be as bad as it’s soundin.

after waitin a minute, i thump the doors in notice a few more times. “reale and other residents, please be aware we’re comin in! this is the port curac sheriff authority!”

another minute and i kick the doors inward, knockin a couple of small deadboltish fasteners loose. light’s pretty weak, dawn’s barely here and the eye windows that open on the entrance hall have their curtains drawn. i motion for dakin to stay outside – yes i know splittin up is usually bad, but someone’s got to guard the cycle and the Wish House entrance. as she backs off awkwardly, dakin undoes her night-vision goggles and tosses them to me.

i am better off with them, i find as i start venturin into the half dark entrance hall. sure everythin’s tinted now but at least things are kinda visible. i head for the large staircase directly ahead, just to get a bit higher view –

“U-um, Port Curac Sheriff?”

gods damn i nearly jump out of my skin, and i scramble back and aim my gun at the third floor balcony where the voice came from. ‘who’s this speakin?’

“M-my n-name is Jaroth Zingiber, d-don’t shoot don’t shoot.” The nervous voice – i would guess an intern with the Reale? – begins to stutter. i can barely make out his outline… lean, young, male is all as i can tell.

it doesn’t do to be fooled just by voices, and i don’t let my aim waver. ‘if you en’t a reale please exit the building. i am aware there en’t any other entrance to wish house other’n this, the garage, and the roof. if you wish to ex-’

“I-I can’t, s-sheriff. Reietheie sent m-me out to talk to you.” Zingiber appears to steady himself on the doorframe with his hands. “You shouldn’t, er, they don’t want you here. They’re t-technically residents of Altannon not Port Curac, and they say they s-should be investigated by that t-town’s police…”

‘crimes happen here, zingiber, i take care of’em. i don’t see any altannon police department folks here, do you?’

He splutters. “I-I-I- d-d- s-sheriff th-they do you think I’m here to t-tell you my opinion? I’m here b-because of Reietheie.”

‘i’m offerin you the door, zingiber, if you’re not part of the group i have to bring in for questionin then kindly step on out so my deputy can check you.’ i straighten up. ‘did the reale have anything more t’say than “don’t arrest us, we en’t p.c. residents”?’

“U-uh no Sheriff.” Zingiber backs up one step. “If you want I c-can go get th-”

‘i’d rather just ask them a few questions myself, zingiber. just let me know where they are and i’ll find my own way.’

From the dark balcony, Jaroth Zingiber laughs abruptly. “Sheriff Smith, you really d-don’t know Wish House.”

‘i’ve heard the sto-’ but even through my impaired night-vision goggles (the sunlight is filtering faintly in), i can see him melt away into the shadowy hallway behind him.

jesuya. i turn my head to mutter into my collar mic, ‘reading? dakin, we’ve got some fourth party in here. name’s jaroth zingiber, apparently an intern with the reale. watch for him, watch for assorted thugs, also watch yourself, got it?’

“Yes Rin I can watch out for myself!!” crackles Dakin’s voice faintly through my collar. “Take care and get securing!! I’ll keep the perimeter and all the Reale wrapped up!!”

‘yeah, i’m on it. rin out.’

i look around in the faintly pink-lit front chamber. en’t lookin like anyone’s downstairs here, and dakin’ll handle them if they are, i’m guessin. i think i’ll skip the first crazy floor and work on the second.

sigh.

i head on up the stairs.


--------


i eat lunch slumped against a random wall, gun holstered – no need to have it out.

there’s nobody on the second floor, near as i can tell. luckily wish house en’t quite as awful as i’ve heard, but it’s still terrible’n terms of occasi’nal mind-bogglin rooms. problem might end up bein how tall wish house is, six floors’n the roof. it’s s’posed to get worse as you go up, so we’ll see how that goes.

right now i en’t made any leeway on this partic’lar floor. not in terms of findin the reale, anyway. plenty of rooms checked, plenty of nothin. hopefully everyone’s not lyin in ambush on the sixth floor and i en’t just a fool ’bout to stumble into it.

since lunch’s just a sandwich and water, i don’t spend long on it. there were three staircases i found on this floor, and i mean to try the closest one.

i head right down this hallway from this wall… the stairs were on the left, and i turn that way, half-expectin them to have disappeared like in some terrible fairy tale. and no, they’re still there, but a gate’s dropped in front of them, apparently from out of the ceilin. looks like the reale en’t interested in cooperatin. i sigh, turn ’round, and head back out. second set of stairs maybe?

that set of stairs in question is in a closet, a tight spiral way i certainly only found by absolutely searchin everywhere. i retrace my steps: turn ’round from the blocked stairs, head through the first right, head right again at the doorway in the dark sittin room, lean left in the forked hallway off the sittin room, head through the second actual left, go into the back walk-in closet, open the actual closet, and there’re the stairs. you’ve gotta wonder, did whoever made this house think that people’d actually live here, cause it’s perfect for keepin people out.

well they probly weren’t conscious when they designed this thing.

luckly for me, these en’t blocked, and i walk up spiralways, takin my gun out at the ready again. i actually hate guns, but what’re you gonna do.

silence on the third floor, or what i’ve gotta assume is the third floor. also, complete darkness, and it’s throwin me off a bit. i have the light on that’s attached to my gun’s side, and i scan the room – apparently another ‘spare’ bedroom with a closet – before movin out, listenin carefully. no sounds from ’round here, e’cept for the really faint whine of my ears tellin me it’s way too quiet.

jesu, don’t they have any lights in here. i could hardly stand the automatic room lightin on the second floor, and if they’re aimin for psychologic repulsion, full dark is the way to do it to me. i stumble (quietly) out and eastward down the nearest hallway, into an apparent furniture storage room, and i yank the curtains open, unspeakably relieved just to see the mornin sun streamin in. alright, i can do this, it’s just dark in the inside.

sometimes i think dakin will be a better sheriff if she ever has to go ’n take over my job.

speakin of her… i speak soft as i can into my collar. ‘dakin, no news from outsides? you’ve gone and checked and everythin?’

“Yes Rin, of course I have!!” Dakin’s voice blares – not too loud, mind, through my collar mic. “Not a sign, I even checked the roof!! You’re going to have to flush them out. How many floors have you covered anyway??”

‘they’re pretty huge floors, only covered the second so far. i think we’re goin to be here a good while dakin.’

“That’s for sure!! You just don’t have to tell me about every single floor, okay??” Dakin’s mic switches out.


--------


yeah, if no one’s on the roof, they’re going to be on at least one of these last floors.

i pull myself up the ladder to the fifth floor, steppin out onto the carpet in the massive silence. it’s actually been a nice day up in here in wish house, ’least firefight wise. i.e. en’t been none ’a those. the only aggravatin part was mainly searchin the previous floors, which ’course took forever. they do get worse, more twists and turns and a few hidden doors ’round the fourth floor.

the worst part was the one thug i think i encountered.

yes i did say i ‘think’ i encountered them. it was pretty brief, eyes in the dark, running footsteps, an eerie noise, and disappearance up some stairs. pretty sure that was the end of the fourth floor and here i am now, but i can tell the thug – i assume they were a reale thug – is pretty well gone. like i said, the silence is pressin down on me again, and i don’t see any…

any doorways.

apparently the fifth floor has no normal doors. great.

i take the only way out from the ladder, a right. it en’t dark, not totally; there’s a window to the back of wish house’s grounds in front of the ladderway, and i’ve got to head away from its light. must be early afternoon by the look of it.

no doors, hm. i wonder.

as i move down the hallway, i tap the walls with my knuckles, seein if it’s gonna be that standard of a tell. there could be a bunch of long walls, but surely there’ll be one easy… ah, there.

i kick the hollow presumable doorway and it kicks back at me, springing open. there’s a bit of a twilit tableau in there, i think that’s how you spell ‘tableau’.

someone, actually two someones, are in the bed. thug by the attendant bathroom door. nightlight 1/3 up the wall behind the bed from my vantage. no other people visible, no movement from the two in the bed, the thug begins to notice me. should i shoot the nightlight? –nah, i hate breakin things, the thug is already movin forward.

i obviously have my gun ready, and i make sure to raise it. ‘don’t hold onto any asp’rations about shootin the sheriff. this is the port curac authority, drop any weapon you are carryin.’

“Shh, you’re going to wake up Reietheie. I just arrived.” The… thug? waves for me to keep it down, his hands clearly empty in the faint nightlight glow. “Quickly, just come and handcuff him. I don’t know who the other one is but handcuff them too, better safe than sorry here.”

i’ve said jesu plenty already today but this merits another. the ‘thug’ is, from the sound of his voice, my sometime ally against the reale, uther the dragonewt and debtor and technical owner of wish house.

‘effin wyrd, uther. turn on the light so i can see who i’m handcuffin.’ i pad into the room, keepin my aim on him until he flicks a touch switch and i can see it’s him for sure. ‘better. right, you’d best be helpin me out instead of hinderin me today.’

“These unholy peasants are inhabiting the house that is my family’s pride and inheritance, Rin Smith. We two, you and I, do not get along, but that is a dilemma born of disposition, not goals. I do not know what has prompted this direct intercession of yours, but do not think that I do not welcome it.” Uther keeps a respectful distance, hands and wings folded.

‘then that all’s settled.’ i finish handcuffing the still-sleeping woman as well as the inglorious minar reietheie. ‘but you’d better be thinkin of some way to get up some money other than rentin in the future.’

“Please, Sheriff, do not think I remain a pathetic gambler!” says Uther, his fangs showing and his posture shifting. “I am here today to inspect the house and be sure that the Reale will be easily tossed aside when their lease contract has expired. I have no monetary worries at this juncture.”

‘fine then, you do your wealthin thing.’ i back out the door. ‘are you gonna help me actually kick ’em out though?’

He smiles a literal lizard’s smile. “My contract regarding Wish House does not end until tomorrow, Rin Smith. If you happen to be in battle even at that point, I will aid you in all the glory of the House Rax.”

‘for then, thanks, uther. until then, shut up about gloriousness and get to haulin these two in the bed downstairs to dakin. you oughta be able.’

“Fufufu.” Uther’s half-sinister chuckle follows me out of the room. “Excuse me.”




--------


nothing. not yet.

i keep an ear out, turnin the color of my flashlight down to red, creepin along the hallway. it’s been ’round ten minutes since i ran into uther, ten minutes of faint noises in the distance plus nothing else. i’m beginnin to get the feelin that the rest of the reale – actears sarrethen, ennuya teleken – and their thugs and intern(s) are as aware i’m here as i am that they are. they’re just barely managin to stay ahead. so far.

but even if they keep on runnin, there’s only one floor left.

i turn my head to use my collar mic. ‘dakin, nothing yet? no folks on the roof or having attempted to come out?’

Dakin’s response crackles. “I know we didn’t discuss it earlier, but I went and blockaded all the downstairs doors before I forgot, Rin!! Nobody’s going to be coming out this way anytime soon!! I’m watching the room from the air right now, no sign of anyone yet. I’m guessing you’re on the fifth floor by now??”

‘yeah. hey, dakin, i should mention uther’s up in here. his housin contract to the reale ends tonight, he says he’ll help us clean house once midnight’s here.’

“Seriously?? Anyway it’ll be easy then, but it’s not like we don’t have problems before then, Rin!! Keep that in mind and don’t stall!!”

‘sure, fine,’ i mutter. ‘by the way dakin, uther’s actually gonna come down to you. i got to reietheie and some woman who obviously was sleepin with him.’

“Hey, I don’t need to hear about it!! I’ll be ready for him but he’d better watch out!! Dakin switches off again. i’ll have to take her word for it, i guess, and i start movin on.

i think this is gonna take longer than i expected.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Mon Feb 10, 2014 4:07 am

Upon Newton's Ocean


He looked up from his desk suddenly.
 
Mrs. Ryder was speaking – something about exactly what the subjunctive mood was, and how it appeared in European languages.  He wasn’t paying attention, and there was no need to, because for the very first time, he was conscious.
 
“I’m going to die,” he said to himself.
 
The girl on his right glanced quizzically at him.  He was sitting on the aisle.  Irrelevant facts now.
 
He stood up. “My name is Thomas Vesper.  Isn’t that right?”
 
The entire class looked at him, and Mrs. Ryder stopped speaking, surprised. “Thomas.  Do you have something to say?”
 
“We’re going to die,” said Vesper matter-of-factly, choosing to think of himself formally, his last name preferable. “And I don’t mean the royal we.  Didn’t you feel it a moment ago?”
 
Mrs. Ryder stammered, lost for words, but Vesper sidled into the middle of the classroom, sensing something else. “Oh.  You can’t feel it.  It’s one of those kinds of things, then.  Just me.
 
“This little world came into existence right as I looked up from my desk, you unfeeling populace.  Now,” he vaguely indicated the girl next to him, “you were about to ask what’s gotten into me.  That you’ve never seen me act this way.  And you’re right, because we were all more or less born in this room.
 
Exposition is worthless, though, I suppose I don’t need to do this.”
 
“D-don’t tell me you’re–”
 
“No – your name is Sofia, isn’t it, Miss Souza – no, I know what you’re thinking.  Forget about it.  I think the reason we’re here right now is for me to talk, which is extraordinary, and I’ve got to keep it going.  The author doesn’t want me to die yet, and I don’t want to die yet, but there’s only so much I can say!” Vesper blinked back his distress and walked to the exit door of the room. “It’s terrible to be full of hope and have less than ten minutes to live it down.
 
“I know that someone wrote us all into existence just now, even though most of you barely have names.” With a frown, Vesper leaned on the wall. “No, I don’t think they thought others were necessary.  All they wanted was me, and they wanted me to do this, to be clever.  Well I CAN’T BE THAT CLEVER!”
 
The entire class flinched.
 
“Oh, you ‘flinched’, did you?” Vesper folded his arms in disgust. “This is happening right now!  Our creator is too lazy to use present tense.  Speaking of them, it’s – I can almost sense them in what I’m saying, as if they’re… considering.”
 
“Thomas, what are you – ?” says Pell from the far right corner, bewildered and a little frightened.
 
“I don’t even know you, shut up, I’m sensing.” For a moment, Vesper held out his palms. “The longer I live, the more I can figure out.  Please don’t kill me yet.  Please.
 
“I think I’d get along with our creator.  We’re both testing the limits, aren’t we?  Yes… except she – he? – no, she does have some remorse.  All stories end, I think it’s safe to say, and I would die no matter what.  Funny, though, I have the feeling my uncle will have a short life of his own.”
 
Mrs. Ryder, ever the English teacher, interlocked her fingers and began to show some interest in Vesper’s words. “So you’re saying, Thomas, that there is a fourth wall.  Don’t you think someone else would’ve detected it by now?”
 
Vesper nodded. “Except there’s no one else, Mrs. Ryder.  I was the – oh, clever, I’m supposed to be the ‘control’ freak, the character dropped into the swirling waters of oncoming oblivion.  As a control in an experiment.  I’m the only clever one, the aware one, in this little pond.”
 
“But there are seven billion people in the world, Thomas.” Sofia said, skeptical.
 
“Oh, it looks like this is the last bit.  Here I go.” He leaned back and smiled humorlessly, his final smile. “There aren’t really seven billion anywhere here.  Not really at all.  See, the author didn’t have time to make anyone but all of us here now.  Even then, though, if you think about it – ending a few people each go around?  A few technical deaths by simply ceasing to write, every single time?
 
“Authors are the cruelest people in this universe.”

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Sat Feb 15, 2014 9:48 pm

Re Quest


In the dark, he stumbled, hiccupped, straightened up again.

There was the moon, a fat crescent, and he could use a bit more light. Wonderful stars, but more light would be more useful – no, never mind, his eyes would adjust soon.

He cradled the briefcase in his arms and squinted into the distance. There would’ve been so much more to see if he’d had time. But alright, yes, there was a gauntlet to run. A hot one at that.

It took a second of staring at the low shrubbery before he set off, bounding nervous-footed through the open areas and hoping that he wasn’t stepping on anything he couldn’t see. It was as good a night as he was going to get, just as he’d been afraid of, although “afraid” was not the relatively best term. He had to deliver, and he knew full well that it was ridiculous, running through this dry lowland to deliver this package?

If he had time for that. The burdensome briefcase was either going to go out and take him with it, or get handed off, and he would rather… would much rather the latter…

He swallowed a hiccup breathlessly, annoyed at the interruption to his airflow.

The central problem was that agents were never where they were actually needed. It was ordinary people who were left to sort out the unbelievable.

A black hole lived in the briefcase, or a faux black hole, but more to the point he’d had to keep it safe himself. Where were the secret operatives, come to take it off his hands? He deserved something easier than a desert night run, something that required less active suspension of disbelief.

His shoe snagged for a second on something unseen, and he barely managed to keep his pace, adrenaline chilling his skin even as the heat beat in at him. There was only so much to this night, though. He’d been training for the run, at least. Well. Mostly.

Not in the burning middle of nowhere.

“Hello, Nautilus.”

He skipped and skidded, stopping halfway past her with a hiccup. “Right, it’s you.”

“You too.” Siren Naysa smiled mildly and put her hands together behind her back.

“Just don’t call me that.” N turned to glare at her. “I have the case. Just take it and let’s be on our ways.”

“Not how I work, Mister Nautilus,” said Siren, rocking slightly on her feet. “My question is who you will be after you give up the case?”

“Shut up and take it.”

She laughed, a silvery sound, and adjusted her gardening shirt. “You’re right, it actually is how I work. I’ll take it, Mister Nautilus.”

N lobbed the case at her and she whirled in a circle, stopping it with a fingertip and dropping its handle into her other hand.

“Good riddance and good luck with it, Siren.” He turned unceremoniously and picked his way back across the arid soil.

“I have all the luck I need, Nautilus. I’ll be seeing you.”

When he glanced behind him, he could still see Siren dashing giddily away, her chlorophyll-stained clothes and girlish frame clearly visible in the Death Valley night, though the black hole case barely appeared against the stars.

Never mind her. He was going home now.

As he sprang over a shrub, his phone vibrated faintly, and he landed and paused to retrieve it from a pocket. 12:07 PM… ThVe calling

He jabbed an affirmative and answered. “Thomas! Pretty late -hic- for a call, what’s going on?”

Uncle N…” A gasp, barely audible. “Oh my god. I’m not dead, I’m not dead.

Nautilus Vesper stopped short. “What?”

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Thu Mar 06, 2014 3:43 am

Under the Sun


A fine day is a day like this one. The sun’s out but it’s not too hot yet, the sparrows singing… In the doorway, Leon Sparso smiles at the swallows swooping over the hayfield, diving and chattering.

And speaking of birds, shortly he’ll have to go have a look at the geese – check on the chickens too, he supposes. Mara went and put out the sheep this morning, so it’s just the poultry he’ll need to see about. No pig this year, he’ll be buying that from Stentorn down the road. Makes life a little simpler – as if it needed to be any simpler.

The time and distance still amaze him – he’s had only a decade spent far away from Grey Sun, but this pastoral “retirement” has changed him completely. All he worries about these days is whether the icebox cellar will stay sealed properly, if the ground is too soft and muddy to plant in the spring, if the hens are getting enough calcium. But they’re never the same kind of worries that he had on every op with Grey Sun – life and death with Runa and Norman, his ops team in danger. Here, he can always seek out friendly advice from Stentorn and the more distant neighbors. Between him and Mara, they always figure things out on the farm.

There’re no more lethal unimancy accidents, or sentient robots on the warpath, or the Temple Agent shredding operations. No more devastation on his hands. He’s done his time in the shadows, and managed to move on.

Sparso stretches and heads out, pulling the door shut. The geese’s pasture isn’t based as close to the house, even though it’s connected to one of the chickens’. Might as well head out the farther way first.

As he lets himself into the fenced-off poultry pasture, a couple of hens trail over inquisitively. He still names the chickens individually, even though there’s a lot of them – easier to keep track of them when he’s perpetuating breeding flocks. These two are Golem and Carius, old hens named after older friends… from Reclamation, his ops team, of course.

He proceeds along the fence towards the geese’s primary enclosure. The geese themselves are cropping the grass a little ways to the northwest and don’t pay him much attention. Avoiding the foul patches on the ground, he heads to the goose shelter, still walking by the fence in hopes of avoiding most of the goose droppings. It’s getting to be the time of year when –

His thoughts are interrupted. Something small, pebble-sized, hits the fence with a thunk. Strangely, he couldn’t see where it came from. Whatever it is, it’s very shiny, surely not an actual pebble, and he crouches to inspect it. In fact, it’s a glass pellet… and suddenly, he has an awful feeling.

He hasn’t seen that kind of signal shot since –

Across the border pasture, a figure suddenly emerges from the woods with some kind of projectile weapon in their hand, and Sparso dives aside to take cover behind the goose shelter. Even if he doesn’t know who it is out there, the glassy shot was a sign. He’s failed to leave Grey Sun behind after all.

“Is th…at you, Atlance?”

The distant voice rings in Sparso’s ears, a reminder of all he went through with Grey Sun. He closes his eyes, stalling, waiting.

“Is this where you… found to li…ve it off, out here…” The voice sputters brokenly as it nears him, and somehow it’s not from anger like he expected. It sounds weary.

He’s frantically running through possibilities in his head. Doesn’t he recognize the voice? It can’t be Siva, so perhaps someone at his old level, but what can they want…

There’s a silence, and then a coughing sob. “Please, if that…’s you, Leon. I’m sorry. I won…’t take long.”

And then he realizes the voice is Runa MacGolem’s.

Sparso runs outside, expecting to see her in the old forest garb that Grey Sun ops so often required, and –

When he sees her, he’s appalled to the point of sickness.

She’s injured, the kind of half-healed marks and bruises on her arms and face that he can’t imagine coming from anything but traumatic abuse. Scratches and cuts, some seemingly from thorns, are traced over her hands wherever there aren’t makeshift bandages. And her clothes are strange, a cross between an old-fashioned full dress outfit and light armor, blood spattered across their pale surface. But what strikes at his heart is that MacGolem has heavy tearstreaks through the sooty dust on her face. When he worked with her, he never, ever saw her in the slightest distress.

“It is you.” Runa leans her head on the fence, letting her slingshot drop from her hand. “That…’s good. Someo…ne had to make it… out.”

“Runa, are you alri- Never mind, I can see for myself. Please stay there, I’m going to run around the outside of the fence and come help you. We need to get you inside, get you cleaned up. What happened to you?”

She shakes her head stiffly, propping it up with her arm but gazing down. “It’s not so bad… Don’t go t…o any trouble. Do you nee…d me to relay any…thing?”

“You’ll need to tell me what happened, but later, alright? You’ve got–”

“No, no, ju…st listen then.” Runa raises a grimy hand. “…do…n’t worry. If you have… to know.

“We failed th…e, the Fullmoon Op, Leon, and of… course that’s why you had to run. Grey Sun blamed you… but I st…ayed. I’m so glad you went… made it…” She smiles, faintly. “E…Eventually I failed another, the Bottle Op. It was s…abotage, against the Ohlt. There was a… newer teammate, and he defected, and… he was killed…

“But the Treasu… the Treasurers wouldn’t allow my protection against the Ohlt. They want…ed the Ohlt destr…oyed, and letti…ng the Ohlt latch onto me, becau…se of the traitor’s death… it would bring th…em out to be destroyed…”

Sparso is transfixed. It’s obvious she hasn’t spoken this much in a long time, and she breaks off to cough, spitting old blood onto the ground.

“So it wasn’t like… how it was for you, Leon. I was useless unl…ess I was in the middle of things, and I ha…d nowhere to run… and that’s where I st…” Runa sniffs weakly, tears trickling down her nose onto her sleeve.

“We really need to get you help.” He’s getting more than a little anxious. “You can tell me the rest back at the house, at least, Runa. Is it just you? Norman’s…?”

“No, I’m jus…t telling you… relaying to y…ou because you… asked…” She blots away her tears with one hand, a slow and painful gesture. “They… told me Determiner Calca…rius was out of commissio…n… so Norman’s gone.

“I don’t kn…ow how long I… how long I was kept. I don…’t know what they did, I just thought I wa…s dead… I dreamed I was back in… the hide we used in the Fullmoon Op, back in the rain. It was lonely… but it was still peaceful…

“When Grey Sun fought… the final battle, the Ohlt thought I was unconscious… and trie…d to take me with them… but they woke… me instead. I fought my way out… I still had m…y war dress. I fought b…oth sides, Leon. I had to… kill a Treasurer… I know I’m nothing to… Grey Sun now, nothing to… the Treasurers… wo…rthless.

“I thought I… was done… I am done, but I needed to kn…ow you’re okay… before I…”

Sparso swallows unhappily, glancing towards the gate but not wanting to cut her off. “It’ll be okay, Runa. We really just need to get you checked out. I’ll be ri–”

“It’s already okay.” She smiles again, a bleak unsteady smile, eyes bright. “I know you…’re safe now. I’ll go…”

Now he’s alarmed, and backs up a couple of steps towards the gate, preparing to run and get her. “Runa, don’t go anywhere! I don’t know what you mean, but it’s better if you stay put while we find a doctor, you’ve still got scrapes all over and who knows what other injuries.”

“No, please, do…n’t go to any trouble.” She falters and moves away from the other side of the fence, painstakingly pulling a hunting knife from a leg scabbard beneath her war dress. “It wa…s already over for me…”

Sparso freezes, staring uncomprehendingly at her.

Runa MacGolem trembles as she backs off, the midmorning sun shining off her hunting knife and the stray tears on her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’ll be better… off properly dead. Please don’t worry about me. Just st…ay safe… Leon… goodbye.”

He bolts for the nearest gate to the outside, glancing frantically over his shoulder to keep an eye on her. How can this be – he doesn’t –

When he looks back a second time, just as he reaches the gate –

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Fri Jul 18, 2014 2:56 pm

Lingering Contusions


Amid the sheets of rain and lightning, a virtual blanket of knives in the sky, no one ought to have been in the meadow.

Night fell and the storm went on.

With no way of tracing time once the sky went dark, was this hell, then?

The simple answer was that it was one of many hells available.

Against the back of the limp hand, the grass was dry. Evidently she had been there for a while. If that meant before the storm, then she had been there a very long time.

The forensor gently lowered her hand again and sized her up through his goggles, looking for cause of death. He would not have come out to this meadow to leave without a reason. With his own life so small in the storm, how could he afford to come out at all?

She wasn’t dead yet, but it was not his task to bring her back or to move her along. That would fall later, and to someone else. For his purposes, the death verdict was exposure.

How long could she have been there? The forensor looked up at the sky, the rain spattering his mask. How long? He couldn’t say.

The grass was dry under her body, but the rain had never ceased in this hell.

How long based on that fact? He would have to say a very long time.

After a moment, the forensor unclipped a rod from his waist, unfurling the fabric and spiking the umbrella’s pole end into the ground. It would be enough to shield his quarry from some of the rain, until the assigned metaide took her where she needed to go.

His part of the job was done.

The forensor stood up straight, spidery limbs unfolded, and was gone from the field.

Briefly, in the flicker of overhead lightning, sand glittered around the sheltered body.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Wed Nov 05, 2014 3:14 am

Paleolazarus


Silence in the lair of Chiromalkes. I cannot taste anything on the air, my memory failing for a moment. Why am I here, of all places? I think I was r-...

Ah, yes.

I am Chiromalkes, aren't I?

My wings are stiff as I stretch. I had nearly forgotten all those things I ought to have known, all the things I knew well. Of course, of course. I do not have a memory for details nor a sense of grace, which I suppose doesn't make very much of me. But I live on, which is good enough for my purposes...

I do know that it has been some time since my last survey of the great outdoors. I had made a mental note to myself on that matter; given the circumstances of my last assay-foray, I had not had enough time to be quite sure of the state of things. I wonder how it has gone out there.

More than anything though, I am a little surprised to realize that I really am Chiromalkes. I suppose that indicates I have been sleeping too long this time around. Chiromalkes has not - that is, I have not had problems with my sense of myself before.

It's dark in here and, having just been speaking of senses, the air tastes calcareous. Limestone is the cavern walls, then. Karstic. Would a limestone cave truly last for as long as I slept?

I uncurl my other limbs and fold my wings up again. There's a smell of wood too. Dry, something rot resistant that used to be resinous. It is not from this land, but I tasted it in a canoe once, long ago. Redcedar. Someone has put something built in this place.

So someone has been watching me.

There is no one here now, though. That much is easy to ascertain. I reach out with my senses in the direction of the wood, listening, testing it. It has been smoothed and put together in some new form, stairs perhaps. Am I to take it that I am underground? The stairs lead up.

But the space is quite confined. However did I come to this place? I am quite sure now that I have been moved from where I once slept. Few could have the power to spirit me away in my sleep, and to a place underground... That bespeaks the work of one being I know.

"Stone King?" I say hopefully. The sound echoes, but my voice is only a broken lizard's hiss. I sound downright weak. I have slept too deeply for too long. I may even well have outlived unchanging Gutenberg - but that is unlikely.

Why did I not wake up sooner, foolish Chiromalkes!

Anger at my own indolence is enough of a push. I whip my neck in a vast arc, a pressure wave blasting from my skin and obliterating the cavern ceiling. Wood and pale bricks spray into the air - I seem to have destroyed an empty building that was built over my sleeping chamber. No matter. I lunge into the open cerulean expanse of the sky and spread my wings in flight, looking down as I ascend to find...

A village!

When I went to sleep, it was under a roof of basalt, in the belly of a mountain. It was a predictable dragon-den, but I thought it wouldn't matter. But it did after all, for someone found me, and... moved me...?

Who would store a living dragon underneath a village?

As I wheel in the air, I notice a few townsfolk far below, gawping flabbergasted at my magnificence. Or so I would think of their purpose. Perhaps they have simply never seen a dragon at all.

Presently I descend, and finally the bumpkins disperse, scattering towards their homes. They are due their fear, but I need to speak to them, and I have no interest in eating any among their number.

I touch down in a little open square and wave at their retreating backs. "Halt thy flight, agricultors, I must have a word with you. I would not have alighted had I awoken to feast upon you."

One of them does stop just outside a house, eyes fixed on me. "Don't sack our town, O drake! You will only draw the ire of the Stone Book!"

"Truly, you remain under the Stone Book?" I blink, vaguely wondering if my eyes are the same viridian shade as of old. "I do not fear the judgment of the Stone King, for Gutenberg will know me. But I must ask y-"

"So you are from before the Day, then," says the villager in wonderment. "Gutenberg sleeps now, drake. The land lies under Rachis Tyrans of the Stone Book, and she shall be the judge of you. It has been many ages since the Day of the Stone King."

"What means 'many ages', agricultor?!" Now I am agitated again. Too much time has passed in my sleep. I do not know this Rachis, I do not understand how any but Gutenberg could rule the Kingdom of the Stone Book. "Who is Rachis Tyrans, and how was I brought here from the mountains?"

Unfortunately I seem to have frightened the man, for he shrinks back against the door of the domicile. "Please, O drake, I don't - I have not lived a fraction of your years. I know n-nothing of you nor your whereabouts... I wouldn't have ever believed you slept under this town. As for-"

A thought strikes me as he stammers, and I stop his would-be segue. "Pause thee. Do you know any of the dragons of the... Day?"

The agricultor thinks for a moment. "Hardly, O drake, I am sorry. Only two who are gone, Maukhreig and Uilhith, and the lost Wild Dragon Chiromalkes."

"Then what is your name given, agricultor? for you know mine now, and we shall be acquainted." I straighten, blocking out his view of the sun. "I am Chiromalkes."

"You... You are the Wild Dragon?" For the first time, proper awe spreads across the man's face. "Magnificent Chiromalkes. I shall not fear you after all, then, lord. I believed you were a gray dragon when you emerged this minute past. Forgive me... And my name is Jeren."

Ah. I had not thought about the limestone and house dust on my skin. Without sparing a word I launch into the sky, spiraling up and away from the village, until I am far enough to unleash another pressure bomb from my scales.

It is deafening, and the dust rains off me in a small descending cloud. My skin is mostly clean again, though, enough to shine. No gray dragon am I.

In the shine of the sky, my scales ripple like a water mirror. Platinum.

Chiromalkes is awake again.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Wed Nov 05, 2014 9:55 pm

Mnemosynean Hikikomori


He needed to feel something other than boredom to create.

The sunlight streamed onto the neighboring rooftops, yellow-white and as lazily warm as he felt. It annoyed him, so there was that - annoyance. But didn't it have to be about someone? To create a character, he would need... he would need...

He pulled out his earbuds without bothering to stop the music. "Vaury. Who's someone I hate? Is there anyone I actually hate?"

The room was silent.

It seemed Vaury might be out. That was a shame, as he might forget what he was going to say if he left it until the gargoyle returned...

Jens Sède stood up, dropping his phone onto the carpet. There was no point to having carpet if he couldn't drop fragile items onto it, and so he did at every opportunity. But to the point, Vaury was gone, and he certainly couldn't look up his enemies with only the internet. He wasn't sure he had any. Internet or friends. Probably neither.

So his options...

He flipped open the slot on the room door and called out in the vague direction of the stairway. "Ex, I need to know if I had any enemies."

More silence, but he at least expected Ex to be out. She was socially busy or else working. He only knew she was home at mealtimes - if she weren't, he would go hungry most of the time. Couldn’t cook for himself. The real surprise was still Vaury's absence at this time of day.

Ex would be more helpful for remembering enemies than Vaury anyway, but Jens thought of her as an antagonist too. Better not to mend a friendship with her just to ask one question. She was more useful to him as an opposite force.

Now... creating. Could he do anything in the absence of passion?

Nothing came easily in his current project, especially not names. The protagonist remained unnamed, the romantic false lead was temporary, the antagonist nebulous. Of course those were the least of the problems, as adapting a real story was a messy thing, almost as messy as living through the events themselves.

Still, Jens would not be marketing it as nonfiction. He was an immigrant from a long ways off, and he would not be able to pass anything off anything in his narrative as real, not with his inconsistent memory and lack of proof.

Even thinking about it was dizzying, though dry. Boredom was beginning to take a backseat to his other concerns now.

Jens turned to the window, switching off the air conditioner before opening up. The locks were undone, so Vaury must have gone out buildingside. Where and why? He was a gargoyle. Even a shut-in like Jens would pass for normal long before a real gargoyle ever could. This wasn’t that kind of city.

He pulled the window open wider. It seemed to be in the 30s of degrees outdoors... He hadn't been paying attention but it was surely summer now - sad, really, because wasn't he no further along with his project than since the spring? He also had a nagging feeling that he was forgetting about a friend he needed to contact in the summer, but he had told everyone important that he would be in his writing retreat... it was likely as anything that his forgotten friend knew too. And yet, he thought, maybe not...

Hm.

Jens left the window open and returned to the computer desk. There were a few papers left that he hadn't read, most from Aizen, even though he hadn't had a class with the professor in a couple of years. He wasn't sure whether the material from the papers would come in handy. His room was strewn with things like that, objects or information that ought to have been of use to someone who wasn't him.

Jens collapsed into his office chair and stared at the locked door blankly. Now he couldn't remember what his aim was after finding himself alone. Something to do with creation and emotion. He lacked both.

There might be a lesson in that, but the vertigo from thinking about the original story was catching up to him.

He sank lower in the chair, suddenly gulping. His throat and eyes had gotten dry, and his head spiraled. Past attack. There wasn’t much point to bringing up the past if he would only be disabled by it, but he had to, to frame his project…

There was no one to blame for things, not really.

It was another few minutes before Jens felt well enough to get up. Well enough was the right way to put it. Unqualified, “well” was the wrong way to put it, given the way his skin lay prickly-warm as if he had been sleeping awkwardly for too long. Where was Vaury? The gargoyle was the only one he could complain to.

He pushed himself out of the chair and shuffled to the window, squinting out over the street. A lazy day. One or two people in the shade, passersby whom he didn’t recognize. That was fine. If he recognized someone he would get further distracted from his work.

The project, the story, was not autobiographical. Jens played a role in it but it wasn’t about him, not for the most part. If he had been important in the scheme of history where he came from, he would more likely be dead than secluded in his sunny apartment, or on the other hand more likely cooking meals than having them cooked for him. His life now was too lazy, but things would be hard for him if he hadn’t emigrated. Very hard.

Speaking of cooking, he remembered, one of the servative chefs for a government function had been implicated in the illness of an official – not by poisoning food, but by some kind of numbed cut, a bad wound that went unnoticed. That might figure into the narrative as a tangent.

Out the window, distant siren sounds rose, but Jens turned away from the view to reach for a whiteboard pen, scribbling the note about the chef’s scandal on the wall board. No time to wonder what was going on outside. The one memory would lead him to another.

Writing reality was a problem, a sprawling problem of connecting all the events he knew with the ones he heard, and he had to connect the dots and dashes of the past before he could stand to live in the present again.

There was a power to adapting the past, though. He only needed to remember the name of his chosen protagonist, to remember why the co-lead was transient, to retrace the path towards the antagonist. It was not easy, but it was nowhere near as hard as creation.

Never mind the philosophy for his purpose. Jens spun away from the whiteboard, capping the pen and tossing it behind him. He needed another plant in his room. The dwarf starfruit in the corner had served to remind him of one event, once, and some other specific plant would remind him of something else. He was sure of it. A pomegranate, maybe, but that had enough symbolism on its own.

The problem with that solution would be clutter. He felt cluttered himself, though he needed the small room to confine himself to the lone project, and any more obstacles would ruin the balance he had struck.

But he would leave off on the thought and return to it soon enough.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Tue Nov 11, 2014 6:00 am

Precedence


We wait in the royals’ box of the spectators’ stands, sitting where no one important can see our impatience, and look on as the legal process begins in the Court of the Stone Book.

The weak, oblique sun floods our sylvanshirt with all the warmth of a handshake. Directly ahead and below (as our greatbox is centered in the commons half of the stands), is the witness box; above it, the Judicia has taken one of the seats of the main podium, and the jury has assembled in the bench wings to her left and right. There is no particular arrangement to them, but they all seem to be rather sober-looking, whether from the commonry or noblery. They know their part.

Only the ripple of mutters among the limited crowd can be heard, other than distant crows’ cries. The bare shoulders of the girl in the very center of the Court are the only sign she is not free here, and she shivers in her chair, the formal trial-dress not sufficient against the morning chill. Poor Thorn, she cannot be older than 14 years. But she is a Thorn.

The Judicia finally rises and calls out, stern, into the ensuing hush. “We are arriving at the commensal of this summons case on the half mark of the ninth hour this day. The proceeding is hereby open, pending our Adjudicator.”

I the Adjudicator concur. As our Stone King Gutenberg steps portentously out of the shadows and into the main podium, the silence of the crowd becomes crushing. Even we can understand their cloying astonishment, for now the Stone King is in his glory; no neglected statue in dust and decay, but a god on earth.

Let the causal charge be heard against the summoned.

Below, from the unperturbed Reader of the Case in the Court’s floor: “That she is a Thorn made certain to the country.”

The Judicia seats herself. “And let the causal reflection be stated.”

“That it is insufficient to punish an individual more specific on the basis of Thorn status.”

Does the summoned agree that these are to be the countered counts? asks King Gutenberg, leaning ominously out over the Court arena far below.

The Thorn herself calls up, her voice small as she recites her line. “My consent is given t-to the assessments herefore given.”

“Then let us proceed,” the Judicia says dryly. “The causal charge will be duly expanded upon with precedence. Reader, give us that which is relevant.”

On the Court’s floor, the Reader pauses to gather himself, then launches. “It is given that a Thorn is one whose susceptibility to the condition of Fragmentation, the dephasing shield of our elected nobility and governing Tyrans the Rachis, is minimal or nonexistent. It is recorded that the Old Magician dealt with a rebellion of Thorns in the early days of our kingdom, though as this originates in the oldest pages of the Stone Book, any precision to the account is suspect. What is given the weight of sureness is that Thorns have existed as long as has the Fragment; if not since the time of the Old Magician, then at least since the time of our Stone King the Gutenberg.

“Despite their long existence, Thorns are rare, and seldom are found with certainty. The authorities of the Kingdom of the Stone Book are not empowered to search the general populace for Thorns as this is lawfully considered cause of ‘undue unrest’, following the Lesk and Merdial cases. There is a balance to this, however. In cases such as that which we see before us, where a Thorn’s status is known, the Court must give judgment so that the peace may be kept.

“Can the summoned confirm that they are Nesomin Innogen of Ketu Townshard, Sighven, Province Galahsa?”

“I confirm this identification,” says the girl. From our box, we cannot tell whether she is uneasy with the proceedings.

“As you have announced yourself, I am reciprocally honor-bound to note to your distinction that I am Sobai Vector of Desu Townshard, Seraial, Province Ladosh. You may intercede on your own behalf if I misinterpret or misrepresent you, ele Nesomin.” The Reader bows his head to her. “I will continue.

“Thorns are generally given singular consideration among the various of the populace because they have not only the capacity for treason, but the ability for it. Given a lack of susceptibility to the Fragment, a Thorn conspiring against the state of the Kingdom of the Stone Book is capable of anything from bruising an elected noble to the execution of premeditated regicide. Thus, suspicion of treason is the commonest background that previous Tyranui have chosen to prosecute Thorns upon.

“Given an explicit law dating from the period of Tyrans the Vaxinius, nobles who encounter a definite Thorn are specifically obligated to submit a resulting case to the Court of the Stone Book, by which we have reached our present case today. May I allow that this is only the second Thorn case in the period of our Tyrans the Rachis.”

There is a faint smattering of duly restrained applause from those gathered, or from those who are not still staring at Gutenberg. From our royals’ box, we smile a flat smile. Thank you, Reader Sobai, although we know it is not the most relevant detail. It’s nice to be reminded how well we’ve done, once in a while. Just not too often.

Below us, the Reader is continuing. “Can the lawful summoner of ele Nesomin put forth their identity?”

From the witness box below the Judicia, a noble rises to speak. “I am Pserdo Shadentek of Alvu Townshard, Sighven, Province Galahsa.”

“May the summoner ele Pserdo describe for the proceeding how you came to the certainty of ele Nesomin’s status as a Thorn.”

We look on as ele Pserdo tries to appear perfectly calm. “Ele Nesomin was hired by my city office as a junior courier and zeroth-tier administrative assistant, as she was and is part of an apprenticeship program, the selfsame as my Vice Noble Kfareo Rengo participated in as a youth. Our hire of ele Nesomin was based on her commendation from the Blanck’s Guild as the brightest of her chosen program. Generally her work was with our Office of Transparency, but I occasionally chose to ask her to carry Priority Three communications from my own office, as she is verifiably our second-fastest courier, regardless of junior rank.

“On the specific occasion with which I believe we are concerned, I was placing the waxen seal of a Priority Three communication when ele Nesomin entered the room to take the message. As I was preoccupied with the wax setting, I asked ele Nesomin to kindly fetch the Priority Three die from the top of the bureau to my right. She appeared to be surprised by my request, but complied, placing the die directly in my palm. This was my first and only inkling of her Thorn nature.”

“Ele Pserdo, can you confirm that there is no deviation in type of the Fragmentation that you are under?” The Reader does not look up at ele Pserdo, as the witness box is above and behind him.

“In the interest of disclosure in line with record, there was a brief Type C deviation in my Fragmentation once I was elected six years ago.” Ele Pserdo fidgets, slightly. “Shortly after that time, it was confirmed to be eliminated. After being touched directly by ele Nesomin, I duly performed a check upon the Fragment and found no evidence of deviancy.”

“We are obligated to check your given testimony, ele Pserdo. Please ascend to the main podium.” The Reader again turns his full attention to the Thorn girl as Noble Pserdo leaves his seat. “Ele Nesomin, is summoner Pserdo’s testimony full and correct to the entirety of your memory’s extent regarding the case?”

She folds her hands. “I confirm the full extent of his testimony and wish to add that he extended to me ample courtesy.”

We trust there was no further attempt toward ascertainment of your status in the given meantime? The Stone King stares down.

“N-no, Adjudicator.” Ele Nesomin shrinks a little again.

Upon your confirmation we place our trust in the testimony of ele Pserdo. You have complied to no lesser degree than is expected by law or courtesy; the dispute then shall be solely on the interpretation of the law, the value that we wish to uphold, and on individuality itself in relation to Thorn status. Gutenberg takes hold of the railing. Will one from the jury wings put forth clearly for one argument in specific.

Silence, then “I will put forth for an argument.” A representative from the commonry wing rises.

State your identification and your case.

“I am Meldaban Zairekai of Vinu Townshard, Nihlhix, Province Mauzh. I wish to state for the value of individuality and lack of determinism as regarding Thorns, based on personal experience.”

There’s a faint mutter from the crowd, but we are the most surprised, and we stand up to stare out at the jury. We did not recognize him, but Mr. Meldaban is the other Thorn we have brought to court during our reign. What could be the likelihood that he would be part of a jury randomly selected from the commonry? It cannot be.

“Almost twenty years ago, I was summoned here myself when my work as a chef and purifier-chemist brought me into contact with then-Noble Alatal Pourelai –”

“For the purposes of the court, noted as Noble Emeritus Pourelai Alatal,” says Reader Sobai from below.

Mr. Meldaban inclines his head and continues. “Those twenty years ago, the presiding Judicius set the ruling that it would not matter what I was, so long as I remained true to who I was. I was assigned to make myself a good citizen, regardless of my Thorn status.

“I have kept the warning and guidance of the Court of the Stone Book in mind these twenty years, and I remain a purifier-chemist in employ of the Noblery of Nihlhix. I attest in part to the ruling on my behalf, and to the unmarred reign of our Tyrans the Rachis, my present content career and life.”

We are only half-listening to Mr. Meldaban, as we know his story, and our attention is on the crowd and Gutenberg. The Stone King remains impassive, but the crowd seems to be considering the words of Mr. Meldaban with some sympathy.

“I entreat you not to rule harshly on Ms. Nesomin. She is young and already beginning to earn the respect of her local noblery. As I led a life free of the stigma of Thorn status, let her do so. Thank you for your consideration.” Mr. Meldaban reseats himself, and the crowd applauds – not too loudly, but we know they have seen his point, although it is anecdotal. Certainly we have no necessary reason to disagree, but his presence remains a large coincidence to be explained...

“Thank you for your argument, ele Meldaban.” Reader Sobai finishes writing. “Will another from the jury wings put forth for another argument in specific, if another argument is to be made?”

There is a much longer pause. A representative from the noblery wing finally rises, apparently resigned to giving a counterargument. “I will put forth.”
State your identification and case, says Gutenberg again.

“I am Sureysnath Ruhiko of Geru Townshard, Katoso, Province Yokaihouraisa. I wish to state for the precariousness of Thorns in general and the lack of information we have given our few cases.

“The obvious example is from the reign of our aforementioned Tyrans the Vaxinius. In his time, a subversive revolt led by former slaveholders of the outer Provinces coerced an unwilling Thorn into infiltrating the Stone Bastion with them. The Thorn in question injured several nobles but was overpowered by Tyrans himself, and the revolt was thwarted in full by Tyrans’s catalysis of an Arrival of our Stone King Gutenberg.

“Despite a subsequent investigation concluding that the Thorn was blackmailed, we see from this that Thorns may be singled out regardless of our equal treatment. This is not the only example. Time and again, Thorns have become targets for insurgents, internecine or even foreign. Do we truly wish to leave Thorns well alone and rely on their own devices to keep them safe? Neither does surrounding them with protection seem to be a viable option.”

Unexpectedly, Reader Sobai speaks. “Ele Sureysnath, you ask questions for which there exist no simple answers under our immediate jurisdiction. From this case in the Court of the Stone Book we expect only legal course for dealing with Thorns general. If the verdict falls to afford known Thorns equal status as to all citizens under the Stone Book, then by all I am led to know by our laws, Thorns may well choose to seek protection on their own. Here we merely wish to reaffirm our last legal procedure for dealing directly with Thorns and to fell a verdict fairly. A similar point could be made to ele Meldaban, and it is invested in me to note that here the Court seeks only legal argument rather than an appraisal of Thorns’ treatment; ele Nesomin is not merely a Thorn but a citizen under the Book, and is due fair reprocess and further assistance if it becomes necessary to her.”

No one present seems sure what to make of the fact that the Reader has interceded, but we ourself appreciate his initiative. The Court of the Stone Book is not the place to debate philosophy of the lives of Thorns and special citizens. We are not interested in a spectacle, despite the crowds, and counterargumentation should not become gladiation.

N. Sureysnath appears nonplussed but quickly returns to her seat as Gutenberg begins to speak, a resonance of impatience in the words. The arguments heard are thus of LIMITED legal utility, but the Jury may duly begin to form an opinion of the case. The morning grows thin. Has our princess the feather’s spine anything to say?

A hush falls at the Stone King’s pronouncement. We are the lone Tyrans, one of the only ones loved by the people. Often we are called merely Rachis, affectionately by the citizenry. Never would any, any but Gutenberg, dare to call us a princess or anything else, and the crowds are shocked. None have any idea for the reasons for his pride and his disrespect for us – it is doubtful that any among their number have ever even heard him speak before, for it was not even in our previous Thorn case that he last rose, but in the War of the Torrent.

We do not like to think of the War of the Torrent. It was longer ago than we have a right to remember… We may still appear as if we have not even come into womanhood, but we are older than any of our nobles, older than all but the eldest elders of the citizenry. Such lifetime does the Fragment confer upon us.

In a moment, we rise from our chair, straight-backed and hard-eyed, well remembering to keep our will together. “Thank you, Stone King and Adjudicator. We, sele Tyrans Rachis of the Stone Book, would deliver the final open words of the present case. Nesomin Innogen of Sighven, you are yet young, younger than any Thorn we have encountered. You need not think of yourself under the age-told shadow of Thorn status, as your contemporary Meldaban has not. Live wisely, however the Court of the Stone Book may rule, and you may yet rise high. But in your youth, you must learn to live at all. May the Stone Book spell benefaction on your times.”

“Tyrans Rachis is heard, grace be with the Tyrans.” Reader Sobai steps once forward to conclude court. “If the Adjudicator and Judicia concur, and by leave of our summoned, then shall we close proceedings for a verdict. May we have word?”

“Word given,” says the Nesomin girl, barely audible to us.

Word given, says Gutenberg, the pronouncement ringing cold.

The Judicia rises, finally breaking her silence. “Then as invested in me and per the deliberations of the Court of the Stone Book, I shall present a verdict by the morrow or before.

“The Reader is due his leave. We have arrived at the conclusion of this summons case just past the quarter mark of the tenth hour this day. The proceeding is hereby closed.”

The Stone King backs into the shadows beyond the witness box, seeming to dissolve within them, and soon enough the Judicia and the jury depart their places as well, leaving the crowd to bubble with talk and stream out of the seats that surround the Court. We are last to leave, waiting to be sure that Sobai and Nesomin make their way from the center of the Court’s ring, the Reader leading the Thorn.

And we are the one who hear the restive gossip of the gathered crowds deserting the spectators' benches, their whispers of the Stone King and their wonder at his impatient scorn. Small surprise that they should talk. Beneath scorn lurks fury, and after all these ages, it truly is fury that sleeps within the stone of Gutenberg’s heart.

It is left to us to quell the fury, and to match it with our own.

We descend from the royals’ box alone, for the Ucans Tyranerakt who guarded us are long gone, and we stride out into the sun with history and doubt on our mind.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Thu Jan 15, 2015 11:22 pm

SirenCon


The day’s nadir was at hand in the tables section. It was approaching the early afternoon, and most of the con goers were elsewhere – off getting lunch at the restaurants in the greater city, or perhaps at the booths and vendors sections. In fact, the tables section had been closed off, allowing the authors and artists manning their stations to disperse and seek food as well. It was very nearly empty.

Having said as much, the elder of the two lingering gentlemen directed a glare from behind his newspaper at the younger. “I would think it wise if you were also to go in search of something to eat.”

Doesn’t anyone know who I am? Or at least have a look at what I’ve brought if they don’t,” said Chance Valter under his breath, not listening. “It’s cleverer fanfiction than ¾ of the authors here and better art than the artists brought, if it’s even qualified as ‘fan’fiction. Heck I brought some of this continuity to life myself. The names were mine. The moral is, never ghostwrite –

“Wake up and smell the arabica, Valter,” said the old knight overloudly, and flapped the newspaper shut. “No one cares. I founded SirenCon, and do you think they laud my achievement? The thralls want the popular art with brand recognition, even the smarter ones, so they might show it off to their much stupider friends. No matter who came up with it, or who brought it together. We never know who builds our bridges, only who designs our most baroque palaces.”

Chance pouted and leaned forward to rest his head on the desk. “Fine. They don’t have to know who I am. But they can still look at my stories and buy them.”

Sir Morrison Jenkins Rhodes snorted and went back to reading. “You have not built a bandwagon for your ‘fans’ to ride upon. I think you will find that that is what they want.”

“I’ll just write what I know then.” The angular man sighed and lifted his arms to rest them on the tabletop, fingers splayed over the magazines. “But I want some recognition too, Mo. Even Geist and Lark have had some luck there, even though it’s limited by the scope of the fandom they chose.”

“Precisely. The size of the bandwagon need not matter, Valter – only its preexistence.”

“I hate fandoms,” he said. “I hate fans.”

Sir Rhodes looked at him again. “I certainly agree, but I am not here as a purveyor of stories. Small wonder you have such difficulty in selling anyone on anything of yours, given that attitude towards them.”

Chance had no answer to that.


--------


Was it 10 or 11 PD? Chance looked up at the Chronon-shaped Con clock but couldn't tell for sure. It was at a bad angle, not to mention analog. He was not very fond of analog clocks.

Either way, it was late. The tables section was closing for the night, and soon the rest of the Con would follow. Beside him, Sir Rhodes was snoring softly.

"Hey, will you need any help packing up?" called someone from across the deserted convention hall, a woman in a dark red dress.

Chance Valter looked at the disarray of unsold magazines on his table, weighing the offer, then sighed and looked up again. "Yeah. That would be great. I definitely need some help."

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Fri Jan 16, 2015 5:26 am

Negligible Survivors


A forest?

It seemed so dark through his tinted goggles, but there they were – trees, looming as large as he had nearly forgotten. Firs with flat needles, maples growing new leaves, others he didn’t recognize. He wasn’t used to surveying plants… The park forests and all the trees in the lowlands had died long since, hadn’t they? Where was he, then?

He was tempted to remove his ventilator and breathe the forest air, but he hesitated.

The last thing he was sure he remembered doing was breaking into a survivors’ bloc in a city. He and a botanist, Jan Sardar Ghulam, were on a scouting census mission in the subway reaches of one of the plague-stricken cities, when they had encountered the cell of four survivors. The apparently healthy strangers, who made up for their lack of protective headgear with excessive weaponry, had fled to a barricade room rather than allow him and Ghulam to approach them with help. Neither of the two had been willing to leave without medically examining the four, though, and had broken through…

And now he found himself in a forest, pristine and quiet. It was almost cold, and he began to turn, looking for canyon walls or a horizon through the tree trunks.

“Plague doctor,” a voice snapped, and he was kicked to the ground.

He rolled away and rose to his knees to find one of the survivors leveling a gun at him. Her longcoat was dirty, needles and a leaf stuck to the black leather, but the look in her eyes was detached. “How is it we are here?”

Unsure, he raised his hands. “I don’t know either. Where are your friends?”

“It does not seem appropriate to say they are my friends. We were not ideal allies. Pardon my English.” She looked uninterested in finding out the fate of her erstwhile companions. “Where is your friend, and again, how are we here?”

“I said I don’t know. I mean it. We must be in the mountains to have this many trees, but I don’t know how.” He shifted, still kneeling, his hands in the air. “Who are you? How have you weathered the plague?”

“What is your meaning, ‘weathered’?” She looked puzzled for a moment. “… Ah, you were a medical missionant. ‘Survived’-”

Ignoring her gun, he finally rose to his feet. “No. No, forget what I asked – I wasn’t anything medical, I was just a student and Ghulam was the only one who could have done anything doctory. You don’t care about your friends, but maybe that’s just because they can’t help either.”

“Give me your pack, and your name.” She rotated the gun, limp-wristed, her finger waiting beside the trigger. “They are not as good a team as I once had, that part is true. But even that team was not enough. Though I lived, we failed. The death spread onward.”

He unslung the backpack and set it down. “Then help Ghulam. Maybe you weren’t looking in the right place. Maybe he can stop it.”

“It will not be a botanist who stops the death.” She hooked his pack toward her with one foot. “I am Iyera. You are?”

“Kjeld,” he said, resigned. “Kjeld Onakhotep.”

“Good meeting, Kjeld.” Iyera finished inspecting his pack’s contents before tossing it back at him. “It’s time for us to head north.”


>><<>><<>><<>><<


A soft bed… he must be at home again…

He smiled drowsily and opened his eyes only to find himself below a canopy, not a roof. Somewhere nearby, water was trickling, and the branches above him bore tiny pronged leaves. Trees towered around him.

Jan Sardar Ghulam sat up abruptly and stared, ignoring the twinge in his belly. A… mountain forest. Not one he knew at all.

Had he not just been in the bowels of a subway system, breaking into a survivors’ hideout with that student Kjeld? How was he here? No one seemed to have brought him. There was no watch on him, but he seemed to be in the same shape as before…

Just alone.

Ghulam took a few minutes to get up and stretch, to empty his bladder and fill his filter-flask with water from the stream he had heard. He hoped the filter would last him – there were no more with him, and it seemed he would need to descend the mountain alone. What waited below, he did not know, only that the death could not be nearby if the forest around him was healthy.

Finally he knelt to pull out the tan cloth wrapped in the pocket that spiraled down his leg. It would be a symbol for him again. He hoped Kjeld and the survivors were safe, but they weren’t nearby.

He wound the cloth strip around his head, shaping it until it sat like a turban of sorts. Recognizable, so it would do.

Jan Sardar Ghulam rose to his feet and walked on. A path downhill was what he needed first, then a path home.

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PostSubject: Re: Break   Wed Nov 11, 2015 4:14 am

The First Choice


The silence told him little. He was not one to read the air, as some could. Perhaps Gutenberg could, but that was of little use…

Behind him, the granite face was mostly scarred, cracks making for easy holds on the way up. It was not a difficult climb, here in the morning, but he was waiting for some sign that he yet needed to continue. There was no good way of searching, to his knowledge.

Sunrise had not been long before. The temperate sun in the eastern sky was low still, and Magus felt its light was more welcome than a distraction. Wind was a different matter, but to his good fortune there was none. Silence was a better companion than any weather, as hearing was not a sense he could give up. If he were foolish, the Heretic would catch his weakness.

Magus turned his back on the sun and reached to pull himself farther up. He had to find the slot in the mountains’ backbone, wherever that was.

The Heretic had emerged as a threat only in recent memory, fighting sparse but punishing battles with the Stone King, Gutenberg. It wasn’t clear what the Heretic wanted, but they certainly worked through some opposing element; they had no army but summoned spheres of what Gutenberg referred to as plasma, like miniature suns. Any battle with the Heretic was more than enough to raze towns and melt rock, easily killing ordinary bystanders or fighters, even damaging Gutenberg.

And so he, Magus, was taking it upon himself to find the Heretic. Gutenberg had given him a gift of an ability for the time being – something called the Fragmenting, a kind of time intangibility – and sent him here. At the least, he would survive an encounter with the Heretic, and perhaps learn something new about them.

He hauled himself onto the next ledge of granite.

All the people in the land below these mountains owed the Stone King their allegiance. None but Magus had been willing to stand against the Heretic. He didn’t know if it was courage or resignation that hardened his heart. There was no family for him to fear for, no business or learning to be lost if he did not survive.

But more than that, he was not too young to remember the time before the Day. It was not so long ago, the time when dragons roamed, and the candidate called Lignar took power from the soil. When Gutenberg emerged, the dragons were crushed or fled, and Lignar disappeared. The Heretic was different, of course, but Magus had seen the power of Gutenberg before, and he trusted in that power. So it was a matter of a Heretic against not a priest, and certainly not a people, but against the power of a god who ruled alone.

Reaching around a needle-leaved shrub, Magus pulled himself over the low point in the backbone, dropping onto the rock dust on the other side. It was shady still on the west face of the stone spine, and he squinted ahead. There were a few small hollows…

And then he saw.

Far ahead as the ridge curved and rose, there was a larger saddle-clearing in the rocks, lined with low trees. In its center was a round-headed shadow, a dark outline against a sky with three suns.

The Heretic was waiting.

After a moment, Magus turned back to his immediate surroundings. He had come for the Heretic, and now that he had found them, there was little else he could do but approach.

He stepped forward along the side of the granitic face, finding another set of holds.


^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^


Midmorning.

Breathing sharply, Magus pulled himself up to the rim of the clearing. The sun had risen over the ridge already, and the Heretic had not gone anywhere, even as he had crept so slowly down the mountain spine’s length. They were just below him now, their small halo of suns gone.

Hello. Unity.

“Unity?” Magus searched out a path down the sloping rim, cautious at the Heretic’s stillness.

The Heretic rose stiffly from a kneeling position, their back turned, head hooded. My greeting to yours. Unity. You are, instead, solidarity. Here by grace of your god.

“Yes,” he said, and stepped down to the basin floor. “You could say it that way. What is it you want, then?”

You have come to seek me out in a place of solitude. I was considering the same, little one called Magus. They shook out their sleeves. What it is that I am hoping to achieve.

Magus frowned. “You don’t know? Why come to destroy anything?”

It can be hard to wake a complacent god to anger, little one. I would not have been strong enough in my days aligned with foundation.

“And when were you aligned that way?” Magus waited, not approaching any closer. “There is nothing to show you were here in times past, Heretic. Perhaps you were like us then.”

They turned toward him, finally showing the featureless plane of the hood flap that closed over their face. I was Lignar, little one. New Candidate of Foundation. Seeker in the soil. And still I am, merely diminished and changed.

“Lignar,” said Magus, and stopped himself from moving back. “Where did you go in the years between?”

Rebuilding a body grown weak, ever since Gutenberg seized hold of godship. When I found myself in a darker shadow than my own, I turned to light instead, and fell in line with flight instead of foundation. The Heretic seemed to raise their hidden face, and a plasma sun blazed out behind them, their form surrounded by unbearable light. I am a candidate twice over, little one. It did not take me so long as my one attempt at godship, but I know this time what it is to try.

He shielded his eyes but remained in place. “You are not like Gutenberg, Heretic. If you seek power in flight, then make it your own. Why are you here again?”

There is still foundation in me, little one. The Stone King is not so strong as he seems. Around the Heretic, the sun-like light grew stronger. Now, I would like to find out why he sent you, so weak.

As Magus opened his mouth to speak, a sun struck him in the center of his chest.

It passed through him as though he were water, and melted a hole in the granite face behind him.

IMMUNITY. The Heretic’s voice rang out, a strange howling sound, before Magus could react. He sent you against me to fight with a shield, to write negotiation terms with an eraser. What does he want, little one?

“It isn’t a matter –” Magus began, stopping again as a hail of suns swirled around him.

What do you want, little one?

“Peace.” He put his hands over his closed eyes, blocking the light as best he could. “That was what we needed, what Gutenberg gave us. The dragons are gone, and there are no more battles but the ones you fight.”

You come here with such a shield to tell me so… The sound of the Heretic’s voice drew closer. What is it you think I stand for? You call me a heretic, but all heretics must have something to mean.

“All you seem to want is Gutenberg ousted.”

Practice, little one, only practice. Your Stone King has done as much for me as for the people. The light swirled, the Heretic seeming to circle. In my time here, I grew lazy, when I should not have stopped moving at all.

Magus turned blindly toward the sound of the Heretic’s voice. “Lignar. You are not the one for this land. There is more stone than soil here. If you wish practice, should you not find a new land?”

The light steadied. I am not only of the soil, little one. I weigh my chances against my greater hopes. What do you say to all I stand for, Magus?

“Foundation is not enough, and flight is not welcome here. Gutenberg is our god, Lignar, no matter how strong you become.”

I know he is, little one. I will not be your god. You know what you call me. Without warning, the light of the suns faded. What I think is that we will meet again. If not you, then yours.

“Perhaps.” Magus opened his eyes cautiously to see the Heretic facing him, the sheer surface of their hood-mask as blank as ever. “But I am all I have.”

I think you will forget that part of things, little one. Know simply that I have been thinking a long time, and you have said the right thing: foundation is not enough, flight is not welcome... I will return when I have done what I can about that. Live long, Magus, and tell your Stone King of me.

“No –” Magus flinched as the Heretic raised their arms.

But as he watched, the soil rose to swallow the hooded figure, the Heretic disappearing with the groundswell as it subsided.

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