Once, there was a maiden who lost everything.
She struggled to reclaim it
Not knowing it was impossible
When she was done, her struggles had created a new world.
She settled in this new world, alone.
“Life begets life,” she said.
==> Roxy: Get yourself and your friend out of trouble
The new guy, Rune, was pretty cute, she had to admit. On the other hand, she had no idea why he was really there. For all she knew, he could just be an agent trying to get some kind of confession out of them so that they could be thrown in jail for the rest of their lives.
Well, the Rogue of Void would have something to say about that!
“Not exactly,” said the red-haired man, answering John’s question. “See, you didn’t really do anything illegal.”
“In fact, the Syndics actually got a bit of a chuckle out of your antics. But at the same time, nobody knows where you came from or why you’re here. So you can understand why they, and the people of Whitewall, would be a bit suspicious.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” agreed John. “So what do we have to do?”
“I’m not sure, really.” Rune crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side, trying to keep the atmosphere relaxed. “Neither one of you is a ghost or one of the Fair Folk, so you’re not part of one of the big threats to the city.”
“Well, yeah, it should be pretty obvious we’re not dead,” said Roxy. “But what’s a Fair Folk?”
Rune looked genuinely confused. “You mean you’ve never heard of them? Raksha? Fae?” Seeing their blank looks, he mentally rummaged around for more terms. “I’ve also heard them called the Kindly Ones or the Gentry, in other places.”
“Uh, sorry, but it’s not ringing any bells.” John shrugged apologetically.
The red-haired man pondered this for a moment. He whispered something to himself, but Roxy only caught the tail end of it: “... then that vision….”
He shook his head, and continued. “Well, let’s put that aside for now. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that you two are more important than anyone thinks. At least right now. So, I’m taking you two under my wing, so to speak. I’m going to take responsibility for you.”
“What, like, adopt us?” asked John.
“No, not quite. It’s more like… I’m going to watch you for a while. You’ll be given jobs and a place to live in the city, but anything that goes wrong, you answer to me for it. And I answer to the rest of the city. Understand?”
“I think so.”
“Yeah, sounds good.”
“Well then!” Rune clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Wait right here, I’m going to resolve a few things, and then I’ll take you to your new lodgings. Alright?”
The duo nodded their assent. As Rune left the room, they sat down to await their future. Roxy found her mind wandering to her companion. She certainly could have had far worse luck than to be stuck with him, especially seeing how easy on the eyes he was. But for all her efforts so far, and in the past, he seemed totally immune to the usual flirtatious tactics.
Disguising her actions as merely leaning on the table and staring off into space, Roxy let herself watch John’s chest rise and fall. The fabric of his robes stretched nearly taut as he took a deep breath, and she had to stop herself from licking her lips. Mentally, she shook herself. There were more important things than figuring out some way to indulge in sloppy makeouts with her current traveling partner.
John, on the other hand, was contemplating if there was any chance he’d ever see any of his favorite movies again. Everyone he’d met so far had been dressed like something out of his medieval history textbooks, which did not suggest encouraging things. Sure, he’d outgrown Con Air, but… it was familiar. It was safe. It would be… comforting.
Plus there was still Nic Cage to consider.
John wondered if anyone here had actually heard of Nic Cage, but that thought was interrupted by Rune’s return.
“Alright, kids, let’s go,” he said, and they stepped out into the cold, close streets of Whitewall.
==> Sollux: Deal with this mysterious horseshit
The inside of the temple was drafty and barren, nothing but ivy creeping slowly over the stones in bizarre hieroglyphic patterns. Sollux thought he could make some semblance of sense out of them, but they looked nothing like Alternian or English, or even any variant of troll or huma-
Actually, wait. He’d done some research on what he’d considered at the time were idiotic aliens, and found a couple of their cultures that used writing similar to this. But this was just the way the vines were growing, right? And even if it wasn’t it still made no sense.
Ye gods, he hated this place.
There was no sign of the massive frog-woman, and the darkness inside the temple folded around them like a cloak. It was almost completely silent in the chamber, despite its size, and the two trolls could only hear the faint sounds of their breathing. At the moment, it was as though the room was the entire world, and they were the only two beings in it. It might have been romantic in any other situation, but right now Sollux would settle for both of them leaving alive, unharmed, and still sane.
The air shifted, and the two watched as luminescent spores filled the air and cast a faintly green pallor over the entire room. Shadows shifted and danced away from them as they continued walking forward, sticking close to one another. The whole room seemed to breathe, just faintly, and they heard a voice not entirely unlike that of the titan that had invited them in beckoning them closer.
Slowly, they approached what seemed to be the back wall of the chamber. Vines and ferns had grown over it completely, obscuring whatever might have decorated the ancient stone. The vegetation twisted into a facsimile of a face, one taller than the two of them if one stood on the other’s shoulders, with vines forming the lines of a weathered old woman’s skin. Her lips were old roots, and her eyes, blue flowers in many shades.
“Welcome,” said the face. “Welcome once again. You have come a very long way from home, I know, but I cannot offer you a rest. I can only offer you what I know, because I know what it is you seek.”
Aradia took the initiative. “We just want to find our friends again and get home.”
“As I said, I know. However, you cannot find your home. It no longer exists.”
The trolls stood in stunned silence, before Sollux finally whispered a deadpan “... what.”
“You smell of the Essence I and my family put into the Games of Divinity, and I recognize your bodies as the work of my brother Autochthon. A mere theory, he had called you, until he saw fit to give you realization as part of the Games. It is no great difficulty to know that you come from the Games, though I am not sure why. But that does not matter. I will learn this in time.”
Vines slithered out from the darkness, furling themselves under the face’s chin like a folded pair of hands. As the being spoke, the vines twitched, curled, and gesticulated like an actor’s limbs.
“You no doubt seek answers. I am no stranger to this, though my quest may never end. Yours, however, will. Of this I can assure you.”
“Thomething tellth me thatth not really a good thing….” muttered Sollux under his breath.
“First I must introduce myself,” said the being. If it had heard Sollux, it gave no indication. “I am known as Gaia, and it was I who made the body of the world alongside Cytheria, Mother of All, and it was I and Cytheria who breathed life into the leaves, into the limbs of beasts, and into the lights in the eyes of all things bearing souls.”
Sollux was tempted to call bullshit on this, but then, he was currently talking to a giant face made of plants that had apparently been an even more giant frog-woman not five minutes before.
“You no doubt find this hard to believe. It matters not. I tell you the truth, small ones, and it is imperative that you listen to me. Your presence here is portentious, and as I know the Games of Divinity, there can be no doubt that you are not alone in leaving the realm you called home.”
Sollux and Aradia both nodded. “Yeah,” said Aradia. “It would be nice to find our friends.”
“Thome of them, at leatht,” Sollux added, scowling.
“Then there is little time. Allow me to explain,” said Gaia, stretching vines around the two. The vines wrapped around the trolls’ limbs, lifting them into the air and holding them in front of the massive face.
Sollux began to struggle, but Gaia merely blew a great breath, and spores flew into his face, making him cough and screw his eyes shut despite his glasses.
When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the temple, but floating above a twisting mass of energy and raw chaos.
“In the beginning, there was the Wyld,” said the resonant, patient voice of Gaia. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from.
“The Wyld was where we dwelled, but it was not home to us. We desired a true place to reside, and thus Creation was made.” There was a great heave, as though there had been a soundless thunderclap. Rocks, grass, trees, rivers, volcanoes - every possible part of a world rose up out of the chaos into a great disc. There was a sound of trumpeting elephants, and beasts began to walk the world.
“Creation alone would not suffice. We required a city to live in.” Towers of glass, gold, and marble swirled out of nothingness, floating above but in a separate world from the earth below. “Creation would not run itself. It required caretakers.” Beings that defied description rose from the earth and settled in the floating city. “Among them were my own children, the elementals, made from and proprietors of the five elements that made up both my own body and that of Creation. And in the Heavenly City, Yu-Shan, my bretheren installed the Games of Divinity.”
Sollux’s view was eclipsed by a massive dome of jade, towering high above him as he now stood on the streets of the city. Massive titans walked past him and entered the dome - a man made of brass and the fires of stars, a serpent of shadows, ten thousand orbs of crystal, a limping figure of metal and wire, a silent river of nothing, a dragon of nothing but words, and stranger things still.
“The Games could not be played as they were, and thus Autochthon, my brother, the Great Maker, made humans to power them with their faith and prayer.” The metal and wire figure’s massive hand descended from the clouds towards the earth, and spread over the land. Men and women rose up, and fell to their knees before the silhouettes of the titans, who looked at them, unfeeling, for a brief moment before returning to the jade dome.
“The world would not support humans, and they could not take care of themselves. Worse still, my brethren would use them as toys, as mere things. They could not see the marvels that Autochthon had created, just as they had failed to see similar marvels before. And thus, the mightiest of the gods, the Incarnae, were made.”
The sky shifted, and Sollux could see a brilliant green sun split a piece from itself, which blazed gold. It descended into the world’s sky, bringing light to the humans below, and a towering man with four arms and armor of gold stepped forward into the divine city. Across the horizon, a massive set of wings enclosing something Sollux knew not what sat, and a silver orb rose from behind them. A being of ever-shifting forms strolled casually up and stood next to the golden man, flickering in lustrous silver. Stars scattered across the sky, and five women, each wearing a different color, smiled at Sollux from a room filled with strings and spiders.
“Fate was spun into the great Loom, and with the Incarnae to watch over the lesser gods, who would watch over humanity, the Games were played. But as the world turned, so too did the temperaments of my brethren. They ruled with no thought but for themselves, and drove the gods as slaves. The humans… were treated worse.”
A great shadow fell across the land, and there was a sound like millions of screams.
“The Incarnae, and in particular the Unconquered Sun, would not stand for this. They had grown to love humanity, and their world. And so a plan was made for revolution.” Deep inside a golden sphere, the golden man spoke to his compatriots. It did not seem to be going well. “It was doomed to fail, for the gods could not raise their hands, nor their voices, against their creators. But I and my brother learned of the plan.” There was a brief flash of images before Sollux’s eyes, as though he were reliving someone else’s memories; he saw the silver figure in many forms, all clearly the same person wearing different faces and bodies, all in a haze of fierce love and devotion, as though they were someone who meant the world….
Whispers slipped into his mind, words in a language unlike anything he had ever heard. It was as though every beast in existence were speaking to him. The meaning was clear, however.
The room holding the seven great figures returned to his vision, and through a door came a tide of flowers and grass, followed by the pounding noise of machinery. The machine-man knelt before the golden one, and offered up something in a gnarled hand.
“Autochthon forged the mightiest weapon possible, a way to bring out the true heroic spirit of a mere mortal, and make them equal to the gods, even to we Primordials, if they stood together. He gave this gift to the Incarnae, who accepted it and our alliance as they chose their Exalted champions.”
Light flared across the land. Humans burst out in golden light, others in silver, still others in the five colors of the weaving women. Yet more suddenly conjured flames or wind or twisting thorns, and they were drawn together in a united host of unimaginable power - power that Sollux could feel prickling through his tough, carapace-like skin and reaching into his core.
“A war was fought,” said Gaia, and Sollux watched it all unfold. When he would try to recall it later, he would only find himself able to remember flashes of images - blood of ink swirling into a great sphere, the river becoming wind, something falling and dying as it felt like a piece of the universe fell away and rotted, things made and unmade in instants, separate and simultaneous, a great cataclysm as three crystal spheres cracked-
“The gods and their Exalted champions won. Those of my family who survived surrendered, and my brother, the greatest among us and their leader, was taken, torn, and twisted inside-out to form a prison for the survivors of the losing side.” There was a great roar of pain and fury, so powerful that Sollux clapped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes to blot out the tidal wave of sound. When he opened them, he saw the gods turning to enter the jade dome from before.
“The Primordials, now called the Yozis, had fallen, but the Games were still there. As they exist, they call out, and they must be played. They cannot be ignored. And so the Incarna gave the world to their Exalted champions, to rule. Autochthon, stricken with fear at seeing our brother’s fate, took his faithful and vanished, and I returned to wandering the Wyld, searching for a Shining Answer, painful though it was to leave those I had come to love.”
Sollux had a sudden feeling that one in particular had made for a bittersweet parting.
“One of my many bodies resides in Yu-Shan, to play the Games when it is my turn and… for other reasons. But here I remain, searching. And though the world was left in the care of the Sun’s Chosen, I know this to no longer be true. I have cared to know little else, and now I see the folly of it.”
The visions faded. Sollux and Aradia blinked and rubbed their eyes, dazzled by the sudden dark of the temple after the wild sights and sounds they had been shown. Gaia’s face loomed out from the wall over them once more, continuing to speak.
“You are to be my messengers, small ones. I am Gaia, the last free Primordial, and I know that you are now entangled in the workings of Fate. There is little time, but I know you will seek answers.”
Sollux found his voice first, though it was hoarse, and cracked. “What… what wath that?”
“The history of Creation,” replied Gaia, simply.
“And that’th where we are now?”
“No. It is fortunate that you are not, though I suspect your friends are there. You are in one of the reaches of the Wyld, where chaos still roams.”
“I do not know. Perhaps it is the will of Fate, or perhaps a simple quirk of the Games.”
Aradia had now found her voice, and used it. “How exactly do these Games work? How are we from them?”
“Your universe, and many like it, are contained within the Games of Divinity. The Games are complex beyond the ken of any mortal, and even the Incarnae. I suspect that there were very few among the Primordials who understood what they were in their entirety. As for your second question, I believe you also played a game, one which offered a great reward.”
“Oh hell no,” Sollux spat. “Hell fucking no! Thith can’t be the reward.”
“And yet,” said Gaia, “you stand here before me.”
“It’th a really thitty reward then.” Aradia shot him a glare, but Gaia let the unintentional insult pass.
“It may not just be a reward for you, but for Creation as a whole. You are the first that I know of to escape the Games, and perhaps that means that you are the first to truly succeed at your own. But time grows short. You must leave for Yu-Shan, by way of Creation. I cannot send you there directly, but I can give you strength enough to carry yourselves. Such strength will be needed, I think.”
“The hell are you talking about?” Sollux asked.
“The Incarnae are not the only ones who received the power of Exaltation,” said Gaia, and a flower, easily half the size of Sollux himself, grew and bloomed in front of him. A similar one did the same in front of Aradia. Two shimmering lights, held back by a small swath of petals, danced in their centers.
“Why us?” asked Aradia.
“Because I need you, and Creation needs you. And if the world I gave birth to needs you, then your friends will need you as well.”
“Let me get thith thtraight,” said Sollux, holding up a hand. “You’re telling uth that becauthe we broke the game we were playing, we actually won, and that meanth we won at thethe ‘Gameth of Divinity’ and our reward ith to have to thave the world again?”
“You are not far from the truth.”
“Well, fuck thith then. Thee you later, have a nithe life or whatever it ith you Primordialth have.” Sollux turned to leave.
“Where do you plan to go?” asked Gaia.
“You cannot. I already told you this.”
“Don’t fucking remind me,” growled Sollux.
“Do you wish to have a home again?”
“Honethtly?” he sighed, turning back. “I jutht want to not have to deal with apocalyptic bullthit anymore.”
“I am afraid I cannot offer you salvation, if that is what you seek. But I can give you, here, the power to grant yourself something like salvation.”
Aradia walked up to the troll and placed a hand on his shoulder, reassuringly. “I know how you feel, Sollux, but I don’t think storming out is going to work, here. Besides,” she said, grinning and glancing back at the flowers, “don’t you want to see what happens?”
Sollux reached up and put his hand over Aradia’s. “Not really. I’m tired, AA. I’m tho tired. I’m tired of death and dethtructhion and putting up with whacked-out horthethit from fairy taleth for grubth.”
Before he could continue, a vine coiled up and around his other shoulder. “I understand, as much as I am able to,” said Gaia. “You are mortal, and I am not. But even I grow tired, sometimes. I know that I may never succeed in my quest, but I can tell you this much, Sollux. You are great, possibly even greater than I, for you know what it is to be weary of such things as you describe. I am all that I am, and can never be anything else. You are mortal, and you can change. Thus you can change the world. My power will help you, my child.”
Sollux gritted his fangs, looking away from both Gaia and his friend. “I’m not your child,” he said.
Aradia caught his chin and pulled his gaze back to her. “Sollux. Please. We walked away in the game, and it was fine for a while, but I think... now we have a responsibility. Our friends will be counting on us. And…” she trailed off, hesitating. “And I can’t do this without you,” she finished.
Sollux heaved a sigh. Well… fine then. If she was counting on him, then he might as well. Not like he could fuck up any worse than he had before.
“Fine. Let’th do it.”
The two of them stood before the flowers that had been grown for them. The petals opened, revealing… Sollux couldn’t see what they were, really, but it didn’t matter. The light zipped out and away from the blooms, circling the two of them before plunging straight into their chests.
==> Kanaya: Introduce your friends
“Kanaya,” said Rose, steadily, “perhaps you should explain a few things?”
“Don’t worry,” replied Kanaya, “We’re not in trouble. Well. Yet.”
“Forgive me if I don’t find that entirely reassuring.”
Kanaya put up her hands, palms out. “Relax. Especially you, Mr. English.” Jake stopped, halfway to drawing his guns. Eridan had already been stopped from doing the same by Feferi. “If you gentlemen wouldn’t mind putting up your weapons as well,” she continued, addressing the new visitors, “we can all discuss this in a rational manner.”
One of the men, apparently a translator, did so and relayed what the troll had said to the others. Reluctantly, they complied.
Kanaya took a deep breath. “I have already explained to them that we are… not from here. They seem to be under the impression that we are raiders of some kind, though I can’t fathom why.”
“Bloody hard to raid anything when we don’t have a clue where we are!” exclaimed Jake.
“So I said, though a bit more tactfully. It seems that we have to report to a more central authority to present our case.”
The man who had translated for Kanaya stepped forward. “This is true. I am called Tariq. You are… strangers here. We have had recent trouble with strangers. Please, follow m-” He stopped, staring at Eridan and Feferi, who had walked into plainer view.
“Is there a fuckin’ problem?” snarled Eridan.
“What? I- no, not at all. I did not realize you had… I apologize. My Riverspeak is not well practiced.” Rose raised an eyebrow at the word. Riverspeak? Some colloquialism for English, perhaps. “I believe the word is God-Blooded. I did not know you were friends with two.”
Eridan and Feferi looked at each other, thoroughly confused, then gestured wordlessly to themselves. Tariq nodded in return. After a moment of stunned silence, Feferi marched up to both Rose and Kanaya, took them by their sleeves, and dragged them away, politely asking to be excused for a moment.
The heiress pulled the two into a huddle with herself, Eridan and Jake. “God-Blooded?” she hissed fervently. “What in the hell?”
Rose remained as calm as ever. “I believe it may be in the local belief system that gods… intermingle with mortals freely. Given your vastly different appearances from Jake and myself, they probably believe all three of you are descended from one or more members of the local pantheon.”
Kanaya interjected. “I don’t think so. When they first met me they seemed to believe I was some kind of mutant.”
“In that case,” mused the human, “it’s entirely likely that they believe Eridan and Feferi to be descended from some form of ocean god. Or gods.”
“Okay, fantastic,” said Eridan, “but what do we do with it?”
Feferi looked at Rose and Kanaya. They seemed to come to a silent agreement. “I think,” said Kanaya, “for now, we play along. Or, at least, we don’t deny it. We’ll see how this plays out.” The huddle broke.
Kanaya turned to the group of spearmen and apologized. “We needed to confer,” she explained. “Now, where were we?”
Tariq seemed not to mind the brief interruption, though some of his compatriots had narrowed their eyes. “If you will follow us,” he said, “we will take you to Solid Shell. It has been ordered that all outsiders are to be taken to Chieftain Bua-Shing for an audience.”
The other spearmen moved to surround the group. Since there was nothing to be done about the situation, really, the group trudged off along the beach, following Tariq.
“How far is it to Solid Shell?” asked Rose. No harm in striking up a conversation to pass the time, after all.
“Two hours,” was Tariq’s terse reply.
“I don’t suppose you would mind telling us about it?” she pressed on.
“You’ll see it soon enough.”
Thinking quickly, Rose decided to try flattery. “Well, if it’s anything like this island, it must be beautiful.”
Tariq’s only response was a noncommittal grunt.
Kanaya gave her partner a searching glance, one that asked what, exactly, she was doing. Rose returned the look with a slight smile, replying that she was trying to learn what she could. Kanaya shook her head. Now, it seemed, was not the best time. Rose simply shrugged and continued walking, with thoughts, possibilities, and theories ticking away inside her head.
It was not long, perhaps twenty minutes, before the trek through the tropical forest led to another path on the shore. Sunlight glinted off of the waves as it rose high overhead. Birds sang in the forest as a cool breeze whipped past the group. Rose had never been to the beach before. She wished that her first time doing so were not under such strenuous circumstances. Eridan and Feferi, on the other hand, just missed being able to swim. Jake thought back to his time on his own island, and Kanaya found herself absent-mindedly designing swimsuits in her head.
A shadow darkened the waters. There was a sound of rushing water, and the group found themselves overtaken by a massive ship, one clearly designed for long sea voyages. The sails seemed to be made of silk, and there were strange circular designs on them that looked like simple bulls-eyes, stitched in yellow. Coarse-looking sailors could be seen on deck as one of the officers shouted orders in a language none of the group recognized. A few of them seemed to notice the odd group, and leered or smirked over the bows at them.
Still marching forward, Tariq muttered something that sounded suspiciously vulgar.
“Trouble?” Rose asked good-naturedly.
“None of your concern,” replied the guard.
Struck by sudden inspiration, Rose raised the hood of her robes. “I think it may be mutually beneficial if you tell me about them,” she said. “I am, after all, a Seer.”
Though he kept his gaze locked forward, the guard seemed intrigued, though he did a good job of hiding it. He laughed dismissively. “A seer? You?”
Kanaya chimed in. “Oh yes. One of the best. She’s the reason we’re here and not, say, at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Or in some beastie’s belly!” added Jake.
Rose noticed Tariq’s free hand go to a shell necklace he wore, almost as if it were a reflex. Knowing an opportunity when she saw it, she pounced.
Putting her hand to her head, posing like she had seen fortune-tellers do in the numerous awful movies her mother had liked watching with her, she hummed and spoke. “I sense… I sense that you have a loved one. Ah, yes, the one who gave you that necklace.”
Tariq let his hand fall. “You… how could you…?”
“I see that this person is very, very dear to you. A mother? No, a wife. Or she will be in the near future.”
The islander fought back a shout of surprise. How could she have known about his plans to propose?
“But I see that ship is an ill omen for this person. And for you as well, and all your brethren. But that is all I see. The vision now fades,” she finished theatrically. It took everything she had not to burst out laughing at herself, and she suspected that Kanaya was hiding a smirk behind her hands, which she had clasped to her mouth as though she were in shock and awe of the great oracle’s vision.
Tariq, as well as the other guards, stared at the group. The translator’s mouth moved, as though he couldn’t speak properly, until his voice began working again. “You… you really must be a seer then. I… how….” He shook his head in disbelief. “No matter. You should see Chieftain Bua-Shing as soon as possible.”
The Seer was grateful that her hood hid her eyes. She may have been able to keep her smile held back, but the mischievous twinkle in her eyes would have given her away instantly. Still, she hadn’t exactly told a lie, and it hadn’t exactly been hard to guess the meaning of the necklace, especially seeing as how he had been touching it in a time of stress without thinking. The rest was obvious from body language and making a few reasonable guesses.
“Perhaps I can be of help to your Chieftain if I know exactly what is on that ship,” she said. “My visions are never really completely clear. Such is the way of things with fate.”
Signaling the others to start their march once more, Tariq sighed. “If you truly are a seer, as you seem to be, perhaps you can help. That ship holds people from the Scarlet Empire who demand payment from us.”
At the mention of the word “empire,” Eridan straightened up slightly.
“We are… hm. ‘Owned’ is not the right word. The Empire protects us and demands payment for it. Before it was nothing much. We only had to pay in cowrie shells, like we would any other. But now they demand that we pay them in jade.”
“Must be jolly hard to come by out here,” said Jake.
“We have no jade, and they will not accept our other offers. Now it seems they come to collect payment.”
“Perhaps then we should hurry on,” suggested Kanaya. Nobody argued.
==> Armored Explorer: Relax
It wasn’t the most upscale of drinking establishments, that was for certain. But then, he didn’t exactly care. They had alcohol, which was enough. It was strong, which was even better. And it was close to Chiaroscuro, which helped immensely.
He had a job coming, but his contact had been preoccupied with an impending meeting. Very important client, this lady. Ulito Swan. An extremely important client, and one who had fought her way into her Heavenly position tooth and nail. Not someone who would want to be interrupted. And from the sound of things, this could take a while.
But that was what Varangian whiskey was for, wasn’t it?
He tipped the glass back and let the fiery alcohol burn its way down his throat. Not quite the same as the good old stuff he remembered, but it’d do. Then again, he wasn’t sure there’d ever be anything that would match the good old stuff. Hard to have something when the knowledge of how it was made had died out centuries ago.
He leaned back. Being a regular at this particular establishment, his seat had been specially reinforced. Quite the kindness from the owners. Didn’t hurt that it was saving them both some coin in the long run.
The buzz of the place had faded into a background hum. He had never really understood how people could think Riverspeak had any elegance to it. It was too soft, too low-spoken. It lacked the sharp sounds and authoritative declarations of High Holy Speech. Flametongue got close, but it crackled too much. And he’d never liked Old Realm, even if he could find people that could speak it fluently.
There was a sharp thump and a cry of surprise. His eyes narrowed. Something didn’t sound right.
One of the serving girls had been backed into a corner. Some ugly bastard, probably hired on with one of the caravans, had slammed down his drink and was towering over her like she’d done something to offend him.
Scratch that. A second look at the goon’s body language told a totally different story. One based in having too much to drink and not enough self-respect to have learnt some respect for others.
As he approached, he could hear the goon drunkenly slurring something about the serving girl. Nothing pleasant, naturally. The onlooking patrons parted before him like two waves, though the goon and his buddies didn’t notice.
For someone of his size, he could move quite quietly. By the time he was able to hear the serving girl squeak out her terrified protestations, he could have breathed down the offender’s neck. Instead, he settled for tapping the man on the shoulder.
“‘Scuse me,” he said, “I think the lady asked you to leave her alone.”
The man turned. Where he had towered over the serving girl, this newcomer towered over him. Had he not been belligerently drunk, he probably would have sat back down without a word. Even though most of his features were hidden by the worn desert cloak and hat, it was still obvious that he was built like a brick wall. Liquid courage had other things to say about that, of course, and none of them were pleasant. Or well-pronounced.
“Go piss on a bull-shrine,” slurred the drunken lout. “I got conquestering to do.”
He glanced at the girl. The eyes that looked back told him all he needed to know as the goon turned back to her.
“Alright, maybe you didn’t hear her,” he said, almost growling and laying a huge hand on the man’s shoulder. “The lady said ‘no.’”
The man spun around and threw a punch at him. He would have been surprised, or maybe even gotten out of the way, but he hadn’t needed to. The blow met a wall of solid scale.
Tlatecuhtli very calmly lowered his hood. The massive Anklok reached down to where the man’s fist was still pressing up against his chest, gingerly took said fist in his own, and moved it, very deliberately, aside. Blazingly green eyes looked into the set belonging to the man, which were now widening in realization.
With all the majesty and grace befitting one of the ancient and noble Dragon Kings, Tlatecuhtli leaned down and told the man, “Get out before you really piss me off.”
Unfortunately for the peaceful negotiations, one of the goon’s friends had decided to attempt hitting the Anklok with a chair. The sound of shattering wood was like an explosion in the silence.
Tlatecuhtli turned, grumbling “now that’s just rude” before slugging the would-be attacker square in the face. The force of more than three hundred pounds of muscle and scaly plating sent the man flying out the door.
A flurry of chaos ensued as the group of drunks, incensed by the blow, piled on to the large, scaled man. Glass bottles and even a hastily-drawn knife bounced off of his armored hide, and he bulled forward, carrying them out the door and into the street. The ill-advised attackers clung on, trying to make a more lasting impact than the minor bumps that were the results of their swings.
The Anklok whirled as he carried them out the door, shaking one loose from the lock he had been trying to put his arm in. The scrawny thug landed square on his compatriot who had been punched out the door, collapsing in a tangle of limbs and bruising. Another of them had gotten his arms around Tlatecuhtli’s neck, and was doing his level best to choke out the Dragon King. This was made incredibly difficult by the sheer size of the neck in question, not to mention the scales. The third of the attackers was on his shoulder, trying to stab at his eyes with a jagged knife. Shaking his whole body and reaching over to pluck the knife-wielder off his shoulder, Tlatecuhtli kept his momentum going, whirling to throw off the man trying to choke him.
With two attackers down, one flying into the dusty street, and the other in his clawed grip, the Anklok briefly thought about just setting the man down and letting him walk off his drink. The one who had been harassing the girl would have to be dealt with less mercifully, but all this one had done was… well, try to stab him in the eye.
When he thought about it like that, it really wasn’t much of a reason to let him escape unharmed. Tlatecuhtli dropped the man on his feet and pulled his arms in, raising his fists in a classic posture. His shoulders swung back and his knees bent, ready to launch him in any direction necessary.
The knife-wielder, after taking a moment to catch his balance, lunged forward. Tlatecuhtli tutted under his breath. The man’s form was incredibly sloppy, and he led with the knife rather than keeping it close to his body for control. It was almost insultingly easy for the Anklok to shift aside, letting the blade glance off his scales, and deliver a stunning body blow. Coughing and gasping in pain, the man dropped the knife and fell to the ground.
Tlatecuhtli straightened up, rolled his neck, and twitched his tail. The mace-like appendage swung out from under the cloak and slammed into the midriff of the man who had been sneaking up on him. He heard the air blast from his attacker’s lungs as he turned. It was, of course, the man he had approached in the first place.
Bending over the prone, wheezing man, Tlatecuhtli grinned. With a single massive hand, he lifted the man clear off the ground by his shoulders, letting him dangle as he fought for breath.
“Now, I don’t like to get over the top when it comes to violence,” said the Anklok. “But in your case you’ve been pretty offensive. Back in my day, you understand, we settled things like this with duels. Loser had his heart carved out. Sounds like fun, right?” The man shook his head as best he could. Tlatecuhtli shrugged. “Ah well. Been a long time since my day anyway. But that still leaves a question: what am I going to do with you?”
The Anklok tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Well, judging from your little stunt back in there, I’d say you don’t have a great idea of how to handle yourself. If you can’t use ‘em responsibly, then maybe you shouldn’t have ‘em in the first place.” Watching the highly illustrative hand gestures with sheer terror in his eyes, the man tried to object with a voice that had fled in fright. It came out as a terrified squeak.
“What’s that? Speak up, because it sounded to me like you said ‘yes please.’ What? No? Oh, well, since I can’t really hear you say it….” He made a move and the man tried to shrink out of the titanic grip. It didn’t work.
Tlatecuhtli dropped the man and loomed over him as he lay in the dirt and dust. “So, what have we learned today about manners?” He grinned as wide as he possibly could, showing off his very pointed teeth. The terrified man fainted dead away. “Thought so.”
The Anklok quietly returned to his seat indoors, closing the door as gently as possible and counting out some extra silver to pay for the broken chair and the trouble, as well as an extra tip for the poor serving girl. It had to have been a hard day for her.
==> John and Roxy: Meet the Syndics
“So where are we goin’?” Roxy asked their erstwhile tour guide.
Rune brushed some of his fiery hair out of his face, replying, “Before we meet with the Syndics, there was actually somewhere I wanted to take you two. Nothing special, just following up on a hunch.”
For his part, John was too busy actually looking at the city around him to ponder what this hunch might be. The streets were surprisingly empty and quiet. The frosty air only made things seem quieter, and it felt to John like the city was holding its breath. He looked up to the sky and saw a beautiful blue canvas, unmarred by any clouds. The sunlight shone clear and bright, as the sun itself sat over a towering set of gilded spires. One of the towers still had a ladder propped against it, which John could see as they got closer and closer.
“We’re going to the temple thingy?” he asked.
“While I’d never call it a ‘thingy,’” replied Rune, “yes. We are indeed going to the Central Temple. I want to see something.”
“And what might that be, hmm?” Roxy wonked conspiratorially. “Got a plan hatching?”
“Just… confirming a suspicion,” was the hesitant reply.
Within ten minutes of brisk walking, they reached the steps leading up to the temple. Rune gestured for the two to walk up the marble steps towards the main door, which bore an intricately-carved bas relief of a sun.
“Go on, kids,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
“So why aren’t you going up to it, huh?” asked Roxy, suspiciously.
“Because I already know it opens for me,” he answered cryptically. “Just go on up and try the door, if you don’t mind. That’s all I want.”
Sharing a confused glance, the two teens just shrugged and proceeded up the steps, albeit cautiously.
The door dwarfed them entirely. Looking up to the top of the door required them to nearly bend over backwards. Neither John nor Roxy could see any handle or any way to open the titanic thing, just by looking at it. John decided to try pushing at it.
A gentle push yielded nothing. Cracking his knuckles, John braced himself fully against the door, and heaved. Still nothing. Lodging his shoulder against the door, he shoved again. Yet more nothing. Before Roxy could say a word, he held up a finger, backed up, and took a running start before crashing into the door.
Nothing, except for the young man sprawling back on the marble, dazed.
Knowing full well the rules of comedy, Roxy opted to lean casually against the door. She was immensely disappointed when it didn’t creak open for her. Frowning, she gave it a kick, and was rewarded with a sharp pain in the foot.
Rune rubbed his forehead. “Well,” he said, marching quickly up the steps to retrieve his charges before they injured themselves further. “That answers that. Thank you, you two, come along….”
The trip to the Syndics’ hall was made in silence. Roxy tried to favor her aching foot, and John was nursing his bruised ego. Rune, meanwhile, was trying not to let the mild headache he had been developing worsen. If these were the two his vision had been about, then his city was in very deep trouble. Possibly more than if there had been no vision at all.
The hall itself sat back among buildings that looked ancient, as old as the white granite walls that had towered over them ever since they’d first stepped out onto the streets. Something in the air near the place felt… charged. Perhaps it was simply the authority of the place and those it housed, radiating out from it like heat from a stove. For the first time since his fateful nap on his quest bed, John felt awed.
Soon, the trio found themselves waiting in an antechamber hung with rich tapestries, depicting strange figures evidently ruling or administering stranger figures. The same sun symbol hung on other tapestries, but the most prominent was a circle cut into eight segments. Maybe it was the symbol of the city. Idle speculation did little to help them, however, and neither one was willing to ask Rune any questions. He seemed preoccupied.
After a tense span of time, a young woman in priestly robes entered and told them to follow her. She led them to a room where three of the strangest figures John and Roxy had ever seen were seated around a table, with three open chairs opposite them.
The seated figures looked like men, aged but not wizened, with noble brows and imperious, hawk-like noses. Their stern lips were set in firmly neutral expressions, and their eyes gazed calmly and steadily at the new arrivals. These features would not have been so strange, but for the fact that they were carved out of the clearest ice, covering clearly-visible bones of pure silver. The effect was startling, to say the least, and both of the teens unconsciously shrank back behind the man who had brought them there.
The center figure gestured at the seats, and spoke in a voice like wind through a cave of ice. “Rune. We have expected you and your guests. Please, all of you, be seated.”
John and Roxy had to be coaxed to actually sit down with the figures. The figure on their left spoke, reassuring them that they were not in trouble. “You would not be here if we believed you to be a threat,” it said.
“We are the Syndics,” said the figure on the right, “and we govern this city to bring it peace, health, and good fortune.”
“Rune,” said the center Syndic, “explain to us why you believe these two to be special.”
Rune leaned forward in his seat, bowing. “Of course, my lords. As you know, these two were found on city rooftops without having been seen in the city prior. They are as mortal as any citizen within the walls, and yet they have no knowledge of our city, or of Creation itself.”
“We require proof of your claims.”
“Of course. John, would you mind telling me what language we’ve been speaking for the past few minutes here?”
“And Roxy,” Rune continued, pulling a small map out of his pocket and unfolding it on the table, “would you mind pointing out where we are on this map?”
Roxy looked it over. Not one single bit of geography looked right to her, not even from what she could remember from before the game. “Uh,” she stammered, stalling for time. “Maybe… here?” She pointed to a random spot on the northern edge of the map.
Rune looked at the Syndics expectantly. Their faces did not move.
“Alright, if you want further proof,” said Rune, rolling his eyes, “ask them what the Fair Folk are.”
“We do not require further proof,” said the center figure. “We wish to know what you intend by this.”
“If you’ll recall, my lords, I received a vision from the Unconquered Sun on the steps of the Central Temple.”
“We remember. Your vision carried a message of warning, telling you to watch for strangers to Creation.”
Rune merely gestured to the teenagers seated on either side of him.
“Point taken,” said the rightmost figure.
“My vision told me that these strangers would prove to be of the utmost importance to the safety of our city, and Creation itself, and that the doors of the temple would open for them.”
“And have they?”
Rune coughed. “Well. Um. No. Not yet at least.”
All three Syndics hummed in thought for a moment, in perfect unison. They stopped, all curiously looking at John, who had raised his hand.
“Erm, excuse me,” he said. “But what’s an Unconquered Sun?”
Rune gestured at him, giving the Syndics a look that quite plaintively asked if now they believed him.
The Syndics looked at one another.
“Er,” said the center one. “The Unconquered Sun? Sol Invictus? The Most High? King of Heaven?”
John continued to look blank. It wasn’t difficult.
“One of the Incarnae.”
“You were found on top of one of his greatest temples!”
“Oh! Well, that would explain the sun symbol on the door, then.”
Despite their mask-like faces not moving, it was evident that the Syndics were in shock. Finally, it was the one on the right who spoke.
“We see your point, Rune. Perhaps there is something to your vision after all.”
“I had hoped you would see it that way, my lords.”
“What do you intend to do now?”
“Well, with all due respect, I had also hoped we could discuss that in private.”
“Of course,” agreed the center one. “Children, if you please.”
Wordlessly, John and Roxy got up and left the chamber, trying to remain as quiet as possible. Having closed the door as gently as they could behind them, the two sat in silence in the atrium, wondering what exactly they had been caught up in.
After what seemed like hours, the two jumped out of their seats as Rune suddenly popped the door open and strolled - not walked, strolled - out. He clapped his hands together excitedly.
“Alright, kiddos. Time to take you to your new home!”
“Wait, what?” John asked. “You’re just… you’re just going to take us somewhere without even telling us what that whole meeting was even about?”
“Well,” admitted Rune, “I was planning on saving the announcement until you got home, but I suppose I can tell you now. Congratulations, kids, you’ve got jobs!”
==> Larcenous Starweaver: Observe
The hooded man glanced down at his scrolls. Yes, this was it. This was the loom-strand that he had found before.
It had always been there, but really it hadn’t always been there last week. Godsdamned Loom of Fate. Even the spiders had agreed, or most of them, at least. Still, for all his cursing of the Loom’s workings, it had been advantageous that he’d noticed the strand, and nearly twoscore like it. As bizarre as the strands were, they all had one thing in common that he had been able to decipher - they all pointed towards the Games of Divinity. Or, more accurately, they came from the Games.
He plucked gently at it, seeing the vibrations. Slowly, he stilled it, laying his face near it to look along its length. As he got closer to it, he could hear whispers, voices, though he could not tell which belonged to the person represented by this strand. He could hear waves, and smell salt air. A brief flicker of ash-blonde hair and orange fabric passed in front of his eyes before fading into a sea of luminescent green.
The shadowy man straightened up, turned, and examined another strand near the first one. Curiously, he heard the same waves and smelled the same air, but this strand faded into obscurity rather than giving him any clear visions.
A third and fourth, both of great curiosity to him, seemed to vanish almost as rapidly as they had appeared. And yet there was still a brief stretch of loom-thread, though in these cases they were very brief. This concerned him.
He bent down to examine a fifth. Sharp cold met his cheek, and he could feel hot blood pulsing down the thread. A sixth matched the two dozen others that confused him, feeling alien and hard where the strands of others felt familiar and soft. Even the threads of beastmen and the People of the Air had some familiarity to them, but these… they did not.
Mentally bookmarking the location of these threads, the hooded man slipped off into the shadows, destined for some other part of the Loom.
He soon found what he was searching for. More threads, a tangled mass, starting in the very near future. There were not even the barest traces of infancy on these, as though the people they represented sprang into existence as youths. They too felt alien and hard, and they all unraveled from one strand as tough and unyielding as a steel cord. He had no idea what sort of thing this strand was.
Ah, here. The threads of some of these new arrivals crossed here, with this morass. He followed one, back towards its origin. This one felt like blue and breeze and just the slight bit clumsy and naive. And yet when plucked, it sang like a note from a divine choir.
Wait, what was this? The thread crossed with another. What in Creation could this be? It felt hard, but friendly. Almost like….
Well. That was interesting. The man felt a sudden pull towards the odd, alabaster-pale being who had recently shown up in his division. She (for that was evidently how she identified, and how he knew this, he had no idea) made clicking sounds where she walked, and had apparently been appointed to assist in his department’s mail deliveries. And she was not the only one. Others, some with the same shell, while others had pitch-black ones, had shown up without a word from on high. Stranger still, the celestial city had two new fixtures floating above it, in gold and purple.
Curious, the man looked back along the thread, beyond where the two met. It stretched back, but when he tried to see where and how the two had first crossed, or even why they now crossed, he was met with a wall of solid jade. Damn.
Listening carefully for the tell-tale click of the spiders, he sought out another strand. Had he been less practiced at remaining silent, he would have cursed under his breath. Another of these. That made three of these damnable strings. They were clearly present, thus they were clearly meant to represent something or someone, but they gave him no indication as to who or what they were, like something was blocking him from seeing anything.
Nearly twoscore new threads for people tied directly to the Games, and yet none of them yielded any answers. And that was for the people alone. Other things tied in to these strings of Fate, and yet their origins were equally obfuscated.
Ah well. He had never been one to back down from a challenge.
Silently, he moved along a shadowed walkway, ducking out of sight from another as he heard voices coming from along it.
“Hurry, hurry, damn you! I’ve orders to find four threads as soon as possible!”
“I’m aware, Vizier, but-”
“No, no excuses! These are orders from Kejak himself!”
Four threads? Kejak? Oh, now this was getting interesting. A quick moment of thought and a brief focusing of his Essence sent a tiny, emerald spider off from its invisible perch on his shoulder and into the Loom. In moments, he felt its return.
So Kejak was looking for the destined inheritors of soon-to-be-available Sidereal Exaltations. Interesting. As he moved back towards the place he had originally been studying, he sent the spider off once more, wondering which poor bastards were going to be forcibly retired from their positions.
By the time he had reached the original strand, the spider returned. It whispered an apology, but it could not find such information. Oh well. At least the man knew it wouldn’t be him. He kept a close eye on his particular thread. It didn’t do to have nasty surprises, especially in his line of work.
Unfortunately, he found a surprise waiting for him at the strands. Three of the pattern spiders had settled in, their mandibles clicking in mild irritation as they sensed his approach. And he’d been so careful this time.
He put up his hands defensively. “I’m only looking, you know,” he said. There was more clicking.
“Yeah, yeah, relax. This is important.”
Click, click-click-click, click-click.
“Because nobody else seems to be investigating these.”
Click click click-click?
“You ask that like you don’t already know.”
Click click. Click click click click-click click.
“Believe me, I have a lot of reason to be concerned about this. You’ve seen the strands; you know what they’re like.”
Click click-click click click-click-click.
“To Hell with that being only your business. It’s my job to make sure there isn’t anything threatening about them.”
Click click click.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten how much I’ve helped you before.”
Click click cli-
“You know what I mean. Not you specifically but the spiders in general.”
Click. Click click.
“That’s what I thought. Trust me, I don’t want to make your jobs harder.”
Click click click-click click-click click.
“Why do you think I never use Charms to get in here?”
“Besides the obvious.”
Two of the spiders crawled away, having duties elsewhere within the Loom, while the remaining spider rolled its mechanical eyes.
“And how many times have I brought myself to the point of one of you biting my thread?” the man pointed out.
Click click-click click.
“Exactly. All I want are answers.”
A rapid series of clicks ensued, in a lecturing tone.
“Just… just answer a question for me, alright?”
There was an exasperated click.
“Why are there suddenly four Sidereal Exaltations that are going to change hands soon?”
The spider hesitated, its components whirring. After a long pause, it answered in a series of low, secretive clicks.
“Hmmm. Alright, thanks. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a prophecy to work out.”
The man left the Loom, winding his way back to his quiet office. Before he could accomplish anything else, he found a sealed order left on his desk. Gritting his teeth, he opened it.
“Garet,” the letter said, “giving you a heads-up. You’re going to be on training duty. Kejak’s orders.” It was signed with a complicated sigil in Old Realm.
Garet grinned beneath his hood. This was getting really quite interesting.