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Glorious Echeladder Ascension Technique

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Once, there was a maiden who saw injustice everywhere.
She grinned and grinned
And her grins hid plans.
She plotted to end the fear that had been set before her.
As she sunk into dark, deep places
Filled with terror that she merely smiled at
Her plans grew ever closer to fruition.
Then she died, and fear died with her.
“All things must end,” she said.

==> Fallen Noblewoman: Set sail

“Milady.” The courtier who had been charged with organizing the Imperial Senator’s voyage bowed. “The sailors have finished their preparations. Your junk is ready for you whenever you wish to depart.”

Dressed in fine blue silks, the woman turned to her aide. Graciously, she smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be there shortly.”

As the aide left, the woman detachedly examined her pitch-black nails. He really was a useful pawn. She hoped she wouldn’t eventually have to kill him. He was loyal and competent, which was more than she could have said for the last one. It was a pity she couldn’t use her own servants of choice, but the Dynasts considered it impolite to have visible demons in the Senate House. Or anywhere outside the home, really. Such hypocrisy, she reflected: they would decry the practice of summoning and binding demons publicly, then those who could afford it would pick and choose their servants from Hell behind closed doors. Ah well. If it proved necessary, and his loyalty or competence failed, she could always give him to Alveua. The Keeper hadn’t had any “deliveries” from her since… well, since her last retainer had decided he valued his loyalty to the Dragons more than his loyalty to her. She still had the fine black iron chain somewhere….

No matter. She abandoned her mental segue and re-focused on the matter at hand. Ostensibly, this little trip out to the Neck was to check on her second-cousin-once-removed-or-something-by-marriage, Hebito. His attempts at getting the natives to pay their debt had not been met with success so far, and she was supposed to find out what was going on. Personally, she cared little for the worm, and she would describe the islands as “quaint” if she were feeling uncharacteristically charitable that day, but she had other concerns. However much she might delight in having the man’s head put on a pike for his failures, she had received a message and it had been quite clear: there was someone she was meant to retrieve for her masters. These - her true masters, no matter what the politicos of the Realm might wish to believe - had ordered her to find this person of interest and bring them back by means of the verdigrised key now in her pocket.

Whoever this was, they were clearly quite important to merit an express trip to meet with her masters. All she had been told was to bring them, and nothing else. Not a word of description, only that she would know them when she saw them.

There was a lazy stirring in the back of her mind, and an impression of glistening black needles. A wordless message floated up into her consciousness; a… reassurance? No, a confirmation. Ah. So that was how she would know.

Once again she looked at her nails. A terrible smile began to creep across her face. She indulged herself with a chuckle like the darkest and most bitter chocolate, before turning to leave. Her ship was waiting.

==> Vriska: Take a risk

“Well, at least now we know what he meant by ‘a few days out of date.’”

Vriska gnawed at her bottom lip thoughtfully. No wonder the man had been so hesitant. The “booklet” on Nexus’ laws was a mess of loose pages, stuck-in notes, random annotations in the margins, and crumpled napkins with indecipherable scribblings crammed into a binding that would barely have held cardboard together. The laws themselves were scarcely in a better state, with many having been crossed out or edited by an inexperienced hand. The only page that was mostly untouched - indeed, it was pristine by comparison - was one of the first pages. At the top of the page, in actually elaborate script, was a phrase: “The Dogma.”

No taxes shall be raised, save by the council.
None shall obstruct trade.
None shall bring an army into Nexus.
No-one shall commit wanton violence.
None may falsely claim the council’s name or sanction.
None shall harbour a fugitive from the council’s wrath.

They’d each read it repeatedly , and Terezi had muttered the phrases to herself until she’d memorized them. From what they could tell, these six sentences formed the totality of the immutable laws of Nexus. Everything else - anything that was not Dogma - was a “Civility” that could be changed at any time by this “council.” Common sense dictated that the Civilities wouldn’t just be changed willy-nilly, but some of them could easily trip someone up, and not just by leaving the book out.

The only porter who had agreed to take them (and hadn’t visibly blanched when seeing Vriska or Terezi) was an exceptionally tall and broad-shouldered man. The rickshaw he hauled behind him was a large, rickety thing, much larger than any of the others on the street, and he was capable of carrying on an easy conversation while dodging between carts and blocks of pedestrians.

“New t’ Nexus, are ye?” he had asked as he breezed past a fruit stall.

“How did you know?” Jane replied between a bounce and a rattle.

“Well, ye an’ yer friends clearly ain’t plain street folk, so ye’d be from Firewander or outside the city, t’ my thinkin’. An’ I ain’t seen owt like ye ladies, beggin’ yer pardon o’ course, so I guessed from there.”

“You know,” said Terezi, “that’s not the first time someone mentioned Firewander to us. What even is it?”

“A, bad place, it is. Oldest part o’ the city, an’ blasted t’ Hell an’ back by the Fair Folk ages ago. ‘Tis covered by a Wyld storm what keeps most inside folk in an’ most outside folk out.” The porter’s feet nimbly danced around a stray dog. “Lots o’ folk what can’t even pay to eat hide out there. Tend t’ come out lookin’ a bit different.”

Now curious, Jane asked, “So then where are you from?”

“Grew up ‘round the edge o’ Firewander. Happens t’ be why I’m bigger’n most, at least t’ my thinkin’. Little bit o’ strangeness bleedin’ over from the worse parts. I didn’t mean t’ be the biggest or the strongest out here on the street. Don’t even exercise! Aside from rickshawin’ folk like yerselves about, that is.”

At a particularly noisome and crowded intersection, the porter was more than happy to confirm their guesses regarding the Civilities and what the council, more properly called the Council of Entities, did. The Dogma, he said, had been what founded the city.

“The Emissary made them the stuff what never changes. The Council makes the rules, but they can’t change the Dogma. As for the Emissary, well, you ladies just keep yourselves well clear o’ any troublemakers what break it. Nobody knows how, but the Emissary always knows. Story goes that ‘e can make ye choke on yer own blood without touchin’ ye. Never tries t’ make the rules for ‘imself though. Just serves the Council.”

Jane did some mental math. The city was far too large and populous to be very young. “Just how old is this Emissary person?” she asked.

“No one knows,” said the porter simply. “Most say ‘e was here for the buildin’ o’ the city, an’ the rest say ‘e’s older’n that, even.”

“And when was the city built?”

“Ye’d have t’ ask a historian for a real exact answer, but I think ‘tis over 700 years ago.”

Jane choked on her surprise. “Sev-? Wh-... I… how?”

Terezi hummed thoughtfully. Perhaps there were trolls in this city? Before she could voice her curiosity, however, something cut across her senses.

A series of carts, three in total, pulled by sturdy oxen, trundled down the rough-hewn streets, emerging from a brumous thoroughfare. The drivers and their passengers smelled of spices and silk and silver. In the back of the carts, however, Terezi could pick out sweat, tears, unwashed bodies, rotting hay, and the dull, dark tang of well-used iron.

Traffic in the street had stopped to let the train through, and the cargo it carried was plain to see. Most of the people in the carts were clearly human, though malnourished. Others were no less malnourished, but had clearly inhuman features, such as fur, or a tail, or large spots on their skin. Each one, regardless of usual or unusual features, carried the same downcast look and wore an iron collar.

Terezi’s lips pursed into a thin line, and her grip on her cane tightened. A city ruled by trade. Of course it would trade in lives, as well.

Vriska remained impassive, at least outwardly. Slaves had been another reality on Alternia, especially the high seas. Now, however, it all seemed… distasteful. At least she’d given her captive enemies the dignity of death. Eventually. She hadn’t had much of a choice, honestly, but….

Jane, however, was fuming. She gripped the edges of the seat hard enough to make the wood creak, and hot tears welled in her eyes as her blood boiled. She wanted to scream, but her throat had closed up. Shaking, she instead settled for raising her hood. Behind the soft cloth, she screwed her eyes shut and tried to block out the images of the gaunt faces passing by.

Terezi laid a hand on Jane’s shoulder. It helped, but only a little.

As the rickshaw began moving forward again, Terezi made an educated guess. “The Guild?”

“Aye,” said the porter. “Not a very nice way t’ first meet them, I’m sure, but… well, I know a merchant or two with them. Most just want to keep enough coin in their pockets for the next meal an’ a little extra besides for tomorrow. Then you get folk like the ones what own those carts.”

“Anything for a profit,” muttered Terezi.

“Aye.”

Jane made rest of the journey in silence as Terezi busied herself studying the case file they’d been given, with help from Vriska reading the actual writing. Eventually, the rickshaw pulled up outside of an expensive-looking townhouse, situated on a hill that rose above the crowded, smog-choked streets. The pointed iron bars of the gates formed an imposing contrast to the warmly-colored bricks of the house itself. Many of the windows had thick curtains obscuring the interior, and those that did not showed only unlit candlesticks or darkness.

“Well, here ye are, ladies. Would I be right in thinkin’ that ye’ll be back out soon?”

“Yes. It… should only be about an hour,” said Terezi.

“Well then, I’ll be here in an hour! Beggin’ yer pardon, but this is thirsty work.” Jane wordlessly paid the man, then turned to her erstwhile companions.

Vriska folded her arms across her chest. “Let me do the talking,” she demanded.

Terezi looked nonplussed, while Jane didn’t react at all.

“Look,” continued Vriska, “our guy back at the prison or whatever called this guy a rich bastard, right? And he’s got this big, fancy-looking house, looking out over everyone else. I bet he counts his money every night before bed, and I bet even more that he’s involved with the Guild.”

“So what’s your point?”

“My point, piranha-grin, is that you think like a lawyer. You also can’t hold a poker face for shit. Crocker here, I have no idea, but I reeeeeeeeally doubt she has the mindset we want. Me, on the other hand… I can think like a bastard. And when you deal with a bastard, you want another bastard on your side.”

Terezi sighed. Damn it, she had a point. And, despite everything, there was a… something telling her to trust Vriska. Some half-memory, floating at the edge of her consciousness like a picture just underwater….

“Fine.” It wasn’t as though Vriska could just sell them out here. She wasn’t likely to get any offer or proposal like that, not with the two of them also in the room, and not if how they’d been treated in the street had been any indication of how they were viewed by the general public.

“Okay,” said Vriska. “Just follow my lead and stay quiet.” She proceeded to straighten her shirt, roll her neck, and brush her wild hair aside in her trademark flip. She set her shoulders back, adopted a confident smile, and strode to the door. Rather than use the fanciful knocker, she rapped sharply on the hard, darkly-stained wood.

The servant that opened the door greeted the group with a stony, haughty glare. Vriska’s smile grew by a few pointy teeth as she, very politely, explained that they were there to see Mr. Latian and implied that it would be in their mutual best interests to allow them in.

The servant’s expression changed only minutely - his eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch to indicate his scathing skepticism.

“Of course,” said Vriska, “if you’d like your boss to not have this nasty murder business resolved….”

The door shut.

Vriska held up a hand, forestalling Terezi’s imminent comment. He’d be back. Give it… two minutes for him to reach the office, three - no, one, he was succinct - to explain, two to come back….

Just ahead of her expectations, the door opened again. This time, the servant stood aside and gestured for them to come through. The trio was led to a set of rich mahogany doors, set with gold leaf, and the servant left. Vriska tossed her hair and knocked.

The voice that beckoned them inside was like oiled silk - smooth, practiced, and dripping with the kind of charisma that cologne-makers wanted to bottle and sell. In many ways, this would also describe the man the voice belonged to, as well as the office he sat in. Both the man and the office were hung with rich silks in vibrantly-dyed colors, and gold inlaid with small, subtle jewels accented the melange of opulence. The chair that housed the man was, much like his desk, darkly-colored and imposingly large. Currently, the man himself was leaning over the desk, steepling his be-ringed fingers and watching the trio with eyes that glinted from behind wiry spectacles. A neat, close-trimmed beard decorated his face, much like the luxuriant rug that decorated the floor of the office.

“Well, well, ladies, come in. My doorman tells me you have a proposal for me regarding the job that the Council’s toy soldiers rejected.”

“You could say that,” said Vriska, already practically oozing with equal charisma. “You could also say we have a nose for finding… connections.” Terezi had to suppress a snort. “Lucky thing we heard about your job offer, too. We’re new in town. Who knows? Maybe our luck will work for you, too.”

The man chuckled. “New to Nexus and already making solid sales pitches. You do seem to learn commendably quickly.”

“From someone with your reputation, that’s quite the compliment.”

“Hah! And what reputation might I have among three young ladies so new to my city?”

Giving her best charming smile, Vriska replied, “Mainly that you’re filthy rich.”

There was a moment where the rich bastard sized up the spidery rogue. Her smile twinkled like a gilded bear trap, and her gaze didn’t falter for a second. As he watched her, she watched back. The opening moves had been made - now was the time for the real game to begin.

Jhaq Latian burst out laughing. “I think I like you, young lady.” An honest statement, even if the reasons for it were cryptic. “Your companions seem less… animated, but I’m sure they have value of their own.” Backhanded and barely a compliment in the first place. “However, I wouldn’t be where I am without being able to secure guarantees. A faulty product is worthless.” Foreboding. “I need some assurance that I’ll be getting my money’s worth. Guild standard, you see.”

Terezi felt Jane begin to tense up. She caught the back of the beige robes, subtly, before the human wearing them could do anything foolish. The troll shook her head slowly, knowing that Jane would be giving her a glare.

Vriska’s mind raced. How could she provide a guarantee? They had nothing for collateral and no résumé, or at least not one that could be read. No references, no money, no resources, nothing but the clothes on their backs and their skills…

… and their luck.

Opportunity’s light twinkled as Vriska’s smile became predatory. It was all a game, right? Built on chance and figuring out what others wanted, what they knew, what they were willing to do or pay….

“In that case,” she said, tossing her hair, “how about a wager?”

“You have my attention.”

“Got a couple of spare cups?”

The man gestured graciously at the crystal decanter on the sideboard, with matching glasses.

“Oh no, those won’t do.” Her smile inched wider. “Something more… solid. Less transparent.”

Latian’s smile grew to match her own. “Why, would this happen to be a proposal to play a game?” Twinkle, twinkle.

Vriska drew out a satchel, one made of azure silk. She had played this game many times in her career as Marquise Spinneret Mindfang. Deadly gambles had won her valuable prizes aboard ship and against enemy captains foolish enough to bet their luck and skill against hers, trying to out-roll and out-bluff her. The dice inside clacked as she set it down, showing an impressive flash of color against the dark wood of the desk. “I think you’ll find the rules familiar.”

“A single roll, my dice against yours.”

“Best dice winning.”

“Of course. The stakes naturally being your... employment?”

“What else is there to wager?”

“Then it is agreed.” The man’s smile indicated that he could think of other things for them than employment, should he win. “On my honor as a Guild factor.” He withdrew a satchel of his own from one of the drawers and laid it upon the desk. In the absence of cups, empty coin boxes were proffered and taken. Both parties opened the boxes and poured their dice out into the boxes, not even looking at each other’s hands as they never once broke eye contact. On some unspoken signal, they picked up the boxes, rattled them and their contents about, and tipped them upside-down, open lid first, onto the desk.

There was a muted clatter as the dice fell into place.

Both players tilted their boxes ever so slightly - just enough to see what they had rolled.

Vriska bowed graciously. “The first call is yours.”

“Very well. A simple pair.”

“Ah, interesting. I happen to have three of a kind.”

“Hmm. I say four of a kind for myself.”

Vriska nodded. “Five.”

Jhaq Latian’s eyes narrowed. “And I as well.”

Vriska’s smile would have put Terezi to shame, if she could have seen it. “Eight,” she said.

The factor’s own smile vanished. “Eight? Eight? Have you perhaps forgotten how to play this game?”

“Not at all.”

“Then you have ruined yourself with an impossible bluff.”

“If it is so impossible, then we should reveal our dice.”

“Very well.” He lifted his box straight up, showing five perfect cubes, each one showing six pips on its top face.

There was a terrible, dreadful silence as Vriska did the same. Eight prisms with eight sides, each showing eight pips - a perfect roll of the Flourite Octet.

The silence stretched out like a yawning abyss as her opponent looked at the desk. Each roll had been made perfectly by the rules of the game - all dice from hands to box to desk, without being touched even slightly after rolling. She knew that he could not fault her on that. But she had known the rules - even on Alternia, it was a game of five dice against five. Now was the make-or-break moment, where her daring could very well damn them….

Jhaq Latian burst out laughing.

“It would seem that I lose,” he said. “The best dice have indeed won. Well played.”

“I hope that this illustrates what I’m capable of.”

“Oh, quite well. Something I’ve learned in my own experiences as a merchant and dealer of many things: if you don’t like the rules of the game, change them.”

“Changing the game is… something of a specialty.”

“Both bold and practiced, I see. I am a man of my word. What do you know of this… case?”

“Yushuto Mita, here from the city-state of Lookshy to see her betrothed.” Terezi’s voice cut clearly through the office as she recited the information from memory. “Strangled with rose branches and hung by those same branches from the city walls. Teru Alkami, independent mercenary captain. Wall collapse, crushing him below. Black Ox, blacksmith. Found in his shop with a blackened stump instead of a head and suspicious ash inside his recently-lit forge. Sergeant Arin, enforcer for the Iron Brotherhood. Impaled with his own spear and pinned to a wall. No witnesses, no connections except for each body and crime scene being covered in bloody handprints. Each victim was missing a personal item as well, probably taken as a trophy.” Terezi’s teeth flashed in the sunlight streaming through the window. “Have I missed anything?”

Seemingly taken aback, the Guildsman raised an eyebrow. “No… no, I think you’ve covered the basic facts quite well. How…?”

“We have our sources,” said Vriska.

“And a smart investigator never reveals them unless necessary,” said Terezi.

“Well, I seem to have underestimated you. Needless to say as it is, you’re hired. I’ll pay fifty silver dinars now, plus twenty-five a day starting tomorrow, with reports on your progress every five days. Six hundred dinars on the arrest or death of the culprit.”

“Sixty today,” demanded Vriska. “You can’t expect us to start a dangerous investigation without adequate accommodations, can you?”

“Fifty-five and no higher, with the rest as previously stated.”

“Done.”

“Excellent.” The troll and the human shook hands, both with not-entirely-honest smiles on their faces. “I’ll have my barrister write an official contract. Standard agreements and caveats, of course. One can’t be too careful. I’ll send it along to wherever you end up staying.”

“Fair enough.”

“If there’s nothing else, I’ll have to get started with the contract. You ladies should get going. There’s been a civility decreed that citizens aren’t to travel between districts at night, and the streets can be… dangerous, besides.” He turned to look out the window.

“Just one question, Mr. Latian,” said Terezi. “You’re very invested in this. Why would that be?”

“Because,” said the man, not turning, “I believe that there is a single killer responsible, and I want them found. There is a certain… stake I have in this. And besides,” he finished, looking over his shoulder, “it’s bad for business.”

Terezi merely nodded and turned to go, keeping a hand on Jane’s sleeve.

As the three filtered out, returning to whatever street they’d come from, Jhaq Latian pulled out the simple ornament he wore on a chain under his coat. It was such a simple object, not much more than a little metal trinket, but it held far more importance than the casual observer would have thought possible.

The Guild factor put it away, and chuckled to himself. He had a barrister to call upon, and a letter to write.

==> Ancestral Undertaker: Pay your respects

This sort of job did not usually fall to Zhouhan Xen, but then, this was an unusual circumstance.

The Deadspeakers were the least well-known and least populous of the Observances practiced by the Funereal Order of Righteous Morticians and Embalmers, but often the most necessary. Zhouhan Xen had been a part of this Observance, though there would be times when aid was required from the Funerists or the Mortwrights. Upon the passing of the noted Funerist, Zhouhan Xen, the Deadspeaker asked to be the one to prepare the funeral for an honored grandfather. Though unusual, the request was granted. In time, this would lead to polite requests from the Funerists, as the Deadspeaker’s knowledge of how to speak with ghosts and settle disputes between the living and dead were often needed to properly prepare the last rites. To have a funeral of any kind that was conducted improperly was unthinkable, in the City of Tombs.

It had been that night, two years ago now, that the person who would become Zhouhan Xen was working late - far too late, until the person themselves became late. Exhaustion had finally overtaken the tired body, and just as the heart was finishing its final beat, a spark of darkness had entered the room.

On the border of life and death, the Deadspeaker had cast all traces of who they had been into the void, and took the name and office of the grandfather they had buried, becoming Zhouhan Xen, Funerist of Midnight.

Silver bracers - the badge of the Morticians’ Order - were the only flash of color in Xen’s clothing. Xen’s body was covered from head to toe in a dark gray robe, as tradition in the order dictated. Many wore heavy shawls over the robe to combat the pervasive chill in Sijan’s air, though Xen was no longer bothered by such things. Instead, Xen wore a mask under the hood, a thing of pure matte black to give them the appearance of an empty hood. It was fitting for one who had given up the past, and looked only to the dead. Gloves of thin black fabric covered skillful hands, which moved with the grace and precision of a master surgeon.

This job was unusual, even for those Xen was called to do. Technically, the citizen of Sijan was no longer part of either Observance they had worked for, but the Order recognized the need for one who could so easily cross the bridge the gap between Creation and the Underworld. Therefore, Xen had been given a special position, one somewhere between that of a Funerist and a Deadspeaker, or perhaps just a blend of both. It was in this capacity that they had been given this request.

The calligraphy of the poem was perfect, made by the practiced hand of a well-trained Mortician. A simple thing, to be sure, but nothing was to be spared in giving the dead their proper respect. Xen set the brush aside and breathed on the scroll, and the chill of it set the ink well enough that it could be picked up.

Having been kneeling in concentration for the past twenty minutes, Xen straightened up, taking the scroll from its place before the grave. In soft, reverent tones, the Mortician recited the poem, head bowed, never needing to check the words.

“In life, you suffered
In death, you guide your children
You still bring them strength

Walk forward this night
Knowing that forevermore
They shall honor you”

The shade of an armored man, face scarred with one too many battles, smiled sadly, and turned to go. The Underworld called. His children and their children after would be safe now. The Mortician had made sure of that.

Solemnly, Xen set the poem down once more, anchoring it to the foot of the grave with four small, elaborately-carved pebbles. Here it would stay, until one of the Funerists could come and etch it into the rock. Poetry came easily to Xen, but stonecarving was another matter. The duty done, Xen returned to their office.

In the office, waiting on the desk, was a letter bearing the seal of Thorns, and that infuriating fool Typhon.

The diplomat from Thorns had been sending letters with transparent overtures and thinly-veiled attempts at coercion for some time now. Xen believed the man to be nothing less than a scoundrel, a creature of false words and the smile of a black widow. When he was not cajoling for the Mortician to practice in Thorns, where the talents of one of the Order would apparently be well rewarded, he would allude to dire consequences and prophecize doom for Xen’s loved ones. The fool had not yet realized that Xen was wholly dedicated to the craft of speaking to and for the dead, although that was likely because the Mortician never sent any form of reply back. Still, the missives held vital, small clues as to the state of the fallen city, and there were those in Sijan that held well-founded concerns for what might come out of it next. After the monstrous figure known as the Mask of Winters had conquered the once-proud Thorns, standing astride an undead behemoth, there were few who would argue that what had become a fairly docile city of the dead was not a grave potential threat. All assertions from Typhon, the city’s speaking face, aside.

Impassively, Xen scanned the note with dull, bored eyes. Typhon’s writing lacked much in subtlety or conversational grace. Still, it was at least somewhat entertaining, if only from the standpoint of mentally making fun of the diplomat as the letter was read. This particular letter carried nothing but hollow flattery and saccharine overtures of friendship. Offhandedly, Xen wondered if Typhon had at any point been forced to stop writing, else he would actually vomit.

Xen stopped as something caught their eye. Well. This was interesting. Typhon claimed to have been in contact with a rather… intriguing figure. One who roamed the Underworld, dressed ridiculously even for a clown, muttering about saviors and laughter. The sharp strokes of the pen, having bitten deeply into the paper, indicated how strongly Typhon felt about this particular character, and he went so far as to call them “an utter fool, parading about in some mummer’s mockery of the true guardians of the dead, which we both assuredly count ourselves among.”

Xen put the letter down, looking back into the dusty archives of memory. Something had stirred there. A vague recollection of a ghost, one who had mentioned something about a clown of some kind. The story the ghost had told, however, likened the clown to a demon, possibly even one of the fabled Anathema. The clown had ranted and raved, proclaiming the ultimate truth of some twisted religion worshipping bizarrely-named beings who preached the joy of violence and the enlightenment found in death - particularly by causing it. The ghost had fled the scene, and said that those who denied the fanatic later vanished without a trace.

Black-gloved fingers steepled themselves in front of the mask. This would need consideration. With luck, this was merely a story, and did not mean any kind of threat to Sijan or the righteous dead. Luck, however, was not something that Zhouhan Xen had ever trusted.

==> Feferi: Herald an Ending

It could have gone worse. That was important to remember. Of course, in politics, there was always a way for something to go worse. And this was politics, make no mistake about that. With an Empire involved, it couldn’t not be.

That was the first order of business: find out more about this Scarlet Empire. Feferi really hoped that Hebito had not been representative of the Empire as a whole.

Since there was nowhere close to sit, Feferi leaned against a nearby house. With her anger gone, and the heat of the tropical day bearing down on her, the troll heiress felt totally drained. She hadn’t felt quite like this since… since…

… since she had broken things off with Eridan.

Fuck. Those were some memories she didn’t particularly want to revisit at the moment.

And that was the thing, wasn’t it? She could, very justifiably, blame Eridan for their situation. He was, after all, the one who lost control and actually killed a diplomat. If this Scarlet Empire was anything like the Alternian one, there would be retribution. But, on the other hand, it was hardly his fault that they’d been dumped somewhere totally foreign and thrust into a tense political situation. She had her guesses as to why he’d reacted so violently, as well. The situation was not beyond repair. It would just take time.

Time. That was the other grim, toothy sea-beast bearing down on them like they were bleeding in the water. They had no sopor slime. She wondered how long it would be before the nightmares and lack of sleep would start to affect them. How long had it taken on the meteor? She and Eridan had been dead, so she had no idea how that would apply. Kanaya hadn’t been, but she’d been fine; she’d had her matesprit, and that was on top of being a rainbow drinker. And if it came to the worst, she was the one who had the best chance of… dealing with Eridan. If it came to the worst.

Speak of the devil. Eridan trudged out of the meeting hall and slumped against the wall. Now that he wasn’t incandescent with indignation, he seemed broken-down and miserable. Entirely understandable, given the circumstances.

Several moments of awkward silence descended, circling like vultures. Each one eventually perched on the nearby roofs, hanging overhead.

It was Eridan who broke the silence. “Fef, I… I’m really sorry,” he said, not daring to look at her. “I don’t know what I was thinkin’. I just want to… to do better. You know? Fix all my fuckups.” He rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Guess I fucked that up too. Don’t know why I thought I wouldn’t.”

“Eridan, that’s…” She set her jaw. This had been a common thread back during their moirallegiance. It wouldn’t be now, though. “Okay, yeah, punching that guy wasn’t the best idea, but I can see why you did it. At least I think I can.”

“I lost it. I couldn’t handle him hitting you.”

Feferi nodded. “That’s what I thought. And it was kind of… well, I appreciate that it was for me. But we can’t do that again.”

“I know.” Eridan’s gaze was locked firmly on his knees.

“And this is our responsibility to deal with with.”

“I know.” His gaze sank lower.

“Things… well, they don’t look great.”

“I know.” Now he’d hidden his face completely.

“But,” said Feferi, her voice picking up, “I’m pretty sure we can fix this. Kanaya’s working on it right now.”

“Okay, great, but do you even want me to help? I’ll probably just--”

“Eridan. Stop.” Her hand on his shoulder almost made him flinch. “I… you remember why things between us didn’t work out? This was part of it. A big part. And the worst thing is that I had no idea what to do when you got like this. So… you want to get better, right? You don’t want to keep feeling like this? So all I need you to do is talk to us - all of us - and tell us what’s going on. Tell us what you need. What you’re trying to do. And, well, I don’t know for sure, but I think you might want to talk to Rose especially. I feel like she can help.”

Unable to muster the strength to speak, Eridan just nodded. She had cut straight through him. He couldn’t talk about anything, and that was the problem… right? But how could he open up without becoming some whiny, pathetic burden?

Maybe she was right. Maybe Rose would know.

Someone cleared their throat.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Kanaya, “but the Chieftain wants to speak with Feferi.”

“Oh! Yes, yes, of course.” Feferi hauled herself away, but not before giving Eridan one last reassuring pat on the arm.

“What does Chief Bua-Shing want?” she asked her friend on the way back to the meeting chamber.

“It likely has something to do with how I told him you were… important. Effectively, our leader.”

“And you told him this because…?”

“Well, it wasn’t a lie, exactly. Oh, turn here.” Kanaya gestured down a hall to their left. “There’s a private meeting room. But as I was saying, neither Rose nor myself feel comfortable taking on such a role, and I didn’t think Jake was particularly qualified. No offense to him.”

“Oh. Well, yes, I think you made the right call, there. At least for now.”

“For now?” Rose was rubbing off on her matesprit; the eyebrow Kanaya raised would have impressed the true masters.

“Well, you know I didn’t want to take the throne.”

“Ah, yes. Your plan to reform the Empire. I always thought that alone qualified you to be a good leader.”

“Oh? Thanks, I guess.” Feferi rubbed the back of her neck. “But I really didn’t want to be a leader. It means doing things that shouldn’t have to be done and having to sacrifice people for other people.”

“Knowing things like that is also why I thought you would be a good leader.”

“I don’t know. I never wanted to have to be at the helm of some huge empire or something. It’s a lot of pressure. All I wanted was to help people. But… if it’s necessary, I’ll step up. This is really serious. I don’t think we have time to take anything lightly.”

“Would that have anything to do with the disappearance of your trademark fish puns?”

Feferi merely nodded. They were approaching the meeting room.

The Chieftain was not alone. His wives were also present, metaphorical (and in one case, literal) sleeves rolled up and deep in discussion. One of them, a younger woman with deep blue hair, looked up and waved them over to sit at the grand table.

As the two trolls obliged, the woman introduced herself. “I’m Latrea,” she said, reaching out to touch each of them in turn on the shoulder. “Bua-Shing’s fifth wife. Thank you both, for what you’re doing.”

“It’s no trouble.” Feferi smiled, consciously keeping it from stretching too wide. Humans seemed to find her full grin mildly unsettling. “This is our responsibility.”

“Still, you’re taking on an awful lot.” The blue-haired woman smiled reassuringly. “Go ahead and introduce yourselves, and we’ll bring you up to speed. I’ll translate for you; I’ve always had the best Riverspeak.”

The trolls shared a brief glance as the rest of the table looked up at them expectantly. Kanaya’s asked, how much do you think we should tell them? Feferi hesitated, then nodded. Go for it, the nod said. I’ll trust your judgment.

Kanaya stood and cleared her throat, somewhat nervously. “Yes. Well. My name is Kanaya Maryam, and this is Feferi Peixes. Our human companions are Jake English and Rose Lalonde. I believe you are… well acquainted with our final companion, Eridan Ampora. As you can plainly tell, none of us are from this area. We are, in fact, quite lost. On top of that, our friends and allies have been separated from us. All we want to do is find our friends and our way home, and yet we have been involved in something we perhaps should not be. There are many who would not blame us for merely moving on and leaving you to deal with this problem on your own, but not one of our group can, in good conscience, let you suffer for something that we are responsible for.”

She paused to let Latrea finish translating her speech. When that was done, she looked up at the six unfamiliar faces. “I believe that this will work to our mutual advantage. If we help you resolve this crisis, you will be free to, at the very least, tell us what direction we should travel. Many say that virtue is its own reward, but it does seem to come with some practical benefits as well.” Kanaya finished with a wry smile.

Bua-Shing smiled. “Well spoken, Kanaya Maryam. I think we have an agreement, then. We will help you find your home if you will help us keep ours.” He turned to Feferi. “I have been told much about you already, but I think that none of it spoke so plainly as your earlier actions. Given that your companions so readily spring to your defense, as well, I believe you are a leader I can respect.”

“I hope so, sir.” She shifted uneasily. “There are only a few of us, and I’m not sure what we can offer you, but our hands are yours.”

The Chieftain nodded. “Then I shall explain our situation….”

The explanation took nearly an hour. The Scarlet Empire, though physically distant from these islands, was powerful enough to stretch its influence even beyond where they currently stood. Okeanos, being a collection of small, independent tribes that kept to themselves, did not merit much attention from the Empire. They had their own struggles with internal politics, hence why the Chieftain had five wives - one from each tribe, to keep the peace. After claiming the territory, the Empress had left them very much alone, accepting regular tributes in the form of coral and the cowrie shells which made up the currency of most of the West. And that had been that; aside from the occasional resupply stop, which tended to go amiably enough, the Neck (as the Empire had dubbed the area) was untouched by Imperial interest.

But that had been five years ago. Then, the Empress had disappeared.

Both trolls were mystified as to how this seemed to matter much more than the simple phrase had made it seem. It clicked into place as the Chieftain and his wives continued to explain. The Scarlet Empress had ruled for over seven hundred years - something which was impossible by normal human standards, they knew, but apparently this was exceptional even by the standards of the “Dragon-Blooded” that made up a large portion of the Empire’s subjects. Nearly a millennium ago, she had restored order to the world by destroying the armies of invading monsters from beyond the edges of Creation, and by ending a plague so terrible that it defied all treatment and claimed nearly every life it touched. Since then, she had taken over nearly everything she could extend her considerable reach to, and while she may have had a grip of iron, it fell fairly. People were made to kneel before the legions of the Empire, but they were also kept safe by those legions, and had food and shelter. It was claimed that she was blessed by all five of the great Elemental Dragons, and she drove away the Anathema - demons who would offer promises of power to mortals, then drive them to madness and destruction.

Clearly, the Empress had been very important.

But then, five years ago, she had totally vanished, without a trace. Now a useless regent sat on the Scarlet Throne, and each day, it was said, the Empire drew closer to collapse and civil war. All of this would have been fine with the peoples of Okeanos, who had been kept far from trouble by their satrap’s own apathy. He had been a drunken lout, not even concerned with collecting the tribute each year. Then, not six months ago, the satrap had died (reportedly of over-drinking), and a new satrap had taken over.

“Hebito,” Kanaya reasoned.

The Chieftain confirmed her guess. Hebito came from a family that had little in the way of good reputation, even within the Empire. House Nellens, it was said, was full of thieves and liars, people who would rather like to have the rest of the Empire in their pockets, lining them with coin. Naturally, he had done nothing to disprove this. He had immediately demanded that Okeanos pay its debt in full, and in jade.

“I am told that Tariq translated what was said in the throne room,” said Bua-Shing. At their nod, he continued. “Then you know why we cannot pay this. So we formed a plan. We made a bargain with the Skullstone Archipelago. In exchange for allowing some expeditions to trawl our waters for things of interest to them, they would provide the jade to absolve our current debt.”

Feferi’s mind was quicker than Kanaya’s when it came to politics. “That’s quite a bargain. Either you benefit far more from it, or they do.”

“We were not exactly in the position to question the offer.”

The heiress let it slide. “Fair enough. I’m assuming that something has gone wrong, then.”

“In a sense. The ship from Skullstone will not be coming, and we must retrieve the jade ourselves.”

“Which, it would seem, is where we come in.”

Bua-Shing nodded. “We have asked a favor of… an old friend. The ship arrives here tomorrow. We want you to go with that ship and secure our jade, and bring it back to us safely. After that, you will be free to pursue what you wish.”

Both Kanaya and Feferi knew it wouldn’t be that simple. But it was all they had, and they owed their hosts a debt.

“Very well,” said Feferi. “We’ll do it.”

Everyone present smiled and thanked them, and some other things were said, but Feferi tuned them out. She politely excused herself, feeling even worse than before. She needed rest. It wasn’t likely to come, but she needed to at least try.

Outside, there were short dunes overlooking the surf. The sand was soft, almost white, and the heat of the day still lingered, held fast by the tiny grains. It was perfect, or at least as perfect as one could get on a shoreline.

Feferi sank to her knees, already feeling drowsy. She lay back, closing her eyes and laying an arm across them to block out the light. Just a quick nap, and she would be back up….

In a mere moment, the troll was asleep, exhaustion having carried her off like a leaf on a river.

==> Equius and Dirk: Impress

“Given the improvised materials and the exclusion of certain items at your request, this is the best I can do in this given time frame.”

Dirk was, admittedly, impressed. Even though their robotic hosts had actively denied him the use of quite a few useful-looking parts (“classified mechanisms,” they said), Equius had managed to cobble together enough of a robot that it was clear that he knew what he was doing. With a rattle and a clank, the endoskeleton lurched forward and took a few steps.

“My apologies,” said the troll. “I didn’t have time to rig a proper power supply. This really isn’t reflective of my standard work….”

Clarion and Bulwark were speechless. Dirk, on the other hand, was intrigued.

“Wait, how’d you handle the basic A.I.?”

“Oh. That.” Equius indicated a crude circuit board on the back of what passed for the endoskeleton’s head. “I used some basic logic circuits. Programming has, er, never been my strongest suit.”

Behind the glasses, Dirk’s eyebrows quirked. “Uh… yeah, I can kind of tell.”

“Yes. Well. The machines I built never needed to do much, with one exception. And that exception was a rather exclusive case. Otherwise, I relied on a basic routine created by one of my… compatriots.”

“No offense dude, but with work like this, I’d be surprised if this thing could do more than walk. Maybe it could throw a punch. Maybe. If you could get it a sense of balance.”

“Er….”

“God damn, what were you even building them for?”

“... exercise.” Equius shifted uncomfortably.

Dirk glanced at the troll’s biceps. They were certainly solid and well-used. “Huh.”

“Well, they fulfilled their purpose. I only needed to destroy them. I could rebuild them later if necessary.”

“Could’ve ‘fulfilled their purpose’ better, though. A smarter opponent lasts longer.” Dirk adjusted his glasses as he examined the circuit. “Wow. You got this wired backwards. And upside-down. I don’t even know how that works.”

Equius’ only response was to sweat.

“Okay, look, give me half an hour and a soldering iron and I can have this thing dancing the Charleston. I can do even more if I can get my hands on something I can program with this.” Here, he pulled out his phone and gestured with it.

Equius took the device and examined it. “Ah. Yes, I think that would be within the range of my capabilities.”

“I hope it looks better than this did,” Dirk muttered.

“Wonderful that you two are getting along, really,” interrupted Bulwark, “but Clarion and I have some… questions.”

“For example,” continued Clarion, “how you two scraggly teenagers have expertise that equals that of trained savants. Possibly several in one.”

Dirk’s expression shifted enough to show that he was mildly offended. “Scraggly? I’m in too good of a shape to be scraggly.”

Bulwark’s stern gaze tried to penetrate the dark lenses between him and the teenager. “Answer the question, if you don’t mind. I’d rather you took this seriously, otherwise we might have to.”

Equius cleared his throat as politely as he could. “Well, in regards to myself, it’s common for individuals of my kind to have some degree of specialized education or training. It’s a product of how we are raised.”

In turn, Dirk shrugged. “I lived in the middle of Fucking Nowhere. It was either figure out how to literally make my own friends or learn how to talk to seagulls.” He didn’t mention the auto-responder. Nobody needed to know.

“Seagulls?” Clarion parroted the word, rolling it on her tongue as though she were trying to find out what shape it was.

“Seagulls. Birds. You know, flap around, make noise, live by the sea? Obnoxious and greedy?”

Silence.

“Constantly shouting ‘mine, mine’ like five-year-olds?”

More silence.

“... huh.” The human tilted his head slightly, as though logging this information away for further analysis.

Clarion and Bulwark turned and began a heated discussion in low, almost inaudible tones. The construct lurched one more step, wobbled, and collapsed pathetically. Bored, Dirk began to mess around with his phone.

Equius glanced over out of curiosity. Dirk was fiddling with the settings. The troll gave him a questioning look.

“Trying to get a signal.”

“Ah, I see. To contact our companions?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Any luck?”

“Sort of.”

Equius gave the human a look once more. “If you’d care to elucidate?”

“It’s… complicated.” Frowning, Dirk shook the device, then tapped the screen.

“Explain.”

“Alright, it’s like… well, it’s not that I don’t have a signal. Polar opposite, really. It’s almost like there’s too much signal, if you catch my meaning.”

“Er….”

“Okay, look. According to this, there’s a hell of a wi-fi signal. But there’s no origin point as far as I can tell. It’s like we’re standing inside the source. For all I know the signal could be coming from the walls. Or our friends over there.

“Can you access it?”

“That’s the other thing. I can try, and it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of encryption or security, but my phone won’t connect. It’s like it can’t process the information.”

“So either your device is wrong, or the signal is beyond its capabilities.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

Before they could discuss the implications of this new theory, there was a knock at the door.

“Ah,” said Bulwark. “That’ll be Six.”

Troll and human shared a questioning look as the door was opened.

The figure in the doorway was far more alien than anyone they’d met so far. Stick thin limbs, arranged in a spindly mandala, made them look even skinnier than Dirk, but a multitude of lenses attached to their face like some kind of mask gave them the appearance of a spiky dance club decoration.

“Bulwark,” said the stranger. Their voice was layered, echoing with strange harmonies. “News from the Tripartite.”

“Boys, this is Sixfold Lenses of Clarity. Six for short.” Bulwark gestured at the newcomer, who ignored the introduction. “So, is this news good or bad?”

Six looked nonplussed, or at least as much as it was possible with a face made mostly of lenses. “Just news.”

Bulwark sighed. “Right. What is it?”

“A message came from Jarish. Two of their Alchemical Exalted have volunteered to lend aid after the Cogwheel Dragon attack.”

The silver man did a double-take. “Two? And they volunteered? More importantly, they were allowed to?”

A couple of Six’s lenses whirred and clicked. “It seems so. That is the official report, at least.”

“I don’t trust this. This is far too soon after the fact.”

“On the other hand,” said Clarion, “Jarish was never interested in Project Razor. And we could certainly use the help, no matter who’s coming.”

Bulwark turned back to Six expectantly.

“Reports did not specify. However, it is expected that they will arrive in approximately one day, possibly two. It is likely that they were fairly close.”

Another sigh. “Guess we’ll find out when they get here. Not like we can turn them away, anyway. Maker-damned politics.”

Clarion gave her leader a sidelong look. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking…” said Bulwark, calculating possibilities in his head. “I’m thinking, in order to protect national interests, we need to have some people assisting us.” His tone was that of someone rehearsing an official explanation. “Smart people. People who can do good mechanical work, given time and tools, and keep an eye on our incoming guests. Just in case this is a sabotage attempt. People that will look harmless enough to not be suspicious.”

The silver man turned to Dirk and Equius. “Congratulations boys,” he said. “Welcome to Project Razor.”

==> John and Roxy: Acclimate

Their new job, as it turned out, was to join the Guardians.

Rune explained on the way. There was a small squad, he said, of people in similar extraordinary circumstances to theirs. Not exactly the same, of course - they were all Whitewall citizens, born and bred, despite the weirdness in their lives - but something out of the ordinary meant that they had been set apart from the others. They could all fight, so they were skipping the usual introductory training. Today was supposed to be their first day on the official patrols.

The training hall where they had been assigned to meet was austere and sparsely-decorated. Fur rugs kept their feet off the cold stone floors, and weapons - kept polished and sharpened - hung on the walls in easily-reached racks. Rune had left to find the others.

While they waited, John busied himself examining some of the banners strung across the torchlit walls. The angular, runic script was totally indecipherable to him, but at least it looked nice. Large, authoritative lettering declared… something. Maybe it was the icy-tundra-world equivalent of an inspirational cat poster.

Roxy, for her part, was giving herself a hands-on tour of the weapons. She had hoisted a spear down from its rack and was hefting it experimentally. The leaf-shaped blade glinted in the torchlight, sending tiny sparks of light through the shadows as she lifted it. The only weapon she’d ever actually used before had been her laser rifle - everything else had been handled by her capable fists - so the weapon felt heavy and awkward in her unfamiliar hands. She wondered if she would be required to use it, and if that was the case, if she’d be able to use it effectively.

“Alright, that’s enough, thief.” The voice made Roxy jump, and she nearly dropped the spear. She whirled and saw a broad-shouldered young man, holding his helmet under his arm and pointing a sword at her.

“Whoa, hey!” Roxy put the spear back. “I’m not a thief!”

The man didn’t lower the sword, but he did seem to reconsider. “Right. There’s no way a real thief would dress like something out of a Nexus street show.”

Roxy looked down at her outfit. It wasn’t that bad, was it?

Before things could get any worse, John intervened. “Uh, hi! I’m John, this is Roxy, and we were told that we’d be joining people that I think include you. Rune said-”

The man relaxed and sheathed his sword. “Ah, right. The new recruits. So to speak. Fair enough, then. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wait until Rune gets back with the others for the introductions.”

“Yeah, sure….” John trailed off, not sure what exactly to say in the awkward silence. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long, as Rune returned quickly with two others in tow.

One of the strangers was slender, even rangy, but he had an odd intensity that made him seem larger. The other was solidly built, but not exactly muscular. Instead, she seemed to be less of a warrior and more of a commander, or perhaps a strategist, if not a scholar. Both of them, however, paled in comparison to the raw presence of the man who had interrupted Roxy. He radiated… something. John couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but the man had an aura that made him seem immeasurably powerful. However, that power came with a subtle feeling of wrongness. It was a feeling that lurked just under the surface of his aura of strength, like a crocodile sitting in a swamp.

“Alright, all of you,” said Rune, rubbing his hands together. “I know some of you already know each other, but let’s have everyone introduce themselves. I’d stick around, but unfortunately I have some other duties to attend to.” He nodded to the man who had shown up before the others. “You’ve got your orders for the day, so I trust you’ll be able to carry them out.”

The man saluted. “Won’t be a problem, sir.” As Rune left, he turned to the remainder of the group. “Well then. I suppose we should get started. Name and why we’re here should be enough. Any volunteers?”

The other man practically jumped at the chance. “I’ll do it!” He stopped, looked embarrassed, and cleared his throat. “Sorry. My name’s Tor. Rune recommended me for this unit when he found out I was a God-Blood.”

John looked puzzled. “Wait, did I hear that right?”

Tor smiled sheepishly. “Yes, you did. My mother is mortal, but my father, whoever he may be, is a god of some kind. Mother can’t even tell me who he really was, unfortunately. The only clues I have are this spear -” he gestured to the long, harpoon-like weapon slung across his back “- and this little trick I can do with it. No matter where I throw it, it’ll jump right back to my hand.”

Roxy felt a pang of sympathy. “The spear trick is kinda cool, but that sucks about your dad. I hope you find him soon.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for, working with all of you. What about yourselves?”

“I’m Roxy, and this is John. We’re, uh, not from around here. We just woke up and found ourselves here.”

“What, like you hitched a ride on a cart or something?”

“Not… exactly. Um.” She tried to think of how to phrase it. “Kind of hard for carts to get on top of roofs.”

The woman laughed. “So that was you on top of the bathhouse? Sweet merciful Syndics, when I heard about that, I thought I’d die laughing. Did they really have to pull you out of-”

“I ended up on the roof and that’s all I’m saying about it,” Roxy interrupted, blushing furiously.

The woman just smirked. “Alright, if you say so. I suppose I should introduce myself, then. Velka. The only reason I’m here, really, is because I was smart enough to see through one of the Fair Folk’s little games. Someone tried to get in but I pulled the whole plan apart.”

John considered this. “That still sounds like it’s a pretty big deal.”

Velka shrugged. “If you say so. I’m just a researcher. Admittedly, one who can fight, but a researcher nonetheless.”

“Well, okay. Like Roxy said, I’m John. And we’re not from around here. Um… how do I put it? We kind of… dropped in. We’re not even sure where we are, exactly. There should be a bunch more of us, people like us and some grouchy gray-skinned aliens, but we don’t know where they are either.”

The other three looked mildly taken aback. The only one who hadn’t introduced himself shrugged. “If… if you say so. I suppose Rune thought you’d be able to organize a search or something while this job kept a roof over your heads. So that just leaves me. Call me Heimdir. According to Rune, I’m supposed to be the captain of this little unit. Reason being I’m the most experienced with the Guardians. As for why I’m here and not with the main body… well.”

Heimdir rolled up his right sleeve, revealing rippling muscle, laced with terrifyingly dark scars. The spiderweb of marks on his forearm all radiated from a long, pointed shape, like a sharp fragment of black metal had burned itself into his skin.

“Out on patrol a while back, some other Guardians and I found this… thing. Looked like a man trapped in a cage of wire. We tried to get him free, but it rose up and attacked us. Killed one of the others before it went for me. I thought I’d blocked the strike in time, but it got past my guard a moment too soon. Didn’t land too solid a blow on me, but a piece of it stuck in and broke off when I bashed it away with my shield. Now it’s stuck here. It can do… things. I’m not entirely sure what all it can do, but it does seem to make me a lot stronger, at least.”

Velka shook her head, seeing the questions on John’s face. “Don’t ask. The surgeons already tried to remove it. Blunted half their instruments before they gave up. I’m looking into what that thing is, but for now, it’s there to stay.”

Heimdir nodded his thanks in her direction. “So, with all of that out of the way, what exactly did Rune recruit you two for?”

The duo shrugged simultaneously. “Not really sure,” said Roxy. “He said something about a prophecy, took us to see the Syndics, then took us here.”

“Prophecy? Is he still going on about that?” Heimdir’s shoulders sagged. “He’s been rambling about that vision from the Unconquered Sun for the past year, or more.”

“Unconquered Sun?” John still hadn’t gotten a clear answer as to who or what that was.

The other Guardians looked surprised, in varying degrees. “You… really aren’t from around here, are you?” asked Tor.

“Well, no. We just said that.”

“The Unconquered Sun is… well, the sun.” Tor gestured at the ceiling. “Everyone in Creation’s heard of him, or that’s the way I’ve heard it. According to some of the historians, he was worshipped all over the world. At least, before the Dragon-Blooded took over and formed the Scarlet Empire.”

Velka nodded in agreement. “The big temple in the center of the city was built to worship him. But it’s been sealed for centuries. At least until Rune became what he is now. The doors only open for him, though, and he won’t go inside. Nobody knows why. He won’t tell.”

“Okay, now I’m confused,” John said. “What’s the deal with Rune?”

“Chosen by the Unconquered Sun, or something grandiose like that.” Heimdir looked thoughtful. “I think the term he used was ‘Exalted.’ The Syndics have him going everywhere and doing everything for them now. Like there’s something special about it.”

Velka coughed, politely. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we need to be going. We don’t want to be late for first patrol.”

“Right.” The large man straightened up and put on his helmet. “Let’s get a move on. The walls might wait for us, but the Fair Folk certainly won’t.”

On the way to the walls, the group explained what Heimdir had meant. One of their duties, as members of the Guardians, was to protect Whitewall from invasion. Usually this meant just patrolling the walls and keeping an eye out for anything suspicious-looking that got a little too close.

“There’s this big agreement, see,” Velka explained. “A treaty. There’s several courts of the Fair Folk nearby, and even closer is a shadowland. We’d be up to our necks in fairies and ghosts on a daily basis if it weren’t for the Thousand Year Pact. They stay out of the city, the walls continue to keep out any unwanted visitors, and we send out twenty prisoners a year to keep them happy. Ten for the fairies and ten for the dead.”

Neither John nor Roxy were too happy with this arrangement.

“Just something we have to do.” The words were cold and grim. “It’s that or face constant threat of invasion. And we only send out the condemned. Murderers and traitors and the like. The Syndics aren’t too thrilled about it either, but it’s all we’ve got for now. And we need the city to be strong. It’s that, or get crushed under someone’s boot.”

Tor snorted in derision. “And as if we didn’t have enough problems between the behemoths and the Realm eyeing us, there’s the Bull. Old bastard’s probably thinking about how to conquer us right now.”

This had needed further explanation. The Bull of the North was a barbarian, a warlord of unbelievable skill and repute. He and his Icewalker tribes had begun to slowly conquer the North. The Scarlet Empire considered him a threat, and now with more reason than ever - one of the Great Houses had sent their legions against him and been crushed. Those who didn’t respect the Bull feared him, and many who did respect him feared him anyway.

Heimdir dismissed any thought of the Bull threatening Whitewall, however. “He’s not interested in us. And even if he was, his troops couldn’t get past us. Laying siege to Whitewall would be a waste of time and effort for him.”

The banter continued as they began their patrol of the walls. Eventually, John managed to explain the extent to which he and Roxy were lost. “We can’t even read the banners in the training hall,” he pointed out.

“Oh, those? Motivational garbage.” Tor shook his head. “Little things like ‘hang in there’ or ‘you can do it.’ Some bureaucrat’s idea to lower the training budget.”

The group was now patrolling over the main gates of the city. At this time of day, the road below, which nearly glinted in the sunlight, was mostly empty. It was a slow time for travel, Velka explained. Not much would be going on here, thanks to the magic laid into the road itself.

John was about to ask what she meant by that, but Roxy interrupted him. “Hey, guys. What’s that?”

The group scanned the horizon.

“There, just off the road. Looks like a bunch of lights coming over the ground.”

Roxy was right. A small, glittering mass was approaching the city, some distance from the road. From the distance, it was hard to tell what it might be. Certainly not a group of normal travelers.

Velka’s eyes narrowed. “Captain,” she said, quietly. “I don’t like this. Could be trouble.”

“Agreed. Signal the other patrols. No change in movements, but they should be ready, just in case. We’ll watch to see what this is.”

Their answer came as the lights approached the city. Everyone tightened their grip on what they were holding as they saw what appeared to be huge, shaggy, ape-like beasts bearing large crystals of ice. Dark shapes sat, suspended, within the crystals. Hunched, knobbly-skinned humanoids - hobgoblins, according to Velka - bore a palanquin of gossamer silks, pine wood, and rich furs, upon which reclined a woman with impossibly graceful features and skin like newly-fallen snow. Her ears came to long, willowy points and her eyes were totally black, like coal. Icy blue patterns of frost played over her skin, which she showed much of, despite the cold. Her robes, also of silk and fur, covered just enough to border between provocative and exhibitionist.

Everyone in the group had a good guess as to who, or at least what, she was.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” muttered Tor, voicing the thought for everyone.

The procession came to a halt within shouting distance of the walls. The woman waved her beasts to a halt with a scepter carved from ice and gold, which she then used to gesture at the walls.

“My greetings to the people of Whitewall,” she said, her voice clear and cold. “Would that they were friendly tidings, but I must come to discuss business.”

Heimdir spoke. There was no one else who could speak for the city. “And what business would that be?”

“No nonsense, I see. Very well. I’ve come because of a little… hiccup in the arrangement, shall we say? You are, of course, aware of the terms of the Thousand Year Pact?”

“Aye, that we are,” replied Heimdir.

“Oh good! Then there must have been some mistake,” said the woman. “For you see….” She paused dramatically, revealing a smile like frosted glass. “I have not received my tribute, as per the Pact.”

Velka spat. “Hateful raksha hag,” she whispered. “We sent them out just like we did every year.”

“I know that,” said Heimdir. “I damn well should; I was on patrol that night.” He shook his head. “The screaming didn’t stop until sunrise.”

“And now this… this Fair Folk,” growled Velka, unable to think of a proper insult, “thinks she can demand more?”

“I see that there is some confusion,” said the raksha. “Perhaps this may bring you some clarity!”

She gestured with the staff again, and the yeti-like beasts hefted their burdens high. Each of the Whitewall natives present swore under their breath as the sunlight showed each shape in the ice for what they really were - human beings, trapped.

“I caught these interlopers in my domain, and, realizing I had been cheated, came to ensure that the agreement would be upheld.”

Velka had taken a quick count. “That’s three patrols worth of hunters,” she said.

Grimly, Heimdir said, “At least now we know why people have been going missing.”

“The terms of reparation are simple,” said the raksha woman. “I demand twice the yearly tribute, in exchange for forgetting that the agreement was ever violated.” John’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the wall. “If you do not comply within the next, oh, ten minutes, I will consider the lives of these interlopers forfeit and take them myself. One by one, I shall drain them of life, until you acquiesce. I imagine it might take some time just to kill only one of them. There’s no rush, of course.”

Heimdir swore, as only a veteran guardsman could. “If we don’t comply,” he said, “she’ll be able to take that to the other Fair Folk courts as an admission of guilt.”

“They’d buy that?” John asked.

“I don’t know for sure. They might. And if they do, we could be in for a world of trouble.”

John looked down at the people trapped in ice. Their faces were frozen in moments of shock, fear, or horror. As if they knew what was going to happen.

“Captain….” Tor hissed. The raksha was beginning to look impatient.

“I know, damn it, I know!” Heimdir gnawed at a thumbnail in frustration. John saw the conflict on his face - either sacrifice the lives of people he had sworn to protect, or condemn twenty prisoners to an unknown, horrible fate and possibly doom the city either way.

The teenager looked back down at the group gathered below. The wind began to pick up, flowing past his back and down over the wall. He had to do something.

“Shall I take this silence as refusal of my terms?” The woman laughed, taunting them. “I must say, these people do look as if their fear is going to taste truly wonderful.”

Tor looked frantically at Heimdir. They had to make a decision now.

John set his jaw. The wind swirled around him as he drew up his hood. A voice, deep inside of him, told him that it would be okay. He could trust the wind as much as he trusted himself.

As hood streamed out behind him, John vaulted over the edge of the alabaster walls.

There was a brief moment where everyone present stared in pure shock at the falling figure clad in blue. Then, the winds came.

Gusting and swirling, the wind caught John and slowed his fall, guiding him to slide gracefully down the city’s titular walls. He kicked off, making a solid three-point landing, a single hand outstretched behind him. He stood up, chest swelling with righteous fury. The sunlight glinted off of his glasses as he stared down the raksha.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But where I come from, we eat gods for breakfast! So now I’m going to show you how we do things downtown.”