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Mordecai

"This unit fails to comprehend. It requests clarification"

0 · 1,250 views · located in Albion

a character in “Avalon's Dawn”, as played by The Valkyrie

Description

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Credit
"What is a soul? And why is it so obvious that this unit does not have one?"
Almost Human - Voltaire
Mordred’s Lullaby – Heather Dale



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Name: All-Purpose Unit #9 “Mordecai”
Pronunciation: MOR-deh-kai
Age: 6
Race: Automaton
Height: Six feet on the dot.
Build: #9 has the appearance of a human of middling musculature and little fat. All of his flesh is quite synthetic, however, and his “bones” are made of a lightweight, but incredibly strong alloy.
Sexuality: Interesting question. We’ll see if he manages to develop one. He’s certainly not capable of procreation.

Appearance: There are certain advantages to being a creature made rather than born. For one, you usually come into awareness more or less fully-formed. Mordecai is no exception in this respect, and has the appearance of an adult human male, with a few notable oddities. Synthetic flesh is quite good at replicating the texture of the real thing, but it looks a little… off. Lacking the warm pinkish tinges of a normal circulatory system, his skin is a perfect alabaster color, too pale to be natural.

By contrast, his backlit eyes are a green-gold hue, the irises displaying a faint maker’s mark- the gold bit is shaped like a blooming lotus. It’s a very particular signature that points to a specific craftsperson, but few outside the aristocracy or the golem trade would know that. A sheet of sleek black hair falls to his elbows, occasionally interspersed with a bit of dark red. This is synthetic, too, woven from a mix of spider silk and artificial fibers to approximate the correct texture.

It is obvious that while it took an engineer’s mind to craft his insides, it took an artist to construct his shell. When perfectly still, #9 resembles a statue, indistinguishable from a setpiece in some elaborate stage-show. In motion, he is much more like a man, but only in a certain sense. His features are far too symmetrical and precise- enough so that they subconsciously throw most people off and make them uneasy. His coloration and the particular aesthetic he was conformed to all combine to give him a rather menacing aspect, as well. Dressed the right way, he could easily pass for a vaudeville villain or some kind of artistic representation of sin. It’s worked to his disadvantage before.


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Demeanor: A golem’s psychology is an interesting thing. Most are capable of only the most basic tasks, and few are in any way independent. Even the more complex ones have a limited range of emotion. This is theoretically not the case with Mordecai. He was programmed with magic and technology to be capable of a full range of human responses to situations, minus the free will. Like all of his brethren, however, he operates primarily on logic and utilitarian calculi of situational outcomes.

He has shown, however, a unique ability to overcome the limits of his programming. For starters, he doesn’t always follow orders he is given, though this is still the default response. He has also on numerous occasions shown the ability to behave “irrationally,” acting from his emotions rather than simply with them. Again, this is not common, but provably possible. Generally, the Guild keeps this quiet, for fear he’ll be removed from their custody.

Despite the advanced nature of his programming and the incredible rate of his information-processing systems, #9 has still only existed for six years, and only the last few outside of the building in which he was created. There is much he does not know, and while his curiosity is great, his naiveté is greater still, a fact which brings some of his fellows great amusement. He grew a bit suspicious of some of them after an incident in which he was dragged into a brothel and left to fend for himself, but for the most part, he’s trusting as a child, minus, well, the cuteness.

Quirks: #9 is an excellent artist, and often draws from his memory (which is quite close to perfect). Drawing from his imagination is harder, as it is a faculty he has to fight his own nature to develop, but he’s making some headway with it. He tends to ask lots of questions of people. Notably, while he feels lots of things, he’s not yet quite used to expressing them, so sometimes his facial expressions are a bit silly-looking or on a slight delay to their stimulus. He has trouble with idioms, and doesn’t detect lies or sarcasm very well yet.

Fears: That’s the feeling where one’s stomach tightens uncomfortably and the spine feels cold, right? What he feels most of the time is closer to dread, but he doesn’t like it when others look at him with fear. It makes him think he’ll never be able to integrate himself with people. There is a profound sort of loneliness to Mordecai’s existence, and he fears its permanence.

Opinions:
Artorias- He's not terribly concerned about Artorias, but he knows that some of the others are, and Myrddin is. That's enough for him.
Myrddin- The wizard has been kind to #9, and he therefore has no reason to believe anything bad of him. To Mordecai, Myrddin is a generous soul with a great reservoir of patience for his questions.
Percy- Percy, he has seen more often than most, though the two have yet to properly converse. Mordecai is not sure, but sometimes he thinks he might make the Mutatio somewhat uneasy. This is not uncommon, though he does desire that it were not so.
Kethyrian- He has only spoken a few times to the Favisae, when Myrddin asked her to charge #9 with spiritual magic to test the results. She was businesslike and economical with words. Modecai thinks that's a shame; her voice is very pleasant, not at all like Morgause's.
Mordecai- He struggles with some aspects of his programming and his place in the world. There is no other being like him in it, and he lacks any kind of example after which to model himself. Certain parts of his programming are incomplete, or were intentionally left open, producing in him a very humanlike dissatisfaction that urges him to try and change. At the same time, certain aspects of his being are written, as it were, in stone, and cannot be changed. It is a difficult kind of life to live, really, and he knows not his purpose or his goal. He wonders if he is truly inferior to humans or not, though he feels he is.
Theon- Mordecai has yet to speak with Theon, and thus refrains from forming an opinion.
Vivi- Likewise with Vivian.
Sven- Mordecai likes Sven. The man does not feel the need to crowd the air with superfluous speech, and he was kind enough to answer the Automaton's questions about the ship.
Lohengrin- Mordecai has yet to form an opinion about Lohengrin.
Gwen- Gwendolyn is someone with whom he could conduct fully-fledged technical discussions, he is sure. He was actually somewhat nonplussed by the ease with which she identified him, and he is curious to speak further with her, to discover what else she knows.


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Role: Labor, Close-quarters combat specialist, living shield.
Weapons of Choice: There’s little point in using weapons when you’re made of stronger stuff than any blade. Mordecai uses only his own body to fight.

Armor/Apparel: Again, armor would be mostly pointless (as are clothes, really), but Mordecai wears the latter. Apparently, being a mechanical being isn’t a sufficient excuse to forgo that when you’re anatomically human. Who knew? He dresses somewhat “practically aristocratic” because that’s what he is familiar with.

Fighting Style: As an Automaton of incredible complexity, #9 is capable of a multitude of combat functions, especially when charged with magic. Natural magic turns him into a highly-destructive battlefield machine, faster and stronger than usual, with the downside that he experiences something like a “berserker haze” which makes it difficult to coordinate him with other units, as it narrows his focus to the decimation of his enemies. Being charged with Spiritual magic, on the other hand, strengthens his endurance and the efficiency of his auto-repair function, though it does decrease his mobility.


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Place of Birth: Jherico
Social Status: Servant of one sorceress and golem technician, Lady Morgause.

Personal History: Morgause is widely considered to be the single greatest Automata engineer to have ever lived, and for good reason. Her pieces are marvels of art as well as technology, and though she is known for being somewhat eccentric, she does impeccable work. As of the present, she has only created nine models of Automata, the last of which was, naturally #9. He is unique in her collection, both for his technological advancements and also for the fact that he has not been made available for commercial replication.

Nor will he ever be.

Morgause created Mordecai to be perfect. That’s not a poetic turn of phrase, either; she was obsessed with literally creating perfection, and the rumor is she spent five years on his external fabrications alone. There was a reason for this drive aside from rampant fetishism (which most will agree was definitely at work there), though. Part of the reason for his complexity is the attendant complexity of his original purpose: Morgause needed an Automata that could accept long-term, conditional directives that it did not know about. It had to have the necessary intelligence and flexibility to be able to carry out this directive in circumstances Morgause would not be able to predict, and it was in this that she accidentally embedded a flaw.

Mordecai has free will. He is capable of ignoring orders, and though it is not perfect, it is actively developing. He has no knowledge of his directives, and so for this reason, Morgause is assured that he will, if presented the correct situation, carry them out, due to their priority nature, but she cannot puppet him directly any longer.

After his creation, she kept him as her personal servant for several years, during which he watched the fever of her madness grow ever hotter, until she scarcely recognized even him anymore. She was unhinged and a recluse, but her anger was still directed in the same way: at Artorias.

Eventually, she sent Mordecai away in a fit, and he replaced himself with a servant golem capable of doing all the things she needed before taking to the streets by himself. He fell in with Myrddin and Avalon’s Dawn after a time, though most of the Guild members are unfamiliar with him, as he usually acted only as Myrddin’s personal steward, carrying out tasks assigned directly from the Guildmaster.

Professional History: Myrddin is aware of Morgause and her reputation, and wasn’t about to pass up a chance at owning her only unique piece (and likely her last, since she’s no longer mentally fit to engineer another). #9 is regularly recharged with magic and so he can think of no reason to be elsewhere.

So begins...

Mordecai's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Eli Noir

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Prologue: To the Skies


The uniform clang of metal boots striking stone pavement was the overwhelming bassline to the melody of this early morning in Galatea, and beneath its onslaught, the trebles and harmonies of hawkers crying their wares fell to near silence. The streets cleared before the advancing platoon, each one’s uniform pressed and polished to a striking picture of dignified violence. Each wore a clockwork rifle over one shoulder, and carried a broad-bladed saber at his hip, the silver shine of pommel, scabbard, barrel and armor a striking counterpoint to the hunter-green of their uniforms.

For hunters they were. The coloration gave them away to the savvy as an elite unit, fifty men strong, designed and trained for specialized combat operations against unconventional foes. Artorias would not meet mercenaries with a proper army; he was far too clever for that. Their orders were clear: the Purge was to continue, and this time, it was Avalon’s Dawn that would surrender or face death. The Guild, though powerful and influential under the leadership of the wizard Myrddin, was small in number, and many of its members were noncombatants. It was not to be an issue for fifty of the King’s Viper Regiment. And each of them was confident that it wouldn’t be.

The cacophony died in their wake, the other denizens of the market streets during the early morning hours slowly filing out from their hiding places and resuming their business. It wasn’t that most looked poorly upon the Hero-King- quite the opposite. But Artorias and his methods were the result of a man much better than most taking a position where he was forced to confront the imperfection of others, and unfortunately, he seemed to take it for granted that this imperfection could be rectified in the same way he quashed his own: through strict military discipline and the enforcement of a code with stringent demands on personal conduct. The King’s Law was something, most thought, that it would take some getting used to.

But the march of the Vipers continued apace, and would not be halted. The heavy thudding of greaves on the streets was the only sound they made, and it rang authoritative down every alley and byway they crossed. The building they approached was a small tower, the center of its own modest district in the city, and the reaction here was much different. Those who lived in the shadows of the Avalon Spire were a hardier bunch, and none retreated, several glaring at the intruders with open hostility. None made to stop them, however, as these were those fighters long past their days as mercenaries, or those who had let to earn their stripes, and there was nothing they could do.

At least, not directly. When a gnarled hand moved to his shoulder, a young boy nodded, face set into a scowl, and clambered up the nearest drainpipe, hauling himself onto the roof with graceless resolve. Running over the rooftops was easily the most efficient way to traverse Galatea, with its narrow, winding roads and many canals, and as he scrambled from building to building, he quickly outstripped the deliberate marching of the soldiers, taking a last running jump to catch onto a windowsill with a grunt of effort. The window was open, as it always was, and he fell from it into a crouch, wiping the back of his forehead with one grimy hand, then thinking better of it and using his tattered shirt instead. He was off again shortly after, shouting his little lungs out. “53! 53! Code fifty-three!” He banged on as many doors as he could manage in his mad sprint to the wizard’s office, probably succeeding in waking a good number of the Guild members from their rest in their tower apartments. That was, after all, the point.

Code 53, as the high number might indicate, was a recently-invented shorthand for ‘the appearance of military elements, probably hostile.’

Without so much as a knock, he burst into Myrddin’s office, only to see the kindly old man behind his desk, flanked by his apprentice the deer-man and the scary-looking machine-man. “’S them Vipers, sir!” he yelled, not precisely in control of his volume, given the amount of adrenaline coursing through his veins.

Myrddin didn’t look all that surprised. He turned first to his apprentice, speaking low, but urgently. “Percy, take anyone you can find and get out of here. Make for the Elysium and leave.” They had known this was likely to happen eventually, and as a result, he’d posted Captain Skybound, Lieutenant Deidrich, and the Guild’s goblin artificer Gorlak on the ship, ready for immediate departure at the drop of a hat. He’d expected to have at least two more days, though. Gritting his teeth, he decided he was going to have to change the plan a little. “Mordecai. Engage protocol thirteen. Go with them. I will hold the King's men off for as long as I can.” It hadn’t been his intention to send the Automaton with the others, but as Mordecai was the only one with certain pieces of information that they’d need to know, it would have to be done.

A few floors down, the Guild secretary on the first floor dropped her morning cup of tea when the tower door was struck with force, the sound thundering through the receiving hall and startling all present. The tinkle of the delicate ceramic shattering on the stone floor was inaudible over the shouts of the Vipers’ captain, demanding access to the building.

"Engaging protocol thirteen," Mordecai replied immediately, starting forward at what was best described as a brisk walking pace. He scooped up the child in one arm on his way out the door, ignoring the young human's protests at being so handled. With one hand, he swung the youth gently as he was able over his back, waiting patiently until he caught on and wrapped his small arms around the golem's neck. "This unit suggests that you hold on tightly, young Master," he cautioned, giving a space of 3.5 seconds for compliance before he took off into a breakneck run. Well, perhaps the speed would have been "breakneck" by ordinary standards, but for an automaton, it was hardly peak efficiency.

Protocol thirteen was one of his more complex command sequences, and the first part involved getting as many Guild members out of the tower safely as possible. Several already appeared to be trying to evacuate out a window, probably one the boy had come through, and Mordecai did some internal calculations before coming to a dead halt. He'd be ten percent more likely to survive if he accompanied them. Very well. Handing the child off to one of the departing group, he continued down the stairs to the recieving hall, where the staff were arming themselves and getting behind wooden tables and the like even as the hinges on the door started to groan under the pressure of holding against the incoming soldiers. The chances of convincing any of these to evacuate was small; his best option for ensuring their survival was to pause his protocol and engage directly.

A creature made of metal and stone gained little from taking cover behind wood, and Mordecai did nothing of the sort, simply positioning himself in the center of the room, so as to be the first thing the Vipers laid eyes on, and ideally, the first thing they attempted to shoot at.

Percy jerked his head in understanding and turned to head out behind the Automata. He had his own job, given by Myrddin himself. Find whoever he could and bring them to the Elysium. While he was torn on taking the airship and leaving others to fend for themselves in the Guild hall or on the streets, he had his commands and he wasn't about to start contesting it with his mentor, especially not now with soldiers breathing down their neck. Percy took off, fighting the urge to shift and perhaps even match the golem in his speed, but he needed his mind intact and unaffected by the primal urges being a deer would bring. Plus, chances were he'd need to talk. So it was with that and the goal of saving everyone he could find that set his pace.

At one point the Changeling lost sight of Mordecai, though the machine was probably somewhere doing his part. He was reliable if only for his nature as an Automata. Percy figured he'd see the man in one piece again eventually. Instead of making his way to the recieving hall where likely the fighting was to be the heaviest, Percy turned and ran down the hall leading to the sleeping quarters. Those just now awakening may be confused and he could lead those to the safety of the Elysium.

Anyone who spent more than a few days in the desert developed a healthy respect for orcs. As Theon forced himself from his bedmat on the sand, the sounds of a slaughter outside ringing in his ears, all he could think was that somehow he hadn't respected them enough. For years he'd avoided them, only fighting when the odds were vastly in their favor, or a proper plan could be developed. But all it took was one mistake, one lapse of vigilance, the green fuckers were swarming over his men, hacking them to bits.

Theon was only thinking of the quickest and safest way out of the camp when the first one cleaved through the canvas and made his way inside, followed by two of his fellows, wielding jagged axes. His hand darted to the loaded duckfoot pistol by his bed, leveled at the greenskins, and--


Bang. It didn't make the right sound. His pistol exploded like a thunderstorm in your hand when it fired, not like... a fist against wood. Theon scowled, shaking his head out of the dream of the past, like any other person reliving a memory, only with significantly more clarity. He'd had that one a few times now. It was already getting old. He pushed himself up to set his bare feet on the floor, yawned, and stretched. A few moments were what it took to realize the sounds from his dream were remaining. Different from before... but that same urgency. Shouting and running outside, heavy and light footfalls side by side. The hell was going on?

He rested his hands lightly on his knee and closed his eyes. It didn't take much effort to view the immediate vicinity through farsight. His senses expanded away from him, taking in sights, smells, sounds, a veritable cacophony of stimuli compared to the empty expanse of the sand sea. It was almost enough to give him a headache in this early hour of the morning. Instead, it almost made his heart stop. Soldiers were at the doors, trying to smash their way inside. King's men. Some of the Guild looked to want to fight, others to flee. He tried to locate Vivian, but another pound on his door shook his concentration. There was too much going on here. He knew what he needed to know.

Fuck, not again.

He had experience getting dressed quickly, and Theon put it to use here, throwing on pants, a sleeveless tunic, belt, socks, armor, boots. His pistol he snatched from his bedside and clipped to his belt. He grabbed the scythe on the way out the door. He looked to be ahead of many of the others, nameless faces who he didn't know and didn't care about. One was running down the hall, about to pass him, a dark-haired boy. As he was about to pass, Theon reached out and snatched the front of his shirt in a powerful hand, trying to bring him to a stop.

"Vivian Zeona. Where is she?" he demanded. The answer had better come quick, too, else he would probably toss him aside and search himself.

"Vi-Who? Look, the Vipers are knocking down our door. You need to come with me and get to saf-" Percy tried to persuade the man who had him by the collar. Though a racket a little bit further down the hall managed to cut the rest of his words off, even over the wailling din of panic. The source, a woman fighting to get her boots on but her hair was in a bedridden ragged mess and she was even still wearing her night gown. She had a sheathed blade slung under one arm, a pistol in a hand, cocked and presumably loaded, and she looked ready for a fight, looking for one even-- except for the fact that she still wore her night gown of course. She even had the telltale gleam of steel gauntlets under the loose folds of her sleeves. It was an... Interesting sight.

This woman had awakened to the pounding of hands at her door and the cries of Code 53. While she wasn't well versed in what Code 53 exactly entailed, she did know that it involved a fight with someone. That promise alone was enough to throw her from her bed, throwing her arms in her gauntlets and gathering the important things, clothes apparently lower down on the list than normally. She did not so much open the door as she did kick it off of it's hinges (with the one boot she had on at that time) and storm out into the hall seeking to quell the commotion with bloody glee.

"Where's the fight!? Where're the bastards at!? Haha! I've got something for them as soon as I get this damned boot on!" She yelled as she stomped her foot down into the boot and began to make her way down the hall, looping the sheath around her back. She was looking too far ahead and trying to find a fight to notice the pair arguing about a Vivian Zeona.

It was perhaps not two hours from the time Kethyrian Tor had managed to bathe, undress, and collapse into bed after a long night operation that she woke to the sound of pounding on her door, the rhythm far too frenetic to be some sort of perverse echo of the throbbing in her skull. It was with the willpower of a bloody martyr that she managed to force her eyes open, blinking blearily at her surroundings in time for a shrill cry of Code 53! to assault her sensitive ears. It didn't take too long to run through the mental catalogue of all the things that could possibly be until she stuck on the right one, and she resisted the urge to groan into her pillow, if only just. Forcing life into deadened limbs with a jolt of magic, Kethyrian threw open the doors to her armoire and threw on the first few garments she came across, finishing with a pale hooded cloak and a poniard on a belt, gathering her peculiar striped hair into a tail.

"If this is someone's idea of a poor joke, I hope they'll be laughing through their coronary," she muttered darkly to herself, stepping out into the hall in enough time to notice that Vivian was half-dressed and already trying to make her way to the nearest confrontation. "Stupid girl," Kethyrian sighed, though it was largely bereft of venom. "Vivian! A code 53 calls for tactical retreat. Don't tell me you're really interested in that hearing for insubordination they threatened you with last time?" Charging into situations with but a harebrained plan wasn't exactly unusual for the younger woman, and it was usually her Favisae sort-of friend who wound up patching the damage afterwards.

"We should move. Now. Same goes for you two," she called to the two men a little ways off, apparently in some kind of confrontation of their own. She scoffed beneath her breath; this was hardly the time for that.

"You mean their tactical retreat, right Kethy?" Vivian answered, her blade now free from her sheath and in her hand.

The look she was given in return could have peeled paint.

It had been one of those sleepless nights for Eli. The boy lay in bed, eyes pressed shut, clutching a pillow to his chest, trying to keep himself calm enough to at least manage a morning nap. Still in a sweat, he opened his eyes and turned face up on the bed. "Who needs sleep anyway?" he muttered to himself, his eyes heavy and more than a little bloodshot. The sound of commotion outside his door actually came as a welcome surprise, giving Eli an excuse to throw the blankets off his perspiring body, slip into his robes, and see what the ruckus was about.

He peeked his head out the door tentatively, intercepting Kethyrian's glare. At least he thought that's what her name was. Eli made a bit of an effort to at least memorize the first names of the people in his immediate area, but often had to resort to referring to them by key descriptors. He turned to see the intended recipient of the glare was "Excited Murder Girl", with "Quiet Scythe Guy" and "Deer Boy" arguing in the background. His hazel eyes darted around from person to person. He swallowed and his head fell, his hair obscuring his face. "Code 53… we're leaving right?" he muttered quietly, stepping out of his room starting briskly down the hall.

Downstairs, matters grew only more pressing, as the hinges on the tower door finally gave way with a great creak, the wooden portcullis falling inwards and smashing against the stone floor with an unmistakable noise. Unwilling to risk being hit first, the Vipers opened fire on the first enemy they saw- in this case, Mordecai. Seventeen filed into the room under that covering fire, taking up positions in the entrance hall, but the remaining lot either made for the sides of the building or attempted to bull-rush past the dismal fortifications and get themselves deeper into the tower.

Mordecai glanced with apparent disinterest at the metal projectiles embedding themselves in his synthetic flesh, then back up at the people shooting them. "This unit's safety protocols require that you are warned ten seconds before this unit engages berserk mode. You have been notified." For five seconds, there wasn't much notable reaction, except one of the Guild members behind an overturned table yelling at him to 'hurry it up, you stupid machine.' Mordecai thought it would be rather unnecessary to inform the speaker that he was in fact calibrated for very high levels of intelligence and processing power, since it was not likely this was the time to discuss the matters. Besides, he was down to three seconds, and given that much of that processing was about to be converted into a very different kind of energy.

"Berserk mode engaged." Perhaps due to some inner sadism on the part of his creator, Mordecai was programmed to say this with a tone of pleasant cheeriness, less than a nanosecond before his systems shifted function, backlighting his eyes an eerie red and turning several unused synthetic neurologial pathways under his skin the same hue, spiderwebbing the translucent flesh substitute on his limbs with pulsing lines. It was at about this moment that one or two of the Vipers realized what they were dealing with, and concentrated all of their fire on him rather than the other members of his guild.

Well enough for #9, who sprang forward with unnatural speed, bringing one of the gunmen to the ground immediately, his windpipe crushed under the extraordinary pressure of manufactured fingers. Those in his proximity drew melee weapons, abandoning the notion of shooting when so close to each other, and to their credit, they were professionals who didn't hesitate about it. It made none of what they did any more useful, and the automaton was through another three in seconds. The activation of berserk mode narrowed his focus, and so he was unable to keep track of all fifty, and about half that number successfully escaped to the stairs. Mordecai, ripping a man's arm from its socket with a sickening crunch followed by a wet pop and throwing it into another Viper's face, did not notice.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Gwen stretched languidly, stretching the muscles of her back and arms leisurely, smiling broadly when her vertebrae popped audibly into place. She'd been napping in the rigging, which wasn't terribly unusual on a day like today. Of course, given that it was so soon after sunrise, it was a bit of a wonder that she was napping at all, but she'd always been like that- unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, and content to do so often. So far, it looked to be another boring morning sitting at the airship docks, waiting for something she wasn't even sure was ever going to actually happen. Artorias was a very... intense man, but she'd never thought he'd turn out to be anybody's despot. Her father had believed adamantly in the better part of his nature, after all, and if there was one thing true of Leomaris Steele, it was that he was both a great engineer and a good judge of character.

The blaring of the ship's alarm, then, shot her eyes wide open, tensed her from her languid coil, and nearly tipped her out of the rigging. Holding on only by dent of a years-honed acrobatic dexterity, she righted herself and clambered down the ropes, hitting the deck with a soft thud. "All right everybody! That's the signal! Get yourselves up and at 'em, boys and girls, we've got a job to do!" Her shouts were a staccato beat, matched with the ease of practice by the footfalls over her crew, and she knew they'd be ready when they needed to be. They were the best like that.

As for herself, she disappeared below deck to the control room, where she knew her ever-vigilant best friend and Lieutenant (for some reason, everyone always assumed he was the captain) was probably already waiting. Her chief engineer, Gorlak, was on standby as well, and the 'stowaway' Myrddin had insisted they take along was reclining in one corner, apparently unfazed by the suddenly incredibly active goings-on. "Morning Sunshine, Froggy, Strawberry," she greeted them in that order, ridiculous smile still plastered to her face. "Do we have visuals on the escape route yet?" Her nicknames produced a sound of displeasure from the sullen-looking redhead, but he made no move to correct her. He didn't want to start a fight with the brick wall, after all, and it was pretty obvious that nobody else got away with calling a guy like that something as ridiculous as 'Sunshine.'

When the ship's alarms wrangled through the ship's coppice, the Lieutenant sprang into action, ignoring the betraying squeaks his spinal cord made when executing such impetuous movements. The Lieutenant had not been sleeping. Instead, he'd been surveying the crews efforts to get back in the swing of things, to hastily tie up their belongings and heave coal into the awaiting furnaces. In brief spurts, he joined them at their sides, rolling his sleeves to his elbows, smearing grease across his cheeks whilst wiping sweat and hefting shovelful after shovelful into the beast's metal-jowls. Even if he wasn't truly the lookout, he'd still been watching the horizon with tentative anticipation, as if expecting something to happen. He was always waiting for something. Drumming his fingers soundlessly across the metal contraptions strapped to his arms, digging ruthlessly into his tendons and wound around his muscles like automated leeches lending him strength, and subtle reminders that he was only human. He wasn't a fearful man. Far from it, he prided himself on his ability to deal with difficult and dangerous situations with little more than a strained frown. That was his job, and what he had been trained for, for as long as he could remember. If Gwendolyn was napping – in all likelihood, she was probably curled up in the rigging somewhere – then he would act as her eyes, always.

He was a creature, a being solely obsessed with the essence of duty, before he had been destroyed; his duty to the military had been paramount, even over his duty to his family. Now, the Lieutenant's duty lied solely with protecting Gwendolyn and her crew; and, all of Avalon's Dawn's guild-members. Such a small word, four letters, with only one of which was a vowel yet it was so powerful, so binding, so meaningful and so very controlling. It'd lost him his fiance – his life, and for brief periods of his life: his mind. Sleep does not come as it once did, not without her in his arms. He doesn't really sleep anymore, not before it's absolutely necessary. Stumbling around the decks in a sleep-deprived stupor, and still attempting to maintain order on the ship was near-impossible, so he still allows himself short reprieves, slumped somewhere in the control room. Mostly, the Lieutenant spends his nights prowling amongst the sleeping, muttering under his breath, eyes darting back and forth. Searching, observing. Watching, waiting.

He gave short barking orders, in his clipped accent, before disappearing below decks to prepare three steins full-to-the-brim with coffee, cocoa and an odd mixture of strong liquors – never enough to really do anything but certainly enough to open your eyes wide enough to greet the morning. Half-sloshing chipped mugs; nearly the perfect analogy. He'd already dropped one in Myrddin's awaiting hands, unusually careful not to drop any of its steaming contents on the man's papery fingers. An informal grunt accompanied his greeting. Already, Gorlak was shuffling around, tapping buttons across the console and bobbing his head like some sort of peculiar marionette-machine. Everything was already underway. As soon as the remainder of the Guild members hopped aboard, they'd be sizzling out of the city, out of whatever-enemies reach, and towards their destination. The engines were roaring with heat, anticipating takeoff. “Destination Elysium, 'veady to go. On your words.” Absently, the Lieutenant offered her the mug, completely unfazed by her aberrant nicknaming. Had anyone else decided on that course, then they would've been unjustly thrown, by the seat of their pants, out the window. He still shot the redhead a withering look, like a sheet of deadpan glass reflecting the younger boys' face. Or else, maybe that's how he always looked. Nothing else needed to be said – when she said go, they'd be gone.




Kethyrian had been opening her mouth to answer Eli, but she wasn't even through the process of relaxing her jaw before it tightened again, her ears twitching at the sound of regular footsteps coming up the stairs. There weren't that many people who wore heavy armor in the Guild, and they certainly wouldn't be retreating right now. Sure enough, within moments, the first of the Vipers to make it up the stairs came into view, and a series of trilling syllables flowed from the Favisae's tongue. The uneducated might assume that they had something to do with the translucent wall of force that careened down the corrdor and slammed with extreme prejudice into the unlucky soldier and two of his fellows, throwing them against an opened door with enough force to snap the hinges. Truthfully, she'd just been swearing in her native language.

"Oh, we're going. Now, in fact," she said flatly, putting one hand on Vivian's shoulder and the other on her elbow. "And that includes you. Come on, there's sure to be more enemies to fight once we reach the airship and you put some clothes on." Not entirely certain of the veracity of that statement, Kethyrian was nevertheless convinced that it was a safe bet. If that cormorant on his throne had gone to this much trouble already, he wasn't likely to give up just because they fled into the wild blue fucking yonder. She paused infinitescimally, but continued upon mentally confirming that she had not said that last part out loud. She did have a reputation to maintain, and losing control of her crude tongue wouldn't be very much in keeping with it.

She tugged on Vivian, but they weren't going to make it far unless the other woman cooperated and both of them knew it. Kethyrian may have been taller, but she was also Favisae, and that meant more slender of build. She did not spend her days swinging a sword around, after all. "There's a window at the end of this hall. It doesn't let out onto the roof next door, but there is a drainpipe we can use to get close enough to jump. Or I can do it, then set up a barrier for the rest of you to walk on." She hoped climbing was still second nature, but trusted that muscle memory would serve her well enough to manage even if it wasn't.

"Sounds like a plan to me," Theon said. He had roughly released the boy upon seeing his headstrong sister's entrance into the hall. At least she hadn't made herself hard to find. He didn't know who the wall crawler was that had Vivian by the other arm, but that could be said for pretty much everyone in the Guild at this point. It didn't matter. She seemed the most sensible of anyone he could see right now, and that was fine with him. He took one look at the soldiers starting to rush upstairs before seizing Vivian's other arm in a powerful hand and helping the feydusk keep her from getting herself killed.

They'd done their share of wrestling as children, with Theon usually ending up the victor due to his superior bulk. That wasn't to say that Vivi didn't employ a few tricks of her own, but Theon liked to think he'd wisened up to them by this point. He certainly wouldn't be letting her get out of his grasp now. "Don't make this hard on us, sis," he warned. "I'll drag your idiotic ass out of here if I have to." She'd know he meant it. Theon would smack her 'til she went limp as a wet noodle if it meant getting her out of here alive.

"But..." Vivi whined, her head whipping back and forth between both Kethyrian and Theon. "They're so close though," she continued. Though it was clear that the intervention of Theon had managed to erode her will enough so that it seemed likely she'd managed to leave the hall without spilling blood... Yet. The brown headed boy-- now released by Theon-- quickly straightened his shirt and pushed himself into the conversation. "Which is exactly why we need to leave right this instant. If we can get to the Elysium then we can get out of here alive. The Captain should have the ship prepped for us. So let's go."

Vivi pouted, her voracious grin now turned into a childlike frown. "Fine, fine. Let's go. I never get to have any fun anyway," Vivi said, trying to weasel her way out of both Kethy's and Theon's grasp. She sheathed her blade on her back and turned her pistol towards the window way down the hall that Kethy had mentioned. A pull of the trigger started the reaction and the contained explosion echoed down through the halls. The sound of shattering glass and the barrel revolving was her just reward. "That's one shot. I'm going to be disappointed if I don't get to use the other two," she said with child-like innocence, though the display of chaos did set her in a brighter mood.

Percy turned toward the now paneless window and spoke, overcoming the shock of surprise of the gunshot. "Er... Right. While I have no doubt that you can climb a drainpipe Miss Kethyrian, I believe I shall spawn some vines to help the lesser inclined of us out. Unless you think can climb and cast at the same time." He didn't want to envision what may happen if she suddenly lost focus while they were midway across one of her barriers. He reckoned that a splattering sound was involved though.

Keth had been planning to climb, jump, and then cast once she'd landed on the other side, but she could see that they were lacking time. Even now, the first couple of soldiers were starting to recover, and more were coming up after them. It was a relatively slow trickle, but there was no telling how long the Guildfolk below could hold out. She nodded simply, and the five of them were able to make for the window, their footsteps urged on by the sound of yet more gunshots close behind. The healer threw up another shield, but they were far from her specialty, and she knew from field testing that they wouldn't stop a bullet, just slow it enough that it probably wouldn't be fatal if it his somebody. No guarantees if the aim was good, though.

Reaching the end of the hall, Kethyrian let go of Vivian, satisfied for the moment that either the girl was really going along with this, or the man on her other side was concerned enough that he wouldn't let her change her mind, whichever. Kicking out the shards that remained caught in the windowframe, she hopped nimbly onto it and peered out. The nearest rooftop was too far away to jump, but there was a building much closer to the tower about ninety degrees around. It should be manageable, since none of them were excessively bulky and covered in plate armor. "I can hold the barrier behind you for another fifteen seconds. I hope you're all out here by then." If she didn't see them, she'd certainly try to keep it up longer, but she wasn't sure if she'd be able to manage. It had taken quite a beating already.

Standing on the windowframe, she jumped to catch the top one and pulled herself up, hooking her foot into what should have been an impossibly small indenture in the stone. Reaching the drainpipe was a bit of a stretch, and involved holding on with only one hand and one leg, essentially plastering herself to the side of the tower, but she managed it, grasping the cold steel with both hands and bracing her feet flat on the blocks. Lingering only made the prospects more dangerous, so she hurried, sidling across with celerity until she had the jump she wanted. It would involve launching backwards off the tower and trying not to miss the roof, but it shouldn't be too hard. Walking her legs up underneath her torso, Kethyrian curled around herself as much as possible, stilling for a moment when the drainpipe creaked ominously. The sound faded, and she took a deep breath, pushing off the wall with all four limbs. It carried her into a neat flip, and she landed about two feet from the edge of the next building.

Her barrier inside the tower had dropped long ago, and she erected a new one, this with much less haste and more care, extending it out over the end of the roof by four feet. That was as long as it could get and still remain strong enough to hold anyone who landed on it, so that was as much leeway as they were getting. It was now a seven-foot jump horizontally to the edge of safety, but if they'd followed her route, they'd also have ten feet of extra verticality to take advantage of.




Mordecai's olfactory reception system was telling him that the room began to smell of blood and death. They were not odors he particularly enjoyed, but he had grown somewhat used to them, and was able to catalogue the information without needing to make any queries on the subject. Just as well; that would have required disengaging Berserk Mode to bring his processors back up to full capacity, and he did not calculate that this would be the optimal response here. Removing his foot from the soldier's throat, the Automaton found himself once again facing down a large number of foes, only... one of them appeared to have procured a piece of heavy artillery. Where it had come from, the golem could not say, but he knew that it meant trouble if used. He was more durable than the average stone wall, but even he could be taken apart with enough firepower.

He still did not hesitate, and was halfway through lunging for the man when he drew up short, blinking as the fellow was incinerated by a large fireball instead.

Behind Mordecai and just in front of the line of Guild gunners stood the Guildmaster himself, looking slightly perturbed but otherwise fine. His hair was a smidge askew, as though he'd moved at a faster pace than normal for some exended period of time. It was true enough. Quickly taking in his surroundings, he looked to the Automaton. "#9, tactical retreat. Rendevous with Skybound. The rest of you are with me." He'd expected the golem to have left already, but apparently the number of enemies was slightly greater then he'd anticipated. His thirty-person Guild could likely handle the first fifty, but these would not be the only foes on the way. It was necessary to act quickly.

With a single shouted word, the old wizard opened the floor where Mordecai had been standing moments before, swallowing a good ten of the Vipers into the gaping chasm in the stone. "This leader of yours will not earn his victory lightly," Myrddin warned. "If any of you are less that perfectly certain of your devotion, you may leave now." Not a man moved, and the elderly fellow smiled bitterly. "Ah, yes. I'd thought not."

The chorus of human screams followed the Automaton up the staircase.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Percy was the next up to the window sill. He hesitated for a moment, mostly admiring the dexterity of Kethyrian and wondering if she expected the rest of them to do that. Vivi, she was more entertained than enthralled and when Kethy landed, had burst out into applause, much to Percy's chargin. He spared her a stern looked before he got to work spinning his magic. His magic, the magic of the druids and of the natural world, did not spring only from the mind. Rather, from the mind as well as the world around him. He willed the natural world to bend around his whim. Or rather it would if he was a great wizard, though a great wizard he was not... Yet. His skill level wasn't so great as to deserve such grandiose words.

He did will life to where there were none though, sprouting a thick mat of vines and moss around the drainpipe as well as a majority of where Kethyrian had jumped around on. Perhaps his net was larger than what the feydusk needed, but he trusted himself least of all to make these jumps and wanted as much to grab on to as possible. The whole process took moments, as time was obviously of an essence. Once his magecraft was over he turned to the pair that remained and said, "It is done. Let us hurry." He then bolted to the broken window and jumped, catching hold of one of the vines and quickly began to heft himself up, following the path Kethyrian had made.

It was Vivi who took the next step forward and turing around, coming face to face with Theon. She smiled bright and said, "Ladies first, right big brother?" She chuckled and bolted out of the window next, without giving him enough time to respond. It was a blessing she didn't try to do a flip on the way out...

Theon saved his eye roll only because he was sure Vivian would do something more worthy of derision in a moment. He wondered who had taken over the job of stopping her from getting herself killed once she'd left him in the desert with his gang. The wall crawler, probably. No doubt she'd be happy to give him the job back.

Not exactly graceful, he clambered up into the window and jumped, catching hold of a vine, searching about for a moment to make sure his sister wasn't a splatter on the ground below before deciding he would have enough difficulty keeping himself alive for the moment. Through no small amount of awkward flailing and displays of raw strength did he maneuver himself high enough to clear the gap, landing on the feydusk's platform with a heavy thud and an ungainly roll, his weapon clattering to the rooftop beside him.

Mordecai bolted up the stairs, the impact of his feet unnaturally-heavy on the stone, and took a sharp left, bowling past several Vipers on his way. The window appeared to be clear and broken both, so the Automaton gathered speed down the straightaway, gatering his piston-powered limbs underneath him and launching himself straight out into the open air. The force of the motion carried him further than it should have a body of his size, and he landed on the roof directly facing the window. Looking around hismelf, he could see a trail of vines on the side of the tower, leading around to the other side. He calculated the probability of that being the remaining Guild members at seventy-nine percent, which prompted him to jump buildings until he spotted the Favisae healer, Kethyrian. She was standing on a roof facing the tower wall, while several others clung to the thick, ropy vines embedded in the stone. The work of magic, doubtless.

Hopping the last rooftop, he landed heavily next to the elf, close enough to scan the vine-climbers and recognize several of them. "Mistress Kethyrian," he stated formally, "This unit has been advised of the most efficient escape route. Orders are to rendezvous with the captain and crew of the Elysium and make for Deluge. Once the others are across, this unit requests that you follow it."

Kethyrian, too busy maintaining that extra platform space, simply nodded, this time unable to be even vaguely unnerved by the fact that Mordecai referred to himself as an 'it.' She knew what a golem was, of course, but the Favisae did not have them, and frankly, he looked and acted too human for her to be comfortable treating him as a simple object. Once the others had made it across though, she released the spell she was holding and fought not to sag against the chimney. She was already exhausted from yesterday's mission; two hours of sleep and a whole lot of spells were not helping things at all. Nevertheless, she'd have to hope that adrenaline was enough to keep her going until they reached relative safety. "Lead the way then, if you know it," she said, taking off at a run after the Automaton when he complied.

Mordecai was not unaware that organic beings lost energy at a different rate than he did, and he slowed his pace to a quick, but manageable run, leaping only those rooftops which were close enough together for everyone to manage without needing to slow down. As the group approached the airship docks, however, it became quite clear that they would have to make at least part of the journey on the ground, and the golem scanned for a suitable jumping-off point veering right and treading down a sloped roof until he reached its end, at which point he simply dropped the ten feet or so to the ground. The Favisae followed without nearly as much noise, but her breaths were coming sharply, short and a bit ragged.

"Approximately one-half kilometer remains," he noted, his tone largely encouraging. "The crew have been told to make ready for our departure." So saying, he checked to make sure nobody needed to be carried and continued, weaving his way through the largely-empty side streets rather tha attempting to navigate the increasingly-busy main thoroughfares. The shipping district always awoke considerably earlier than the rest of the city, after all.




Gwen accepted the coffee from Sunshine with a happy trilling hum in the back of her throat, but she was too busy to make a bigger production of it. Tapping a few keys on her console, she brought up a large, panoramic view of the area surrounding the airship dock. A few more keystrokes angled the camera in on the approaching group, currently moving through the alleyways of the dockside district. It looked like the plan was going off without a hitch, at least until Strawberry spoke up. "Hey, hold on a second," he said, leaning forward in his seat. "Can you zoom that back out a little? I think I saw something." Gwen blinked, but complied, moving the view out a bit until she heard a terse "stop-- there, to the left," at which point she adjusted accordingly and whistled low.

"Uh-oh. That could be a problem." She informed the rest of the group of this with what could only be described as glee, causing Lohengrin to raise a speculative eyebrow. These people were just... weird, and he hadn't even met most of them yet. He could almost feel the metaphorical iron shackles closing around his wrists and his neck, informing him in no uncertain terms that he was stuck with them for the foreseeable future. He should have known this wasn't nearly as simple a job as the old man had made it sound. And it had sounded pretty damn complicated.

About to intersect with the fleeing group of adventurers was a small platoon of blue-clad army regulars. They weren't nearly as fearsome or specialized as the Viper squads, and they looked like they were just out on a normal patrol, but there was simply no way a group of that constitution wasn't going to look suspicious. They might be able to talk their way out of it, but they might also have to fight and run. "Ooo-kay! Sunshine, Strawberry, why don't you two head up onto the deck to make sure they all get aboard intact, hm? Froggy, you and I are going to get the old girl ready for the quickest takeoff any of these mooks have ever seen!" She waved a hand dismissively in Lohengrin's direction, and though he sighed irritably, he complied anyway, since it was sort of what he'd been hired for. Adjusting the sword strapped to his back, the mercenary took the stairs two at a time and hauled the cockpit door open, blinking slowly in the sudden light with both sets of eyelids before he remembered himself and corrected the odd behavior.

The gangplank was already down, manned by two sturdy-looking crewpeople, one on either side. There didn't seem to be an immediate need to do anything, and he'd leave the barking of orders to the captain's hellhound. Lohengrin folded his arms, leaning against the railing with obvious nonchalance. It was a matter of waiting, for now.




As predicted, the departing members of Avalon's Dawn soon found themselves face-to-face with a group of fifteen or so soldiers, all armed, but clearly taken by surprise, as none had their weapons drawn. It took only about two seconds of silence for the woman in the lead to gather her thoughts and her wits about her and address the group. "Halt. You don't look like dockworkers. State your business." The day's only commercial airship flight left in the afternoon, and none of the other vessels had requested clearance for liftoff that morning.

"Oh!" Percy cried out in surprise but quickly reined his shock back in. At first he had thought that these soldiers were more of the ones enacting the Purge in the guildhall, and just about bid the grass to rise up and tangle up their feet, though the mere fact they took time to speak to them, and the fact that they didn't know who they were told him that this was not part of the Vipers chasing them. Just a usual patrol in all likelihood. That meant with some clever words and a bit of persuasion, they might could get out without a fight. That also meant they had to try and act with relative normalcy and restraint. He desparately hoped to the old kings that Vivi's brother could keep a tight lid on his sister, it'd already be strenuous enough to explain her ridiculous outfit. A nightgown with heavy boots and gauntlets, with a sword strapped to her back and a pistol hanging loosely from her pocket. Part of that was why Percy moved to try to obscure her from the sight of the patrol. Better to cross that bridge when they came to it rather than address it now. That also put him immediately beside Kethyrian.

"Ah, well you see, I told my friends here about a particular airship, and how grand she was. See, I have a friend on board this airship, and she said that I could bring my friends along this morning to have a look around it. She should be expecting us at any moment. We haven't been on many airships you see, and personally the way they work greatly interests me," he then chuckled a very convincing chuckle, though more to the fact that this was the most ridiculous lie he'd ever told. "Guess I still have a heart of a little boy, fantasies about airships and what not. Still waiting for that day where I have the chance to save the world, you know," Percy said with a very warm smile. Old kings above, he hoped this worked. He also hoped the others would play along. He did a lot of hoping that morning

"There isn't a problem, is there ma'am?" Percy asked.

The redheaded woman's eyes narrowed in suspicion. She wasn't stupid, and that boy was talking far too quickly and too much as far as she was concerned. "Which airship?" she asked sternly. It wasn't illegal for the group to be there by any means, only very suspicious, but she was beginning to get the feeling that it was more than even that. Behind her, several of the men caught on to her caution, and hands went to rifles and cutlasses alike, though nobody drew as of yet.

"Elysium," Mordecai supplied when nobody else answered immediately. "We are expected by Captain Skybound." Unfortunately for the group, it was in his programming to respond to questions directed at him, and he had not yet achieved the level of independent thinking and creativity required to tell a lie. The first question had been fine; since Percy had answered immediately, he had not been required to 'state his business' as the phrasing had gone.

Behind the Automaton, Kethyrian successfully resisted the urge to sigh, though not because the situation didn't demand it. Rather, she was so far short of full steam right now that she needed to save the energy if nothing else. She didn't like her chances if this turned into a fight: she was exhausted, and not terribly adept at combat to begin with. In fact, without her magic, she'd be more hindrance than help, and given the numbers, she'd need to save that just in case someone got a limb hacked off. The Favisae eyed the soldiers warily, clamping down on an instinctively-sharp comment, perhaps something about harassing ordinary citizens. She was, above all else, practical, and if keeping her silence increased the chance of walking out of this situation alive, she'd mute herself for as long as it took.

The officer's eyes moved to the strange-looking man close to the front of the group. The Elysium. Now she understood why they looked like a bunch of rejects from a circus show. "Right," she said, putting two and two together. "I guess that explains why the crew's been scurrying around up there since dawn." It didn't explain why one of the women in this group was indecent by most standards, but given the eccentricity of those affiliated with the ship, the officer wasn't going to ask questions. Shaking her head, she waved her men down and stepped aside. "Please make directly for the ship-- I understand that you may be worried about drawing... er... attention, but there's really nothing to worry about. Good day to you all."

Nodding smartly, the officer moved off and down into another alleyway, apparently quite content to leave it at that. The rest followed her lead without comment, though there were a few curious glances leveled at the Favisae, so uncommonly seen as they were. Every one of them being a strictly-disciplined military sort, they didn't even spare Vivian's state of undress a second glance, and if they did happen to look at her, their eyes snapped immediately to her face. No benefit a roving eye could garner was worth the punishment for impropreity the King enforced. Not one bit.

Theon exhaled, moving his hand away from the trigger of the duckfoot pistol. He'd been certain they'd have to fight their way out after the boy-man's moronic attempt at a lie, something about airships and being interested in how they work, which was completely ridiculous considering the state they were in, sucking wind and sweating from the run, his sister largely undressed except for her gauntlets, boots, and weapons. But, through sheer luck the toaster's honesty flew with the officer, who apparently hadn't yet gotten the memo that they were all supposed to be dead men and women by now. Theon actually wouldn't have minded a fight, but taking on an entire patrol of trained guards next to a bunch of people he didn't know wasn't something he was looking to throw himself into.

But... considering the toaster's presence, they might have had a decent chance of getting out alive. He'd never seen it in action, but he was willing to bet it would pack quite a punch. "Let's get out of here before we have to do that again," he growled, encouraging their guide to get moving.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Percy's eyebrow raised in surprise. He didn't think that getting past the patrol was going to be that easy. He knew he wasn't that good of a liar, and the cold honesty by the golem should have made matters worse, not better. Though he'd rather not look a gift horse in the mouth and ponder upon these curiousities, they'd been given a chance to get to the airship without blood, and he intended to make it count. The only comment he offered on the situation was a shrug and a mention of, "Well, that was easy." A heavy, exaggerated sigh behind him revealed that some weren't so thrilled about the outcome. The expected whine came from none other than Vivi, "Yeah, too easy. I never get to have any fun," she said while pursing her lips into a pout.

The only thing that kept her from just lunging into the fray was a combination of the surprise from running smack into the middle of a patrol, the aclarity as to which Percy had spoken, and the haggard state of Kethy. The woman was tired, she could see that, and she'd prefer not to give her much more trouble. Say what they will about the spirited girl, she had a general idea on how far to push the Feydusk. It also wouldn't do to anger the one that would end up healing any injury she would get throwing herself into a fight. Also, there was the knowledge that the woman could kill with the same power that she used to heal... No, it would be down right stupid to lunge into battle at that moment. That's not to say that she didn't want to.

"Right, what he said. Let's get to the ship before things get worse," if that was even possible. Percy took the lead, angling his heading towards the Elysium with all due haste. He wasn't running, but still. It was quite a spirited walk. It'd do no good to attract even more attention to themselves. It wasn't long before the mast of the Elysium was in sight. Luckily, they were expected and the gangplank was drawn for them. Percy skirted on to the ship and spoke to the first man he saw, a redhaired, hard looking man. He didn't appear to be part of the crew, but he didn't want to waste time on semantics, "We're here. We met a patrol on our way, so it's best to just get the ship into the air and leave. I don't think any others are coming..." He added seeming a bit troubled about that fact. He had to believe the rest of the guild had made it out though, lest the guilt drown him.

Lohengrin offered a shrug by way of response. "I'm guessing the captain has figured that out already. We had you lot on some kind of visual feed." He wasn't actually sure how it had worked, but he was willing to wager it was some arcane mix of magic and technology. He'd seen similar things a few times before, but it wasn't exactly common. Seriously, though, was this all they had? A Favisae, four humans, and one guy who looked kind of human but somehow... off. Maybe it was a magical thing; Lohengrin wasn't going to pretend to care. As long as he got them where they were going, they could be a small horde of trolls for all he was concerned. The comparison might even turn out to be fair.

Vivi however, seemed thrilled at the thought of being on an airship, even grounded as it was. Her first stop was not a crewmate, but the bow. As in, the railing that kept people like her from falling off. She had hopped from the deck to the railing, with only her balance to keep her from falling either way. It was a good thing that she was a very balanced individual, where equilibrium was concerned. "Look Teo! We made it to the Elysium! Isn't she great! We can go anywhere now! Ahah! Imagine the adventures! Nothing like the dry things we had in the desert!" She chittered about. It wasn't the first time she had been on an airship, a couple of jobs she had taken on involved them. However, she always got giddy when she stepped onto the deck of one.

"You're going to want to get down, birdy," Lohengrin pointed out flatly, eyeing where the oddly-dressed (or not so dressed, whatever) woman was perched on the railing. As if on cue, the engine rumbled to life then, setting the deck planks beneath their feet a-trembling with suppressed energy. "The captain's crazy, and I may or may not have heard something about a 'speed record' regarding this launch." That was all he was going to say about it though; if any of them were stupid enough to ignore him, that was their own problem-- he for one would be holding onto the railing quite tightly.

"What?" Was the only answer Vivi could manage. Theon had enough time to roll his eyes, take a firm hold on his sister's arm, and yank her off the railing.

The ship gave what seemed to be a massive shudder, and the crew drew up the gangplank, their shouts to one another just barely audible over the hum of machinery as the thrusters engaged, belching pale steam into the immediate area. This was obviously a matter of some concern for the dockworkers below, many of whom seemed to stop in their work and stare. It was fairly obvious that this was an unauthorized departure, as the sound of an alarm quickly followed, only serving to increase the cacophony of the present soundscape. Lohengrin's resigned exhalation was lost to the rest of it, and then the ship lurched, throwing forward anyone not attached to something sturdy. After that, though, the rest of the takeoff was surprisingly smooth, and they lifted away from the docks with a minimum of difficulty but quite a bit of fanfare. The bow of the vessel rotated until it was facing nearly due south, and with another small lurch, the thrusters changed direction, and they were moving forward at an impressive clip.

Ever present, and dutifully forlorn, the Lieutenant's tree-trunk arms were crossed tightly over his chest, fingers tap-tap-tapping as each guild member clambered aboard. He did not comment on the flighty woman's choice of perch, nor did he arch an inquisitive eyebrow when her older brother yanked her off so that she didn't slip and plummet to the ground below. Even as the ship's engines roared to life, trembling its energy across the decks, Sven seemed immobile, seemingly anchored. He did not reach for the railings, and seemed rather amused that the strawberry-haired one was gripping it so. Said amusement appeared in the form of an upraised nostril, down-turned frown, coupled with his terrifying eye-squint-glare. Much like an ornery ox shaking it's head – it was hard to say whether or not he was genuinely being amiable or wondering how much effort it'd take to throw you overboard.

The Zeona siblings had gone to the ground when the airship lurched forward, the awkward forces of pulling or being pulled combined with the shifting beneath their feet being too much for Theon's poor sense of balance to withstand, and his iron grip on Vivian dragging her down with him, since there was basically no way he was letting go. Once things settled out, however, he released her, clambering to his feet and dusting himself off. "You're right, this is going to be fantastic," he said sarcastically, noting how she had already employed her childhood nickname for him that she had never grown out of. Vivi may have been on an airship before, but the same could not be said for the scryer. His first impression was that they would be lucky to survive every minute they spent on this flying death trap.

"Fucking Vipers and the damn king. No better than greenskins and trolls in the sand ocean," he grumbled to himself. "Can't get a moment of peace." "Well, at least they aren't as ugly, right Teo?" Vivi offered, sitting upright after her abrupt fall to the deck. Instead of rising to her feet as Theon had did, she opted to just... sit and ponder how close she came to being not on the ship anymore.

"Have you ever considered that you might be in the wrong line of work?" Kethyrian replied offhandedly. As it turned out, her 'something sturdy' to grab onto during the more arduous portions of launch had been the Automaton, who seemed to accept the extra force of motion with the same slightly-creepy equanimity that he'd taken their headlong flight from the tower. Now that they were up in the air, though, she was curious to know what things looked like. She'd been on an airship once, but that had been one of the commercial models, in which people sat enclosed for the duration of the trip. Cautious steps threaded her over to the railing where the redhead stood, and she leaned against it with some measure of trepidation, looking out over the city below.

It was... certainly different from being underground. Buildings tended to mimic that sensation a bit, but this, this was an entirely different experience. Kethyrian found that, unlike her first attempts at navigating water, flying induced no fear in her at all. Granted, she wouldn't be stupidly jumping over the railing anytime soon, but... the free movement of the air about them was actually nice, and it had the added bonus of lifting he heavy hair from her back and cooling her somewhat. It wasn't a particularly hot day, but the sun was merciless to someone like her, so any relief was welcome indeed. There was something just a tad humbling about watching large buildings become tiny dots beneath you, and for someone with as much obvious pride as she, that was really saying something. She could almost understand why the prospect of flying on an airship had Vivian so excited.

Mordecai, long familiar with the technology and experience involved in airship travel, was a bit more interested in the other people aboard, and chose to settle himself near the mainmast, where it was easiest to keep an eye on everything happening at this level. Something about the situation was not computing correctly-- more specifically, he did not understand why, if Artorias was sending his soldiers after the Guild, he didn't think to have the Guild's airship grounded at port. Should it really have been that simple a matter for them to escape? Perhaps the king's logic was simply imperfect; that seemed to be the explanation that best fit the available facts, anyway.

It was no more than ten minutes later that the airship finally cleared city limits, flying now over less-densely-populated farmland, the nutrient-rich soils that supported the majority of Albion agriculture and thus the population itself. They’d be over this for some hours before they hit the steppes, but Gwendolyn judged that for now at least they were in the clear. Adjusting a couple levers and one switch, she practically leaped from her chair, stretching upwards and bringing a palm down on the kerchiefed head of the goblin sitting copilot. ”Okay, Froggy! You’re in charge of looking after the autopilot systems for a while. I’m gonna go see the new kids, mkay?”

Gorlak rolled his eyes, but his smile was good-humored, and he gave a lazy salute as the captain darted up the stairs, throwing the door open with a maximal amount of dramatic flair and then kicking it shut behind her. That was all right though; the ship was built to withstand a whole lot more abuse than that. She would know—a good part of the design had been hers, though the majority of the credit certainly belonged to her father.

Bringing her thumb and middle finger to her mouth, Gwen whistled sharply to draw the crew’s attention. It clearly worked, as any work that wasn’t absolutely necessary stopped immediately. ”All right, kids! Listen up! We’re geared for a transcontinental, and you know what that means! Everyone but Alpha shift, get yourselves down below to the mess, and then to sleep. You’re going to need it. We’re expecting pursuit, but not for a while yet, so keep your wits about you! Ducky, I want you up in that nest, and don’t come down unless someone shoots you down first!” This produced an audible sigh from someone, and Gwen giggled, probably losing any remote trace of authority figure she’d had going on just then.

”Oh, and we have guests! So be nice to them!” So saying, she practically skipped over to the biggest knot of said ‘guests,’ beaming widely and lacing her fingers together behind her back. Luckily, none of them had gone far; the only strangers she could see were either at the railing, or close by on the deck, but one of them was all the way over at the mainmast. That one, she gestured over, along with the ones she’d have to shout at to be heard by.

Once everyone was more or less around, she planted her feet shoulder-width apart and cocked her head to one side, still smiling like this was the best thing that’d happened to her in a while. ”So… how many of you know what The Plan is?” she asked, the capital letters clearly implied in her tone.

Theon didn't plan on responding to the wall-crawler, whatever her name was, and now that some other girl was speaking to him, it seemed he didn't have to. This... was captain Skybound? Theon almost sighed. As if his sister hadn't already given him all the energeticness he could put up with. This girl that was apparently piloting this death trap was positively bubbling. Considering the morning he'd had so far, that wasn't a great thing. "No clue. Enlighten us."

Percy had finally made his way back to his feet when the airship had made the most abrupt takeoff he believe he'd ever experienced anywhere. In fact, it took until the Captain finally made her way to the deck for him to collect all of his scattered brains. He should have taken the redhaired man's advice and grabbed on to something, and not look at him questioningly. He made a note to try less question things. If someone runs past him, he's not going to ask why... He's going to run behind them. Especially on this airship. The Captain, Miss Skybound, had burst through the door, absolutely excited, which was almost too much for Percy to handle after being thrown to the ground like a ragdoll.

When she posed her question, Percy looked around him for a moment and at the others before timidly raising his hand. "I... I do. Myrddion told me in preparation for the Purge," he said. Old Kings, he hoped that Gwen wouldn't run over and hug him for that. He couldn't take it. He'd have to halfchange and fend her off with his antlers if he had too.

Vivi however, seemed to be the opposite of both Theon and Percy. This woman seemed to invigorate her and her excitablity brought her to her own feet. She strode forward to take a standing position beside Theon and lightly elbowed him in the arm. "Come on, be nice to the birdy. She did just pull us out of the fire after all," she said. Though truth be told, she did wish she could had stayed in the fire a little bit longer but it seemed that luck favored everyone but herself and they managed to escape without much of a fight. Though, of The Plan the birdy and their guide spoke about sounded as exciting as she believed it to be, then that would be rectified eventually but first...

"As much as I would like to hear all about this big secret "Plan"," she said, putting the word in between air quotations, "I'd really like to get out of these pajamas first... You wouldn't have anything nice to wear, would you birdy? I seem to only have brought the essentials," she said with a coy smile and outstretched hands, revealing the only real bits of clothing were her bits of armor and weaponry draped over her person.

Oh, for the love of the Lady, why did the captain have to be so much like Vivian? Though Kethyrian would never admit it, the slightly-crazed desert girl had managed to find herself a place on the very short list of people the Favisae gave a damn about, but that didn't mean she appreciated the personality type much. Still, the woman seemed capable of getting a crew of considerable size to heed her, which was perhaps the only solid evidence any of them were going to get of her competence. Trying not to imagine all the headaches in her future, the night-skinned elf obediently, if grudgingly, left the railing to gather with the others. The question had her shaking her head; she wasn't nearly important enough to know any of the wizard's grand plans. She just got told where to go, what to do, and occasionally who to kill, and did it. It wasn't the grandest of existences, but that was fine by her. She'd endured enough grandeur and splendor to last her the rest of her lifetime, and she hadn't much liked it anyway.

Mordecai, on the other hand, knew the Plan. In fact, Myrddin had given him pieces of information and directions on when to dispense them which were unknown to anyone else on the boat. That, however, was something that he'd been explicitly told not to say, and so he simply affirmed. "It seems wisest to discuss this elsewhere," he put in, glancing about at the other crew members on deck. Though they were under the employ of Captain Skybound, not all of them were technically members of Avalon's Dawn, or so he had been informed.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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The Automaton's advice proved prudent, and the assembled group followed the spritely Captain below deck and towards the messhall. During the walk, Vivi split off from the group with directions from miss Skybound where could get out of her pajamas and into something a bit more proper to wear. Before long, the party found themselves in the Elysium's mess, a large hall full of wooden tables and benches. The hum of the engine was also louder here, due to its creeping proximity to the ship's heart. Percy was the one who strode forward and chose a table for them to discuss the "Plan" as it were.  He picked one of the middle most tables and stood behind it, leaning against it as he awaited for his assembled Guildmates to gather.

As soon as he was sure he had the attentions of those gathered (except maybe for Vivi, airheaded thing she was), he finally spoke, "As you all know, the reason we are gathered here now is because of a Purge enacted by the King Artorias. The only reason we're even alive is by our Guildmaster Myrddin's foresight," he said, an edge of pride to his words as he spoke about his mentor. Though truth be told, he didn't know too much about the wizard other than his name and the power that he held, but Percy respected that power. He could only dream the he could be as wizened and powerful as the wizard one day. But that day was not today, and he had a plan to reveal.

"Myrddin knew this day was coming, and he entrusted a task to the Guild. And though most of our allies and Guildmates are not with us, it is up to us to complete the task," he said, now a different emotion lining his words. Guilt perhaps, melancholy. He wished that more of the Guild, small enough as it was, had been able to make it. It seemed like a too important of a task for only the few of them to undertake. Still, he did not choose for this to happen, they'd have to make due with what they had. "The plan begins in Deluge," Percy began, finally explaining the task in earnest. He was glad that Gwen also knew the plan, in case he left something out. "Apparently, there's something in Deluge that's supposed to help us fight against King Artorias. A... Hidden passage. I believe. It'll lead us to what we need," Percy stated. Though that's only first stage. He knew there was more too it, there just had to be. Though, they'd need to take things one step at a time and worry about things like that when they came to it. No use in solving the entire riddle right there, especially when they didn't have all the pieces.

"The passage is an ancient thing, dating back all the way to the age of the Inflectori and the Dragons. I'm... Not quiet sure what we'll find in there. But before we can even worry about that, we need to find it first. That means asking around Deluge... That also means not getting killed in a back alley. Deluge is a dangerous place, a slip of the tongue or a misstep a dangerous thing. So be wary of yourself when we get there. I'd hate to lose more Guildmates," He said, then turned to Gwen, "Did I miss anything, miss Skybound?"

Gwen snorted, the unladylike sound mostly the result of being addressed as 'miss.' If people used a title with her, it was usually 'captain' or something mildly derogatory. The last person to call her 'miss' hadn't used Skybound, either-- that was how long it had been. "Nope, that's about as much as I know. 'Cept, I guess the old man knew we wouldn't have a clue what we're doing, because Strawberry here--" she pointed to Lohengrin, who was sitting at one end of the table, looking very much like he'd really rather be elsewhere-- "was hired to be our guide." The question as to why they'd need an outside guide to Deluge when many of them had been there before hung in the air for a moment, and Lohengrin sighed heavily through his nose.

"What you're looking for is underground, and this might be considerably more work than you bargained for," he warned pointedly. He knew what they were going to find, but he certainly wasn't going to say. As far as any of them would ever discover, he'd heard about a door with some scribble on it in a cave and that was it. "So happens that said underground passage is best accessed from the city itself, and if you know anything about Deluge, you know it's going to cost you something. Dunno what, but once you get down there, I can get you where the old bastard wants you to go. Of course, you could also just not do it, which would be fine by me." That was clearly all he was willing to contribute to the conversation, for he lapsed into sullen silence thereafter, suddenly very interested in the grain pattern of the wood on the table they were seated at.

The Lieutenant followed the fledgelings down the stairwell, eyeing each one through lidded half-masts. They were fledgelings. How long had it been since each member of Avalon's Dawn had been gathered, and how long had it been since he'd recognized them all? These boys and girls would only ever see him as a grizzled apparition of the man who'd kicked down doors, roughed up loud-mouthed mercenaries and tousled with the best of them, and if they didn't remember that, then they'd probably been recruited straight off the streets not long ago. A sour frown pulled down the corners of his lips, tethering into his usual scowl. Bushy eyebrows raised incredulously as Percy strode forward in the hopeful intentions of explaining where they were setting off and what the plan involved. He took his own place by Gwendolyn's right-hand side, stippling his bulky arms behind his head. The muscles in his back protested, crackling like a skin-drum chock-full of loose bones. Time sure was a lonely bastard. 

He might have thought the only one who looked moderately the same age was that guy sitting off to the corner, but there was no one even close. Perhaps, age-wise, the closest one aboard the ship near his own age was Gorlak. That suited him just fine. These younglings, however skilled, were the new generation of guild-members taking new opportunities, showing interest, crafting preposterous propositions, and cutting shifty deals for end-results. He would observe, quietly. He would offer advice, in the form of rumbling grumbles, head-slaps, and squinting glares. His inability to smooth anything over with his winning-charisma had always been salved by Gwendolyn's wildly intrusive input, ironing out the crinkles of his intentions. It would be the same, most likely. He nodded squarely, arching another bushy eyebrow. Imperceptibly prodding Percy to finish his train of thought and stop gushing about Myrddin's brilliance. The would respect his wisdom by carrying out whatever mission they'd been given. For Guildmaster Myrddin, that had always been enough.

Details, details, details. The Lieutenant had never cared about the politics of any of his missions, or why, exactly, they'd been there in the first place. It was easier to carry things out in darkness. Definitive information could cloud your judgement, arouse anger or sadness or any other emotion you'd rather bury beneath your heels. If they pointed him in the proper direction, then he'd plummet through like a cannonball, leaving the specifics with studious people like Percy. That's how it'd always been, and that's how it would stay. He absently probed the old scar tissue spliced across his inner palm, fingernails brushing over roughly healed flesh, fitted with mechanical apertures below the thumb joints; smooth, numb in certain places. He followed Gwendolyn's waggling finger, fixing Strawberry with a briny look. So, they needed a guide? Just as well. Said guide seemed perpetually grumpy, quickly ascertaining that he didn't give two shits whether or not they carried this mission through, soon after busying himself by staring down the table – as if it'd click it's wooden heels and magic him far, far away from them.

They'd get along fine.

Kethyrian wasn't sure what their tour guide's problem was, but she fixed him with an imperious look before shrugging and glancing away. "So it's hard. So what? We're mercenaries, and if we ever want to get paid again, we probably ought to secure the safety and happiness of our employer." She wasn't going to pretend like she had some kind of sentimental attachment to the old wizard, because she didn't. She didn't exactly do attachment anymore, not after what had happened last time. Even so, her lip curled at the mention of Deluge. She'd never been, but from all she'd heard of it, it was an absolute cesspool. Grimy buildings, grimy people; Vivian was lucky to have gotten out of it from what she and others had referenced of the place. That was perhaps the only thing that prevented the Favisae from deciding she'd hitch a ride as far as the swamp-city and find new employment there. There were such things as standards, after all.

Mordecai, who had thus far remained perfectly still and refrained from speaking, seemed to find his tongue again at that. "It may run more deeply than that," he pointed out blandly. "Chances are good that Master Myrddin has been captured. He informed this unit that it was the most likely outcome of his staying behind to purchase time. If so, the Guild Registry may well reside in the hands of the King, which is likely to make each of you a wanted criminal, and this unit slated for destruction." He blinked, more because he'd remembered he was supposed to than because he needed to clear his visual field. It was rather ponderous news, he was aware, as it meant that Deluge may well be the only respite left to them, and that for a limited time. The king's reach was great, and growing greater almost by the day.

Theon liked what the red-headed guy had said, about not doing this. He wasn't exactly fond of having an employer at all. He preferred the word take rather than the word earn, and his reasons for allowing the Guild to take advantage of his skills like everyone else in his past was one, so that he could get a roof over his head and get out of the desert for a while, and two, so he could confirm his sister hadn't gotten herself killed. Ideally, he would have arrived to find out that Vivi didn't need help stopping herself from getting killed, but he was unsurprised to learn that some things never changed. 

It so happened that the scryer was already a wanted criminal, for the rather unsavory work he'd done in the sand ocean the past few years. Perhaps it was only fitting that once his raiding was put to a halt did he encounter real difficulties from the King's men. This was... complicated. He didn't trust these people (he didn't really trust anyone, for that matter), but more than that, he didn't trust Deluge. Growing up there had indeed instilled a rather deep resentment for the place and the people. He probably fit in there better than anywhere else, selfish being that he was, but the past was the past, and his past left marks. 

Despite living there much of his life, he'd not heard much about anything under the city besides filth and trash and rats. He hadn't seen anything under the city, either, but that could have been due to any number of reasons. Scrying was still largely a mystery, even to him. About as much a mystery as this currently proposed trip under Deluge was. "And what exactly are we supposed to be looking for? Are we just supposed to take it on faith and an old man's word that there's something useful down there for us? As far as I can remember, the only thing that ends up below Deluge is shit, though most of the time is doesn't even make it that far." 

He had slouched somewhat back into his chair, hands tossed into his lap, the bottoms of his feet propped upon the edge of the table. He wanted to sleep on this. He always dreamed if given the time, and though it wasn't always useful to him, it was always something. Something to go on, something to give him an idea of how to move forward. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I prefer to believe in what I can see." 

"Well, if all else fails, we could always just go to burn down our old house," Vivi offered, rubbing Theon's back. Something about her tone, it had a serious lining behind it. She really wanted to burn the house down. It didn't hold any memories after all... well, any good memories anyway. The fact that Deluge was the destination didn't bother her, or at least it didn't seem to. The only thing that she seemed to have in mind was the opportunity to set fire to their house and their past. That and the fact that there was adventure afoot.

A tunnel under Deluge? She thought she'd crawled though every corner of the city, and saw every thing the city had. Apparently she was wrong. And that interested her to no end. She shrugged, "Either way, we're fugitives... Well," she paused glancing towards Theon with a mischievious smile, "Fugitive-ier for some of us," she teased, chuckling. "It's not like we got anything else to do, and I'm curious about this tunnel. What's in it, what's it look like, how long it is, what's it do, you know, the essentials. I'm in... We're still burning the house down though, right?" Vivi said, bringing her gaze back to Theon. The scryer lowered his gaze somewhat, smirking to himself somewhat at the idea. It wasn't like it would change anything, but perhaps that was just the reason he was feeling very warm to the idea. "Sounds like fun, actually," he admitted. "Best reason to go back to Deluge I've heard so far." 

"Well, aren't you all just a meadow of flowers in springtime," Gwen singsonged, clearly not at all bothered by the fact that the balance of personalities in the room was obviously tipped towards broody, or at the very least reticent. "Lemme put it this way: the ship's going to Deluge. We've got the fuel, and stopping before we reach the Wetlands is out of the question. The Elysium can outfly anything in the Imperial Fleet, but only if we keep her in the air. So, you all stick around, make yourselves as much at home as you can, eat my food, drink my booze, and make with the merry or the grumpy or whatever it is you do, and when I let you off in the city of sin and plunder, you go where you want, mkay?" She grinned broadly, smacking the wood of the table with her metal palm, which appeared to startle the man at the end, as he looked up sharply.

"But! Before you leave, I get your names. That's the deal. Don't worry, I won't use them, and I'll probably forget them, so it's really like you get to have the run of this lovely bird for free." Apparently, she thought it was a good bargain, because she didn't leave room for anyone to argue and just plowed on forward. "Your friendly neighborhood pilot and captain is Gwendolyn Skybound, but I nickname, so I can't well tell you not to." She stood, poking Sven in the arm with her fleshy index finger instead of the metal one, imploring him to introduce himself or she'd do it for him, and if he didn't want everyone assuming it was totally okay to call him Sunshine, he would. The same thing was conveyed to Strawberry with a look, though she might have already ruined whatever-his-actual-name-was for them.

Her prodding elicited a slight eye-roll, and a gruff rumbling sound which finally conceded into what might've sounded like, “Sven. Sven Diederich.” His name would not be sullied unless Gwendolyn paraded about the ship, scattering Sunshine across his shoulders like an undignified cape composed of dandelion fields – which seemed entirely likely, given her disposition. In turn, the Lieutenant watched as the others introduced themselves.

Said recipient of her dubiously-valuable attention shook his head, but complied for the sake of reducing this spectacle to a memory as quickly as possible. "Lohengrin."

Perhaps strangely, Theon had a way with names, and had no doubt that these ones would stick with him, even if he greatly desired to forget them. "Theon Zeona," he said, offering his own. "I'm a scryer, if you're curious." No doubt knowledge of his abilities would be interesting to them, and considering that they needed to work together at least somewhat to avoid the King's men in the future, it would probably be helpful to know. Vivi chuckled as her brother introduced himself and then offered her own name. "And I'm Vivian Zeona. The younger sister. Though I do prefer Vivi. I'm his bodyguard," she said, jerking her head towards Theon. "I'm your resident scrapper, fighter, warrior empress. Pleasure to meet your acquantiance," she finished, offering a mock bow. She did seem proud of her statements though.

"Percival Galath," he offered, his hands finding their way into a crossed position over his chest. "Everyone calls me Percy though. I'm a scholar and historian. The past facinates me and I intend to unlock her secrets," He said before shrugging, "But in practical terms, I am a druid, with a dabbling in alteration. I can make anything and everything grow given enough time. I am also a mutatio, so do not be surprised if I shift at some point," he finished.

"This is All-Purpose Unit Number Nine," the Automaton contributed, in the style of a recitation more than an introduction. His tones, however, changed somewhat after that, more correctly approximating the ones a human would use to introduce himself, if he were polite and composed. "This unit's creator designated it with the name 'Mordecai,' if that is preferred. It is an unmarketed model capable of domestic, industrial, and battlefield functions, and runs primarily on a self-contained energy module. Higher-order functions require the application of magic, for which the unit has a conversion rate of seven-to-one." There was just the slightest hint of pride in the last pronouncement, though he was aware that it would be largely meaningless to most. 

Kethyrian, being only somewhat familar with even the most mundane of human technologies, had no idea what the golem was on about, but it sounded relatively important. She supposed a name was a simple price to pay for what was apparently free, no-strings-attached passage to Deluge, but she was far too cynical to believe that everything was really going to be this easy. She still desired to have her uncomplicated life and less-complicated job back, so she at least would probably be stuck wandering back under the surface to find who-knew-what. Far from an optimal situation, but necessary to achieve her goal. "I am Kethyrian Tor. More importantly to some of you, I'm a healer, subspecialty in warding." she shot a certain look at Vivian with that statement, though it wasn't exactly unfriendly. Exasperated might be the better term for it. Vivi returned with a coy wave.

She was also incredibly tired, the fatigue weighing down on her muscles. Her last mission had possessed a duration of just over twenty-four stright hours, and considering she'd been able to sleep all of two hours since it finished and was drained magically besides, she was feeling more than a little under the weather. Luckily, nobody had yet said anything particularly stupid, so she wasn't aggravated, just numbly exhausted. "Is there somewhere to sleep on board?" She glanced between the captain and the massive human that seemed to behave as the woman's shadow, figuring that they were most likely to give her a useful answer.

Mordecai's recitation meant something to Gwendolyn, though, and she was across the table and literally perched right in front of the golem within a blink. She must have looked a strange sight, crouching on the tabletop and peering into the Automaton's eyes with an air of obvious scrutiny. She took his jaw in one hand and moved his head to the side a bit, attempting to get a better look at his left iris. Lo and behold, it was there. Amidst what was otherwise a jeweler's bright green was a delicate overlay of gold, centered aroud the pupil and shaped into what appeared to be the petals of some exotic flower. The grin that split her face could have lit up a cave, and she patted his cheek briskly. "I don't believe it," she proclaimed giddily, "You're Morgause's last project, aren't you? Seven to one... What I wouldn't give to open you up and see what makes you tick." Shifting in her crouch, she picked up one of his arms and turned it over, examining the palms of his hands. 

That such a marvel of craftsmanship had just walked up the gangplank and into her home was simply extraordinary. Gwen had always fancied herself damn lucky, but this probably took the cake. The engineer in her soul had just died and gone to gearhead heaven, she was certain of it. "Is your AI removeable? Can your internal systems differentiate between types of magic? There was a rumor she'd engineered your synthetic neural network to feel pain. Can you feel this?" She squeezed his wrist as tightly as she could, quite obviously intent on picking his aritificial brains.

Mordecai endured the prodding with patience, somewhat nonplussed to be faced with questions that were not only fired in such a rapid barrage, but also relevant. The woman had referred to herself as an engineer, though, so perhaps she also had some experience with constructs such as himself. "Yes, yes, and yes, though it is not painful. The Mistress decided that pain receptors would be counterproductive, though it is capable of feeling things."

"Well, she's good as gone," Lohengrin pointed out, then shot the Favisae a glance. "Crews' quarters are out the door and to the left. You find a free bunk and put something on it, it's yours. There's a few empty rooms still." He shrugged. "I'm going back above. Might as well do whatever you want. There's still probably some food in the galley, if you want it. That's to the right." So saying, he tossed a mock salute and headed out the door and up the stairs to the deck above.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Sven Diederich

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It was a few days into the journey, and Mordecai felt that he had adequately explored the vessel itself, cataloguing this data and that until he was certain he had everything that it would be relevant for him to know. Now, with little else to occupy his time, he'd taken to conversing with members of the crew, when they were available, asking them about their livelihoods, and how they'd ended up with this job, of all those they could have had. Most of them gave him stange looks he couldn't quite recognize upon that question, then snorted and waved him off. A few were obviously incredulous, and one even shot the question back at him. "And just what else would I be doing, golem?" It was fair to say, therefore, that while his understanding of the ship's aerodynamics and engine capacity and schematics was nearly faultless, his knowledge of the people aboard it was clearly missing something. He could not guess at it, and though perhaps repetition was not the best way to move forward, he reasoned that as long as he was moving forward at least a little bit each time, it was all right.

No particular desire to continue his polite interrogations placed him on the deck that morning, however. It was instead a peculiar feeling, one that he could best describe as a certain kind of wistfulness. Spending too much time below in the hold or the mess reminded him of what he was not; as a machine, he required neither food nor sleep, and this was what seemed to primarily occupy the humans in those areas. Something he did have in common with them, though, was a certain liking for the feel of air moving over his skin and through his hair-- artificial as both of these things may be, his maker had not spared a detail, and he could feel. Whether he felt in the same way others did was a question he did not know how to answer.

The crew was moving about with the same busy efficiency as ever, directing this or that sail to turn and catch the tailwind just so, and the Automaton stayed well out of their way. It was not his wish to interfere, however ceaseless the questions circulating his mechanical mind might be. He did not know if people lacked his fathomless hunger for information, or if all the things he sought after were what they were gifted by the fact of being born organic, and raised to life with others like them. There was no being like Mordecai, and sometimes, this thought produced a curious sensation in his chest that he could not put words to. He did know that it drove him only harder to grasp with so much struggle what seemed so simple and intuitive to them. For a moment, he paused in his motion, watching with evident interest as two crewmen yelled across the deck at one another in some kind of clipped vernacular that he was uncertain of. Nevertheless, they produced perfect understanding in one another, and laughter accompanied the words. It had not seemed a humorous exhange, at first, but now he wondered if he might have misread its intent.

Shaking his head, a gesture he'd picked up from Myrddin, who did so often when perplexed, he advanced to the prow of the ship. The large lieutenant was there, perhaps overseeing the shift; Mordecai could not say. The Automaton smiled, a gesture that had to be consciously produced, and greeted the man. "Good morning to you, Master Sven." This too was habit. Anyone without a title that superceded it was called 'master' or 'mistress,' often followed by their given name. It was part of his programming that he'd often wondered about. It seemed in keeping with his protocols regarding politeness, and yet it was also unmistakably servile. The logical conclusion was that he was created to serve humans, not stand on equal ground with them. Perhaps this was reasonable.

Hadn't it been for Gwendolyn's occasional intrusions, insisting that he make-nice and introduce himself further, rather than grunting and mutely bobbing his head in feigned interest then, perhaps, no one would have noticed that he'd disappeared for the better part of the voyage. He'd only surface, like an astute swimmer, to give further commands, barking out orders in his rumbling tenor, before disappearing once again to the ship's inner belly. It wasn't that he was antisocial. He just didn't like people. He spent the majority of his time pattering about the grimiest, loudest parts of the ship – the engine chambers, scuffling about like a hard-heeled elephant and frequently checking steam-operated pipes, oiled chains and intricately-designed levers, ushering crew-mates away so that they could socialize above, or grab a quick snack to eat. He always preferred to toil away, rather than laze around. It kept his thoughts busy, stilled his harried mind. The Lieutenant hadn't taken the time to entertain, or mingle, with the newcomers aboard the ship, for he had no wish to know more about them. They were a part of Avalon's Dawn. It was all he needed to know. If they so needed his strength, or his abilities, then they'd have his gunslinging-arms.

As always, it seemed, the Lieutenant was busying himself by flipping through notebooks, littered with Gwendolyn's undecipherable scribbles, with a hefty amount of useless doodles, and lastly, annotated to the side was his own tidy, bold reports. He'd already had his morning coffee with the ship's resident goblin – possibly the only other inhabitant aboard the steamship that had the opportunity to trade words, and trivialities with, besides the captain herself. He didn't mind him as much. He'd spent the majority of his thirties working together, after all. With that promptly finished, the Lieutenant sighed softly, hooking the notebook back where it belonged before resuming his stomping march, hooded eyes scanning the various gizmos whirring around him. Perhaps, he was much more wooden, much more mechanical, then people gave him credit for. Being of the fleshy variety did not mean he yearned for human contact, nor did he feel as if he were obligated to seek some sort of skewed acceptance amidst his peers. It wasn't something he actively sought out. He was comfortable by himself. Besides, he was too old. Sometimes, it felt as if his weathered heart could no longer accept any more inconsistent, reckless intruders.

The whir of the engines had always been mildly comforting, reassuring him that all was going well. If it hadn't been for that little room, settled just out of the way, just out of sight, then he might've given into the temptation of throwing wayward fists whenever someone stepped out of line. It was the only place he could retreat to, and allow himself to wander, arms laying lax and far away from his barrel-chest. The grumpiness would slide away, subsiding into tiny eyebrow arches, and a little smile that indicated he was thinking about something a little happier. He could drift off, and at least think of her – whiskey eyes, soft smile, always demanding that he apologized for something rude he might've said to his friends, something he'd eventually regret if it hadn't been for her chiding. He dreamt about her. He breathed her in, still. He was not curious about the newcomers aboard the ship because he didn't have any space, anymore. Not while she inhabited nearly every space of his brain, sweeping up memories with that stupid broom of hers, and spinning around like it was her hair that was billowing in the wind. Like it was her skin that tingled when she stepped out onto the decks.

Enough sulking. The musing was always wistful, reminding him that he had better things to do then stare off into space, wondering what could have been, or what should have happened, when he was just as hopeless as the rest of them in predicting the future. The Lieutenant's fingers clicked against the railing before he resolutely turned away. His heavy footfalls brought him above the decks, until he was standing near the prow; where he quickly traded clipped words with one of the crew-mates until he shuffled away. He was leaning against the railing, contemplating the height and looking out into the empty air when the Automaton approached him. He was peculiar. From first appearances, or at least when he'd heard his introduction, there'd been no cracks skittering across his persona – if anyone was created perfect, it might've been that one. The expression on his face lightened, softened somewhat. Who would judge a grump like him? Certainly not an Automaton. Telltale eyebrow raised speculatively, accompanied by an eye-roll, as if he were trying to wrack his brain for the correct words.

“Mornin', eh, ein maschinell, er... Mordecai,” seemed perfectly appropriate, and then, for good measure, “Is good to see you. And just Sven is good.” His curiosity was not as intrusive as Gwendolyn's, but still, he couldn't help but find himself admiring the Automaton's construction.

"This unit comprehends," Mordecai demurred, but he made no promises to call the man by his given name. It was, after all, against his written protocols. Until this point, he'd not trusted anyone to rewrite them, as he was aware it was something that took more than considerable technical skill. Additionally, there were certain aspects of his... personality that he would not like to be rid of so quickly, and it was hard to accept the fact that he could be fundamentally altered with a few lines of code. That was grossly oversimplifying things, of course, but someone with the right kind of knowledge could make him anything they wished him to be, and Mordecai was not sure how he felt about that, only that he did feel something. It was perplexing, but he was at least cautious, and until he could work it out, he would not be asking anyone to overwrite his protocols, even the somewhat-inconvenient ones.

But he knew it was impolite to go too long without speaking, especially when he had been the initiator of the dialogue, so he left those thoughts to turn over in his subsurface functions for a while, until he could more properly examine them at a later date. He seemed to be doing this with some frequency lately, a fact that he observed but did not judge. This was the case with many facts; without a particular moral drive, he was simply left to study and learn, but usually not to assess for any quality but rationality, sometimes plausibility. It had been 5.2 seconds since he'd last spoken, though, and he thought it was perhaps best to rectify this.

"Likewise, of course," he settled on at last, dipping his head deferentially. "This unit has spent the last few days exploring your vessel, and it must confess that it has never seen something of the kind. May this unit inquire as to how she was obtained?" It was true; none of his data indicated that ships the style of the Elysium were available for commercial or military acquisition anywhere. He wondered, perhaps, if the ship were like himself-- something not ever intended to be replicated. Did its engineer hold it particularly dear? Or had they simply been unable to build again, or to pass their superior skill onwards, as was the case with the Mistress?

The Lieutenant watched him, arching his eyebrows, nearly imperceptibly, before they settled back on his head like two, angry marching caterpillars facing off in battle. For the millionth time in his life, in the face of conjuring up possible conversation topics, he couldn't seem to think of anything – and he wasn't honestly trying, because what do you really say to a friendly Automaton just trying to have a chat? He realized, quite quickly, that he didn't know very much about Automata, and didn't truly understand where they came from, or what one should do if they found themselves dallying on a ship, trying to have a civil conversation. Didn't they just look for a person's weaknesses, and their vulnerabilities, and think in precise contingencies? Like clockwork or intelligent drones. He wondered, vaguely, if Automata looked at the same sky he did and saw opportunity; saw something absolutely untouchable, with infinite mysteries, impossibly beautiful, expansive, quiet. Did they?

He did not mind the silence in the least. Silence, in his mind, walked hand in hand with comfort, with being able to stand the ambient sounds whirring in the background and not feel awkward about it. The Lieutenant was just as pleased to stand there, arms smartly crossed over his chest, analyzing his peculiar acquaintance. His head tipped to the side, belying a look that might've come across as interested – or at least, a wee bit confused as to why he was being approached when there was no apparent question to be asked. This was, of course, remedied when he confessed that he'd been exploring the airship and wanted to know where it was acquired. The question simpered in his mind, absently whirling back to when Gwendolyn's father had begun constructing it, with the help of her tiny, wriggling hands; and of the day he passed away and she'd taken it under her own flighty wings. Usually, when asked, the Lieutenant shlepped it off with a grunt or made up some sort of weak lie that involved a grand adventure.

To this Automaton, however, it didn't seem necessary. The grizzled man nodded his head, slowly. “Ship vas not acquired. Ship vas built by Gwendolyn's, how you say, vati.” His explanation fell flat when he mimicked patting a child on the head, briefly touching his chest to identify the relationship he was attempting to describe. It might've appeared strange given his stature, but he only shrugged his shoulders. Inwardly, the Lieutenant scrabbled for the word, searching through his English repertoire with stubby, sluggish fingers. Finally, he looked towards the sky, smiled softly, and added, “Pappa. Ship is really special.” It was close enough.

"You are understood using either turn of phrase," Mordecai replied with a simple nod, fanning a few tendrils of ruby-black hair over his shoulder. The notion, that this great mechanical construction had been left in the hands of its makers, was quite satisfactory to him. He remembered feeling... empty for quite some span of months after he'd been forced to retreat from his, as though he really were nothing more than a metal shell with a few wires running through, as everyone seemed to believe he was. Maybe it was true; maybe that didn't matter. It was difficult thinking for a creature like him, though doubtless a human or suchlike would have had little trouble understanding what the question meant and why it was important. With this, he struggled.

He shifted his head, turning just slightly so his field of vision was filled with the finite sky and the distant horizon, suns blazing away that their apexes, or a little off in the case of the larger. They were not perfectly in synchronization, or rather, the world was not so tilted that they appeared to be. Nothing was perfect. Was this a tragedy? "This unit had a Schöpfer, if you will. This is what everyone calls it. But... sometimes this unit thinks the right word is Mütterchen." His programming encompassed all known dialects in Albion, and so using this one did not trouble him, and seemed somewhat more comfortable to Sven. "It is... well that both of his Kreationen are together. They are able to aid one another."

The Automaton smiled, a brief flashing of porcelain teeth, as though the thought either pleased or amused him somehow, and if perhaps lumping a person and a ship together under the same word was strange, he did not see it so. The same man had been partially responsible for the genesis of both, and though they were otherwise different as any two things might be, it was difficult for him to think he'd failed to hit upon the important bit in the comparison. "This unit thanks you for your time, and your answer." Though egress was perhaps called for here, he was not compelled to it, and so remained looking out over the railing, content to lapse into silence. Speaking was something Mordecai only really did with cause, and though his questions were far from over, he understood that the generosity required to answer them was not endless, and for now, he felt no excessive need to press further. A creature of his nature felt neither hurried nor slowed by the passage of time, after all, and so it was not something he valued overmuch.

Although Sven might've not understood where the automaton was going with the conversation, he still nodded, wringing a sopping-wet frown from his repertoire. It was strange enough to hear someone talking about how they were created, about their creator, and how they felt about it. Even still, the Lieutenant agreed. It was best that this ship hadn't landed in anyone else' hands. It solely belonged to Gwendolyne. For as long as he still stood, and he still had the capacity to fight, then he would make sure it stayed that way. He was also pleased that Mordecai could switch dialects, and he quietly approved of his presence on the ship. If he could speak German (and could understand his blithered attempts at English), then he wasn't entirely useless. So it was. He knew that if he mentioned this conversation to Gwendolyne, then she'd only say something about her sunshine finally making friends.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Part One: The Prophecy



The journey to the south of the world took around a fortnight total, during which the intrepid travellers were allowed plenty of time to rest and converse, if not much else. The airship proved to be an interesting-enough place, if one were willing to wander its depths unaided, but it was far from the size even of the tower they'd occupied two weeks before. For those unaccustomed to it, such sustained air travel was hardly exciting, and by the time they made port in Deluge, even the captain had to admit it was nice to see the rise and fall of a cityscape again.

Over that two weeks, the weather around them had transitioned from hot and dry to humid and sticky, still a little too warm for comfort, the desert sands giving way to verdant plains and then gradually to swampy jungle terrain, the thick canopies of trees obscuring the city itself until they drew quite close. The buildings were usually built low, with grey metal facades that quickly tarnished but still stood, or else the dark, exotic woods of the rainforest edging them. Some of these older places were being slowly reclaimed by the forests, ill-looking red lights casting illumination on the grey-viridian vines and growths that wrapped around those structures, enfolding them into a tight, strangling embrace.

The residents had learned from the forest, and evident in the faces of ragged-looking citizenry was the kind of wariness that came only from the constantly-watched, those who knew that glancing over their shoulder would yield them nothing. The agents of their criminal overlords were much more subtle than that, and it was only when one woke to find that one's spouse, sibling, child, or parent had suddenly vanished with the night that their presence was revealed, in the absence of another. The disappeared were usually never seen again, though on occasion one would return, unwilling or unable to speak a word of that which had occurred, if indeed their tongue had been left for them to speak at all. For all that, the city was vibrant, a panoply of humming neon and xenon lights, in exotic colors casting blushing shadows over faces of all hues. Here, the Lords of the city could be goblin, human, mutatio, or Feydusk, here most often called as they were named underground-- nightfolk. Rumor had it that one of the most powerful men in the city was even an orc. Race and blood were unimportant; all that Deluge required of its sovereigns was their ruthlessness and savvy cunning.

The aerodome at which the
Elysuim docked was a relatively new construction, one of those refreshed every few years to ensure that visitors were suitably impressed by the wealth and power on display. The shining sphere reflected the sun brightly, a hazard to pilots who didn't know what they were doing, and a deterrent to unwanted intruders. Gwendolyn called ahead for docking permission, and the vessel was immediately directed to its usual place, the voice of the dome's hired commander perhaps even a little pleased over the static. This particular ship always brought excitement with it, after all, and that was very much something Deluge appreciated.

The ship's engines gradually slowed to a halt, and the gangplank lowered onto a metal-grate platorm, which would carry the disembarked passengers into the aerodome proper, and then out into the heart of the city, as nobody in this place even bothered with the facade of a customs checkpoint. Smuggling was the lifeblood of Deluge, and whether it be illegally-obtained feydusk gemstones, pelts and ivories from those dwarves and orcs who made hunting megafauna their stock and trade, or firearms made by engineers without government contracts, it enriched the cormorants nesting here, and sometimes even their employees.


The group disembarked from the ship with a minimum of ceremony, though honestly, anything with Gwen involved was something of a production, and she appeared to share this quality with Vivian, at the very least. She'd told her crew to continue running their normal shifts, and though a few had grumbled about the lack of shore leave, she'd promised to make it up to them with bonus pay, which had stopped the discontent right then and there. Gesturing Sven along, she'd decided that there was simply no way the Guild members proper were doing this without her, so she and her stalwart lieutenant had made ready to depart as well. Their footsteps, however light, clattered slightly on the platform, sloping downwards to the ground.

Lohengrin, for one, made no effort to lessen the noise, stepping off the platform with solidity and turning to face the rest. He'd been hired to act as guide; maybe it was about time he started acting like it. "Welcome to Purgatory, ladies and gentlemen," he intoned, gesturing lazily behind him. The dome itself wasn't actually bad at all-- the architecture was a rather interesting marvel of metal and glass, which itself was quite rare as a substance, requiring an abundance of resources to produce. He wouldn't call it hell, exactly, as he was fairly sure that was somewhere else he'd been. But purgatory was close enough. "I hope you didn't plan on sightseeing, because you'd be sorely disappointed. The man we're looking for lives on the other side of town, so you'll figure it out for yourself anyway, I'd imagine. Argus Hooktooth, if you're interested, which you shouldn't be. He's small-time, but he has the most easily-accessible entrance to our destination under his thumb, so we're going to have to deal with him. Any questions? No? Good."

Not that he really gave anyone much time to ask, of course, instead turning smartly on his boot-heel (as much as he preferred bare feet, only an idiot walked through Deluge without shoes) and conducting them in a more-or-less orderly way out of the aerodome. He wasn't too pleased to be back in his hometown, but then anyone who had this pit for a place of birth probably wouldn't be.

"You weren't the only one to live here as well, ya know?" Vivi cut in, her tone surprisingly harsh. No doubt her homecoming was putting her in something of a queer mood, Deluge wasn't a memory full of rainbows and sunshine after all. Looking back though, her entire existance wasn't much better. The only brightness she could remember was of herself (and perhaps the occansional glimmer from Theon), smiling in the dark, daring adversity to try better. Still, Deluge was a place she would have been happy to leave in her past, unless her present allowed her to burn the whole place to the ground. Alas, the whole town would probably end up unharmed, and the only thing that was going to burn was their house. A fair compromise, in her eyes.

Memories of childhood came back at the taste of the soggy air. The nooks and crannies of this damp place was not unknown to her in her childhood, and certainly it couldn't have changed that much in the intervening time. It didn't seem like it changed much. Sharp angles cast large shadows, haphazard buildings sinking into the mushy ground. The smell of wood rot and rust was strong on the air. Home sweet home. She found herself wondering if her hideout was still intact. An old abandoned shack on the outskirts of town, bare aside from what knickknacks and discarded furniture she dragged from the trash. That fort felt more like home than home ever did, which wasn't saying much in the first place.

Home. She wondered how home had fared since their departure. She imagined their parents had vacated the house soon after Theon and her left. She did run away with their golden goose after all, and without him their income was reduced to zip. The thing about relying on another person for your next meal, once they fled the nest, then you didn't really have any other skills to fall back on. Still, Vivi couldn't care less about them. She never really felt like their daughter, she was just... There. In the way most of the time. To be seen, not heard. Especially when Theon had visitors. Her eyelids drifted half-closed in irritation at that thought. Right. The house was definitely getting the flame now.

Whatever else their "guide" had said, ended up drifting lazily over Vivi's head, enthralled in her own thoughts as she was. She never was the one to pay attention when the time called for it, and when he finally drew to a close she hooked an arm around Theon's and spoke. "Well, while you guys go and talk to this Argus fella, me and Teo here have an errand to run. A fiery errand. A pity we didn't bring marshmallows," she said, plastering an innocent smile on her face. "You guys don't need us for that right? I mean it's not like I could do anything anyway. We'll meet up with you afterward."

"Affirmative," Mordecai replied, though truthfully he was cautious about just letting two members of the group split off by themselves. All the data he had collected about Deluge led him to the conclusion that it was unsafe, even for people in reasonably large groups. Two people would hardly be a match for some of the 'enforcement' he knew the criminals here were capable of employing. Yet, it seemed that the one called Vivian had quite clearly made up her mind, and there was perhaps little time for delay. The longer they spent in this endeavor, the longer their leader was enchained. So he nodded, the motion too mechanical, and continued to follow Lohengrin's lead. Myrddin had not preprogrammed him with coordinates for the location they sought, though he had, for some reason, uploaded several programs into Mordecai's system that the Automaton could not identify. It would take some skilled hacking to uncover them, but the golem didn't mind. He trusted that they would be revealed when they were needed, and so he saw no reason to attempt to prematurely access the data.

Kethyrian was also less-than-enthused about the idea, but she didn't show it, instead shrugging and eyeing the two siblings, mostly Vivian. "Any injuries from stupidity and you'll recieve no help from me," she pointed out with a sniff. Of course, they both knew that things were a little different when push came to shove, but it soothed the Favisae to be able to act otherwise. Things were much simpler when you could move about at a distance from them, observing if you wanted to but never directly involved. That attitude had been hers even during her jobs for the Guild. Go here, heal that, kill him. Just a list of tasks, to be performed without caring too much about the results. She was tired of puzzling out implications and trying to please people. She almost envied the Automaton, so logical and detached, able to calculate precise outcomes and act accordingly without ever once needing to give a damn about any of it. Had Mordecai heard the thought, he would have corrected her, but as it was, she simply nodded at the both of them and then turned around, padding after the machine and the mercenary with a wary look over her features. She didn't like Deluge.

Theon wasn't the type to place much actual value on physical objects from his past, and as such, burning down his former home was not as important to him as it may have been to his sister. Of course, if it was important to his sister, it was important to him. In his own mind, he'd already burned down any attachments he still had to the place. If his parents were still there though... well, he wasn't sure if that would make him want to burn down the place less, or more.

Attachments or no, Deluge brought forth... bad memories. The familiar of being akin to a dog on a leash welled back up in him just smelling in the air. It already constricted around his throat, made him itch, increased stress. The city had been a different place for him than it had been for Vivi, perhaps because he'd always had eyes on him, whereas his sister had been basically invisible, even if she'd wanted to be seen. So many days spent sitting, relaying information, having men standing over him when he woke up, telling them whatever he saw fit, letting them attempt to use it... and receiving nothing for his efforts. Used.

Yeah, so maybe burning down the house would be nice.

"We'll be fine," he growled, "We know our way around this shithole. We'll meet you and figure out our destinies or whatever once we're done."

"Right, well, yes, whenever your personal business is concluded, do find us. Or don't, it doesn't make any difference to me," Lohengrin replied acerbically, rolling his eyes and recieving a smack to his arm for his trouble. Normally, this wouldn't have been a major concern, as he was rather more durable than he looked, but unfortunately the limb in question was made of metal, which hurt. He shot a glare at the offending captain, who to his surprise was wearing a rather pronounced scowl rather than her usual manic grin. "What?"

Gwendolyn pursed her lips. "You let them be, Strawberry. Haven't you ever had something you needed to do?" The statement perhaps displayed a surprising intuitive understanding of the nature of the so-called 'errand,' but she wasn't about to press for anything further. "Good luck, you two. Come back soon, now!" she waved them off, ridiculous smile plastered back in place, then turned on her heel and urged Lohengrin forward with a flurrying of rapid hand movements, earning herself a resigned sigh, but more walking. The group was moving again, and as they went, the buildings became first worse and then much better, as they approached the district run by Argus Hooktooth.

The crime lord's residence itself was quite readily visible on the skyline, as one of the only buildings taller than two stories in the entire neighborhood. Things were usually built low in Deluge, and only those with considerable funds could afford the materials for the extra structural support needed to build anything taller and keep it from sinking into the loamy ground. That required proper foundations and regular maintenance, which few could manage on the kinds of wages one brought in around here. The building was also conspicuously free of rust, and had behind a wrought-iron fence with imposing spikes a proper garden, lush with bright flowers and succulent greens. The house was domes and parapets, a full four stories in height, and sprawling in its width.

"Actually getting in to see him might be problematic," Lohengrin mused. "The old man didn't tell me exactly how to do that."

Gwen shrugged dismissively. "Seeing him won't be too hard," she replied knowledgeably. "The problem will be getting access to his entrance. Argus doesn't do anything for free." Still, she could get them in without trouble. A guard manned the gate, and she sauntered forward, her very stride radiating confidence and familiarity, as though she damned well belonged there and knew it without the faintest hint of doubt. From the distance the rest of the group maintained, it was impossible to hear exactly what she said, though at one point, mingled laughter did filter back to them, and it wasn't more than two minutes before she was turning over her shoulder to wave them forward.

Well then. That was one bit done.

They were led through a luxuriously ornate doorway into a parlor that did not fit the recent descriptions of Deluge. Where the city was dirty and smelled of rot and decay, the Hooktooth estate was neat and clean. A breath of fresh air where Percy was concerned. Though there was something else in the air, something.. Oppressive, and dangerous. There were clean cut men in suits, some orcs, some humans, carrying weapons. Enforcers most likely, to make sure Argus was as safe as possible in his manor. While the scent was a nice change, the manor had felt more dangerous than Deluge proper. The group was led upstairs and down a hall, where they were ushered in a set of double doors.

Inside the double doors, behind a polished desk of a dark wood grain and flanked by two enforcers sat Argus Hooktooth. A large, rotund goblin sat behind it smoking a cigar and looked to be waiting for him. His head was bare save for the warts and a few stubborn hairs. A vicious scar cut it's way over his right eye leaving the organ a milky white. His other was of a brilliant gold, hidden under heavy flaps of green skin. A grey goatee adorned his corpulent chin which hid his neck and most of his collar. Smoke wafted lazily from a lit cigar between his fat fingers and a pile of ashes graced a white marble tray off to his side. If anyone looked more like a crime boss, Percy hadn't had the pleasure to meet them.

The man disgusted the young Changling. He had to catch himself and block off his nose in order to keep himself from being choked by the foul smell from the cigar. The man himself was no different, living in luxury while the city around him cried. It sickened Percy, but this man was their only ticket to seeing Myrddin alive. That alone was perhaps the only reason that kept him in the room and not on his way out of the door.

"Ah, Miss Skybound. I hope you didn't come all this way just to threaten my guards," Argus said, bringing the cigar to his lips and taking a drag. Percy couldn't hide the wince as the goblin exhaled. "Instead, I hope you've come to do business. I'm still willing to buy some of your inventions for a very modest fee after all," He said, steepling his chubby fingers. He didn't get to where he was by being stupid, and Gwen had plenty of notes and blueprints that could easily turn a profit in the underworld. Other crime bosses would kill to get one of her weapons schematics.

If Gwen felt some portion of Percy's disgust at her surroundings, she did not indicate it, smiling broadly as she usually did and flitting about the room to examine this or that knickknack, occasionally coming perilously-close to touching something, which she never quite did. Most would know to expect this kind of behavior from her, but unless she wanted to make a point, she was careful not to cross certain lines, though it never seemed so. When the goblin spoke, though, she turned to him, grin growing only brighter, if that were possible. "Oh, you know me, Toady. I just can't resist poking a little fun at a serious face." As if to confirm that this was indeed the case, she reached over and pinched Percy's cheek, giving it a gentle tug so that half his face was a rather gruesome-looking facsimilie of a smile.

Letting go as quickly as she'd taken hold, she pretended to consider selling for a moment, then shrugged carelessly. "Actually, today I'm here to buy. Mate of mine heard there was an entrance to the underground 'round here somewhere, and that everybody's favorite goblin overlord had the keys. I just so happen to have some business in the underground, and I'd like an entrance that's not all covered in sand and scorpions and nasty stuff. Fancy that, huh?" She put her hand on her hips, a rather impressive air of nonchalance settling over her shoulders. "Figured I'd come to Toady first, because he knows when he sees a good opportunity. Said that, didn't I, Sunshine?" She paused for a moment, looking back to her Lieutenant, then turning back and winking at Argus. "Well, I did, anyway. So how 'bout it, Toady? You selling, or do I have to take my burning curiosity about caves and feydusk elsewhere?"

The Lieutenant fell into step like a hulking shadow, a mass that would've be moved even if someone stepped in his path. He'd been only a few steps behind Gwendolyn when she was talking to the guard manning the gate, arms crossed over his shoulder, glaring sourly beneath bushy eyebrows. Any other distance would have been unacceptable. Besides, he'd been here before on one of their other excursions and knew Argus just as well. It wouldn't have struck him as odd if Argus had shared stories, or what they looked like, to any of the guards currently in his repertoire. They were knowledgeable creatures. He allowed himself a pleased nod as he moved along beside her, shuffling only to allow room for the others to pass him if they wished to do so. Had this been his first time in Deluge, facing such shady individuals, then he might've crinkled his nose as the young changeling was doing now – but it was not and it certainly wouldn't be the last time, either. Instead, the Lieutenant dropped his large hand on Percy's shoulder just as Gwendolyn finished pinching his cheeks, directing him a little way out of the goblin's rolling wave of cigar-smoke, then released him with a throaty grumble.

He, for one, did not agree with doing anything that involved giving Leo Skybound's secrets away. That ship had been everything to him, and more importantly, to her, as well. Sven had no doubt that she'd skitter around Argus' relentless offers and come to a more favourable proposal that had nothing to do with her ship. With Gwendolyn’s nonchalance and smooth charisma, the Lieutenant's attitude was exactly the opposite. If glowers could seethe through a man's skull, then his was certainly burrowing a large hole through the goblin's flapping jowls. He did not play with others. He did not cater to their needs or kiss their knuckles whenever they had something dangling over their heads. There were enough silver-tongues in the group not to bother with smooth conversation – those particular crinkles could be dealt by them, whereas he'd simply stare and do his duty by having his fists at the ready. “Ja. 'Es good opportunity. Smart man would take deal.” This came from deep in his belly, though he paused momentarily, looking skyward to search for appropriate words. They always repaid their dues, anyway.

Percy found himself being assaulted from all sides by the chittery Captain and the looming Lieutenent, though he was in no position to do anything about it. Swatting the Captain's hand would probably end with him being subjected to something equally innane, while trying to duck out of the way of the Lieutenent's bear paw may put Percy on his bad side. He'd rather not be on the man who could easily snap his neck's (while in fullchange at that) bad side. So he soldiered on. Not that Argus gave one damn about the deer-boy. Or any of them, except for Gwen and maybe the Feydusk. His singular golden orb lingered on the ashen skinned fae for an uncomfortably long time. He had never seen a skintone so regal as her. But he was a business man at heart, so he had to tear himself from her and focus on the business at hand.

His plump face drooped as he sighed "Pity. Can't even buy secrecy nowadays. I find myself wondering where this.. Mate.. of yours heard about my little trophy," he said, eyeing Lohengrin suspiciously. "Still, the cat has slipped the bag. If it's business you're here about, then it's business we can do." He said, shooting a glance to behind the party. The suited enforcer occupying that corner nodded and closed the door behind the party. "Now, would any of you like anything? Wine, cigar? Whiskey? It's all safe, I promise-- if you're man enough to handle it." he said, staring at Percy with a particularly throaty laugh welling up. He stuck the cigar back in his lips and raised his hand, as a Favisae servent girl stepped from behind something in the room and awaited the party's orders.

"Now. To business. I have something you want and you have something I want. I have access to this tunnel and you have all of your gadgets. Surely we can come to a deal agreeable to both sides." he said, grinning and revealing his namesake. Argus would get what he wanted, he always did. But he was not an unfair man, he was sure they could come to a satisfactory arrangement.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich

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As someone who'd grown up under the ground, it was not often that Kethyrian felt at all uncomfortable in enclosed spaces. They were kind of the norm for her, and honestly, the first time she'd seen the sky, she'd wondered how the surfacers didn't get dizzy from the sheer scale of it. She herself had fallen to the ground from a fairly-even mix of awe and sheer exhaustion; her flight had not been easy, and the Zar'Thrak not eager to keep her, though they had helped. Despite all of it, she'd been unable to look at much else until the suns had started to rise, and she'd realized just how painful that was for eyes made for the dark. Only then had she stirred herself to action and begun attempting to get by with so many miles over her head.

Right now, she'd take it. This crime lord, this filthy Argus, was staring at her, and she hated it. It wasn't exactly uncommon; most people had never even seen a Favisae before, so eyes tended to follow her wherever she went. That was something she'd grown used to along with the sky and the suns. Oftentimes, she still managed to feel like the freak implied by the eyes that watched, but then drawing her pride about her and walking taller was enough of a solution. Sometimes, there was simply curiosity, and that was perhaps the easiest. Yes, I walk and talk like you, I need food and water and sometimes occasionally even conversation. She couldn't condemn those people; she'd felt much the same upon encountering her first roaming band of dwarves upon the surface, and that had been mutual, she was certain.

But Argus seemed neither disgusted nor particularly ignorant, and that set her teeth on edge. That look was much rarer for her than the other ones, and she hated how it made her want to hide. She had nothing to fear from this pustule, and she would not behave as though she did, even if it just made things worse. When he called for refreshements, she declined, studiously ignoring the presence of the snowy-haired serving girl in the corner. They were only here to get access to the underground. That was it. And then she'd be taking her leave of this place, this city, hopefully for the rest of her life.

Lohengrin had also caught the direction of the green bastard's eyes, but he was more inclined to laugh than wretch. If this guy wasn't in the flesh trade, he'd cut off his right arm. That wasn't normal lust, that was someone trying to determine the material value of an object. How quaint, these mortals and their undertakings. He didn't often feel so far removed from them as he did now, standing in a back corner and watching the insane captain tease Deer-boy while the old goblin tried to figure out what he could extract from them most easily. And he was content to watch, too; this was all really none of his business, and he'd keep telling himself that for as long as he could without sounding like a complete idiot. So, probably not much longer now, unfortunately.

If Gwen noticed anything untoward, she pretended quite effectively that she didn't. "Oh, me!" she answered eagerly, volunteering herself to consume some of Argus's alcohol. "I'm definitely man enough!" Apparently, she did not consider this an insult to herself, and accepted the crystal tumbler from the serving-girl with a bright grin, which she held sort of awkwardly until she provoked a matching one from the Favisae woman with the decanters. There, that was a little better. Throwing back the whole lot, she thunked the glass onto Hooktooth's desk with a short laugh, tipping her chin up in a gesture that might have been a challenge were it anyone but her. The manic grin just softened things, though.

"I'm listenin', Toady, but you know how this works. None of the old man's stuff. As for anything else, well... you know what we want; what're you after? I've got a nice new propulsion system for recreation-class airships; I know you have a few of those laying around. Hasn't hit the market yet..." In Deluge, half the point to owning anything was owning a better version of it than your competitors. It was a sign that you had the best connections and thus more leverage in important places. What she was offering wasn't as small as it might have sounded, though she wasn't sure he'd go for it.

Percy too, not to be belittled by the filthy goblin, struck forward and accepted a glass of spirits along with the Captain. He was plenty man enough and no longer a young buck. He tossed the crystal back just as he'd seen Gwen do it, but as soon as it biting liquid touched his tongue he realized his mistake. Bitter wasn't the word to describe it. Pickling was the better word. It was awfully stout, and burned his throat as it snaked his way through his esophagus. Despite his bold actions, boldness couldn't hold back the choking that followed. Argus watched the boy's hoopla with apparent satisfaction on his face.

However, he wouldn't spare the words to call the boy out for playing the part of a man. He had better business on his plate. He too took a glass of stout, the same drink that the captain had consumed, and downed it as well. A sort of twisted good will if there ever was any. He placed the glass back on his desk and hooked the cigar in his mouth. "One of these days Skybound, I'll get my hands on your projects. This tunnel of mine, it's quite the prize. You know how the... Favisae," he said the word with another lingering glance on Kethyrian. "Guard their tunnels. Especially this one. This isn't your ordinary hole in the ground Miss Captain, this one is special," at that he merely waved his hand, "But you already knew that, else we wouldn't be in this discussion."

"I'm going to need something more than just Recreation-Class engines." He said, but despite himself he mulled over the thought. Perhaps he could have his people reverse engineer the systems, maybe see what went on in that head of the captain. There was a chance he could find some sort of trade secret and apply it in more... Lucrative ventures. That, and they did have something else he wanted. "How am I to know you just want skip out when the deal is done? You and your friends do look like the pirating sort. I'm going to need insurance that you'll honor your end of the bargain... If I may make a suggestion, Captain," he said, his gold orb shifting from Gwen to the Kethyrian.

"Say keep one of your friends here to keep you honest?"

"Yeah, and never see 'em again," Lohengrin murmured darkly, but he clearly wasn't planning on offering any more input than that. If the elf wanted to volunteer herself to be a prisoner or the others wanted to force her into it, he couldn't honestly care much less. None of this had anything to do with his job, and they did need him to get where they were going, so he had no concerns about getting sold to a goblin, however temporarily. He'd been someone's property, once, and then close enough a second time. It was not an experience he had any desire to repeat, nor to approximate.

Gwen, on the other hand, had to deal with the problem. She honestly hadn't seen that one coming, and that may have been her shreds of naivete talking again. Biting her lip, she considered that this must be what most people described with the phrase 'between a rock and a hard place.' What a 'hard place' was, she didn't know, but it probably looked something like this. Argus had made his terms very clear: either she offered him something much better than she just had, or he'd be taking prisoners, and she wasn't quite naive enough to believe that he'd willing give Kethyrian back when they returned. Still, the alternative was handing him an invention that could level half the district, or... not going underground.

"Oh Toady, you're so funny," she trilled, as though he'd just made a joke. The idiotic smile was back in a flash, but it was honestly just a delay tactic. If he had to take the time to explain that he was serious, she had a few more seconds to think. Not much for most people, but the engineer was far from most people where thinking was concerned. Still, even her considerable intellect might be stymied here, by the sheer explicitness of the conditions. There weren't any obvious loopholes here, and Argus was holding all the good cards.

It was a bitter resignation that pushed the air from Kethyrian's lungs, the sigh probably sufficiently noisy to draw the needed attention. It wasn't like the swine wasn't watching her already anyway. "Don't bother, Captain. Just take the deal. It's me he wants, and I think that's quite obvious." She contented herself with a hard glare in the goblin's direction, her pride balmed somewhat by the fact that she was assuming this burden of her own free will. She wasn't one to wait around and let others make her decisions for her, and while she appreciated to some extent that Gwendolyn was trying to avoid the inevitable on her behalf, she'd rather just cut to the chase. Efficiency was cut into her bones, basically; there was no other way she knew how to act.

"I will remain within the bounds of the grounds here exactly until the time that my allies return, and not a moment longer. That should be sufficient to keep them honest, wouldn't you say?" The Favisae crossed her arms over her chest, straightening to stand as tall as her limbs and torso would allow, though the movement was entirely unconscious. If she'd realized she were doing it, she might have stopped, but then again, perhaps not. Any advantage she gained by playing meek was unlikely to be worth the cost to her self-respect, depleted as that could be.

It was difficult not to wrap his hands around Argus' thick jowls and squeeze until he stopped lewdly eyeballing their resident Favisae – and it wasn't exactly because of who she was, or that she was one of the guild-members. No matter how much he imagined how he'd feel if she were Gwendolyn or even Judith being stared at, Sven couldn't find himself caring all that much. But that particular look annoyed him. They weren't objects to be bartered away. He'd seen his fair share of slavers shipping crates and cages full of emaciated bodies and they all had that look in their eyes while they poked protruding ribcages, pinched arms and checked teeth. In all the time he served the Alliance, those had been the only cases that felt entirely justified. He flexed his fingers at his sides, then closed them tightly. They probably wouldn't fit around his neck, anyway. For certain, all of those piercings wouldn't feel very good if they were being ripped out. He seriously considered doing this while eyeing the drinks the snowy-haired Favisae was offering.

He wasn't big on words; he preferred actions. He was a soldier; a dying warrior race, and as such, war was in his blood, riddled through his very DNA. But he wasn't an animal, far from it; he was a consummate professional, a killer. All of this talking left him feeling tired. He'd never been good at settling any negotiations, so he usually remained quiet until Gwendolyn smoothed things over herself. Any bat of her eye, or flick of her wrist indicating that someone needed to be roughed up was met with dutiful assurance. So, when Argus proposed that one of them stay behind to make sure they didn't hightail it as soon as they were finished, the Lieutenant settled a hand on Gwendolyn's shoulder, briefly letting it sit there before crossing his arms over his chest. If she wanted him to stay behind with the favisae, then he would. If she wanted him to go along with them, then he would comply, as well. Sven glanced towards the Automaton, arching shaggy eyebrows before settling them back down into their usual furrow.

She hated to admit it, but the Favisae was probably right. She couldn't see much of a way around this... Gwen might have refused anyway (though she'd been more than once involved in activities of... questionable legality, she would never deal in people), but the large hand that engulfed her thin shoulder gave her some hope again, and she smiled. That, in the end, was why he was always Sunshine to her. Because when she lingered over the complexities, more uncertain than she'd ever let on, a fluttering wren on too-small, panicked wings, he was there with the steadiness of a hound, reminding her that sometimes, the answers were simple. And he was more reliable than anyone she knew; she could trust him with anything, even to keep her grounded. That was no small endeavor, all things considered.

"Well, Toady, I guess that settles it. You're getting two hostages for the price of one. Lucky you, huh?" Clapping her hands together, an act which produced an odd sound given their differing compositions, she turned and nodded, just once, to Sven. So much of what they said was never uttered aloud anyway; he would understand. He always did.

"You get Thistle, and Sunshine too. I do want them back, though; they're lovely. We'll be back shortly, I'm sure. Now, shall we?" She looked around at all the others, as if including them in the decision. Really, it hadn't belonged to any of them, but Argus instead. Still, a little showmanship was necessary at times like this, and though she perhaps should have been, she was no longer worried at all. The captain had lost track of the sheer number of times Sven had saved her from the consequences of her own folly, and she knew he'd do the same no less faithfully for anyone else, for no other reason than because he'd told her he would.

Lohengrin nodded simply, more than ready to leave and get this endeavor over with. He still thought the lot of them were idiots, but admittedly if any of them could stop one of these enforcers dead in his tracks, it was the big guy, so that made sense, he supposed.

An irate gold orb lingered on the looming man for a minute. He wasn't part of the deal. Even so, Argus knew that the possibility of dissuading the bear of a man otherwise would go poorly for all involved. So it was that he was stuck with two bargaining chips instead of one. He had enough faith in his enforcers to quickly quell any uproar these two may cause, and it was only with that reaffirmation that he nodded his acceptance. "Two for the price of one," he echoed in agreement, "Three, really. He's quite the... Specimen. What do you feed him, Captain?" He said with a hooked smile. He'd deal, he always had, and his investments never failed yet.

"I'll send a man along with you to show you the way. The location is in a remote part of the jungle not far from the city proper. Still, in these dense woods, a single wrong step... Well, your friends'll never see you again," He warned as he raised a hand. The man flanking the left of the goblin strode forward, another human and almost as large as Sven. Whatever Gwen were feeding her crew, Argus was feeding his too, Percy thought to himself. The deer-boy never had the best physique, and being in a room full of muscle bound soldiers made him feel very small indeed. He quitely slipped in with the rest of the group as the enforcer stepped forward.

"We have a deal captain. Your people will stay safely with me until you return-- and I recieve your schematics of course. Until then, I do wish you an uneventful journey and a hasty return." With that, he put two fat fingers in his mouth and let loose a peircing whistle. The doors behind the party swung open and the group found themselves flanked by an entourage of enforcers, while the two volunteers were separated. The group proper was led to the exit of the manse, while the other two were led to an isolated part in order to ensure their safe keeping.

While she hadn't asked for the assistance, and part of her did rankle at recieving it, Kethyrian's practicality won out over her stubborn hubris for once, and she accepted that it was likely to be helpful to have the large human around. The fact that Argus didn't seem to like it much caused her a small spike of satisfaction, anyway. She moved neatly out of range of any actual hands, though allowed herself to be cut off from the rest of the group, watching them file out expressionlessly. It seemed she was a prisoner of her own choice now, and the revelation brought an ironic slant to her mouth.

And she'd warned Vivian against doing anything stupid.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Those of Avalon's Dawn were led through the city of Deluge by a brutish Enforcer. While finely dressed with ironed suits and black ties, it was exceedingly clear that the enforcers were walls of muscle behind the clothes. He said nothing aside from a few grunts during the short trip, mainly thrown in the direction of the Captain. He wasn't paid to talk to people, after all, but rather enforce Argus' will. The route they took to the outlying forest was a direct on, often cutting through alleyways that normal folk would consider too dangerous to take alone. Normal folk they were not, and with Argus' man leading the procession, lowlife thugs knew better than to attempt anything.

It was an uneventful trip, at least until they approached the border between the city proper and the rainforest. Before they broke the threshold, a high pitch voice halted the group. "Found them! Told you they were this way, Theon," Vivi said, striding towards the party confidently in her new hat. Despite her bold words, chances were Theon was the mastermind behind locating the party, considering her recent record of finding things wasn't spotless of late. Far behind them, a dense cloud of smoke rose from somewhere in the city. "Make a new friend while we were out?" Vivi asked, noting the large muscle leading them. Something pegged her familiar about the dress, it was like the suits the thugs that had accosted them wore."Not by choice..." Percy quipped. An eyebrow arched Vivi's face, hidden by the brim of her hat, but she realized something much more pressing.

"... Where's Kethy?"

Gwendolyn frowned just briefly, before she shook her head. "Argus wanted collateral," she replied, tone intentionally clipped. She had to pass it off as though it weren't bothering her as much as it was, because to speak too much in front of this man was a bad idea. She wasn't sure how easily she could convey this to either of the other parties, though, nor even if they would understand if she could. Still, it was of vital importance to try, and so her eyes found Theon, guessing that he'd probably be a little more perceptive than his sister when it came to subtlety, though that was really still just a guess. "Just business as usual. I bring his muscle back, I get mine returned, you know?"

She hadn't missed Vivian's look, and though she didn't know exactly what it meant, it was imperative that if they'd already had a run-in with these enforcers, they kept it quiet. Argus would not take kindly to knowing that some of the members of the Guild had killed his men, whatever the reason had been. That might not even be it, but she wasn't looking to take chances with Sven and Kethyrian's lives hanging in the balance. Hopefully, the implied trade would make that obvious enough, though she did certainly want to know where they'd been, she wasn't going to ask. Their business, and hopefully the whole situation just had her too much on edge and there was nothing to be worried about at all.

Lohengrin understood, but kept his peace, as more assurances would just look odd, if not downright suspicious. He had no doubt the group could take out this muscle-bound idiot, but he also didn't doubt that Hooktooth was keeping their two allies under lock and key, and this guy coming back alive was probably necessary for them to survive their imprisonment.

"... You left her?" Vivian asked in shock. Once the initial realization was done, her expression shifted to angry instead. "The hell were you thinking?!" She snarled. She hadn't quite realized that the large lump of muscle Sven wasn't around either, and didn't put together that Kethy probably wasn't alone. Truthfully, she wouldn't have cared even if she did know. The idea of leaving Kethy behind in the grubby mitts of some goblin crimelord didn't sit too well with her. Her narrowed vision shifted from Gwen to the enforcer leading them. In that moment, she decided that if anything had happened to Kethy, she'd make him suffer.

Despite her strong feelings about the whole mess, Vivi saw that it had been decided (without her, at that) and there wasn't any way she could change plans now, unless she stormed to Hooktooth's estate and razed it to the ground too. Not that the idea was tempting, just that whatever they had in store would probably end up being the shortest route. "Fine." She hissed, "But if anything happens to her, it's on your head," she glared at Gwen, before shooting an icy stare at the enforcer. With that, she settled in with the group, though she was tight-lipped and her eyes dark. Percy wisely decided to edge out of the fuming woman's way.

Well... this was awkward. Theon found himself hoping the orc enforcer hadn't been one to make friends, considering that the scryer was currently wearing the guy's axe on his back, and his sister was wearing another one's hat. He was quite certain at this point that it had been Argus' men that had tried to kill him and his sister. He'd suspected when he saw the enforcers himself, and this just confirmed it. The one or two meetings he'd had with Argus and his enforcers earlier in his youth helped give him the knowledge of his men that was necessary. It was hard to forget the most well-dressed thugs around, after all.

He understood the delicate nature of the situation, and how Gwen's business as usual statement was very true. Thankfully, hostage situations were something Theon was very good at keeping track of. If nothing else, he could ensure that the other side stayed honest. "Lucky them," he commented with a level of disinterest that was either genuine, or very well hidden. Vivian tossed a hard stare in his direction. "Let me know if you want me to check up on them." It really wouldn't take long, either, considering he knew more or less the exact location of many of the crime lords around the city, Argus Hooktooth included. Her glare then softened a little, but she said nothing. It was too late, the deed was done.

Gwen nodded, just once, choosing to ignore Vivian's outburst. Though she wished to answer it, she knew that this was not the time, and not the company. "Only if you want to," she replied to Theon, resuming her tread after the enforcer, who was moving once again. Honestly, she wasn't sure how helpful it would be to know their status, given that it would change basically nothing. They still had to find whatever was underground here, and though she was fully willing to admit that she'd storm Hooktooth's mansion by herself if she thought that it was necessary to help Sven, she also knew that it wasn't likely to achieve much. Their best bet was to do this as quickly and cleanly as possible, and the fewer variables she had to work with, the easier that could be. Pushing her worry down and locking it in some distant, ill-used corner of her mind, she watched with interest as they were led into what appeared to be an ordinary, run-down shack. Once inside, the man hauled up a trapdoor, gesturing to the hole it had once covered.

"Down this way," he said bluntly. "This is the only exit, so I'm waiting up 'ere." He glanced the group over for a minute, then sighed. "Look, be careful down there. I dunno what you'll find, but the boss told me not to follow you down, which is a good sign it won' be nice." He shrugged, apparently satisfied with having said that, and Gwen flashed him a bright smile.

"Thanks!" she chirped, hopping down into the exposed entrance with no preamble anyway, leaving the rest to follow her or get left behind. As it turned out, the initial drop was only about eight or so feet, though she was dropped onto a slope, and so maintained balance only by reflex. "Careful!" she called up at the others, "You land on an incline!" Her warning delivered, the girl continued forward, unsurprised when she heard a thud and a muffled curse as Strawberry landed considerably less lightly than she had. Wordlessly, the mercenary took point, clearly as familiar with the layout down here as promised. Gwen trailed only slightly behind, interested in the way the cave walls seemed to be carved into smoothness, or worn that way with the passage of time and perhaps quite a lot of water.

There was nearly no illumination down here, and though he wasn't particularly in need of it, Lohengrin lit a bright red flame over his palm, casting a wide circle of flickering light around himself. It was certainly enough to see by.

A wet thump of Percy was next, conjuring up a mat of vines for better grip. He couldn't stifle the chuckle at Lohengrin's decidedly ungraceful landing, but otherwise made no comment. He left the mat sitting in order for the others to use it as well. He wasn't nothing if not courteous. Though, his landing was decent, Percy figured that something like a tunnel would still be rough to navigate. He placed a hand on near wall and closed his eyes, dipping into his source of magic. A low rumble emanated from his hand and as he pulled away from the wall, a thick wooden staff followed it. He pulled the wood out of the dirt until it was chin height, then severed the magic, cutting the wood. With his freshly conjured walking stick, he shot a wink to the Automaton Mordecai.

The group then began their descent into the tunnel in earnest. At first, the passage was rough and bare, something Percy noted as being very un-Favisae. To him, it looked like the tunnels were dug out by crude tools and even in the low light, he could see the gashes in the rock where uncaring hands dug. At least, that was the sight for the first couple of minutes or so. Suddenly, the rough-hewed tunnel took on more of a refined taste. "Favisae architecture," Percy explained. "Ancient from the look of it," he added, running a hand along the wall as he walked. "My guess is that the original passage was lost to a cave in, and a new one was dug by less skilled hands..." He mused. "Perhaps that shack we saw was the base of operations for an unsavory group. They probably dug into the ground in order to hide smuggled goods." He finished.

Vivi couldn't care less about the history lesson, worried as she was about Kethy. She had a lot of time to stew about it too. The passage took another hour to navigate, spaced between various tidbits of Favisae history by Percy. He noted the incline, taking them deeper into the heart of the ground, he also noted the architecture, and even more useless information, as far as Vivi was concerned. She was under the impression that Henny was their guide, not Deer-boy. Even so, she didn't have to suffer the lectures for long as the passage opened up into a large room.

The room was semicircular in shape, the sides arching out from the door and disappearing into the darkness, only to meet again in a solid stone wall in front of them. In the middle of the wall, there was a great stone door, rising from the from the floor all the way to the ceiling, and was wide enough for five of Argus' enforcers to walk through side-by-side. For once, Percy was struck silent as he looked toward Lohengrin for answer.

The door was supported by a marbled arch, the stone of which it was constructed seemingly interwoven with the many-splendored lights of magic. These seemed to trace in unreadable patterns, alternately growing brighter and dimmer as though pulsing in time with some great heartbeat. The door itself was void-black, interrupted only by a semicircle of five fist-sized circles, each with a differently-shaped indent pressed into the pearl-grey of its surface. These were rimmed by gemstones in glorious colors: ruby, sapphire, citrine, emerald, and opal. These five circles framed a much larger one, outlined in what appeared to be prismatic diamond, and set into this ring were several lines of script, which Lohengrin recognized but the rest would not. He also wasn't about to give it away, as that was assuredly not what he'd been hired for.


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Myrddin had promised that one of the Guild would be able to read it, and it obviously wasn't deer-boy. He was hoping it wasn't one of the two they'd left behind. "Don't look at me," he said with a lazy shrug. "I just knew it was here. That's old magic, right there, and you don't want to be messing with old magic if you know what's good for you." That bit at least was true, especially so if you didn't know what you were doing. The lines of the prophesy drew his eye as they always had, but he was easily able to affect mere curiosity, and not the slight revulsion he really felt. Prophecy; he despised it with a passion, really, especially when he was forced to become involved in it. Last time, he'd been able to run, but Myrddin's terms were quite binding, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to on this occasion.

Upon seeing the door set at the far end of the chamber, Mordecai was aware of a protocol whirring to life somewhere in his vast AI networks. Normally, he knew everything that happened above certain levels of processing, and could consciously control even something as basic as temperature regulation if he wanted to. As it was, however, he knew nothing of this program, nor exactly what information he was presently downloading, at least not until the words on the wall started to make sense. Stepping closer, he scrutinized the runes closely. "The script is draconian," he informed the others blandly. "This unit believes that Master Myrddin programmed it in knowledge of what was to be found here." Which, of course, suggested that the wizard knew exactly what they would find beneath the ground in Deluge. His plans were well-laid, indeed.

Without further preamble or any sort of warning, really, the Automaton ran the provided translation algorithm, supplying the results to all present, with a few adjustments for proper rhyme and meter.

With the Dawn, an old enemy rises anew,
the halls of men shall tremble.
A tyrant seizes power undue
as the Lady's blood runs blue.

But each new day has its end
And Dusk will ever follow Dawn
Across the world their trail shall wend
As they seek his wickedness to transcend

The elements lend their favors
With the discovery of the keys
And with the completion of their labors
Albion shall know its saviors.

They all shall be tested
And if their hearts be true
Each trial shall be bested
And in them, sacred power vested

The first key lies in the desert
At the nest of the sand-beast
If their minds remain alert
They will emerge unhurt.


Blinking unhurriedly, the golem turned to the other members of the guild, arranging his features into something speculative. "This unit understands, but it does not comprehend." Metaphor and allusion were not exactly in the repertoire of beings such as himself, those without imagination or creativity. He solved problems with mathematics, not innovation. Even what little bits of his electric consciousness were no longer perfectly adhered to his base-level programming did not constitute enough to properly interpret something like this. That said, he was a wealth of more standard information, so if any of the others knew how to phrase this more plainly, he may yet be of assistance.

Theon scratched his head while the automaton rhymed in front of him. He was left to assume that was an accurate translation of the words written on the wall. There were... actually a lot of parts of that that made some amount of sense to him. A tyrant seizing power, traveling across the world, finding some kind of keys, being some kind of saviors of the world, tests and trials, a particularly interesting bit about sacred power, and of course... the desert. He didn't know what the sand-beast was, but if it was the sand ocean it was probably something really nasty.

"Don't sweat it, pal," he said, giving the automaton a small pat on the shoulder, before speaking more to the group. "I think what the toaster just said was that we, assuming this wall is talking about us, have to do a shit load of work, and if we do, we become heroes or saviors or whatever." He paused, scratching the stubble on his chin for a moment, preparing to deliver the next part, where he stated how all of this sounded extremely stupid, and suicidal, and how they'd be insane to even think about following the vague directions of a wall underneath the most disgusting city in the world.

"I say why the hell not?" Wait... that didn't come out right. He knew, he knew that he was going to hate this, and yet he could find no reason to object. There was probably a really important personal reason for why that was, but frankly Theon didn't feel like doing any introspection at the moment. The words savior, and sacred power were sticking out to him, and were just enough to overcome any snide remarks about how ridiculous this all was.

"Daisy's got the right idea!" Gwendolyn put in, crossing her arms and examining the wall. She kept her distance from it, though, as it was evident that this was no technology she could decipher. If Strawberry was right and it was really some kind of old magic, she was far, far out of her depth here. Not that such considerations had ever stopped her from jumping head-first into things before. That usually took arms a good deal stronger than hers and the strength of will to withstand her rather formidable sad-eyes. So, really, what it had always taken was either her father or more recently Sven. As neither of those persons was present, she was entirely unbothered by considerations like logistics (it could be done, and that was the important bit) or responsibility or what-have-you.

Still she wasn't stupid, and she knew they'd need to take this down at some point. Of course, the Automaton's memory would serve them quite well for now. "Any idea why the one in the middle looks different? The first five'll probably take a key, but that doesn't look much like it."

Lohengrin, who most assuredly did know, said nothing, and the group was spared whatever modicum of silence would have followed when his ears picked up on something foreign. A scratchy, rasping sound, quiet at first, soon grew in intensity until it was echoing throughout the cavern. "Watch yourselves, kids, we've got company," he said, drawing the bastardsword from his back and about-facing towards the tunnels they'd come from. Well, damn. He'd thought this bit was a little too easy; it only made sense they'd have a run-in with some of the underground's resident mega-fauna. And indeed, the cause of the noise was soon apparent: the tunnel was apparently flooded by enormous rats, each more-or-less waist-high on him. About a dozen, all told. Fan-fucking-tastic.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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Lohengrin's warning had Mordecai immediately on-alert, and the Automaton did not so much run as appear at the man's side, peering down the cavern with backlit eyes and remaining at the ready. He did not engage either of his usual combat modes, however, as he was currently only charged for berserk, and the space here was far too small and crowded with people he should not harm for that to be warranted in any but the most dire circumstances. The first rats appeared seconds later, falling on the group with more coordination than the golem would have expected. Perhaps their enhanced size also gave them increased brain capacity, he could not say with certainty, though there was no mistake that the organs were a larger volume.

They seemed mostly to ignore him in favor of attacking the others, and Mordecai supposed this was because he did not smell like something made of flesh. Frowning just slightly, he grabbed one by the tail as it tried to get by him and heaved, dashing it against the wall a few times, the wet crunches that accompanied this a sure sign the bones were breaking. The screeching was hardly a pleasant sound, but it ceased eventually, and furthermore they were all screeching, so it was different only in pitch and volume. He considered muting his auditory sensors, but that could prove to be disadvantageous later, and so he did not, instead catching the next incoming creature with a curled fist to its snout, driving shattered bits of cartilage into its head.

Percy had taken the lull between the discovery and the attack to slide closer to the door. Perhaps not slide, but... Sprint. He had never seen anything like the artifact that stood before him, nor had he ever read anything about it. It wasn't Favisae architecture, at least not their recent works. This door was ancient, and engraved with words no one but the Automaton knew it seemed. A program installed by Myrddin if he had his bet. The strings were there for Percy to connect two and two and realize that perhaps the Wizard knew what they would find, but he was too entranced by the door for that. He ran his hands over it, feeling the ancient stone between his soft, bookish hands.

It was magnificent. It was the entire reason he was a scholar, to learn about their world, past and present. To see the secrets the sand has hidden from them. And in front of him stood a monument to all that desire. The only thing that could trump this discovery was the chance of opening it and seeing what hid behind it. Alas, the door soon became the least of his worries and their guide spotted something. He loathingly tore his eyes from the door and peered into the dark. At the first glimpse of light reflecting off of something's eyes, the changeling instinct took over. In a matter of moments, antlers sprouted from his head and his eyes took on a feral green color.

The trained halfchange drained a bit of his energy, but nothing a fullchange was capable of. He was still combat able as he brought his conjured staff around to face their foes. Foes, who turned out to be rats. "I'm sure that I don't have to iterate how many legends begin with the heroes slaying rats in some basement..." he left the implication in the air as he took a steadying step. He held his staff in a low guard as he awaited the first of the rodents to attack them. However, it was not his staff that was first to strike, but rather a rough tree root. Even all around him, he could feel the life of the earth around him. Deep reaching tree roots even delved as far as they were, and here, they were his allies. The roots burst through the ceiling and caught the rat before it could lunge.

Instead of ending the poor creature's life with the barbarism the Automaton showed, Percy displayed a more merciful nature. He strode towards the rat and put a soft hand on it's head. The rat slowly stopped it's thrashing and looked up at Percy in what could only be described as admiration. With the heart won and pact sealed, Percy allowed the roots to dispel, and freed the rat from its prison. The rat turned away from the druid and fell at his side, turning its beady eyes to aid the party in their fight against its breathren.

Lohengrin had to admire the sheer efficiency of the Automaton, who clearly had no moral compuntions about ending the creatures in the most brutally-efficient manner possible. Apparently, deer-boy was a bit more of a soft-touch, which you could probably afford to be if you were a druid fighting animals. He was not, and swung his sword in a broad vertical arc, cleaving into the base of the nearest creature's neck, issuing a spurt of crimson blood and dropping the rat to the ground. The next one caught him by surprise, and the man grunted as he felt teeth close around his ankle, sharp enough to bite through the worn leather of his boots and puncture the skin beneath.

He retaliated with a blast of concussive energy, realizing that to set it on fire in proximity to people who would burn was not the best idea. Though... enough collateral damage and he might be free of this damned goose-chase... but no. He wasn't quite that ruthless, at least when there was no guarantee it would work. Several bones snapped under the pressure of the kinetic burst, and his other hand plunged his sword directly downward, ending the creature cleanly. Wasn't its fault that intruders had found their way into its tunnel, after all. He didn't doubt that some people deserved to suffer, but simple rats were not among them.

"Yeah?" he replied to Percy. "And just how many of these 'heroes' were alive at the end of their stories?" he asked, referring obliquely to the long history Albion had of a preference for tragic protagonists over comedic or happy ones. The answer was 'not many,' but of course there were counterexamples to everything. For once, he rather hoped he was one, because if he remembered rightly, the wicked tended to die earlier in the stories, usually after having done something incredibly stupid to redeem themselves, and frankly he wasn't interested.

There was a loud 'crack' over his shoulder, and the next rat that had been advancing on them recoiled, a large chunk of its face torn off by a rather close-range gunshot. Lohengrin shot a glance backwards in enough time to see the captain flinch, just a bit, before her usual inane grin took up residence on her face, and she blew a coil of smoke from the barrel of her rifle in a playful gesture. "Probably all the ones with smart backup," she answered blithely, cocking the hammer again and sighting forward.

"Well, the ones I heard never got beaten by a pile of rats. So we got that going for us, right?" Vivi shivered. She hated the creepy crawlies that dwelled in dank places. The only silver lining that she could find was that they weren't spiders. She hated spiders-- and considering the size of these rats, the spiders she was most likely to encounter were super spiders, bigger than her head. A chill crept up her back as she brought her pistol to bare. A thunder of fire and steel blasted the rat in her sights, but it was only a skimming shot thanks to the amount (none) of light. Still, the action warded the rat off as it wisely decided to fight something other than the girl in the foppish hat. Unfortunately, the choice wasn't his, and a two more shots followed up the first, effectively emptying her turreted pistol.

Empty it may have been, useless it was not. A rat jumped her from the side, and she had just enough time to throw up her arm to intercept the teeth meant for her throat. Heavy metal was substituted for soft flesh as the rat bit into her unyielding gauntlets. A swipe with the butt of her pistol knocked the rat down, and a swift punt from her boot put the requisite distance between them. "Eww..." She whined as she tried to wipe the drool off of her gauntlets. The rat wasn't done however, as it tried it's lunge again, though Vivian knew it was coming this time. She spun as the rat closed, clocking the creature in the back with the pistol butt as it passed. A punt wasn't his reward this time, but rather the sharp end of her sword.

"Careful now Henny," she cooed, noticing the holes in Lohengrin's boots, "The captain pawned off our only healer," she stated with no small amount of bitterness. She still wasn't happy about that.

Theon wasn't thinking about the wall-crawler's absence, but rather how these ugly things had interrupted his moment of reminiscing on how he was destined to be some great and powerful being. Unlike his sister, the sight of creepy crawlies did not inspire shivers, but rather the urge to stomp downwards with a boot and crush them underfoot. Sadly, these rodents were a little big for simple stomping, and so out came the duckfoot, the scryer pushing his way to the front to ensure no one got in the way.

He kicked the nearest rat into the ones behind it, slowing up a group of them, giving Theon the needed time to level his pistol and pull the trigger. The thunderous boom of four fat barrels going off in unison echoed powerfully through the tunnel, ringing in his ears, the pistol itself blowing backwards violently, but Theon was able to keep a grip on it this time, and it quickly found its way back into his holster. He gripped the heavy orc axe he'd recently acquired, bringing it down in a great whoosh on the first rat to come forth after the group in front of it was obliterated by the barrage of pistol fire. The fanged head cleaved through a majority of the rat's upper body, splitting it to the floor and spattering the scryer with blood. He turned to kick the next rat in the underbelly, not bothering to note how the rat wasn't actively attacking any of them, since it was the one that had switched to their side. Once it was on its back, Theon chopped down again like a headsman performing an execution, cleaving it cleanly in two.

Lohengrin shrugged. "It's a rat," he replied flatly. "We'll have her back before the gangrene sets in, I'm sure." Not to mention that his genetics had a tendency to help him out in situations like this: most toxins could simply be burned from his system if he raised his core temperature high enough. Of course, it was probably better if he didn't do that, since it would require the use of his actual body. Still, he wasn't going to die by any means.

His free hand clenched into a fist, then opened, producing a little ball of light from each of his fingers, which grew as they drifted toward the ceiling. He hadn't missed the fact that they were fighting blind, mostly, though somehow the captain had been able to fire a shot from a fair range and not hit him by accident. Still he'd rather not risk it, erratic as the woman seemed. As the spheres grew bright enough to see by, cloaking the area in a wash of red-gold light, Gwen removed the goggles from her eyes, wincing slightly as she did. Maybe she should tell him to warn her next time he turned on the lights; that hurt. Blinking a few times, she adjusted and fired again, this time catching what appeared to be the last rat.

The group had made quick work of them, all told, and the small woman took a moment to reload, snapping the barrel back into place with a decisive click. "Well," she said, letting out a breath with the word, "Much as I enjoy a nice diversion, maybe it's time to get back to the mansion and retrieve our Thistle and Sunshine, hm?" The rifle, she slung back over her shoulder, safety mechanism in place, and adjusted the strap so it sat comfortably over her chest.

Sadness washed over Percy at the death of his ally rat, and then was evaporated by anger. Sure that the rest of the rodents were taken care of, the druid turned on the offending Scryer. "For someone blessed with Farsight, you don't see much. That creature you just murdered was our ally," Percy hissed, looking distraught over the split rat. The whole ordeal affected him, not just the one rat. Percy never did enjoy slaughtering animals, a drawback of being a druid. If he had his way, he would have pacified them all and sent them away, however there was no time for that and he just had to deal. He wasn't so naive to believe he could have saved them all, but still. It stung all the same.

Theon just raised his eyebrows at the druid as if to say seriously? He lugged his axe up onto his shoulder, and shrugged. "Oh well. S'not like the rats beneath Deluge are going extinct or anything. I'd say we could get you another one, but I'd probably just kill that, too." He absent mindedly shoved the lower half of the rat out of his way with a boot, making his way back closer to the wall, to look at it a little closer, while also going about the process of reloading his duckfoot pistol. "Nice antlers, by the way. Very cute."

Sensing a potential argument, Mordecai took the oportunity to speak, though any pacifying effect he might have had was perhaps dampened by the fact that he was currently using his hands to wick large amounts of blood off of himself. "The captain's words seem wise. This unit does not know much of this Argus Hooktooth, but it is given to understand that those who make their living in crime are not necessarily disposed to honesty, nor bound by their word. If you wish to retrieve Master Sven and Mistress Kethyrian, you should act with celerity." Having mapped the route on the way down, Mordecai no longer needed to follow anyone else, and he for one was quite prone to taking logical advice. That in mind, he set off back down the tunnels, his visual network adjusting for the diminished light as he drew further away from Lohengrin's conjored orbs of illumination.

"Play nice with the deer-fellow Teo, what if he killed your cat?" Vivi said, gently tugging on his ear. Still, even she didn't see the point in the man getting worked up over something as minor as a rat. They did manage to kill its entire family, so in fact they did the druid a favor. While she didn't speak animal, she'd imagine that conversation would be awkward as hell. Still, she wasn't in the mood to play Theon's conscience, and left the man to his spat with the druid. She was going to follow the Automaton and find Kethy. She skipped along, trying to catch up with him, calling out, "Hold up there Mordy, I'm coming with!" she said pulling up beside him and taking a hold of his arm. She wasn't as adept in seeing in the dark as the mechanical man was, and she'd need a guide. Mordecai halted immediately, and did not resume until the girl's arm had wrapped around his own, which he considered to be tacit agreement that he could proceed forward, more or less.

Percy, on the other hand, was undeterred in his glare. As much as he loathed to admit it, Mordecai and Gwen were right, and there was nothing left for them there, only blood. What he wouldn't give to stay and research the door... But recent events put a sour taste in his mouth. So with a straight back, he pushed past Theon and followed behind the Automaton. He didn't revert his antlers either, and instead walked with a proud gait. He wasn't ashamed of who he was, and he wasn't ashamed of his antlers.

Lohengrin snorted at about the same time as Gwendolyn sighed, but then he shrugged and followed the rest. Wasn't like he gave a damn about their little interpersonal disputes. He'd probably cause no small number of his own before he was free of them; that was what happened when you threw a bunch of people together who'd never pick each others' company in a lifetime. What really happened, not the ridiculous notions of banding together and overcoming differences. That was all well enough-- in stories and for exactly as long as it took to kill whatever they needed to kill, not a moment longer. If it got bad enough, it wouldn't even last that long, and their coordination would suffer. Then maybe they'd all die and he could be on his way again, as though he did anything useful with himself at other times.

His morbid thoughts lay over him like a cloak as, with a gesture, he bid one of his orbs follow him, the rest winking out like dying suns, and the remaining sphere floated some distance above and to the left of his head, throwing illumination for about five feet around, though admittedly he didn't need it. His species, as he'd been constantly reminded, had begun here, in the bowels of the earth, though they were ever more suited for the sky.

For her part, Gwen just shook her head, shooting a glance at Theon. "Well. Dunno about you, but I'd rather not get stuck back here. I guess you'd be fine, but I'm awful with directions." Shrugging, she nevertheless waited for some kind of forward progress from the scryer before she picked up her own tread. It was a quiet policy of hers, often unnoticed behind the much more bombastic ones. Nobody gets left behind. It was why she was so hesitant to leave Sven and Kethyrian with Argus, and why nothing was going to prevent her from retrieving them.

It had actually taken Gwen's voice to rouse Theon from his little daydream. The scryer had more or less immediately put the antler-boy from his mind in order to speculate on the possibilities of the wall, if it was indeed referring to him. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but Theon had always known that he was somehow special, different, better than the common man. It was why everyone sought to control him, to leash him and use him. He was better, and he was valuable. He was wanted. All of this seemed too great in magnitude to be coincidence. It was hard for someone who could see glimpses of the future to not believe in some kind of fate, and Theon had always been certain his fate was an important one. Something he could devote himself to.

He gestured lightly for Gwen to go first, holding out an arm. "After you, ma'am. I'll make sure none of the rodents bite at your heels." He'd never really been one for a chain of command, unless of course he was the one at the top, but he supposed if he was getting involved in this after all, then she was his captain.

"Would you really?" Gwen jested, placing a hand over her heart and pretending to go a tad weak at the knees. "How very gallant of you, sir," her reply was nothing if not tongue-in cheek, but she grinned and preceded him anyhow, leaving enough room to her side that he need not actually walk behind. That was stuff for courts and queens and things that she was not. Even if she bore the title captain, she walked always with her crew, if she could, and she honestly preferred to lead by pushing from behind, even if she appeared to be pulling from the front. That, and the members of the Guild seemed to belong somewhere else in her midden heap of mental categories, a place distinct from 'crew.' Sven had his own little niche, always had, and that one carried many labels. Friend, brother, savior, guardian, comrade, right hand.

The others would earn their designations yet, she knew. Nobody was so rudimentary to warrant none, but she was careful with these things, at least the ones she kept to herself, and she'd allow time to tell her what this moment alone could not. Caution and meticulousness were not words anyone should be associating with her, unless they'd somehow managed to catch her down in the engine room, tinkering with this or that valve or sprocket. Then it might make more sense.

Freshly bled but with the information they were sent for firmly locked away in Mordecai's mechanical mind, the group turned and headed for the exit of the tunnel. Not a moment too soon for Percy, who was beginning to feel the air under the ground constrict around his throat. It felt like a cage pressing against his heart, and with him shifted halfway into his stag form, he was more raw. There was a saying about caged animals that came to mind, but he found the thought disgusting. He was not an animal, he was a Mutatio.

After the same amount of walking except in the other direction, the group grew close to the exit. A shaft of light shone through the open trap door, and lingered lazily upon the mat of ivy Percy had summoned hours ago. "Thank the Old Kings..." Percy said sighing. He was tired of walking and all he wanted to do was get back to the ship and sift through the information they had learned. Vivi tossed a look up at Mordy with a wide smiled and then looked back at the others. "All's up who's goin' up!" She said, climbing up the eight foot drop with what look liked ease. Hard-headed or not, she seemed to have taken the climbing lessons Kethy gave her to heart. Once up, she whistled and called to the others, "This is weird guys. You need to see it."

One of the less inclined to climb, Percy, instead summoned a series of vines, moss, and ivy along the the drop, to better aid in his ascent. The act drew a bit out of his already flagging tank, but regardless he ascended the wall as well. What he saw at the top was, just like Vivi said, weird. Around the shack there were cages strewn about. Large cages, and whatever inhabitants were probably unfriendly, considering the notches on the cage walls. They were almost rat sized, Percy noted as he knelt by one. There were scuff marks around the mouth of the entrances, suggesting whatever were in the cages were then dumped into the tunnels.

That wasn't the end of it. Vivi had exited the shack before Percy's crest and found herself staring at the Enforcer that had guided them to the building. Well, the body of the Enforcer who looked like he was nearly beheaded. Vivi leaned forward, a bit too close for a normal girl, but then again she was not normal by any means. If she had her guess, someone had slit the Enforcer's throat from behind-- his weapon wasn't even unsheathed. Impressive, she thought. Though she was miffed by it as well. She wanted to kill him.

Mordecai didn't quite know what to make of the scene. In one way, what had happened was obvious: someone had killed the guard in order to set the rats down into the tunnel. But who, and to what end? If anyone knew enough of them to know they were down there, surely they should also have known that it would take more than a few large rodents to slay them. Also, why kill Hooktooth's man? Perhaps it was to frame them? They couldn't retrieve their comrades without bringing this man back alive to Argus, that was in the terms. But... perhaps the crime lord had killed his own enforcer in order to keep Mistress Kethyrian and Master Sven. If so, the rats should not have even been necessary, unless they were purely for the sake of misdirection.

How peculiar; there were simply too many unknowns to compute one most likely cause. In the end, however, that seemed to matter less than the effect, which was the same no matter who was responsible. "This unit advises haste," he pointed out. Whether they had done so intentionally or not, they had violated the goblin's terms, and that put their comrades in immediate danger.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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That would hopefully be all the fighting Dio would have to do today. It certainly wasn't her favorite activity, nor her best, especially after weeks of intense planning and preparation, hours of climbing and jumping and sneaking and tense moments, not to mention copious amounts of magic use. It was safe to say that she was glad that was through. Sven had even managed to hold the door, which was very good, considering that they would otherwise currently have about a dozen more thugs dogpiling them if he'd failed. A nearby table looked like it would help, solid and heavy and long enough to seat a large number. If propped against the door correctly, it would no doubt be able to hold them for the time they needed.

"Help me with this!" she called to the Favisae, jogging over to one end of the table and getting as good a grip on it as she could. Kethyrian nodded curtly and grasped the other side. Together they were able to move it up against the door, tilting its weight downwards to hold it shut. There were other things about they could use to brace it further, but frankly Dio preferred the idea of just getting the rest of this done and getting the hell out of here. "That should hold them, at least until they get a battering ram or some explosives. Come on."

She didn't know the exact layout of the estate's basement, considering that it had been impossible to scout out from above, but she knew the relative size of it, judging by the reports the diggers had brought back. Dio led her pair of helpers away from this first hallway, to the nearest set of stairs she could find, and then it was down, down, down, a spiral leading away from the surface, darkness prevented from overcoming the place by a few scant torches that gave the whole place a very medieval feel. It wasn't the first time she had descended into a pit full of slaves, but it was the first time she did so knowingly.

At last the stairs ended and they came out into an open area, or rather, one that would have been open if not for the walls of criss-crossed iron bars on either side of them, forming a hallway with cells on either side. Dio slowed to a walk and pulled her mask away from her face, surveying their condition. How many cells were there... she counted ten on each side, all identical in size, all filled with slaves. There were at least four to a cell, but some had as many as seven or eight peering at the new visitors, all different races, and none treated well. They were thin and barely clothed, pitiful things, but at least none of them appeared crippled or otherwise unable to move. Dio didn't doubt the slavers simply did away with those that couldn't keep up. The feeling she had now was nothing when she discovered her own family had been involved in the trade of flesh, but still... seeing these people treated like this, the poor and lost of Deluge with no one looking out for them... sadness and anger danced with each other in her chest.

A few were calling out to them, and no doubt they had heard the explosion from above, or at least the rumbling of it. "Let's get these people out of here," she said rather softly, before moving to the nearest cell on her left and crouching down, taking a hold of the thick padlock and using her magic to will it open. They probably only had a few minutes to empty these cells, and hope their exit came on time.

The Lieutenant clopped down the spiralling stairway, dutifully bringing the rear. He occasionally glanced over his shoulders, wary of any distant sound. He strained his ears for incoming footfalls, but heard nothing but the outlying din of nearby moans, growing louder and louder as they neared the end of the staircase. He paused briefly, tipping his head back. Recollections of other dirty, musty basements collectively invaded his memories, colouring his eyelids with murky smudges and sharp ribcages, knobby knees, hooked elbows and skeletal fingers waggling towards him, bleating for freedom, barely breathing. He'd seen things like this before, in wide scales, in smaller scales, but they'd always felt the same. Iron bars blockaded the malnourished denizens huddled within the cages, open-spaced and tightly packed against the long hallway (where he assumed Argus' men walked down to check on their products). Lost souls who'd been captured, kidnapped, or left for dead in the streets of Deluge. His frown deepened, forehead creasing.

It stank down here, the fetid odor of unwashed flesh and disease just on the cusp of manifesting. She recognized from not extraordinary olfactory capacity but simply from familiarity. One didn't become a healer without spending too much time in places with this smell, not if one wanted to be good at it. If you wanted to keep being good at it, you eventually learned to accept what you saw without letting your guts twist up too badly. Pity was for people who had the time, and didn't need their heads clear for more important things, but even she was not quite so hard-hearted that the predicament these people were in made her feel nothing at all. It was just... understated, easily-ignored, jaded, perhaps.

She had not the elegance of alteration magics at her disposal, and was left with something a tad more brute. "Stand back," she said flatly to the prisoners in the cage nearest her. They obliged, whether from the seriousness of her tone or the sheer dumb hope that she actually meant well, she could not say. It hardly mattered, because the actual act was all she required. Taking a pace backwards herself, she eyed the rusty lock with derision, manifesting a hand-sized barrier and concentrating on its density, packing as much strength as she could into the slightly-shimmering surface area and then hurling it, guiding it to smash into the lock.

And smash it did, the sound ringing hollowly throughout the cell block, buckling the metal surface of the lock until it cracked and broke with a decisive snap, dropping with a muted clink to the stone floor beneath. She repeated the process on another two cages before she swapped tactics, approaching those who seemed to be moving a little sluggishly and tapping them on the temples, imparting small, temproary bursts of energy, enough that they'd be able to run relatively quickly if that was what the situation required. If Kethyrian Tor was going to do something, she was going to do it right, after all.

Instead of trudging past Kethyrian with the intentions of manhandling the locks with his bare-hands (which would've ended badly, either way he looked at it), the Lieutenant patiently waited for her to make her way over, while she paused in front of each barred cage, idly touching the locks until they snapped open like metallic clams. He had no powers to exploit, though he did have experience dealing with frightened, doe-eyed victims who wanted nothing more but to get the hell outta here, but weren't entirely sure where they were in the first place, so he moved from one person to another, employing a kindness that seemed ill-suited for someone so intimidating. His whispers were soft, and measured, assuring their safety. As if he'd done this before, under happier circumstances, the Lieutenant's hand rested easily on their shoulders, brushing back thick clumps of hair and pulling them back up to their feet. He'd act as their immovable rock, their heavy-browed pillar, until their jelly legs found themselves again. This was better then trying to attempt any long-winded speeches of why they were there, what their intentions were, or how, exactly, they were going to manage to smuggle them away from this horrible place. He offered no such things, alternating between offering his shoulder for balance and catching someone who hadn't quite managed to catch their breath – caught between disbelief, and desperation.

When everyone seemed to be on their feet, encouraged by whatever forces Kethyrian proffered by touching their temples, the Lieutenant shifted his position, holding a smaller woman by the elbow, and faced Dio. What plans did she have next? Would there be more explosions? The soundless, unvoiced question reflected in his eyes. It was unlikely that they'd backtrack up the staircase unless Dio knew of an alternate course, circling around the thugs and guards who were presumably pounding their fists, feet and shoulders on the door – or, as Dio had sensibly quipped, a battering ram. Again, the Lieutenant's gaze swings over to Dio, though he only adjusts his grip on the woman, muttering under his breath.

Dio double checked and triple checked the rows of cells, making sure they hadn't missed anyone, hadn't missed some hidden stock of the especially valuable or especially troublesome. No, they were thorough, and all the would-be slaves and test subjects (she shuddered at the thought) were up on their feet and very ready to leave. So was she, to be honest, this mission had been far more complicated than she'd originally anticipated, but of course she should have expected that given the people she was trying to undermine here.

"Okay, okay, I just need everyone to stand back away from the far wall," she explained, moving to put herself between the masses she'd just liberated and the mentioned wall, slate gray and smooth and utterly unremarkable. Fighting had unfortunately scrambled her mental clock a little, to the point where she didn't know exactly how much time they had left. Hopefully not much, since they were ready to go right now.

"That's it, just stay calm. My friends are going to be creating a way out of here, we just have to wait for--" she was cut off by a series of four booms in quick succession, accompanied by the sound of cracking stone and crumbling wall. "for that," she finished, turning to see their exit. A hole had been opened up in the wall, perhaps six feet tall, certainly small enough that Sven would have to duck into it to avoid hitting his head, and probably four feet wide. It was about a half foot off the ground, so they'd have to step up into it to get out, but in all, Dio was impressed. This would do.

A young man with sandy blond hair and a prosthetic lower right leg came out of the newly created hole in the wall, kicking aside the stray rubble that blocked the path, shoving his goggles up onto his forehead. "Hope I'm not late," he said rather cheerily. Dio would have quipped back, but they were short of time. "Right on time. This is our way out, everyone. We don't really have time to explain right now, you're just going to have to trust me. We'll clear everything up once we get to safety. Let's go!"

When the other option was a dark cell in a dark dungeon, they didn't need much convincing, and very quickly the first slaves began working their way into the tunnel behind the man with the goggles. Dio made sure to wait until the last of them had entered the tunnel before she followed, passing a woman with the same color blonde hair, attaching small explosive devices to the roof of the little tunnel they'd created. "That going to take long?" Dio asked, and the girl smiled as she shook her head. "Nope! We'll have this collapsed in no time. No one's following us this way." Dio nodded in approval. "Good." She picked up the pace to catch up with the rest of the group, falling in beside Sven and Kethyrian.

"Like I said," she explained, "a lot of work went into this. These tunnels will lead the captives back to a safe place, and we'll help them on their way from there. I don't suppose you know where you can find the others from your group? They'll probably be worried sick when they see the state Argus' mansion is in."

"I imagine they'll be eager to find us when they notice the giant smoking holes in the building," Kethyrian pointed out flatly. Otherwise, she had a feeling Sven would probably know where Captain Skybound was most likely to look and head there. She'd simply follow if that turned out to be the case.

Letting the escaped prisoners clamber up ahead of her, Kethyrian stepped up and into the passage without trouble, as her size meant that her head came nowhere near brushing the ceiling. Presumably, their way out would be caving in on them shortly, and she had no intention of still being down here when that happened. It wasn't like tunnels were exactly unfamiliar, besides... and then it clicked. For some strange reason, the thought of tunnels was enough to link her to the memory of the woman's face, though at the time it had looked considerably worse for wear, sunburned and scraped, though that had hardly been the worst of it. She'd been half-dead, and it had taken a good few hours and Kethyrian's last deed as a denizen of those tunnels to bring the stranded human back up to functionality. It was enough to bring the Favisae pause, and she glanced back over her shoulder at Dio. "Come a long way from a dehydrated, dying foundling, haven't you?" she murmured, caught somewhere between her usual blunt acidity and marginally gentler amusement.

Of course, now was hardly the time to discuss it, and she disappeared up the tunnel's incline thereafter, headed back for the surface, which would hopefully smell better.

Dio almost stopped entirely, her confusion momentarily stunning her. "How did you..." but the words didn't really come after that, and before she knew it the Favisae was putting distance between them. How did she know about that? Dio was very certain she would have remembered a woman with hair the likes of hers. It would certainly require further questioning, but now was probably not the best time. She could hear the rumbling of their exit collapsing behind them, and the demolitionist jogging back their way shortly after. A successful operation if she had ever seen one.




Gwendolyn's feet were crossing the threshold that invisibly marked Argus's estate grounds off from the rest of Deluge when the last explosion produced a rumbling beneath them, which might have even thrown her off-balance, had she not spent the majority of her life on a ship. The moderately-sized plume of debris and smoke that rose into the skyline to join two fading comrades was... somewhat discouraging, even to her. "Well, that's certainly not what I was expecting," she noted lightly, turning back to glance over her shoulder at the rest of the group. "Gonna go out on a limb here and say that someone's not too happy with Toady, which means Toady's probably not very happy with the world in general. Keep a hold on those weapons, okay?"

That said, she wasn't exactly sure where to go. The property was relatively large, and they were looking for only two people. She was pretty sure neither of them had either the magic or the equipment to create an explosion like that, so the smoking holes in the building probably weren't that helpful, really. "Um..." To the side, Vivi couldn't contain the dangerous glare that haunted her eyes. If Kethy was hurt, then it would all be on her head. For her sake, she had better hope that Kethy was the one causing the damage. However, her sharp tongue was held at bay by an interruption from Theon.

Theon jumped into action, well aware that this was a situation in which he was most useful. "Give me a minute, I'll find them. Somebody shake me if we need to move." If they were on the goblin's turf now, that meant they were in danger. The green-skinned asshole had already tried to have his peons take care of him and his sister, so he definitely was willing to try, and if he suspected their involvement in whatever attack had just occurred on his base, the scryer could foresee how their presence here might become a problem. Positioning himself up against the nearest wall, he sank to the ground and draped his arms loosely over his knees, letting his head fall forward and closing his eyes.

There were a lot more people here than he expected. A good deal of activity, heartbeats elevated and temperatures high. The area immediately around the estate was a mess, mostly thugs trying to restore some sense of order. He found Argus quickly enough, absolutely livid and shouting at some of his henchmen. Other than that, most of them were clustered below ground, working extremely hard on something, a sense of futility hanging over them.

Seeing beneath the surface brought... complications, but it wasn't anything that couldn't be worked around. It became more like fumbling around in the dark, reaching out and using touch along the walls to guide himself. The thugs beneath the estate were blocked by something, and they couldn't move forward. Theon could, passing right through and flying forward, at least until he sensed a large amount of people, pushing through dim light, some clutching each other, the stink of fear hanging on them, but also an overwhelming joy. There were a few among the group that weren't possessed of such emotions, and it was these he focused on. The one in the back was... very ecstatic about something. Reveling in her work. Theon got the sense she was a little too pleased with herself. Strange.

The one in front of her was also female, but this one was confused by something, accompanied by a relief that didn't match the rest, relief that came after months of hard work. In front of her were two, side by side, and Theon picked up on slight levels of... well, grumpiness. Surely that was them? If Theon had to guess, he'd say all these people had just left Argus' estate, given that they were walking directly away from it, at the negative elevation of the thugs trying to dig through some kind of barrier.

"They're underground," Theon said, raising his head to look at the rest of the group. "With a large group, mostly terrified people, heading north. Should be easy to follow." he stood, pleased with himself. Very few people could hide from him. "Shall we?"

"... What?" Vivi managed, tilting her head. Underground? Large group of people? The hell did they get themselves into if they were traveling underground-- well, Kethy, she understood. Favisae did tend to like underground carvens. But that wasn't the point. She managed a look at the ground at her feet before she shook her head, disregarding her own question a moment ago. "Yeah.. Right. North. Let's... go give them a hearty welcome?" she asked in a confusion laced tone. Still, there was a chance Kethy was among them, and she never doubted Theon's power. It was better than walking into the hornet's nest that was Argus's manor-- well... As much fun as that sounded, she'd rather find Kethy first.

Mordecai, in accordance with what seemed to be the expressed will of the group, found north and headed in that direction, choosing to largely walk the perimeter of Argus's estate rather than simply go through it. There seemed to be a good deal of confrontation happening already, but he wasn't sure if there was actual combat involved, or if someone had simply decided to deconstruct the house with incendiaries. Either way, it would perhaps provide them an opportunity to escape the area without needing to undergo what was sure to be a rather unpleasant encounter with the goblin.

By the time they'd reached the area some distance behind the manor, several people in poor conditioning were already making what appeared to be a run for the jungle beyond the property, and a few others emerged behind them, at a somewhat-more controlled pacing. "Visual confirmation," Mordecai intoned. "Master Sven, Mistress Kethyrian, and others." He pointed in the appropriate direction, the movement catching Kethyrian's attention.

The Favisae peered over the distance, her eyes a good deal poorer than the Automaton's, especially in such direct sunlight. Still, it was hard to miss a group with a composition like theirs. "Sven, they're here. We should go."

Had it been the Lieutenant squinting his tired eyes into the horizon, then he might not have spotted the small dots freckling the stretch before them. His eyesight wasn't horrible, but he'd suffered old injuries on his eyes – cataracts that often caused lights to appear darker, and darkness to become an obstacle he couldn't navigate himself out of. So, it was by Kethyrian's superior vision that he learned of their arrival. He paused momentarily, swinging his steady gaze back to Dio. A thought occurred to him, but sifted away as quickly as it'd come. If he thought she'd join them, given the abilities and fore-planning he'd seen her display back in the manor, then he would have offered the position, but it didn't seem as if she would be interested. She had her own rules, her own way of doing things. Sometimes, they killed people, if they stepped in their way, if they stopped them from doing something important. Worse yet, they didn't feel bad for doing it. They didn't think about their families, or friends, or their lives being prematurely cut off. Would she accept being a part of something like that?

The thought trailed off, replaced by a low rumble bellying from his chest. The Lieutenant stepped forward, offering Dio a rare smile that still looked a little glum on his face and placed a hand on her head, barely ruffling her hair, “You did some good, Fraulein. Sie haben meinen Respekt. If you are needing help, someday.” He retracted his hand, and thumped his chest to finish his broken sentence. The indication, he hoped, was clear enough. There weren't enough good people in the world, so if he could be a part of something like that, then he'd gladly offer his hands, his shoulders, his strength, to any cause that made someone's life a little better. He'd almost forgotten what that felt like. Helping someone without rhyme or reason, because it was the right thing to do, after all. Gwendolyn would like her. He took another step past her, and ponderously glanced over his shoulder. “I'm thinking. You should be meeting Gwendolyn.” The offer was there, if she so chose to take it. He nodded again, flashed a look at Kethyrian and began tromping in the direction she'd pointed in. The Favisae offered Dio a nod and followed after.

As the group emerged from the tunnels and into daylight once more, Dio's job was complete, and with it, the weight gone from her shoulders. She sighed happily with the relief it brought. None of these people would be shipped to Xantus or wherever else her family was doing their work. The others would give whatever help they needed, if they wanted it, and then get them all on their way as best they could. Their power to help was not limitless, of course, but their drive to was, and Dio found that willpower could do incredible things when given the right direction.

But now that she was finished here, she supposed that meant she was free to go where she wished. She was half-curious who, if anyone, from her family, would have been making the transaction and acquiring the slaves tomorrow, escorting them back to Xantus. It really wasn't worth thinking about, as that line of thought only led to trouble. Her family did not yet know of her survival, and it was much better that way. Easier to subvert them. On top of that, there really wasn't anyone from her family she wanted to see again.

Maybe it was one of her older sisters, finally risen in the ranks enough to be included in their games, having earned enough trust, or brainwashed enough, to cooperate. Hmph. Hopefully coming back empty handed would earn her a good glare from mother. The thought made her smile a little.

Dio was pulled back to the present by Kethyrian's mention of their companions being here. Dio frowned a little. That was odd, that they'd be able to find them so easily. Suspicious, too, but Dio was willing to believe there was a good reason behind it. At Sven's compliment and offer of assistance, she smiled genuinely, a rather broad, shining thing that she wore well. "Some good is all I ever hope to do, Sven. I'm glad I was able to help you." She had thought they'd simply leave, but then he suggested she meet someone named Gwendolyn. Probably their leader, the one she'd spied talking with Argus before the split had been made. If this was for the purpose of rewarding her or something, it wasn't necessary. Of course, she was rather interested in meeting them, given that they certainly didn't look like an average group of travelers. A rather odd assortment. She nodded her acquiescence and followed.

At the sight of the black and white hair dancing in the distance, a squealing "Kethy!" was heard, followed by the sound of feet stamping the ground. Next came the loud thump of a rough hug as Vivi took Kethy in an possibly unwarranted embrace. Kethyrian endured it with a long-suffering sigh, though for all that, she did reach up a bit and tousle Vivian's hair.

"I almost can't believe it," she intoned dryly, "but it looks like I managed to find more trouble than you, this time."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Though an immediate departure may have been preferable, Gwendolyn knew it was going to take Argus a while to figure out what had happened, and when he did, she suspected the chances of him suspecting their involvement would go down, not up. Personally, she wouldn't have minded being associated with whatever stunt Kethyrian, Sven, and their new friend had pulled off, seeing as how it involved freeing a number of future slaves, but it was probably better for all involved if the culprits remained unknown. So instead of fleeing immediately for the ship, she led thr group back into Deluge proper, along the winding, dusty dirt roads, the little clouds kicked into the air by passage of cart, carriage, and feet illuminated in hazy haloes by the buzzing xenon lights in a fair panoply of colors and shadow.

The day had drawn late, and evening was in its infancy when the bombastic captain flung open the doors to a small, out-of-the way building, striding inside with a swagger in her step that suggested she owned the place. She may well have done, for all eyes swung to her and the motley assortment behind her, suspicious expressions melting into knowing smiles when wary eyes landed on the youthful face and shell-strung braids. Her visage was clearly well-known here, and welcomed. "The sky-bird seeks refuge!" she sang, and several grins broke out around the room.

"Go down, you blood-red roses, go down!" came the response, much less melodious but in a mix of voices, from the raspy and masculine to the airily girlish, that from the bar-maid.

Gwen's smile was bright to match as she gestured behind her to her companions, bidding them enter behind her. "But it's mighty draughty in damn Deluge!" A chorus of laughs met the second line, and that was as much custom as anything.

"Go down you blood-red roses, go down!" The little ritual completed and the identity of their guests verified (as if anyone hadn't known who the sprightly blonde lady was), most turned back to their business. The barmaid, however, left her job polishing a dark wooden table and approached the group, a broad smile gracing her wrinkled features. She looked to be in her late fifites or so, but for all that there was something about her that bespoke authority and ease both. She was flanked by a man of considerable height and girth, and from the odd similarity in their rough features and dark hair, it was perhaps surmisable that they were realted. He was no older than thirty-five, clad in rough linens with leather in spots more prone to wear. A pistol hung at one hip, and his mother carried a slender rapier.

Wiping her hands on her apron, the woman held her arms out, and Gwen stepped without hesitation into the embrace, careful with her metal limb but otherwise clearly pleased to be there. "Auntie George! You're as lovely as ever!" That drew a chuckle from the elder woman, and earned the captain a swat on her flesh-made limb.

"Aye, and you're still a scrawny wench, Gwendolyn Skybound! Look like you'll blow away in a storm, you do. Keep sleeping up in that rigging and you'll fall right off your ship one day," she replied knowingly, then turned to Sven, clapping the Lieutentant on the shoulder. "Now you on the other hand look like you still have that appetite, m'boy. There's a mince pie in the oven with your name on it." She made a gesture with her hand, and the man behind her nodded curtly, disappearing behind a door set into the opposite wall. From the rolling gait he possessed, it was obvious to an airship sailor that he'd been one, too, once, though he tread with a pronounced limp. "As soon as you tell me what's going on, that is. You're not dragging trouble to my doorstep again, are you?" she asked suspiciously, sharp blue eyes flitting over the rest of the group, lingering perhaps a tad longer on Lohengrin and Theon than the rest.

Gwen bit her lip in an exaggerated motion, swinging her own gaze to the ceiling in a parody of innocence, rocking back and forth from her toes to her heels. "Weeeellll..." she drew out, "Not if you don't want to know about it. Really, we just need a good meal and a place to lay low for a few hours, I promise. There most likely won't be any armed guards this time." The woman gave a disbelieving snort, but if she was truly disturbed by the news, she didn't give any indication of it. Gwen threw a glance back at the others. "Everybody, this is Astrid George, better known as Auntie George, and former cook aboard the Elysium. The quiet one from earlier is her son Daniel, the best damn rigger we ever had. Nowadays, she runs this place, and we're safe as can be as long as we're here."

In short order, the group was led to a long table and seated, and it was mere minutes before they all had heaping plates of hot food laid in front of them, and mulled wine besides, bread and cheese and butter occupying the middle of the wooden planks that served as their dining surface. One of the small miracles that was Auntie George, as far as Gwen was concerned. Everything was delicious as she remembered it, and for his part, Lohengrin agreed, occupying himself with eating while Gwen turned to the newcomer seated across from her. "So," she said, largely without preamble, "Sunshine tells me you helped him and Thistle escape that place, and a bunch of other people besides. Sorry for dragging you here, but I didn't think sticking around Toady and the minions with the angry-faces would be all that conducive to talking, you know?"

Dio nodded enthusiastically, unable to speak for the moment due to being caught with a mouth full of delicious food. She'd been a little put off by the group at first, mostly by the one with the big axe, but if this group was actively trying to get her to lower her guard, they were doing a damn good job. This place, and the people that worked, were about as homey as anything she'd ever seen. Her stomach had been rumbling after a hard day's work, the smells of the cooking proving a little too powerful for her to overcome. Thus she found herself literally biting off a little more than she could chew, and half-giggling when she attempted to recover.

When she was at last able to speak, she smiled apologetically. "Certainly not. I'm very grateful for the hospitality, this was just what I needed, I think. I stretched myself a little thin these last few months, to be honest." It wasn't the first time she'd allowed herself to be swept away by winds that came her way, so to speak, and it wouldn't be the last, certainly not when it led to things like this. "My name's Dio, by the way. I hope you'll forgive me for asking, but... I'm curious what I've stumbled into here. You seem... a rather odd collection." Her eyes lingered on the automaton in particular. She thought she might have seen something similar once in Xantus. "Are you a crew, or mercenaries?"

"Gwen," the engineer replied, then cocked her head to one side, producing a faint jangling sound, and considered the question, chewing over a mouthful of potatoes. "A little of both, mostly neither, I think. Ever heard of Avalon's Dawn? It's an adventurer's guild, based up north. That's where most of these kids are from. I work for them, too, as an airship captain." There was a pause, and the usually sort of happy daze that existed over Gwen's eyes cleared, and she studied the other woman with something resembling astuteness. It lasted for only a moment, though, and then she shrugged, receding into something a bit more congenial if less... sharp-looking.

"You've managed to trip right over a quest to save the world, if you'd believe it." The pilot's tone suggested that it didn't much ruffle her feathers if Dio chose not to, but she did think a statement like that merited some explanation. "Captured mentor-figure, obscure prophesy, implication of great trial and disaster, the whole box and dice, actually. Started with a troop of Vipers attacking the Guild Tower, it'll end... well, who knows? Wouldn't be obscure if I knew where we were going to end up, now would it?" She flashed a smile and popped another slice of potato into her mouth, looking at Dio rather expectantly, though what she was waiting for was anyone's guess. She wasn't all that certain she knew, herself.

Saving the world, huh? Dio wasn't quite sure she wanted to ask from what. She wasn't aware that the world was in any particular danger, apart from the evils of many individuals that were seemingly a part of daily life. She had heard of Avalon's Dawn, though she'd never given them much thought. For most of her life she'd had the mindset that the only organization she was bound to join was her own family's, the group that she could now only see as more of a cult. She remembered that her mother had not spoken of them fondly on any occasion, for whatever reason. That actually won them quite a few points, now.

"Wow," she said, honestly a little dumbfounded by the response. "That... sounds a little overwhelming, actually." She didn't really know what other words to come up with. She'd been more prepared to tell the woman how much she adored everything she'd done with her hair, with the beads and bandannas and braids, but suddenly everything seemed so irrelevant now that the subject had been moved to saving the world. "I'm... a little more small time myself, I'm afraid. I'm from Xantus originally, but I've been in the south a while now. I work as a freelance thief and saboteur, though I seem to have a habit of doing good deeds."

There was really no point being coy about what she did, considering that she was dining with an adventurer's guild after they'd seen what she'd done to the estate of a major criminal lord here in Deluge. And maybe she was a little crazy for thinking this, but she currently had no employment and the freedom to choose wherever she went next. The idea of joining a guild was certainly tempting. It presented an opportunity to improve herself helping in ways she could, to prepare for her return to Xantus, and if these people were actually trying to save the world from something... wouldn't she be an awful person to avoid trying to help?

Gwen's indomitable smile returned, and she swapped from holding her fork in her left hand to her right to knuckle the other woman on the shoulder, nothing more than a gentle shove. "You're only small-time for as long as you don't think big enough. I'd know, so trust me on that." The metal implement was crossed with an odd sort of daintiness over the ceramic plate, and Gwen propped an elbow on the table and her chin upon that. "So how 'bout it?" she asked, half reading Dio's thoughts from her face and body language, half guessing and going ahead with asking a question that might have been too presumptuous for anyone else to dare. The captain didn't have many reservations, though; she'd long since left them in the dust. "The way I see it, we could use all the help we can get, and what grander good deed could there be?" She raised a brow, inviting an answer, but pushed no further than that.

It seemed her life would only ever take her places she never expected to go. Dio's quiet life helping the people in Xantus seemed like a future dreamed by another person, and maybe it was. So much had happened since then. Maybe it was unwise of her to continue as she did, thinking so little and simply acting on feeling, but despite all that had happened to her, she didn't regret where it had led her. She always judged her options as best she was able, and then did what she could with the choices she had. And she was quite certain this was not an adventure she could opt to join in on later, when she'd had more time to think. As ever, she could try to clutch at rocks and hold herself stationary, or she could let herself be swept away in the storm, navigating it as best she was able on the fly. The choice was clear.

"I don't know how much help I'll be, or what exactly is involved in saving the world, but I'm in. I don't suppose we know where we're headed next, or what we're doing? Oh, and names real quick, just throw them at me, I'm really good with them." It was true. So long as she made some attempt at pointing out which name belonged to which body, Dio probably wouldn't forget.

Gwen laughed, a light sound infused with mirth and faint traces of something else, though it was hard to say what. "We're not exactly sure what we're doing either, though once we get back to the ship, we should have a better idea, I think. None of us were exactly expecting this to happen, I'm pretty sure." She glanced speculatively some distance to her left, at Theon, then shook her head. He'd said something about foresight being tricky, hadn't he? It seemed unlikely even the scryer had known it was coming.

"Mm... Sven, Percy, Kethyrian, Vivian, Theon, Lohengrin, Mordecai, and myself," she fired off rapidly, following a circle around the table, more or less. "Or as I'd say it: Sunshine, Spikey, Thistle, Rosy, Daisy, Strawberry, Gadget, and, well, I suppose I don't get to nickname myself, do I?" She managed this in a single breath and seemed quite unperturbed aferwards, the rapidity of her speech ensuring that it didn't steal all the air from her lungs to manage it. Shrugging, she stuck out her right arm for Dio to shake. "Welcome to the club. Glad to have you along."

With a throaty laugh that seemed misplaced in such an imposing figure, the Lieutenant drummed his fingers against the table, furrowing his eyebrows. “Bumble – like little bee,” He indicated wryly, gesturing with his forefinger and index. He'd used to call Gwendolyn that when her father was still alive, sweeping her up into the air like the insect he'd so aptly nicknamed her after, swinging her in the air while making buzzing noises. Too big for that now. Sometimes, in his gloomy dispositions, he wondered how she grew up so fast. Now, she was the captain of a prestigious ship, a member of a renowned guild and friend to many unsavoury characters. If Leo were here, what expression would he make at such news? He could only imagine. He nodded briskly, glancing at the opposing tables. He was glad of the recent events, of how things had panned out – he certainly approved of Dio and Gwendolyn's effortless alliance, and so he crossed his arms over his chest, offering a slight smile that told Dio that he, too, was glad she'd agreed to join their merry little crew.

Dio took the names, and all the nicknames, down in her mind, and though she hadn't expected to have to remember two names for everybody, but she didn't mind the challenge. She took the metallic hand easily. "Glad to be along."




Seated relatively far away from the locus of conversation that was the captain and Dio, Kethyrian busied herself ignoring their conversation and picking at her food. It wasn't that it didn't taste good; she'd just never been much of an eater. Meals underground were small and economical, the flavors bland and generally not all that varied, and as a result eating had always been more of a necessity than a pleasure. Actually, she was glad she'd managed to retain her portion habits, else upon coming to the surface she might well have gorged herself at every opportunity and become incredibly fat. Instead, she tended to savor as much as possible, and this food certainly warranted it. What they recieved on the ship now was not bad at all, but it was obvious the crew had suffered genuine loss when Astrid George had left it to start her business in Deluge. At least there was something to like about the place.

Of course, now that she was settled and no longer running for her life, Kethyrian had to admit to some level of curiosity as to what had transpired while she and Sven were elsewhere. Vivian was perhaps not the best person to ask for detailed or technical explanations of anything, but then, as far as Kethy knew, that wasn't the kind of thing she needed. Turning to the overly-energetic warrior, she posed the question in the same blunt way she said everything else. "So what happened underground?"

"Thunnels," Vivi answered with a wad of half chewed food in her mouth. Unlike the Favisae, she was barely visible over the mound of food she had collected. Blessed as she was, the girl had a metabolism on her that could rival even the biggest of men. The hyperactivity displayed came to no surprise after a viewing of her portions and eating manners-- which is to say none. Vivi had to answer Kethy between mouthfuls of whatever she had shoveled on to her plate in order to avoid spraying everyone within ten yard radius. But, when Kethy spoke, she had calmed herself to about the rate of a normal person. She then smiled, and nodded, knowing that such a simple answer wouldn't do with the Favisae. Their last conversation told her that much.

"Anthient thunnels." Still wasn't getting it, but she was getting there. She finally swallowed and began to really elaborate. "Ancient Favisae tunnels, from what Deer-boy said. They took what felt like hours to walk through. They went from ugly to pretty really fast-- something something digging, uncovered Deer-boy said," She said, illustrating the scene with her fork. Of course, it wasn't the tunnels themselves that was the the interesting part, but what lay at the end of the tunnels. "There was a door at the end, a huge one. You could stack Muscles and Mordy on top of each other and just barely touch the top. It was locked though, so don't know what was on the other side. There was also some writing on it, but I only have the gist of what it said. If you want the fully translated bit, ask Mister Mechanical Mordy with his steel trap of a mind."

"Also, there were some rats that attacked us. Huge things, like dogs really. Didn't stand much of a chance in all honesty. Deer-boy got his antlers in a twist when Theon killed one of them. Then we left and more stuff happened. Etc, etc,"
She finished, digging back into her food.

Theon chuckled a bit to himself beside her as he continued working on a leg of chicken. Antlers in a twist. He'd have to remember that one.

At the words 'Mister Mechanical Mordy,' Modecai glanced over at the Favisae and the energetic young human, nodding in a slightly awkward movement that he seemed to need to think about for a moment. Body language didn't always come most naturally to him. He was the only person without a plate of some size in front of himself, given his lack of a digestive system, so the burgeoning conversation would give him something to do, which was welcome as far as he was concerned. He obliged Vivian's suggestion, reciting the verse in a vice low enough that nobody not at the table would accidentally hear. Kethyrian listened intently, then shook her head. "Lady's sodden garters," she replied, apparently unaware of the fact that she'd even uttered the oath. "I knew this would be trouble. I suppose we're just going with it, aren't we?" There was no way they weren't, not with the captain in charge and a crew consisting of people like Vivian. She was surprised that a few of them didn't look more sullen at the news, though. Except maybe Lohengrin, but he always looked sullen, so it was hard to tell.

Mordecai nodded, assuming that she question actually needed an answer. "So it is," he offered mildly. "And what of the two of you? This unit did not expect to find you already outside the house upon our arrival." He included Sven in the question, and Kethyrian huffed a sigh through her nose, waving a hand to defer the question to the large man.

The larger man had already ambled over to their table, plopping down ungracefully and forcing the table to jump while he eased himself into a more comfortable position. It wasn't his fault that his knees knocked against the underbelly of the boards, lifting them momentarily before settling back down when he stretched his legs out. There was no indication that he noticed the beverages hop-skipping across the surface, reposing noisily when their owners scooped them up, or tentatively wrapped their hands around them. His own goblet was clutched tightly in his hand, occasionally brought to his lips. He'd left Gwendolyn chatting with Dio, though he kept his good eye on her – out of habit, more than anything. The duty of caring for Leo Skybound's only daughter was something he'd never been lax on. Never had he taken such a thing lightly, despite how capable she'd proven herself to be. He still pictured curly pigtails flying behind her head, whipping about in the wind. A little girl with a penchant for getting herself into trouble, finding it wherever it might've been.

In infrequent internals, the Lieutenant's heavy eyebrows rose, attesting that he was paying attention to what Vivian was saying, of what they'd found down there, after all. He hadn't had the chance to ask Gwendolyn about it, but he wagered he'd hear differing recounts of the tale by the time he reached the ship. Of course, it didn't surprise him in the least when Mordecai easily translated what had been on the door, nor was he surprised at what they'd eventually decide to do. They were pirates, after all. When Kethyrian brusquely gestured with his hand, designating him as the one who should tell the tale, Sven couldn't help but laugh – though, it sounded more like a bark than anything else. His broken English would do little to convey what they went through, but he thought he'd try, anyway. He released his goblet, upturned his hand, and unfurling his palm. “Vhe vas in little cell vhen she,” the Lieutenant hooked his thumb towards Dio, then nodded, “Jumped through vhindow. Vhanted help to be freeing slaves, vhe left. Riesegexplosionen – boom, vhe are seeing you.” To any normal person, the explanation was rotten. He looked at them expectantly, as if he'd just filled in all the obvious gaps.

Vivi's eyes drooped a bit at the poor explanation and turned to Kethy, hoping she'd provide a better picture of what had happened. If this was how Kethy felt when Vivi tried to explain something, then she'd have to keep a mind about doing a better job at it.

The Favisae sniffed slightly, shrugging thin shoulders. "It's as he says, more or less," she said, though even she wasn't sure exactly how or why she'd apparently understood most of what Sven was saying. Maybe it was just because her language had been similarly broken upon her first time aboveground. Who knew? "We were locked in a room, at which point Dio broke in through a window. She was there with the intent of freeing some other captives from the basement beneath the toad's home. Our options were go along with it or get blamed for it anyway." She paused to take a bite of food and chew, and Mordecai took the opportunity to reenter the conversation.

"And so you made your way out from the subterranean section of the house. This unit comprehends." The explosions had likely been for that reason, hence the coils of smoke stil issuing from the area when they arrived, and the people disappearing into the jungle. The Favisae's reply was to nod. "And yet this unit did not percieve any deceased security personnel. Were the fatalities truly null?" It was something that struck him as odd; the most efficient way to win the freedom of the captives would surely have involved the deaths of several such persons, but perhaps all the necessary killing had taken place inside.

"Fatalities, yes, casualties no. You'll want to take that one up with her," she jerked her chin in Dio's direction. "Bit of a bleeding heart, that one," there was a faint hint of disapproval in her tone, but she said nothing further about it. "But... Ifsn't phathalithies and casualthies the same phing?" Vivi pondered between bits of food. Growing up in Deluge certainly left the girl bereft of manners. But finally she managed to choke down what food she had in her mouth, and her next sentence was much more clear. "So I guess we're adding another birdy to the flock, are we?," She said, throwing a curious glance Dio's way. "Eh, bleeding heart or no, she's another body between us and a bullet," Vivi added rather darkly. She wasn't entirely fond of the good ones. Honor, tolerance and the like were foriegn concepts, that killed just as many as they saved. "So, what's next?" Vivi asked, shoveling more food into her mouth. The Lieutenant made a deep noise that might've sounded half like a dog locked in his belly, and half like a disgruntled animal clawing up his throat, at the suggestion that Dio would act as a meatshield for the sole reason that she was kind (perhaps, a little too kind). It was true that he'd struggled to keep himself from merely disposing of the toad's henchmen, but if Dio could effectively dance around doing the deed, then she was useful, if not entirely vital for such a group as theirs. They needed bleeding hearts, as much as they needed cold-hearted killers willing to dirty their hands. Honor could be salvaged with a sound mind, and those particular traits could be found in people like Percy, Dio, Gwendolyn. His heavy eyebrows raised once more, surveying Vivian's table manners. He'd seen much worse, though he still felt it neccessary to add, "Klein Bär," under his breath. Little bear was a suiting nickname.

"Casualties include mere injuries as well," Kethyrian informed her friend simply, but she had no idea how to answer the next question, as she hadn't even been there underground. Vivian's morbid comment didn't even faze her, but neither did she agree with it verbally. It just sat there, at least until Sven half-responded. The Favisae only shrugged in response. It all hardly mattered. They would do what they needed to do to survive, or they would die. That was the only fact that really had any bearing on the situtation. The rest was just subjective dressings on that fact.

"This unit suspects we will follow the clues," Mordecai put in from his spot. He wasn't sure what had Sven making that kind of sound; he'd not particularly heard it before, but he was aware that the human vocal apparatus could do a number of strange things that his could not. "They seem to lead presently to the desert. Are you ill?" he asked of the Lieutenant, deciding that it was probably best to make sure. Ah, but social subtlety was entirely lost upon the golem.

The Lieutenant didn't exactly wish to voice his squeamish, softhearted thoughts aloud, for it'd ruin the nasty reputation he'd built. He scratched idly at the back of his neck, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. “I am fine.” He rubbed his stomach absently, waving his free hand in front of him as if he were refusing a platter of passing finger foods. “Indigestion. Ja, ja.” He didn't like deserts. The sand in his boots, in his trousers, down his neck and back – it was almost as bad as throwing him in a large body of water and expecting him to float. He couldn't say that he was surprised. They always ended up in one desert, or another.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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After enjoying the hospitality of Astrid and Daniel George, the group left the pub as soon as they were able, ducking and meandering in their route back to the ship so as to avoid drawing suspicion for going with too much haste. A daunting fellow Argus Hooktooth may be, but in the end, he was but a small-time player in the grand scheme of things, and once they were beyond his territory, there was precious little he could do to reach them, so the extra measures were simple precautions. Or so at least Gwendolyn had thought. This proposition was thrown into doubt when they reached the Elysuim, only to be greeted by a thickset man wearing the garb of one of Argus's enforcers. Though several weapons were drawn on him, the captain held up her hand for restraint.

The man carried no visible arms, and indeed seemed unconcerned with their show of force. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to see that this was not a man at all, but rather an Automaton. His carapace was relatively well-constructed, but the proportions of his arms and legs were off, giving him a vaguely simian appearance, and his synthetic skin lacked the craftsmanship of Mordecai's, appearing more a steel grey than anything, too light to belong to a feydusk, but in the wrong spectrum to count as anything else. It was, she knew, one of Morgause's #7 line, which were mass-produced but expensive. She didn't think that someone of Argus's status could afford one, even, as to her knowledge they were retained almost exclusively as menial servants for the highest of noble houses in the North, only rarely making it this far beyond the capital.

When Gwen inquired, the Automaton simply presented her with the following message: "This is your last chance to give up, Dawnsmen. Go no further, return to whatever holes you crawled out of. The king's reach is far, his influence extends even into this cesspool. All who oppose him will suffer and die."

After this perhaps needlessly dramatic pronouncement, the golem simply walked away, allowing the Guild members to board the ship once more. From the sounds of things, Argus, or at least some of his men, had been in the employ of the king, but Gwen wasn't so sure she was willing to believe that. What she knew of Artorias told her that he'd sooner cut off his own hand than dirty it by associating with someone like Hooktooth. Had he really changed so much?





Once everyone was back on the ship and it was safely in the air once more, Mordecai had made his way to the prow of the boat, looking out upon the seemingly-endless horizon. It was finite, of course, like everything else, and he knew if he chose to devote his capacitites to the calculation, he could determine the distances involved via mathematics. But... for some reason, he didn't really want to. He'd always had an insatiable desire for new knowledge, but he found himself perpetually unsatisfied even when he obtained it. He was beginning to suspect that it was not enough to know, or that maybe, just sometimes, knowing might be somehow counterproductive. It was an odd feeling, one that he neither liked nor understood, but he could not shake it.

There was a .03 per cent probability that some freak wind or movement of the ship could lurch it with sufficient force to send him over the prow and possibly to his death. Even a being constructed as sturdily as he could not survive a fall that long. His terminal velocity was considerably higher than a human's, due mostly to his density. He could probably catch the railing in such an event-- given his reflexes and reaction speed, as well as his current orientation, that was a conditional probablity of .972. But were words like 'death' and 'survive' even the right ones? The question vexed him more than it had any right to.

The #7 that delivered them the message would never think to ask any such questions. It would never be tormented by these thoughts, nor indeed by any thoughts at all. It was logic and pure calculation and simplicity. It was as an automaton should be. It was as they were designed and created and built to be. What did that make him? For once, his mouth turned down into a small frown without him needing to think about it. Indeed, he did not even notice.

Dio was not frowning, nor did she believe anything would be capable of making her do so at the moment. The scryer had come close, though, what with the way he'd brushed her off after the briefest of introductions. She was just trying to make the rounds and introduce herself. Regardless, she wasn't really bothered. Maybe he would come around eventually.

She was currently making her way up to the... top? Deck? Highest floor, whatever, part of the ship. She'd never been on a flying airship before, though most of her sisters had. Occasionally some members of the family would get to fly up to the capital, but Dio was never invited along for these trips. Instead, she stayed in Xantus, very much enjoying the time she was given, reveling in the occasional moments of solitude she could get. Usually she spent a good portion of that time talking with the family's automaton, a number eight model. It never made for the most enlightening conversation, but it was utterly refreshing to be able to speak with someone that would not judge or even care at all for what she thought. When Bru wasn't around, she spoke with Aden, as he was named.

It came as no surprise then when the thief quickly made her way to speak with the Dawn's automaton, who she only recognized as such when she noted that he hadn't touched any of the food at the feast. She didn't recognize his model, but he looked much better than Aden did, and if this group was as capable as she expected (enough to warrant the king's ire, apparently), then he was probably useful for far more than simple housecleaning and domestic servitude.

With a hop in her step Dio made her way up to the prow where the automaton stood, stopping about five or so feet from him, taking a moment to take in the view before speaking. "Hello," she offered gently. "I thought I'd take the time to introduce myself to everyone, since I'm accompanying you for a while. My name's Diomache Castillo, but I prefer just Dio." She let that hang for a moment to get his response, curious how one-sided (or not) this conversation would be.

At the light footsteps of an approaching person, Mordecai glanced sideways, though he did not turn until he was spoken to. After all, the crew moved about all the time, and he had no desire to disturb them any further than he already had. When he did move so as to make eye contact with the human speaking to him, he was a bit surprised to find that it was the new member of the group, the one who had assisted with the release of Lieutenant Sven and Mistress Kethyrian alongside the captives held in Hooktooth's basement. She introduced herself, and the golem smiled pleasantly, dipping his head in acknowledgement. "A pleasure, just Dio," he replied, though in truth, it was a tad tongue-in-cheek. He knew what the expression meant, but he was not often expected to, and from time to time, calling attention to the odd little tics of human language amused him.

"This unit is #9, though it is given to understand that names are preferred. 'Mordecai' is its appellation, if you wish." He was unsure if she was simply doing as she had stated and introducing herself, or if she wished to linger and speak, so he decided to fall silent, and let the decision be hers. It was only polite, and if nothing else, he was most certainly programmed for that.

"Ah, my mistake," Dio said. "There's no 'just.' Call me Dio." She definitely hadn't caught it if the automaton had referred to her as such even despite understanding that her name was not 'just Dio'. Aden had never willingly deceived her, and so she was not expecting this one to, either. "Mordecai, huh? I like that name." She didn't know if it was supposed to mean something, but it sounded nice.

She studied him for a moment. Her seeming comfortability at being around and in conversation with an automaton may have given away the fact that she was quite familiar with them. "You're very beautiful," she said, not shyly at all, perhaps sadly her tone seeming more fitting for judging a piece of art than giving another person a compliment. It made sense, given her experience. Aden had never had any value assigned to receiving compliments, so telling him that he was well-made was rather meaningless. It was more of a statement than a compliment.

"Are you... one of Morgause's models?" Dio asked, cocking her head slightly to one side. "My family has one of her number eight's. I actually miss him more than any of the other Castillos. You seem... different, though, if you don't mind me saying."

"This unit thanks you," he replied simply. He was not unaccustomed to such judgements on his workmanship, and he knew them for what they were; compliments directed at his maker rather than him. So strange, that the same thing given to another human was about they rather than their parents. Perhaps because the creation of a human was indirect and random to an extent? But it still surely had nothing to do with the person themselves, as they'd had no more say in their genetic material than their ancestors-- less, actually. For this reason, it might actually be the case that such commentary made more sense when directed at golems.

"This unit is #9," he repeated with a small smile, "The last of Mistress Morgause's creations. It was created for the personal service of Mistress Morgause, and never replicated. It is unsure why it was given such extensive combative functions, but supposes that the Mistress found a single mechanical bodyguard preferable to several organic ones. She was never the most sociable of humans, and tended to limit her company when it came to other flesh-beings." There was a slight delay, and then he moved his shoulders up and down, as he'd seen several of the others do in similar situations. "Unfortunately, it seems that even this unit was deemed inadequate for the Mistress's purposes."

Another pause, as he tried to detemine the best way to answer the implied question in the last part of the statement. That he could even pick up on things like implied questions was something of an answer in itself, really. "This unit's construction was... imperfect. Its protocols have a tendency to slip, and its emotional capacitors now function independently of its probability calculations and facial recognition systems." Most automata of similar complexity were programmed to "feel" either as the situation seemed to logically demand according to specific algorythms or empathetically, based on the emotional reactions of the humans surrounding them. A crying face might provoke sympathy and trigger investigations into the best methods of comfort, or at least he had initially been so designed. Now, such a thing would cause him to recognize distress, but he was not automatically pulled to feel the same way, nor to act in any certain fashion. The choices, such as they were, were his.

A number nine... wow. Her curiosity caused Dio to slowly reach out and gently grab a few strands of Mordecai's hair, figuring he wouldn't mind, as she just wanted to feel it. Honestly, it felt much better than her own hair did. It was... silky, and soft, whereas hers often felt coarse and heavy, a nuisance more than anything. She released it, studying him for a moment. He was clearly far more complex than any automata she had encountered before. Hell, just the way she'd found him staring at the horizon confirmed that. She suddenly felt rather awkward for treating him like as much of a machine as Aden had been. He was still a machine, of course, but Dio had never encountered a machine that wondered about things, and that seemed like a very human thing to do.

"Do you... think we could talk some more, in the future?" she offered, almost cautiously. A small gust of wind caused her hands to rise to her head and adjust her beanie. "It's just... back in Xantus, I used to be able to tell Aden, our eight, whatever I wanted to, and he would never judge me for it. I don't mean to force my company on you or anything, but I guess I kind of miss that. I'm not saying you're on the level of an eight, though, I didn't mean that." She raised her hands slightly as if to apologize for what she was saying.

"My friend... Bru, always used to say I was born with two hearts and no brains." She smiled a little at the thought. "I'd be very interested in getting to know you better, I guess is what I'm trying to say." Sheesh, was that so hard? She shook her head to herself. "Oh! And if you ever need to be charged, just let me know. I did that for Aden most of the time."

Mordecai remained perfectly still as he was examined, which in itself was not particularly unusual. He supposed he should feel some measure of pride in his uniqueness; humans seemed to do so with regularity. But even if he was different, it was not of his doing, and so connecting the trait with any particular judgment at all was difficult. Perhaps it was enough that he would rather be what he was than an eight or a seven.

He considered the human's words for a moment, rotating his head a few degrees to one side. "This unit cannot promise that it will not make judgments. Such abilities to render opinions are part of its operating procedures. However... it can guarantee the proper engagement of secrecy protocols, if that is what you wish." A pause, then: "Having two heart-organs would be beneficial for physiological purposes, but this unit finds the lack of 'brains' to be unlikely." He smiled slightly, to convey that he did not actually believe she was under either abnormal condition, but the metaphorical meaning of the words was lost on him, at least for now. The next bit was something of a mystery, though, and he blinked.

"That would not require any particular interval of time," he pointed out. "This unit can recite the majority of its relevant and non-confidential specifications within a matter of minutes. Nevertheless, if you believe time gaps of some nature would be helpful, it shall comply. It offers gratitude, and a question: with which sub-class of magic do you work? It is programmed to differentiate."

"I'm a combat mage," Dio said. "Not the best one around, but I manage. I channel electricity, mainly. And if you run out of things you want to tell me, you'll just have to do the listening instead. I could go on for days about the places I've been." She didn't feel it necessary to try and explain the hearts and brains metaphor, as she really hadn't expected him to get it in the fist place. Honestly, most of what she said seemed to be more for herself, as whatever she needed from Mordecai she could probably just ask him, without all the explanation.

It was a little awkward, she'd always treated Aden as more of a... diary, a journal or something, a human-shaped wall to talk to, to vent about what she felt and what bothered her and all the things she had no control over. It didn't really seem right to try and use something that formed opinions of its own as a personal logbook. Diaries never talked back, they just listened.

"I think... if we're friends, that making a few judgments won't hurt. Friends always mean to help each other, after all, even if they disagree. We could ask or tell each other anything we want, and just be honest about it. Does that sound alright?"

Mordecai had only heard of friendship in the abstract, and so he wasn't entirely sure what she was asking. That said, he decided that now was perhaps not the optimum time to ask, and as at the very least he seemed to be contracting himself to further conversations with Dio, he reasoned that he could bring it up at some other point. Still, it sounded like nothing overly taxing, and he could see no reason to object. "As you wish," he said simply. "This unit agrees to the terms it comprehends."

"Good," she replied, pleased. "I'll see you around, then, Mordecai." And with that, she waved a goodbye and wandered off to find someone else she hadn't met yet.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Part Two: Shifting Sands



Working with the antlered academic to pinpoint the most likely location of the ruins they sought, it wasn't long before Gwen had set a course, and within another day or so, the Elysuim was flying low over the sand, a large portion of her crew standing about the vessel, spyglasses in hand. They'd been told to look for anything that didn't belong, with special emphasis to old stone structures, and after about half a day of searching, the lookout, Ducky, at last called down that he'd spotted what they were looking for. Well, a large collection of fallen stones, anyway.

Without a proper port to land in, the ship simply descended, the engine keeping it aloft for long enough that the mages among the crew could set a more permanent levitation charm on it, which would allow it to hover in place. A few others ventured to suggest a concealment glamour, which was also readily applied. Indeed, the moment the captain stepped off the gangplank, it disappeared behind her, leaving only her companions and the desolation of open desert visible to their eyes, though perhaps the automaton was still able to see what those with organic eyes could not.



Squinting against the brightness of the suns on the pale sand, Gwendolyn wrinkled her nose and grimaced. "You weren't lying about the heat," she told Theon, tossing him a scrap of light fabric. She had about a dozen scarves; might as well pass them out to people who could use them for something, and keeping the sand out of their faces seemed like a worthy cause. Dio, she noted, was already prepared, but most of the others were not. As soon as what she had was distributed, though, she glanced around. This was actually a pretty large ruin, from what she could tell amidst the blowing sands. Based on the looks of things, she'd guess this place had been a full-blown city, once upon a time.

"So... where are we going?" she asked, adjusting the strap that held her rifle at her back. Never hurt to go prepared into the unknown, right?

Theon caught the scarf, regarding it for a moment like it had the potential to strangle him or something, but he tied it around his face anyway, pulling his hood up afterwards, leaving only his eyes exposed to the world. He glanced around at the ruins. It looked, and felt, about right, though this certainly wasn't the exact place. He'd remember if he saw it. Dreams that vivid didn't go away quickly, after all. Unfortunately, he wasn't likely to recognize it from above, so his farsight wasn't likely to be all that useful, but it never hurt to scout the area.

"I love sand," he murmured sarcastically, finding the nearest chunk of ruin he could and putting his back to it, sliding to the ground. The wind had blown the sand around too much recently for his farsight to be of much use while on the ship, but it had died down enough that he might be able to see something useful now. He let his head fall into his hands, closed his eyes, and left his body.

It was about what he'd expected. Scattered dots that he knew to be ruins all around, but no real way to determine which was the one they needed. Not from up here, anyway. Moving in a little closer, however, he spied some things that didn't fit in with the rest. "Someone beat us here," he said, with a faint hint of annoyance. "There's signs of a camp nearby. They didn't do the best job of cleaning up." There was little else to see, however, so he returned to his body fully, rising to his feet.

"Not sure why else anyone would want to come out here," Dio muttered from nearby, sounding in an uncharacteristically poor mood. She had not an inch of skin showing other than a slit for her eyes, but her body language spoke volumes. She was as uncomfortable as could be out here in the hottest part of the world, away from any kind of civilization. Bad memories. Still, this was obviously an important place, so she'd deal with it. As long as that airship stayed intact... and they didn't lose their way in a sandstorm.

The local academic had sprouted horns once again, and that was perhaps the only thing that was recognizable about Percy. He had a scarf pulled up above his nose and he had traded in his finer clothes for something more rugged. A loosefitting tan shirt tied off with a length of rope, and likewise loose fitting breeches. Part animal that he may be, but he liked to breathe. He wasn't covered in fur yet after all. In his hand stood the druidic summoned staff he'd obtained from Deluge. If only he was a bit more attuned to the weather, then he could summon a cloud, alas, his druidic profession had yet to stretch that far. Damn if he wasn't trying right now though.

"Maybe they just wanted some sun. There's plenty around," Percy deadpanned. The joke was nearly as dry as the desert around them, if not drier. He enjoyed the heat just about as much as everyone else-- which was to say that he did not. If only he was born into a lizard or snake species, then he'd love this sun. Sighing at the thought, and the misfortune of being a creature of the forest in the hottest part of the desert, he shrugged. "They're not the only ones we have to watch for. Sand trolls tend to gather in environments such as these. Less people to deal with, most likely," because that's exactly what he wanted in this heat. To fight lumbering sand trolls.

Vivi's eyes lit up at the mention of the creatures. It was the only part of her that was visible, she had the scarf around her throat hiked up all the way to her eyes. Even so, she seemed to be fairing a lot better than she had any right to. Far be it for a little sun and heat to dry the adventurous spirit out of the girl. "Sand trolls!? Sounds like fun," She said. Even if her mouth was covered, it was obvious there was a smile hiding under her scarf. Returning to the desert reminded her of the time she spent with Theon-- perhaps not as sweltering as it was currently, but still. Those were the best times of her life, and Vivi was the kind of girl that adapted to anything, provided that she could have fun. Still, Theon didn't see any of the trolls, so instead she focused on this camp he talked about. "Someone beat us? I didn't know this was a race... Raiders maybe?" she said, looking to Theon.

Either the dumbest raiders, or the bravest. Neither she nor Theon ever ventured this far into the equator, much let had the gall to set up camp in the blistering heat.

In contrast to the soft-skinned beings that surrounded him, Lohengrin was quite comfortable, even in conditions this hot. That said, this body couldn't take it for any longer than any of the rest of them, and so he'd obligingly wrapped the lower half of his face with a dark blue scarf, since the crazy captain was handing them out anyway. He didn't really want to inhale sand, though he didn't bother covering the top of his head. It would actually be kind of nice to bask, if it weren't so damn gritty with the wind moving the shredded particles of stone around as it was. His boots, he'd left in the ship, and he stood lightly atop the sand, toes spread to protect his altitude from the risk of sinking. "Maybe, maybe orcs. There's tunnels under here, too, so anything could be in them. We're best off moving quickly. Don't suppose the old man programmed you with any more directions, did he?" The man asked of the machine standing next to him.

Mordecai, not particularly needful of any extra measures to protect himself (the synthetic skin he was coated with being quite sufficient for keeping sand out of his mechanisms), had retained the clothing he wore on-board the ship, which meant that his relative formality stuck out like a sore thumb here. He didn't really notice of course, programmed as he was to tend towards such selections even in the absence of direct requests one way or another. Balance on the sand took him a few moments to get used to, during which he teetered precariously as he gained his footing. Now, however, he was standing on the sand as easily as Lohengrin, having made the necessary adaptations in calculations for movement.

The mercenary's question prompted an examination of the area, his visual cortex processing the layout of the immediate vicinity and running it past all similar data he possessed. To his surprise, it produced a vague sense of rightness, but nothing more specific, leading him to believe that the data must be part of something he could not access, a piece of information that required a specific perceptual cue to initialize. That cue was not here. "Negative," he replied, a hint of bewilderment in the tones. "This unit suggests that we move in deeper, and discern whether its own or Master Theon's perceptual apparatuses pick up on anything more utile." As ever, he implemented the logical suggestion, taking the lead deeper into the sand-bathed ruins. The air in front of them shimmered with the heat rising off the sand, grains of the stuff dancing about their heads as they walked. Despite the evidence of the presence of other sentient beings, the surface seemed entirely deserted.

Kethyrian, completely ignoring the lizard (as she chose to categorize Lohengrin now), looked after the automaton for a moment, her jaw tightening. She was not made for this, and though her light weight and balance would keep her atop the scorching sand, she already felt like she was baking, and the white scarf covering her entire head and face (minus the smallest slit for her eyes) wasn't helping that much. She had to squint until she was almost blind just to stop the intrusive light from wreaking its havoc on her photosensitive eyes. Fantastic for seeing in the dark-- absolutely horrible for navigating in bright light conditions. She actually filed herself in behind Sven, seeking to use the man's large shadow to keep track of where she was supposed to be, as well as as a shield for her beleagured oculars.

The Lieutenant's discomfort was irrelevant. The journey in the wastelands would only last momentarily, only until they managed to find whatever they were looking for and return to the comfortable, steely confines of the ship. He'd been given a scarf as well, but instead of wrapping it around his face, he'd wrapped it around his left bicep. And instead of wearing the Lieutenant's commonplace, thick-plated set of armor, with its dents and scars and stories, he'd opted for loose fitting attire that properly suited the dusty environment; selecting a thickly-woven white shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, with khaki pants and leather holsters settled under his armpits. The array of weapons strapped to his body were plenteous, though unsurprising. Knives were tucked into his boots, strapped to his thighs, his right bicep, and wherever else he'd managed to tuck them away. The largest weapon he'd brought along with him was his steam-powered shotgun, fastened to his back. He wasn't sure what they were expecting to find, but this was the desert, and anything could happen in the desert.

Like a hulking beast manoeuvring through the sandy dunes, the Lieutenant trailed behind them, squinting beneath heavy eyebrows. The sun was unforgiving. It bore down on their faces, offering no refuge or shade. He'd noticed Kethyrian moving behind him, so he offered a slight inclination of his head, before continuing on his way. He did not understand the Favisae genealogy, nor their habits or ways, but understood well enough that she was not keen to the direct sunlight. How could anyone who'd dwelt below the ground be used to something so tawdry, so dazzling? The heat did not differentiate between races, nor was it kind to anyone who'd forgotten to bring water. Hydration was key to survival, so the Lieutenant carried more than one canteen, swinging and sloshing in a bag tied around his waist, for whoever was foolish enough not to bring their own. If he had to act the mule, then he'd do so gladly. It would do no one any good if someone passed out while travelling to their location.

Well, as they were more or less moving anyway, Gwen decided to follow. Lohengrin's warning about tunnels was a bit... foreboding, but then if they were going to save the world or some such business as that, she could hardly expect to be easy. In fact, she might not mind a little mortal danger here and there, come to think of it. Added a little of that zesty flavor to her days.

The group advanced into the ruins behind the automaton, which was probably solid strategy considering how durable he was compared to any of them. Most of what they found was exactly as Theon had warned them to expect: hot, dry, and empty. It seemed they were going in the right direction, however, because the frequency with which they encountered piles of fallen stone and whatnot seemed to be increasing with time, the shifting sands blowing back to reveal the remnant bones of old civilization, older than the likes of her had any right to conceptualize. It was like walking with ghosts, almost, to move about the ruins like this, because it was almost as though something moved with them, pausing at each collapsed building and brushing its ephemeral fingers along the stones, adding evermore to its crushing sense of loss.

If she'd been a mystic instead of a scientist, she would have thought the grounds haunted, even, so pervasive was the general uneasiness she felt. As it was, she put the feeling down to magic, that stuff which she could sometimes but not always see, and never truly grasp. It was a gift she had not been given, but she almost knew enough to miss it. Almost.

Lohengrin, on the other hand, was facing the superimposition of an old image over a new one. Once, this place had been called Galthvega, the city of Green Earth. He had walked its mossy paths in bare human feet, but also flown the skies above it on carmine leather-wings, inhaling deeply of the rain-soaked air, the scent of things in bloom almost overwhelming to the senses. He could just about conceptualize its former denizens, the flickering forms of the Inflectori, though that memory was ancestral and not his own. When he had seen it, the city had been inhabited only by humans, and already on its way to the desert it was now, the last holdout in a world without the full measure of its water. Even that was so long ago. When in the innumerable years had it fallen to ruin? He could not recall, and for this he felt older even than he was, old enough that he creaked at the joints, though they worked as well as they ever had.

After about half an hour of walking, the group seemed to arrive somewhere new. The city-center, it had once been, where the domed Earth-Temple had stood, the being within fueling the verdant things without. He could still sense its presence, but it was weak, half-dead and useless, it seemed. Withered would be a good word. "Might want to try looking again," he suggested to the scryer. They were close.

"One second," Theon said, finding the nearest hunk of stone big enough for him to stand against and putting his back to it. Scrying without any kind of physical support while standing up was a risky proposition at best, as he was liable to simply fall over. His control over his own body was tenuous when he left it to see things from above, something that had embarrassed him on countless occasions when he was a child. He was better at it now; he had learned to speak while farseeing a few years ago, but accidents like falling on his face were still quite possible, especially after a hard trek through the hottest part of the world.

The scryer's head fell back against the rock and he rose above the group, surveying their surroundings. It was immediately recognizeable from his dream, though not in the same way. The dream had been distorted but vivid in its own way, and this scene was blurry due to the sand, but clear due to the relative normalcy that farsight had become for Theon. "Yeah, I see it. Dead ahead. Let's... wait. Is that... ?" There were figures coming out of the tunnels in large numbers, big figures, whose silhouettes Theon had learned to recognize instantly. He stayed only long enough to see where the first of them would come into view.

"Greenskins, lots of 'em, headed our way," he muttered in warning, wholly displeased with this new development. Now he would have to reload his duckfoot again. He snatched the pistol from his belt and jogged over towards the base of a low dune that separated the two groups, where the first of the orcs would appear. Visibility was poor, and they were staying low to try and avoid detection, but they were orcs, and couldn't hide from farsight, not at this range.

Theon caught the slightest glimpse of blue eyes in the first orc's head before he pulled the trigger, and at this range the duckfoot's blast was enough to blow the orc's head quite nearly clean off. The pistol slipped from Theon's hand from the recoil, to thud heavily into the sand. He cared about that about as much as the fact that orcs never had blue eyes, that was to say not at all. He was more intent on giving them a taste of their own medicine, and by medicine he meant axe.

A roar sounded above Theon's head, followed by a hulking body that leapt, with surprisingly alcricity, over the rocky outcrops. Instead of bearing down on the group of orcs with his shotgun blazing, he'd opted for his longest blade. They would use equally primitive weapon, so it seemed appropriate. The blade itself was nearly the length of his mechanical arm, thick and double-edged - something he'd acquired, and kept from serving in the 236th Battalion. The scarf wrapped around his arm flapped behind him like feathered-tendrils. His muscles tensed like retracted coils, springing into action with each wild swipe of his blade, and his mechanical arm immediately shot out to grab the nearest assailants wrinkled face, steam-billowing mechanized fingers crossing over its nose and eyes. He slammed his blade into its chest, bearing upwards. The orc let out a long-drawn wail, lifting off the ground a few feet, before being tossed to the side like a sack of potatoes. The welcome sounds of battle coursed thick as blood through his veins. It sang songbird noises through his skull, resolute and justified. It was almost like vengeance was being fulfilled again and again, as if every enemy, every assailer's face was his brothers. Occasionally, they even shared his blue eyes. It hadn't occured to him that this was unusual.

A dirty axe, wrapped in leathers and bead decorations, slammed into his mechanical arm, causing him to reel backwards and slash out with his blade. He did not stop, did not falter, did not slow his movements. The Lieutenant struck forward again, swinging his twitching prosthetic like a club. It struck the side of the orcs head, and he took the opportunity to step closer, jamming his blade into the creature's vulnerable ribs. He allowed the orc to slump forward, breath wheezing out as if its lungs were emptying, thick head across his shoulder, then stepped away, pushing him off. He exhaled sharply, and charged into another orc, shoulder down like a football player slamming into his opponent. In some sick sense, it reminded him of his childhood, of attending school, of her, of playing in the yard with him. The guttural growls added to the deserts muted ambience of whisking winds and sifting sands. The occasional explosion of bullets tearing through the air sounded off, rocketing past him into different targets. Bits and pieces splattered his cheek, his forehead. He was not like Dio - he was a soldier, and he would not mourn the enemy.

Adrenaline surged through him, electrifying his tendons, and sizzling into his fingertips. He spun on his heels, flicking his blade through the air. He did not pause to see whether or not it had thunked into the orcs forehead. The Lieutenant reached over his shoulder, fingers clasping around the shotguns handle, just in time to push it into an orcs oncoming face, jaw slackened and brilliantly blue eyes snapped wide. He pulled the trigger. If they wanted to survice, if they wanted to live, then they would have to fight for it. He would shoulder their burdens. He'd bloody his hands, and wash them off afterwards.

Violence was not his way. He was a scholar first and wizard second. Percy did not possess the raw savagery that Sven did, nor did he have the cold violence of Theon. His eyes did not shimmer in anticipation of the fight like Vivi's. Percy was calm, audibly sighing at the approach of the orcs. He was a druid, a student of the world, of both past and present. He didn't wield blades, and the one flintlock he owned was for personal defense. He was more subtle than that. He wished it didn't have to end this way, but there were no dissuading the orcs from their present course. May the Old Kings have mercy on their souls. So be it. He fought with his mind, and a mind can be a dangerous thing.

He spun his staff over his head in a circular arc before bringing it down deep into the sand. He would need the support. Percy bent his knee, kneeling in the blistering sand. His hand drifted over the tiny dunes, feeling the grit between his fingers. There was death in the sand, blood would be spilled, blood had been spelled, and would be spilled again before this world was over. Scorching suns had bleached the bones of lesser and greater creatures than himself. Everything was a cycle, what once came from the sand, would return in due time. But, even in death, there was life. They wouldn't return to that sand, they still had a job to do. Percy jammed his hand into the sand, bringing it up to his elbow. He ignored the heat coarsing through his skin, it was only temporary.

He closed his eyes and did what he did best. He listened and learned. He could feel the heartbeat of the desert in his fingers. It was still alive. It would outlive all of them, with the ruins around them as evidence. Vivi only spared the antlered boy a passing glance as she rushed by him. If he wanted to miss the fun in lieu of petting the sand, fine by her. Man, that was a weird one. Vivi paused beside Theon for a moment to get a passing shot off with her revolver, but the sand must have obscured her view. Nothing fell. Her eyes narrowed as she looked toward her brother. "Looks like we're doing this the old fashioned way, like the old times," she said, scarf obscuring her ear to ear smile. Ah, how she missed those times.

Pufts of sand rose from Vivi's heels as she darted into the fray directly behind Sven. She ducked under a swipe from a blue-eyed orc's bone-sword. Funny, did they always have blue eyes? Still, it didn't matter as she slid on her knees, lopping off a leg out from under a orc, bloodying the sand beneath them. Vivi finished the move by laying on her back and raising and then bringing her heel down on the immobile orc's throat. She was not in the best position to fend off the next orc though-- an easily rectified issue. An axe buried into the sand where she was, as she flipped her legs back and over her, bringing her to a standing position. Her spatial awareness was a godsend, as out of the corner of her eye, she saw an orc readying a roughly made rifle. An elegant spin brought her inside the axe carrying orc's guard, and a hook of her arm, brought him around to bare the gunshot for her. It echoed through the sandstorm and she felt the impact on her meatshield. Saved her the bullet. She then peaked out from behind the orc and returned fire with her own pistol. More blood for the sand, as that orc too fell to Vivi.

Mordecai, on a slight time delay due to the activation of Sentinel Mode, leaped forward next, a few degrees slower than he was in Berserk, and this time lit from under his skin with something faintly blueish in hue, quite misplaced against the tan sands. It proved to be the correct decision, however, when he intercepted the orcish axe swinging for his shoulder, catching it with one hand and twisting, ripping it from the grip of its holder and rotating it in a whirling arc over his arm to slam it right into the warrior's exposed neck. The orcs were large and strong, but only lightly-armored. Besides, however strong a flesh-being could be was not as strong as one made from metal. The strike decapitated, and though he could have retained his hold on the axe, the automaton felt no need to do so, instead hurling it with unnatural force, as though it were designed as a projectile rather than a two-handed instrument of execution.

It whipped end-over-end and embedded itself in the chest cavity of another, clearing a path for Kethyrian to duck forward, poniard in one hand, the other lit with magic already. The machine-man was drawing most of the aggression in her estimation, which probably made sense. Weren't orcs supposed to be really religious about their violence? More challenging kills were better, that sort of thing? She didn't presume to know or care, and there were plenty of foes to go around. Slamming the axed one with a barrier so that he toppled over not on top of her, she moved to intercept the next one on light feet, ducking in under his guard before he could swing. She held no illusions that she'd be able to parry a blow with such force, much less one-handed, and so she simply tapped his chest, discharging the measured burst of magic to interrupt his heart rhythms, and opening up a slash in his throat when he stumbled backwards, stunned.

"Ooh," Gwen huffed with irritation, puffing out her cheeks in what was probably a childish manner. This wasn't any fun at all. They were supposed to be exploring ancient cities and then someone just had to go and ruin it (oh, that was awful, how fun). Bandits, no less. For her part, she needed vantage to be any kind of help at all, and so she immediately peeled off to the side, clambering up an outcropping of fallen stones with a wire's-edge dexterity that nearly pitched her forward onto her face several times but never actually did. Unslinging her rifle from its place at her back, she reached into one of the pouches on her bandolier, withdrawing several extra lead balls and depositing them into a small divot in one of the stones nearest her. There was no room to lay flat on her belly, so she went down to one knee instead, sighting down the twin barrels of the gun at an orc trying to make for Spikey, who appeared to be just standing there.

She assumed it was a magic thing. A loud crack, and Gwen was thrown back a bit, though she took most of the recoil on her back leg, holding steady enough to fire again a few seconds later. She was slow as molasses with this thing, but every time she shot, another orc kissed the sand, so there was something to be said for it, perhaps.

Lohengrin, sword in hand, waded into the fray only with utmost reluctance, throwing the blade up to block an incoming swing with one arm. He wasn't so lucky with his second assailant, however, and that machete blade bit deep into his palm when he caught it. Gritting his teeth, he reached for his magic, and in this desert, super-heating the metal beyond the warrior's ability to hold was a matter of seconds. The smell of burnt flesh assailed his nose, and for once he was glad that his senses were only human-- he'd not have liked to taste it on his tongue, really. Orcs were for the desperate, or maybe some fool crazy enough to want to eat that spicy hide of theirs. He personally found the thought disgusting. The man bellowed as he lost his grip on his weapon, and in those precious moments he'd bought himself, the mercenary kicked the other one hard in the groin. There were no forbidden moves as far as he was concerned.

That staggered the axe-holder, and in a flash, his human-looking opponent had driven a solid length of steel into his chest. The other one was coming back with nothing more than his hands, and his first punch caught Lohengrin right in the jaw, dislocating it with an unsavory pop. With a gutteral sound aproaching a snarl, he wrenched it back into place, ignoring the black spots at the corner of his vision, and leapt in, attempting to pull the same maneuver on this one that he had on his friend. He was not so lucky the second time, however, as the warrior slapped the blade aside with a bracer on his forearm, and suddenly, their momentum had carried them in too close for the sword to make much sense. Dropping it, the mercenary reached up, swiping across the other guy's eyes with his bloodied hand, obstructing his vision, then ducked low, smearing what remained of the liquid in quick strokes over his chestplate, forearms, and the backs of his knees, tucking into a roll to get out of the way.

Hissing a word in a language that sounded quite like large stones grinding together, he watched with satisfaction as all the blood-marks lit on fire, cherry-red but much hotter than flames of that color would be without magic, reducing the massive fighter to a charred corpse.

"I love this dance!" Vivian yelled, looking for her next target. However, a sudden tremor caused her to pause. An earthquake? In the desert? It seemed to be centered away from her, near a grouping of orcs. They too paused as confusion wracked their face. Had they been paying attention, they would have noticed the sand beneath them sinking ever so slighty. By the time they did notice however, it was too late. They were already caught in the sand whirlpool dragging them toward the center. And in the center of the whirlpool?

"An antlion?" Vivi questioned as the sand creature began its extravagant feast. She tossed a glance back at Percy, who was gripping his staff tightly, clearly tired from the effort. Even so, she could make out the grin wrapped around his face. Huh, imagine that. Antler's animal whispering was more impressive than she first thought.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Being something of a learned woman from the north, Dio was perhaps the only one among them to actually give pause to the fact that these orcs all possessed strikingly blue eyes. Given the fact that she didn't immediately leap into the fray, she noticed relatively quickly the bright hue of their eyes. The Castillo girl had always had a certain amount of interest in all the races of Albion, her genuinely curious nature leading her to learn a great deal about all of the less common races, orcs among them. Unfortunately, that meant she also knew that groups of orcs regularly attacked travelers through the desert, leaving no way to tell if whatever was plagueing them was forcing them into this aggression or not.

"There's something wrong with them!" she called, to anyone who cared to hear. No doubt it would be next to impossible to discuss in the middle of a fight, but she felt that it needed to be said. Indeed, she herself had no more time for speech, as she was forced to dart backwards in a quick hop to get out of the way of a falling axehead, which slammed into the sand where her feet had been, kicking up a small plume of sand between them. Seeing an opportunity, she charged forward, planting one sandal on the haft of the axe and rising, her next step landing solidly on the orc's shoulder. Dio then stepped right on the orc's head and leapt off, flipping neatly to land behind him. Noticing his strong hand on the way up, she preemptively rolled right and forward to dodge the orc's second swing before even he knew he was going to make it. The axe whooshed through nothing but air as the orc turned around, growling for a brief moment in frustration before five fingers of a small hand touched up against the back of his head, crackling electricity flowing into his skull. The overload of impulses in his mind would be enough to put him face first in the sand for a few hours at least.

Theon, however, was too lost in violence to notice much of anything, blue eyes and antlions included. His axe was buried so far in the skull of an orc he'd come across he hadn't been able to rip it out in time, and had since switched to a mix of his fists and a dagger he'd pulled off one of the dead. There was a nasty cut over his right eye, the blood seeping down to blind him on that side, and he was more or less covered in sand, brawling from one orc to the next, leaving the sand behind him red as he went.

The world beneath the Lieutenant shook and trembled, kicking up thick clouds of sand, and where the sandy dunes had once been, there now scrambled a great antlion who'd clawed from the earth's belly. Several of its clacking limbs skittered and kicked, flicking over orcs as if they were mere insects. It took him a few moments to realize that it'd been their resident mage, Percy, who'd called the thing from whatever gritty tomb it had come from – which meant it was their ally, for the time being. He didn't understand how one could control a creature so large, but he took care to move out of its way all the same. Those inconsequential moments, unhampered by the battles' ripping roars, clashing of blades, axes and booming gunshots alike, the Lieutenant heard Dio's call above the clamber. A statement, rather, that something was amiss. He had no time to ponder what she'd meant, as he hurtled forward to meet another orc, who'd ducked beneath the antlion's swinging carapace and switched directions. The orc swung his great battleaxe and nearly cleaved off the Lieutenant's arm, hadn't he smashed his mechanical arm into the orcs forearm and grappled onto the creature's shoulder. He gripped onto his wrist to prevent him from swinging wildly with the axe, and smashed his forehead into the orcs flat nose, spurting blood onto the sand, his own face, and his shirt-front.

Had he been able to reach his shotgun, the Lieutenant would've ended it quickly, but he couldn't risk letting go of its thick wrist. Orc's, if given the chance to hit their target, could hack them clean in half. Their strength was monumental, and terrifying. The headbutt did little to stun the orc, who bellowed loudly in his face, spit flying. It was then that he noticed – two peculiar-looking blue eyes staring at him, electrically coloured. That wasn't right. Orcs didn't have blue eyes, ever. The man's momentary hesitation cost him a full-hand of grubby-green knuckles straight to his jaw, throwing him backwards. Though he refused to let go of the orc's wrist, and pulled him along for the ride, crashing into the ground and kicking up sand as they struggled. Thankfully, the great axe had been knocked away. The Lieutenant grabbed onto the orcs face, trying to push his assailant off, while earning several lollops to the face. Blue orbs, wild and ferocious, menaced from between his fingers. With effort, Sven hooked his leg between the orc's torso and flipped them over so that he was on top, connecting with liberal overhands.

The flow of battle was interrupted by a great bellow, loud enough that Gwen was forced to drop her gun and clutch her head, lucky not to fall off the precipice on which she was crouched. Clapping her hands over her ears, she glanced around quickly, trying to assess the direction the noise was coming from, but it was just too loud to tell. It could have been from anywhe-- oh. Well, that sort of narrowed things down. An enormous club, made of what appeared to be wood with metal spikes driven through it from all angles, arced downwards to meet the antlion, and the impact was massive, causing a shudder felt even through the sand, as antlion parts issues in all directions with a wet splat.

The captain's ever-widening stare travelled upwards, flicking over the contours of an equally-gigantic arm and up, to look with unnerving directness into the face of a sand troll. Not just any sand troll, though-- this one was absolutely monstrous in proportions, at least twenty five feet tall and almost as broad, really, it walked somewhat hunched-over. Its squashed face resembled some of the apes one could see in the southern jungles, but that was where the similarity ended. It was covered in coarse tan hide, thick enough that she'd be unsurprised if it stopped most blades or bullets. Its feet were wide, with eight toes each, to help it balance in the sand. Its eyes (all three of them) were like burning coals, dark black shot through with lines of heated orange that seemed to glow from within.

It fixed on her, alone of everyone unmolested by orcs, and she swallowed past the brand-new lump in her throat. "Uh-oh," she trilled, grabbing her rifle and making a jump for it, hitting the sand and rolling into a ball to protect herself from the falling debris that had once been her perch as the mighty club knocked over the old masonry like so many pebbles.

Once he'd dealt with the fallen orc, bloodied from the pummelling it'd received, the Lieutenant grunted and pushed himself away. He had not been spared from the tousle, either; blood ran thickly from his forehead, where he'd headbutted the green-skinned creature's thick skull. He'd been hit several times thereafter, as well. Thankfully, his nose looked nothing like theirs; piggish, squished and excruciatingly flat. Nothing had been broken that he could tell. His face was in order, so he spun on his heels and only took a few steps forward when he was suddenly knocked on his rear, whipping around to face an unseen foe, an oncoming orc coming from behind him – though, his gaze drifted upward, and he sat staring up at a more horrifying sight then the antlion who'd been summoned by Percy's hand. This creature definitely didn't look like it was here to lend its aid, it's nostrils flaring and caustic eyes picking out its prey. A sand troll. A fucking sand troll. Honestly, he'd only read about them in books, whispered about them to his squad mates. Never had he been face-to-face with the ugly things. Their skin was nearly impenetrable, for God's sake!

Still, the Lieutenant scooted back onto his feet, lunging beneath the sand troll's pillar-for-legs. He was headed for Gwendolyn, and even though he knew he didn't stand a chance if the troll got close enough, he'd at least try to distract the damn thing so someone who had something a little more substantial could sneak up behind and fry it. He took a deep breath, deep in his chest and swivelled the shotgun in his thick mitts, finger poised on the trigger until he was directly beneath him. “Kethyrian!” The Lieutenant bellowed, followed by the shotgun's explosive discharge, firing straight into the sand troll's nether regions. More likely than not, it'd just piss the thing off, but at least it wouldn't focus so much on one target, and attack clumsily, out of anger. He wasn't sure why he called her name, exactly. Wasn't even sure whether or not her abilities would work on a target so large, but it had to have a heart and where there was a heart, Kethyrian could, hopefully, bring it to its knees. He wheeled back under its legs, hoping it didn't choose to squash him by sitting down.

When the antlion was smashed by their newly minted foe, a weight lifted from Percy's brow as the strain of keeping the creature under his control abruptly vanished. He winced, as disconnecting so violently and quickly came through the bond Percy had established. The effort made him drop his staff into the sand and brought him to all fours in the blistering sand. Even over the sandstorm, his single curse echoed. "Dammit!" It happened again, some idiot brute had destroyed another one of his creatures! He looked up, glaring at the Sand Troll and grimaced. He couldn't bewitch that creature. It was too large, too willful, too sapient. He'd break before the creature did. He beat his hand against the dunes of the sand, feeling utterly useless... But perhaps not too useless. He shifted focus from the Troll to Gwen, protecting herself from the falling debris. The Troll had been on his way to finish what he started.

Maybe he didn't have to fight it. His guildmates were hardier than he was, and Sven was currently doing his best against the creature. He'd only get in the way with his antlers and his staff, and though the realization stung, there was nothing he could do about it. But he wasn't going to just sit by and watch. His new position suited him well, it had been a while since he'd be on all four legs. Though his fat fingers and thick legs were ungangly for this. That could be remedied. His arms and legs began to shift, thinning and enlongating. Four sets of fingers and toes shifted into cleft hooves, heavy bones became lighter. His pale skin recieved a new sheath of tan fur, and his nose stretched into a snout. His eyes totally darkened until nothing of Percy remained but the antlers, and in his place stood a stag.

The fullshift took a lot out of the boy, a pink tongue hung freely from the side of the deer's mouth. Perhaps changing into something with fur while in the hottest part of the desert wasn't the wisest decision, but he had a plan. Tufts of sand flew upward from where the deer stood, the creature shooting off toward Gwen. He was faster than the busy troll-- he'd be faster than the dumb brute even if Sven wasn't dealing with him. No one could outrun him in this form. Tired as he may have been, he could never forget the exhiliration that came from running freely in this form. If he was able, he'd be laughing. He danced around what was left of the falling debris and came to a halt beside Gwen, issuing a loud grunt, and shook his antlers at his back. Knowing the girl, she'd take him up for the thrills alone.

Who wouldn't want to ride a deer?

Vivi had managed to cut down her last orc before the Sand Troll appeared. A quick spin to the side of the orc, a swift kick to the side of the knee, buckling it, and the coup de grâce of decapitation-- she loved this dance. She was a wild dervish amid a whirlwind, a bandit princess with joy of the fight pressed upon her lips. There was no better place to be than inside a good tussle, and the tussle only went from good to great when the sand troll appeared. The sand muffled the gleeful squee, though it could do nothing to hide the sparkle in her eyes. She reversed the grip on her sword and sped off to meet steel with beast-- though Sven beat her to it. With his shotgun. Well, if there was a grander way to garner a beast's attention, she'd yet to recognize it. Kethyrian's name was something she recoginized. She tossed her gaze around trying to locate the Feydusk-- she'd be damned if her friend was the only one to have fun.

Bricks and mortar pelted against her back and sides, but the curl she’d tucked herself into protected her from the worst of it, though she was going to be a mottled canvas of splotchy purple bruises tomorrow. If she made it to tomorrow, anyway. The scarf still around her nose and mouth prevented her from inhaling too much of the stone dust, which was now clouding the area and making it hard to see. The sounds of the sand troll doing battle with someone were at once a relief and a worry—it meant she got to live a little longer, but possibly at someone else’s expense, and that would never do.

Pushing herself up onto her hands and knees, she ignored the fact that her hand was bleeding, as was the rest of her in a few spots where jagged rock had torn through her clothes. It could be worse. She’d been shot before, and had her arm incinerated and mangled by a rogue automaton. None of that had killed her, so she had this. Right? Right.

And she was pleasantly surprised to discover she wasn’t alone. A large deer of all things stood next to each other. She knew she recognized that rack—all puns fully intentional, misplaced as they were. [color=#C12283]”Nice timing, Spikey,”
she said, her voice a bit scratchy but otherwise fine. Reaching up, she used his antlers to leverage her swing onto his back. Her size was pretty negligible, so she hopefully wouldn’t slow him down too much. Her rifle, despite her best efforts, was currently in the sand somewhere, and she didn’t have the time to go looking. That in mind, she unholstered her clockwork pistol from its place on her thigh and cocked the hammer back.

”Right. Bring us in close, Spikey. I’m gonna show that troll why I get to be captain, and you’re gonna show everyone just how fast you can run, okay?” A devious grin spread its way over her fey features, and she held on tight with her legs. Hopefully she wouldn’t fall off. That would rather ruin the whole cavalry rescue thing they had going on here.

Kethy heard her name just as her latest opponent dropped. She was breathing heavily, lungs belabored by the dry heat of the air, something she was not at all used to. The sun's heat was unmistakably pradatory to someone like her, and it was taking its toll even now. Still, she straightened, ducking out of the way of another incoming swing. She knew who had summoned her, and she could guess at his intentions, but that didn't change the fact that there were at least thirty orc-populated yards in between them, and she couldn't make it over there in good time without some help.

Fortunately, help was not long in coming. Mordecai, running tactical analysis, understood what was going on, and with Sven acting to distract the sand troll, the automaton was free to plow through the orcish lines with brutal, graceless efficiency. "This unit advises haste, Mistress Kethyrian. It will clear the way forward." If there was something to be said for machines over flesh and blood people, it was that they knew how to make a point without all the double-meanings and deception, and she simply nodded, skirting the edges of his wake to come around behind the lieutenant. The troll was enormous, though thankfully rather slow, and it swung clumsily for them. Kethyrian tucked into a roll, coming up just on the other side of a large fist. She might have scrambled aboard, but it moved again, and though she might have caught on, its arms were long, and they needed to end this more directly.

"Don't think I have enough steam left to kill something this big," she informed Sven in clipped tones. "But I can sure as hell stun it. Throw me; I need to reach its head." She assumed those mechanical limbs of his could handle hurling someone of her negligible weight, after all, or else he could swap places with the automaton, who would definitely be able to. Granted, the plan put her at more than a little risk, but of that grand distraction brewing in the back had any sucess, she should be able to manage it.

To be fair, she also wasn't leaving him much room to argue, backing up a few yards to get a running start. If he could catapult her jump far enough, they might just survive this yet.

"Mother fucker," Theon huffed, rising to one knee after putting down yet another orc. He'd seen sand trolls before, mostly from a distance, and mostly from farsight. They weren't exactly something you went looking for if you had any regard for your life. It looked like something of a plan was shaping up. Well, if you could call the captain riding the deer boy while aiming a rifle combined with the wall crawler getting ready to be launched at the thing's head a plan. Still, it was better than nothing, and Theon was beginning to see a way he might be able to contribute.

He needed his duckfoot back. It had fallen out of his hand when he'd fired it into the nearest orc at the start of the fight, but if anything was going to be able to do damage to the sand troll, it was that. A four barreled hand cannon unloading into the roof of its mouth was bound to seriously fuck up the thing's head, right? Although, that idea depended on him being able to reach the damn pistol, reload it, and also being able to somehow get the troll on its back, or otherwise reach a position to shoot it in the mouth. He suspected his companions were already working on that.

The pistol had fallen near the base of a little sandy hill, now firmly occupied by the remaining orcs. He'd never get there in good time in his current condition. He was bleeding in several places, and probably several more he didn't know about. But the little lightning devil here looked to be in good shape. A quick little thing. She had just rolled smoothly away from a swinging axe and smacked the dull edge of her useless sword against an orc's skull when Theon whistled at her.

"Hey, new girl! Could use a hand!" His tone was not particularly polite, but she came anyway, sinking to a kneel in front of him so as to be at the same level, her chocolate eyes not hard at all beneath her mask. "What do you need?"

Honestly, it put him on edge that she was so willing to help someone who'd been nothing but a dick to her since they'd met. "My pistol," Theon said, pointing to where it lay. She probably expected him to want some kind of medical help, since the request to retrieve his pistol for him got a slightly harder stare from her. "Listen," Theon explained, getting impatient, "I don't know if you've been in one of these before, but they don't have happy endings. I'm just trying to make sure the ending doesn't involve all of our corpses baking in the sun, or that thing's belly."

Dio could see the logic in that. She didn't often take a liking to cold logic, but he was right. There was no pretty way for them to get out of this. She held no favor for the kill or be killed mentality, but at the very least, she wouldn't do the killing. Maybe there was no real difference, but maybe there was no real choice, either. She sheathed her scimitar across her back and took off towards the fallen weapon. She'd run faster with it put away.

A swift feint and a rapid change of direction got her around the first orc in her path, a forward leap and roll getting her over the sweeping blow of the second. Her sandals kicked up a small plume of dust and sand as she went, planting her right foot hard and sidestepping a great axe that thudded into the sand at her side. A knife flashed upwards from her left, and she spun opposite from it, leaning backwards to avoid the slash and pushing onwards. The next was directly in her path and too close to dodge, so her hand darted to her thigh and pulled the empty pistol, raising and sending a weak blast into his chest. It stunned him enough for her to slide between his legs, right to where the duckfoot pistol lay.

She snatched it up, surprised by how heavy it was, before turning and immediately vaulting onto the orc's back, the one she had just stunned. She pushed off his shoulder hard, flying over the next two, landing softly with a forward roll, and immediately colliding with a running orc she hadn't seen. The pair of them went down in a tangle, and with Dio's right arm occupied by the weight of the pistol, she was defenseless to the orc's left hook. The entire world seemed to spin in a circle, but she used the weight of the orc's body, the hot, sweaty feel of his skin, as an anchor, and when she found the shape of a head, she released all the lightning she could muster, frying him enough so that she could stumble away.

She did just that, staggering the short ways needed to be clear of the orcs. She then tossed the duckfoot forward to Theon's feet before falling forward on hands and knees, sucking in breaths. Theon scooped up the sandy hand cannon, popping all four barrels open and beginning the tedious process of reloading each one.

"Not bad, new girl."

The Lieutenant had only seen a brief glimpse of tawny legs and brownish-hooves kicking up clouds of dust. Perhaps, a tufted tail, as well. Had the Lieutenant had time, he'd of given it a second glance – no time for that, though, as he ducked underneath the sand troll again, keeping himself just a few steps ahead of the creature to avoid becoming one with the desert. The ugly-thing bellowed loudly, trumpeting wildly. The sound itself cut straight through to his eardrums, nearly causing him to clasp his hands to his ears to drown out the noise. Instead, the Lieutenant fired straight into his back, hoping to incapacitate it by injuring its craggy spine. No such luck. The creature merely trumpeted again, banging its colossal fists against the ground like a child suffering a tantrum. Things needed to progress much quickly if they needed to deal with this thing and slaughter the remaining orcs, or at least get their ranks under control and figure out what was going on. They couldn't deal with one, without having dealt with the other first.

He spotted Kethyrian making her way over, tucking into a crisp roll so that she was beside him. If she couldn't directly kill it, then stunning it for whatever length of time – maybe, bringing it to its knees in order to reach fleshier, more vulnerable parts, was the only option they had. It was the only thing that made sense, anyway. He didn't hesitate, didn't even stop to wonder whether or not it was a bad idea. Launching one of his companions through the air onto a bulky behemoth? Sure. He believed that she could do it without getting herself killed. Her competence was not something he'd come to doubt thus far, and he'd seen her perform far greater acrobatic feats. Thick fingers pressed a couple buttons behind his mechanical kneecap and the small of his inner elbow. They hissed sharply, releasing steam from their vents. The man stooped down on one knee, watching the creature beat its chest.

As soon as Kethyrian's foot touched his shoulder, as light as a feather, the Lieutenant straightened with alarming force, hands barely touching her midsection as he bodily threw her. Just as if he'd released a predatory bird from a gilded cage, effortlessly twisting his arm so that she could sail through the air. He'd never done something like that before. He'd have to commend her later.

Well, seeing the favisae go flying was as much a signal as they were probably going to get, and Gwen put Operation: Big Distraction into effect, pausing for just a moment with the absurd thought how do I steer this thing? before she remembered that it was Spikey and she could just tell him what she wanted. "Okay, two things: don't stop moving; I can shoot from nearly anywhere. And... go!" Spikey complied in a big way, applying a burst of speed that had her holding on with her knees as tightly as she could, aiming her pistol one-handed, the other gripping a backward-facing prong to keep herself more or less steady. The gun went off with a crack and a small puff of smoke, the lead ball inside headed right for the troll's face. Her aim had been to get it in the eye, and she succeeded, grinning like a madwoman when it let out a pained howl, though it soon turned to a wince. That thing had a set of pipes, didn't it?

Not a violent person by nature, she was able to set that aside and conceptualize this situation as shooting at a target. That might not be a good thing, but seeing as how she might be several times dead without it, she didn't trouble herself over it too much. Well, it was half-blind now, though she'd have to be careful with her next shot and avoid hitting Kethyrian, who was going to be up there shortly, in all likelihood. That was all right; she had faith in her shot. She could do it if she had to, and right now, it was looking like she might have to. If it was totally blind, and Thistle did whatever she was planning, they might be able to bring it down somehow for the others to get a better chance at.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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With a surge of power on the Lieutenant's part and an accompanying shot of gunfore from somewhere, Kethyrian found herself flying, or as close to it as a humanoid could achieve. Though perhaps the temptation was to flail her arms or panic at the sheer weightlessness of the sensation, she did neither, instead tucking her limbs in beside herself to streamline her passage. The launch was quick, and brought her to the sand troll's arm, onto which she latched without much difficulty, finding easy purchase in the masses of its coarse fur. It smelled like rot and ill-cleaned offal from previous kills (perhaps unwary orcs), but what nearly lost her her grip was the roar it produced. Gritting her teeth and resisting the urge to cover her ears, she felt herself lose hearing in one of them, a small trickle of blood seeping out of it and onto her neck. This, she ignored for the moment; it could be healed later.

The creature was far to preoccupied with a newly-useless eye to do much about her, and she set about a swift climb, scrambling up its bicep and onto its shoulder. Only then did the creature take note of her, catching sight of the climbing favisae out of the corner of the remaining ocular. She hissed, darting around onto its back as it swung a massive hand for where she'd been a moment before, smacking his own shoulder with jarring force. With the dexterity of a spider, she moved again, coming to perch, crouched, on his head. She wondered if he was stupid enough to try and hit that.

"Shoot again!" she shouted to whomever currently had the gun and the skill at aiming to take out an eye. If this thing was distracted by pain, she might have long enough to render it stunned without having to constantly scramble out of the way of its swatting.

You got it!" Gwen yelled in reply, taking aim a second time. With Thistle on the troll's head, it was going to be harder to hit without risking her, but on the other hand, it might not move as much, either. Pursing her lips carefully, she let go of Spikey's antlers. "Steady as she goes," she said, loud enough to be heard over the din. It was her way of saying that she'd prefer no distruptions like abrupt turns if possible. Her newly-freed hand moved up to reinforce her grip on the pistol, and in a smooth movement, she cocked the hammer and fired, a blooming red spot on the troll's face confirming the hit. "Ha! Yesss!" she allowed herself a moment of celebration, pumping her fist and then using the hand to pat Spikey's neck. Was that condescending? She didn't care; it was what he got for turning himself into a cute deer.

Lohengrin, catching on to where this was going, glanced around, spotting three people relatively close to him. Two of them even looked useful for what he was planning. It would do, anyway. "Hey tin man! You and the crazy chick head for that knee and hit it with all you've got! Big guy, you're with me-- if we can knock out both, someone besides the elf might be able to get a good hit in!" At least he'd follow his own advice; gripping the hot steel of his hand and a half in both palms, he charged forward, ducking elastically under a random swing from the blind troll and heading for the back of the troll's right knee. His blade, swung with all his strength, rebounded off the thick clumps of fur shielding the creature, and Lohengrin snarled, tossing the sword aside. Blunt damage would work better than trying to cut it.

But he was also willing to bet that it was flammable. He'd let the Lieutenant get a few good hits in first; no point burning the guy's hands.

The Lieutenant nearly crashed into the troll's tree-trunk leg as someone called his name (sort of, if big guy could be counted), slipping beneath the creature's legs just in time to avoid a wild swing full of craggy knuckles. He veered sharply to the right, sidling beside Lohengrin, whilst chambering his shotgun, one-handed. Knock out the knees? It seemed like a sound enough plan. He didn't care whether or not he “got a good hit in,” just as long as the damned thing slumped on its face and died – and soon, because the wouldn't be able to last forever battling such a relentless foe. Too stupid to rattle its thick skull, turn tail and walk back from wherever it came from. He followed Lohengrin, hurtling around the clumsy swing instead as the surprisingly limber man slipped underneath. He met him on the other side, curling around the troll's knobby knee. The Lieutenant's eyebrows furrowed in question when Lohengrin tossed his weapons aside, but he still took the opportunity to fire scattered rounds into the vulnerable flesh of what he assumed to be the knee-pit, though it was difficult to tell with all those folds. Clumps of flesh, sizzling hair and who-knows-what shlepped off in shreds. Once the steaming rounds puddled around his feet, the Lieutenant stepped backwards, eyeing Daisy (or was it another humiliating flower) enquiringly.

The other eye exploded into an indesciperable pile of gunk, and Kethyrian took her opportunity when she had it, sliding down a bit so she sat upon the troll's shoulder, reaching around its massive head with both arms in what looked a bit like some kind of grotesque hug. Really though, she was reaching for its temples, and once her fingers found these, she sucked in a deep breath, seeking out its vital signs and her own, dipping deep into the wellspring of magic that for some reason existed in some people and not others. Channelling it out her hands, she shoved with as abrupt a force as she could muster, attempting to interrupt whatever processes kept this thing conscious and in control of its own movements.

Something caught, like a thorn snagging silk, and the troll staggerd massively, barely remaining upright. Its grip on its club weapon slackened, and it sort of slumped at the shoulders, many of its muscles losing tension and weakening. She'd overdone it, though, she could tell: she was currently bleeding from the nose as well as her ear, and when she remembered to jump backwards off the beast, it was gracelessly. Perhaps fortunately for her rather delicate ego, she'd never know-- she lost consciousness halfway down. Well enough, her last thought went, she could survive an impact with mere sand.

The troll was faring almost as badly, unable to move its body as it commanded and reduced to exerting all the effort it could still muster to keep its knees locked and its body upright, it could do no more than make ineffectual, barehanded half-swings otherwise. These were unlikely to hit, even, blind as it had become.

Vivi never was good at listening. She watched as everyone but her converged on the Sand Troll and gave it everything they got. She turned to follow Redhead's advice scanning the desert for Mordy, but being useful didn't lessen the sting of having to aid another and not playing a pivotal role in the downfall of the Troll. Because of that, her facial expression shifted from giddy to sour. She raised her pistol and fired a volley into the creatures chest-- nothing, at least not compared to the Lieutenant's shotgun. A snarl snuck in to her lips, but her gait never slowed. If that couldn't get through then what in the hell was she supposed to do with Mordy?

That expression changed quickly Kethy wavered. The snarl turned into a worried frown and her gait quickened into an outright sprint. She put all of her power into her legs as the Feydusk's hands came loose from the Troll head, and then she dropped her blade and her pistol when she began to fall. She appeared under the Feydusk just in time to catch her. If it could even be called a catch. She didn't account for the physics, so when Kethy fell into her arms, she fell to the ground as well and slid back across the sand. Still, her objective was completed, and Redhead could go screw himself with his orders. She had her own.

"Dammit Kethy, you should have let me help," she cursed, ripping the scarf off of her face. Underneath it revealed a worried expression, as she tried her best to scramble back and away with Kethy. It would do no good if the damned thing fell on top of them after all that. Neither the impact nor the words were sufficient to snatch the feydusk from underneath the heavy shroud of unconsciousness, and it was perhaps a small blessing that her species were built so slight, as even someone of Vivian's size could drag her with enough effort.

Mordecai, on the other hand, was very good at listening, at least in this mode. The Sentinel function was designed with coordination in mind, and he recognized the logic in the order and thus followed it, peeling away in the opposite direction from Lohengrin and making for the troll's left leg. The blind flailing had weakened until it was little but a series of token movements, and it took no substantial effort to avoid the one swing that was even in his general direction and reach his destination. Drawing back, Mordecai gave himself a few steps worth of running start, probably unncessary but tactically sound all the same. He knew not exactly how much force would be required to break bones belonging to a sand troll, for he knew not their size or density. Clasping both of his fists together, he angled himself slightly, drawing his joined arms back to the level of his head.

As he blew past the troll, he brought his hands down like a hammer. The impact combined with his velocity would have dislocated both his shoulders and probably shattered his forearms and hands had he been made of ordinary flesh and bone, but as things stood, he was only slowed. The thud was loud, and he could discern a crack beneath it, though in all likelihood what he'd managed was only a hairline fracture. His aim had presumed a skeleton proportionally like a human's, but it seemed a few things were located a tad differently. No matter. Returning, he forewent the sprint this time, instead choosing several blows over one. Standing resolutely behind and to the inside of the leg, the automaton sought the small crack he had produced and raised another hand, though this time, he cracked down with his elbow. His other followed, a repetitive motion that gained speed. Like a fault line exposed to an earthquake, the fissure in the bone grew, a multitude of associated cracks spiderwebbing from the original break until at last, with one last well-placed hit, the troll's leg shattered. Thirty-seven seconds. Suboptimal, but acceptable.

Without the strength and mathematics necessary to replicate the automaton's maneuvers, Lohengrin would have to settle for something a little more... conventional. The shotgun rounds had been damaging, and with a little more, they might well be able to devastate. Stepping back a few feet, he eyed his surroundings to be sure that everyone who needed to be out of his radius was. Despite his uncaring attitude, he did not much care to incinerate anybody but this troll. Finding that he was clear for attack, the mercenary let a ruby-red flame in each of his hands, these smattered with the occasional tongue of gold or white, then brought his wrists together. The flames melded, his fingers forming a narrowed passage through which he directed the torrent, the cannon effect acting much like the barrel of a gun to increase the concentration of the attack, aimed right for the troll’s kneecaps.

Adding to Sven’s considerable damage, the fire burned away at hair and flesh, the charred scent of living meat filling the air and Lohengrin’s nasal passages. He kept his mouth shut, from a poignant desire not to taste it as well, as the crackling of the fire grew ever louder. Fortunately, burning the entire limb off was not what was required, as that would have taken quite a bit of time.

With both of its legs entirely useless, the sand troll teetered for a moment, then began a fall that, given its size, seemed rather slow, as gravity gradually overtook it, sending it first to its ruined knees, and then tipping forward and left, given that that leg was weaker, being entirely shattered. Assuming the golem was on the alert, he wouldn’t be crushed into the sand. The troll landed with a muted boom, the impact absorbed largely with the sand, a large cloud of which was stirred up at its collapse. Lohengrin tightened the scarf around his face, glad now for its presence. Nobody wanted a mouthful of that.

Though the troll was down, it was still alive, and tried, despite its obvious weakness, to push itself up once again, using only its arms.

Theon walked rather calmly, all things considered, into the vicinity of the sand troll, his duckfoot pistol shutting with a loud snap. Not that anyone heard it, though, as they'd all need a day or two for their hearing to return to normal. The others had done a number on it, blinding it entirely and preventing it from standing, not for lack of trying. It was panting pretty heavily when Theon got under it, moving slowly enough such that he could hope to avoid drawing attention to himself. The creature's disgusting mouth breathing was dripping blood and saliva about, but Theon managed to get himself to a position near its chest that granted him an angle on the roof of its mouth without getting covered in slime. Slowly, he raised four barrels and leveled them at the troll.

"Is what it is, buddy," he said, pulling the trigger. The shots tore up into the roof of the mouth, making a mess of things internally, and while they didn't burst out the top of the skull or anything, it was as though a bucket of brain matter and other gore was emptied out the thing's mouth. It teetered slowly for a moment on the arm it had put its weight on, a moment in which Theon hastily moved away. It fell flat down on its face seconds after, kicking up another thick plume of dust behind the scryer. He picked up his axe on the way back to the rest of the group.

"In hindsight, I probably could've warned you guys about that. Loudmouth behind me made an appearance in my vision, though I had no idea what the fuck it was at the time." He shrugged. "Doesn't really matter now, though."

“Not sure it would have helped anyway,” Lohengrin pointed out, poking the troll’s arm with the end of his sword. It was one thing to know there was a troll around, and another thing altogether to be prepared to fight it. Regardless, it was dead now, so he had to admit he didn’t care much either way. Glancing around, he checked to make sure everyone was still alive (looked like it, but the elf bitch was out cold, which surprisingly brought him no joy whatsoever), and then replaced the weapon on his back.

Gwen, who had dismounted Percy after giving him a pat on the neck, shook the sand from her newly-recovered rifle and grinned broadly. “Well, now that that’s all taken care of, follow me. I think I know where we’re going now.” Her time atop the ruined wall had given her a broader view of the surrounding area, and she’d seen a lot more stonework in one direction specifically. As soon as Kethyrian had been returned to consciousness and everyone more or less patched up for the moment, the captain led them over the scorching sands, bypassing a few smaller stone ruins and hauling themselves over a few dunes until they came at last to a small valley between heaps of sand. There, laid out before them, was a series of small ruins, at the center of which lay an archway that would look quite familiar to Theon.

Passing under it would bring them all within sight of a flat stone surface. Roughly circular, it appeared to contain rings within rings: on the outside, nine plain, black circles of slate edged the pattern, each perhaps two feet in diameter. Inside that were five more circles, their centers occupied by massive gemstones, lined in mother-of-pearl, the same colors as the ones had been on the door—ruby, sapphire, emerald, citrine, and pale opal, at least six inches per gem. The emerald was lit as though from within, visible even in the stark sunlight. These were arranged around a center circle, this one a large five feet across and a dimly-shifting, smokey off-white.

“Well,” Gwen said matter-of-factly, placing her hands on her hips, “That looks important.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Walking through a dream was a strange experience.

It was one thing to go to a place in his mind by will, look around, and then actually visit that place, but this place had come to him. It had called in his sleep, shown him things he'd never seen before, and he had come running, the promise of whatever great purpose awaited him pushing his feet onwards. And there was certainly no other reason he'd willingly drag himself out into this hellhole, to fight orcs and sand trolls with a bunch of people he still didn't particularly like. At least they could pull their own weight.

Dio had temporarily forgotten she was in the middle of a desert that could easily kill her, her attention snared instead by the massive gemstones on this stone surface. "How much do you think these are worth?" she wondered idly. It didn't really matter, there probably wasn't any way they could get them out, apart from blowing up the entire table, if any of them had any kind of explosives on them. Even then, she didn't think she'd want to; this thing was beautiful, like nothing she'd ever seen. Her mother would have sold her into slavery to have it on display. Although, perhaps she would just want the gemstones, the rest looked rather archaic. Percy didn't say anything, as he couldn't in his current form. Buck grunts made for poor communication, though he made his displeasure known nonetheless. He leveled his animilistic black eyes on the girl and just stared. She was not selling these, not while he still drew breath. They were priceless artifacts, and they belonged in a museum at worst, not on some black market. He'd much rather just leave them alone and study them from afar.

"Something's up with the green one," Theon said, before hauling himself on top of the surface. His dream had shown him this, too, that the emerald gemstone would be glowing, but all that had really done had prepared him for the sight of these ridiculous gemstones, which meant he wasn't drooling over them like the bleeding heart thief was. He crouched down over it, trying to see if there was anything inside it. "The dream didn't bother showing me what to do with this thing," he said, scowling.

Gwen hopped up onto the raised surface, ogling the gems with obvious interest, though honestly it had more to do with how the whole thing was laid out than how much it was probably worth. Not that she was going to let on, of course. “Probably more than the Elysium, all together and intact." It really was amazing, even if she didn’t particularly know what to do with it. She headed for the big circle in the center, passing over one of the smaller outside ones as she went. She missed what this produced, but Lohengrin didn’t.

“Hold up, tiny—” he blurted, reaching up and over to grab Gwen by the trailing end of her scarf. At the resistance, she stopped, looking down at him with a raised brow. He used his free hand to point at the plainer circle she’d just passed over. “Step on that again.” He tugged, and she sighed, backtracking to do as he’d insisted, only to find that, when she trod on the outer circle, it lit up as though from beneath, the shifting light echoing what Theon was no doubt seeing staring deep into the emerald. Gwen removed her foot, and the glow died. Crouching, she tried her hand—more light.

“Wow, that’s really neat. Does the big shiny green one do anything when you poke it?” she asked of the Scryer.

"It's reacting to what you're doing," Theon said, watching the innards of the emerald swirl about with a shifting light. He rapped on it a few times with his knuckles, and the emerald responded to that too, the light rippling away from his touch like he was disturbing water. "Huh," he said. "Well... is this a puzzle or something? I've never seen anything like this before, but I'm not sure what the point is yet." Vivi leaned over Theon's shoulder as he tapped the emerald, then she shrugged. She was absolutely horrid at puzzles, but she did have a suggestion... "Start pressing stuff until something happens?" Ah, the wisdom pouring off of that one.

And now everyone was trampling on them. Thankfully, shifted as he was, he couldn't admonish the party and sit them down for a speech on the caution and care needed when dealing with such artifacts. If bucks could sigh, Percy tried his best to do so. Using his powerful limbs, he too vaulted up to the surface and watched as his compatriots fumbled around and touched everything with their fat hands. He slowly paced around the circumference of the platform, examining it and trying to ascertain-- as the brute said-- the point of this puzzle. He felt... Invigorated by this room. A piece of ancient history it was, something that a soul hadn't stepped in centuries, if not more. He'd never heard anything about it, but the planet the lived on was rife with such mysteries. It made him all but forget the incident with sandtroll outside.

Kethyrian was not so quick to forget the sand troll. Thankfully, it hadn't taken her long to regain consciousness, though the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that being knocked out would be infinitely preferable to walking around in this damn desert. She could practically feel her skin cracking, and she was nearly blind under the harsh light. The shade of the chamber they'd just opened was actually a welcome relief, and she slumped against a wall, watching the others all marvel over the stone circle. She could admit that it was pretty, after a fashion, and she knew probably better than most how much skill it would have taken to cut gems of that size and lustre, but unlike Percy, any academic curiosity she might have had was drained away by the heat, and unlike Vivian, she didn't have much of a sense of adventure.

"If the green one's lighting up, why not the rest?" she put in from her corner, vaguely curious despite herself.

Mordecai, meanwhile, had refrained from actually stepping up onto the platform, but he did observe it from where he was standing. Given his height, it hit about the middle of his chest, which allowed him some vantage, anyway. Something that Mistress Kethyrian said struck him, and he glanced at the overall spread. "What if the rings are not isolated? Positioned so, this unit believes it makes much more sense to treat everything as an integrated system. If contact with the outer circles produces change in the inner crystal, perhaps contact with more than one at once would increase the reaction." As if to test his own hypothesis, Mordecai placed a hand at the center of a different slate circle. It may not work, as he was not organic matter, but even that would tell them something useful.

The circle Mordecai touched responded just as surely as Gwen’s did to her, and the emerald in front of Theon brightened when both dark grey circles lit simultaneously. “Well, that’s promising,” the captain said, moving herself around to try touching two at once. No luck. The one she’d lit first still glowed, but the second was unreactive. Relinquishing her contact with the first, she watched the second one light beneath her metal hand. “I guess… they need to be touched by different people? Hey Spikey, step on this other one here, next to me. Strawberry, you try that one.” She indicated a couple spaces over with a grin. “I wanna see just how many we can light up at once. Good thinking, Gadget!” she praised Mordecai, beaming over at the automaton.

“Whatever,” Lohengrin grumbled, pulling himself indelicately up onto the platform. Sometimes he really hated this damn body. It was so awkward. With a put-upon sigh, he stepped on the circle the blonde pilot had indicated, a bit but not very surprised when it, too, lit. That meant three were currently illuminated, and—sure enough—the green one was getting brighter. He did a quick count, and his eyes narrowed to suspicious slits. “There are exactly nine. How convenient.” He might have said something else, but it appeared his tongue wasn’t going to let him, sticking resolutely to the roof of his mouth until he abandoned the effort to say what he was thinking. Fuck.

Still too exhausted to shift back into his humanoid form, Percy nodded his antlered head and trotted toward one of the unoccupied circles, whereby his contact lit it up like a firework. Perhaps it was fortunate he was still in his shifted form. If he had a tongue that could speak, no doubt it would consist of fawning over the ancient technology beneath their feet. However just because he did not have a tongue to voice his admiration, that was all he could think about. No answers were given by this room, only questions, and what curious questions they were. Who built the device, where did they go, why in the middle of the desert? All questions he was afraid to go unanswered, though he was not sad. He was happy for the mere opportunity of witnessing.

As if Theon needed anymore assurance that he was a very, very important person meant to do very, very important things. He stood back from the big emerald gemstone, picking one of the currently unoccupied rings to stand in. "Do you think it matters which one we stand in?" he asked. They all looked to be the same size. Theon's own ring began to glow, and it looked to be the same as the others. He frowned slightly, but couldn't be all that disappointed. He would have to settle for being one of the pretty damn important people, instead of being the most important person.

"One for all of us, and all the same," Dio said, nimbly hopping up and into her own ring, smiling a bit when it too lit up like the others. "I like it. Come on, everybody up." Mordecai, wearing an ingenue's smile at the fact that he seemed to have done something correctly, was only too inclined to comply, and hopped properly up to stand on the platform, careful not to chip the edges of the stone. He weighed a fair bit more than a human of comparable size would, after all. Stepping fully onto his circle, his participation meant a full six were lit, as Kethyrian had elected to remove herself from her shaded corner and take up one of the empty spots as well.

"You too, Sunshine," Gwen singsonged in Sven's general direction.

Important, non-important. Hero, villain. One who paved through history or one who was left forgotten, marooned out of bard-like tales and cheated of his accomplishments. Honestly, the Lieutenant couldn't have cared less about any of it. He did not know the future, but believed stolidly that he didn't take any personal interest in it either. Adventure, wealth, curiosity and history were all well and fine—but, when you were older, things always seemed less appealing. He stood a few feet away from the group, thick arms crossed over his chest. Thankfully, the blistering heat hadn't been able to infiltrate their location. Lidded eyes regarded the lifted platforms, and the luminescent green orb. If anyone figured it out, it would probably be Percy (or Mordecai for that matter), but if they wanted to press buttons until the thing responded, they were free to do so. Waiting quietly and unobtrusively suited him just fine. It was only when Dio suggested that they should occupy all of the pedestals, as well as Gwendolyn's invitation, that Sven made to move. He stepped forward, climbing onto an unoccupied space. The mossy light, in turn, seemed to glow brighter.

Vivi skipped her way over to the last remaining circle.

As soon as Vivian’s foot touched her circle, the emerald flared so brightly that Gwen was forced to shut her eyes against its radiance, and the room they were in began to tremble. At first, it was only a subtle thing, a small vibration that served to clear a little of the remaining sand from the platform, but then the high-pitched keening sound began, and it and the vibrations seemed to enter into a kind of sensory-overloading feedback loop: as the whine grew louder, the tremors grew more violent, until there was no space in between them at all. The sound altered, a cascade of notes forming at great volume, and the large circle at the center of the entire arrangement lit up.

At first, it was still the smoky, pearlescent sheen it had had before, but as the melody began to form, the light from the emerald seemed to bleed outwards, tracing in a very definite pattern cut into the stone shelf they stood upon. As though it were liquid rather than light, the bright green illumination ran in tracks, cut into the stone and heretofore covered by sand, spreading outwards until crisscrossing lines of marvelous complexity had reached each of the circles upon which the none were standing (or not standing, as the case may be). At this point, however, it no longer mattered.

So, too, did the light spread to the middle, and it bled into the center stone, tinting the radiance there with viridian hue. The light rose, into a peridot-colored column that looked almost solid, and something began to take shape within, the darker shadows moving over the surface receding inward and coalescing into a single mass. That conglomeration shifted, amalgamated, and those with care to look would note that it seemed to gain texture in its forming. As the keening reached a crescendo, the column of light exploded outwards with a sound like stone on steel, washing over each of those present and bathing them in the warmth of sunned rock, the smell of verdant forestry, and for a halcyon moment, they could see this place as it had once been—a city, built into the mosses and trees and stone of a lush forest, lacking the wetness of Deluge but none of its vibrancy. At the edges of their shared vision flickered indistinct humanoid shapes, and above them soared the unmistakable silhouettes of dragons, as free and beautiful as they had surely been in long-forgotten days of glory.

But then it was gone, and when their eyes adjusted once again to what actually lay before them, they found that, at the center where the light had been, was a squat figure. It appeared to be made entirely of stone or petrified wood, but its color was hardly so dull as to be describable as merely brown. Veins of green, red, blue, silver, gold, and even royal purple striated the creature seemingly at random, all the colors deep and lovely. The being itself was not more than four feet tall, though vaguely humanoid in that it seemed to be comprised of stones shaped after arms, legs, a torso, and a head. The head was elongated though, protruding a bit behind it and tapering to a rounded point. Where eyes would have been on another creature, it had emeralds, almond-shaped and aglow with the same light that still infused the green gemstone on the platform.

When it spoke, its voice was like the grinding of the stone that comprised it: low, raspy, and, if one could put a gender to such a being, masculine. “Greetings, Chosen,” it said, ponderously, as though each syllable had to be chewed over several times before it was spat out. “You have been long in coming.”

"Bullshit," Theon said, quirking an eyebrow. "We came as soon as we knew to. I've been waiting for you for twenty-seven years. Maybe it was your message that was long in coming." His words were perhaps not a true reflection of how he felt at the moment, which was extremely impressed, and slightly overwhelmed. Whatever he had just seen must have been powerful magic, to have survived this long and to perform something like that. Still, he hardly knew what to think, as he stared at this... thing, that was in front of them all.

"Do you mind if I ask what you are?" Dio asked significantly more politely, pulling her mask down away from her face when she spoke to him. If he could be called a him. He sounded manly enough.

"And why we're here," Theon finished for her. He crossed his arms, studying the thing that had deigned to call him Chosen. He was all for the idea of being chosen among the masses, and certainly didn't mind the thought that he was superior to them all, but some sort of confirmation of this couldn't hurt. What made this thing special enough as to know who the Chosen were, and to tell them what to do with their lives, assuming that was what this was all about? "Why us?" Theon thought differently of himself, of course, but some of the others were frankly somewhat unremarkable. Were they plucked at random? The term "chosen" seemed to imply otherwise.

The being shook its head, or what would pass for its head were it human. The grinding sound was faint, but still present. “Nay, Chosen. I have waited eons for you, in slumber.” Theon shook his head slowly. "Sorry I took so long to be born, then," he murmured, under his breath. The being appeared to focus on Dio for a moment, as though deciding how to answer her question. This took longer than one might have expected, especially for what seemed a relatively simple question. Still, Gwen thought, if the answer was true, it was quite impressive. “I am stone. I am forests and soil and growing green things. And I am old, dying.” The sheer weight of the words slumped even her shoulders, tireless enthusiasm muted for the grief in what he said.

“You’re a Guardian.” That came from Lohengrin, and though it was spoken more as a statement than anything, there was a note of inquiry on the end of it. The mercenary looked solemn, but for once his demeanor bore no haughtiness or anger. Indeed, he was contemplating bowing, prostrating himself on the stone, because he understood what this creature was, but even his battered pride would not quite allow something like that. This thing was important to them, and he was no longer as they were.

“I am. Or was. There is precious little left to guard.” The stone-man straightened a bit, turning about slowly so as to look at them all in sequence. What he thought of what he saw, it was impossible to say, as he had no obvious features with which to express any such emotions, and he did not pass any judgement aloud. “You saw… what I showed you. Once, all of the world was like it. Now, the encroaching sand covers much, and the Lady’s blood runs dry. I wither, and I rot, as do the others. This is why you are here. This is why you were chosen. Your world loses vitality, and the only way to save it is to save Her.” Another pause.

“I know not why She chose you, but the choices you make will save Her, or they will end us all.”

Kethyrian blinked at the mention of the Lady. She’d never been all that religious, but it was quite difficult to get something so engrained out of one’s system, and the mention of the ancestral goddess of her people was enough to draw her attention. She thought back to what this creature had shown them… those figures in the sky had been dragons, and the ones at the edges… Inflectori, perhaps? If so, it had been eons in truth. If that place was now this one… it was hard to imagine such massive change, from forest to desert, even over such a great span of years. “This whole Chosen business is one thing, but what does it have to do with Myrddin and the king? If I’d just been captured by some pompous noble, I wouldn’t send my only chance at escape to save the world from something else.” And how would the old man have known, anyway? She wasn’t seeing the connection.

Personally, Mordecai thought this was the kind of thing that humans and favisae and dwarves and so on got chosen to do. Automata were not the stuff of legends and heroes’ tales. He would know—he had knowledge of a great many of them. In none were things like him even featured. But… if this being was made of stone and was so important as it seemed, perhaps he, made of metal and wires and false skin, could be important, too? He’d never felt important before. He wasn’t even sure what that was supposed to feel like. Yet here he was, standing on a lit circle just like the rest, and his was no less aglow than any of the others.

“This unit requests clarification,” he put in politely. “Why did the script on the wall lead it and the others here? Does it pertain to the mention of keys?” It seemed the most logical conclusion, and Mordecai was nothing if he was not logical.

“Then it was Myrddin who sent you,” the creature mused. “That is good; he has long been an ally of the Guardians. I know nothing of human kings any longer, dark one. If there is a connection, it is not one I can make. This task needs to be completed, and he has set you on the path. For this, I owe him a debt.”

At Mordecai, the Guardian seemed to stare for a long time. It made little indication of why—perhaps it sensed his internal structure and was interested by it. Whatever the case, the gravel-voice answered this query with more certainty. “I am the first. To all of us you must go, and retrieve the keys to the door. Behind it, you will find what you need, what the Lady needs.” Waving a hand in front of him, the Guardian seemed to conjure something from nowhere. Upon inspection, it was a stone object about the length of Gwen’s forearm, cut from what must have been a truly massive emerald. Nearly translucent, it was the expected deep green color, and shaped so as to have a triangular handle at one end and jagged “teeth” at the other. It wasn’t exactly a conventional key, but it looked like it would fit the massive subterranean door well enough.

“Reaching here and defeating the Sand Troll that nested nearby required cunning and intelligence. Each further test will require it as well, but each will also ask of you something else. Reaching the end will not be easy. If there is anything else you would ask of me, ask now, before my strength fades.” A large, stony digit moved, and the key hovered in the air, floating until it came to rest in front of Percy. “Keep it well, earth-child. If it is lost, then so are you.”

Well, that was as good a cue as any to ask the obvious question, and without anything in the way of pride or shame to speak of, Gwen felt perfectly fine asking it. "So, Mister Rocky, sir... where exactly are we supposed to go now?" She wasn't sure humor worked on rocks, but she flashed a dazzling grin all the same. Stone Guardians were people, too, right? Well, she was just going to go ahead and assume they were. She already counted Gadget as a person, how different could this be? She ignored the slightly-wiser segment of her personality, which was busy informing her that it was probably quite different.

It was unclear whether the Guardian approved of her attempt to lighten the mood or not, but at least he answered. "You must go north, to the Source of the World. The next of my kind awaits you there, with the Ice Key."

Sometime between now and when the Guardian first appeared, Percy had shifted back into his halfshift, though he was too enthralled by the being to say anything. It was... a creature, born from the light. Made from stone, it was unlike anything Percy had even heard of, let alone seen. When it spoke, Percy listened with awed attention. Enough that he almost couldn't hear Theon's rude comments. And every word it spoke opened new doors. They were chosen. This had been a test. There were others, mention of the Lady. It was magnificent. There were so many questions, there wasn't nearly enough time left ifor the for him to ask all he wanted. He couldn't even think of his first question, and such the others asked for him. Then the being summoned the key, where it hovered in front of him. Percy hesitated for a moment before carefully plucking it out of the air. There he turned the magnificent emerald over in his hand before he nodded graciously.

"Th-thank you," Percy stammered out. "What... what test awaits us there?" He added.

Vivi had since grown bored of the creature and had approached closer in order to better inspect him. She silently hovered behind it, picking out the variety of pretty colors running through him and just seemed rather unenthused about everything else.

If the creature was perturbed by Vivian's presence, it made no obvious signs of it. Instead, it seemed to cock its head to one side, and then answered Percy's inquiry in the same gravelly tones. "That, I may not say. It is not for me to disrupt the domain of another of my kind. You must depart now, Chosen. Your time, as mine, grows short."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai

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The cockpit of the Elysium was not at all a cramped space, actually. Perhaps this was due to the rather towering size of the first mate, or perhaps its design was an even mix of luxury and efficiency, something only her father could manage so deftly. Gwen would have been fine with crawlspaces and cramped chairs, as long as she could coax the vessel to speed enough. At least, were it not for Sunshine. And maybe, something about having a control room this big was good for her persistent desire for company as well. Whatever the case, Gwen was presently letting Gorlak handle the actual piloting, and reclining in one of the other chairs, this one actually attached to the floor near the seldom-used communications console. She’d wheedled and whined at her dad until he agreed that all the chairs in this room had to be swivel-type, even if they were bolted to the floor for stability.

Gwen could only tolerate so much stability in her life, after all.

She picked up some raunchy sailors’ tune or another, though mercifully for the easily-embarrassed Gorlak, she kept it to a hum and invoked no actual lyrics. Last time, she’d started singing one about the second-most flexible woman in Deluge, and he’d flushed a most becoming shade of blue. She’d done it purely to test the theory that goblins’ blood was in fact that color. Personally, she though he should be thanking her—the other option was to leave something laying around for him to accidentally cut himself on. Simply asking hadn’t really crossed her mind; it was far too boring.

Drumming her fingers on her metal arm in staccato time, she contemplated standing on the chair, upside-down, to alleviate her current boredom, but decided against it. Gadget was on his way, after all—she’d asked him to meet her here so she could get a better look at him, and as she’d expected, he had no reason to refuse, and thus he had not. She’d had to promise Sunshine that she wasn’t actually going to open him up and look inside. Any tests she ran would have to be conducted from safely outside his skin. She had no idea why anyone would be so touchy about that—she wouldn’t have cared if some mechanical genius wanted to have a go at her arm, after all, as long as they put stuff back together the same or better than it had been and explained things as they went.

Mordecai had taken the opportunity presented by the team’s arrival back at the ship to wash the garments that had been covered in troll blood and offal—crushing his way down to the bones of the creature had not been the cleanest of occupations, honestly. Fortunately, there was plenty of water with which to do so still aboard the ship: either the captain stocked far too much, or she had been expecting a more prolonged stay away from the rivers.

Well… maybe not expecting. It was only intelligent to plan for several eventualities when so little of the situation was expressed in know factors and so much in variables. Mordecai assessed that there was a less than 12.3% chance that he would be prompted to reenter combat today, so he left his sturdier garments to dry and donned a light, loose shirt instead. His body was hardly at risk of overheating, but there was no need to tax his temperature-regulation systems unnecessarily. Even if they did run on solar power cells.

But the Captain had requested his presence in the control room, and it was there he now headed, mapping the most efficient course through the network of hallways in the bowels of the ship and up several staircases. For a ship of its speed, the Elysium was remarkably large. Or was that statement meant to be the other way around? He was unsure, and chose not to dwell on it.

Truthfully, he’d been initially wary when Mistress Gwendolyn expressed her desire to examine his capabilities. He was not precisely uncomfortable with his nature—indeed, he knew and accepted what he was better than perhaps most sapienlike biological organisms, but… even a machine could grow tired of being reminded of its own inferiority, he supposed. But there was something about the captain that was entirely without judgement, and she expressed eagerness to know more of him, something which was seldom the case with people. For most, he was simply a thing, that carried out certain tasks upon command. Perhaps they were correct, but… he found his emotional apparatus produced more enjoyable feelings when he was treated otherwise.

He entered the space after a polite knock, observing that the goblin engineer seemed to be piloting at the moment, while the captain lounged elsewhere. He was reminded in a strange way, of a housecat. His was not a mind usually given to metaphor, so the fact that he produced this association at all was rather pleasing to him. So his vocal modulation approximated pleasant cheer when he offered his greetings. “Good evening, Mistress Gwendolyn.”

His answer, such as it was, was a wrench, thrown at his face. The motion was surprisingly swift for one so apparently languid, but then Gwen thrived on being surprising. “Think fast, Gadget!” she chirped, fully expecting him to catch the object. She was interested, though, what his resting reflexes were like. And because she was Gwendolyn Skybound and not someone with a sense of dignity or reserve, she followed up by leaping out of her chair and straight at him, cocking her metal arm back for a punch and aiming squarely at his chest.

Mordecai’s reaction was automatic: a hand snapped up, snatching the thrown tool from midair before it became much of a threat to him at all. He was adjusting his focus to give her his best approximation of a quizzical look when he realized she was apparently not done, and that wrenches were not the only non-flying objects that sailed through the air around here. He was unsure how to interpret the hostile action, as it did not mesh cognitively with what he knew to be true of the captain. The logical conclusion was that this was some kind of test.

Without knowing what the passing or failing criteria were, he could not decide how to act, and in the end, he simply locked his joints in place, steadying himself against what was likely only going to be a negligible hit, though perhaps the steely limb would make matters more difficult.

As she’d suspected, the wrench was neutralized immediately, but she’d rather expected him to sidestep her, or perhaps even catch her as well, so when he didn’t move, well… the punch landed, for all the good it did. It thudded against Mordecai’s chest with a reasonable amount of force, perhaps, but not nearly enough to move him, and the rest of Gwen followed with a much less awesome noise, followed by another thud as she landed on her arse at his feet. Gorlak, who hadn’t been attempting to hide the fact that he was watching, burst into laughter, still going even as Gwen picked herself up, giggling just the same.

“I’d say that would teach me to mess with you,” she told Mordecai with a broad grin, “but honestly it’s probably not going to stop me. Seriously, though… you’re solid for your size. Titanium?” She seemed entirely unconcerned by the fact that she’d essentially just managed a vertical faceplant against the automaton.

Mordecai was now thoroughly confused, unable to join in on the laughter even for the sake of social conformity. He’d quite nearly injured her, and she was amused by this? He should have moved, he saw that now—but at the time, he hadn’t really thought about it, which was absurd now. He felt a small twinge of shame at this, that she’d been hurt because he hadn’t thought things through more adequately.

Her inquiry into his composition was something of a distraction, however, and he inclined his head. “Yes. This unit’s primary alloy of construction is titanium, though it was also magically treated for additional resilience. Additionally, some of the typically weaker areas of bodies shaped in this have been reinforced by a diamond capping, the fusion of which is, it believes, a pseudo-alchemical process involving much alteration magic.” Morgause was as much magician as she was engineer, which he understood was the reason she was capable of producing objects such as himself.

“This unit feels it must offer its apologies, Mistress Gwendolyn,” he said quietly. “It was the cause of injury to your person.”

Gwen huffed a breath, puffing her cheeks up childishly before releasing the air and waving a hand nonchalantly. “Oh please, Gadget—if I cared about that, I wouldn’t have jumped you in the first place. I’m much more interested in what you just told me.” It was the truth, and she wasted little more time in laying his unfounded worries to rest, taking up one of his arms and prodding at it with her non-metal fingers. Her brows furrowed slightly, and she shook her head with a faint jangle. “What I don’t understand is why she chose to put all this synthetic skin on you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Gadget, you’re impeccably-well put together, but… this just covers up all the interesting parts.”

Mordecai was here confronted with an emotion he did not quite understand, though some confusion did underlie it, that much was certain. She seemed to think his flesh unnecessary, superfluous. In a way, she was quite correct—the only purposes it served were to protect his joints from foreign matter and to provide a certain aesthetic effect. But surely she saw that? Morgause did it because looking more like a person made him better. She’d told him so, often, that he was better than her other models because it was nearly impossible to tell him apart from a human being, especially from a distance.

“It was to make this unit more human,” he replied at last, as though this were both obvious and obviously important. His confusion at her lack of understanding on this point was clear, but also innocent. He wasn’t condemning her for not knowing, he just found it… odd. The automata allowed himself to be poked and prodded, not unfamiliar with such examinations. Often, this was conducted when someone realized that he was not, in fact, what he appeared to be.

Gwen snorted, but then paused, straightening to her full height, which was admittedly still beneath Mordecai’s clavicle, tipping her head back to look him in the eye, one hand still wound loosely about his wrist. Green eyes narrowed, though not in a way that seemed immediately unfriendly. She looked at him like he was a puzzle, and she trying to find the solution, or the spot for that one piece that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but must have a place because it had come in the set with the rest of them. “Is that what you think?” she asked, unusually softly for her normally-boisterous voice. “That it’s skin and bones and muscle tissue that makes something human, and metal and wires that make something a machine? ”

Releasing his wrist, she stepped back, tugging at her own sleeve until it hiked up to her elbow, and the length of alloyed steel there was not disguised as anything other than what it was. “Am I less human than someone who has all the body parts they were born with? Both of Sunshine’s legs are metal now, you know. Is he even less human that I am?” She looked at him expectantly, if a little sadly, and maybe it was because she’d asked herself the same questions once. Am I only half a person now? Will I be, if I let them cut it off?

Mordecai wasn’t really sure what to say. It was true—by his own logic, she was part machine. And if it was also true, as he knew it was, that machines were inferior to organic humanoids, then that meant she must also be inferior. But that seemed… wrong to him, like the correct premises had somehow led him to a poor conclusion. But… she’d pointed out one of those premises, and perhaps that was the one that required modification. “This unit… does not know,” he said, allowing his confusion to write itself over his features. “It believes that both Mistress Gwendolyn and Master Sven are humans, and no less worthy than other humans it has met. But it does not… it is not… not the same. It does not think in the same manner, nor feel in the same way, no matter how it looks.” He sounded dejected, and realized he felt this way as well. He supposedly had free will, as humans did, but there was still something about him that was different.

Gwen’s expression apparently could not remain somber for too long, for the smile split her face at that, despite the obvious distress Mordecai was under. Or perhaps because of it. “Gadget,” she said, her cheer working into the pair of syllables with obvious relish. “The most wonderful thing about humans is that none of us think in the same way. Just because your brain runs calculations and feelings aren’t easy for you doesn’t mean you’re not human in the important ways. My brain’s like that too!” She tapped the side of her temple for emphasis.

“Look, I dunno what’s so special about being human to you, but I promise you that whatever it is, it doesn’t preclude you from being human if you want to be. And if it does, well… you can change. That’s a human thing, too.” She nodded with false solemnity, then grinned again. “I’m going to hug you now. That’s what humans do when they have moments like this one, and you’re going to practice with me!”

Ever as good as her word, Gwen wrapped both arms around the automaton’s middle, not really worried about squeezing too hard or anything like that, and hugged him. A proper hug, too, none of this barely-touching business that awkward people did. The pilot was sure she was plenty awkward to some people, but she was damn comfortable with herself, and she knew she gave excellent hugs, so what was the point presenting otherwise?

Mordecai had a feeling he would just have to get used to being confused around Mistress Gwendolyn. Her behavior patterns were atypical, from his observations, but that did not make them unbearable. On the contrary, he found himself rather put at ease by her words. She was proof of them herself—he was quite certain that there must be no other human who looked at the world the same way she did. And that gave him a sliver of hope that maybe he really was human in the important ways, or could be with time and… practice.

“This unit does not know—” he started, but apparently it wasn’t requisite that he knew how to ‘hug’ beforehand, because she seemed quite content to initiate such action on her own. With a meticulousness usually reserved for much more delicate matters, Mordecai did his best to replicate the gesture, though admittedly some compensation for her small stature was necessary. It was a very different kind of contact from the sort they’d had when she smacked into him earlier, and much more… pleasant? Yes, he supposed he could call it that. There was something he still didn’t understand, though.

“If this unit may ask,” he said, trying to phrase the question, “What sort of moments are ‘moments like this one’?” He had seldom if ever seen two humans engaging in this practice, and certainly none of the members of Avalon’s Dawn.

Gwen laughed, releasing Mordecai and stepping back. "That depends on the person," she said with a grin, "But I'm sure you'll figure it out." She bit her lip against the temptation to tell him to go practice his hugging on Daisy, or perhaps Strawberry, but she didn't want him to endure any of the repercussions of that, not when he was so serious about this whole thing. Maybe one day, though, when he was more confident in his status and his worth. Even she could be sensitive, when the situation called for it.

"Now-- I really am serious about the notion of putting your brain into the ship for a while. Take a seat, Gadget, this is going to be fun."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona

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Out of the frying pan, and into the freezer.

Well, it wasn't
that cold. Enough to make Theon shiver a little bit, rubbing his bare arms and feeling goosebumps. He really should start wearing shirts with sleeves. He seemed to be garbed typically for a dangerous affair, that was to say in his carapace shell armor, armed for murder, his duckfoot at his hip, and his axe on his back. He wondered if he'd need them. This was a dream, after all. His dream.

He was immediately aware that this was also not a place he'd ever been to before. It was chilly, but the forest around him was a deep green, as vibrant with other colors as any place in the wild Theon had ever seen. Which wasn't all that much, considering he'd been confined to the southern portions of Albion for his entire life. This must be where they were headed next, or at least a decent representation of it. If that was the case, Theon was looking forward to it.

There were like... flowers, and other stuff, all around him, only lightly covered with frost, and maybe if he'd been a girl he would have cared about that shit, but instead Theon started walking aimlessly through the forest, looking for something more interesting. If flowers were involved in saving the world, he wasn't sure he wanted any part of it. The ground beneath his feet was wet and squishy, but looking down he found it to be somewhat obscured by a fog.

He was walking one way when he began to hear something from the other way, and he stopped abruptly, spinning on one heel to listen. It was... singing. Yes, that's what that was. Haunting, eerie female tones calling out to him in a rather seductive manner, and Theon had never really been one to resist seduction too well. That, and they were really the only interesting things he could see or hear so far in this place. It was beautiful, of course, but Theon needed something to
do.

He stumbled out onto the shore of a lake while in search of these fair-sounding ladies, and blinked a few times before he was able to accept that the sight before him was in fact, real. Well, nothing was really real in a dream, but his dreams were a little more real than most. He couldn't see the other shore of the lake, it was so huge, and the
water, the water was so clear he could see almost all the way down to the bottom, where there were plants and little happy fish doing their thing. It could only be the source of the world. The lady voices seemed to be coming from in the water, as well as the fog, so Theon decided to wade on in and see what he could find. What could go wrong?

The water was really quite warm, much more so than the air around it, but what immediately caught Theon's attention was the hulking figure that rose up out of the water as soon as he set foot in. He scrambled back to the shore and pulled his duckfoot, but held his fire while he tried to discern what he was looking at. It was an armored man, only the plate that covered him from head to toe was a sort of moss green, decorated with patterns of vines and leaves. Theon happened to think the man's choice of armor was a little outdated, but then, this was a rather old place.

He rose up to simply
stand on the water, which Theon happened to think was a pretty cool trick. He carried an enormous greatsword, the point of which just ever so slightly touched the surface of the lake, creating the tiniest of ripples. Theon waited, expecting the green knight to do something, but he just stood there, and Theon was content to let the moment get a little more awkward before he did anything. When he determined that the man was immune to awkward situations (at least, more than Theon was), he tried walking to the side, to get around him.

That got him to move, and he simply slid across the water to once again bar Theon's path into the lake. He gave the knight a scrutinous look, before he splashed a bit of water out on him. Nothing. Theon shrugged. He paced back and forth for a while, letting the knight follow him around. After a few minutes, he suddenly stopped and aimed his duckfoot at him. Again, nothing. Pretty solid, Theon thought. Then, considering that this was a dream, he pulled the trigger.

The pistol popped back hard enough to fly out of his hand and splash in the water at his feet, and propably two of the four shots missed him entirely, but the other two clearly hit, and with solid and loud clanks they just bounced off, not even making a dent in his armor, or even a scratch. Theon raised his arms, giving up on the knight's game. He was never really suited for problems that couldn't be blown into chunks.

"Alright, asshole, what the fuck?" he said impatiently. To that, the knight finally responded, by simply lifting up the visor of his helm. Inside, all Theon could see was darkness, like there was nothing inside the knight but shadow...


He was damp with sweat again upon waking, but it was slow this time, the scryer slowly opening his eyes in his bunk, before rubbing his face and eyes with his hands. Downside to being savior of Albion: he never got any sleep. Groaning, he pushed himself off the bed and started to dress. He didn't know what time of night it was, but his dream journal would probably be awake, and this dream was worth reporting. The last few hadn't been so relevant to the mission, but this one obviously was.

He tried the engine room first, but Gwen wasn't there, so he made his way up to the mess hall. Also abandoned. Shrugging, he went up towards the front of the ship, and the control room, where he found big Sven at the helm, watching over the ship. And nearby was Gwen, standing on top of a chair, staring into the eyes of the toaster, probably just an inch away from his face, looking like she was really searching for something in there. Theon stopped a few steps from them, taking a moment to try and rub the bleariness from his eyes.

"There's an explanation for this that I'm missing, isn't there?" He half thought he was still dreaming. But the fact that he wasn't all that surprised by this argued otherwise.

It wasn’t exactly hard to convince Gadget to stay still in front of the chair while she examined his visual network—he seemed almost as interested to understand more of himself as she was to learn about him. She wasn’t a golem engineer, by any means, but she’d dabbled, and generally knew mechanical things well enough to talk the talk, such as it was. She’d started by waving a finger in front of his face, asking him to track it. Curiously, he seemed to have anticipatory tracking of some kind—he was just a little ahead of her at times, until she called him out on it. Turned out, he was calculating, projecting her movements over space and time, and taking cues from something. She guessed he might be reading her muscle movement somehow, as he was moderately less successful tracking her automail arm the same way.

Maybe, though, that had something more with how she treated the limb than anything about him. It was curious either way, and she’d moved in closer to peer with scrutiny at his actual visual receptors. Glass, she thought, and beautifully-colored. Only someone like Morgause would take the time to put a yellow lotus pattern around a fully-colored pupil, then surround that with a multi-hued green iris. It was an attention to detail that frankly made Gwen a little jealous. The glass lens seemed to be covered over with some kind of membrane, which gave the eyes a very realistic appearance of being moist. She was almost certain Mordecai did not need to blink, however, as he had yet to do so throughout their entire examination. Uninterrupted visual feed.

She was only distantly conscious of the fact that someone new had entered the room, and scientific interest rendered the presence irrelevant for the moment—Sven could take care of anything the crew needed dealt with. She was doing something more important. Her tune changed a little when the person spoke, though, and Gwen blinked, drawing back about a foot from Gadget and turning the full force of a mischief-laden grin on Theon. “Of course,” she replied facetiously. “Gadget here was asking about human things, so I was teaching him about staring contests. I guess the finer points of touch will have to wait until tomorrow though, right Gadget?” She paused a moment, a thoughtful look crossing her face, then shook her head, snickering.

“Dream-journal time?” she asked Theon, hopping down from the chair. She wasn’t sure if he’d want to talk about it with Sunshine and Gadget here or not, but she didn’t mind it either way. It might be good for him to talk to other people about things like this, but she certainly wasn’t going to push it. She generally tended to know when it was okay to prod, tease, and nudge, and when it wasn’t. Whether she chose to heed or disregard these cues was another matter.

Mordecai certainly knew how to be still, and save for the occasional movement of his eyes at her request, he might as well have been a sculpture. He was unsure how to express it, but he was… grateful, that Mistress Gwendolyn, while unwavering in her determination that he was ‘human if he wanted to be,’ was still willing to help him understand the precise natures of his functionalities. He knew some things, but these were mostly whats, not hows or whys. She’d submitted him to a number of small tests, but nothing overly troubling, and though spending a few minutes as the Elysium’s AI the other day had been a most unsettling experience, it was also quite enlightening.

He, not nearly so absorbed in what was going on as she was, noticed immediately when Master Theon entered, though as he had been told to remain still, he did, at least until she adjusted her attention, at which point he thought it prudent to reconfigure his own as well. For a moment, he didn’t understand why she’d presented an obvious falsehood as the explanation for their current locations, but then he thought about it, and produced understanding.

“Mistress Gwendolyn provides an explanation you do not have, but not the correct one,” he said, sounding almost proud of himself for figuring out the word game. Well, whatever the case, he didn’t elaborate, deciding that she would if it was really important. Perhaps she was trying to keep some measure of what they were doing confidential out of deference to him? That would be highly irregular—he should make sure to inform her that he did not mind her sharing the details of his specifications with others, but… maybe, maybe he did. That was a troubling thought, and Mordecai fell silent, content to let the discussion move onwards without him.

Theon just shook his head, deciding that he probably wouldn't understand what she was actually doing anyway. He pulled up a chair and fell rather heavily into it. "Yeah, got one about this source of the world we're headed to. Probably better if I don't keep it to myself."

Sunshine remained naturally quiet throughout Gwendolyn's close-quarter examination of Mordecai, occasionally glancing down from his crossed arms to see what she was exactly looking at. Hardly inches from his face, cupping his cheeks and staring deeply into his eyes—staring into glass-orbs or some sort of synthetic material that would have easily fooled him. They looked real enough, even though he wasn't blinking. It was difficult to see Mordecai as anything but human, however as soon as he spoke, it was easy enough to tell. The Lieutenant's own curiosity kept him looking in their direction, periodically listing his head to the side for a better view, only to look away whenever any inquisitive glances swept over him. He did not want to intrude on whatever Gwendolyn was trying to do, but he certainly encouraged their relationship. When prodded as to what he thought of their new companions, Sven could only say that Mordecai, in his humble opinion, was good. In whatever vague sense that was, it didn't seem to matter much.

Some may have questioned his hearing or his eyesight, but the Lieutenant still seemed very much aware that someone had joined them in the room. It may have been Theon's soft footfalls or the creak of inaudible rusty hinges. He half-turned and offered an unhelpful shrug. It hardly explained the scene before him, but he presented nothing in the form of words, either. A low grumbled-greeting slipped through his lips as he turned back towards the helm, meaty hands flicking switches and finally settling back down to his sides. Whatever conversation that needed to be said would be said with him in the room, unless Gwendolyn ordered otherwise. Either way, if Theon wanted privacy, the Lieutenant could very well tune out their conversations. When there was talk of dreams and information of the world they were about to step into, Sven pressed a button and turned to face them, expression impassive and unreadable. He, too, wanted to hear what he had to say. Gwen was nowhere near so equanimous, and hopped gladly-enough into a nearby chair, crossing her legs up underneath her and nodding. "Sounds interesting. I'd say I hope it was less... awful than the last one, but I'm not holding my breath."

"You know, it really wasn't that bad," Theon said, moving to take a seat on the ground against the wall, propping his arms up on his knees. "No blistering heat, whipping winds, scarves in my eyes, or unbearably loud noises. It seemed like a pretty nice place, actually. Which is strange, considering the world that it's apparently the source of." Shame its lushness couldn't extend to the desert parts of the world. Would have made a few years of Theon's life a hell of a lot easier.

"Anyway, I was wandering around in a forest when I heard this singing, lovely lady voices, very eerie, though, but I decided to check it out. I wander towards them and there's this lake, the clearest one you've ever seen, and the singing's coming from it, so I try to go into the lake to check it out, only this asshole comes up out of it. He's dressed in green plate armor and has a big sword, but he doesn't say anything, right? He just stands there, in my way. I try to move around him, but he just glides across the water and gets in my way. I even shot him with my duckfoot, nothing. So I ask him what his deal is, and all he does is lift up the visor of his helmet."

Theon shrugged. "All I saw under the helmet was shadow, like he was made of darkness. Then I woke up." It hadn't been as painful an experience as the desert dream, but it was no less strange or confusing. Theon had very little idea what to make of it all, which was probably a poor thing given he was the only one among them able to see the future. He had to learn how to make his powers show him something a little clearer, if that was even possible...

"Do they even have schools for scryers?" he asked, wondering if perhaps Gwen or the toaster knew. The meat slab didn't seem inclined to do more than grunt. "Seems like I need some help figuring out these damn visions. Though I can't imagine they'd have many students..." It was another way of saying he was way too important and rare of a person to fit into any kind of school.

“Pff,” Gwen replied with a wave of her hand. “Who needs a stuffy tower filled with self-important old men when you have us?” She gestured with both hands to encompass the room. There was a certain merit to the point: Gadget was practically an encyclopedia’s worth of information, and she’d know—she’d quizzed him for a few hours earlier in the afternoon. Of course, she ruined most of this merit with her next comment: “We’re more fun, and much better-looking at that. There's probably something in one of my dad's books if you're interested.” The last part managed to sound half-serious, but it was a separate issue from the one they were tackling right now, so she let it drop for the moment and went back to the dream itself. Still, it was kind of vague… the clear water reference sounded familiar, but something else he said caught her attention first.

Female voices singing… eerie and pretty… there’s no way. Is there? Gwen cupped a cheek in her hand and bobbed her head from side to side with a faint clinking. “Gadget, what do you know about the merpeople?” There were the old legends of course, but anything passed on by skyship sailors was bound to be embellished to the point of near-unreality. There was a seed of truth in most of them, sure, but it was hard to find amidst all the blossoming fantasy, so to speak. The mention of merpeople got a surprised half-smirk from Theon, and he looked expectantly up at the toaster.

There seemed to Mordecai to be a number of different places to start from, elements of the dream that could be cross-referenced with his data, but Gwen—she’d finally convinced him to drop the ‘Mistress’ bit—pointed him in a direction, and he dutifully picked up the thread of thought. “The merfolk were an ancient race of people, believed descended from the Inflectori, with adaptations to aquatic environments. The one intact merfolk fossil known to modern scholarship is kept in the Galatean Royal Museum, but it is speculated that several more might exist on the Deluge black markets. Physical characteristics include fins, concentrated on the arms, legs and back, webbed hands and feet, and gills along the side of the neck.”

He paused for a moment, then prefaced his next piece of information with a disclaimer. “Little else survives in science, but it is popularly believed that the natural magic of the Inflectori came to be largely sound-based amongst the merfolk, which led to the rumors of the unwary being led to their deaths my enchantment of this nature.” He blinked, trying to put together the information in a way that would approximate what Gwen was doubtless already thinking. “You believe that what Master Theon heard was the song of the merfolk?” It seemed difficult to believe, given their present state of extinction, but perhaps it was metaphor for something. Mordecai struggled with metaphor, and tended to misinterpret even the ones he was able to recognize as such. Gwen shrugged; as a scientist, she knew better than most that there were things in the world that science didn't know as well as it thought it did, and she wasn't going to discount anything at this point. Metaphor or no, it was an intriguing possibility.

“There is nothing in this unit’s data storage about a knight in green plate armor.”

"Well," Theon said, "if they're anything like some of the stories told in Deluge, I don't think I'd mind meeting one or two." They probably weren't, though. Magical murderers through song seemed more likely. Or maybe the toaster was just better at seeming like he knew what he was talking about than the storytellers in Deluge were. Either way, he didn't mind the way Master Theon sounded, and certainly wouldn't be convincing him to drop it any time soon. Always the paragon of maturity that she was, the captain snickered. She'd heard a fair few of those stories herself.

The Lieutenant's expression soured, if that was at all possible. His fleshy fingers drummed tunelessly against his metal forearm, beating a rhythm of mild annoyance. Theon's tone—at first peculiarly self-gratifying and gratingly proud—had begun to irk him, sullying what he was really trying to say. The differences between the twins seemed so polar, but now, it was difficult not to note their similarities. Even so, he listened. The dream itself offered him no hints. He hadn't been savvy to their first dream-sharing conversation, after all. Had he been aware of what would happen in the desert? He wasn't sure. Questioning him now seemed pretty useless. If his dreams were important enough to share, then they'd need to pick it apart and figure out if it would give them an upper hand when they reached their destination. His eyebrows raised inquiringly, swinging over to where Gwendolyn was sitting.

More like man-eating sirens. Of course, the military sashayed with the government enough to discuss everything under the sun. This usually included restricted subjects. Black market dealings and nearly-instinct races were always fastidiously swept under the rug. This didn't like being surprised and they didn't like sharing information, either. The Lieutenant only inclined his head, studying Mordecai as he relayed what he knew on the subject. He, too, had been allowed to peruse through Leo's old books—at length, whenever he was feeling blue. It was a wonder he still struggled with the English language, bumbling through the words like a child piecing together a puzzle. Never bothered him any, because he preferred speaking in his mother tongue. Only Gadget understood him. He couldn't help but snort when Theon wondered aloud as to whether or not there were more scryers, doubting the possibility. The word was familiar enough, because every sector of the government sought them out. Wriggling grubby fingers around their necks. His eyes focused stolidly on the boy, and he said, “Arroganz vermindert Klugheit.”

Arrogance diminishes wisdom. Had Percy said that to him once, or had he read that somewhere? Perhaps, it had been Myrddin. It sounded like something he'd say. Scryers were supposedly dangerous. Useful when needed and inappropriate when not. His lip curled and formed a hard line before he shrugged his shoulders, arms still crossed. Someday, like they all did at some point, he'd be knocked down a few pegs. He knew more about scryers than he did about merfolk. He knew more about other unsavory beasties, as well. He'd been in the business of hunting them down and eradicating them. Shepherding soldiers out like mercenaries had been a popular option to keep them motivated. Whether or not they still did this was unknown to him. All ties and connections had been cut since his brother's death (and more importantly, hers). A knight in green armour and merfolk. Both of which seemed threatening to them, unless the armoured-man acted as some sort of guiding figure. Another guardian?

As always, the Lieutenant kept his thoughts to himself. Theon raised an eyebrow at the one comment Sven did make, with an obvious bit of confusion. "Uh... alright then." His look didn't seem too friendly, but the guy obviously didn't have anything to say to Theon, so he just shrugged at Gwen instead, figuring he'd take his leave pretty quickly here.

Gwen raised a brow in Sunshine’s general direction, a bit confused by his apparent hostility. Sure, Theon’s thoughts and mannerisms were more than a bit… colorful, but they lived on a ship full of sailors—it was hardly anything worse than that. Actually, she thought he was kind of funny. But then, Sunshine had a lot more life experience than she did, and she knew there were things he didn’t share, even with her. Their relationship just wasn’t like that; each was allowed their secrets, and they supported each other anyway. Sighing lightly, she returned her attention to the scryer.

“Well, at least we have some idea what we’re in for, now. I’ve never heard of this Green Knight, either, but if there are merfolk about, we’ll have to be wary. If they’re just a metaphor for something… we’ll still have to be wary, so there’s that. Thanks for the help, Daisy—we’d be flying blind without you. And you, Gadget, otherwise I’d be spending hours in dad’s library right now, and I think Spikey might sleep in there…” She grinned good-naturedly.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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It was surprising the amount of books the stringy changeling could carry when his mind was set to it. He had another stack up to his eyes, which he dumped on the desk in the study along with two other stacks of the same size. Loose leaf paper and quills were scattered across the desk as well like some sort of academic tornado blew through the room. In the middle of the desk sat the key he had recently been trusted with. The emerald still shone in the light, and it was almost as brilliant as the light that shone in his eyes. This... artifact was unlike anything he'd ever seen. The thing had to be ancient, almost as old as the planet itself if he had his guess about it. The mere prospect of holding a literal key to the past was thrilling.

Once he managed to hoard all the needed materials (and maybe some that weren't) he sat down at the desk, cracked the nearest book open and began to throw himself into his work. Now he was in his real element. He was not a warrior, nor was he much of an adventurer. He was a scholar at heart, and with a mountain of books around him he was in his natural habitat. Within moments, quill ink was flying as he made detailed notes on the key that sat in front of him. They mostly consisted of what it looked like, the shape, the heft, and even a couple of sketches occupied it. He'd made mention of taking it to Mordecai to get a better print of the key.

So involved in his work, he hardly noticed anything else in the room.

Dio loved a good book herself, but she was really more of an escapist than a historian. She was seated comfortable in the most inviting looking chair she could find, little bare feet propped up on one of the less inviting chairs, her sandals sitting unoccupied on the floor beneath her. She'd found one of her favorite romance novels here in the study, and had eagerly gotten back into it, having sadly little to occupy some of her days on the airship. Her happy ending hadn't worked out quite right just yet, but she knew how this one ended, so she was more than content to lose herself in it for a while.

She watched Percy with some amusement as he gathered everything he needed and set to work. The look in his eyes was really not all that different from the one she usually had when on a job, when she was right in the moment. She knew that was because these different things were their respective callings, what they loved to do most with their time. She certainly had nothing against a historian; in fact, they often went hand in hand with thieves and adventurers. Someone had to do the acquiring of the artifacts, after all, and though she didn't doubt Percy's capability, based on what she'd already seen, very few had the dexterity that she had honed.

But they already had their artifact this time, and now Percy needed to figure out what it would do, and how it was relevant to them, something which Dio was quite curious about, given that she had been officially inducted as one of the group selected by fate, on those nine circular plates. She flipped the book down on the chair in front of her and stood, padding along on quiet feet to where Percy was working. "Any luck with the research?" she asked in her friendly manner, eyes taking in the magnificent sight of the emerald key. She wondered how the Guardian had known which one of them to entrust it to... or maybe it had simply guessed.

The study’s third occupant was the automaton, who, at the encouragement of Mistress Gwendolyn, was spending his spare time around other members of the group when possible. She seemed to believe that he would have exposure to a wise range of human behavior this way, and so far, she was quite correct. For the most part, Master Percy and Mistress—well, just Dio—hadn’t really done much of anything except read, and so he had taken up the occupation as well. Actually, given the rate he was capable of scanning such information at, it was more like he picked up a new book every few minutes, memorized it, then spent another few minutes sorting and categorizing the data he came across for later re-access. It was slower than having such things directly uploaded into his memory, but he found it… enjoyable, as well, allowing his own mind to separate the pieces of information and see how and where they seemed to connect with other things that he knew.

He made an equal attempt at ‘reading’ fiction as well as informational texts, because the former seemed to be what Dio was doing, and the latter what occupied Master Percy. He was broken from his ruminations, however, by Dio’s voice, though her inquiry into the progress of the young mutatio’s research seemed to go unheard, and silence reigned for another few seconds. Seeing an opportunity to benefit a social situation, Mordecai approached the desk and mildly poked Percy in the shoulder, attempting to replicate with less… enthusiasm a mannerism of Gwendolyn’s that he’d seen her use with Sven, someone he had been assured met the requirements of friendship to her, making this what he would describe as a ‘friendly’ way of gaining attention.

“Master Percy,” he said, blinking when he remembered he should. “Dio indicated curiosity as to the state of your research. This unit echoes the sentiment and offers its assistance. It has information processing capabilities that may prove of aid to you.”

Percy was torn from his work as he stared at Mordecai for a second. It was difficult for him to shift the gears in his head so rapidly and by the time Percy managed to comprehend his words, he had already finished speaking. Like a deer in a spotlight, Percy first looked to Mordecai and then to Dio and back to Mordecai before trying to answer. "Uh..." He worked his mouth trying to find a satisfactory answer. He paused long enough to close his mouth and gather his thoughts from paper and put voice to it. "Well, it's old. As if that wasn't glaringly obvious. If I was to guess, it's probably as old as the Wellsprings." He said, setting the quill down and leaning back.

"It's also obvious that this goes into one of the keyholes in the door we saw under Deluge-- you.. weren't there for that, were you?" Percy asked rhetorically for Dio's sake. He was quiet for a moment before rifling through the stacks of papers and withdrew a blank page, where he hoved over for a moment with a quill before pausing again. He looked up at Mordecai and an idea came to him. He held out both quill and paper for the automaton. The construct surely had perfect memory, and could recreate the door far better than he could. "If you would be so kind as to draw the door for her? I'd also like to have one for my own notes," he explained before continuing.

He then picked up the key gingerly and held it for every one to see. "From the looks of it, it's just one big emerald. 'Course I've never seen an emerald in this form before. That being said, you can't even see the marks from where it was created. It looks like it was found like that. I might... Experiment on it, eventually," Percy said, setting it back down.

Mordecai took up the paper and writing implement and nodded, leaning over a small corner of the desk and studying the blank parchment for a moment as though trying to find something on it. The image of the door called up in his mind, he scaled it, fitted it to the dimensions he had available, then raised the quill. Every line was sure, and none superfluous, which was perhaps a good thing, considering that he had been given ink with which to accomplish the task and not charcoal. Unlike most artists, who started with basic shapes and then gradually filled in details, Mordecai’s work was detail-perfect from the start, and he simply moved himself back and forth across the parchment, filling perhaps a vertical inch with every pass.

Though his strokes were quick and certain, it still took time, as he was rendering it in realistic detail, occasionally using one of his fingers to smudge the ink for a shadow. Even the text above the frame was exact, and in perhaps some minutes, Mordecai straightened, placing the quill back into the inkwell and presenting the result to both Percy and Dio. “This is the door. The original text is Draconian, a dialect which is no longer spoken or taught outside of particularly-clandestine academic circles. This unit has a translation algorithm available for use.”

Dio had gone from being wholly absorbed by the sight of the key, to being wholly absorbed by watching Mordecai draw. She stood close beside him and watched him work, though not close enough to risk getting in his way. "Wow. Wish I could have seen that." Not that she wasn't doing something at the time she thought just as important, but still, it looked like quite the find. Though, he said under Deluge. Even being above Deluge wasn't a very nice place, so she imagined whatever lay beneath would probably have been gut-turning. The smell at the very least.

"So there must be more of these things to get, perhaps one at each of these sites these Guardians are sending us to. That would leave four more of them." She lost herself in the emerald again, before making a rather childish look of longing at Percy. "Can I hold it? Just for a moment?"

Again, Percy was hesitant, though this time more out of the fact that he was about to hand an insanely valuable artifact to a thief over some misunderstanding. It was finally when he decided she had nowhere to run aboard the airship and no place to pawn it off that he gingerly picked it up and held it out stretched for her to take. Perhaps he was being overly careful with it. Chances were, if the airship was to go down in flames, then the huge key shaped precious gem would be the one thing that would survive. It sure felt solid enough.

Seeing how carefully he offered it to her, she took it just as gently, as though it was some kind emerald baby, and indeed, she sort of cradled the thing in her arms, looking down on it with a half smile, blinking a few times. Her family's home in Xantus had a few artifacts worth a small fortune, but nothing like this, certainly. She supposed they wouldn't be interested in artifacts meant for saving the world, but giant green emeralds would certainly do the trick.

"This thing must weigh ten pounds," she speculated. "I wonder what all of the others are made of..." The possibilities were rather exciting, weren't they? Not that they could really do anything with them other than get an extremely cool collection going. "Want a turn?" she asked Mordecai, offering the key up to him.

Mordecai accepted the object, gauging the weight in one hand, then tapping it with a digit. “Nine point eight three six pounds,” he contributed mildly, “Though this unit believes the hardness of the object to be disproportionate to its material, perhaps as a side effect of the arcane nature of it. If it may offer advice, perhaps experimentation could be initiated now?” He was actually quite curious about the object, given to them by a being that he could not classify. It had called itself a ‘guardian,’ but what was it guarding? Just this object? If so, it had parted with its duty quite easily, all things considered. “It suspects the deck would be an optimal location, in case of error.”

Percy mulled the idea over in his mind for a bit before nodding. Just staring at it and taking notes would only get him so far. They needed physical research on the artifact, and he'd already jotted down the physical attributes of the thing-- scrawling the weight of the item at the top of his notes as Mordecai suggested experiments. Once his mind was made up, he flipped closed his journal and stoppered an inkwell. He slipped the quill over on of his ears and stood, motioning for Mordecai to lead the way. "Do you have any ideas on how to begin?" Percy asked, curious as to the Automaton's methods. He had his own methods of course, but a fresh mind-- even if it was artifical-- made this process all the more rewarding. He found himself more excited than he'd been in quite some time, perhaps the last time was on the last official job for the guild. He did love lecturing on the history of Albion, after all.

“This unit recommends exposing the object to a wide range of environmental stimuli and cataloging the results,” Mordecai replied simply, leading the way up to the deck. The library was large enough for a room in a ship, but there was much more room out here, and the crew knew quite well to give the guests a bit of berth, so they were also less likely to damage something with a misaimed spell or if the key reacted oddly to whatever they chose to do to it. Picking the location with the fewest and furthest other life-forms, the automaton ended up leading them to the stern of the ship, which happened to be a bit raised above the rest, and thus ideal for what they were attempting. As it happened, however, Lohengrin was nearby, and when he saw the small group with the key, he raised a brow and did not clear the stern deck, choosing to remain where he was and observe. This ought to be interesting. He wondered if they knew what they were doing.

Percy followed alongside the Automaton nodding his agreement, "My thoughts exactly. I was planning on testing the effects of my druidic magic on it first. Perhaps if the Guardian gave it to me to care for, I might hold something to reveal its secrets-- for there are secrets in it," Percy explained. There was nothing hard to explain this feeling, only the gut instinct of a scientist and researcher. Once on the deck, Mordecai led them to an open air, in which Percy sat down his journel and inkwell, taking a seat as well. He motioned for Mordecai to hand him the key, and he flipped open his notes.

With the key sitting in his lap, held both ends with his hands and concentrated. He didn't want to use to much magic and risk breaking it, but not too little and not produce a reaction. He needed to focus for this, and be as exact as he possibly could. A moment or two passed with nothing happening, before Percy's vines began to stretch out from under his sleeves, and wrap around the corners of the key. A faint green aura resonated around his hands, but the key stood resolute and refused to do anything but sit there. Percy noticed this, and eased his magic off, rescending the vines back into his sleeve. Once they were clear, he made note of the nonexistant effects in his journal, and handed the Key to Dio. "Perhaps lightning will produce a result?" he mused.

Dio took the key rather gingerly again and took a step back away from the others. "Okay..." she said, twisting her lips sideways and frowning at the key like it had given her directions she hadn't understood. She held it out firmly in both hands and let a small amount of lightning magic escape from her hands. She was horribly poor at containing her magic when she didn't have anything to channel it through, so a few arcs jumped around a little further than she would have liked, but that was why she'd stepped back in the first place. Apart from a few residual arcs of electricity that floated around the key shortly before dispersing, nothing really happened. She looked up at Percy, shrugging before she handed it back to him. "Sorry, nothing."

Ah, so they had no idea then. He probably should have expected as much—it was not as if these things came with user manuals or convenient instructions. Come to think of it, that might be what he was actually here for, since from here on out, the Guardians would probably tell them where they needed to go. There was one specific location that they’d need him to reach, but beyond that, he might as well have been a ton of bricks for all his utility.

This, though, this he might be able to help with. Unfortunately, just saying it produced an awkward, strangled sound that had him frowning and covering it with a cough, which should hopefully draw someone’s attention. “The key was given to the deer-boy,” he pointed out. “And a Guardian does nothing without a purpose. Perhaps he should retain possession of it during these experiments of yours?” It seemed that this was all he was allowed to give them, though, and he fell silent thereafter, returning his attention to the receding landscape.

"But..." Dio said, uncertainty in her tone, "I shouldn't shock it while Percy's holding it. I'll shock him, too." Obviously the idea of accidentally attacking her teammate wasn't one that sat well with her.

The mercenary’s eyes fell shut, and what might have been a sigh escaped somewhere into the wind. If she wasn’t going to do it, he was the only choice, since the machine couldn’t use magic as far as he was aware. He wondered if it would, even if it could. Pushing back from the rail, Lohengrin eyed the other two and shook his head. “I take it none of you ever learned the adage ‘no risk, no reward,’ then…” he muttered, more to himself than any of the three of them. Percy's eyes widened at the remark of risk versus reward. He'd heard the adage, of course, but certainly didn't like what it implied, and definitely not the spark glittering in Lohengrin's eyes. He absolutely didn't like where this was going. "Can... We talk about this first?"

He, on the other hand, had no reason to hesitate. An altruist he was not, and besides that, he knew exactly what the result of his actions was going to be. He supposed that was two advantages over the girl. Well, fine… if direct intervention was necessary, direct intervention it would be. Casually, he lit a cherry-red flame over the palm of one hand, and shot it directly for the key-holding Percy. “Risk..." Fortunately, the fact that the youth was holding it was sufficient for its activation, and the key produced a transparent bubble, akin to what a barrier spell looked like, and the flame washed over it harmlessly, dispersing. Lohengrin smiled wickedly, looking rather pleased with himself. “Reward. Now you know what it does."

Percy had thrown up his arms in anticipation of Lohengrin's spell, a layer of vines wrapping around his arms under his sleeves. Obviously, vines were no match for fire, and he waited for an intense burning sensation that never came. When he opened his eyes, he witnessed a barrier of some sort wrapping around him and all thoughts of his immediate danger evaporated. He watched as the bubble dissipated before throwing himself at his journal and quickly jotting something down. Lohengrin's attempt to immolate the boy forgotten in an instant, the mechanisms in the Changling's head whirring like never before. "Need to be in... Personal Danger.. For it to activate. I need to know how strong the barrier is. How long it can sustain itself. I need more experiments, I need more data. Mordecai," Percy said, tearing his head away from the journal, "We need to find out a way to test this without putting myself in immediate, or reduced risk." And just like that, Percy felt the intellectual surge once again.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Part Three: The Green Knight



As the Elysium approached the northern quarter of Albion, her captain elected to have the navigator plot a course that would swing them well away from any major population centers. The more of Artorias’s troops they could avoid, the better—but there was no mistake that venturing this far into civilized territory was dangerous, no matter what precautions were in place.

As if to emphasize this point, it was late one night when the emergency alert systems aboard the ship began to blare a signal—all hands on deck. An Imperial cruiser had been sighted, and unfortunately, it looked like the Elysium had not gone unnoticed, either. Though Gwen had considered flying the parley flag and trying to talk her way out of the situation, the resounding boom of cannon-fire ended all such inclinations on her part, especially when the cannonball itself smashed into the hull of her precious ship, causing it to tremble and crack as some of the reinforced boards it was made of splintered. It was a glancing blow at best, but nobody messed with her baby and got away with it. Not even Artorias.

Lohengrin was awoken rudely by the clarion call of alarms, a rather grating sound that managed to serve its purpose quite well: he was awake and armed within moments. While he wouldn’t normally have considered a shirt a very important item to have at such a point, he did have a rather telltale line of red scales along his spine, and so he threw one on anyway, grabbing his sword and running to the deck, bare feet slapping noisily on the wooden stairs up from the crew quarters. Throwing open the door, he emerged to a star-spattered sky and a lot of halogen lights, illuminating the deck for those on it, which at this point, appeared to be slightly more than half the crew.

He’d expected complete chaos, but the crew were moving about efficiently, shouting commands or requests when necessary but otherwise remaining quiet. The rhythmic pounding of feet over planks was the loudest thing—well, that and the roar of the other ship’s engine, which could be heard from over here. Were they that close? He’d have expected the captain to be in the cockpit, but she was at the prow instead, staring straight ahead with a hard look to her eye that he recognized, but would not have expected to see from her. Her rifle was slung across her thin shoulder, her mouth tugged down into a scowl that probably would have done Sven proud. She was studying something in the distance, and part of him wasn’t sure he wanted to interrupt that, but in the end he did anyway.

“What are we dealing with?” he asked, his profession for once obvious in his demeanor. The breeze of their passage played with her hair, his shirt, and he realized it was actually getting a bit cold. Fuck, he hated the cold. But neither of them commented on it, and he peered into the darkness, trying to discern anything useful of that shape he could make out ahead.

“Imperial cruiser, Class A, from the hull design and that awful engine. A war machine. We could outrun her, but she’d probably cripple our engines, and where we’re going, they aren’t allowed to follow.” It was far too soon to let anyone get an inkling of what they were doing. The mission was still in its early stages, and the team far from stable. Gwen knew this the same way she knew many things she’d never say—from observations she pretended not to make.

Lohengrin’s brows drew together. He didn’t know much about airships, but he knew enough. “We’re outgunned,” he contributed flatly. Class A ships were the biggest, baddest things in Artorias’s impressive arsenal, and while slow, they would have enough ammo to hit the Elysium somewhere important before she could get clear. The angle was wrong for an escape.

Gwendolyn smiled then, a predatory flash of teeth. “Doesn’t matter,” she said with a shake of her head. “Because we’re going to board her.”

Sleep deprived or not, the alarms did their job of waking Percy up. Face first on the desk he had repurposed for himself, the vicious sirens assaulted him, throwing him to the floor with a start. Taking a moment to realize what exactly was going on, he looked up to the flashing light and tilted his head curiously. Whatever it mean, it was obviously not good. Percy made his way back to his feet, pulling the paper that was still adhered to his forehead and slamming it on the desk. Maybe the cervine was a little cranky, but considering the lack of sleep and a rude awakening maybe it could be excused. Checking the key to make sure he didn't throw it on the floor in his fit, he grabbed his staff by the door and made his way to the upper deck.

The glancing blow made Percy stumble on his ascent up the stairs, but he recovered quite nicely and pushed ahead to the deck. It was eerily quiet. Sure, effort noises and the banging of machinery was still present, but every breath had a purpose and was not wasted. There were no shanties to keep the graveyard crew awake for now. One of the crew pointed Percy in the right direction, toward Gwen. Lohengrin seemed to have been the first to arrive, and Percy didn't seem to be that far behind him, catching most of their conversation.

He stood by the railing on the other side of Lohengrin, staff planted firmly in the boards at his feet leaving him staring sagely in the open skies. Sagely or not, Gwen's response forced Percy's head against his staff. "Of course we are..." Most of the enthusiam in his voice had been sucked out long ago. It was unlikely it was a joke, so Percy closed his eyes and began to concentrate. There were no antlions in the sky, after all. He needed to know what kind of aid he could expect.

"Damn right we are!" Came the perky voice somewhere to their right. Admist the nearby netting stood Vivi, face positively alight with anticipation. She hung dangerously over the prow with one hand holding onto the netting, the other carrying her naked sword. She itched for a fight and wished that she could jump onto the ship from there. Unfortunately, she'd have to wait a couple of minutes for them to get closer. But that was fine. She'd spend those minutes savoring the moment they board an Imperial ship.

Mordecai was not a being that had a need for sleep, but sometimes, when there was nothing else to do and the seldom-restful captain was busy, he would power most of his systems down for a little while. Everyone else slept at night, anyway, and though he still enjoyed lending a hand with the operations of the ship, he did not desire to do so all the time. Occasionally, a lack of activity was not such a bad thing. It was in this half-aware state that he was instantly roused by the sound of alarms, the tones leading him to believe that it was a call for all hands. As a being with hands, it seemed only appropriate that he answer it.

In the hallway of the crew quarters, he stepped aside so as not to accidentally run into Mistress Kethyrian, who was looking somewhat upset, her hair unbound and askew, who was just belting her knife into place at her waist. “Mordecai,” she said, voice still a bit sleep-dampened, and he returned the greeting politely. Together, they advanced up the stairs, Kethyrian blinking against the harsh lights on the deck. She’d see better against pure darkness than this, but not everyone grew up in a cave, and she couldn’t really be too upset about that.

It was easy enough for the both of them to locate their allies, and though the healer knew naught of airships, the automaton seemed interested in the specifications. They approached, both looking out over the prow at the oncoming ship. Kethy could make out figures dressed on the deck, and they appeared to be dressed in green uniforms. “Vipers?” she demanded of nobody in particular, clearly irritated. “I thought those were infantry units?” Gritting her teeth, she shook her head; it probably didn’t matter. The fact that they were boarding proved in and of itself why infantry units could be useful on a ship, she supposed.

“This unit detects cannons on the deck being loaded,” Mordecai informed them tranquilly, and Kethyrian swore under her breath in her birth tongue. They seemed to be getting closer to this other ship, which seemed like the opposite of a good idea if the lizard was right about them being outgunned. Then again… what else could they do but get in close and try to punch through the soldiers actually manning the cannons? She still sympathized with the scholar the most.

Theon found the last of the caravan's guards coughing up blood on the side of the road, coming out in red rivulets to run down his cheek and onto his neck. He'd been hit low, judging by the steadily blooming red splotch on his shirt. "Grayson, your pistol," Theon commanded, pulling his hood back and his mask down from his face. They were near the rolling dunes of the true desert now, and likely wouldn't want to go much farther north after this. It would be slim pickings up that way anyway. They cut back east, dipping south enough to avoid the majority of the orcish warbands. They could stop in Deluge and sell of their loot. The men could fuck all the whores they wanted, piss away their hard earned cash, and come begging to him to deliver them more. Maybe he'd indulge them.

A tall, lanky man handed Theon his pistol, for which the scryer did not thank him. It was expected of lessers to follow the order of their betters. He thanked them went they went out of their way for him, not before. Theon liked Grayson's pistol the most, apart from his duckfoot. The barrel was longer than most, and it fired a large shot, typically used for rifles. While the duckfoot was certainly overkill to use on one unarmed, dying man, this pistol was only slight overkill. Theon knelt down in front of the guard, wondering how much he'd been hired for. Too little, whatever it was.

"You don't have to kill me," he said, pleading with his eyes as Theon pushed the barrel up under his chin. "Just take the valuables and go. Please, I have a--" A loud bang rang out, and the shot exploded out the top of the man's skull, silencing him. "Don't tell me what to do," Theon grumbled, standing and flipping around the still smoking pistol to hand back to Grayson. "Take everything you can carry," he told his men. "We're headed back to Deluge, to see what this buys us." A cheer went up from his band of highwaymen, but it was immediately followed by a shot from a cannon, the ball landing with a heavy thud against a small dune of sand. None of the men seemed to notice it at all, which made Theon frown. He only noticed it because it had never happened in this dream before. This dream was supposed to be almost over. He walked over to inspect it, kneeling down. When he lowered his head to it, he noticed a slight hissing sound.

He hadn't taken two steps away from it by the time it exploded.


Theon woke to the sound of sirens blaring, and he cursed loudly at them. When he heard the booming in the distance beyond the walls of his quarters, however, he knew that his dream had been trying to tell him something. He threw himself back down on the bed, trying to make himself as small as possible. The cannonball exploded through one wall and out the other, the force of it passing enough to throw his bed on its side, taking Theon down to the floor with it. Thanking his dream, he scrambled into his armor and geared up, wondering why these assholes always attacked at night.

He didn't even know who they were yet, but the cannon fire told him something. He was wary enough about flying on this thing, getting into a battle with another wasn't exactly on his to-do list. Nevertheless, he made his way up to the deck, where he found Dio climbing up into the rigging to get a better look at the enemy. Gwen and the others were gathered at the prow, and Theon got his first look at the warship poking holes in them, just in time to hear the captain say they were going to board them. "How does that work? We're not just going to... jump onto it, are we?"

Gwen laughed, a sound altogether too cheery for the situation they were in, but anything about her that might have been soft was gone now. “Not quite,” she replied with a grin over her shoulder, but then she lowered her rifle from its spot at her shoulder and strode through a gap in the group to the edge of the upper deck. Her next words were shouted for all to hear.

“Listen up, lovelies! That’s a class A we’re looking at, which means the king in all his splendiferous glory has decided to pay attention to little old us!” There was a general chorus of disgruntlement to meet this statement, but it died off quickly. “That big ugly cow of a warship and her crew,”— she thrust her metal hand in the general direction of the vessel and people in question— “Think they can just fly over here, mess with our favorite lady and us, and get away with that! If the king wants a show, we’re going to give him a show!” Maybe the righteous indignation was a little much, but she was in a bad mood and she was going to roll with it.

The cheering was worth it. Damn, she loved these people. Half of them were almost as crazy as she was, and the others were just bloody loyal, and both of these things were completely okay with her. They didn’t look like much, but these were her people, and dammit all if they were going to lose to a bunch of poncy Vipers with some fancy cannons. “So get to work! Sprocket, you’re in charge of the bombardment line—set up the catapults. Ducky, bring the torches from below—I want two people to each catapult, and another two on all the starboard cannons. This is gonna get nice and ugly before we’re done. Maul, Buddy, Ragdoll, and Babyface, you’re with me!”

She turned to the more or less assembled members of Avalon’s Dawn, setting her hands on her hips. “And so are you lot.” Grinning, she waved up at Dio so the woman would know to come down and join them. Once everyone was in a group, she spoke quickly. “Soon as I give the order, Froggy’s gonna fly us in close, then a couple of the bigger guys are going to lay planks between the Elysium and the cow. Heavies first, rangers behind. If you’re more comfortable shooting things from in-between two of my cannons, do that, but don’t get in the way of reloading, please. There will be two planks, so that means two groups. I’m gonna be at the fore, and Sunshine’s in charge of the one downship. I’ll let you sort yourselves out, but try to be smart about it, mmkay?” A pause. “We accept surrenders here, but not before we knock 'em cold so they can't get us in the back. Don't kill anyone who isn't a soldier, please-- someone's gotta get the cow outta the sky when we're done. Artorias is going to get himself a nice message out of this."




In short order, the groups had taken their places, and though the crew worked fervently around them, they were for the most part, still. The approach had been steady, but, seeing that everyone was lined up where they should be, Gwen raised her rifle, bracing the butt against her shoulder, and lowered her goggles onto her face. Everything was filtered orange now, but it was much easier to see, and she picked her target with care, exhaling and holding her breath as she squeezed the trigger of the gun. It went off with a riotous boom that cut over the drone of the opposing engine, and a sailor on the other deck dropped, clutching a wound in her shoulder. That should put that particular cannon out of commission for a little while, but more importantly, it acted as a signal to Gorlak, currently engaged in the tricky business of piloting the Elysium up alongside the cow.

With the sound of the shot, the speed suddenly increased, smoothly enough so as not to jar any of those working, and they were approaching rapidly. Gwen stood back to allow Tiny and Kerosine, two of the bulkier members of her crew, to ready the boarding planks, knowing that Grizzly and Mouse were doing the same on Sunshine’s end of things.

The plan, such as it was, was relatively simple. She and her team would clear the upper deck and make a rather large distraction while Sven and his ran for belowdecks, where they would need to work as fast as possible to take out the line of cannoneers manning the bigger guns that were just now emerging from sliding wooden panels in the side of the cow. At such close range, they wouldn’t do much to her baby, but there was still a chance that a lucky shot or two could hit something important, and she didn’t want that.

Smooth as butter, the Elysium drew parallel to the cow, and the boarding planks were down before the other fools could even load their guns. Sprocket’s raspy, but feminine voice, called for the first round of catapult fire, and it was quick in coming—the arms launched large skins filled with a gooey, tarlike substance that would seriously hamper the movement of and over anything it hit. She’d already told the guild members not to step in it if they could avoid doing so. Gwen didn’t have time to make sure they heeded her though—she was already reloading, letting Gadget, Daisy, and Rosy head into the fray before her, as all of them were more disposed to getting up-close and personal than she was.

Mordecai was the first across on his end, deciding that “provide a distraction” translated in his terms to “throw lots of things and people around to draw attention to yourself.” This was, therefore, his plan, insofar as he chose one. For the moment, he held off on activating one of his combat modes, as he was unsure which would be more needed, and switching between them was quite difficult at the best of times. So as soon as he’d spotted the first wave of assailants making for himself and the others, he half-shrugged, and allowed one of them, clearly mistaking him for human, to approach, then stepped into the man’s guard and picked him up, by the bicep and then one of his legs, pivoted around a few times for momentum, and then effortlessly launched him into a knot of his comrades, taking them all to the deck.

It had certainly succeeded in drawing attention.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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These people were crazy, Theon was certain of it. He was crazy too, of course, but these people all had death wishes, and that was a whole other brand of crazy. They were only flying deathtraps, so far away from the ground that they'd all end up little splats of red when they destroyed each other by firing fucking cannons at each other at point blank range. This was insanely stupid. Gritting his teeth, Theon ran at near top speed across the plank to the other ship, noticing the toaster's rather impressive efforts at drawing attention. His attack resulted in a pile of soliders all clambering to get untangled from one another.

They were soon to be a bunch of meat, of course. Theon pulled the duckfoot from his belt, cocked it, and unloaded a blast on the run into the mass of flesh, blowing large holes in most of them, splashing the others with bits of blood, bone, and brain matter. The gun didn't even fly out of Theon's hand this time, so he stashed and took up the axe instead, catching the first wrist that he came across, stopping a sword slash cold and responding by splitting the bastard's skull down to his mouth with his axe.

The violence had almost made him forget how high up in the air he was, but the next blast of one of their cannons reminded him. They couldn't shoot these fucking things if they had no crewmen left to load and fire, so that was what he set about doing, sprinting towards the nearest crew, slamming his axe into the first's lower back, all the way to the spine. Tossing him aside he grabbed the cuff of the second's shirt. "Grow some wings for me," he said, before casting the man over the edge. Perhaps it was worth analyzing, how Theon desired to inflict what he feared upon others. If only he were the type to do such a thing.

He was not, of course. He would sooner remove men of their heads, as he proved immediately after. The killing spree was interrupted, however, when the last crew member plowed into him weaponless, driving him too quickly towards the edge. His legs bumped up against it, and there was a push on his chest, sending him over. Sheer terror alone made him grab the man's shirt and pull him over, too. He yelped in horror just as Theon grabbed hold of the railing, and the soldier wrapped his arms firmly around the scryer's waist.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!" he shouted repeatedly. He tried to shake the soldier off, but he had a hold on Theon's axe arm. "What are you doing? Let go! You want to kill us both?!" The silence seemed to answer in the affirmative. That was when another of the soldiers appeared on the other side of the railing, knife in hand. Theon glared murderously at him. "I got one of your buddies here, asshole. You're not gonna kill one of your friends, are you?"

Again, the silence seemed to answer in the affirmative.

There was one fatal flaw in the soldier's judgement. He forgot to check behind him. The last thing he would ever feel was the cold kiss of steel against his neck. A pull of a trigger and a resounding boom later, and there was hardly anything left of his face. A mist engulfed those unfortunate enough to be caught in front of him with blood and grey matter. He slunk into the deck and his killer took his place. A smiling face with a hint of disappointment greeted Theon. Vivi was not impressed with her brother's showing. A series of tsk's escaped her mouth as she looked over the poor sight.

"Come on Teo, you're better than this," She said, propping an elbow up on the railing. She then glanced further over the railing and noticed that Theon had company. Making friends without her, it looked like. "Uh, Teo? You've got something on you. Here, I'll get it for you." With that, Vivi leaned on the railing, dangerously stretching herself out into the open expanse below them all and placed a gun to the hanger-on's head. She wasn't foolish, she angled the barrel away from Theon. The look of absolute despair and fright in the soldier's eyes did nothing to abate Vivi's nonchalance, as she pulled the trigger like it was any other chore. Another boom, and Theon would find himself an entire person lighter.

Not one to keep her brother hanging, Vivi reeled herself back over on the deck and holstered her pistol. Then she mounted the railing with a hop, keeping Theon between her feet. With reckless abandon befitting the spitfire, she leaned over the railing and grabbed a handful of the back of Theon's shirt and hauled. Setting the gap of her soles in the railing she arched her back and yanked, trying to reel Theon over edge once more. "Now. You can't be going overboard like that. I don't know what I'd do without you," She said, displaying the sole hint of emotion-- other than excitement-- during the entire boarding. If she wasn't so damn she that she could haul him back in, she'd be freaking out. Vivi just hoped he didn't see the way she had cut a swath toward him the moment his feet left the deck.

"You," She said, jamming an acusing finger in his chest, "Are not leaving my sight again."

"You had no problem leaving me last time," he reminded her sullenly. Between nearly falling to his death and then being rescued by his sister, he was not in the best of moods, and he certainly didn't feel like being scolded. He pushed past her and started reloading his duckfoot. He wasn't sure if he'd meant to say that. Things had changed since the argument that resulted in Vivi abandoning Theon and his raiders, but he still found it irksome for her to act all clingy now, when it had been she who'd left. Maybe that was just the bad mood speaking. He was getting a headache from it all. He needed to kill someone else. The raging spark that had been in her eye moments ago was snuffed out instantly. Her mouth shut tightly, never nearing the everpresent grin that always seemed to make its home on her lips. Her body went rigid and mechanical as Mordecai's. Vivi wordlessly unsheathed her sword and went about mopping up, though the joy in the act had all been but sucked out.

Gwen, meanwhile, was encountering some difficulties of her own. A good captain, she had absurdly retained from someone’s drunken opinion on the matter, was a person unafraid to lead a charge into enemy territory. She wanted, very much, to be a good captain. The problem was, while she was indeed quite willing to get up close and personal with the kinds of people who would try to kill her friends and tear her beloved Elysium out of the sky, this was not to say she was entirely capable. While a crack shot with just about any kind of firearm, Gwen was a very small person, indeed, and as small people do, she tended to get tossed around quite easily. This, she thought to herself as she hit the deck, shoulderblades first, with a hard thud, was perhaps only compounded by the fact that she didn’t really know how to fight at such short distances.

She’d swapped to her pistol, of course, she wasn’t that stupid, but she wasn’t going to accidentally hit one of her crew or the Guild members because of all the moving around they were doing, which left her options rather limited, moreso when someone or another managed to slip past Gadget and pressure her in close quarters. Gwen yelped, ducking the incoming sweep of a scimitar, flinching a little when she felt the ends of a few hairs give, making her quite aware that her dodge had been somewhat spare as far as such things went. From her crouch, she used her legs to add force to the metal-handed punch she swung at his gut, but that only doubled him over for a few seconds, not long enough for her to reload.

He went low as she slipped the bullet into the chamber, and she managed to close it before she had to leap back into a one-handed spring, propelling herself as far away as she could. Alas, she landed atop a body rather than the deck wood she’d been expecting, which naturally tripped her, and she landed hard on her rear this time. Rolling her eyes to herself, she cocked the hammer and fired in one smooth motion, dropping the fellow she shot and picking herself up with a huff. She wasn’t really used to fighting, but she wasn’t going to tell anyone else that. She’d been raised an engineer, not a soldier, but what these people needed from her right now was a captain, and that meant she’d just have to do better.

That started now. Noting that the siblings seemed to be occupied, she sought the automaton instead. “Gad-get!” she sing-songed, barreling ahead of the majority of the fight and drawing even with Mordecai. “Please inquire of that gentleman you’re currently maiming as to the location of his captain. We have a message to send to Artorias, and I’d like it to get through.”

The skyship sailor, hearing what might be an opportunity to survive the things this machine was capable of, spoke up at once. “C-cabin. Fortified door. Please don’t kill me.” The man looked as though he’d honestly probably lost control of his bladder already, which she supposed might be a natural reaction when someone like Mordecai was tearing his way through your friends. She felt a bit sorry for him, really.

“We won’t,” she promised, with a smile that was probably not at all reassuring. “Unconscious only, please, Gadget. Then follow me, if you would. You seem like a great way to get by a reinforced door.”

Mordecai had no objections to this plan, and so, with a decisive motion, he brought the sailor’s head into contact with his knee and dropped the man there, following Gwendolyn down a series of stairs and then to what appeared to be the largest door on the ship. It was, in fact, reinforced, bands of steel crossing the wood on the outside and probably the inside as well. He studied it for a moment, then looked to the captain for confirmation that this was the door she wanted destroyed. At her nod, the automaton drew back a few steps, drawing even with the wall on the opposite side of the hallway. He was capable of breaking down the portal without any additional momentum… in one of his combat modes. As he had yet to engage one of these, he would need a bit of extra wallop.

His visual sensors picked up the most likely weak spot, and, digging his feet into the wood of the floor, he propelled himself forward into a leap, not unlike the one that Gwen had made for his person when she decided to test his reflexes the other day. Unlike that particular instance, however, this one did not end with him rebounding off the surface in question and landing on the floor. Rather, there was a mighty crack, and splinters of wood flew everywhere, a few nails from the steel supports joining them. Mordecai shifted in time to block the worst of these from hitting the captain’s less-durable human flesh, and when the door did not simply fall over, he instead ripped it from its hinges with a great groaning of planks and metal, throwing it inwards as a resounding round of gunfire perforated the air.

The door itself crashed into the captain of this vessel, bringing him down and wrenching the firearm from his hands. Mordecai wasted no time in leaping in after it, fishing the fellow out from under the metal and wood, using one of his hands to bind the man’s wrists in a hold that probably qualified as viselike, and the other to lift him into the air and set him down again atop the ruined door.

Gadget really did some excellent work, Gwen reflected as he used the massive door to block any incoming bullets. Really, if she’d just given him the message and told him what to tell this man, she would have been entirely superfluous. Then again, she liked to think she brought a certain element of style to it that perhaps Mordecai’s monotone might not have managed. Casually strolling in after the automaton, she eyed the captain with thinly-veiled contempt. The man was thin, though not lanky. More like… mousy, and the equally-slender moustache adorning his upper lip was doing him no favors in the respectability department. He looked incredibly frightened, but she supposed she could forgive him that much. Gadget was quite the opponent to face down, and her own blasé attitude, and the pistol held loosely in her flesh-hand, were likely not helping him believe he was going to survive.

“Name?” she asked, the syllable too saccharine to be at all genuine, and he flinched a bit before answering, looking furtively between the weapon in her hand and the golem holding him, apparently giving it up as useless to do anything but comply and bet on their mercy. “C-Captain Kurt Longfellow, ma’am.” He looked almost like he wanted to salute, which was kind of cute, but naturally, the lock-hold Mordecai had on him prevented most, if not all, movement.

“Well, Captain,” Gwen replied, eyeing him a bit like a hungry dog eyes a steak, “My name is Captain Gwendolyn Skybound, and I’m curious to know what possessed you to fire on my ship with no provocation.” She was mostly taunting him, now… no doubt Artorias had demanded the Elysium be shot down on sight. He didn’t have the greatest patience with his enemies, though she’d honestly never expected to be counted in that number. Her father had been a friend and advisor to the King. Strange, how things could change so quickly.

“P-please, ma’am… I’m just f-following my orders. He said… t-traitors to the crown.” This caused her eyebrows to furrow, creasing her forehead in a rare show of disquiet. Swiftly, she remembered herself and resumed the act. Cocking the pistol, she pressed it to his temple, feeling no satisfaction from the fear that played so fiercely over his rapidly-paling face.

“Traitor? Me? Someone needs to remind that man of a few things…” The fingers of her free, metal hand flexed with a faint sound, and she could almost feel the phantom pain of the limb that used to be there. Her jaw tightened, and abruptly she moved, pointing the gun at the wall and firing off a shot into the wood. The barrel smoked faintly, and Gwen cracked a smile. “Here’s how this is going to go, Whiskers. A traitor is going to show you more mercy than your king would in the same situation. You’re going to think about that later, but not right now. At this moment, you are going to get yourself to your cockpit, call off your dogs, and land this pile of shit you call a ship at the nearest port. You’re going to speak of what happened to no one until you can make your way back to Galatea and get yourself an audience with the king. You’ll tell him that the Lady Steele sent you, and he’ll let you in just fine.

“Once you’re there, you’re going to tell him that she is very disappointed in him, and that if he wants to bring this Guild down, he’s going to have to go through her, and he’ll need to try a whole lot harder than this. You’re going to ask him if any trace of the man she knew is even left under that damned crown, and you’re going to express her hope that it does. Is that perfectly clear?”
At the squirrely man’s nod, she grinned broadly. “Good, I rather thought so too. Gadget, please escort the captain to his flight deck.”

Sure enough, Gwen had reached the deck not two minutes later, when to the surprise of all the vipers aboard, an announcement rang out. “Men, this is Captain Longfellow. Stand down and surrender. We’re withdrawing.” Incredulous they may be, but they were soldiers still, and to a man, those still conscious threw down their weapons and backed away from them, though none looked pleased with the development. For her part, Gwendolyn spoke immediately afterwards. “That’s a wholesale surrender, folks, so let’s get the hell out of here before those cannons put any more holes in my ship. We have a key to find!”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Gwen had deemed it safer to make only necessary repairs as they were traveling—landing anywhere this far north was just too damn dangerous for the moment, and they couldn’t afford to be spotted again, perhaps by larger numbers of warships. So they bypassed the forest-line of the hemisphere, everything under them turning green for at least a day before they had to land. Beyond this point, the forest grew so thick and dense that there would be nowhere to put the ship, and the rest of the trek would be the journey of a couple of days on foot. To this end, everyone had been advised to pack what they’d need, and she’d ask-forced Gadget to be burdened down with the rest—food, cookware, spare weapons, and the like. She felt kind of bad about making him the glorified packhorse of the group, but despite her flighty mannerisms, Gwen was at heart a practical woman, and he would not suffer to carry what other people could not.

The Guild in its entirety disembarked from the ship in a large clearing. The grass was vaguely wet, some combination of residual morning dew and perhaps rain from yesterday. It would rain today, too—Lohengrin could smell it on the air, though when he looked up into the circle of sky outlined by the canopies of the trees, there was not yet a cloud to be seen. Perhaps the trees would be dense enough to shield them from the worst of it—he was not at his best when wet and cold, and he grumbled slightly to himself when the chill in the air pricked his human skin with gooseflesh. Ratcheting his internal temperature up a few degrees, he resolved to ignore it as best he could. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice but to take this damned two-day hike, and more’s the pity for the fact that he had to take it with company.

The captain, adjusting the straps on the pack that held her supplies, swung the thing over her back and grimaced a bit at the weight. It wasn’t that she had that much stuff, really, but… it was better to bring too much and not need all of it than forget something vital. She wouldn’t make anyone carry her things, though—Gadget had enough on his hands with the general supplies, and she had a little too much pride to ask anyone else, like Sven. He’d do it, for her, like he’d always done anything she needed and quite a few things she hadn’t, but she didn’t want him to. She was captain now, like Daddy had been, and that meant shouldering her own burdens without complaint, and making room for anyone else’s, too. “All right, everyone; let’s get a move on while the day’s still young, hm?”

The Lieutenant welcomed the change in temperature. It was cool enough not to wear excessively-bulky outfits, and still warm enough that his mechanical joints didn't seize up like an old woman with rickety, arthritis-riddled bones, notwithstanding the occasional puffs of steam hissing from them each time he took a step. He burdened a slightly larger backpack, filled to the brim with essentials and nonessentials—things that they might have wanted, but were too stingy to pack for fear of travelling long distances and fatiguing themselves. Secreting away luxuries would keep their morals from plummeting too low, and he did not mind the extra labour. Gruntwork and drudgery kept his mind free from troublesome thoughts, chased them neatly away with the growing beads of sweat fringing his hairline. He followed along near the rear, silent as ever, but still keeping a watchful eye. Theon's warning had bothered him enough to warrant extra caution. He didn't like being surprised.

Kethyrian was a bit cold, but she was also not as badly-off as she thought she’d be, perhaps partially due to the dark purple hat covering the ends of her sensitive ears, wool and perhaps a bit ridiculous, but then, with enough haughtiness, one could learn to wear anything like a crown, and her consummate dignity did not quite allow her to look like anyone that somebody could safely laugh at. The ponytail had been taken down into a braid, and she’d fashioned it so that the white bits were only traces, and what mostly showed was black. She’d learned to do that, once—it had been the only way she felt comfortable wearing it. Not that she hadn’t contemplated dyeing it or chopping it all off, but what would the use have been? She’d still have known. Everyone would still have known. This was better, though she couldn’t say exactly how.

Her own pack was light—her people were at their very core survivors, and she no less than any caveborn. She never needed much, never would need much—and the excess of indulgence was not the poison by which she would die. Her feet were tucked into leather boots with a thick wool lining, waterproofed by a spot of alteration magic not her own. Into them, she’d tucked her masculine breeches, though her white shirt draped loosely, halfway down her thighs. She was not, thankfully, a vain woman—it might have been the only subspecies of pride that she did not possess in great spades. She lingered in the back of the group, near Sven, though she did not need his shadow this time. The light was not so bright here, and under the verdant canopies of the forest, it would be even less. She wondered if this place should spark some ancestral memory, of what her people had once been. The Inflectori supposedly had an affinity for forests, but she felt none. She could doubtless climb a tree as well as a cave wall, but the smell of leaves and dark earth did not feel like coming home.

Nothing ever would, again.

Some distance in front of her, Mordecai looked the same as ever, perfectly content with the extra supplies slung over his shoulders and affixed to his back with a system of leather straps and metal buckles. He was dressed just the same as ever—though in some aesthetic sense, had dressed for the environment, primarily in dark green and brown. It was an odd contrast with his native coloration, which was much more slanted towards the urban—black, white, red, yellow. He was obviously out-of-place, but gave no evidence of being aware of this. Though it made sense for Gwendolyn or perhaps Theon to lead, he stayed towards the front as well, calculating that any potential threat was more likely to be encountered in this direction than from behind. At the captain’s word, he set off, trailing behind her a bit like a puppy loath to leave its mother—and perhaps of everyone present, Gwen reminded him most of Morgause. Not that he thought her similarly unstable, but her odd mannerisms and cheerful, open demeanor were reminiscent of the first few years of his life, and he sought that out without quite understanding why.

Even one of her hats couldn't quite make Kethyrian look friendly. Dio was a little disappointed in herself. Maybe from behind... no, she still didn't seem particularly approachable. But it certainly helped. Dio was of course wearing one of her own, this time a light yellow wool with baby blue zig-zagged stripes stitched in a ring around the edge. They were some way from Xantus, here, but the weather was still much more familiar to her than anything near the desert or the deep south would ever be. It was the first time she'd come back to the north since her exile and supposed death. She couldn't help but wonder how much longer she could go on before her family realized she was still kicking. Knowing them, they already knew.

Theon was up near the lead, pretending like he knew where to go. His dreams were never so kind as to give him an exact location and show him where it was on a map, but people didn't need to know that. They were headed towards a big lake with water clear enough to see to the bottom of, and singing merpeople swimming around below. He assumed once they started hearing the voices, they'd all know where to go. Apparently that was supposed to be a few days from now. He'd done his fair share of walking and hiking with his bandits, so this would be no great challenge. Avoiding speaking with any of the others might be slightly more difficult. He was still in a foul mood from the air battle earlier.

He'd nearly forgotten that he was only a man with a loud gun and an inability to get a good night's sleep. It was annoying to be reminded.

Trotting alongside the party, weaving in and out of the trees, was Percy. He walked among the foliage and greenery, undeterred by the moist groud or chilly air like he was born in the forest. He might as well have been, as comfortable as he was among the trees and grass. He now sported a ten point rack of antlers, a chestnut colored coat and big wide brown eyes. What was off about Percy in his fullshift form however, were the-- well, mildly put, saddlebags weighing down on his shoulders. Provisions, a book or two, the key, and a number of other items, essential or not, ladened him down, but it didn't bother him one bit. Ironically, out of the entire party, the bookish kid was best suited for the two day hike-- if he was by himself it wouldn't have even taken that long for him.

Vivi on the other hand was not so cheerful. A dark raincloud had settled on her shoulder and she lagged far behind the rest of the party. She was in a foul mood, easily. The hurt and betrayal she had felt on the airship had quickly morphed and manifested itself into full on anger and rage. Annoyance flickered across her face and she walked with heavy steps. She carried little hardly a pack on her back, filled with the bare essentials. She had lived in the desert for a good chunk of her life, she was not so fragile as that. She was better than that.

The first day of hiking was a little more productive than Gwen had dared expect—while the group was not exactly fresh, given the excitement of the previous day, they all seemed quite inclined to get this over with as quickly as possible. For some of them, this was just garden-variety grumpiness or eagerness or what-have-you, but she noted Rosy’s sullenness and stubborn refusal to walk with anybody else, and supposed that it might be connected to whatever ants were in Daisy’s pants, so to speak. Still, she doubted it was anything she could fix, even if she wanted to, so for the moment, she just left it be. If it persisted, then she would start asking questions, but she liked to think that, all evidence to the contrary, she knew when to back off or stay out of other people’s business. It was one of those essential skills for a captain to have, after all.

She’d actually brought a map, so she was perhaps more orientated than most, except Gadget, who she suspected had one in his head and could probably read it better than she could, anyway. Gwen was actually pretty bad with directions, as that was what navigators were for, and pilots just focused on actually flying things. Not that there was anything to fly, at the moment, but the principle was more or less the same, wasn’t it? Honestly, she wasn’t used to long hikes or anything like that, but she put up with the pace without complaining, which would have been rather unbecoming of her.

A few hours in, though, and she began to get the strangest sense that she was being watched. At first, she assumed that it had to be someone in the group, but when she looked back at them, she only occasionally made accidental eye contact, not the kind of thing that indicated that anyone had been staring. And that probably wouldn’t have bothered her anyway. Not like this… her skin prickled, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, and she took to glancing around furtively, almost certain she could see things out of the corners of her eyes, little shimmers or shadows that would disappear as soon as she turned her glance towards them. It made what might have otherwise been an uneventful walk tenser than it really needed to be.

As it turned out, it was even worse for the members of the party attuned to magic, for not only would they spy the occasional phantom image out of the corner of their eye, but also feel a strange pressure on the part of them that was magical, as though something were prodding at the very core of their being. The feeling set Lohengrin’s teeth on edge, his fingers flexing unconsciously into clawlike shapes. It felt like it was pushing him closer to the threshold over which he’d transform, with the goading persistence of a lingering itch. He hadn’t noticed, but he was giving off far more heat than he’d intended to, and standing next to him was rather like standing five feet in front of a campfire—quite comfortable given the chill in the air, but definitely perceptible.

At last, Gwen couldn’t take it anymore. “Can you see anything?” she asked Daisy, referring of course to his other ways of seeing.

Lots of trees, bushes, plants, and people I don't want to talk to," Theon grumbled from beside her, with his very grumpy brand of humor. On top of it all, now this place was closing in around him, like it was pressing on his chest, and watching him, which was bullshit, of course. Theon did the watching, and anyone else that wanted to could go fuck themselves, because they couldn't do it as well as he could. "Give me a second," he said, finding a tree and settling himself down beneath it, resting his arms on his knees and letting his head fall back against the trunk, his mind leaving his body to go explore their surroundings.

He didn't notice anything unusual, but that only made him angrier, because he knew something was there. Even now, looking down on the trees like he was some bird flying above, he could feel those eyes, that sensation that something was just on the corner of his vision, but when he turned to look, there was nothing unnatural to see. The corners of his mouth curled in disgust, eyebrows narrowing, and he continued searching, go so far as to peer around the bushes and the trees near where they had stopped to wait for him. There were animals, things that would normally live in a place like this, but nothing that could make them feel so unnatural. He stayed this way at least a full two minutes, determined to find something, but every time he thought he caught a glimpse of his quarry, it vanished before he could really see it. No one hid from him like this, right under his nose. Something was demanding to be killed here.

Returning to his body, he opened his eyes and pushed himself back to his feet, continuing on past Gwen in the direction they'd been going before. "There's nothing here," he said. "Let's keep going."

Though she’d snickered at the initial response, the actual answer was troubling. Nothing? She didn’t know much about this magic, but that was just abnormal. But if there was nothing there, there was nothing there, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Suppressing a groan of frustration, she resigned herself to another few hours hiking with edgy friends and no answers. Even her boundless enthusiasm was dampened a bit by that. Maybe they’d get lucky and it would just go away soon. Right. And then the next guardian will appear, hand us all the keys, and we’ll all be able to fly back to the ship like bird mutatio! Shaking her head, Gwen followed. Either way, they had to keep moving forward.

The Lieutenant was not unaffected by the eerie feeling of being watched. He occasionally looked over his broad shoulders, scanning the looming trees for something or someone, though he left his concerns unspoken. There was nothing out of the ordinary. No fleeting shadows or silhouettes playing in the canopies. He couldn't hear anything snap underfoot. No sticks, leaves, or scuffle of metal rubbing against metal. There were no visible threats, at all. It bothered him more than he'd care to admit. It was an oppressive feeling that weighed down on him, urging him to look back one more time. Had he been able to wrestle the sentiment down, drown it out in all the logical voices that told him it was nothing, Sven would have been glad to do so. Unfortunately, experience reminded him that his gut feelings were hardly wrong—and he wasn't the only one who felt off by whatever preyed in the trees. Everyone looked as if they were ready to bolt or whip out their weapons.

It was Gwendolyn who spoke of his worries first. She questioned Theon's direction, and he watched as the boy plopped down by a tree, closing his eyes to venture into whatever dream-walking land he spoke of. Either way, Theon awoke and dismissed their fears, saying that there was nothing. He couldn't believe it. There had to be something out there, stalking them. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, bristling with tempered adrenaline. Ready to sizzle through his veins with the slightest sign of danger; with the first glimpse of an enemy. The mechanical gears whirring in his forearm tensed and seized. He clamped his hand across its wrist and attempted to stifle the jolting pain clinching where the metal ended and his shoulder began. For whatever reason, Sven's legs seemed to be acting up, as well. Biting into his torso, thundering into his spinal chord. It was enough to give him pause. Heavy eyebrows knit together, concerned and slightly irritated at his frailties.

Where the air was making everyone else uncomfortable, it was wreaking havoc on the fullshifted Percy. He'd began to drift further and further from the party, and every minute was a fight to keep the feral instincts out of his mind. He wanted to change back into his humanoid appearence, but found himself loath to leave this form. He was so comfortable, he felt like he belonged here, in the forest as a deer, and not as a boy. Fortunately, he was not a man who ran on instinct, but on cold hard facts. He knew better than to give in to the cervine inside. Avalon's Dawn needed him, didn't they? Notwithstanding that, he also had the key in a saddlebag. If he was to give in and give up and escape into the woods, so too would all their hopes of toppling Artorias. He had to be strong. He forced himself to walk within sight of the rest of the party.

While at the tail end of the party, the oppressive feeling was pissing Vivi off to no end. If she could, she'd beat the air's ass into submission, but the feeling wasn't anything tangible. She couldn't lay hands upon it so she just accepted it with some irritation. And if she ever found out who was watching them, she'd shove her metallic boot up their ass too. She was in no mood for games, much less from a forest. As she walked, her hand gripped the handle of her pistol, teasing the trigger as she went. Still, the shadows danced and unseen eyes stared a hole in her. It got so bad that at one point she stopped on a dime and whipped her pistol out, emptying all three barrels into the forest, yelling "Fuck! You!" for good measure.

Whatever grasp Percy had on himself was shattered on the resounding blasts and he leapt into the forest at a breakneck pace, vanishing from sight for a time.

Dio jumped violently at the sudden gunshots from the rear of the group, ducking down for cover, but she soon saw it was just Vivian shooting into the forest. After suppressing the temporary moment of frustration she had, she spoke, trying to be the level-headed one here. "Everyone..." Dio tried tentatively, though she had a feeling it wouldn't go over well. "Can we please just try to stay calm? I know whatever's up with this place has us on edge, but obviously getting angry at it isn't going to help anything right now." She looked around, noticing that one of them was missing. "Percy? Where did Percy go? Percy, come back!"

But it was no use, and she didn't hear him nearby either, though for a moment she thought she saw him out of the corner of her eye, only when she turned, there was of course nothing there. The forest's effects were starting to take hold on her as well. The ends of her hair were standing up rather impressively, held down only by her hat, and she was finding it immensely difficult to control the electricity. She'd already shocked several random things on accident in passing, recoiling each time and shaking out her hand. In all, it had her quite jittery, but there was nothing for it but to press on, and get to the bottom of this.

Kethyrian had kept her customary silence the entire time, but she was no happier than Vivi who was shooting or Vivi’s brother, who seemed to be doing enough complaining for the whole lot of them. Her magic… well, it was somewhat out of control, in what was perhaps the most embarrassing way possible. Namely, she seemed to be filtering the ambient stuff in the air and then letting it out as healing and life energies, which in this case meant that every time she took a new step, the ground beneath her feet altered, prodigious shoots of new-green grass sprouting as if out of nowhere, long enough to curl around on themselves, and usually accompanied by brightly-colored, calf-high flowers. As if to make matters worse, it seemed that she was allergic—her eyes were watering, and every minute or so, she’d have another sneezing fit. She was, to put it lightly, done with this fucking forest.

Unfortunately, Mordecai’s issues seemed to be even worse. Though not a mage himself, he was at any time storing a great deal of magic, and presently it was causing a number of small malfunctions that were proving difficult to cope with. It had started when he’d attempted to offer a hypothesis on what was causing the perceptual illusions—the phrases had come out in ancient Draconian, which he took it that nobody here was able to understand, as it was the same language he’d had to translate on the wall. The next thing he’d said had been in Dwarvish, and after one attempt that managed only garbled fragments of Old Elvish, he’d given up on speaking.

As if that weren’t bad enough, he was actually in Berserk Mode—the activation sequence had been the Dwarvish sentences, much to his chagrin. He was trying very hard not to make this obvious, as it wasn’t something he wanted to trouble them about, but there was no mistaking the slight reddish light beneath his synthetic skin, nor the fact that his eyes had taken on that color, also. As he had no target at the moment, he wasn’t exactly dangerous, but he dearly hoped that nobody tried to touch him just now. Of course, he would have told them as much for their own safety, if he could communicate intelligibly.

The gunshots had a notable effect on him, as he concluded logically that someone had found a target he could lock onto, but when it turned out that there was nothing there, Mordecai froze for several seconds, trying to overwrite his own naturally-programmed inclinations to pick one. His metal limbs shook faintly with the effort, though little sign of his struggle was evident on his face, which was at present set into the hard expression the Automata’s foes saw. When Dio spoke, his head snapped in her direction, not because she seemed a likely target, but because the calm tones she used were a welcome stimulus in the opposite direction of gunshots—they implied that there was no fighting to be had, and as soon as this was processed and weighed against the other evidence, he fortunately came to the determination that it was safe for him to move again, and did so—as far away from Vivian as possible.

As soon as Vivi discharged her first bullet, the Lieutenant nearly snatched the thing out of her hands while snarling, “Setzen Sie einen feuchten Dreck an, was weg!” And he would have if it weren't for the fact that Percy bolted off into the woods, kicking up dirt. He slowly dropped his mechanical hand, which had been held aloft, steaming and hissing. The flick of a white tail and the snap of hooves quickly disappeared. “Put away, now,” He added in a more level tone, stepping away from her and back towards where he'd seen Percy last. The sound of snapping branches receded—as if the forest was wilfully swallowing all of the noises he was straining to hear. He absently caught the tail-end of Dio trying to calm everyone down. It didn't seem to be helping. Mordecai, from the looks of it, had not been spared from whatever-the-hell was spooking them, either; curtly snapping his head towards the gunshots as if ready to attack something. The luminous glow beneath his skin was as clear as sign as any. They needed to get the hell out of here.

“Needing to find Percy, then out of woods.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Matters only grew worse after the shooting incident, and though no more sign of Percy was seen, Lohengrin almost wouldn’t have put it past a few of the others to go bounding off into the woods as well. Maybe the machine—there was no mistaking that it was malfunctioning spectacularly. Maybe Vivian, since she was fucking crazy anyway. He was getting a bit of a kick out of the way Dio’s hair was standing on end, though—that and the way the bitch seemed to be leaving a trail of delicate-smelling flowers behind her. If there was anything conducive to ruining the front she tried to put up, it was probably that. Next thing he knew, she would be followed around by small and furry animals. There was no mistaking it though—things were only growing more irritating the further they went in, and the mages were getting the worst of it.

It was almost sunset when he caught the first whispers. A low, droning hum that he could not quite discern played over the back of his mind more like a memory than a sound, and he found himself unable to cease his thoughts about things he’d rather not dwell upon. Those morons he’d used to run with. His parents, met at last after long years of searching—a meeting which had not gone exactly the way he was planning. The drone eventually took on a more musical pitch, like a chorus of voices humming in a stunningly-complex harmony, notes dropping into the silence like the last fragments of rain dripped from the subtle curve of a leaf. Unable to stop it, he countered the sound with a low hiss, signifying more than anything his agitation.

He directed his question to Dio, since the captain was too far ahead, Sven too far behind, and everyone else probably too angry to answer rationally, if he had his guess. “You hear that?” It wasn’t just buffeting his thoughts around against his will, it was making his magic itch, and the sense that his skin was far too small to contain all of him intensified until he was almost certain he must be splitting at the seams. Indeed, under his clothing, he was starting to look a bit reptilian, and though he didn’t feel it as such, there was a faint suggestion of glittering red scales around the outsides of his eyes and over his forehead and cheekbones. Nothing definitive, but certainly noticeable.

Dio had begun twitching rather severely a while back, and upon being asked a question by Lohengrin, she struggled mightily to stop her right eye from constantly spasming, or her arms from jolting this way and that. She had only moderate success. In addition, she was fairly certain this was elevating her heart rate to a level that wasn't exactly healthy. Her breathing was quickening, and she'd begun to sweat a good deal, even though it wasn't particularly hot at all.

“What?" she asked, initially quite surprised that the man would speak to her at all, considering how he’d avoided her on the ship. And she knew he’d been avoiding her, as she’d made a conscious effort to speak to everyone. She had assumed he was simply not a people person, and let it be. She twitched slightly, accidentally shocking a thick bush on her right, causing her to jump. “Ow! Uh. Yeah. I guess so. Sorry. Don’t get too close to me. I don’t want to shock you.” Halting her rambling, she twitched away from Lohengrin, trying to keep her arms to herself to prevent any more shocks. She ended up wrapping them around herself in a tight hug. It stopped her from zapping every plant within three feet of her all the time, but made the twitching worse.

Why this place was reminding her of home was beyond her. Xantus looked nothing like this. She had the sudden and troubling thought that it was simply because she didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong at home, either. She had no home. Her own would kill her if she ever showed her face. Shaking her head, several little lightning bolts cracked between the ends of strands of her hair. Dio tried to push the thoughts aside, but they were persistent.

Things were not going quite as planned. He hadn't expected to run into this type of trouble. Theon's dream-vision had only told them of one potential enemy. A green-warrior creature. Perhaps, this was his doing. He still hadn't seen anyone himself, and he trusted Theon's judgment enough to know that he'd mention something if he'd seen someone stalking them. Far too proud a person not to. How could they combat something they couldn't smell, touch, or see? Explaining it was difficult enough. Without a sound plan, they'd end up unintentionally tearing each others heads off. Even now, after he'd calmed down and retreated away from that verrückt fraulein, he could feel his blood boiling; keening to spill over. Normally, it was he who remained calm, unaffected by anyone's behavior. It felt strange to behave in such a way—childish, even. The Lieutenant clenched his hands into tight, white-knuckled fists, scanning the trees and bushes for any signs of Percy. No such luck; no cloven hooves, no white tail flagging them down. Hopefully, he'd regain his senses and calm down. Either that, or take his human form and cut back through the trees.

They couldn't continue without him or stay put.

He glanced over his shoulder, noting Kethyrian's train of flowers, sprouting stubbornly at her feet. Her sneezes would have raised one of his heavy eyebrows, or split the frown from his lips, if it weren't for the bristling adrenaline still coursing thickly through his veins, threatening to overcome his sensibilities. He hadn't even noticed that he'd trampled several patches of them. The Lieutenant hadn't noticed much, it seemed. Dio's hair was snapping on end, as if invisible currents ran through what was not stuffed beneath her cap. He bleakly wondered if Gwen's mechanized limbs were acting up as well. The uncomfortable pulses in his arms and legs seemed to grow more frequent, issuing tremors down his fingers. If he hadn't known better, then he would've said that they felt real. Like ghostly appendages, prickling back to life; no longer just stumps and useless gams. Several times, Sven found himself compelled to look at his arm, flexing the synthetic tendons and touching the crook of his elbow with his real hand only to find himself oddly disappointed.

It was also then that he noticed the whispers, briefly brushing against his ears. Hushed tones that seemed as if they didn't quite want to be heard, forcing him to pause and listen. He could have been imagining it for all he knew. The forest was playing tricks on them, stirring up their emotions and preying on their weaknesses. Was he imagining it? There, he heard it again. His gaze swung away from the others and back towards the forest. It was less like a memory, and more like vivid images painted onto a screen, shifting like a phonograph that was impossible to stop. His breath hitched, held. Meeting her for the first time; with that ugly flannel shirt, ripped jeans. Cooing words he couldn't understand. Beautiful sounds that slipped from her lips as soft as poetry, tickling him embarrassed when he tried to repeat them. Gwendolyn's father, as well—making him promise that he'd watch his little girl, because that was all that was important to him. The heavy expectancy. Those eyes, alight and fiery, practically drawing out his blood; a contract of sorts, made entirely out of friendship. He'd been there in his darkest days, after all. And his brother. Whispering feverishly do you see, now do you see, see, see? Taking everything away from him in a burst of light. There was so much blood.

The Lieutenant's meaty hand pressed against his forehead, hiding the right side of his face beneath his palm. He squashed it there, willing the memories to just fucking stop. If he just pressed hard enough, he could push them out. The whispers developed into an unusual din, or a convoluted hymn. Thousands of murmurs caroling all at once, like a horde of musical crickets; some familiar, some alien. The sound he made was strangled. He kept his hand held there, pushing. So that his memories wouldn't flood out? So that he wouldn't hear her voice again? He wasn't sure. It was too close, too local. Too personal. Instead, Sven tore his eyes away from the forest and looked back at his... what? Friends, companions—whatever, they kept him grounded. This was what was real. His eyes caught on Lohengrin and Dio, paused. His face was different, glinting this way and that. Catching at the retreating plumes of sunlight. Thin, small things. Red scales. He meant to approach them, but another spasm shot up his legs.

Of what does a machine think? Can its thoughts even be turned to darker places? Perhaps, Modecai reflected, he was more human than he’d thought—the magic of this place seemed to work on him no less, and his thoughts were jumbled swirls of language and color, and most of them were of her. Creator, mother, something like a goddess, if indeed such things existed. What else did you call the being that brought you to life from nothing but pieces of metal and wires? Emotional pain was more or less foreign to him on most days—he could not be affronted or insulted in the same way that many humans could, but he had known it very acutely the days she’d sent him away. His entire world she had been, for she’d shut him out from the rest of it, and all of a sudden he was inadequate to the only purpose for which he’d been created: to serve her.

Strangely, though she was not here, the exact feeling was resurfacing, seemingly without cause, and the pain with it. It must be a small benefit that he’d run out of energy and was not longer able to sustain Berserk Mode—but the wear was telling. His perfectly-fitted joints seemed suddenly to slide together in unfamiliar ways, producing faint creaking noises that hurt his meager pride more than his function. Mordecai had always known himself to be well-crafted, and maintained himself to the exacting specifications he’d been built. That something as odd as a place could undo that effort was disconcerting in its own right. His brows knitted together over the straight line of his nose, but he dare not say anything; he could still not seem to speak in a way the others would understand.

Kethyrian wanted to scream. What had started as a mere annoyance was getting worse—the environment was now doing more than just skimming the top of her magic to keep the plants growing at her feet. It was outright draining her, making her sway with uncomfortable fatigue, and the damned humming was doing nothing to help her. She couldn’t breathe, almost, for the heavy atmosphere pressing in over her nose and mouth. This place was nothing like the caverns that were once her home, but she was somehow reminded of them all the same. Mind-magic, but of a kind she was helpless to resist, given the constant sap effect she was under. If it didn't stop soon, she was going to collapse, and she might even die—not, of course, that she planned on telling anyone this.

And the lizard was turning red again, the memory mocking her as surely as the rest. As surely as the sneering faces of her so-called kin. As surely as her every failure ever had. Pride was a thin shield, indeed, and she could feel it wearing at the edges. Glass, slicing into her fingers. She was cutting glass and thorns. The captain had the right of it—too much the right, calling her Thistle. Prickly, but so easily crushed underfoot, as Sven was crushing her endless train of flowers. She would too, if she could.

Fuck everything.

Teeth ground against one another as Vivi marched foward. Her pistol had been traded in for her saber, now resting in her hand. The blade would be faster than reloading the barrels, though the worrying thought was what would it be faster for? It sat in a reverse grip as the tip of the blade dragged along the ground behind her, marking the trail that she followed. Even Vivi didn't know what she was going to use it for, she couldn't cut the voices out of her head after all. Hopefully she wasn't too far gone to use it on her companions either. It just felt nice to have something heavy and dangerous in her hand. It made her feel in control, even if that control was just an illusion.

She found the eye of her mind turned toward things she'd rather keep buried. Shadows and silhouttes danced in the corners of her visions, vanishing as soon as she turned her head. Her face, a stranger to any emotion other than a blissful ignorant smile, did not wear the hardened scowl well. She was being forced back into her memories, whispers of her past threatening to engulf and drown her. Normally, she'd be too hard-headed, too willful, or just too damn energetic to allow such thoughts creep back into her imagination. But with her mood and attitude already dreadfully sour, the colorful shield erected around her was torn down, allowing all the ghosts and specters free reign.

One such spector walked beside her. She walked, her head listing to the side as she stared into the vast expanses of nothing that retreated into the forests. But where there was nothing for everyone else, Vivi saw something. She watched the specter, taking every step she did, striding beside her. It was like looking into a foggy mirror. An indistinct reflection stared back at her-- no. It didn't stare back. It stared past her, like she wasn't there. Like whatever was behind her was far more interesting that the girl that stood in front of it. That's what pissed her the most. Being overlooked.

Anger was an odd property for Vivi, and one she didn't feel often. Where some would lose themselves in their anger, personified by fire and heat, Vivi's was a cold and calculating thing. She was wild when she was happy, but she was efficent when she was mad. Her eyes narrowed at the uninterested specter and she spat. There was a metaphor about her personal demons here, but she was so over it it didn't matter. Yeah, she had a problem with being ignored and being overlooked, she knew this. She didn't need a damn ghost telling her that. She tore her head away from the specter. Instead, her eyes buried into the back of Theon, unflinching and unmoving. Vivi walked with her eyes glued to him.

He was real, he was here, and they had a problem.

And yet, for all they thought and all they felt, there still seemed to be nothing there. The music was nothing more than a dull thrum, regardless of how discordant the echoes seemed in her mind. Gwen knew she probably had far from the worst of it. She could think only of her father, and those memories were so steeped in love and happiness that even the dull ache at the center of her chest could not bring her down. He’d been her hero and her protector, and she’d never outgrown things like heroes and protectors. Her smile was bittersweet, but it was a smile all the same. She could recall most clearly the nights she spent as a child on his knee, watching as he flipped through thick engineering tomes, pointing at the diagrams and asking a thousand questions. He’d never tired of them, and she’d learned to read when she ran out of queries about diagrams. My little scientist, he’d said, will build ships faster and lovelier and more efficient than these.

He’d had nothing but pride and affection for her, and she’d drunk that in like a desert pilgrim come upon an oasis. The world was a hard, cruel place—she’d always known this in the abstract. He’d not spared her the stories, but he’d spared her the reality, making their home warm and open and inviting. Even when his friends from the army days had come by, even when he’d set his skills back to work making machines for Artorias, breaking his vow against inventing weapons, even then, there had been nothing in her world but love. It was perhaps hardly a wonder that it was still all she saw.

She wanted to be just like him. To lead people through the troubled times and the trials of mind and body, to create a shield against all the bad things to be found out there, but she could not. This, more than anything, was what troubled Gwendolyn. She had ideas—ideas about what a captain should be, about who she should be, what she should be able to do, and these ideas were modeled on who her father was. But she couldn’t live up to them, no matter how she tried. She was still just a child, playing at being an adult, or so it felt to her. To most people, twenty-seven was hardly a childlike age, but Gwen had never lost her innocent fascination with the world, nor the naïve desire that it should all be as it had been in her youth; a permanent springtime of life, for whom the only trials were the occasional spell of autumn. Winter did not exist in her heart, not ever.

But she was helpless to chase it away from anyone else, just like one ray of sunlight wasn’t enough to cut through the chill of this place.

She couldn’t warm them or soothe them, but she could sure as hell make sure they didn’t run themselves into the ground. “All right,” she said, firmly enough to hopefully stave off the worst of the arguments, but gently enough that she hopefully wouldn’t snap any of the tense threads here. “We have to camp sometime, and I’d rather set it while we still have a bit of light. That clearing there should do.” They still had another day’s walking, by the initial calculation, but who knew how much worse all this could get tomorrow? It was at least best not to add fatigue to the list of their problems.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Whether or not any of them got that much sleep overnight, the sun rose at the same time it usually did the next morning, and from the sounds of the captain breaking camp, they were rather expected to rise with it. If anything, the conditions had grown worse over the dark hours, the murmur of the voices in song growing louder, though perhaps in their heads rather than their ears. To Gwendolyn, they sang of years past, happiness she’d forgotten, almost as if beckoning her forward to receive it once again. It was a strange feeling—she knew, logically, that there was no getting it back. Her father was dead, Sven was still with her, the crew were on the ship, and Artorias… he was somebody else now. What she was able to keep of those times was still with her, and the rest was lost to her forever. She was trying to be mature enough to accept that, though it wasn’t always easy, and her little display on the army cruiser earlier might have made the point elegantly enough.

So she wanted it all back. Her friends and her family the way they were. Who didn’t occasionally wish to regain what they’d lost? But there was no use pining, so why did those voices tempt her so much even so? It was hard to say, exactly. She didn’t like it a bit, but among the other trials of this forest, that sort of just figured. She glanced over the camp, noting that Lohengrin, having risen with the sun as she had, was looking rather the worse for wear. He hadn’t been forced all the way into his animal shape (whatever it was) as Percy had, but he wasn’t looking swell, either. She couldn’t decide, personally, if it was grotesque or strangely beautiful, the way the scales blended with his skin like that. Then again, she’d always had a strange aesthetic sense, so there it was.

He caught her glance, and raised the ridge of skin that had used to be his eyebrow, as if in challenge. She grinned and shrugged, and he rolled his eyes. Well, that was more or less normal. Maybe they’d make it out of this without any horribly-lingering trauma, after all. She supposed that, for the moment, all she could do was hope. Scientists were not as a rule very religious people, and Gwen couldn’t say she believed in any gods, but if she did, she’d be praying, too.

Sven had awoken, perhaps, earliest of all. He wasn't sure what had been worse; sleeping with all of those whispers or suffering them while awake. He'd been quiet enough not to wake anyone, busying himself with his pack. Checking the contents, zipping up what needed to be put away and counting off the spices and preserves he'd used last night while cooking. The pot had already been cleaned and put away, tucked under a rough blanket at the bottom of his knapsack (he hadn't expected there to be leftovers, after all). After counting them for the umpteenth time, the Lieutenant rocked back on his heels and pulled the straps tighter. Faith is all we need, she'd said. Like it really meant something. What had that gotten her? Nowhere good. No amount of well-wishing could bring her back—nothing he could do about it, so why did he feel so guilty?

The forest was to blame. Every single memory seemed to drag itself out of the underbrush, painting unpleasant pictures behind his eyelids. He wanted to rub them away, but every sorry attempt to brush them off only brightened the colors; composed so vividly, so impossibly bright.

He almost missed the desert. There was an emptiness there, and a comfortable silence that drowned out his thoughts. He'd only been thinking of the sweltering heat back then, and the fact that there were blue-eyed orcs and a large, slavering troll advancing on them. This place, with whatever stinking magic it held, was far too silent. Quiet enough for his memories to intrude on him, as if it were an unwelcome guest kicking up dirty shoes through his kitchen. The siren-song drumming through his ears (or his heart, perhaps) had grown louder and far more persistent. Of course he wanted her back. Of course he wanted to rip through time, and somehow know what his brother had been planning in order to stop him dead in his tracks. It was painful enough remembering how they'd played as boys, with wooden sticks, whooping and hollering. Pretending to be big goddamn heroes. He pressed his hand to his chest, willing it to stop. No amount of brute strength could salve those wounds.

Breathing deeply through his nose, Sven dropped his hand and looked out over the campsite. They were already beginning to stir, gathering up their things. Gwendolyn was awake, seemingly lost in thought. Despite the temptation to go to her and ask what was wrong—what was on her mind, Sven knew better. He knew that look well enough. It was the same one she wore when visiting his gravestone. He rubbed his eyes, and glanced over his meaty fist. Lohengrin was awake, as well. Still looking mighty serpentine. He had to admit... it suited him.

It was sudden, one moment spent quietly as the morning suns rose above the horizon, the next filled with the laborious breath of a stranger on the edge of camp. It was unclear on when he arrived, whether or not the ones who stirred overlooked him, or he had just arrived. He had appeared without a sound, and even then his tongue worked as if trying to conjure some forgotten words. Nothing came out of his mouth but breath as speech was slow to return. Everything was sluggish, painted in hues of black and white splashed with colors. He was confused, frustrated, and most poignantly, afraid. His mouth worked faster and faster, trying to force the words to his tongue. He had been good at them days ago, but now the most simple of actions eluded him. It took all the willpower he had left to not go bounding back into the forest.

"Mer... Mercy," He whispered before dropping to his knees in a heap. What was left of Percy had returned. He still wore the antlers of a stag, yet that was not the only thing. His face was more angular and shallow than before, his nose had a darker discoloration giving it a snout like appearance. Where his two ears should have been protuded two furry deer ears, pushed back against his head and twitching in fear. But the most unsettling feature was his eyes. One contained a blue-green iris, subtly different from its default color but the other was larger in scale and completely brown like a deer's. Most of the clothing he wore was ripped and shredded, and the flesh underneath scratched.

He huddled himself clutching at his knees for fear of letting go, afraid to move even an inch. It took all of his humanity to not give into the forest's song and shift back into a stag and leave, this time perhaps forever. The whispering forest played havoc on his mind, toyed with his insecurities, and baited the animal that lay under the surface. He could try to close his large ears but he could still hear the murmur of the forest. He wanted to go to someone, but he couldn't find the strength. He couldn't fight this alone, he needed someone, he needed an anchor to keep him from losing himself to the forest. He needed someone to guide him back.

"H-help," he grunted.

Dio had woken that morning one of the more well-rested of the group. She'd collapsed into a relatively peaceful slumber after her large burst of magic the night before, sleeping through the night without interruption. The price she paid for this was waking with a growling stomach, which grumpily reminded her every fifteen seconds or so that she had chosen not to eat any dinner the night before. To appease it, she had begun munching on the fruit she'd brought back to camp, whatever was left that the others hadn't wanted. It wasn't a very well rounded breakfast, but it gave her stomach something to do, at least.

She had just started in on another of the peach-like fruits when Percy made his return, and Dio certainly did not overlook this. Dropping the food, she rose quickly and walked quickly over to where he had chosen to sit, resisting the urge to jog or run. She wanted to help, of course, but he was obviously a bit skittish while in the forest, and any number of things could probably set him off. Shocking him would no doubt be one of those, so Dio resisted the urge to give him a squeeze on the shoulder, or an outright hug, because that would end badly for everyone.

"Percy?" she tried tentatively, wondering what he needed when he said help. "It's Dio. It's good to see you. We were worried. We thought you might have left for good." Maybe the others hadn't thought that, but Dio had, and it had worried her. She mirrored the way he was sitting somewhat, though she didn't seem as tense. The idea was to keep herself from shocking him, and that meant making herself small, and keeping her hands to herself.

"Get him up," Theon said from the edge of camp. Judging by the state of his eyes, he hadn't slept very peacefully at all through the night. The scryer was geared up and ready to leave, and obviously not in a good mood. When was he ever in a good mood? "Whatever's fucking with our heads isn't going to stop until it gets an axe in the skull, so let's stop wasting time and go kill the fucking thing." There was a look in his eye that Dio did not like at all, but she couldn't place it. He looked violent this morning. More violent than usual, that was.

"Percy needs help," Dio protested, not moving an inch. "We can't move right now. Not until he's better. Just look at him." Theon looked at Percy, huddled and terrified on the ground, and appeared unmoved.

The Lieutenant, too, had moved away from his somber perch, abandoning his knapsack. He tried mirroring Dio's soft footsteps as best he could, teetering at an uncomfortable lumber. She could not touch him, for fear of replaying what had happened the other night, but Sven had at least one arm capable of gentility. Compared to Dio, he knew he was a poor substitute for tender-spoken words and comfort, but he would try his best. Putting aside Theon's heightened aggressiveness, and clear annoyance—he was correct, as well. They needed to leave this place, or find the cause and destroy it. However, Sven ignored his brusque demand, leveling him with slanted eyes. Now was not the time.

He wrapped his meaty arm around the boy's slender shoulders, blinking uncertainly. He would not let him go. If there was something he did know about, it was frightened animals. Cornered things that were too afraid, too jumpy, too predatory in nature, to do anything but flee or lash out. Animals were far easier to understand than humans. He hummed low in his throat, and called out to him, “Percy.” He repeated his name again. “You found us, ya. Safe, Percy. Safe here. Old King Alsont, you were saying about. You never told Dio that story.” Familiarity, it seemed, always worked with animals, so why couldn't it work with Percy?

"Dio..." Percy repeated, pushing a palm into his shifted eye. He tried to force the shift back through brute strength, but it wasn't budging. His ears twitched in frustration but he didn't remove his hand from his face. He didn't want the others to see that, nor did he want to see them through it. He shuddered and twitched heavily before putting on a weak smile and a hesitant nod. "Not... Gone yet," Percy stumbled over his words, but still spoke. He had to speak, anything to keep the wild animal at bay. He had to do anything and everything he could to not allow the animal free reign over his mind again. It had wrested control days ago, when he bolted from the group. Ever since then, he wasn't Percy, not so much as he was a wild animal. He'd never had trouble shifting between forms, not before coming to the forest. Here, the song didn't sing to him, but the feral nature that waited beneath the surface.

Theon spoke, Percy's one human eye darted toward him and glared. He did not like the tone in his voice, and whatever part of the animal remained caught wind of the man's unspoken feelings. Whatever the animal would have done was moot, because it did nothing but irritate Percy. It caused him to fight all that much harder. He'd show the man, he'd show him. He was stronger than that. Percy shook his head violently at Dio's next words. "Told you... Not gone," The words still fumbled out of his mouth, and they felt heavy on his tongue. Unfamiliar even, and that hurt him. He knew he used to be good at words, he could talk with the best of him, but now he could barely force a coherent sentence together. Old Kings above, he hated this forest.

The touch on his shoulders caused him to tense, but he let pass without any other action. It was Sven, and out of everyone he trusted the man the most to never let go. He wouldn't allow Percy to escape without a fight, and that remembrance settled Percy's wild soul. He was... Safe. They wouldn't let him run away again. The knowledge that he didn't have enough strength to fight it himself stung, but there was nothing he could do about it. He was still intelligent enough to understand that he needed these people, else risk grazing out in the forest for the rest of his life. "Alsont. Young. Intelligent. Strong. An iron will," Percy said, remembering the tale he had told Sven on the deck of the Elysium. As he spoke, his natural green coloration began to return to his shifted eye. Even so, Percy wished he has some of that will he spoke of.

"Maybe... The whole story. Later," Percy promised with another forced smile.

“That’s the spirit,” Gwen said, moving to Percy’s other side and helping Sven lift him up and set him back on his feet. Not that Sven needed help doing any such thing, but she figured it might at least ground Percy a little more. She wasn’t really a nature girl—she didn’t know a whole lot about animals. But Percy was a person, not just an animal, so she figured she could at least try and help out the person-bit. Those, she did know a thing or two about. “There now—those eyes, I do recognize,” she said, her grin a little more wan than usual, but definitely still present. She pressed one of the fruits from the previous night into his palm.

“Eat. I’ll carry your stuff for a while.” He seemed to have retained the majority of his belongings from his run off into the forest, and she was most relieved to note that the key was still present. Sliding his pack off his back, she hoisted it onto her own, staggering a bit under the extra weight, but waving it off as funny rather than troubling. She could handle it for long enough for him to get his bearing. That was what captains did. It was what friends did, too, and she liked to think she was capable of being both.

“Kethyrian, can you do anything for him? We really can’t afford to stay here much longer.” Though he’d put it, typically, in a ruder-than-necessary fashion, Theon was right. They had to get to the bottom of this—before it got to the bottom of them and scraped out all the guts worth having.

Kethy, who thus far had kept mostly to herself during this rather awkward spectacle of… whatever on Albion was going on, cocked her head to the side at the question. Normally, the answer would be obvious enough—what did they keep her around for, if not doing something about situations like this one? It certainly wasn’t her charming personality. Like the scryer, she was here because she was useful, not because she would be winning any awards for congeniality. But a day and a night in the forest had mostly drained her; she was running on the dregs of her own magic. Even so… she approached, picking her way carefully over the plant life she was still generating at alarming rates, and placed the back of her hand against Percy’s forehead.

She wasn’t really the kind of person to bother asking permission for such a thing, and frankly if it bothered him, he was too touchy and needed to learn to deal with things of this nature anyway. Perhaps there was some irony in the fact that she thought so, perhaps not. He looked ill, but did not appear to be running a fever, nor did a simple diagnostic check reveal that he was doing as poorly as she was in terms of allergic reaction. Actually, his vitals were quite hale, but like the rest of them, his magic was going haywire. “Doctor’s advice?” she asked rhetorically. “Get him the hell out of the forest before he goes feral or something. Barring that…” she paused a moment, dredging up the resources for at least a bit of a boost, though more than anything, she was trying to apply bits of her magic to block his, so that maybe it wouldn’t eat at him quite so badly. Since they were from opposite schools, she had a feeling it might work at least a little, but it was all she could do at any rate.

Straightening, she shook her head. “That’s all I have. Our best option right now is to keep moving. The sooner we find whatever’s here for us to find, the sooner we can be done with it.” And she was really looking forward to that part. "I agree," Percy added quickly. He then turned toward Sven and asked, "Can I... Borrow this?" He asked, tugging on the man's arm. Percy didn't trust himself to walk straight.

The Lieutenant stood like a tower, immovable. He appreciated Gwendolyn's help, gathering up Percy between them. Perhaps, more from a fatherly standpoint then anything else, though it no longer surprised him. If anyone was in need of anything or was in any sort of danger: she would be there, bearing down on them with an affection that tethered them into her own circle. To be surrounded by so many kindred spirits, while he simply was not, made him feel awkward. All things considered, he wasn't a bad guy, but he'd done things in his life that kept him apart. Had he acted out on the unpleasantness he felt inside, much like Theon and Lohengrin seemed to do, things may have been easier for him. Suffering quietly, she liked to tell him, was the suckers way out of things. Funny lady with a sailors mouth. Surrounding himself with these types of people, and acting the silent guardian, was the least he could do, and performing any kind of duty, it seemed, had become his purpose.

He watched as daffodils and tulips curled up from beneath Kethyrian's feet. Wondered absently if the forest was a means of showing what kind of people they really were. With him; an angry beast, prone to bouts he could barely control. Truly, a feeble metal-man who clung to ghosts, unwilling to live for himself. Gwendolyn with her longing, desperately missing what she could not bring back and Percy, struggling and somewhat broken. A mess of nerves and curiosity, seconds away from disappearing into the woods that plagued them. Theon and Vivian exploding like fireworks, clashing against themselves, and everyone else, too. Lohengrin—scaled, not-so-cold and getting closer still to his truth. Electric, and fearful of herself. Dio's moral compass was admirable, as was her selflessness, but still afraid of what she might do. Mordecai with all of his whirring gears, barely holding himself together to keep himself from hurting anyone. The act in itself was the most telling of his nature, his kindness. Lastly, Kethyrian with her brusque, slender fingers, pressed to Percy's forehead. A healer who did not really like people, but chose such a position anyway. Maybe the flowers signified something as well.

He bobbed his head in agreement. They were right. The only thing they could do now was press on, now that Percy was able to walk. Get the hell out of the woods, kill whatever was sinking its teeth into them, or find what they were looking for and leave the damn place. No need for anymore words. Gwendolyn and Theon would lead them, and he would follow. Percy's voice pulled his attention back towards the ground, accompanied by a light tug on his arm. Borrow this—Sven's furrowed brows softened, as did his solemn expression. It was all he could offer, always. “Of course.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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At the top of the world, where the Genesis began, all was deathly silent save for the song of the siren's. Genesis, as her name implied, was the lifegiver for this part of Albion, her waters nourishing what would otherwise by a uninhabitable desert. From her shores, trees sprung to life, grass rose from the ground, and she gave life to all the creatures that inhabited the forests. The wellspring stretched out as far as the eye could see, the other shore sitting somewhere far over the horizon beyond sight. Everywhere she touched, she gave life-- everywhere but here.

Here silence ruled. There were no chirping birds, no whistling winds, and no footfalls of creatures either big or small. The only sound that remained was the haunting siren song. This shore was completely empty. Completely empty save for one resolute entity. He stood atop the water where he faced the shore in a silent vigil. His armor was a cloak of brilliant greens, from forest, to sage, to even accents of lime. Engravings of roots and vines etched deep into his arm, dancing across the metal organically as if they too were alive. Impressions of leaves rested upon his shoulders and his breastplate. Atop his crested helmet sat a pair of intertwining antlers.

In his hands rested a massive greatsword, as wide as a small child. Its tip dipped into the water only slightly, and every breath he took caused the water around it to ripple ever so slightly, breaking the illusion of stillness. Here he waited, without word or without movement. Here there was only him and the siren song that draped over his shoulders. His silent vigil was broken by the sounds of life. Echoes of footsteps drifted toward him, labored breathing followed closely behind. His lonesome watch became not so lonesome anymore. He made no movement, nor acknowledgement. He simply waited.

Well. This was just charming, wasn’t it? Kethyrian was getting really sick of the music, frankly, because she didn’t like being jerked around like a dog on a leash, and, mentally at least, that’s exactly what it felt like. Collar her with old thoughts she didn’t want, tether her to some damn temptation, and pull. It was honestly a wonder she hadn’t gone off by herself towards it yet—or may the greater surprise was that she hadn’t turned and fled from it. She wasn’t stupid, after all: this was a spiderweb, and they were flies, one and all.

She shouldn’t have been surprised to see some idiot bedecked head-to-toe in green metal standing on the surface of the water, but if this was what that song had been trying to tempt her to, either she or whatever was singing was more confused than she had imagined, because she was entirely nonplussed by whomever this was. She was pretty sure none of her deepest desires involved knights in shining armor, thank you very much. “Well,” she supplied bluntly, “I’m guessing we don’t just get to mosey on through, do we? Is there a ‘you shall not pass’ in here somewhere, or do we just have to infer that from all the silent ominous standing around you’re doing?”

Well, the elf was even less patient than usual today. Not that he blamed her for that, exactly—most of them were. Still, pissing off someone whose status as ally or enemy you did not know seemed like a rather counterproductive approach. Lohengrin almost wondered why it was that he stood by so much water when the song had been promising him the freedom of endless sky. Perhaps he was simply destined to be forever disappointed as well as forever disappointing. There was a certain kind of symmetry to the thought, at any rate. “Gonna go out on a limb here and suppose that he’s not going to speak with us. Anything supposed to happen now?” This, he asked of Theon, given that nobody else around here dealt in prophetic dreams.

"Fuck if I know," Theon said, shrugging. "Everything I saw in the dream's already happened. The singing bullshit, the lake, this asshole in the green not saying anything to me. I even shot him in the dream, but it just bounced off him. All he did was open his visor, but I didn't see anything inside." He'd have shot the floating knight now, too, but he didn't want to bother with reloading, and also didn't want to drop the duckfoot in the water.

"You sh-shot him?" Dio asked, notably standing out of the water. It might have looked quite refreshing to her, but she wasn't going to risk another electrical burst going off while she was in it. "W-why? Did he d-do something to you?"

"He wouldn't let me go in," Theon explained. "Oh come on, it was just a dream, it's not like I actually shot him. Fuck off." Dio narrowed her eyes at him instead. "Well, m-maybe he knows you attacked him in the dream. We don't kn-know that he's an enemy. You don't have to go and m-make him one."

"We don't know he's a friend, either," Theon said, rubbing at his temples. The little girl wasn't helping with his headache any.

The Lieutenant readjusted himself, keeping his arm steady as a pillar. Green knight, indeed. His gaze raked across the vibrant cloak nestled over the thing's shoulders, hardly flapping like it should have been. A general unease settled over his own, weighing heavy on his neck. As if someone were pressing down on him with great, unyielding hands. Bigger than his own, and volatile in nature. He had trouble differentiating whether or not this green knight was human or some sort of creature, or neither—perhaps, a God. Not that he believed in anything that he couldn't see with his own eyes, but days before, Sven never believed in age-old guardians either. His mouth tugged into a rueful smile. A goddamn good fight was going to happen. He could feel it in his bones, gathering in all the tight spaces of his muscles, screaming for release. Bent, twisted, angry. All of the temperance he'd cultivated over the years was slowly going to waste, trickling through a sieve, growing larger and larger, the longer he listened to that fucking song.

Now that they were close enough to see him with their own eyes, Sven could see her as well. Beckoning him to leave the group and drop the boy, come to the woods with her and leave everything behind—because they would be all right they would always be fine without him but I need you I do. She peeked behind branches, only long enough for him to blink her away like a mirage. Like an ill-imagined vision. Her voice, however, did not leave him. It lingered, whispering how this was his only chance to set things straight and do the right thing. His mechanical arm twitched and rose from his side. He settled the rubber pads of his fingers against his forehead, rubbing small circles against his temples. Half measures. He was always taking half measures, half steps, half decisions, especially when all he really needed was action. Kethyrian's collar may have been an annoyance, of things long past, but his collar felt like an anchor, dragging him down. Sweat beaded his forehead, slick against his palm. He felt like he was fading.

"We could sit here and continue to bitch," Vivi spoke up, airy tone evaporated. The siren's song had wrung every drop of animation out of her very soul, and what was left was only the bitter rind. If only she could find the source of the song, she'd make whoever was singing it suffer until she got tired. Unfortunately, no such sirens were found, only a jackass in green armor. "Or we can get on to whatever it is we were supposed to be doing here. Don't know about you, but I want to leave," She hissed out. Then her arm swung wide and pointed at the green jackass. "If what we need is past him, then we go past him. There are nine of us and one of him-- I mean, what the hell?" She said already going for the sword on her back.

Percy on the other hand was much more quiet and much more thoughtful-- as thoughtful as he could be with his scattered brains. Speech had become more and more difficult to come by, and once instead words a buck's grunt left his lips instead. He had since resigned himself to one word responses when he needed to speak, and nothing more. He had Sven's arm clutched in a hard grip. He fought the urge to drop to all fours and walk that way valiantly, and if the large man wasn't around Percy wasn't so sure he could have stopped himself. On the lakeside, he did an admirable job of tuning all the other voices out, instead keeping this "Green Knight" in focus.

Was he a man? Or was it a constuct? Perhaps whatever it was, it was of the same type of thing the guardian was? Surely it wasn't a guardian itself-- these creatures did not seem the type to simply appear and wait. Percy's antlered head tilted in curiousity as he took everything in and processed it. Perhaps more slowly than usual thanks to his current state-of-being, but Percy was still Percy, the animal couldn't change the man. What caused it to stand on the water? Some kind of magic? He squinted and then noticed that it wasn't standing on the water at all. The knight stood on top of a shallow sandbar, obscured by the reflectiveness of the water.

That answered one question, but many still remained. Who, or what was this knight for instance.

Perhaps ordinarily, proud Kethyrian would have simply ignored the presence of the knight and marched right past him, or at least been willing to try her luck and see how he reacted, but she was having a problem. A very large, wellspring-sized problem. She stood at the very back of the group currently, eyeing the water with more than a little trepidation evident on her sharp features. Her scowl looked less angry than usual and more… apprehensive. She’d never gone so far as to tell anyone, but Kethyrian had nearly drowned as a child, and had feared sufficiently-large bodies of water ever since. It was something so banal, so ordinary and weak of her, that she couldn’t stand it about herself, and seldom chose to give it any thought. This situation, however, was giving her no choice, and she shifted from one foot to the other with discomfort, her long-fingered, claw-tipped hands wrapped around her biceps and crossed protectively over her chest.

#9 was having its own issues. At some point during the walk, it had lost its ability not only to communicate in the common tongue or dialects of it, but even to understand spoken words. It knew that it was not to harm these people, it knew that they needed to get past the being wearing green. It did not have any protocols suggesting that it was to respect the ground that the knight was clearly guarding, and so its reasoning process, stripped to bare logic and probability, free of any of the more cumbersome attachments such as feeling and rightness, presented it with the obvious conclusion. Without anything blocking the way mentally, it immediately acted in accordance with the conclusion of its calculations, and went to cross the water. It was, of course, built to resist damage from such things, and it felt none of the Favisae’s reservations, simply moving through the water briskly until it alighted on the sand bar the green-clad creature occupied and then continued walking forward.

Mordecai would find the way forward wasn't so simple as taking a step, at least not without stepping through the Knight. The tip of the greatsword lifted out of the water and turned, the knight taking a step to the side to put him in the direct path of Mordecai. He had been tasked to protect this place from all those who dared approach, no one was going to pass while he still stood.

Mordy's steps though paved the way for others. Vivi in particular was the next to follow. In fact, as soon as the Automaton took the first steps into the water she followed close behind, wading into the Wellspring. She watched as the knight moved to stand in Mordecai's way, leaving the path she took wide open. At least, for the time being. As she drew closer to the invisible threshold, her progress was blocked by the knight's greatsword. Held out with a single hand, he barred her passage further into the spring.

Glaring at the knight, though his eyes were locked on the automaton, Vivi then tried to duck under the sword, only for him to lower it. Then she rose to try and step over it, only to find it rising with her. Hate filled her eyes as she tried to step further around the sword to find that blocked as well. The knight angled his sword and corraled her back to her initial position, like a mother would a child. That managed to draw hostility. In a moment Vivi's pistol found it's way to her hand and in another a crack echoed through the forest. The ringing of metal filled the area as the knight's head ripped back grotesquely. He stood like that, head ripped back and staring at the sky above before it slowly fell, unseen eyes drifting down and finally toward Vivi where they stayed.

The shot was then replaced by Vivi's defeated scream.

Gwen rubbed a hand down her face, murmuring something probably unflattering and colorful, though the slight tremor in her shoulders made it just as likely that she was laughing, as absurd as that would have been in a situation such as this. So much for getting on with it, as Vivi had so inelegantly phrased her suggestion. Well. Either they fought the knight, or they talked him down. Considering he’d taken a point-blank gunshot both in dream and reality without appearing at all fazed, she was really hoping that talking was going to get them somewhere.

“Ahem,” she started, drawing some attention to herself and waving sardonically at the… being in armor. “Hi there, ser knight. I don’t suppose there’s some nonhostile way to get past you, is there? It’s a bit of a matter of life and death, fate of the world and all that, so we can’t really just leave. I’d also really rather not die, so. Well, you see where I’m going with this. I don’t suppose there’s some kind of fetch-quest option? Some object to retrieve, a riddle to answer, maybe? Anything at all?”

Theon probably should have been angrier at the knight for threatening his sister, but so far he hadn't seen the guy do anything more hostile than stand in their way. He was tempted to smirk, but kept a relatively straight face. "Really, sis? I told you that wouldn't work." Dio, meanwhile, had distanced herself even further from the water, a good ten or fifteen feet from any of the other party members, at which point she crouched down slightly and let off a large discharge of electricity, arcing through the air around her for a second or two before it dissipated. Sighing when it was done, she wearily pushed herself back to her feet and stepped with trepidation into the water. She didn't have Kethyrian's fear of it, but she had no desire to accidentally hurt anyone. "Please," she said to the green-clad warrior, "We really need to get by you. Can't we work something out? We don't want to fight you." Her statement came in direct contradiction to some of the others' actions, but she said it anyway.

The knight's response was a predictable empty silence. There was no quest, there was no riddle, there was no passage. He had only one task, one duty, and that was to protect the Wellspring from all comers. He made no indication that he'd even heard the women's plea, and made no move other than to deny this passage past him.

The answer was simple then—it knew that they would not get past unless they moved the obstacle in the way. It knew itself to be capable of this—no matter the being’s seeming invulnerability to damage, it could still lift and hold, and this it calculated it must do. #9 moved with surprising speed, locking one of its arms around the Green Knight’s own left one and another around the corresponding leg, and then it turned several circles on the spot about the sandbar, gaining considerable momentum, before it released the being much as an athlete would a discus—sending the mysterious armored entity flying for several yards. It opened its mouth to speak, but all that issued were strange mechanical sounds—it did not remember how.

Kethyrian watched the knight go flying with wide eyes and a tight jaw. “This… isn’t going to end well,” she muttered, still eyeing the water with evident discomfort. Maybe the rest of them could go while he was down, and she could run in the opposite direction? Maybe she’d take Dio with her—water conducted, after all, and that seemed like a bad idea just waiting to happen.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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A heavy splash later and the knight had been forcibly removed from his vigil by an inhuman toss from a certainly inhuman construct. The knight, still visible underneath the crystalline surface, only stayed submerged for a moment. Like a ghost rising from its grave, the Knight broke the surface and stood knee deep in the water, his armor shimmering in the moisture. It was obvious that the only way to keep them from breaching the wellspring was by force. So it was with a great heft that the Green Knight lifted his sword out of the water and swung it menacingly in front of him, dancing across the surface of the water. Displaying immense strength he held his greatsword out by one hand before lifting it up and resting it on his shoulder. He then began his slow march forward to meet his foes.

Something resembling a growl erupted from Percy's throat, figuring this was how it was going to end once Vivi let the first shot ring out. He wouldn't just sit by this time and watch everyone else as they fought. He'd do something this time. Glancing up at Sven, Percy nodded curtly and pointed toward the Knight, uttering a single word, "Go." He'd be better off helping them than keeping him on his feet. As if to further encourage him, Percy let go of his arm and stumbled forward to the edge of the water.

There he fell to his knees and stared into the water. An antlered boy with twitching deer ears stared back, even despite the ripples caused by the Knight and his companions. He sighed deeply and simply thrust his hands into the water, letting the cool water cascade over his hands. He dipped into his druidic powers, and perhaps strangely, he found that the effort usually required to commune with nature wasn't present. Still, there were no time to ponder that shift, and instead focused on what he decided to do. He could nearly feel every creature swimming in the water, their heart beats. He could feel the life swimming in the Wellspring, invigorating him. It was old and ancient, with numerous secrets squirreled away. Sadly, neither did he have the time to wrap himself in those secrets. Quietly, he began searching for the largest lifeform he could possibly find, and began to ask for its help.

Sweat beaded his forehead, dripped down his cheeks. He stood and watched. What else could he do? Vivian had shown, in a great show of self-control and intelligence, that they couldn't shoot their goddamn way through the Green Knight and expect him to step aside or even die. Nor did he really expect any kind words to sway him, so when Dio and Gwendolyn stepped forward, Sven's breath caught in his throat. It was obvious that he was a guardian of something—that he was the source of his bleeding headache and horrible visions and Kethyrian's erratic garden blooming from her heels like a wedding-trail. Besides, Sven was watching over Percy. Using his good arm as a walking stick, because his other one was a creature of its own, reacting badly whenever he tried to settle it down. Go. He blinked in surprise and looked down at the boy. So resolute, stubborn. He may have felt Percy let go of him, had he weighed that much to begin with. Go. Like it was an easy task.

Standing stupid wouldn't help anyone. He bowed his head, breathed in deep and stepped forward, splashing into the water. The Green Knight would not let them pass, so they would plow through him. Make him kneel, destroy him, rip him to shreds, devour him, spit him out. World-weary eyes stared past their shoulders, past Gwendolyn's head of blonde hair and finally, settling on the incoming enemy, blazing with a determination reserved for brick walls and impregnable gates. What was he protecting with this much vigilance? It didn't matter. They needed entry. They needed to clamp the siren's mouth shut for good, clear their heads and give themselves a good shake. He'd try to pave them a path. He'd try to buy them time. If he couldn't even do that, then what kind of lieutenant was he? “Time for talking is done,” he grunted as he stomped past them, so sick of wading through water and woods and moist terrain. But, warfare ran hot through his veins. This, he knew best. Sven stretched out his mechanical arm, flexing its fingers experimentally. Good enough, then. Hopefully, it'd hold up against that laughably large sword of his.

He might as well start this, then. Quickening his pace, Sven's legs hissed and steamed with the exertion of pushing himself faster, frothing bubbles around his ankles. His other hand drifted towards his back and closed around the wrapped-butt of his shotgun, swinging it out in front of him. He aimed for the Green Knight's chest and fired, sidestepping to his left, while bringing up his arm should he prove to be surprisingly fast.

Dio let slip a heavily dissapointed sigh. Mordecai probably hadn't meant to do what he did, or at least, she wanted to think that. Regardless, what was done was done, and now they needed to destroy this thing in order to move on. It felt wrong, but Dio supposed there was nothing she could do about it now. Sven was charging forward, Percy was at the water's edge doing something... and there was really no way for Dio to help, at least none that she saw. Her magic would undoubtedly hurt her allies far more than the enemy here, and she was almost glad for the convenience of it, because she really had no desire to fight this thing anyway. Tiredly, she slogged out of the water and back to the shore, keeping her sword in its sheath across her back, and her pistol in its holster. The others would have to tear this thing down without her.

Theon, meanwhile, figured they weren't going to talk their way by this guy, and while he didn't really care if they murdered him or not (he actually preferred it this way, as the green bastard was beginning to annoy him with the stone wall of silence), he didn't see a way to go about the actual killing. Bullets didn't seem to have any effect at all, and he didn't enjoy the thought of trying to take this thing hand-to-hand, with movement restricted by the water, and that greatsword to contend with. Maybe the toaster would be able to pull him apart limb from limb. The scryer drew his axe, wondering if the armor had any weak spots he could cleave through, if given the right opportunity.

The Knight displayed surprising agility in an attempt to dodge the shotgun blast. However, the armor was just as heavy as it looked and he took an entire side's worth of buckshot for his trouble. The kick was immense and forced the Knight back a couple of places, but had enough awareness to spin with the shot. Using the momentum of the spin, he stretched out his sword and skimmed the surface of the water, kicking up a rooster tail of water. While seemingly childish at first, there was an intended tactic to be had. The water was eye height in attempt to momentarily blind his attackers. His sword came to rest in below the water at his back, the Knight still holding it with a single hand. A series of dents laid into the armor where the shot had connected, but the Knight seemed otherwise unharmed.

Once more bearing that surprising agility, the Knight regained the lost steps and then some behind the splash, pushing himself through the knee deep water with simple force of will. The blow that came next didn't fall from above but instead rose from below. The knight grabbed the hilt with both hands and using strength that would match Sven's own, whipped the blade upward. Curiously, instead of attacking with the edge of the blade, the flat was used instead.

The Green Knight's reflexes were admirable, given the fact that he wore heavy armor in moggy-water. Never in his years of serving had he seen such a thing. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting but it certainly wasn't that. He may have overcompensated or assumed too much, strategically. An arc of water jettisoned into his eyes, momentarily blinding him. Instinctively, Sven took a staggering step backwards, rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. One glimpse between fabric, metal and the Knight told him volumes. There were some dents, yes—but it hardly slowed the Knight, who gained his steps back quicker than he thought and repositioned himself so that his blade was hidden beneath the water. It did not come from above, as he figured it would. He didn't have time to adjust himself, push away, or sidestep out of range. The flat of the blade, large as it was, struck him underneath his armpit, across the chest and lifted him.

Impossible, he would have thought prior to this. The Lieutenant's feet left the sand, kicking up his own trail of water. The world spun backwards, upside down and quickly became a blur of speed and blurred foliage. Strong had been an understatement. The weight of the Green Knight's swing had knocked the breath clear from his lungs, like they'd been squished together in his gauntlet. He splashed several feet back, dipping under water. Had it not been for his mechanical limbs, he may have stayed under the surface, staring up at the sky through milky, wavy eyes. The place where he'd landed sizzled, bubbled and frothed until he resurfaced, breathing heavily. This wouldn't be easy.He placed his hands on his knees, searching for his lost shotgun. Thankfully, it sat on one of the slivers of sand, relatively unharmed.

Vivi had slipped in from behind Sven, and darted through the water. Unlike the Knight or Sven, strength wasn't her mainstay-- she couldn't just force her way through the water. It had the effect of considerably slowing her down, but in no way did it cool her fury. She had a lot of aggression she still needed to work out, and if the knight wanted to die, then she'd happily give him that. Having used Sven as a distraction, Vivi slid through the water and ended up behind the knight, where she went to work. Having the same thought at Theon, she sought to find the weak points of this so-called knight. First she drew her pistol and aimed it at joint behind the knee. There was a resulting boom, and Vivi quickly switched to her blade, holding it in a reverse grip. She came in hard and fast at the same spot, but the blade rang out futilely as the armor did its job and protected its wearer.

While most of the damage was warded off, that said nothing about the ferocity of the attack. The combination pushed his knee in and the Knight collapsed behind it. He was far from defenseless as Vivi quickly found out. An elbow struck her in the gut, doubling her over. This gave the Knight a moment to regain his footing as he turned. His gauntlet shot forward and grabbed Vivi by the throat. With the girl in his hand, he pulled her in and then cast her away instead of simply snapping her neck like a twig. Vivi dipped under the water near Theon for a moment before rising out of the water with a big gasp. Not only was she pissed, but now she was sopping wet.

"Fuck! You!" She screamed.

Try as she might, Kethyrian could not bring herself to step into the water. Not that it made much of a difference—without her magic, she was a mediocre knife fighter who knew how to parry and step into guards. That was about it. What had come after was never a matter of steel, but of sorcery, and that was lost to her, at the moment, expelled constantly into a damn chain of daisies and lilies instead of anywhere useful. She had not the stamina even for a basic shield, and if any of these people got themselves injured, they’d have to hope that someone knew first aid, because the healer wasn’t going to be much help. It was ironic, really: a mage usually prided him or herself on having talent and dealiness that could not simply be taken away. A sword could be disarmed, a hand dismembered, but magic was supposed to be intrinsic to the very nature of a person. It wasn’t supposed to fail. But it had.

#9, on the other hand, suffered from no such deficiency. It was true that the automaton was incapable of activating either of its more utile modes of combat, but it was difficult to tell whether it would have had the cognitive function to do so even if it had the magical energies required. It was obviously little more than a basic machine at this point, perhaps comparable to one of the worker-drones that bent metal and smelted ore in one of the numerous factories of the industry-cities. It differed only in size, construction, and efficiency. Well, and purpose. It, after all, was designed to kill. Lowering its shoulder, it charged right for the Knight, apparently unconcerned by the fact that it was thigh-deep in cold water.

Not even the Green Knight could withstand the full brunt of the automaton’s attack, and in fact, he was carried from his feet and back into the water. This time, however, he wasn’t going to get back up so easily. Lohengrin was no druid, but he had a feeling he knew what the deer-boy was trying to do, and for once he figured it’d be best if he put in some effort to assist. Not that he really wanted to, given what he risked exposing, but they couldn’t leave until they’d killed this bastard and found the guardian, so it was obviously better to achieve this faster. With a motion of both clawed hands, Lohengrin manipulated the water in the wellspring, forming some of it into two large tendrils that wrapped around the knight, lifting him slightly from the rest of it. With an exhaled breath, the mercenary froze what he’d assumed control of, essentially trapping the knight in a block of ice. Water was not an easy matter for him to control, and he knew that in his present state, it would not remain solid for long, but it should be long enough for Percy’s plan to come to fruition.

As the bony spines erupted from his vertebrae, he had the thought that this had better be worth the effort he was going to.

The fruit of Percy's labor began as a small shadow off of the Wellspring's shore, an omen for what was about to unfold. The strain danced acrossed Percy's face, his eyes closed in absolute concentration and his mouth working with unspoken words. Neither did he sit still for what he did. His hands paced up and down the sand beneath the water, kneading it between his fingers. The sweat dripped off of his forehead and added to the ripples playing across the surface of the water. He was totally and completely oblivious to the fight happening only a few yards away from him, so concentrated he was in his effort. The shadow slowly began to grow in size and diameter, until what was rising from the depths of the Wellspring broke the surface.

And break it did. A long armed tentacle ripped through the water tension, snaking toward the Knight and wrapping around him. Another followed suit, and another after that. The water then erupted in a geyser, throwing rainbows with the gently floating mist. The beast hiding behind the mist bore eight legs, an elongated head, and two very wide, very dangerous eyes. Percy's creature had arrived. Upon the octopus's appearance, the Druid finally wavered, all of his energy sapped from calling for aid from the beast. He found himself face first in water, completely and utterly exhausted. It was with pure survival instinct that Percy rolled himself over on his back, else risk drowning himself. When he opened his eyes, the sclera had turned dark, much as they had before, giving him the eyes of the deer. His work was done.

The octopus's, however, was just beginning. A fourth tentacle joined the last three, snapping the block of ice under the force. With the Knight now in the creature's unrelenting grasp, it forced the man back to the ground hard enough that the Knight's solid knees buckled, pushing him into a kneeling position. Tentacles continued to wrap around the Knight until he was immobile, and that's when the fifth came into place. This one wrapped around the horns of the knight's helmet and yanked, revealing the man's face.

For a man it was. Underneath the concealed helmet sat a handsome face. Messy blonde hair sat atop his head, the sideburns reaching out from either side and meeting in the middle of a chinstrap beard. A tanned skin tone graced his cheeks, along with a number of bruises resulting from the previous fight. Dark blue irises weighted heavily in tired eyes. The man's gaze darted about confused, until it finally focused on something. The gun barrel shoved into his forehead. Vivi's gun barrel. The girl had taken to opportunity to get in close and, it wasn't one she was about to waste. However, if the man displayed any notion of fear, it was hidden deep behind defiant eyes, daring her to pull the trigger.

Granting the man's desire, Vivi did pull but it lacked the explosion. There wasn't a shot, nor a bang, not even a pop. Another dull click followed another until she grunted under her breath. "Your head still rolls," Vivi demanded, raising her blade instead. A simple slice, and then all of their problems would be solved.

“No!” The shout was on a bit of a delay, as it had taken Gwen a moment to properly process what she was looking at. Once she had, though, she thanked her teachers for giving her lessons that honed her reflexes, because if she’d been one moment later in colliding with Vivian at the highest speed she could manage in water, the saber would indeed have likely severed the knight’s head. She staggered backwards a bit as she picked herself up out of the tackle, sloshing around in the water with half her usual grace, but she was standing in front of the man immediately thereafter, as if to protect him from further assault. She was glad that the only command Percy seemed to have given the octopus was to hold him, else she might have been out of luck even so.

“Don’t... kill him,” she said, breathing heavily from the sudden exertion and the panic that had gripped her upon recognizing this person. What he was doing here, instead of where they all had believed him to be, who they had all believed him to be, was a very complicated question, and she supposed the answer would be no simpler. Regardless, they needed to be able to ask it of him. She would not let him become a corpse. Even if they weren’t now the friends they had been once, she owed him much, including the chance to explain himself if he was even able.

“Something’s wrong… we’ve been hoodwinked. This is… this is Artorias, king of Albion.”

There was a silence short silence before the king finally looked up at each of the members of Avalon's Dawn. His eyes then once again fell to the water in front of him, Vivi's pistol still visible even as it was submerged.

"Fate is full of surprises."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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"I'll admit it," Theon said, shrugging and seeming to take the revelation quite well, "I did not see that coming."

It didn't really make any sense. Shouldn't this guy have been off somewhere else, ruling a kingdom and oppressing some people or something? He really had the time to come stand in some fancy-ass suit of armor in a pool at the top of the world and wait for them, just to fuck with them and fight them when they tried to move forward? What the fuck? If he was here... Theon looked around back into the forest, expecting to see Vipers or worse. There were probably gunships coming over the horizon to blast them to bits as they spoke, weren't there? This was all some kind of fucked up, overly complicated trap.

"We shouldn't stay here," Theon said, hooking the axe back onto his belt, "it's too exposed, there could be soldiers nearby. Let's get this prick somewhere better for us, pry off his fingernails until he tells us what we want, and then blow his brains out." That seemed like the logical plan, as far as Theon was concerned. This guy was the enemy, right? And not just any enemy, he was the enemy, the one who had arrayed everything in his power to hunt them down and kill them. He'd made their job easier for them, so why would they not take the chance they had to kill him now?

"You're an asshole, you know that?" Dio said from the shoreline, arms crossed and weapons still sheathed. She was as surprised as anyone to see the King of Albion under the green armor, but they needed to understand the situation better before making any decisions, and even then... no death would be necessary. There had to be a better way. Theon shrugged as if to say her opinion mattered little to him, and she didn't doubt that, but the words needed to be said, at least. They were all tired and frustrated by the forest, but they needed to avoid letting it cloud their judgment. Some civility would be a nice change.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. She gave a moment's pause to how exactly it was best to address a king, but after considering the strained relationship between him and their group, it didn't seem necessary or wise to give him any kind of reverence. He was clearly just a man, like them.

This had not been part of the plan. Or rather, perhaps it was best to assume that it had been part of the plan, and what he had been told was not the plan. Lohengrin watched with a wary interest as the frown, weary and sad, crossed the captain’s face for an instant so brief he might have missed it had he not been looking right at her. She glanced to the side, at the scryer, and shook her head. “Nobody needs to pull out anyone’s fingernails. If I’m right, our questions will have voluntary answers.” She sounded faintly uncertain, and shot a look at the man who was apparently king. He wondered what their history was, that she seemed to know him not just as a subject might occasionally know the face of a monarch, but as one friend knows another. She didn’t seem like the good Samaritan type, who’d defend him just to avoid death. That was more Dio’s style.

Gwen was more likely to plaster a bright smile on her face and pretend that everything was sunshine and roses. Sure enough, she managed at least half of one, and poked a gentle elbow into the king’s arm. “So, Artillery… how long have you been in the green can?” There was a note of actual worry to the question, but it was well-buried beneath the affected brilliance. Lohengrin didn’t much care how she was actually feeling, but he was interested to hear the answer himself. Assuming there was one… the guy looked a bit bent out of shape, honestly. He wondered if they’d all forgotten that they still had to find the guardian here and retrieve the next key. Well, he couldn’t be arsed if they did.

He could feel the magic of the place beginning to recede, and with it, so did his more obviously-reptilian qualities. Their surroundings were still quite clearly magically charged, but all the same, it no longer felt hostile, just ambient—the feeling of something ancient and unconcerned with the fate of mere mortals. This forest had existed before any of them, and with the possible exception of himself, it would outlive them all. Well… maybe machines didn’t age, either. Who knew?

Artorias simply sighed and shook his head. Even after all this time, Gwen had yet to change one bit. Not that he expected her to much, and there was a whisper of a smile in the corner of his lips as he shook his head. Whatever it had been, it was soon quashed and replaced by the usual stern lipped countance that was to be expected of him. He considered the question asked of him and racked his brain from the answer. "The last coherent memory I have it was... The air was crisp with a bite to it. Winter I believe it was." He paused for a moment, struggling against the octopus's tentacles. The appendages proved to be far stronger than he, so he quit his squirm and just allowed it. If the places were reversed, he would do the same thing.

Next he noticed the hair dangling in his eyes. It was certainly longer than he had remembered it. Following that revelation was a scratch at his chin. Looking down at the crystalline water, he caught his reflection staring back at him. A beard? He took the information without complaint and only offered it as further proof. "I was also clean shaven. Far too long, I'm afraid," He said, giving Gwen a glance. The man with the mouth only recieved a hard glare for his words, but soon Artorias even answered him. "I wouldn't worry about the soldiers and gunships boy, I wouldn't be here if I still had that kind of power. And I'm keeping my fingernails," He said evenly.

In all honesty, he didn't know much. Perhaps even less than these people. He had questions of his own, but was intelligent enough to know that his questions weren't a priotity. They weren't the ones tied up after all. The best he could do was glean enough information from their own responses. His eyes then turned to the other woman, the one who still stood on the shore. Perhaps the only other sane one who had open their mouth. For her, he couldn't find a suitable answer, so he just said what he could, "Wish that I knew. As I said, it was winter the last I remember. Standing in the castle and coordinating the daily routine, taxes, patrols, the like."

He paused for a moment and began to stare holes into the assembled group, one after another, before ending with Gwen, herself recieving a notably less stern look. "Now it's your turn. Where is here and what's happened?" He asked, hoping to find some answers of his own. "And when can I expect to be set free of this beast?" Artorias asked, talking about the obvious cepholopod still holding him in a death grip.

From her position on the bank, Kethyrian pushed a sigh through her nose. Indubitably, the revelation as to the identity of the human wall only made her feel like there was even more tedious work to be done, and this like so many other things irritated her. She was unimpressed by the man dangling from the tentacles of an octopus, but then again, she was unimpressed by just about everything, so it wasn't much of a count against him in the long run. She could feel her magic starting to return to her, whatever spell had been placed on this forest receding almost as soon as it was established that they were apparently not going to kill him, though from the noises Vivi’s brother was making, torture was still on the table. Far be it from her to say otherwise, even if she did find the notion distasteful.

“Mordecai,” she said, assuming that the automaton would have by now regained enough function to take a simple order. “Bring me the boy.” She was not going to go into the water after Percy. Arguably, she might not have done so if he was actually drowning, but fortunately for both of them, she need not find out today. The machine, looking somewhat perplexed by where he found himself, nevertheless latched onto the task as something solid and comprehensible that he could do, and with some care, lifted the mutatio into his arms, sloshing his way through the water and laying the scholar out on the bank. Kethyrian sighed again, well aware that this was going to put a dent in her recovering magic, but nevertheless she knelt beside the youth and placed two clawed fingertips at either of his temples, focusing her attention on bringing him back to consciousness. If his own magic was recovering as hers was, he’d be able to do the rest.

“Percy,” she said, sternly enough to be heard through any half-conscious haze he might drift through on his way to wakefulness. “If you desire that the creature should live, you must dismiss it now—the man must be freed.” And that was exactly what she was going to contribute to this situation. Nothing more.

Inelegant blubbering was her immediate response, but the message rang through loud and clear. His eyelids fluttered open, flickering as he did. Every blink brought his eyes back to their usual color, slowly draining the deer out of his eyes. The cloud that had settled into his head was slowly beginning to fade. His thoughts were clearer than before and he was beginning to actually think. The ambient magic in the area soon presented itself as a vague itch in the base of his skull; annoying, but he could deal with it.

Percy applied pressure to his temple with the palm of his hand and set about concentrating on a single suggestion. He then raised and a hand and waved her off. The octopus, understanding the druid, accepted the order with gusto, dropping the King uncermoniously into the water. Percy could do nothing but wince through the resulting splash and offer a single apology. "Sorry," he squeaked. Artorias rose out of the water and to his full height. He spared a glance for the antlered boy in the Favisae's hand, before he looked down at the droplets beading up on his own armor... His armor? "... This is not my uniform," Artorias said simply, gazing upon the brilliant green suit. Looking back up, his blonde brow furrowed.

"I'll ask again, what's happened?"

“Considering it’s early autumn right now, I’d say you’ve been out of it for a while,” Gwen said with a grimace. Funny; the unnatural anxiety had lifted from this place, but it still felt like she would rather be almost anywhere else. How did you explain having been so wrong about something? Not just anything… wrong about a friend. “Funny thing, though… because Albion’s operating exactly like someone’s still in charge. You never employed a body double, did you?” She remembered the description of Theon’s first dream, after all, and it had sounded like Artorias, harsh attitude and all. The physical description had matched closely enough, but then she hadn’t been the one doing the looking, and Theon had of course never actually seen him before. How many others could be fooled in a similar way? Unless…

“Daisy? Just how much like him did the man in your dream look?”

"Take away the beard, and it might as well be him," Theon said, shrugging. He had the simultaneous gift and curse of remembering all of his dreams with clarity long after having them, and the man before him was the clearly the one he had seen with the wizard. Or rather, he had the same appearance. Now there was some kind of talk of body doubles. "So... what? Are we saying this isn't the guy we're trying to overthrow? We're just going to assume he means us no harm? You got some reason to trust him or something?" He picked up on the fact that Gwen and Artorias weren't new acquaintances, but didn't really want to try and think about it now. The forest's effects might have gone away, but headaches didn't disappear in an instant, and Theon was getting pretty tired of this place.

"I dare you to try, boy. You wouldn't be the first to fail," Artorias said, apparently displeased with the talk of him being overthrown. He might have had his head hidden by that green helmet for nearly a year, but that didn't mean wasn't still King. They'd fought too hard, and too much blood was shed for him to be replaced so easily. However, if he felt any anger toward any of these revelations, it failed to show on his face. He hardly showed any emotion, much less anger. He turned away and bent low, dipping his hand into the crystalline water at his feet. When he withdrew it, out too came the green greatsword. He gave the blade a quick once over and grimaced. It was not his sword, but it would do. He hefted it over his shoulder and turned back.

"Says the man who woke up in a pond with no recollection of the past few months of his life. Sounds like I wouldn't be the first to succeed, either." If all was as it seemed, then this King currently had no control over his kingdom.

"It's not you have I have issue with. That would be the doppelganger who wears my face. You have nothing to fear from me, so long as you stay out of my way," He warned. He had a throne to recapture for the second time in his life. With his words with the boy concluded, he turned toward Gwen and nodded. While he stood straight and proud in front of everyone else, there was a slight hunch in his shoulders when he spoke to her. Mostly due to the fact she was tiny compared to him, and he didn't like shouting down at her. "I have not, I don't hide behind others." She should have known that by now.

What a revelation it was. Artorias was not on the list of people he liked, at all. Anyone who posed any threat to Gwendolyn, and even those who did not, immediately went on his shit-list—and he knew him besides, when he was a fair bit younger. Blonde tresses, big-eyed blues. Friends, or acquaintances, with Leo Skybound. He showed a brief interest in Gwen when she lost her arm in the gullet of an automaton, and from that day forward, Sven had kept a vigilant eye on her, keeping tabs on her by means of shady characters skulking in the shadows. He'd always taken questionable measures to keep her safe, and far, far away from people like him. Once everything settled down, and Kethyrian had Percy safe in her arms, the Lieutenant waded through the waters to stand at Gwendolyn's side, steaming arms coming to cross over his chest. He would always be an angry blade, sheathed unless commanded otherwise. Though, none of his knowledge as a tactician prepared him for this outcome. He wasn't entirely sure how to react, either, what with Gwen's obvious hesitance.

Gwen shook her head. They were going to mix about as well as oil and water, and that was really the long and short of it. Probably best to keep them from talking to each other as much as possible. “Yes, well… we can all not like each other later. Right now, there are problems to solve.” She smiled, so clearly a deflection it even felt unnatural to her. “If you don't have a body double or some twin you’ve never told us about, then I have no idea who’s sitting on the throne, Artillery, but he looks just like you. If Theon says he does, he does. And that’s a very interesting problem. But not our most pressing one at the moment.”

The captain rocked back on her heels, looking back and forth over the group. Honestly, it was probably best to go back to the ship, make sure everyone had time to rest and recover from the torturous journey up here, but… she could feel the ill atmosphere receding, even if she wasn’t the least bit sensitive to magic. This was probably an opportunity to get what they’d come for, and she didn’t know when they’d get another. “First, we need to find the guardian and get the key. I guess you’re with us until then. We were, ah… kind of planning on venturing to the capital anyway. It’s a long story, but whomever’s wearing your face took the guildmaster, and then there was a door, and we need the keys. Spikey or Gadget will catch you up on it, later, if you’re interested.”

As it happened, she did have a reason to trust Artorias. It was hiding somewhere between his honor and her missing arm. But that, too, was a story for another time. She did not doubt that someone would be suspicious enough to ask. If not Daisy, then Thistle or Strawberry. She’d answer, after they had the key. “So Strawberry… where are we going?”

The man so called blinked for a moment. He’d almost managed to forget that stupid nickname. Rolling his eyes, he pointed to the sandbar Artorias had stood on as the Green Knight. “There should be a path made up of those. I’m guessing his majesty here would know it, if he thinks about it hard enough.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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There was something akin to a memory about the path behind them. However memory implied conscious understanding, what Artorias felt was a gut instinct that only standing at the water's edge for near about a year supplied. Sure enough when Artorias turned and looked for it, he recognized the lighter shade of water, signifying the sand that lay just beneath the surface. He then hefted his sword off of his shoulder and pointed in the direction the sandbar led, uttering, "That way," In a sure manner that betrayed no mention that he was working off of bare instinct alone. A man like him couldn't afford to appear unsure, and that skill had managed to bleed into his normal usage, along with a number of others.

Like his understanding of the importance of time. He rested his sword against the opposite shoulder and looked back to Gwen, shrugging as he did. "I won't pretend to know all of the details of your quest, but I will wait until we return to your ship before I ask my questions. I wish to wash my hands of this place more than you do," He said, taking the first steps toward the hidden path. While the magic of the Wellspring may have played with their senses, the place had held him prisoner. He wanted nothing more than to leave as soon as possible, and if that meant leading Gwen's group to whatever they were searching for then so be it.

"Careful," Percy croaked through half-closed eyes. "There's a drop off on either side of the sandbars. Very deep," He explained. He'd seen just how deep the Wellspring went when he contacted the giant octopus. In fact, it was deeper than he could fathom, he never did feel the bottom of the wellspring-- if even there was one.

Vivi though, kept quiet, silently retrieving her pistol from the cold water and examining its barrel. It never jammed on her like that before, but then again, she'd never had it submerged completely in water. There was very little water to dip it in in the desert after all. Due to that fact, she heeded Percy's warning and kept firmly in the middle of the sandbars. Life in the desert meant never having to swim, though there were occasions where she had in the swamps around Deluge in her childhood. Though it was better to not test her rusty skills if she could help it.

Returned more or less to normal functionality, Mordecai took note of Percy’s condition, as well as all the walking that still needed to be done, and approached the young mutatio. “Please allow this unit to assist you,” he said calmly, lifting the scholar with as much delicacy as he could, which was actually a rather surprising amount, and helping him get settled against the machine’s back. He held Percy under his knees, leaving the druid free to wrap his arms around the automaton’s neck. It wasn’t as though he had to worry about choking him or cutting off his air supply, though…

“Just Dio, may this unit request a small amount of magical charge? It does not know if it will be required to enter into combat functionality soon, and it would prefer to be prepared if this is the case. If this is inconvenient, it should not trouble you.” He knew enough to understand that they were all tired and perhaps not in the best shape to be defending themselves, but that was precisely why he had asked. His conversion rates would make even a little bit of magic somewhat effective, and he felt… something… about the fact that he had been computing below standard for the last day and a half. He suspected it might be called guilt.

Either way, he was following after the king and the others shortly thereafter, sloshing though the sandbars with no sign of fatigue whatsoever. He received most of his energy from the sun, and however incapacitated he had been, he had still been able to intake the solar power.

Kethyrian, on the other hand, shuffled somewhat awkwardly from foot to foot on the shore, arms crossed over her chest mostly because she didn’t know what else to do with them. She knew they needed to move, to go follow the human king to the key, and if it was anything like the last one, it would require their presence for activation, but… even with all that knowledge, she couldn’t make herself move. She was just… the sandbars, shallow as they made the water, were not wide enough to assuage her fear, and she wasn’t… she just couldn’t bring herself to step in. Her face twisted into a scowl, but the look in her eye, the way she stayed just far enough on shore that her toes wouldn’t touch the water, betrayed her.

Dio was quite certain the automaton was using her name incorrectly on purpose at this point, but she didn't bother correcting him. For one, if he was doing it on purpose, it was likely as a sign of affection, or... whatever automatons felt that was most similar to that. And secondly, the nature of his request made her a little nervous. She had been none too keen on following the group into the water, but now that their surroundings were no longer actively terrorizing them, Dio figured she could keep a handle on things going forward. She hadn't planned on casting any magic, though. The risk of accidentally shocking the entire group was present, of course, but... perhaps if she kept it at a very small current, there wouldn't be any threat.

She pulled up beside Mordecai. Seeing as his hands were occupied with carrying Percy, she slid her left arm through his right, settling her other hand on his forearm. She was relieved when her magic did not spasm throughout the entire pool, but instead did exactly what she willed it to, and slowly began to charge Mordecai. "One of these days," she said quietly, "you're going to slip up, and then I'll have a funny literal name to call you by." She thought it somewhat strange for a machine to have developed a sense of humor, but Mordecai was remarkable in many ways, this one being perhaps the least surprising of them.

Theon, meanwhile, had no desire to walk at the front of the group with the King of the Pond, so he held up, allowing the rest of the group to go ahead. All of them did save for Kethyrian, the wall-crawler to whom he had spoken hardly a word. He watched with some amusement at how she was kept at bay by the slightest touch of the water. Even Dio had gone in willingly enough, despite her magical issues with it, so this was clearly something else. He slogged a few steps back in her direction, crossing his arms.

"Never figured you were a cowardly sort, but I've been proven wrong before. If you want me to look into the future and see if you drown in a few minutes, just say the word." It didn't actually work that way, of course. He was not so gifted in the art that he could simply call up her future at will. What he could do, however, was see if anger was capable of overcoming fear. He seemed to be pretty good at drawing that particular emotion out of people.

"As far as I know, this is a team game we're playing, which means you're going to have to come along, like it or not. If you don't feel like pulling yourself together and keeping up, I can always carry you on my back the way the toaster's carrying deer boy. Or if you prefer, I could hold you in my arms. I'll keep you safe, I promise." It was a little silly, him harassing her for her fears, when he had so many that he hid, but she needed something to hate right now. Theon found he was often the best candidate.

Kethyrian’s lip curled, and if looks alone could kill, Theon would perhaps be dead several times over in increasingly-gruesome ways. It rankled more than anything because he was right. He knew it, she knew it, and he knew that she knew it, presumably. She crossed her arms, encircling her biceps with her fingers and squeezing slightly, as if the sensation were some kind of grounding. The problem was, as correct as she knew him to be, fear like hers was not rational. It did not respond to reasons. There was no convincing or cajoling it to subside for a little while because they were walking on sandbars or because there were plenty of people with the strength to pull her up should she fall in and start drowning. Whether many of them would was a separate question, but she figured there were at least three.

Her pride, however, was affronted, and that, too, was something with a force beyond reason. What did this man understand of her fear? How dare he presume the reason was mere cowardice! Her eyes narrowed, and she raised her chin, stilling her breath for a moment and clenching her jaw. It loosened only enough for her to speak from behind gritted teeth. “I hope that some day, you are made to confront everything that you fear,” she said, the words something between speech and a snarl. Swallowing thickly, Kethyrian edged into the water, quite slowly, but steadily all the same. By the time it was knee-high, her heart was practically in her throat, and she was quite clearly shaking, like a leaf, as the expression might go. Kethyrian, having grown up in caves entirely bereft of trees, would not have understood the comparison.

It would be an exaggeration to say that things got any better when she reached the sandbar. Though the water lapped only at her ankles then, it was deeper on either side of her, and that was the real concern. Though it cost her dearly and probably wouldn’t even save her if she did fall, she kept a shield at one of her hands, which she held out to the side where the deep water was closest. Memory played over the backs of her eyelids like that screen in the cockpit of the ship, and she tried very hard not to think about it. She’d convinced herself long ago that it no longer mattered, but even she knew it wasn’t true, apparently. It was, after all, the reason for the fear.

She managed a decent pace, and though she did still trail behind the rest, it was never more than a few yards, the unwilling tail to a parade of absurdity she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be in anymore.

The trail of sandbars was far from direct, but it was continuous, and the water never went deeper than Artorias’s knees, which admittedly meant that it was slightly less than halfway up Gwen’s thighs at points. It wasn’t she who had the problem with water, however, though she was glad there were no mishaps along the way. Given what Spikey had managed to pull out of the water earlier, things could have been a lot worse. As indirectly as they were going, her sense of navigation still informed her that they were heading towards the very center of the wellspring, the origin of all water for the northern half the world.

It was, she would readily admit, very beautiful. Though they were no longer able to make out the bottom, the water was clear for a very long way, before there was simply no longer enough light penetration to see, marking it as very, very deep. She could see fish in all kinds of bright colors swimming around on either side of the ground they tread, she managing with some dogged persistence to match Artillery’s speed—when she didn’t get caught up staring at something in the water. Even the clouds reflected here, as did the marching figures of their own party, from the proud-if-bedraggled king at the front to the equally-proud, even more bedraggled Favisae in the rear.

After about an hour or so, they at last found what they sought: another platform. But this time, the jewels had been set into a floating cap of ice, which managed to be just as perfectly circular as the stone one had been. Eerily, the number of pale circles on the outside was this time ten. The atmosphere was quiet, almost as still as death, as though expectant of something.

"Is this what you've been searching for?" Artorias said, stepping up onto the pedestal so as to be free of the water. He'd spent the last hour ankle deep within the water, and if there was chance he could escape it, even for a little while, then he would take it. He knew not of the platform's nature, nor it's origin, and in condradiction against his expression and his words, he was curious about the thing. He knew the path-- or rather, he knew of a path. Finding it and following it was the easy part. If not provoked by the group's guide, he may have never even thought about it. Standing atop the pedestal, he finally noted the ten circles inlaid in it.

Another pair of legs could be heard slogging through the water, and Percy became the second to stand upon the pedestal. Over the last hour, he'd been silent, regaining his strength and throwing his mind out of its stupor. In honesty, he'd regained enough to walk on his own over thirty minutes ago, but since it didn't seem like Mordecai was bothered by his weight, and Percy really didn't want to walk unless he had to, he said nothing. But now, he spoke as only Percy could, with an intelligent dialect, a keen eye for detail, and of course a steady stream of information. "This pedestal, we found another exactly like it in the Sand Ocean," He told Artorias. Then he paused, and looked up at the King. The King. Percy had finally registered just who exactly he was standing next to.

He hesitated and stammered, his mouth working fruitlessly in it's socket. It took an urging from Artorias himself to set him back on track. The man proved curious himself. "Well, not exactly. It wasn't made of ice... And the Emerald wasn't lit yet," Percy said, crossing the disk and examining it. At least they were on the right track. "There're nine circles around the outer edge, corresponding to each person in the Dawn. As everyone steps on them then that," Percy said, taking it eye off the emerald and pointing toward the Sapphire, "Should light up." He kept a tight lip on the guardian that should appear afterward. Some things could only be believed through sight, and that was one such instance.

Artorias kept his own counsel as he listened to the Mutatio's words. They boy hadn't even shifted out of his antlers yet. But as he was winding down, Artorias did have something to add. "There are ten." His words drew the boy's questioning eyes, and he met them with his own sure ones. "The circles. There are ten circles. Not nine," Artorias repeated. On cue, the boy's head whipped around with enough force, that had Artorias been close enough, would have raked his face pretty badly. Once his count was done, his eyes returned to Artorias, this time, a gaze that Artorias knew. One that a scientist would give his newest specimen. "What?" He asked firmly.

"Best get used to it, antler-man," Theon said in a resigned drawl. "Looks like we're stuck with him now." Any grounds he'd had for getting rid of the kingly asshole vanished when he spied the ten circles on the pedestal. Apparently fate had planned this one out to the letter, predicting their pickup of the thief in Deluge, and now the King in the Pond here at the top of the world. "If it's any consolation, though, that means the bastard's also stuck with us!" Feeling that the rest of his life was sure to be a miserable experience now, Theon hopped up onto the pedestal and took his place in one of the circles.

Dio did the same near the other, happy that she had avoided electrocuting anyone on the way over here. She wasn't sure what to make of the whole King situation. On the one hand, she was a thief and a bit of a law breaker, but on the other, he certainly seemed like a good sort of man, so perhaps he would see that her end goals justified her transgressions? Of course, there was always the chance he was that sort of hard man, the kind that refused to allow laws to be broken for any reason. That would be problematic. Regardless, she was not distraught with the new addition, and waited eagerly to see what would happen here.

She really should have expected this by now, honestly. Far too cranky to say anything, Kethyrian simply jumped onto the ice, relieved by its solidity, and skated over to a circle relatively close to Dio’s, stopping on it by turning into her motion. It was quite slick, but at least she had balance going for her. It was small comfort, but basically the only thing she could think of that was actually to her advantage right now. She’d take it when the alternative was nothing. Mordecai, much less disturbed by the current flow of events than basically anyone else, stood immediately to Dio’s left. Some part of him was curiously happy that the circle even reacted to him at all. He wondered if any machine would be sufficient, but then… perhaps not. Perhaps there was something in his specifications that made him different.

It was not a thought he disliked, exactly. This thing, these guardians, treated him as if he were as human as any of the rest, or Favisae or Mutatio or what-have-one, but certainly not as a mere mechanical construction. It was… it was… he did not know the right word, but he didn’t have to. The feeling itself as adequate, and he wanted to experience it, just a little, without categorizing it. That was the human thing to do, was it not?

"I will have questions," Artorias told Percy, but he didn't elaborate. He was certain that in the next couple of moments, he'd have even more. So he'd have to wait until he gathered what questions to ask, and when the time was better conducive for them to be answered. He did make an effort to ignore the boy-- but if he was right, then he'd have plenty of time to have his questions answered. So without any more words, Artorias followed suit and backed up into his own circle, watching as it lit up under him. A breath was forcibly exhaled through his nose, and he set the tip of his against the ice at his feet, but did nothing else and waited patiently.

Percy too had nothing else to say, but his eyes were glued to the King. Did the guardians really expect him to join the Dawn on their task? Just like it expected Dio? How far ahead did they see? What else should they expect? and the perhaps the most important question was how. It was these questions that occupied his mind as he found his way to his own circle on the other side of Mordecai, his jaw working in its joints as if he was talking to himself. Vivi, completely uncaring at these unfolding events, found her way to another circle-- pointedly one far away from the so-called "King". She had just tried to kill the man not too long ago-- not the best of first impressions.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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As perhaps all but one of them would have been able to guess, the air around them changed as soon as the ten of them each stepped onto a circle. The massive blank spot in the center of the ice shelf began to glow a smoky color, quite akin to that of the smaller discs they stood upon. This time, rather than a high-pitched whine which eventually translated into music, the soundscape that wove around them was mersong, similar but not the same in character from that which they had heard before. Where they was temptation and reminder, this was nothing short of exaltation, from the low-humming harmony to the soaring aria of a single voice threading with thin silver notes through the melody.

As before, the light leaked from beneath them into channeled paths cut in the ice, forming a different set of glowing lines, all leading towards not the already-lit green gem, but the still-dim blue one, the massive sapphire. When this was lit from within, the blue light of it filtered towards the very center, and the shimmering column of light once gain erupted from the ground, too bright to be stared at for long, and around them, the water swirled and rose, twisting around itself and forming into nonsense shapes, joining and separating with the underlying throb of a heartbeat. Over their minds flickered more images, these of rich underwarter cities, buildings constructed of coral encouraged to grow in specific ways, light pinks and whites, green and blur predominating. Fish swam in and out of buildings, and among them also moved the mer.

They were not as much humanoid as fishlike, most of them having human features to their torsos, but fish tails, gills on their neck, triangular, pointed teeth, and ears that resembled the Favisae more than anything, tapered to thin points an inch or two behind the end of their heads. Their eyes were uniformly black, no discernible iris or sclera to be seen, and even on their arms rested fins of varying sharpness and color. Their fins and scales came in all kinds of colors, and the underwater was filled with the low crooning of song, a conversation of sorts.

But this vision, like the last, faded, and when the light receded, what stood before them was a vaguely feminine shape, save that she was composed entirely of water, her surface covered everywhere but the joints in a thin layer of ice. The sunlight overhead reflected through her, throwing prismatic rainbows onto the surface of the ground, and she raised herself into a stand, looking about herself at them. The contour of her face that had the suggestion of a mouth curved upwards slightly, and her arms fell to rest loosely at her sides. “So, you have come, Chosen. But do you yet know why?”

"I came because I wanted to," Dio answered, shrugging. She happened to think the being standing before her was exquisitely beautiful, and rather more magical than anything she had ever laid eyes on, but there was no reason she couldn't just talk to her as though she were just a normal person, right? "Before, I was always just helping in whatever small ways that I could, but now it seems like there's a really big way for me to contribute, so I'm taking it. I guess I was just raised that way, even if my teachers didn't exactly practice what they preached..." She supposed it was her own little way of getting back at them, by living up to the standards that they only feigned.

Theon, on the other hand, was a little annoyed, which was of course unsurprising. He'd thought he had a clear handle on things. They were going to take down the King, and somehow doing that would save the world. Or something. But now the bloody King was standing right alongside them, apparently having misplaced himself for the past couple of months. He was used to being the one with the advantage in terms of knowledge, always choosing what he wanted others to know, what he wanted others to think he knew. Now he was on the wrong side of that arrangement. Fate had apparently decided to spoon feed them their destiny one mouthful at a time, probably worried they'd choke on it if they were given too much at once.

"I'm here because I'm a person of above average importance, and whatever force directs you happens to recognize that, and respect it. It's a nice change of pace from the last twenty seven years."

What a bizarre reception, this was. The Lieutenant stole blatant glances at the King. Stared holes through his skull, mutely wishing that his glares could do what Vivian's pistol could not. He'd been an enemy only moments before, and now he was an impromptu Chosen-one standing alongside them like he'd been there this entire time. It was difficult to sift through his anger and find a more tolerant measure of his personality. It was even more difficult to wrap his mind around the fact that this situation was far more complex than he'd originally concluded. There was an evil doppelganger running the country and sending automatons after them, hounding their steps wherever they went and the real King was on this accursed spit-of-land, bound to a casing of green armour that had apparently whittled away his memory. He rubbed at his temples, summoning enough composure to focus on the task at hand. Here they were again—standing on pedestals, speaking to another guardian who was showing them peculiar visions. Of mer-folk? Living, breathing mer-folk.

He suddenly felt very old. Like a father who's children had disappointed him by walking down terrible paths and never visited him, even once. Or maybe, it was just his creaky limbs protesting all of the water they'd just slogged through to get here. The Lieutenant rested his weight on the pedestal and released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in, ripping his gaze away from the King and onto the silhouette-of-a-creature forming in front of them. Beautiful, indeed. Far different from the rock-like thing they'd encountered on that other planet. Her voice felt like water ripples, tranquil and serene in nature. The question seemed rhetorical, but some of them were answering anyway. He wondered whether or not saying anything was necessary at all. Heavy eyebrows raised briefly. There was a brief flash of his youth spent in the military academy—of standing at attention, belting out his identification number and name and squadron over and over again.

Unlike Dio and Theon, Sven did not know why he was here. It was his duty. His duty to follow and fight and gnash his teeth on command. His duty to Gwendolyn, he supposed. To him, as well. Was he more than that? No.

Percy stole a glance at the King, searching for some sort of reaction from what was unfolding before him, and he wasn't disappointed. To a duller mind, it would have been easy to miss-- Artorias guarded his emotions well, but Percy caught the singular moment where the stoic facade wore off and the king displayed something. The shifting of his hands on the pommel of his sword, the slight hitch to his breath, but it was in his eyes, mostly. The widening of eyelids, the intent staring, and the sparkle of wonderment. Percy simply smiled and turned back to the Guardian.

Why had they come? It was a queer question, and one that was difficult to answer-- for himself, it seemed. Theon and Dio both answered relatively quickly. But the answers they gave weren't good enough he felt, and neither were the ones he could come up with. Because Myrddin told us to or because the last guardian led us here left a sour taste in his mouth. It made them sound as if they possessed no free will of their own, hopping around the planet to the beat of their drum. He trusted Myrddin's judgement, just as he trusted the guardian's judgement, but the answers weren't good enough.

The man they thought they were fighting against now stood next to them-- one of the chosen as well. In his place, an unknown doppelganger stood. Who knew what that man's plan were? They had no answers, only questions, and one cannot hope to answer a question with another question. Or... Could he? "I... No, I do not." He was a poor scholar-- he was supposed to be the one to know all the answers. However, it was in asking that knowledge grew, and in their knowledge was power. "Do you?" He didn't care much for the answers they gave, but rather, the answer she was expecting. Perhaps that answer could guide them better than their own.

Artorias kept his own counsel, and remained silent-- more than content to just wait and watch. The only sound he managed was a scoff at Theon's answer, but kept his eyes locked upon the... creature in front of him.

The Guardian was beautiful, she supposed. Not that most Favisae had much of an aesthetic sense. If it wasn’t useful, it had no place in the underground. And particularly elegant or exotic facial or bodily features counted there as well. Still, presumably she was precisely as she needed to be to do what she did, and Kethyrian could appreciate that much, anyway. The vision of the underwater world struck her not unlike the previous one had, of the forest-city with the flickering people. Only… it was a bit less impactful, because she was not looking at her own progenitors this time, rather something entirely alien to her. Whatever the case, her answer to the question was nothing worth saying, at least not the parts of it that had not already been said. She was just ready to be done, with all of it.

Mordecai was just as fascinated with this as he had been with the rest of it, but Automata were not the kinds of creatures that were naturally disposed to ask why. Generally, they were given a command, and that was all the why they needed. He was a little different, and more inquisitive, but even so the questions he knew how to ask were mostly of the how variety, because these were the kinds with physical answers that were comprehensible to him. Even so, there was something, some part of his programming that he could not quite reach, that stirred in response to the question. Did he know why? If so, why could he not call the information to the fore of his processing?

The Guardian did not seem to take any of the answers one way or another, varied though they were, but she did turn her head to regard Percy when he questioned her in return. At least, Gwen was going to assume it was a her—she wasn’t really sure if the creatures had genders, but her voice sounded feminine and her shape seemed to suggest it, at least. “That is a question with many layers, many answers,” she said, and then she seemed to frown, shaking her head and producing literal ripples in the parts of her that resembled strands of hair. “Unfortunately, there are some things that can only be known, and never said.” She turned slightly, so that she was looking at Lohengrin when she pointed that out, and if he didn’t need her to be free of his damned obligations, he might have cursed her for it. He did anyway, just not out loud, feigning obliviousness regarding her motive for addressing him when she said it.

“What I can tell you is this: She is in peril. This was once Her home, but compared to the place it used to be… the spring runs dry. In time, it will cease to produce any water at all. This planet was not meant to be banded by desert. Once, by Her grace, it was lush and prosperous, and there was no need for any of its denizens to live always in the dark. But then they sealed Her, and claimed the surface for themselves. If you are here, it means that the Wizard, Her old companion, has deemed it time to save Her.” Her chin tilted downward, as if pensively. “Even I do not know his mind, but there must be a reason he waited until now. Waited until you.”

Her sigh was a gentle sea breeze, though she lamented that none of these children knew what a sea was. Even their ships sailed only on air. It had not always been so, but the time of oceans and forests was long past them now. Perhaps it could come to be again, if the Wizard was right. He must be right—there would be no more chances. “He deemed you worthy, and I can see that Earth has done so as well. I follow, for the mercy you showed one who had lost his way.” She paused, her attention flickering to Artorias, and frankly Lohengrin thought she overestimated their mercy—no few of these people had wanted to kill him. Then again… maybe it was enough that they as some kind of dissociated whole had managed not to fuck it up too badly.

As the previous Guardian had, this one manifested a key. From the way clouds of steam rose off of it against the air, it was quite chilly to the touch, and seemed to be made out of sapphire. “Conquering one’s fear is more admirable than fearing nothing,” the Guardian said with a hint of amusement, and the object moved to hover in front of Kethyrian. “Take heart, deep-child. All is not lost.” The Guardian’s form began to waver, the ice that comprised her outer layer cracking. “I have done all I can do for you, Chosen. Your next destination lies deep in the Skyteeth mountains. You would do well to learn one another—for you will need the knowledge in the times to come.”

And then she was gone.

Theon had some lofty notions of his own importance, and placed a rather large value on getting to be the hero that saved the day, but rescuing damsels he tended to leave out of that equation. It was never as glamorous as it was made out to be. Whoever this Lady was, it was likely not going to be a matter of swooping in aboard their mighty vessel and making off with her before the evil ones could get at her. No, if he were to use that metaphor, they'd likely have to wade through all the evil ones with axes and guns, and they'd be covered in blood and filth by the time they got to Her. She'd probably be a little less grateful to see them then, and likely not understand what they were even doing for Her. Deciding that he had taken the metaphor a little too far, Theon sighed. They still had only as much as they needed to go on: a location. Theon figured they should be off, before his boundless mercy was put to the test.

Kethyrian knew exactly who the She was being referred to, but this was not to say that she quite believed it. She was a natural skeptic, and disinclined to take strange water-constructs at their word. She would not deny that the words of the last one had gotten them this far, but she had yet to see any actual evidence of the Lady’s involvement. Indeed, if anything, she was beginning to suspect that someone was just yanking their chain. For what reason, she had no idea, but in her experiences, people didn’t really need reasons to be assholes.

The key hovered in front of her, and honestly for a moment, she contemplated not taking it. Screw these people and what they thought they knew about her—they had no damn idea who she was. While she lacked Theon’s inflated sense of his own importance, she did not simply accept that these people had all the answers, especially not when it came to her. How could they, when she didn’t even have the questions? Nevertheless, she reached out and grasped the large sapphire object. It was cool to the touch, but more than that… it felt restorative, like it as replenishing the magic that had to normally restore itself via sleep—of which she had lately had but little. She was loath to admit it, but that would be useful to have around.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Generally speaking, when Mordecai was not in the cockpit of the ship with its captain and taciturn first mate, nor in the library of it assisting the resident scholar with his research, he could be found on the deck, mostly staring off into the horizon, perhaps calculating the science of the dizzying expanse of land and sky before and beneath them. He had not the emotional capacity for the sense of wonder and awe that the sunset vista might have inspired in another, and he could not fear what would happen should he fall. Fear itself was a curious phenomenon, one that he had difficulty comprehending. Why should he fear anything? At bottom, he was fairly certain that fear boiled down to a fear of death, a fear of the cessation of being. What was there to fear about that? It was just as it was called, a cessation. If he ended, he would not suffer, he would not even be aware he had ended. He could not understand how that was something people seemed to dread.

He must be missing something. He was always missing something, bits and pieces of things that meant he was not and could not be human. Gwendolyn seemed to disagree, but he could not follow her reasoning, and his led him always back to this conclusion. So what else was there for him to be? He might not be a man, but he was hardly a machine, at least, not if that meant that he had to be like other machines. And it seemed to. The automaton drummed his fingers absently on the bar of the railing, save that nothing he really did was absent at all, and it was hardly a random sequence of taps. It corresponded to the rhythm of an old composition. Morgause would play it in her workshop, whenever she needed to concentrate particularly intently on what she was doing. He had been taught to play it, on several instruments, with the same unerring precision he did everything else, but like his art, his playing lacked something. He’d not discovered what until he’d long left her service.

Dio never really thought she was the type to get cabin fever, but then again, she had never really been confined to one place for very long. Growing up she'd always been running off all around the city, getting her hands and her nice clothes dirty, and after getting kicked out of Xantus, she always moved from place to place, once she left the caves, of course. In that particular time, she hadn't felt like going anywhere for a while, and the Favisae had been kind enough to let her linger, which she knew was not common. She'd needed some time to collect her thoughts, anyway.

But here, up in the sky... it wasn't that she wanted to leave. Perhaps it was just the opposite. But she was so used to always having a next place to move on to, for when work got dry or the local authorities started to catch on, and she inevitably pissed off someone without enough money to do something about her. There was some good she was supposed to do here, she was certain of it, and she was involved in something important. The King's presence here confirmed that, if nothing else. She wished she could understand it a little better, was all. She was used to having more concrete goals.

Dio imagined that Mordy was, too, and went to go find him when she inevitably became a little tired of sitting about. She had more than rested up since the tiring debacle at their last stop, and energetically moved about the ship in search of the automaton, eventually finding him on the deck, near the railing and staring off into the horizon. She adjusted the beanie on her head (a dark green color, today, with thin white stripes circling her skull), watching him drum his fingers for a moment. "Need any charge?" she asked in greeting, coming to stand beside him. While not really comfortable with the idea of falling to her death, Dio was at least confident in her ability to not be clumsy, and avoid falling overboard. "Things were a little rough for you down there. Everything working alright?" She was certain that if anything was broken, Gwen would have already seen to it, but the point was for her to check in. That was what friends did.

The tapping on the railing ceased, and Mordecai withdrew his hand from it, folding it and his other behind his back. He was not always utterly conscious of his own habits, because many of them were subtle pieces of programming that he wasn’t meant to notice, but there was something almost servile about the posture, as one might expect a valet or a butler to await some kind of instruction. Perhaps a natural reaction from being spoken to. Dio did share some physical characteristics with Morgause, primarily the dark hair and stature. Still, that he was given any choice in the matter of what was done to him was enough to make all the difference to the automaton, and he shook his head in the negative.

“This unit is currently fully operational and adequately charged,” he informed her mildly. Had it been especially difficult for him? The memories were odd, as though they hadn’t quite processed correctly. He remembered some things very vividly, and others as though he’d only seen and heard them through a very thick fog. Maybe it was that which made her say so in the first place. Even so… “This unit believes it was not easy on anyone, though it understands that those with magic were particularly aversely affected. Has Just Dio likewise recovered?” He wasn’t sure exactly why he still called her that. He’d since figured out the idiom involved. But he found it… something to continue to use it anyway. The proper adjective eluded him.

Dio only managed a hint of a dissatisfied huff at the way Mordecai referred to her. It was possible that she was starting to get used to the nickname, but she was still a little intrigued by the fact that an automaton had come up with a nickname at all. Mordecai was obviously something special.

"I'm feeling alright, yeah," she said, answering his question. "I just needed to get some food in me and some actual sleep, I think. It's nice to not be shocking everything I touch again." She imagined Kethyrian was happy to not be spreading flowers everywhere, and Theon and Lohengrin were probably happy to... well, no, they probably weren't happy. "I think Percy had the worst of it," she said with some amount of worry, biting her lip softly. "I hope he's okay. I think he might still be sleeping."

As if summoned, two pairs of cloven hooves came trotting up behind them. Percy was in his fullchange form, and a ten-point buck looked at both Mordecai and Dio. Sage eyes stared at Dio for a moment, as if to answer no, no, I’m awake now. Lacking the vocal cords of his human shift, however, it was the best way he could communicate, at least until he began the process of half-shifting back. The messenger bag that was wrapped around the buck’s midsection jostled around until it was sitting back in place at Percy’s lower back, while the antlers remained rooted to his scalp. He stood in front of the pair, and yawned heavily forcing what was left of the lingering effects of his long sleep. Popping the bones in his neck, he finally answered with his voice. “Hibernation of sorts—but I’m fine now,” he said with a light smile.

As if to refute his earlier claim, a loud grumbling escaped his belly, a sound he first tried to ignore before frowning, “Just a little… Hungry. Eating grass and acorns for a full day may be fine for a deer alone, but I’m human too,” He said. Still, he was happy he was in control of his facilities again, and could control himself once fullshifted. However, there was an adverse effect of him desiring to sleep while in his fullshift. “I still want to make sure that there aren’t any lingering effects on myself, but that could wait for another time. For now, I just want to be lazy,” He revealed as he sighed. Percy was always a workaholic, and was never satisfied unless there was something to occupy his mind. His own admission revealed just how tired he was.

“You two are well I hope? No lasting effects? No static build-up?” He asked, the question directed to Dio. “No strange system glitches?” This one for Mordecai.

Mordecai blinked inhuman eyes at the deer-that-was-Percy, having not actually been in much of a state of mind to notice anything last time he’d seen it, and watched with some interest as it shifted back into a man with antlers. Magic had a strange kind of fascination for the machine, because it was something vital to his function, but also something fundamentally alien to him in the way he supposed it must be alien to anyone who could not use it at will. “If you wish, this unit is equipped to perform certain diagnostic checks. It can discern resting heart rate, blood pressure, and otherwise determine if your body is running within ordinary parameters.” He actually had baseline data for the other members of the party, some of which had been in his systems from before, and others which he had collected via simple observation. Some were missing, as Lohengrin, for example, had not consented to the additional procedures necessary to measure body temperature and heart rate, but for the most part, he had an idea of how they all worked.

“This unit’s system never glitched,” He sounded just the faintest bit offended when he said it. “It did, however, fail to maintain higher-order functions, and as such, lower-order programming compensated and ensured full system function.” He paused, attempting to think of how best to explain it. “This unit’s conversational modules and ‘personality’ are peripheral functions, unimportant to central systematic success. The industrial term is ‘flavor programming.’ This unit was designed and engineered to be a combat tool, a purpose which, lacking the usual magical energy supplement, it performed to regulation standard.” Mordecai sounded almost uncertain about that somehow, but he did not understand why the words were uncomfortable to him. They were, after all, the truth.

Dio twisted around a couple of her facial features as Mordecai explained how he had never glitched. There were a lot of very big words used there, and the thief had failed to understand quite a few of them. "That... means everything is okay, I think," she said, smiling somewhat awkardly at the antlered form of Percy, suddenly having an uncontrollable urge to make a hat with holes in it for the antlers, and how absolutely perfect it would be. "And I'm fine, yep. Haven't shocked anything in hours."

Her eyebrows quickly shot up as she seemed to jump on an opportunity. "Oh, and if you're getting something to eat soon, do you mind if I come with? I'm always up for a snack, and friendly company on this ship is... surprisingly difficult to come by sometimes." The crew was nice, though they tended to mind their own business, and some of the other members of their little adventuring group were... difficult to approach. "We could talk about where you went when you got all deery on us back in the woods." She backpedaled a bit, wondering if that had been inappropriate. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by that. I think the whole shapeshifting thing is very cool, actually." Most of her family was of the discriminatory sort when it came to Mutatio, but as with many other things, Dio split off from her family on that particular issue.

Instead of the offense that Dio feared, she was met with Percy’s laugh. Deery? That’s a new one. I like to call it a fullshift but to each their own,” Percy said with a lingering smile. “No I don’t mind. It’s my fault for not being strong enough to fight it,” He said, taking a step backward and extending a hand toward the door that led below deck. “Coming along Mordecai? Your company would be welcomed as well,” He added, taking a contemplative look at the Automaton as he did. Percy assumed that he didn’t have the need for food like they did, but still he wished to speak with the man some more.

However, before they started Percy took a pause and turned toward Mordecai and shook his head disappointedly. “You speak as if that’s all you are, Mordecai, A combat unit. Your personality and your mind makes you you, no matter their order in your systems. It’s the difference between Model Number Nine, and the Mordecai we know,” At this, Percy gave the man a warm smile, the warmest he could manage, “You’re a part of the team, Mordecai, and I’d much rather have you with your flavor programming than that brute,” He said, pointing out Theon.

With that, they began to take the walk toward the mess. Percy allowed a respectable time to elapse before he answered Dio’s curiosity. “Even I’m not completely sure where I went, everything’s a jumble of feral memories, and even those are hazy. I had control, and then there was a loud noise, and suddenly I didn’t. It’s… Hard to explain,” He said thoughtfully. He spent another moment reorganizing his mental word bank in an attempt to gather the needed words and then he continued. “I was in control, it wasn’t like deer and I were fighting for dominance of my mind or anything, but… I was feral. I ran on base instinct, and nothing more—all my human sense stripped by the song we all heard,” He said, biting his lip as he spoke. He’d really have to write down his experiences in a journal after lunch. Then he turned back to Dio with a look that was a mix between apologetic and surprised.

“Sorry, that’s not what you wanted. I did…deer things,” He said as simply as he could. “I grazed, I rubbed trees with my antlers, and I uh…” Percy then turned bright red and a look of embarrassment crossed his face. "I, uh… Looked for a mate, It had been rutting season for ordinary deer as it turned out. “Fortunately, I didn’t find one,” He added quickly.

Mordecai didn’t really understand the difference. His understanding of himself, insofar as he had a self, was a series of system specifications. He just was Morgause’s Model #9. Even the flavor programming had been designed by the mistress. His personality details were as they were because she had wanted them to be that way, not because he had developed from a series of life experiences, or however the humans he associated with would explain it. Still, he saw no real point in making this any more obvious than it already was, and so he simply nodded his response to Percy’s statements and followed the other two down to the dining area. He, of course, did not intake food, but he would not mind keeping company with them while they did so.

Dio laughed lightly when Percy simplified things for her, though she found his earlier explanation interesting enough. She couldn't really imagine what it would be like, to have one person expressed through two different forms like that. She supposed it was as simple as breathing to him, given that he had been born that way. She may have reddened slightly when he mentioned looking for a mate, but she doubted he would notice, considering the shade Percy had turned. Her skin was a little darker, besides; the red didn't show up as well.

"Fortunate for you, maybe," she said, grinning slightly. "I'll bet there were plenty of ladies out in that forest that would fawn over a stag like yourself." She reached over to elbow at him playfully, clearly quite proud of herself for the witticism.

Percy spent a moment just looking at her with mouth agape, before breaking down in laughter. As the laughs winded down, he shook his head and rubbed his face, feeling the slightest bit embarrassed that he had just laughed at such a terrible joke. "Oh... I think that one physically hurt me," he said, rubbing his chin, chuckling again. Once he finally composed himself again, Percy realized they had arrived at the mess hall. His nose wrinkled and sniffed the air, though he hesitated afterward and looked at his nose.

"Ah... the lingering effects I mentioned earlier," Percy explained. "They have a bunch of fruit here," He added with an awkward smile. Raising his eyebrows, he continued to explain why he pointed out the fruit of all things, "Ah, I'm vegetarian, my whole family is. For obvious reasons," Because what kind of shapeshifter ate the shapes he shifted into? "My favorite are apples," He added, slowly slipping into a rambling explanation.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Stepping over the threshold that led to the Elysium's lower decks, Artorias immediately felt the warm wind rushing through his hair. It had been a long time since he last rode atop the clouds in an airship, as royal business on land saw to it that he was bereft of free time. He stood still for a moment, allowing the familiar winds to work their way over his skin and into his clothes. Clothing that was explicitly military in nature. Underneath the thick sheath of green armor he found himself wearing standard military fare, something he had taken to when not dressed up in finery for public appearances. A light blue coat laid flat against an even lighter blue tunic, a red neckerchief that hid his collar rested around his throat. His tunic was tucked into ordinary breeches and looped with a regular leather belt. While the dress was military, it was subtle and ensured that the king didn't stand out in a crowd. Even so, there was an impeccable quality there, as his suit was excellently prim and proper.

Free of his large green sword, and having yet to choose his firearm from Gwen's armory, Artorias was also unarmed, though it did nothing to diminish the intensity the man carried on his broad shoulders. As he walked toward the nearby port railing, there was a purpose to every step, and his back never bent nor did his steps stagger. The deck crew avoided his passing and quicked their gait to get out of his path, but he seemed to not notice. He reached the railing and leaned forward, taking a deep breath of the sky around them and letting a smile seep into his lips. How he missed this, the flying, the feeling of utter and absolute freedom.

Regrettably, the smile didn't last for long, dropping into his usual even lipped gaze. Gently tapping a palm on the railing he rose and turned. His blue eyes scanned the deck in search of a particular person, a particular person that was in no way easy to miss, as colorful and energetic as she was. Unsurprisingly he didn't spend much time searching, and began his march toward her.

"Gwen? There are the matter of my questions, if you're so inclined to answer," and the questions he had...

Where Artorias had never left the military behind, Gwendolyn had shed all of its vestiges with such ardent fervor that it was basically impossible to believe she’d ever been a part of it. That was wholly intentional. She wore her magpie’s assortment, her baubles and her free-floating privateer’s vestments, like a kind of armor all her own, hoping, perhaps, that it would protect her from all the things that no amount of steel and leather could. Maybe, she had allowed herself to believe, that if she woke up enough times to see this woman in the mirror, this bright-eyed woman-child-pixie-sister-Captain with a large, bleeding heart sewn right onto her sleeve and a smile sunnier than midafternoon in Sevenmonth, she might begin to be her.

Or at least believe that she was.

Funny, how seeing a face from the past made it all seem so much closer. Maybe she hadn’t run far or fast enough, after all. Maybe there was no outrunning what had been. Such things were probably only for the knowing of people much wiser than she. Not smarter—she knew she was very much that—but wiser. Maybe she’d have to ask Sunshine, someday. Someday when it wouldn’t hurt so much to try.

For now, though, she whirled in a symphony of clinks and chimes and clatter, grinning one of her best for an old friend, leaning back against the railing on both forearms and crossing one leg over the other. Nobody wore ease an confidence quite like Gwendoyln Skybound—though that was not her name. Not to him. Not the last part, anyhow. “Artillery! I was wondering when they’d eat a hole through your guts. The questions that is, not the others. Though I’d be careful with Thistle, were I you—I have this theory that she’s actually the most dangerous. At least the others would tell you if they wanted to kill you… I think.” If not, she might be in a lot more trouble than she figured.

Shrugging it off as though it were unimportant—and it probably was, in all honesty—she tipped her head to the side. “Fire away then,” she said, punning on her nickname for him. “The explanation will probably be more useful if you ask the questions, after all. Otherwise, you’ll just get a lot of tangents about how much fun it is to tinker with Gadget or how sad Daisy’s eyes are, and I doubt you’re half as interested as I am.” She closed one eye and shifted her arms so that metal fingers laced with flesh-and-bone ones behind her head, the smile inching just a little wider.

"They wouldn't be the first to try," Artorias answered with a sigh. Even before beginning the revolution, he knew he'd face his share of would-be assassins, and he was not dissappointed. He'd survived many attempts, clearly, because a dead man can't become king. Though he had to admit, he was impressed by some of the more creative attempts to take his life. Impressed, but not enthused. Now he had to worry about his back even on Gwen's ship? It put a fold into his brow that wasn't there before. Not even a week removed from his near-year stint on the shores of Genesis and he was already on the look out. He shook his head and tried to purge such thoughts out of his mind, and replaced them with a mental list of all the questions he wished to asked. Rubbing his chinstrap beard, he realized that it was not an insubstantial list.

"Perhaps we should find a place to sit first? I do not doubt that this will take a good amount of time, time that I'd prefer not to spend standing," He repled. Artorias had enough of standing for one life time. That wasn't the only thing either, as he felt a pang spring from his stomach. "And... maybe a bite of food would not be out of the question," He added before his stomach could voice it for him itself.

Gwen sighed. She’d forgotten how hard it was to actually tell Artorias a joke—the man took everything far too seriously. Then again… there were a lot of people who seriously wanted to kill him, so perhaps he wasn’t entirely unjustified in his solemnity. Still, it was her—very scientific, mind—opinion that the guy needed to loosen up a little, or the stick up his ass would eventually get a stick up its own, and that would just be unbearable. Outwardly, she rolled her single open eye playfully and pulled herself into standing straighter. “You know… given how long you were in the can, I’m surprised you aren’t actually starving.” She supposed it was just one of those magic things that made no sense to her.

“To the galley it is, then!” The sky-pirate swept past the King, no easy feet when she was that much smaller than him, and cavorted her way down to the room in question, securing them both some food that was definitely not road rations and turning to survey the room. She grinned upon spotting Spikey, Tammy—her trial appellation for Dio, since she might still change her mind—and Gadget at one of the long tables. With nothing even approaching reverence or even respect, she shifted her tray to one hand, balancing it on the splayed tips of her fingers, and used the other to tug the king’s sleeve at the elbow. “Come on, Artillery, time to make some friends. They can help answer the questions, too!” She insistently pulled him over to where the other three were sitting, plonking herself onto the bench with too much enthusiasm and a cheshire grin.

“Hope you don’t mind, but me and His Majesty here would love to join you.”

Dio was simultaneously put at ease by Gwen's voice and put on edge by Artorias' bearing. It was one thing to meet the King of Albion when he was stranded in the middle of a pond at the top of the world, and another for him to sit down across from her at a table. She smiled at Gwen, and smiled nervously at the king. "Not at all!" she said. Her body language implied, only slightly, that she feared the King might smite her where she sat, as soon as it inevitably came out what profession she practiced. She heard he wasn't a big fan of criminals.

But hey, she'd gone from picking pockets of big shots in Deluge to having lunch with the king in a few days. Not bad.

Mordecai was not so perturbed. It was hard for things like authority to bother him as such. He was basically programed to follow most reasonable commands from anyone, but he had the same level of autonomy in his decision-making whether the commander was a king or a thief, and so there wasn’t really any room in his conceptual structure for differentiated levels of deference, at least not to anyone but his maker. And he was no longer so sure about that, either. Put simply, as far as his thinking went, the king was a man as any other, and that was neither here nor there. Offering a nod to both, he spoke.

“This unit overheard a statement regarding queries from Master Artorias?” the machine inquired mildly.

"A few," Artorias answered mildly. He'd almost forgotten how flighty Leomaris's little bird was, but a few moments with her was all it took to remind him. Despite her antics, he followed close behind making for perhaps the oddest pair aboard the Elysium. The stern soldier and the chipper captain, it'd been a while indeed. Still, he was unsure anyone ever pulled him around by the shirt sleeves. He made a point of straightening the crease in his elbow before speaking more on the matter. And when he did speak, he didn't immediately launch into questions.

"But first, none of this Master or Majesty nonsense. There's no crown atop my head here," Artorias said, chiding both Gwen and the Automaton. Here, he was not a king, only a simple soldier. It could be said he was always a soldier, and the title of "King" only came afterward, a product of believing and doing what he thought a good soldier should do. Sticking a fork into the plate he'd acquired he began to think on the very questions wanted to ask. Across from the table, their resident scholar had conspiciously said nothing, instead spending his time trading glances between his plate and the king who sat in front of him. It was safe to say that Percy felt a bit intmidated.

Back in the forest, once they realized who exactly lurked underneath the green helmet, Percy was still far too distraught and distracted to actually process that information. It wasn't until he found himself sitting in front of the man did the weight of it all crash down on his head. Artorias broke the awkward silence Percy was exuding by finally asking his first question, with plenty more to follow. "There is no better place to start than the beginning. What set you upon this task?" He asked, before taking a bite.

"Myrddin he... Saw what was coming," Percy blurted out. Collecting himself, he began to speak better on the subject. "He had planned for you... For someone like you to send your soldiers against us one day. He made preparations, but that day came sooner than expected. Still, he allowed us to escape to this ship and let us make our retreat," Percy said, trying his mightiest to not insult the king.

Artorias however took the information without a sound, merely burrowing a hole into the young boy with his eyes. "The Wizard. Yes, he would have seen it coming, but I wonder just how much he saw," He said, more to himself than anything. "How.. How do you know Myrddin?" Percy asked, his head turning from the curiosity. The way Artorias spoke of the Wizard made it sound like he knew him, and not only just in passing. Fortunately, his curiosity wasn't so much as end with him poking Mordecai with his antlers.

Gwen drummed her fingers lightly on the table, producing a series of clicks that sounded normal to her but were probably a bit odd to anyone without a metal limb. She’d not really even noticed it, though, too preoccupied with her own thoughts. For all her showiness and brightly-colored plumage, she was a sharp individual, and her conclusions, though far from certain, were also far from pleasant. Myrddin was being held prisoner by someone impersonating Artorias? Or perhaps… her lips pursed into a moue of disappointment—there were just too many possibilities, and so few of them were even as bad as she expected, since most of them were busy being somewhere between worse and catastrophically worse. She exhaled a sharp, short sigh from her nose and shook her head, flicking a green-eyed glance at Percy.

“Didn’t you know, Spikey? Mr. Wizard was part of the Rebellion ten years ago. He’s part of the reason Artillery here is king in the first place.” She tilted her head sideways as though to indicate the man being referenced. Of course, the gesture was entirely superfluous, given how obvious it was whom she was speaking of. “Back then, it was those two, Morgause the golem engineer, and my dad—they were the four at the front of everything.” She shrugged; it wasn’t exactly public information, perhaps, because the other three had wanted Artorias to be the public face and the king when all was said and done, and the best way to make sure he had no competition was to make it look like he had as little help as possible. It would prevent any troublemakers from trying to advance someone else’s claim on the whole throne thing—even if that someone else didn’t want it. New governments needed stability, after all. Still, she’d thought the old man would at least tell his apprentice about it at some point.

Percy's eyes then flicked from Gwen to Artorias, expecting a few words from the man's mouth as well. Instead of being met with simple words however, he met a pair of hard crystalline blue eyes . Direct eye contact lasted for only a moment before the King's presence pushed Percy's own gaze down to his plate of green. Artorias then took that as the cue to answer the unasked questions himself. Dropping his gaze too, he stabbed a knife into a slice of meat on his own plate. "I saw the corruption bleeding from the old kingdom, and I saw how the privileged led lives of comfort and ease on top of those who suffered and toiled, sweat and bled for what they could earn. I wanted to change that. I had the youth and idealism to rebuild a kingdom on, and they the resources. Morgause, Myrrdin, and Leomaris, they were my council, and it was them that made sure that the revolution didn't end with my head on a pike. They were also the best of friends, each one of them," He added, giving Gwen a glance as he did.

Artorias then paused his eating and held Percy in another one of his gazes. A moment passed with his gaze weighing on the boy's shoulders, watching as he kept his eyes pointed not to his face, but rather his chest. Still, if Artorias felt offended or even awkward, he did not show it, instead marching ahead with his words. "The Wizard, he was your master, yes? And you didn't know this?" Artorias asked, answered in long sweeping shakes of the boy's antlered head. "Myrddin kept many secrets, even from me. It's not entirely surprising he didn't tell you. He probably felt that it did not pertain to your studies," He said with a shrug as Percy nodded in agreement.

"And we will get him back," Artorias added, "I counted him among my closest friends once, and nothing has changed since." Finally, Percy's eyes rose above chest level and met his. He nodded his understanding and Artorias continued with his questions.

"So, after your escape, what did you do then?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Gorlak used his free hand to scratch the back of his head as he ran over the inventory list. He really needed to find someone else willing to do the job—the Captain tended to leave doodles on the margins of his inventory sheets. Highly detailed, technical doodles, but doodles all the same. It made them hard to read. It also seemed she’d gotten distracted about three-quarters of the way through the job, and the numbers at the bottom were all but incomprehensible. Since the last Quartermaster had retired, they had yet to give anyone else the job. He wondered if she’d forgotten. It was either that or a misplaced sense of loyalty for the last fellow, neither of which he’d put beyond her. Sighing, the goblin jogged up the stairs anyway, feeling the telltale swoop in his stomach as Gwen brought the thing in for a smooth—if slightly overdramatic—docking. These things didn’t land, exactly, but they were fitted nicely into the one docking point this particular settlement had, and the gangplank lowered.

Though most of them were doubtless eager to be on land for a while, not a one of the crew moved until they had their assignments, their pay, and leave to go, but they’d used up so many of their supplies that there was still more to get than the crew alone would be able to manage in one go, so the guild members had been conscripted into it, the promise of a meal not cooked on board the only incentive they could really offer. Hopefully, it was enough that they weren’t too put-out by the chores. It wasn’t exactly as glamorous as saving the world after all.

Hopping up onto a nearby crate, Gorlak settled himself on a barrel a foot or so higher, making himself easily visible over everyone but Sven. “Right,” he said, glancing back down at the clipboard. The same handwriting as the inventory sheets had split up the group to various small but vital tasks, and he really hoped she knew what she was doing, because he got to be the messenger here. “so we still need dry goods, ammo, cheese, and water. The captain, Vivian, and Mordecai are in charge of the dry goods—” probably because they’d need the automaton to carry the crates—“and if we could get ammo for… pretty much every caliber, looks like, that would be good. I’ve got the Lieutenant and Theon on that one. I’m told that Lohengrin knows where the cheese trader is, so that’s him and Dio, and so that’s Kethyrian and, uh…” He looked slightly unsure of himself about how to address the King, considering the man was supposed to be incognito. “Artorias… to go down to the river and fill the barrels. Percy, if you’d stay here, I’d like to ask a favor. Should be it though—you’re all good to go.”

Mordecai bobbed his head pleasantly. It was not difficult to infer that he would be doing some lifting—there were no other automata on the ship, and he’d seen the size of the crates they stored goods in within the Elysium’s hold. He certainly didn’t mind being volunteered for labor. Even if he wouldn’t exactly be able to eat the promised reward. Perhaps that had been counted on. He found it not so unpleasant, to be relied upon—despite his capacities, it was not something that happened to him often. Morgause hadn’t really needed him for anything, and he supposed that the one time she had needed help, it had been something he was entirely unable to provide. It had never bothered him, but then, he had never thought about it in those terms before. He didn’t know what to make of that, so he shifted the thought further back in his processes for now and let it sit. Something to consider later.

A flicker of open skepticism passed over Kethyrian’s face. Someone was screwing with her, sending her to the river. It seemed incredibly unlikely that someone had missed the way she hesitated on the banks of the wellspring, and if this was some kind of misdirected attempt to help, she was going to—the Favisae sighed. She wasn’t going to do anything, really, and she knew that well enough. Admitting it was difficult, but for the foreseeable future, she seemed to be stuck with these people. She couldn’t fathom why—by all counts, she should have used this opportunity to take her leave permanently. Perhaps she would, but somehow she knew she’d be getting them water first. And fetching supplies with the king of all Albion. Wonderful.

Dio was used to drawing the short stick, and she couldn't help but wonder if that was an appropriate metaphor for being paired with Lohengrin. She supposed being stuck with the scryer would be just as bad, if not worse. Still, she remained ever the optimist, wondering if she might crack through the redhead's scaly exterior and make another friend. Cheese was delightful, too. She very much enjoyed cheese.

Theon had not been expecting to get paired with a buddy for their little supply run, considering his current lack of buddies, but he figured he should have expected getting matched up with the big soldier of the group, considering that they were going off to get ammunition. He wondered who had the worse impression of him between Sven and the King in the Pond. Probably Sven, considering that he'd been around him long enough to get more of a sense of who he was. That, and he seemed a bit overprotective of the captain, who was more than capable of looking out for herself. "Come on, big guy, let's get this over with."

A deep sigh escaped through Artorias' nostrils, signifying that while he wasn't entirely opposed to the job hand to him, it didn't please him as well. It had nothing to do with the company, though to be fair he knew almost next to nothing about the feydusk to form any sort of an opinion. It wasn't even the job itself, he wasn't the type of man to believe any sort of menial labor was below him. No, it was the idea of water. Much like what went on within the Favisae's head, he thought the whole thing was too convenient to be a simple coincidence. He had spent the better part of the year ankle deep in water, only to be sent to fetch more on their first landing. To say the least, he wasn't amused, but he kept it all to himself. He'd do what he was told, but he that didn't mean he'd have to like it.

"A quest!" Vivi chirped not from the floor, but from a perch on Mordecai's shoulders. At some point between the little green guy assigning chores to the group to them actually moving out to accomplish said chores, she'd mysteriously gone from somewhere on deck to suddenly clinging to the Automaton's back. It was almost impressive, how she managed to just appear on his shoulders. It was sudden enough that Percy actually took a moment to look around to try and figure where she came from. "Maybe not as exciting as saving the world, but a quest nonetheless. Hey Mordey, didja see the dwarves? I think I saw one riding a goat. Think I could ride a goat?" While she loved flying, a little time on the ground wasn't necessarily a bad thing either.

Percy figured it was best to not ask any questions on the matter, as it was a high likelihood that the answer would be equally as nonsensical. Instead he slipped away from the group and made his way toward Gorlak, brows raised expectantly. While he'd rather visit the city and explore it, maybe check out the local landmarks, duty called first. He'd accomplish the favor first then he could play. He was nothing if not the diligent child.

With that, the group descended the gangplank in a more-or-less orderly fashion, though Gwen being Gwen felt the need to jump off the side of the thing less than halfway down and then prompt Mordecai to do the same thing, Vivian still affixed to his upper half. It made for an amusing sight, certainly.

The settlement was more like a small town, as it was one of those few that boasted actual permanent residents, dwarves that had forgone the ancestral system of nomadic herd-following in favor of acting as merchants and dockworkers, mostly. Trade by river barge was still common, if not as prosperous as it had been in the time before airships were commercially available. Zarkol, as this town was called, sat largely on the banks of the river Fandorian, the second-largest in Albion. Here, it was surrounded mostly with short, tough grasses and mosses grown into the crevices of rocks and hard earth, with the stone of the surrounding steppes being primarily shades of grey in hue. By the river, the gradations in topography were rather mild, but it took only a look out at the horizon to understand that the surrounding area, both east towards the mountains and south towards the deserts, was hard going.

Vivian had been correct in her observation about dwarves riding goats, though these were hardly the domestic variety to be found on Albion farms. Indeed, they resembled something of a cross between those and hardy mountain sheep, curled horns erupting from above their temples and curving back over and around their slate-colored ears. Many of the riders wore helms or other headwear evocative of this trait. A dwarf astride such a creature reached about five feet in height, the low center of gravity ideal for rough climbs, as any would point out. Other than that, they went afoot and wore a mixture of hide, leather, and wool, no few bearing bows and arrows, though the occasional gun could be seen as well, especially among those who carried a more town-like aspect. The buildings were squat as a rule, but not so much so that most people would be especially uncomfortable entering and moving around in one. Perhaps the especially tall would have to watch their heads, but this settlement at least had been built with humans at least somewhat in mind.

“Bit busy this time of year.” Gwen’s comment was directed at anyone who cared to listen, really. “The Green Season, it’s called. The herds can stay close to town before moving out, so there’s a lot of people around. Mind your purses—the dwarves are honest people, mostly, but their culture is based on sharing, so they don't always ask before helping themselves to your stuff.” She sounded a little delighted by this fact, but nevertheless her own pouch of coins vanished somewhere into her clothing with a sleight-of-hand trick. Lifting a hand at the rest in temporary farewell, she gestured for the Vivian-bearing Mordecai to follow her and peeled off to the left.




This was a lovely little place, wasn't it?

Dio was more used to Albion's biggest cities, Galatea, Xantus, Deluge and the like. They had their charms, of course (Deluge not so much), but she couldn't say she'd seen a town like this one. Her esteemed family had certainly never had cause to visit such a place, and it was too far out of the way, and too difficult to get to, for her to have traveled here since her rather abrupt departure from home. She wasn't fond of mountains any more than she was of deserts. But this little peaceful slice in between? This seemed a nice place to be for a little while. Dwarven culture seemed like something she'd fit rather well into.

She tucked a pesky strand of dark hair back behind her ear and under her hat, turning to look at Lohengrin. He wasn't the cheeriest of sorts, but she usually didn't have much trouble dealing with that. It took more than a bristly exterior to get under her skin. "This is a nice town to stop in, don't you think? Oh, hello there!" She waved to a passing dwarf mounted atop an impressive-looking goat, and to her pleasant surprise, he waved back, earning him a large smile from the thief. She looked back to Lohengrin. "Gorlak said you know where the cheese trader is. Have you been here before?"

“Been most places at least once.” Lohengrin’s tone of voice was perhaps not what anyone would describe as friendly, but as he was presently lacking in much of a reason to be especially grumpy, he wasn’t. He actually kind of liked dwarves—somehow, they had a tendency to piss him off less than other people. Maybe it was that sort of consummate practicality of theirs—they didn’t waste time or words or things, but they also weren’t as damn tight about everything as the elves were. Or as xenophobic. “But I don’t know which specific storefront is for the cheese guy, no. Only where it should be.” There was a defined corridor of shop-fronts towards the center of town, and it was in this direction that he steered them, walking unhurriedly and for once with shoes.

They weren’t exactly comfortable, but even he wouldn’t want to risk his soft flesh-feet on rocks the like of which one was likely to tread upon around here. The roads were mostly packed dirt, but he’d learned to stop expecting that the beaten path was the only one these people would take. Bit of an advantage, some of the knowledge floating around in his head. Too bad he couldn’t share much of it—might make things a little less…laborious.

A quick fishing trip into his pocket produced his pipe, and after checking that the bowl was properly loaded and packed, he lit it from his hand. Actually, another reason he liked dwarves was that they produced the world’s best pipe-weed, and he was of a mind to get his hands on some of it while they were here. After the cheese, though. Ancestors forbid the captain go without cheese.

“Not something they offer on the highlight tours of Albion, is it?” She had the look of a northerner about her, city-dweller probably. Bit too soft for anyone’s farm-daughter, and definitely not a sand rat, if he had his guess. “Not much to see, I guess, but if you can forgive the architecture, they make up for it with the food and drink.”

"Is that an actual thing?" she asked, genuinely curious. A highlight tour of Albion sounded very much like something she would want to do. She supposed she was getting one right now, traveling on the Elysium, but what she had in mind had slightly more good-natured company, and less violence at all the stops in between. "Architecture's overrated, really. Xantus is pretty to look at, but I bet this place has way fewer problems to deal with."

There was no obvious disparity in wealth here, while in Xantus there were streets where one side was clearly the subject of a constant flow of wealth, while the other was left to pick at the scraps left for it. The worst thing was that the wealth seemed always to be a matter of inheritance, kept in the grip of powerful families like the one she had come from, rather than being any measure of worth or effort. She knew merchantmen that had worked their whole lives to support their families, and while they struggled just as mightily, or perhaps more, than her own parents did, they were left with seemingly nothing other than their existences.

She supposed it would have been wiser for her to just accept her role as a cog in the Castillo machine, but then, Dio had never really considered herself a wise person.

"This looks promising," she said as they rounded a corner, bringing some shops into sight. "Did you grow up anywhere in particular before doing all of your traveling?" She couldn't place an accent or a look about him, if he even had one. She didn't think he was a product of Deluge, though he was perhaps rough enough to be.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Xantus himself, prior to the old man tracking him down, he couldn't say she was wrong. The question, however, prompted him to cast his thoughts back over a span of years that was perhaps too long, and he exhaled smoke into the air, imagining for a moment that he could see familiar figures in the swirling shape of it. He wondered what the spell would let him say, and tried for something vague, but true. “That was a long time ago.” He just wasn’t sure he’d ever actually grown up, in some of the ways that people were usually trying to get at when they spoke of such things. He hadn’t ever accepted what he was or was supposed to become. He hadn’t fallen in line, nor had he passed the rite of passage of his people. He had never really even come to consider them his people, as such. They were just them. The Others, because somehow the ‘o’ was a capital. It couldn’t really be anything else.

“Don’t suppose there was really any one place. Born in Deluge, several years in the desert, then… well, everywhere else.” There was a large chunk in there that he couldn’t talk about, though that might not have been the spell. “Still, here I am now. Miserable and wretched bastard I may be, but not as miserable and wretched as I used to be.” A pause.

“Just as much a bastard though.”

He shrugged—it would seem they’d come upon the correct storefront, of the assortment of white and yellow wheels of cheese in the front window was anything to go by. Oddly, he could smell it even out here, and his olfaction was not particularly extraordinary. He frowned, hoping the captain did not have a preference for the stinky varieties. “Don’t suppose the pixie gave you a list or anything, did she?” He honestly wasn’t even sure what they were here to get.

"Nope," Dio replied, though she didn't seem too bothered by it. "Let's just get a little of everything, then! Who doesn't like trying out new kinds of cheese?" Probably lots of people, but Dio was not one of them.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona

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This town would have been an easy take for Theon's warband, at their height. He'd have struck in the night. The terrain would have been murderously difficult to traverse through on foot, especially avoiding any main roads where they might be spotted too early, but they were a hardy bunch, and it could have been done. The palisade could be boosted over easily enough, and once they were inside, it would be all over. What militia this place had wouldn't last long. In the end, though, it wouldn't have been worth the trip. The things that were left relatively unguarded were usually things that weren't worth taking in the first place.

That was what the scryer's coldly tactical mind told him, while walking quietly through the streets with the big soldier man beside him, empty bags slung over their shoulders, to be filled with whatever manner of bullets they could find and buy. Theon still had quite a few to burn through, but considering they were heading into shit that even he couldn't predict, it seemed wise to stock up while they had the chance.

Sven seemed to know a thing or two about soldiering. He was the oldest of the bunch, so far as Theon could tell, and his whole body was a monument to murdering people for a cause, otherwise known as war. The big, silent type, had eyes that looked like he'd seen one too many bad things. Maybe he and Theon weren't all that different in their experiences. Death was death, didn't usually matter what the reason for it was. More likely, Theon wouldn't find out. They needed to get ammo, they didn't need to talk.

Drunken songs and long, long beards with bits of food snared within them. Laps sodden with hardy ales and a bonfire that would make all bonfires shiver to embers in shame. Nearly all Dwarven settlements were the same. Some of them might have been more cautious then others when it concerned outsiders, but usually, curiosity won out. Sharing their food and drink came as naturally as breathing. Besides, if anyone overstepped their bounds, it wouldn't have been too much of a stretch to toss them from their cliffs. They might've looked small, but they were still incredibly strong. In retrospect, he supposed that he didn't mind them so much. Had he any sense, he might have considered settling down in such a place. It would have saved him a lot of pain. Should've been born a Dwarf.

Regarding the landscape with far more interest than he ever allotted himself—though it would've been impossible to tell given the fact that his pleased expressions looked remarkably like his scowls—Sven nodded absently, walking alongside Theon. They were an odd pairing, indeed. Not his choice of companionship, but he supposed that the silence between them was oddly pleasant. He supposed Theon wasn't entirely useless. He was a decent marksman, after all. Admirable traits, in his opinion, hardly had anything to do with personality; however, that not entirely true, given that Theon's was poor. Supposedly, Gwendolyn could see something that he simply could not. She seemed capable of seeing many good things in people that he could not. Admittedly, there was much he did not know, but scars were something he recognized instinctively.

Throughout his entire life, he'd never been good at making friends. In his youth, in war, in anything else that required some measure of teamwork and cooperation—the Lieutenant floundered. It was little wonder how Leo had put up with him for so long and even stranger how someone like Judith could see anything but his awkward inattempts to behave like a normal human being. His grouchiness, nowadays, knew no bounds. Better that way, he supposed. His mouth twitched into something that might have been a jovial attempt at a smile, but failed miserably; like a snarly dog crinkling its nose. “You never did looking like ah, person who is vanting to join crew,” butchered as his words were, he hoped the meaning got across, “Vhy did you? At stones, you are almost looking like little kid at Midwinter.” He had been curious. Theon might have been just as excited as Percy, though he may not have shown it as loudly.

"You obviously never saw my sister and I as little kids at Midwinter," was Theon's immediate reply. He spied the gun supply store down at the end of the street, well fortified, as any place with an abundance of weapons and ammunition should be. He almost left the conversation at that, but decided if the big guy was looking for some conversation, he could always try his best to respond. He could have sworn Gwen appeared behind him to nag him about making friends. "I don't know if anyone else in our little crew understood the gravity of being in the center of the universe. We've been told, to our faces, that whatever the hell we're doing makes us the most important people on the planet, and given ample evidence of the truth of that. First present I've ever been given, honestly."

It was more than just being important, of course, even if that was what he insisted on telling everyone. He'd been used his entire young life, and then rebelled against that by attempting to use everyone he came across. In the end, it was a petty revenge, and never felt like anything more. This was really the first time he'd felt like what he was doing was actually worth something. That was still something that he had to prove to himself, even more so than he had to prove it to the world. He had to prove that he was worth something, and this was the way to do it.

"What about you? You just the dutiful soldier of captain and king, following your orders? Doesn't seem like any way to live, if you don't mind me saying." Even if Sven did mind, he'd said it, and he'd say it again. Having loyalty from friendship was one thing, but from what he'd seen of the big guy so far, he didn't have much more free will than most toasters.

Heavy eyebrows responded in kind, arching briefly, then settling back down; grim as two dark clouds. He could hardly imagine Theon and Vivian as kids, hunkered down somewhere on Midwinter's eve. Stranger still, he could hardly imagine anyone as children, except Gwendolyn. To him, everyone else appeared to be cut from tougher cloth—as if they'd simply skipped that part of their lives, himself included. Making friendly conversation seemed harder than he'd imagined, because he found himself lulling back into comfortable silence, as broody as he appeared on the outside. What Theon was in the process of saying was, in many ways, correct. He doubted that he, or the others, truly understood, or appreciated, what had happened to them, and what would continue to happen until they completed whatever he could call this journey. What then, he wondered. They'd cease being the center of the universe, and they'd become like everyone else. Chosen Ones who'd served their purposes. He chose not to say so when he added, “Good first present, I'm thinking.”

Dousing water across a person's spirits was an uncanny ability he had, however unintentional. Gwendolyn had made a point once that sometimes, it was better to leave things unsaid. Whether or not he agreed was another matter altogether. He left the matter alone. If a person wanted to make this mission into some sort of entitled gift, then they were entitled to that as well. He supposed that being a soldier ruined any aspects of self-importance. This was just another duty. Just another job to complete. When everything was all said and done, there would always be an end and they would always be who they were: soldiers, vagabonds, wanderers and whatever other parts they cringed away from. Used and set aside. Tossed was too strong a word, but soldiers understood the concept just as well as the used-and-abused.

He cocked his head to the side and rolled his eyes skyward. Dutiful soldier of the King and Captain—saying that he was anything but Artorias' old friend was a stretch. They'd mended their burnt bridges in the boiler room and though he'd willingly fight for his cause to regain his throne, he was, and would always be, Gwendolyn's guardian. Once, he supposed, he tried reminding himself that he was wild before he knew the world. Lost in the world of little wonders and trees and plains that spanned as far as he could see, and the skies, he'd loved them so, once. Strangely enough, he'd never been asked before. Ballsy for a dreamy-eyed, grouchy boy. Spoiled brat might've been a stretch.

Sven had never been a good man, a righteous man. Never a man who picked his way down the road of morality. His road was littered with corpses, and that was fine. He never waged wars, or knocked elbows with friends, not anymore. He was just a guy in a trench; with rotten boots and a sopping wet uniform. “Yes,” he answered, curt but not angry. He didn't mind. Theon might've been right. He rubbed his chin. “Vhat are you calling gun vith no one to do the shooting? Useless, yes? Something like that.” Something caused him to stop in his tracks. A small, persistent tug at the hem of his shirt—belonging to a small Dwarven lad, gap-toothed and starry-eyed, ranting on about foreigners and wondering where they were going and could he help because he was strong and his pappy said it was good to help others. He blinked down at him, paused briefly and scooped the boy up in his arms, plopping him down on his bicep, flexed in the air so the lad could hook his arm around his forearm. Ja junge! Vhill need better post to be seeing, I'm thinking.” The laugh, to anyone who knew him, appeared as odd as it was natural, splitting a smile across his scarred face. The boy was whooping and pointing to the location Theon had already spotted. “Would be making good first mate, eh Theon?”

The scryer supposed that it was an attempt at a joke from the half-metal man, but Theon was perhaps not the right crowd to use it on, as he just raised an eyebrow up at the dwarf kid in return. "He's got no idea what he'd be getting himself into." Neither did they, he supposed, even with all of his magical future-visions, but at least they had the skills and the grit to survive it.

Probably.




The walk to the dry goods pickup was relatively straightforward—quite literally, as it involved walking straight down the central road in down to a long, low building used for the storage of such goods. It was a bit of a walk, but Gwen was quite used to such things for someone who seemed to spend most of her life in the air, and she very much doubted that Mordecai would ever tire as such. If he ran out of power, he stopped, but the solar cell harvesting energy from the suns above them should prevent that theoretically forever. If there was one thing Albion did not lack, it was sunlight, from the hot and dry to the damp and sticky.

They were, perhaps, the strangest group to exit the ship, considering Mordecai’s not-quite-human appearance and the fact that Vivian was hitching a ride on his shoulders, but golems, though rare, were not unseen in Zarkol, and indeed, they passed a worker model working on a construction project alongside several dwarves not long after disembarking. It was an old model, to be sure, one of those that was more a vaguely person-shaped hunk of metal and gears than anything, but it still functioned just fine, all fifteen feet of it. Gwen winked at one of the construction workers as she passed, but her attention was drawn immediately afterwards by the next thing, as it always seemed to be.

For a settlement of the size, it was rather bustling, and the people seemed quite industrious in spirit. Gwendolyn happened to know from personal experience that the dwarves, while hard workers, were far from as boring as the people she encountered in more staid cities, concerned with status and nobility. By tonight, all of these people would be around massive bonfires in the plains, celebrating the life given to them by the land and the river and the herds in the best way to celebrate anything: with drink and dancing. “Do you dance, Rosy?” The question was rather abrupt, but perhaps that was to be expected. Gwen cocked her head to the side, smiling up at the other woman in a way that could best be described as facetious.

"Do I dance, she asks," Vivi chuckled. She'd since quit hanging from Mordecai's back like some sort of floppy cape and instead had climbed up, where she now straddled his shoulders. She threw her head back to give the show of a loud guffaw, careful to keep a hold of her vehicle's forehead so she didn't end ass first on the ground. "Every time there's music," She asnwered. Sometimes, even when wasn't. A fact she proved by immediately moving her arms to some imaginary beat drumming inside her head.

That being said, her life was sorely lacking in music recently. Not a tune nor melody one to be had since they had departed the guild, and with the little birdy bringing it up, she was aware just how quiet her life had been recently. Hopefully she had a remedy in mind. Without pausing the number she was doing atop Mordecai's shoulders, she responded, "Will I get a chance to?" She asked, her tone hopeful.

“You will!” Gwen replied with a bright grin. “ As it happens, there’s a big party tonight, out on the plains. I was thinking it might be nice to drag everyone down there and have some fun, but I’m going to need some help with the dragging.” She, for example, believed her own chances of coercing Thistle to make merry in any capacity were slim to none, even if she tried to apply the full force of her charm to the task. She’d noted, though, that Vivian seemed to be at least a little close to the grouchy Favisae, and so it might be worth it to enlist her help. She could already picture trying to get a few of the others to agree—maybe it would be better if Vivi asked Strawberry, too. Whatever the case, having someone else on her side here would be helpful, and it wasn’t for her own amusement alone that she wanted everyone to have the experience.

Though perhaps it was better to let it seem as though it were.

“May this unit inquire as to the nature of the celebrations?” Mordecai had been to a few parties before, but this settlement seemed to be lacking in buildings grand enough or people wealthy enough to create the settings with which he was familiar. The Mistress had been of a mind to take him along with her to many such functions, whereupon it was not uncommon for people to ask him all kinds of questions, as though attempting to determine his schematics by interview. He wasn’t sure why—his specifications were relatively simple to recite, and anything that wasn’t would likely be unclear to anyone without an engineering background anyway. Whatever the case, it seemed at odds with the ways he observed life being lived around him.

He seemed almost not to notice the fact that Vivian was atop his shoulders, or at the very least, not to mind it in the slightest. It was not as though something of her rather negligible heft was a significant drain on his resources, and indeed they were making good time through the center of town.

“It’s probably nothing like you’re thinking, Gadget,” Gwen said with a giggle. She’d been to the annoyingly-staid parties as well, once upon a time, and always felt a little bit like a freak at them, not because she couldn’t blend, but because she seemed to be the only person who didn’t want to. Blending, she thought, suited her terribly, and she generally chose not to do it. Maybe she liked sticking out because she was so short, and if she didn’t make a big ruckus, nobody would ever notice her existence. It seemed like the kind of thing that made at least a little sense, didn’t it? Certainly better than the real reason. “There’s big ol’ bonfires, and lots of homebrew, and drums and singing and dancing.” Her tread, always light, seemed to morph for the moment into a skip for emphasis, and she turned a whirling circle n the middle of the road, hair ornaments clanking.

“It’s good fun—or whatever kind of fun you like, really.” Some people got a little salacious about it, and she’d never deny that this was definitely an option in the Greenseason celebrations, but that certainly wasn’t a requirement. “I bet all the girls will want to turn a step with Gadget, don’t you think, Rosy?” As if to demonstrate, Gwen picked up one of Mordecai’s hands and spun herself beneath it, ending in a dramatically-flourished bow. Releasing his hand, she darted back ahead. “And the more colorfully you dress, the better. It’s like they invented a holiday just for people like us.” Well, more herself and Rosy than Gadget, who seemed to stick mostly to black and white. She could fix that, though—and she probably would.

"They can't have him, he's mine," Vivi said, wrapping both arms around Mordecai's forehead and even attempted to shoo Gwen away. Though she didn't take her arms away from him, the chuckle that followed betrayed the joke. All of the talking about it they were doing served to only excite her further. Soon she'd begin to fidget with all the excitement building up inside her. As it stood, her eyes viciously scanned the buildings around them searching for a very particular shop. "They've got to have a dress shop somewhere around, right? I mean... Maybe we could visit it, see what we can see," She said as she twirled a lock of Mordecai's hair.

"I want to be colorful," She added, completely unaware of the fact that the group she was in may be the most color in the entire town, even with Mordecai tagging along. A break from it all didn't sound that bad. All they've been doing since they left the Guildhall was fly around and find these guardian-whatzits, and while adventurous, lacked her particular kind of fun. "Tell me I'm pretty Mordy," she said, all of a sudden.

“You are pretty, Vivian,” Mordecai replied without so much as missing a beat. Of course, he wasn’t sure exactly why the request had been made of him as such—surely he was not an expert on aesthetics anymore than he was an expert on emotion. His judgements tended to have more to do with symmetry and mathematics than anything else. He’d only used the word pretty 34 times since his inception, and not all of them were of this particular connotation. A good twenty of those were paraphrase or quotation, besides.

He was unsure about most of the conversation as it pertained to him, actually, having little background with which to synthesize it. He had been asked to dance before, of course, but that generally had the expectation of a sort of assessment about it, and that did not seem to be the case here, if he was interpreting the implications of the conversation properly. Even so, he did not mind, and assumed that likely, whatever was taking place this evening would be a learning experience for him. He was not, as a rule, in any way averse to those.

Gwen laughed, the sound easy and light, shaking her head all the while. Gadget was… charming, was the word, and Rosy wasn’t so bad herself. “As far as dress shops go… hm. Probably not anything in sizes other than dwarf. But you do have a captain with a pretty big closet. I’m sure we could find you something.” It wasn’t like she ever wore anything in boring colors, really. At least no more than was strictly necessary.

They’d arrived at the appointed warehouse, however, and the moment of levity was sadly interrupted by necessity, invention’s much less-lively mother. There were about three large crates full of supplied to haul back to the ship, and a few smaller boxes. Gadget was quite capable of lifting all the crates himself, and probably balancing them well enough, too, so Gwen took a few of the lighter items, leaving the other half of those for Rosy. It was relatively simple work with three people, one of them incredibly strong, so they were one of the first group’s back to the ship.

She wasn’t about to let them go so easily, however. “All right both of you—let’s see what we can see in my closet and trunks, shall we?” Maybe they could invite Tammy and Thistle, too, and make a bit of an afternoon of it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Sven Diederich

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#9 had for the moment been dismissed from the company of Gwen and Vivian, though he was now significantly more colorful for the effort, looking rather more like someone with their clothing preferences than Morgause’s. It was a little odd, but he couldn’t say he disliked it. Somewhere between the broad red headband and the odd strings of trinkets woven into pieces of his hair, the loose shipwear with multicolored sashes and the strange amount of bands around both wrists, he looked a little more like he belonged.

It felt like a gift, somehow, and Mordecai was not accustomed to receiving those.

Presently, however, he was helping with supply storage, which was to say that a few of the crew had asked him if he wouldn’t mind assisting them with moving goods back and forth from their original containers to their places on the ship, and he’d seen no reason to disagree, not particularly inclined to be doing anything else at the moment. Besides, it was a rather dull task, and even while his body simply went through the motions of it, his mind was easily able to be elsewhere—several elsewheres, as a matter of fact. In preparation for this evening, he was accessing and reviewing data his library contained on celebrations, of which there was little, the physical symptoms and recommended treatments for intoxication, of which there were more, and anything he could get on dancing, because he’d come to believe that it might be necessary or polite for him to do that at some point this evening, and he really did not want to accidentally step on someone’s toe. He would probably crush it, given his weight.

“You are looking distracted.” Balancing several medium-sized boxes in his arms, Sven settled them down next to the others, adjusting them so that they sat symmetrically. To say that he enjoyed monotonous, hard-working tasks, that relied less on combat and more on organizational skills, wouldn't have been much of a stretch. A good sweat did a body good—and idle hands, in his opinion, amounted to far less. Overseeing such duties might have been in his job description as First Mate, but he enjoyed contributing far more than standing by and barking orders. He was pleased when he'd spotted Mordecai moving containers aboard the ship, though he still bore burdens much heavier than any normal person was capable of man-handling. Several crew-hands whistled appreciatively, moving towards smaller loads, or cooperating to move slightly larger containers.

Looking more closely at Mordecai, he looked as if he'd always been on the ship. Thanks to the Fräulein's efforts, no doubt. The trinkets jangling in his hair, and the bangles decorating his wrists, were clear indications of a certain someone's influence. It did not look bad. Far more familiar than what he'd been wearing previously. A small smile ghosted across his lips, and brief as ever, settled back into a neutral frown. What a banded assortment they were. Between snappy lizards, grouchy veterans and cheery pirates, skittish knowledge-seekers and inquisitive automatons—they would be a strange group anywhere they traveled, but it might've been the only reason they had such a chance of success in what they sought to achieve, as well. Individuals only failed in organizations bred for compliance. This was much better.

He moved alongside him, grappling containers and plopping them down in their allotted places. Rearrange and line up, repeat. Though, Sven did pause to scrutinize Mordecai's flashy apparel. He, himself, had never thought to don any ship wear. Far too contrasting for his liking. It did, however, strangely suit him. He pinched his chin between metal forefinger and thumb. “Looking like true sailor now,” he acceded, “You know, if you are letting them do this once, they vhill start braiding hair and finding excuses to dress you up. Fräuleins.”

“This unit does not mind,” Mordecai asserted in response, reorganizing his cognitive priority queue such that the conversation occupied a higher place than his passive data retrievals. He’d been told it was polite to do that, and he had no wish to be seen as impolite—he suspected he’d been programmed to care a great deal about social protocol for some reason. Most automata did not, operating more on simple command structure with nothing superfluous. But Mordecai had… Mordecai had the bells and whistles. That was the correct idiom, he was almost certain of it. Of course, he literally had bells now, but that was not what was meant, he thought.

For all the superfluous things he had, though, very few preferences were among them. Morgause had provided him with clothing in the previous fashion, and so when he needed to purchase his own—as Myrddin could not really be bothered to care about something so trivial—he had simply replicated what he already knew. If other preferred this, then he did not mind that, either, and would replicate it instead. Aside from very basic conditions regarding motion, Mordecai had no opinion whatsoever. “It believes they derived some enjoyment from it.” It was the sentential equivalent of a shrug, really.

Within a few minutes, all the new cargo was loaded and faced, Mordecai perfectly content to rotate old boxes that had been loaded label-facing-wall so that it was clearer what everything contained. He’d acquired a bit of a dust coating, which he took to brushing off as both of them emerged once again into the sunlight. Mordecai’s pupils shrank to the optimal diameter almost instantaneously, and as a result, he suffered no disorientation at the abrupt introduction of illumination, and did not share the need to squint or shade his eyes with a hand for a moment that seemed prominent amongst the crew. “Will you be attending the festivities this evening, also?”

Did Mordecai mind anything? He doubted it. Had it been anyone else gifted with immeasurable strength and speed, they would have been regarded with boundless distrust and a weariness solely reserved for people that walked a fine line between ally and threat. Fortunately for them, Mordecai was no ordinary Automaton. Not like any of the military-grade ones he had the displeasure of meeting. Soulless, apathetic beings that waded through bodies and blood without metaphorically batting their eyes. They couldn't have asked for better killers. Devoid of silly human emotions and empathy, automata designed for warfare flourished in their vocations, even if the choosing was no choice of their own. Mordecai was much, much more. He nodded slowly to himself—better to have a strange, albeit curious, Automaton than an unfeeling menace quirking its ears for commands.

Generally, Myrddin could be trusted not to completely run them ragged, and his decision in sending Mordecai had been a good one. As dangerous as he could be against their enemies, he'd seen gradual change in him. Like a speculative child piecing out information and coming up with his own observations, Mordecai appeared as if he was growing as an individual. He'd never seen anything like that in all of his years. The measures his creator had taken to make him appear human were staggeringly advanced. In a sense, human perfection. Maybe, that's what was wrong. Soon enough, humans would look to their creations and wonder if it wouldn't be best to change themselves, as they often did when faced with their own imperfections. Looking down at his own arms, Sven wondered if it wouldn't have been better letting life run its course. “You are believing.” He placed a hand on Mordecai's shoulder, eyebrows drawn and stern, “Vhen talking, you are saying I, ja? You are you.”

Withdrawing his hand, Sven clapped his hands together and took a few steps back to survey the work they had done. Everything was in its proper place, and with Mordecai's help, they would be able to identify what they needed in a matter of moments. Organization was just as important as keeping updated records of their inventory. He gave it one more once over before clomping away, scrunching his eyes against the sun, but keeping his arms at his sides. It almost felt as if he were stepping out onto the deserts flat-plains, with everything reflecting sharp yellows and whites. He glanced over at Mordecai. Ah, yes. Dwarven parties. Beer and dancing and tall tale-spinning. It'd been a long time since they weren't being actively hunted and most of the work had already been completed. It would give the crew time to stretch their legs, or explore the village, in peace. Unless someone caused trouble. Even Dwarves could have nasty tempers. “Yeah, vill be coming.” He hooked his thumb backwards, “To be keeping them out of trouble.”

Mordecai moved his visage to create a smile, and inclined his head slightly. Sven, it seemed, was always doing that—attempting to keep everyone else behind the lines they might otherwise blunder across with strongarm and stern glance. Still, he was not as initially forbidding as #9 had supposed, proof, he supposed, that even when one was as good at looking as he was, what one saw was not always what one received. “Apologies,” he demurred. “It lacks the programming to refer to itself with the first person. This unit was never meant to be mistaken for human.” He’d been designed to be very humanlike, but to impress, not to blend. So there were little things about him that were, and perhaps always would be, more mechanical than man. Just touches, so that he would never quite integrate fully with actual people. For he was not one of those, though he wondered if he didn’t desire to be, somehow.

“If this unit may venture a question,” he continued, brushing the last of the dust from his shirt, “it is somewhat curious. You seem given to acting as a warden over the other members of the crew, particularly the captain. But all of these people are adults of their respective species. This unit was wondering why you have chosen to do so. They are not children and they are not, it hypothesizes, your blood relations, nor are you a servant of some kind. It cannot therefore deduce the reason for the nature of those relationships.” Certainly, he was no human being, not at times like this.

He hadn't thought of that before. Of course, Sven understood that Automata functioned on a series of programs, created for very specific purposes, but looking at Mordecai, it was easy to forget. While it was true that the military often employed Automata made by private engineers and inventors, they hardly behaved as if they could be law-abiding citizens without their uniforms. Most of them hardly looked, let alone behaved, like human beings. With semi-automatic weapons attached to their arms and segmented skin lined with rivets and luminescent lights, mistaking them for anything but destructive machines would've taken a major oversight. There was never any need for aesthetically pleasing models, only frightening ones. Mordecai, on the other hand, might've looked a little too perfect, but he had the makings of someone entering boyhood, curious about everything. In some ways, he was reminded of Percy and all of his books.

Whichever program he operated from appeared as if it were evolving—changing and adapting whenever he was curious enough to learn about something, and if that was the case, couldn't he teach himself about identity? Not that he was particularly bothered by the peculiar way he spoke, and it might have only been his age creeping up on him, but he couldn't shake off the feeling of melancholy. Of sadness and longing to be something he could not possibly grasp. Did it bother him? Didn't look like it. “Not your fault,” he rebuffed with a firm shake of his head, “Vhat is it you are wanting to be, now? You are free, yes.” He didn't really know where Mordecai would go as soon as their mission was finished, but he imagined that there were places he might want to visit. Things he'd want to learn and experience, because already, he'd witnessed small changes in him. His place, as always, would remain the same.

Sven nodded again, indicating that he was free to ask whatever he wished. He flipped through the manifest nailed to the wall, filled with crimped papers dog-eared and slightly yellowed. Organized and well-used—the work of a man who checked things, and then checked them again to be sure everything was where they were meant to be. Their crew—as odd as they were—functioned well together. Warden. He paused briefly, slowly settling the papers back in place as he tumbled the question in his head. He never considered himself a Warden. Only an old, grouchy veteran trying to keep the crew members from getting themselves killed. But, he supposed, that meant he might've had an inkling of care for their well-beings. They were adults. Probably capable of taking care of themselves without anyone towering over their shoulders. Was it habit? Or had it been Gwendolyn's insistence of being nice to others? “Ah—” An unintelligible rumble. He didn't really know why. Without the role of Warden and stern-faced babysitter, perhaps, he had no other purpose. He scratched his chin. “Vhat is hammer vhith no hand to be using it? No use at all. Vithout hand, the hammer is like rock in desert.” He was thankful that no one else was around to hear this conversation.

Not especially good with metaphors, Mordecai had to pause for a period of time and parse the statement, like a child turning a puzzle-cube over in hands with fingers a little too inelegant for the task. Not much about the automata was inelegant, actually, so perhaps that he conceived of his task this way went to show that he was gaining some traction with figures of human speech. He felt a trace of embarrassment that he did not immediately have a grip on the meaning of Sven’s usage, but after a time, he thought he might understand. “You… conceptualize of yourself as a tool. Something that was made for a purpose, but may only fulfill that implicit aim with the aid of another.” It was a guess, but he simply couldn’t think of anything else that might be meant by that. Perhaps that was just a limitation of his conceptual repertoire, but he really had the sense that he was right about it.

It was a strange way for a human to think, or so it seemed to the machine. “This unit… is the same, only it does not know for what end it was designed.” In retrospect, he knew that his creator had implied on several occasions that there was something he was for, but as far as he could recall, she had never deigned to inform him of exactly what that thing was. And in the absence of her hand, he supposed he was just as much an object of utility as Sven was. Only he may well be forever without an idea of his use. “But… if you believe that this unit is free to be as it chooses, then surely you must believe the same of yourself. What…” he paused, pursing his lips faintly and attempting to put the words back into the form they had been delivered. “What would the hammer do, if it could make the decision? Would it really always require the hand of another to act?”

There was no way the answer could be different for them. There was a contradiction in Sven’s logic—either he was a tool, with a use that required someone else’s guidance, or he was free, to choose his own ends as he desired. He could not be both, and it did not seem likely to Mordecai that they could be different in this respect, for surely an automaton was more a device for use than a human being could ever be. The idea that Mordecai was free and Sven was captive to the designs of others was rendered utterly absurd. He was interested to know, then, what the soldier determined that their shared fate really was. “Would it be worth being a rock in the desert if it was something you chose?”

Like a cat wandering to its usual perch, Sven settled by the railing and squinted into the distance. Come to think of it—no other Automaton had ever asked these sort of questions, and if he thought harder on the matter, no human or beast had either. He supposed he was mostly to blame for being unapproachable, but Mordecai was obviously lacking when it came to human weaknesses; the sort that involved awkwardness and simply not being bothered. In more ways than one, he was more human than most of the grizzled soldiers he'd come to know and serve with. He had a willingness to learn that some people often sloughed off as unnecessary and childish; it was something he wanted to viciously protect in Gwendolyn. If he ever lived to see her harden her heart to the wonders of the world, he thought he wouldn't be able to handle the sight. When it involved her, he understood why he'd chosen the role of dutiful guardian. A shield against an onslaught of bullets and blades. It made him feel as if he hadn't lost his purpose.

He inclined his head slightly, regarding Mordecai with tired, dark-rimmed eyes. Not that he would ever openly admit it unless it was in an off-handed, quietly implied way, but he enjoyed his company. There was no need for keeping secrets or concealing the parts of him that he would rather toss away. If he so chose to share his aches and pains, he thought it likely that the Automaton would simply manage the information in the most reasonable, logical manner. Emotions were messy, ugly things that he'd long ago forgotten how to deal with. This was a cleaner affair. It was a breath of fresh air. Like an analyst sifting through documents and organizing them in their proper place, then coming up with the strangest observations that were startlingly honest; Mordecai continued surprising him. His forearm hissed uncomfortably until he clamped his hand around his wrist and coughed to mask the soreness. Tool. An apt word to use for soldiers of the government, for weren't they all something or someone's to be used? In that regard, he and the others had much in common with their mechanical compatriots.

Sven nodded his head thoughtfully. For one who understood so little of human behaviour, Mordecai was surprisingly accurate. Or maybe, he was just obvious. He slowly turned back towards him, leaning his elbows across the railing instead. Having a purpose, feeling purposeless, and being created without a purpose—those were all things he couldn't possibly explain, yet if anyone did understand it, Mordecai would. Even the idea of being created... he frowned, and listened. The word creator and owner bothered him just as much as slave, so he'd never bothered asking about Mordecai's past or how he felt about the person who'd sent him away. Did he feel the same way as he did? That the person he left was someone he needed to protect, even if it meant leaving her side? He pursed his lips, and inhaled deeply, clamping his eyes closed for a moment to reflect on his words. These questions... were difficult, needling things that begged answers he'd never thought of before. Childish parts of him urged him to say that this was different and he was young so he would have more going for him. Both thoughts were hypocritical and stupid.

What would the hammer do? A laugh raked through his throat, like a deep rumble shaking the foundations of a house. Never in his life had anyone asked what he would have done, certainly not until he had the shoulder straps to make any decision whatsoever. And in a way, it'd been much worse. But this wasn't the military and he wasn't directing young men and women to their deaths anymore. He knuckled his nose again, heavy eyebrows settling back down. He had said that once, hadn't he? That Mordecai was free to do as he wished and find his own purpose should he so desire to. What made him any different? He almost felt like a parent, heatedly biting a because. As if that explained everything. And still, Sven had no answers. He could have tried explaining that his life felt as if it meant little without this role, and that if he chose anything else, it would be like discrediting the life he'd failed to protect—but, it only felt like an excuse. Instead, he approached Mordecai and clapped a hand on his shoulder; Automaton to metal-man. “You are strange, Mordecai. And good. I'm thinking that you are right.”

He paused briefly and met the man's eyes. “And I am stranger. We are two hammers in desert, but I am not good. Maybe rock or hammer is not being ready for anything else.” His hand slipped away from Mordecai's shoulder, hissing back to his side. Maybe, he hadn't punished himself enough. Maybe, he was undeserving. Mordecai, however, was worth more. There was an undying light and a desire to understand and relate to others bubbling in a pool of his being; however small, growing bigger still. "I don't think you are rock or hammer."

Mordecai was far from certain that he understood, but perhaps this was just one area where the fact that he was not—could never be, some cynical part of him insisted—human would show most clearly. Perhaps… perhaps he found Sven’s thoughts illogical and contradictory because logic was not the way in which they were meant to be understood. Emotions, desires, things of this conative nature, things that sought to change the world rather than only understand it… these were things in which the automaton was not conversant. He barely understood what it was to want something, let alone what it was to be bound up in a history and a network of people and deeds with colors and threads tangled just as often as they were properly woven. He did not know what it was to be so complex.

But he did know what it was to feel incomplete, inadequate to what yet lay before him. To turn his attention inward and be yet confused by what he saw there. To lack a complete understanding of just what he was, what he was meant to do. What he should or could or would do, even. At that level of analysis, of self-awareness, his systems were no longer comprehensive. He lacked. It was a most disconcerting feeling, because before he had ever had cause to meditate on his own nature, he had never been aware that he lacked. He would have believed himself whole, if only he had not tried to see.

He hesitated, unsure of what should be said here. In the end, he settled on something simple. “This unit does not think it is so bad, to be strange.” It was, after all, almost universally strange people with which he was surrounded now, and he found their behaviors, their natures, their colors and tapestries and a hundred other metaphors he only half understood… he found these things fascinating. Perhaps somewhere in the pursuit of understanding them, he would even come to understand himself.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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As night fell over the plains, the dwarves, all dressed colorfully in bright, fluttering fabrics, descended from the settlement on the steppes to the flat land below this one, hauling with them wood for the fire pits, which were dug earlier in the day by workmen with a variety of spades and shovels, then lined with stones. The wood was piled in neat, geometrical fashion, tinder added, and the sparks thrown into the mix by striking flint. Within half an hour, everything was colored deep red and gold by the sunset, and the pyres had roared to life, flickering and crackling and casting long, dancing shadows from every object or person that came within their vicinity.

It was another hour into the festivities, when the sky had receded to violet, indigo, and the beginnings of nighttime navy, that Gwendolyn unilaterally declared that it was time for the crew to go join the festivities. If this just so happened to coincide with the last of the necessary work being finished for the day, well, who was paying that much attention, anyhow? She had dressed herself for the occasion as well, a boatnecked blue blouse with billowed sleeves and a green vest falling into several waist-sashes in varying shades of blue and purple, draped over an emerald-hued skirt. Her feet were bare, but her ankles sported several jangling bracelets. She’d let anyone who could fit her clothes have free run of them as well, because in her humble opinion, everyone should go as the locals went—bright and festive.

She’d somehow managed to convince even Lohengrin to throw on a green scarf, though he didn’t look especially well-pleased by it. Then again, his usual facial expression hadn’t gotten any worse, so perhaps he’d decided to take it all on the nose. She’d attempted to foist various pieces of vibrant fabric on just about everyone, actually, though he wasn’t sure how well it had worked, and he didn’t much care.

The trek down to the site of the festival was pleasant enough, the weather a bit balmy but cooling off quickly as night fell. The festival was, after all, a celebration of the coming of summer, something that was not here quite yet. What might have otherwise been too crowded and claustrophobic was spread out over the plain, several bonfires going at once. Musicians played flutes, harps, and lyres, mostly, with these collectively almost doubled by the number of hand-drums present. The homebrewed alcohol, however, was what Lohengrin was most interested in, and it was free-flowing.

There was no issue whatsoever with the presence of tallfolk at the party, and indeed, they were not even the only ones, a couple of river-barge traders mixed in with the crowd here and there, and everyone seemed to be mingling without a particular concern for height or race. Most anyone looked like fun after enough to drink, anyway, and Lohengrin soon found himself at one of the copious number of portable tavern setups, a tankard in his hand. Dwarven brew really was about as good as it got when it came to beer. Not like that mushroom shit the elves had underground.

Theon was dragged to the festivities by no one other than himself, and indeed, it did feel remarkably like being dragged, each step towards the happily celebrating dwarves and guests feeling like lead weights attached to his ankles. Try as she might with the sad-eyes, Gwendolyn had been unable to force anything remotely festive on the scryer, despite how annoyingly effective he found the eyes to be. Theon had always been a man to dress simply, and he would not change that tonight, arriving in a sleeveless shirt that was at least clean, and an equally bland pair of pants, a loose pair of sandals flapping under his feet. It was enough of a victory that he was coming to this damn thing at all, he could hardly be expected to do much more.

The beer was where the scryer directed himself to as well, knowing the quality quite fully by now. He taken several kegs of the stuff in a few separate raids that he had no intention of telling the locals about. During those periods, the bandits he'd led around had never been as docile. Sadly, they drank through them at alarming speeds, and grumpiness usually followed the last drop. Tonight, though, there seemed to be an endless supply, and Theon meant to take a good chunk of it. "Think you can drink enough to make this enjoyable?" he asked Lohengrin, when they arrived at the same place.

"Maybe if I start now and don't stop until we leave." A wry twist to Lohengrin's lips appeared for just a second before it vanished behind the rim of the tankard.

Dio, however, didn't need a drop of anything to put a smile on her face, and immediately took to dancing about the bonfires, mostly with the dwarves that crossed her path, not caring a bit if the difference in heights made the movements even the least bit awkward. Where the scryer had refused color altogether, Dio had more or less pilfered the captain's wardrobe when given permission. The two had even spent an hour or so wreaking havoc on her hair, applying all manner of braids, beads, and other things that would jingle when she moved. She had no intention of stealing Gwen's look, of course, but a party demanded a little more than just a hat, even if it was one of her best, so Dio had elected a headband instead. For clothes, yellow was her color of choice for the night. The blouse was modest in the neckline but cut off for her stomach, while the skirt was long enough to nearly brush the ground when she walked. She threw on several belts just for the fun of it.

In typical Vivi style, she was a dervish of color. In the end she got her dress from Gwen's closet, a low cut spring dress with yellow-orange-red gradient which cut off right below her thigh and a blue sash. Ribbons were tied into her coffee hair of the same color palette as her dress. A few were tied into bows, others were simply tied to locks of hair and allowed to trail freely behind her as she walked. The pair of boots she usually wore clashed with the outfit, but in her credit, she did polish them to a shine and tie ribbons into the gaps in the armor so the disconnect wasn't terribly bad. On her hands she'd found a pair of elbow length gloves.

Her first stop, of course, was one of the tavern setups. The same one that Lohengrin and Theon went to. She ordered a drink and then turned toward the pair, the smile on her face the widest she could make it, "Or, and stay with me on this one, you two could stop being so damn depressing and have fun. It's not as painful you'd think," she said, downing her first tankard in one long gulp. She ordered another and as she waited for it, spoke again, "Find yourselves a nice dwarf lady, they're about the right size. Or dwarf man. I don't judge. Whatever floats your airboat," She said in a chuckling fit as she took her leave, tankard in hand. It wasn't long before she was amid a dancing circle, still drinking from her tankard.

Percy didn't have to dive into Gwen's vast stores of clothes to look particularly festive. His own outfit was simple in design. A dark green vest over a collared white shirt with a pair of brown slacks. In addition, Percy also managed to find a bow tie among the other crewmates and had that tied around his collar. While his dress was simple in comparison, the accessories that he wore were not. In a usual sight as of late Percy had antlers sprouting from the top of his skull, but what was unusual about it, however, were that every other point ended in a flowering bloom. Flowers of blues, reds, greens, and yellows sat upon not only upon his antlers, but also scattered through out his persons. Flowers were stuck in his vest buttons and his pockets, as well as a pair of tiny bulbs that were used as cuff links. It all made him look more like a walking bouquet than a Mutatio. A wreath of wild-flowers that sat on the crown of his head didn't do much to dissuade the similarities either.

A smile was pressed against his lips as he descended the ship, happy to be done with taking inventory and making lists of things they had and how much of it. The cheer from the other crew, including those of the Dawn, was infectious, and he couldn't help be feel excited at the prospect of taking a moment to just relax instead of running over the whole of Albion looking for the clues of the mystery they were embroiled in. A break would do them all some good.

Near one of the bonfires that littered the plains, Artorias stood and listened to one band of musicians ply their trade on their instruments. In contrast to a few of the Dawn that he travelled with, he was not a hodge podge of assembled colors and random assortment of clothes. He still wore his blue coat, however to fit the occasion it was buttoned up to the neck and ironed immaculately. His trousers were likewise ironed and creased down the front, with the legs tucked into polished boots. He did however, make off with one of Gwen's scarves, a bright red that contrasted with his primarily blue outfit. His hair was slicked back with an oil of some kind, and his beard was trimmed. He painted a regal picture, though if he was worried about being seen as the King it didn't show it. Why would he be worried? The dwarves, they didn't care about the matters of his Kingdom, and besides, why would the King mingle amongst them of all places? He took comfortable refuge in the audacity.

Dress for the occasion? No. Wear silly colours and dance around the fire? No. Enjoy the festivities, quietly and calmly? Maybe. Actively avoiding Gwendolyn's robing charades, Sven had successfully escaped having her bear down on him with that imploring expression of hers—all wide-eyed monkey, and no care for anyone's discomfort. Hiding around the corners of the ship, and the small mechanical alcoves, wasn't easy for a man of his girth, but manage he did, and only once had he seen Gwendolyn throwing a bright scarf around Lohengrin's neck. Like trying to stuff a grumpy cat into an itchy sweater, he looked no worse for wear. Not that anyone could tell any differently. While everyone prepared themselves in various rooms, particularly Gwendolyn's, he excused himself to check over all of the manifests, paperwork and documents. It was a sensible alibi. And disappearing where he'd be out of their way and clear of all the rainbow-accessories being strewn about was far better than skulking in the corner with flowers and ribbons tied in his hair. What little he had, anyway.

When he could no longer pretend to check over the inventory, and he supposed it was safe to surface, Sven cleaned himself up and stomped up to the main deck. The festivities were already underway, and everyone had already disembarked. Which meant it was safe to subtly merge into whichever crowd of Dwarves he wished to hardly talk with and begin drinking as much beer as he could. Thankfully, Dwarves were as content to be grumbled at, then to have actual conversations. Drunk or not, as long as they had open ears to talk into; rudeness did not exist. Fine with him. He smoothed his hands over the front of his olive tank-top and scratched the back of his neck. There was no need to blend in here, so wearing vibrant colours was little more than an indulgence he didn't want to involve himself in. Besides, he didn't own much of anything besides plain shirts and pants, military clothes, and his dress uniform. None of which were for any sort of celebration. He wore one of his army tank-tops with a pair of black, many-pocketed slacks, tucked neatly into a pair of heavy boots. The shiniest things on his person was his mechanical arms and miscellaneous shiny things that he had no choice but to wear—from meticulous cleaning and polishing, but certainly not for this occasion.

He scouted the area. To his right stood Lohengrin and Theon lounging rigidly at one of the beer-stands, two dark clouds of sourness and general gloom. He supposed he'd fit right in if he joined them. And to his left was the great bonfire, licking in the air like a beacon of light. Dio was dancing like she'd been born to be there, fitted with what she assumed were Gwendolyn's outrageous duds. It did suit her, however. Joining her was Vivian, tankard in hand, and Percy coming down the hill, smiling. Sven sighed and squinted, focusing in on a lone caravan toting tankards of ale. A few Dwarves stood around, cracking jokes and clanking tankards and goblets together. Fine, it would do. Making his way down and around the bonfire and all of its flailing arms and legs, Sven spotted the small stools, decided it'd be best to salvage his pride and stood beside it. Grumbling to the Dwarf, he received his first tankard accompanied by a bearded grin, and guzzled it down while turning towards the fire. Dwarves made damn good beer. For that he was glad.

Lacking any of the preexisting notions of what was appropriately masculine or even just appropriately standoffish, Mordecai had seen no issue with allowing the others to throw various articles of clothing at him and tell him to wear them, nor had it perturbed him to be subjected to several rounds of adjustment and accessorizing thereafter. It seemed to be a source of amusement to the other parties involved, and though perhaps there was a level upon which that should be taken with a bit of a sour taste, if there was, he could not claim to feel its force, nor to be aware of it at all. There were no objections that he was not simply a large mechanical doll, but a being with his own thoughts and preferences, because he did not think that anyone had misunderstood this fact, and furthermore his preferences were in fact few. He found little to object to in the fact that he now wore red and gold and dark purple the way he had once worn mere black and white. That his hair was braided in several places and woven with various strings of beads or bells or thread was similarly not something he at all minded.

The gentle susurrations he produced when walking were swiftly lost in the general noise of celebrations, and he found himself rather unsure what to do with himself first. Drink of course held no appeal to him, nor would it affect anything. Consuming food was only an inconvenience, as he could not digest it, only burn it in his internal systems or else bring it right back up the way it came, which was hardly an appealing thought. So it was really only the activity and the company that he could appreciate, though who would appreciate him as company was still not something he was sure he could answer. Not with more than a list of a few people, anyway.

So, lacking much of an idea of what he should be doing, he selected from among the methods displayed by the others more or less at random, and wound up standing beside the king. He was uncertain if Artorias would be amenable to conversation, but the worst thing that could happen was being told to go elsewhere or mind his own business, and that had happened enough times in the past that he was more or less inured to it by this point. So he spoke. “Is there something you are watching for?”

Kethyrian, surprisingly, had not had to be very strongly persuaded to attend, nor to at least make a small effort at attending in the traditional fashion. While certainly not as ostentatiously-dressed as most of the others, she had forgone her usual neutral palette for similar items in different colors. Her shirt was deep green, her trousers light tan, and her sash kingfisher blue. She had braided her hair around the crown of her head, the stripes ill-concealed but, she was willing to concede, likely irrelevant to anyone but her. She blinked over at the dancing, which she was not especially eager to partake in, then the drinking, which she wouldn’t last very long at. Still… better perhaps than doing nothing, and she chose to join Sven, on rationale that the other group included Lohengrin, and she didn’t like him.

“Whatever he’s having,” she told the tap-tender, gesturing with a thumb in the large man’s general direction. She didn’t exactly have the expertise to differentiate between one drink and another, nor the experience to know her own preferences and ask for them.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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"No. Not watching for something. Listening," Artorias said, his arms crossed. He took his eyes off of the band and turned them toward Mordecai who had found his way to him amongst the din of the dwarven celebrations. A moment was spared as Artorias looked the automaton up and down, taking a particular interest in the accessories that he'd been dressed in. He could pick out elements of Gwen in his dress, and gathered the rest were due to the two other women. The corner of his lip twitched, easily mistaken for a wisp of a smile before he shook his head. "You're fortunate they didn't find the make up. They'd have you painted given the chance," he added with a shrug. He then faced the band once more began watching again, though he was still aware of Mordecai's presence.

He was not ignoring him; that became obvious when he raised a hand from his chest. With his eyes closed he tapped the air in time with the heavy drumbeat the rest of the musicians played around. He kept tune like a metronome, until he cracked one eye open and peered at Mordecai. "The drums," he began, "You can judge the caliber of the musician by how closely they follow the beat," And these were of a decent cut. Rough around the edges, but in tune and in time. The drums were struck hard with roughened hands, and it evoked a raw, free emotion. Just as he'd expect from people of the land.

"I've always enjoyed the rhythm and beat of the music over its overall sound." With that he turned back to Mordecai, his underlying thoughts put to words and free to carry on a conversation properly.

Mordecai spent a few moments parsing the statements, and then conceptually separating the beat of a piece of music from the rest of it, and trying to find some measure by which these could be more or less good. He at last thought he understood where the king was coming from, and inclined his head slowly. “This unit believes it understands. Where music is concerned, you value the solidity and skill with which a foundation is constructed over the structure of everything that stands on it. Does the same principle apply to all art? Is for example the technical skill of a painter, his ability to compose an image, more important then the color and technique used to fill in the basic template?”

The king did indeed seem like a man who was not appreciative of chaos, a disharmony between the parts of a whole. He wondered how it was that he could stand being on a ship full of privateers, he believed was the captain’s term, for so long. If the underlying structure was the laws of Albion, then such people certainly qualified as discordant with it. But not only did Artorias seem more-or-less at home aboard the Elysium, he also seemed to be well-acquainted with Gwendolyn. It was an interesting mix of facts that the automaton was presently unable to account for.

An eyebrow arched at the question, surprised that this was the conversation he was having. In honesty, he was expecting the talks of the night to be of the drunken variety, the swapping of tales, and other sorts. Not that he was entirely upset about it. "I do, but it's more than that," Artorias said, allowing his brow to drop back to it's neutral position. "I used to play the drum when I was younger," he revealed. He then ran a thumb through his beard as he thought about Mordecai's question, and wondered if the Automaton always searched for a deeper meaning in everything. "An artist can compose an image," Artorias said while he raised one hand as if he weighed the option in it. "But without color, does it have the same impact as the finished product would?"

He then raised his other hand and juggled both over and under one another as if to gauge the opposing weights like a scale, "On the other hand, he could simply throw paint to the canvas and create a freely colorful, if formless piece. Is this canvas worse or better than the outline?" He said. Eventually, his hands stopped juggling and began to slowly align with one another. "A foundation is useless if it has nothing to hold up. Meanwhile, without the foundation, the structure is chaotic and disorganized. Both are equally important," He said, his arms crossed again. "There needs to be a foundation, and there needs to be something built atop of it."

"The same is true for music. While I enjoy the drum, it is simply one sound in of itself. However without a beat, music is just noise. The combination of the two is music," He said. He then paused for a moment as he looked at Mordecai. He caught the lotus in his eyes and smiled inwardly. Morgause knew how to build an automaton, and for a moment he had forgotten he was speaking to one. But outwardly, a thin line was etched into his lip, which was soon tilted subtly as he turned his head. "Unless you are asking for personal taste. In which case, I enjoy colorful pieces with a clear subject matter. Some new age artists will try to wipe color on paper and call it art, but do not be fooled. It's not."

Mordecai nodded, absorbing this new information and adding it to his collected understanding of aesthetics and taste, blinking slowly and temporarily shifting his eyes to the dancers. It was hard for him to accept that there was nothing deeper in everything he saw, perhaps because he was so used to asking questions as a way of understanding things. He seemed incapable of getting to that understanding without them, so if there was nothing to question, no deeper layer to dig out, no foundation, or fundamentality, he would simply be hopelessly lost. He could understand the motions of dancers as mathematics—geometry and the like—and perhaps on some level as art, where art was something like the king suggested it was, but… if there was no further explanation than what he saw, then he would be hopeless to make sense of it. His emotions were like that sometimes.

“This unit wonders if it is also art.” The musing was quiet and thoughtful, but in truth, he seemed to meet the criteria. He was made as he was by someone’s deliberate designs. At his foundations were the sketches and plans, detailed accounts of what he would be before he was even a pile of wires and truesteel. But he was more than that—more than the plans and the schematics—for he was also a plan come to fruition—a canvas with paint on it, as he supposed the metaphor might go. He suspected he was getting a little better at those sorts of analogies.

But it was certainly not something he expected Artorias to have an answer to. He supposed it must grow tedious, answering questions for him on subject matters so basic as to be intuitive and therefore hard to explain for humans. People did not have to be taught what it was for something to be human, or a mind, or art, or have a purpose—they just knew. So basic, so fundamental, that words sometimes failed to capture the full sense of things. “This is… not like being king,” he ventured, gesturing to the celebrations in general as well as he could. “Does it trouble you, that you are here and not there?” It was, he supposed, his own way of asking what someone else might mean by the words are you all right?

"You would be surprised," Artorias said, looking out over the field of celebrations. His palace was no stranger to being the host of various parties. Balls, galas, masquerades, it seemed like every other month he had to dress in his formal attire to attend some sort of festivity. "More chaos and less makeup, but the core is the same," his tone indicated that he was not overly fond of the celebrations he had been to, and he wasn't. Not when they required his presence, when he could actually be doing something useful instead of standing around for people to see. It was one thing he didn't think about before becoming King, the parties that he would have to attend.

He held the automaton in his gaze once more before sighing and nodding. It was subtle, but it was wearing on him. Being stranded while an imposter ran his Kingdom, and him not even knowing what was going on in his own city. "It's what we don't know that weighs the heaviest. Who, what, and why. Who is sitting on the throne if not me? What do they intend to do with my mantle? And why, if they have a purpose, are they waiting?" His tone was the closest to worried he had managed thus far. Still, it refused to show in his body language. His back was still straight as it's even been and his face hadn't changed emotions since he was fished out of Genesis. He had even slipped into military ease, his wrists locked behind him.

"It won't last long," He said, absolute certainty returning to his voice. "I'll see the throne returned and this imposter outed for what they really are. I fought for this kingdom once, and I'll do it again. As many times is necessary."

Mordecai did not know much of government, beyond the way the institutions were connected to each other and who was to be found in most of them, but he knew enough to understand that Artorias’s concern was not unwarranted. The monarchy was relatively strong in Albion, or at least in the northern, human part. The dwarves out here probably felt it in terms of what trade was on offer and for what prices, but as he understood it, Deluge was pretty much ruled only in name by anyone save the crime lords. Still, that left a very large swath of people at the mercy of the monarch, and very few political checks on that power. Other checks, maybe, but not anything that could really stop the will of such a person from being enacted. Most who worked outside of the law managed the feat only because they were, in terms of scale, too small for the king to take notice of.

This had apparently once been the case for Avalon’s Dawn itself, though it seemed that it may be true no longer. He personally was not aware of any illegal activities on the part of the guild, but then, it was not as though he supposed he knew everything about what they had done. He hadn’t been with them for long before all of this started, after all. “That does not strike this unit as a simple task,” he replied mildly, moving his eyes to the king again. But perhaps… perhaps it was a natural one, for someone who felt most comfortable carrying himself like that. Sven had said of soldiers—or at least of himself, who was one—that they were accustomed to having certain purposes. He supposed Artorias might see things in a similar way.

“Why undertake it?”

"Because if I do not, who will?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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The morning after the festival, the crew and guild, in greater and lesser degrees of hungover from the previous evening’s activities, got themselves back onto the ship by whatever means necessary, and they set a course for the south. They didn’t really have a direction to go in, for the moment, but they did need to stay on the move to prevent the false king’s people from finding them before they were ready to be found, and they didn’t exactly blend with dwarves and river-traders, to be entirely frank about it.

It was on the second day of this that the captain noticed something irregular. Ahead of them loomed what appeared to be a rather large hill. They were flying at a somewhat lower altitude than usual, due to the desire to stay hidden from the imperial ships that may or may not be in standard airspace above them—there was a nice layer of clouds today perfect for that sort of concealment. But the topographical charts she had of this area indicated that it was supposed to be mostly flat; there wasn’t supposed to be anything in need of flying around for miles.

“Did I read the charts wrong?” Gwen’s question, directed mostly at herself, though she supposed Sven was right there and could answer if he wanted to, carried a touch of incredulity, and she thought that much was justified. She’d been navigating for years, but she supposed everyone made mistakes sometimes. “Hey Froggy, take the controls for a bit; try to steer us around real nice and gentle-like. I’m gonna go find those charts.” They were just in her cabin, which wasn’t far away—in fact, it was situated right above the engine room. She liked to hear the hum of it underneath her when she slept… if in fact she chose to sleep in a bed at all.

The Lieutenant pinched the bridge of his nose briefly before squinting through the window. No, she wasn't wrong. The hill that was steadily approaching wasn't supposed to be there. He remembered the charts clearly. He supposed he'd seen stranger things, but it didn't mean this was any less odd. He nodded and watched as Gwendolyn went off to fetch the charts and hunkered beside Frog.

Her progress to the cabin was, however, interrupted when she caught something out of the corner of her eye. Almost walking right past it, she registered it a moment later and did a double-take, leaning backwards to look out the porthole window at the hill. Only… could you call it a hill if it was growing bigger? This one looked as though it were swelling up, like some kind of rock-and-dirt pustule on the earth. Blinking several times, Gwen rubbed at her eyes. She’d slept in the last week, right? This wasn’t a dream or some kind of crazy hallucination?

She supposed, in the end, that she couldn’t be sure, so she turned right back around and ran for the top deck, booking it over to the rail and catching herself on it with both hands. “Uhh… does it look to anyone else like that hill is moving?”

"It... is moving," Percy answered. He was on deck, reading one of Gwen's books that she kept on board when the hill came into view. He'd seen it initially and thought nothing of it, at least not until they began to approach. It was something nagging him in the back of his head, like an itch he wasn't quite able to scratch. Another glance at the hill revealed a different view. It was almost like something was rising up from the ground, and that caught his attention. He'd pressed himself against the railing to get a better look when Gwen joined him. He spared her a single glance before returning gaze toward it.

His eyes remained on it only for a short while as he closed them and reached out with his druidic magic. He threw his consciousness all around him like a net, and he could feel every creature with a life force around him. He searched for anything that was near enough to tap into its consciousness to get a better understanding at what was happening. At least, that was his initial plan. As he reached further and further, closer to the hill, he felt a resistance grow. A bead of sweat formed at the corner of his temple as he focused. But there was no amount of focus that could've prepared him for what happened.

He felt a life force greater than anything before it, and nearly as ancient as the guardians. The immense amount of life radiating from it kicked him back into his own body hard enough to physically push him backward. His hands went to his face as a splitting headache racked his head. "Whatever it is..." he said slowly, "It's alive."

Mordecai, who had been on the other side of the deck, moved over to the port side as the commotion stirred, scanning over his memory for anything at all resembling this phenomenon. He came up with nothing at all. Percy seemed to think it was alive, something which seemed a decent conclusion from the fact that it was moving. “This unit has no data of relevance.” Given his general inability to understand fear, there was no trace of it in his tone.

Kethyrian was feeling a little more urgency. “How about we stop speculating about what it is and get the fuck out of its way?”

Theon came up from below the top deck, while Dio had been hanging out near the automaton, and both turned to examine the bulging hill that wasn't a hill. Theon wondered if there was anything farsight would be able to quickly do here, but decided there wasn't time, and he wouldn't be able to concentrate enough regardless. Dio didn't say anything, but she was silently agreeing with Kethyrian's line of thought.

“Okay… not a bad plan.” Gwen could admit that she didn’t exactly like the idea of flying right into the thing, after all, but it was huge, and seemed to be growing larger, and she wasn’t exactly sure they’d be able to avoid it.

No sooner had she taken several steps towards the cockpit door than a large hand came down on her shoulder. Lohengrin, looking unusually sober, shook his head. “It’s not going to help. It knows we’re here; that’s why it moved at all.” He dropped his hand back to his side, a frown etched deeply into his features. He stared at the creature—for indeed, it was beginning to dig itself out of the ground, showing a construction that resembled some kind of quadrupedal… thing—with what looked like a mixture of anger, revulsion, and, Gwen could swear, fear. Maybe not an unwise reaction, considering.

But it was not a fear of the unknown at all, but rather quite the opposite. “You’re looking at a colossus. It’s alive, but only in a sense. Animated by very old magic, and usually inactive. Deer-boy can look it up later. All you need to know is that the spell holding it together and letting it move is physically grounded in a sigil somewhere in its surface… and that unless it’s given a bigger, more interesting target, it will probably smash this tin trap right out of the sky.”

Apprehension twisted his features as he moved to the place on the railing Gwen had occupied just a moment before. “Find the sigil, and then destroy it. Or turn tail, I guess.” Gwen watched with evident confusion as Lohengrin jumped up onto the rail of the ship, bracing himself with hands and bare feet in a crouch, tilting his head as though he were gauging a distance.

“So, pardon the silly question, Strawberry, but while we’re doing that, what exactly will you be doing?” Flippancy was the best antidote to hysteria, at least as far as Gwen was concerned. It was, after all, a hill with legs that liked to kill people. It was one or the other here.

“I told you. Bigger, more interesting target.” There was a wry twist to his lips, and then he removed one hand from the railing to snap a lazy salute, before tipping forward and propelling himself away from the ship. Gwen, wide-eyed, ran to the edge and looked down to where, limbs spread, Lohengrin was falling… until he wasn’t.

He disappeared for a moment under the ship, and then, even over the rush of the wind as Gorlak tried to pilot them to safety and the rumbling, grinding sound of the colossus’s movement, an earsplitting sound, halfway between a roar and a shriek, rent the air, and she was forced to clap her hands against her ears. “What the…?” Was that the colossus?

The question was answered most effectively by the sudden change in her visual field. Still looking down, Gwen was most definitely surprised to note the appearance of a very large, reptilian head, followed shortly thereafter by a spiked neck, pair of leathery wings, and a long, rudderlike tail. The beast glimmered an almost incandescent red, individual scales catching the sunlight beating down on them and reflecting it back. The Elysium was not the largest class of ship Albion had to offer, but the dragon—what else could it be?—had to be the size of an imperial dreadnought at least, which made him half again the size of her airship, and he made a beeline for the colossus, which was still considerably bigger again.

“Strawberry?”

Theon needed a moment just to remember how to function again, and when he did, he blinked several times at the red dragon flying off in the direction of the colossus. Two things he never expected to see in his lifetime, and two things he had entirely too little understanding of. Currently, he felt as though he was about to witness a battle of two titans, which was not inaccurate. Both combatants easily dwarfed the size of their entire ship.

"What sigil?" he asked, feeling the need to shout from the sudden roar of the dragon. "What does it look like? Where is it? How big is it? Asshole couldn't have told us any of this before jumping ship?" Obviously they'd all been lied to the whole time, as he could tell by the looks of surprise all around. Still, he didn't feel inclined to just abandon him and run away. The guy was a dragon. For once, the scryer found himself intellectually intrigued. There was a healthy fear of the giant mountain monster, of course, but Lohengrin wouldn't have attacked it if he didn't think they could kill it. He wasn't the suicidal type, at least from what Theon could tell.

Dio, on the other hand, was largely overwhelmed by all of this, and felt entirely out of her element. Her own powers were no doubt worthless against such a massive thing, and the battle itself seemed enormously foolish to her. "We should run. All of us! It can't be that fast... can it?" It was a mountain, for goodness' sake. Couldn't they all just get away without a fight through the air?

This was some kind of cosmic fucking joke.

The worst part of all was, it kind of made sense. The scales, the vaguely-smoky breath… that asshole was a goddamn dragon. No wonder she couldn’t kill him. Actually, scratch that. The worst part was definitely that he was actually doing all of this shit to save their sorry hides, and he’d talked about it like he expected them to just abandon him, which was indeed her immediate thought. She could see how it would have been difficult to bypass a creature of that size, this close to the ground, if it was focused on them. But it wasn’t, anymore, and if they started swinging wide now, they should be able to go around without a scrape, assuming it ignored them in favor of the giant fucking dragon that was flying right towards it.

That moron. They were doing such a bang-up job of hating each others’ rotten guts and then he had to pull some stupid sacrificial bullshit and make her feel like an even worse person for having the instinct to leave him behind. Well, what the hell did she care? Moral superiority was not something Kethyrian had ever claimed for herself, and in this instance, tucking tail and running was the thing most likely to keep them alive.

But…

Her eyes flickered over the others, resting last of all on Vivi, whose response to the whole thing was so obvious Kethy need not even observe it to know how it would go. Is it really living if all you’re doing is staying alive? The more generalized point that underscored her friend’s every action. And damn her if she wasn’t starting to wonder the same thing. In the end, she could muster nothing to say. If they tried to do as Lohengrin suggested, they had little chance of survival; she was a pragmatist and she knew that. On the other hand… if they just ran from this… could she just turn her back on someone taking this big a risk for their sake? Sure, he was a massive flying lizard, but that colossus was even bigger. She didn’t like his chances, either.

And what the hell was so precious about her damn life that she’d sink so low just to keep it?

“Magical sigils are usually proportionally sized to the thing they animate,” Mordecai contributed. This, at least, was something he knew about, though never in this context. “Accurate estimates of this being’s size are difficult, but this unit suspects it would be at least seven feet in diameter, and likely at least faintly luminous. Perhaps Master Theon could ascertain its location?” He didn’t seem to be considering the possibility of a tactical retreat, though whether that was just a function of his programming or something else, Kethyrian was certainly in no position to be speculating on.

"Seven feet, huh?" Theon echoed, eyeing the toaster skeptically. "Well, that should be easy to find." It was only a mountain, after all. As much as he wished it were otherwise, his farsight wasn't exactly set up for quickly locating very specific objects in a very large space. It required time, and a place to focus, where he wouldn't be disturbed. Neither of which seemed all that available to him. Still, it was better than anything his arms and weapons could do to the thing, and no one else could do what he could.

"I'll be below deck until I can find it. I need to focus." If shooting and smashing started, that didn't seem likely, but he would try all the same. "Try not to let anything explode while I'm out. It'll only take longer." Not that Gwen or any of the others needed encouragement to keep them from getting smashed by a mountain-creature. With the point made, the scryer turned and disappeared below deck, to find somewhere quiet.

Sven still hadn't moved from Gorlak's side. He'd witnessed everything from his hunched vantage point. Lips pulled into a tight, incredulous line. From the mountain slowly unfurling into some type of horrible, craggy beast pulling its limbs out from the ground as if they'd stepped on a cats tail—to the swooping hell-of-a-breeze shaking the entire ship, only to a reveal a damn dragon spiraling towards the death-mountain-creature. Never in all of his days had he expected to see any of those things in the span of one day. He'd never seen a dragon; nor talking statues, or per-destined pedestals. Never been a part of a crew that made him twist with duty and responsibility and maternal annoyances. Might as well add this to a growing list of things he wouldn't believe if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes.

Lizard—it was strange to recognize someone without having ever seen him transform. Or however he managed to magic himself into a dragon. Who else could it be? Unless a dragon coincidentally swooped in to attack the only thing that stood between them and their destination. He never believed in coincidences, anyhow. Pinching the bridge of his nose again, in a half-hearted attempt to dissuade the ale-inflicted headache from thundering as loudly as the dragon's roar, Sven's meaty mitt fell onto Gorlak's shoulder. No words needed to be said, in his opinion. The ship was in his care, as well as all of its inhabitants. He hardly trusted anyone else to steer them out of harms way.

Resurfacing onto the decks where everyone was gathered, Sven stomped closer to the railing and twisted his gaze back to the others; almost as if accusing that they'd been the ones who had poked the monster awake. Either that, or his face was perpetually stuck like that. From his peripherals, he spotted Theon slipping away below-decks. His eyebrows settled back down. Deducing what was going on, when bewilderment danced in equal measures on each of their faces, seemed pointless. “There is plan,” he prompted gruffly, flicking his hand towards the phenomenal battle down below, “vhile Vunderboy is gone?” Standing idle was against every fibre of his being—but if something could be done against such a large foe, he too was at a loss of strategy.

While Artorias would much prefer to have a fleet of dreadnoughts come in and bombard the massive... Thing with as much firepower as they could muster, they were only one ship, and even then, no where near big enough to take it on directly. He'd also seen how Lohengrin turned out to be a dragon of all things, but there was little time for him to stare on in slack-jawed awe, they were in danger, and they needed to act. "A tactical retreat is the most logical one, but we can't leave him," He said, gesturing toward the crimson dragon, "Behind." Though he knew nothing about the man, maybe even less than nothing, since that man turned out to be a dragon, Artorias was loath to leave a man behind, even if he wasn't one of his soldiers.

Running a hand through his hair, his brows furrowed in thought before turning to Gwen, "Go to the cockpit and get as far away from that thing as possible. We have no idea what it can do, and I'd rather not find out. But keep up close enough so that the scryer can find whatever the hell we're looking for. Prepare for--" He was interrupted by a shattering gunshot next to him. He quickly turned with his hands balled into a fist in case the shot was hostile. It was not, as it turned out, as Vivi stood beside him with a smoking rifle pointed toward the colossus. "What?" She asked innocently, "We have to do something."

A knot formed in between Artorias's brows as he glared at her, before snatching the rifle out of her hand and turning back to Gwen. "Prepare for evasive maneuvers. When the scryer finds the sigil, we'll get in close and destroy it with the cannons. Everyone understand?" It was a fine line between far away and close enough, but if anyone can straddle it in an airship, it'd be Gwen.

"I'll help... With the search. The birds in the sky and the animals on its back can help look for this sigil," Percy said, pushing himself backward toward the mast, where he closed his eyes again.

Gwen wasn’t so sure this would work, but it was definitely better than the plan she had, which was to say no plan at all, so with a terse nod and a quick scan of the horizon—it seemed Lohengrin had reached the colossus and the two behemoths were now focused solely on one another—she ducked belowdecks. Her aim had to be twofold—fly tricky to prevent them from being hit by any afterthought attack, and fly smooth so that Theon could actually have a chance at seeing what was going on with the sigil or whatever it was.

“I don’t feel good about this.” She muttered it only to herself, though, because there was enough raging skepticism to go around without her contribution to it. Reaching the cockpit, she told Gorlak to jump into the copilot spot and keep an eye on all the readouts and instruments—this was going to be one hell of a ride. Securing herself into the pilot seat, she took firm hold of the controls and set course… right for the giant living hunk of stone.

She really didn’t feel good about this.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Once she had confirmation that everyone being dropped was already hanging from the side of the ship, Gwen flipped on the vessel-wide communications. “All right, duckies. If you’re not interested in getting dropped on our little beastie here, I highly recommend tying yourselves to something sturdy, or getting your lovely selves below the deck. You’ve got about ten seconds before we start tipping to the side. Go!” She liked to imagine that these words produced pretty immediate and comical reactions in the people around her, though she couldn’t see for sure to find out.

In any case, she turned to Percy, Gorlak having already finished strapping himself into the copilot’s chair. “You too, Spikey. This is going to be a bumpy ride, and that’s if it doesn’t kill us.” Fortunately, there were a couple other chairs in the cockpit area, most of them in front of consoles that were darkened with disuse. She did have enough people in the crew with flight or engineering knowledge to take advantage of all the Elysium’s navigation, communication, and weapons features, but fortunately, she could operate any of them herself in a pinch.

As promised, the ship began to turn, as she sought to drop them as close to the location the others had been talking about as possible. The approach was not easy—the air currents were quite turbulent due to the great sweeps Lohengrin’s wings had to make to keep him airborne as he fought with the giant, whose own every movement was naturally a momentous occasion for miles around. Likely any nearby settlements could detect at least a fine tremor in the ground whenever it stomped particularly hard.

The biggest challenge to the approach, however, was that a good portion of the area included trees, meaning that she would have to drop the last few hundred feet necessary for a safe jump quickly and mostly blindly, so as not to crash the ship or slam any of the hanging guild members into a faceload of branches. She also needed to do it soon; they couldn’t hang there indefinitely. That in mind, Gwen drew in a deep breath, blocking out everything happening inside the cockpit and focusing on what was happening outside her front window. She got them in low enough that the belly of the ship almost brushed the treetops, keeping her speed up until she cleared the treeline.

Smoothly as she could, she began to tip the ship sideways, getting those dangling by the rope as far down relative to the Elysium as possible, their ropes coming away from the side of the vessel. She also killed her speed with a careful application of the handbrake, feeling the engine hum beneath her chair. They descended as far as she could get them, the ship tilting precariously as its underside flared up, just the right side of overbalanced. All told, the landing party had about ten seconds to make what amounted to a twenty-foot jump onto uneven terrain, but it was the best she could do without a crash.

“Froggy, the comms.” Gorlak smashed the button down with his fist. “Now or never!” She shouted it, so as to hopefully be audible over the rushing of wind and the ambient thrum of her ship.

It was enough to call breakfast back up, if one were of weaker stomach. Still, even Kethyrian had to admit that the piloting itself was expert, surely better than what most anyone else would have been capable of. She’d certainly never heard of the like before. The favisae waited until the conditions seemed optimal, gauging her jump as well as she could, letting go just as Gwen’s voice reached them over the communications. There were several seconds of freefall in which to orient herself properly for the landing, but she’d jumped from high enough up that she decided it would be best to roll into the sudden stop she was about to experience.

The subsequent impact was uncomfortable, to be sure, but she’d executed with the learned grace she had, and was back on her feet at the end of the roll, a tad sore in the shoulder but otherwise completely unharmed. She made sure to get the hell out of the way immediately afterwards, however, because there was no telling exactly where the others would land, and “on top of her” was not a good scenario for someone as slight as she was.

Mordecai, however, held off on his jump, as he was capable of completing it from greater altitude and on shorter notice than any of the others. He waited to see if any of them missed heir likely windows, in case he needed to take a passenger on his own leap.

Bile swirled in his throat as soon as the ship swung closer to the trees, and Sven's hands gripped all the tighter. Never had he thought that his mild discomfort of heights would bother him like this, but here he was, hanging from the ship like a piece of bait strung up by a string and growing ever so closer to the trees. He swore he could feel his feet brush up against the pines, threatening to dip him low enough to rattle his bones with their branches, but it never came. The wind whipped at his scarred face, which was presently twisted in a scowl. Closer, now. Counting in his head, and trying desperately to breathe out of his nose, instead of gasping fish-like gulps of air, he managed the later but lost count as soon as the ship tipped slightly more.

One, two, three—halfway through his count and his meaty hands twitched open, instinct flattening his shamble-of-a-plan to remain calm and collected through this ordeal. He hardly heard Gwendolyn calling out to them other the comms, because the wind was whistling loudly through his ears, and his heart was hammering just as loudly as he fell. Jumping would have required grace and dignity and careful planning. A scream itched at his lips, but the rush of falling snatched that pleasure away from him and his arms swung and flailed for something to grab onto. Instead, Sven crashed on his arse and rolled in a mess of jolting metal limbs, ending up flat on his back with the breath knocked out of him. He finally sucked in air; though it sounded like a wheezy gasp, hungry lungs feeling as if they were inflating for the first time ever. Unsightly, he was sure. He'd probably broken his ass in the process, because his entire back ached.

Thankfully, his arms and legs were no longer weak, fleshy things. Somehow, he even managed to stumble back to his feet and move forward. Any direction besides just laying there, because being still would get him killed faster than that horrible jump. Mobility was key. His jumbled, frantic thoughts puzzled themselves back together as he joined the others, though he found himself still panting. Like an old man who'd climbed too many stairs. Or someone who was just punched in the gut. He would have laughed if the thought of doing so wasn't so painful. Old. He was getting too old for this.

Theon felt a warm wetness running down his left leg, something that did not come as a surprise to him.

This fell in with his definition of things that were truly insane, and he found that his eyes were kept tightly shut, a steady stream of curse words making it most of the way from his mind to his mouth before they were garbled into an incoherent stream of terrified mumbles. He would readily admit that this was not the sort of thing he was trained or experienced in. Fighting a horde of orcs when faced with dying of thirst in the desert? Routine. Anything involving flying while outside the confines of the airship? Not okay.

He might have just hung on forever had he not heard Gwen's voice blaring over the comms, yelling at them to let go, to land on the colossus. Theon was more inclined to go with the never than the now, but he was apparently this group's guide, and their only real shot at getting to where they needed to go to bring the rock monster down. Blindly, he let go, still not opening his eyes, convinced that he would rather not see his death coming. There were some things not worth knowing ahead of time.

He broke clean through the first tree branch he encountered; the second one was tougher, slamming into his ribcage, though his chestplate kept him intact. Still, his insides bounced around violently, and most of his existence was pain until he landed hard on his back, thankful that his head and legs at least seemed alright. He needed those. Somehow alive, he blinked in surprise as the ship headed away from them. Now they were on the colossus... but what if they needed to get off in a hurry? He hoped it wouldn't come up.

There was a high pitched squeal following Vivi's jump, and not of the terrified kind. Rather predictably for the girl, it was the excitement and adrenaline running through her lungs. Raucous laughter punctuated her freefall as all sense of weight left her. It was a pity then that the weightlessness lasted only a moment when it returned, this time in force. She remembered to tuck and roll, or at least attempted to, but the ground was awkward and her landing even more so. Instead of coming to a stop on her after a somersault, or two if she was feeling especially flash, she rolled more four additional times down the incline she'd landed on. And neither did she come to a stop on her feet, but rather her face, her heel far too close to the back of her head to be comfortable.

When everything stopped spinning, Vivi rolled over to her back and tried to catch the breath she'd lost. She'd found it harder than it was supposed to be, not from any internal injuries from what she could guess, but because she was laughing too damn hard. "Haha! That was great! Why don't we do more landings like that?!" she cried, flailing about with her hands and legs. Calming down just enough to get back to an upright position, Vivi brushed the dust off of her face and hair and looked around before shrugging. "What's next?" she asked excitedly.

Artorias was fortunate to not have a landing like hers, hitting a stretch of relatively even terrain. He hit feet first and tucked into a roll, coming up into his knees with the rifle already in his hand and scanning the vicinity for anything hostile. Satisfied that nothing was after them that moment, he lowered his weapon and stood up, though the rifle never left his hands. He moved to collect the rest of the Dawn, taking a moment to reply to Vivi as he passed, "To the sigil so we can get off this beast."

Though his eyes did drift down to the wet spot on Theon's trousers, Artorias said nothing of it and went straight to business. "Where do we go from here? The quicker the better," he said, eager to be off the thing's back.

If the question was one about the direction of the head and neck of the creature, the answer was relatively obvious. If they hadn’t gotten the shape of it coming in, they could easily be guided by sound—specifically, thuds and scraping fierce enough to cause small tremors in the ground under their feet, where something was impacting the colossus with great force, and the sudden, rasping shriek of a dragon in immense pain. The ground was not exactly steady underfoot, but there was a certain smoothness and roll to it, not unlike being on the airship, albeit in somewhat-turbulent weather.

Mordecai was last to land, and still least-disrupted by it. The benefits of a superhuman physiology, perhaps. He did not answer Artorias’s query himself, believing that the resident seer would perhaps be more suited to such solutions. That is, if he were able to get himself off the ground. He’d had a rather unenviable landing. The automaton felt something almost like guilt, thinking that perhaps he should have calculated his own jump to interfere with what had surely been a rather painful descent to the back of the colossus.

Fortunately, there was a healer on hand, and though she didn’t look especially happy to be doing it, she did pick her way over the underbrush near Theon to crouch next to where he’d landed, wrinkling her nose slightly at the smell, but choosing not to mention it. Fear was rather logical in such a situation as this one, insofar as it ever could be, anyway. Crouching near his left shoulder, she reached out and touched it with a pair of fingers, skin-to-skin contact rather simple with someone who wore no sleeves. She felt no life as such from the colossus, which she took to be a boon. Something that big would have been terribly distracting.

Able to diagnose the injuries Theon had sustained rather quickly, she set about putting them to rights, or as close as they could get for now. Completeness had to be balanced with time, and it was a full minute later that she stood again. She offered no hand up, but then he wouldn’t need one, now. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we’ll be wanting to head towards the lizard.”

Sven shirked away from any healing hands, and instead, chose to stand beside Artorias. He, too, noted that Theon had pissed himself—and under different circumstances, he might have jostled him for it; in that muted, dark humour of his. This time, he couldn't blame him. Shear fear had kept anything from coming out or up. His stomach still swirled unpleasantly, and he swore the terrain felt as if they were standing on a giant snake. The sooner they got off this damned thing... he shook his head and swung it towards the great flapping beast diving and shrilling as it was. Towards the dragon, then. As they began moving in any direction, relief flooded through him. Even if the idea of dropping dramatically to their deaths, should the beast move the wrong way, was a horrible way to die. Give him a weapon in hand and throw him in a good fight; and should he die that way, so be it. Magic barriers and giant monsters be damned. He was out of his element.

Theon pushed himself to his feet when he was able, annoyed at being the one to keep the group held up when they were on a giant rock monster's back of all places. Then again, it wasn't too surprising. He wasn't an augmented soldier, agile wall crawler, robotic android, suicidal madwoman, or the king of Albion. He had no qualifications for being able to do this sort of thing well at all. The wall crawler was right, however, that they needed to go in the direction of the dragon.

Another thing Theon was not.

"Just most of the way. Follow me." He moved out at a quick jog, wary of the fact that they were on something still moving, and that the floor could drop out from under them at any time, if the thing moved too quickly in the wrong direction. Theon was at least thankful that it felt like he was on the ground, even if he was in fact still quite high in the air. Perception was everything, after all.

The barrier itself, when they arrived at the rock outcropping with the magical shield, was taller than they were, and Theon felt no immediate desire to try simply walking through it. He glanced to Artorias and Kethyrian. "Think we can blow it up? Or get through with magic somehow?" His own brand of magic had been blocked, but his brand wasn't exactly the deadly type in the straightforward sense. He had no idea how to go about removing this thing.

Kethyrian approached the barrier, observing that it seemed to be translucent, and highly reflective of the light. Nevertheless, it was certainly magical in nature, and as such, she should be able to dispel it, which was likely to be easier than breaking it would be. Dispelling was a bit like unweaving a spell, and that could only be done by someone with proficiency in the right school of magic. Since there was no one else around here who knew anything about barriers, it seemed to fall to her.

Setting her jaw, she moved up to the barrier, narrowing her eyes to peer through. A faint luminescence was visible, what she took to be this sigil or whatever it was they were looking for. Touching the barrier with a hand, she could tell that it was stronger than any she could create, and dispelling it was likely to be quite draining on her reserves. “If I pass out, try not to just leave me here, maybe,” she suggested. Shaking her head, and wondering exactly when it was she had started doing things without more assurance than that, she closed her eyes, to better feel the magic involved.

When she got a better sense of it, she had to steady herself to stop from staggering backwards. It was a barrier, to be sure, but it wasn’t quite like anything she’d ever encountered or studied. All magic felt a little different depending on the caster, if one had a chance to study it closely, but not this different. This was at once familiar and alien, known and enigmatic. She almost feared what would happen if she interfered with it too much, because it reminded her, just a bit, of the magic they had encountered nearby the Genesis wellspring. It had that same inexorability, the same profoundness, to it. Maybe that meant they had been cast by the same person—or the same type of person.

Whatever the case, it wasn’t like she really had a choice. She had to try and push through it, or they would be here all day trying to break it the more mundane way. The ground lurched beneath her as the titan underfoot made some especially-aggressive maneuver, perhaps, and she had to stagger to keep her feet underneath her. It was an effective reminder of the time crunch on their hands, anyway, and she set to work as soon as she was steady again, pushing her own magic into the barrier in an attempt to break down the spellwork that held it in place.

The effort was not a minor one, and by the time she stumbled backwards, Kethyrian was bleeding from the nose, a tremor in her limbs causing her to twitch somewhat erratically. There was no explosion, just a silent vanishing of what had once been there, leaving the overhang open to their entrance. The favisae swayed on her feet, but she did not fall over. “Let’s figure out how to destroy that sigil and get the fuck off this thing.”

Vivi had been near Kethy as she worked her magic, wearing what most would notice as a expression more serious than her usual fare. She watched Kethy unwork the magic barrier intently, and when the woman began to sway took an instinctive step forward before the woman caught herself. She still stood nearby just in case her legs did give way from underneath her, and upon seeing the blood dripping from her nose, untied a handkerchief she had around her arm, offering it to the woman. "Agreed," Vivi stated.

The sigil was a complex thing, seemingly inscribed into the ground in pure light, of the size Lohengrin had promised, perhaps seven feet in diameter. There was a palpable sense of power to it, almost as if it were alive in some way. The light was not even in the shining, rather seeming to pulse, slowly, as though in time with some deep, sonorous drum, or perhaps something more vital still.

Theon was among the first to make his way inside, curious to see what this thing's magic had prevented him from laying eyes on with his farsight. He stepped cautiously around the sigil, the thing seemingly made of pure pulsing light, and it wasn't a small thing, either. It looked like magic, so could it be destroyed with magic? The wall-crawler looked drained from taking down the barrier, and he had no clue how to do that, if it was even possible for him. But when he looked closer...

Something stood out to him, even though it only became obvious once he leaned in to examine closer. He could see... or maybe sense, fissures, cracks in the light, the magic. "You can see those, right?" He asked, looking to the Favisae. Kethyrian blinked to focus her eyes, then nodded. "In some of these spots, the magic is weaker. We can probably break it if we hit a specific point with a blast. Right... here." He pointed to the most deteriorated spot he could find, pinpointing it briefly with his finger before a wave of tiredness suddenly washed over him, and he collapsed onto his back, head lolling to the side.

Theon found himself back on the Elysium, forced into the cockpit. It seemed clear enough that the ship had been devastated by something and was maneuvering at uncomfortable speeds that would normally have made the scryer fall over, but Theon was able to stand just fine. That wasn't what he was concerned about, though. It was a horribly awkward time to be having a premonition, and it seemed to be showing him something just moments in the future. He could still see the colossus, and last he remembered seeing the ship, it hadn't looked this bad.

Thick, black smoke billowed everywhere in the control room, multiple alarms blaring, sounds which had no meaning to Theon other than death and other shit that wasn't good. From where he stood, he could make out Gwen in the pilot's chair, shoving something at the goblin.

“Dammit, I said go! You should have been out of here yesterday!” The look on her face was far from composed, and absent the smiles she wore most of the time. If anything was confirmation that the situation was dire, it was the fact that she wasn’t even trying to pretend that it wasn’t. For his part, the crew’s goblin looked positively terrified, though it wasn’t quite on his own behalf.

“Captain, I’m not leaving without you! That sound means the main engine’s gone; there’s no saving her! You have to abandon ship!” He pushed back the satchel-like object, refusing to accept it from her.

“You think I don’t know that?!” An edge of panic was beginning to creep into her tone. “But if I don’t keep her in the air as long as I can, there might not be enough time for everyone to jump. Especially not if you keep arguing with me. Go, Gorlak, and that’s an order!” She shoved the bag against his chest and held it there until he wrapped his arms around it reluctantly.

“Gwen…” Gorlak looked like he wanted to argue, but she shook her head emphatically.

“Don’t say it. Don’t say any of it. This isn’t goodbye.” A small pause, during which Gwen appeared to gather herself. “But if it is… tell them I’m sorry, would you?” Without giving him time to answer, she turned back to the controls, taking a firm grip on one of the Elysium’s many levers.

“It’s been an honor, Captain.” Face drawn, Gorlak slid his arms through straps on the bag, and ran for the top deck.

Theon was inclined to stay. For one, it didn't matter where he was on the ship in his vision-state, it wouldn't affect his chances at survival, nor would it affect when he was able to wake up and get on with killing the colossus. He didn't quite understand why he was being shown any of this. His other premonitions had always led him to something important, led the entire group to where they needed to go next. They'd never just shown him something about to happen. Not like this.

And this wasn't what he wanted to see. Not just because this ship had become his life, in the sorry state that it was.

He wasn't allowed to stay, though. He could feel it pull sharply on him for a moment, before the smoke consumed everything around him, making Gwen vanish from sight as it swirled in a tornado for a moment with him at the center of it all. It cleared away as quickly as it came, leaving Theon standing on the deck, where the crew was jumping ship with chutes. A massive hole in the side of the ship spewed more black smoke into the air. Theon walked to the railing, took hold of it, and watched without feeling as the ground came up much too fast.


He jolted awake with a shout, thrashing violently for a moment. His eyes were wild, and he scrambled to his feet, trying to get a sense of what they'd done while he was out. "We need to go. Now! Let's blow it and go!" Why now, of all times, was he suddenly made capable of knowing what the future would hold? Now, when it was a terrible thing.

A meaty hand closed around Theon's shoulder as soon as he jolted awake, panicked and shaky from whatever it was that happened. From what he'd seen, he supposed—visions, or whatever, Sven had only witnessed Theon's fainting spells a couple times before, but they had some significance. Magic made no sense to him. He was a whirring mass of mechanical limbs and organs, relying only on brute strength, experience and weapons that could be wielded by anyone.

Breaking down barriers, and seeing things no one else could, went beyond his understanding; let alone transforming into a massive flying-snake. Dragon. He didn't say anything. Only stared at him, with as much concern as a stern-faced grouch could muster. At least, that's what it might have been. His hand retreated and he turned back towards Artorias, eyebrows flagged.

"That's the plan boy," Artorias said sternly, shooting an icy stare at Theon, "Now keep quiet or we won't have to worry about going anywhere." The man was on his knees, the sack of gunpowder Percy had provided them in his hands. It was a crude implement, literally nothing but a leather bag filled to the brim with enough gunpowder and explosives to easily take out the sigil and-- if they weren't careful-- them both. During the time Theon spent in his visions or whatever he saw, Artrorias had made a hole big enough to hold the sack and was going about making sure that it was able to cause as much destruction as possible.

He took the fuse that Percy had also supplied in the bag and extended it as much as he could to give them the most time to get a safe distance away. "When it lights, run. We do not want to be here when it blows. And hope we're alright at the end of this," he said seriously. "Now, does anyone have a light?"

There was a moment of quiet before some raised their hand. Vivi moved forward and took his hands and drew her pistol. Holding the fuse in front of one of the barrels, she began to count down. Alright... Three. Two. One. Run like hell!" A loud bang followed, and the fuse was lit, Vivi immediately sprinting away from the gradually dwindling thing-- grabbing Kethy's arm as she passed.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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It was not more than ten seconds after they’d started running that the gunpowder exploded, and in this case, the overhang that had made the sigil so hard to see was to their advantage—it held enough to prevent them from being pelted by any shrapnel, at least, though a wave of heat still washed over their backs. It was impossible to see if the sigil had been destroyed, but it was not a terrible guess, considering what happened next.

It began with a rumbling, different in character from the coordinated movement that had been slowly lurching them around before. This was something much less stable, and it grew in magnitude, the ground beneath them shaking. Bits and pieces of the colossus started to break off, tumbling the great distance to the ground below the creature. The rumbling grew to a roar, and the creature started to thrash with what coherence it had left, seemingly at random. The long, tail-like appendage whipped through the air, dangerously close to the Elysium—but the ship’s pilot was evidently taking care to stay out of range, and the arc of the great stone limb seemed like it would come up short of actually hitting anything.

Until it detached from the creature, effectively flinging a large string of boulders right for the ship.

If any of those on the colossus had the ability and inclination to look up for even a moment, it would be obvious that the second, tinnier sound over the rumbling was the noise those boulders made when they hit the side and underbelly of the airship at high velocity, the impact knocking the vessel from its course, and worse, leaving large rends and dents in its body. A plume of smoke poured forth from the largest of these—an unlucky direct hit to the engine block.

Aboard the ship, an alarm was blaring, and Gwen’s voice could be heard between the bursts of cacophony. “Everyone remain calm. Get to the back of the ship and don your parachutes for emergency exit. Crew, help anyone who doesn’t know how to use one. I repeat: put on a parachute and jump.” There was a pause. “The ship’s not going to make it, but the crew has to.” Her voice was level, but tight with obvious tension.

Like the well-oiled machinery they so resembled, the crew members did exactly as the captain ordered, a few slowing to explain the necessary details to Dio and Percy while leading them towards the back of the ship, which was still plenty high enough to make a jump safe, but wouldn’t stay that way forever.

Dio had been unfortunate enough to be at the front of the vessel when it took the hit, the impact knocking her flat onto her back as the ship lurched off of its course. It immediately became clear that they'd suffered some kind of critical damage. She was no expert on air vehicles, but the thick black smoke and the terrible sounds from below were as sure a sign as any that the ship was dying.

Surefooted even in an intense moment like this, Dio darted her way to the back of the ship. There was no time to collect anything. She wondered for a moment at the tone of Gwen's voice. She thought perhaps to go find her, make sure she wasn't planning on going down with the ship... but in the end decided to trust her to make her own decision on that. In the meantime, there was the matter of finding someone who could help her get to the ground in one piece.

“Do you know how to use one of these?” The question came from one of the ship’s gunners, a slightly older man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, affectionately nicknamed Sprocket. He was holding a parachute bag in his hand, another pile of them next to his feet. Apparently he’d volunteered to distribute them. “Because you can jump with one of us, if you don’t.” Like everyone else, he was fighting to stay calm over the adrenaline of the situation, but he like most of the crew was doing pretty well at it.

"Not really, no," was Dio's answer, eyeing the parachutes nervously. "I can help, though. And then I can go with you." She scooped up one of the parachutes at their feet, tossing it to the nearest person who needed one. The faster this got done, the faster everyone could jump to safety.

"True enough. Thanks."

Below the deck, in the little room Percy had converted into his personal study, he was busy frantically running around the room, stuffing everything that may possess even a semblance of import into a large satchel. He stuffed his notes hand over fist into the bag, some inkwells, a few quills, and even a few books even as the cabin began to fill with smoke. When the first of the boulders pierced the hull, he'd bolted from the cockpit and made a dash for his study. There were many notes on both the keys they had collected, not to mention recollections of what they had learned while searching for them and numerous hypotheses. He did not want to leave thing behind that might prove worthwhile later.

Perhaps a minute and a half into Percy’s frantic packing, another of the crew members, performing a sweep of the ship, chanced upon him in the study. Pushing his dark hair back from his forehead, he stared incredulously at the Mutatio for a moment, before finding his voice. “What the hell? Kid, you’ve got to get out of here! The ship’s going down, and you don’t want to be on her when she does!”

Percy gave the man a moment of his time before returning to stuffing the pack. "I've got to get everything I can!" He replied, stuffing one of his journals into the satchel, "These notes might save our lives one day, I won't let them burn."

“One day won’t have a chance to get here if you don’t move now.” The crewman, an older fellow, and large enough to have earned the moniker Tiny from his captain, even when stood next to Sven of all people, reached over and grabbed Percy by the back of the collar of his shirt, quite literally dragging him out of the room. “Don’t fight me on this, lad—I will sling you over my shoulders if I have to.”

He had just enough time to snatch one more sheaf of notes and stuff it in his pack before she was dragged out of the room. Cinching the satchel tightly as he could, he threw it over his shoulders and acquiesced. "Fine! Fine, let's go," He said, turning around and letting Tiny escort him away from the study-- on the off chance that he might return to it if left it his own devices, Percy figured.




Here they were again. Tumbling around like grass in the wind, heedless of their roiling stomachs, and rattling skulls. If the ground ever stopped shaking underneath them, Sven would count himself a lucky man. While knowing nothing of beasts large enough to pass as mountains, he had not expected that much of a violent reaction—had it even been able to trash around this quickly before, and if it had been, they would have fallen off sooner, he was sure. He ground his molars together to try and steady something in his body, because he felt like everything was sloshing around dangerously. Brief flashes of sky bounced through his peripherals, and flying pieces of boulders, and maybe, the tail of the ship. It was hard enough to tell with his head knocking around like a drum; sky, ground, hands, legs, and sky, again.

Embarrassing. The thought gurgled out as soon as Sven bounced into the air as if he didn't weigh hundreds-of-pounds, weighed down by metal and girth and whatever-else he had in him. Bounced around like some baby on someone's knee. The imaginary was laughable, and almost accurate. The colossal beast shook like an earthquake, tipping his world upside down. Death by horrifically long fall would've been too embarrassing to mention—if their mission failed because they all fell to their deaths, after being harassed by some insanely large mountain-beast... he didn't know what they would say about them in any of Percy's books. Would anyone mention them? Probably not.

The shaking of the ground beneath her feet was beginning to affect even Kethyrian’s preternatural balance, and she found herself having to compensate for unpredictable lurching by falling and rolling as often as she could maintain her footing. It was rapidly becoming obvious that, sans perhaps Mordecai, they were all going to die. There was no way the ship could be of any help to them now, and it was a long way down off the colossus—a long way they would soon be forced to take when what remained crumbled away from beneath them.

As though the thought prompted the circumstance, the next foot she laid down was stolen from under her when the ground on which she trod fell away, at about the same time as the beast beneath her lurched again. With a startled yelp, Kethyrian was tossed off what was now the side of the colossus.

Kethy's long fall was postponed for at least a couple more seconds. Vivi had been both close enough and fast enough throw herself at the falling woman, dashing her chest against ragged stones around the edge as she wrapped her hands around one of Kethy's wrists. A split second of freefall was followed by an intense weight threatening to jerk Vivi's arms out of their sockets. Despite herself she yowled out in pain but still refused to let go, as it was with everything she took a liking to. "Don't look down," she advised Kethy, her own eyes closed so that she could focus on not tipping over the edge herself.

Vivi attempted to wiggle herself back onto the solid part of the ground, but for every inch she gained, two more were lost until she too slowly began to slip over the edge.

Thankfully, Theon was there, albeit a bit slowly, as he hadn't had any more luck keeping his balance than most of them. He kept it when it counted, though, stooping over the prone figure of his sister, still clutching the arm of the wall crawler. "Hang on, I'm pulling you back," he said, sliding one arm under her midsection, the other reaching out to help pull Kethyrian in as well.

With a growl of effort, he dug his boots into the steadily decaying earth beneath them and tugged, forcefully dragging both women up and away from the edge until they could get their own footing, and scramble away. Collapsing back onto the rock, the scryer searched the sky for a moment for the ship, but a greater tremor beneath him took his attention away all too quickly. This rock monster wasn't going to hold up much longer.

Fortunately, it turned out that they wouldn’t need it to. Barely audible over the grinding and rumbling of collapsing stone was the heavy, rhythmic thrum of air being displaced in large gusts by leathery wings. With some difficulty, Lohengrin was gaining altitude and heading in their direction. As the ground beneath Theon’s feet began to fissure and crack, the great red creature dipped in low, snatching up all three in one massive set of claws, along with a fair chunk of loose earth. Mordecai was powerful enough to simply jump on, and did so, catching hold of one of the spikes at the base of his neck. Sven, he caught in his other forelimb, but his dive had been at an awkward angle to reach the precariously-located trio in time, and as a result, he had to do something different to reach Artorias.

Sven couldn't see anyone else, as he tumbled down what he presumed was the colossus's back. Its hip? Its arm? Hard to tell with all the scrabbling rock chipping off like dust and dirt. Sven tried slamming down his mechanical arm for leverage but it only crumbled in his hands, too weak to grapple onto. He continued falling and swore he heard someone scream to his left—his right, maybe? Dead. Dead and gone. And then, free fall. He supposed his life should've been flashing before his eyes, but he saw nothing but a clutch of sky and trembling rocks. His fall jerked to a halt when something wrapped around him, knocking the breath from his chest—not dead. His body flopped forward like a dead-fish being man-handled by... a dragon. He hoped the others were safe. Were alive, at least.

Lohengrin's massive head lashed forward quickly, catching the king in his jaws. It was perhaps as delicate as he could make such a maneuver, but his teeth were made for ripping things apart, and he had little doubt that they would puncture the overcoat the man was wearing with minimal effort. Still, he didn’t taste blood, which meant it shouldn’t be worse than discomfort. His back legs skimmed the surface of the colossus, and he used them to push himself back upwards as well as he could, wings straining in an effort to clear the terrain features still standing and get away from the crumbling mess. Painstakingly, they gained altitude, but it was clearly costing Lohengrin great effort. The reason would be evident enough to Sven, who was occasionally splashed with a fair dose of dragon blood issuing from a wound in Lohengrin’s left wing, near the part where it connected to his shoulderblade. Or perhaps to Artorias, who given his positioning held in the front part of the dragon’s mouth, would be able to note the belabored nature of his breathing.

Don’t let go. The words echoed in their minds rather than their ears, but there was no further instruction, just this whistle of the wind, and the distinct sound of collapse behind them.

Sven raised his head. Lohengrin. Swooped in to save them just in time. He'd have to thank him later. Get him some beer. Good beer. Sven blinked around him, eyebrows scrunched. His shoulders felt warm. It was only until he slicked his fingers across the metal of his arm that he realized that it was not his blood. How long? His mechanical hand gripped around one of the dragon's toes, willing him to land. Somewhere, anywhere. They couldn't afford to lose anyone; crew members were indispensable.

Artorias had to suppress the instinct to draw his weapon and fire upon the creature that currently had him within his jaws. It wasn't entirely a painless affair, with Lohengrin's razor sharp teeth quickly digging into his quilted overcoat and threatening to pierce the soft skin underneath. He tried to alleviate the issue by holding on tight to a scales on his face, but the jarring motion of flight made it all moot. They would need to land and soon. Artorias indicated as much with his hand, urging Lohengrin to try and descend as soon as possible.

He need not have even made the request. Lohengrin was in no less pain than Artorias, albeit for completely different reasons. He only needed to get clear of the collapse zone, which took another few moments, after which he began to descend, perhaps a little too rapidly, but his wingbeats were becoming slower and more lethargic as he went. It wouldn’t be long now. In the end, he coasted the rest of the way to the ground, landing harder on his back legs than he would have liked, but able to place the others down in a minimally-awkward fashion, including the king.

He took several steps back thereafter, swaying dangerously back and forth for a while before slowly tipping over onto his side. The ground shook slightly when he collapsed, but it was nothing so jarring as the disintegrating colossus had been—and that creature was now little more than a pile of rubble and a massive cloud of dust. His eyes rolled up in his head, and if it weren’t for the steady up-and-down of his flanks, he might have been dead.

Perhaps more urgent was the fact that, perhaps a few hundred yards off, the first crewman’s feet had just hit the ground, her parachute drifting to the ground behind her. There was a bleeding cut over one of her eyes, but she otherwise appeared unharmed, if shaken.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Landing in the talons of a dragon felt much like crashing in a flaming airship. It took Sven a few moments to gather his senses when he dropped from Lohengrin's scaly grip. This time, he'd been able to keep his watery eyes open long enough to brace himself for the land. Less jarring to his aching limbs, and he managed to curl into a less-than-graceful roll. He made a quick count of the crew members, and moved to pull them back to their feet.

When the ground trembled again, he whipped back towards Lohengrin. Seeing such a large beast slump to the ground in a panting-heap felt as surreal as when he'd first laid eyes on the colossal mountain-creature. He glanced back to his bloody forearms, slicking down like raindrops. What could they do for him, in his state? He was no healer; and no beast-master besides. The wound, however, seemed as if it were located around his wings; that much he could tell.

He turned to find Kethyrian. To discuss what they might do—though, Percy might have been better to consult with given the fact that Lohengrin, too, bore Mutatio blood. If they were to patch him up, they would need him to revert to his human form, if that was at all possible. His eyes flickered past her and focused on the bundle of flapping fabric pooling around... another crew-member. A parachute? Sven's gaze swung towards the sky.

Where? His stomach swirled with bile, and all of his words crippled into silence. He rounded back onto the woman fumbling with her parachute, shrugging off the backpack. “Vhat happened?” His voice seemed far away. It might've been the rocky descent or the wind still seemingly whistling through his ears. “Vhere is ship?” She should have been rounding back towards them to pick them all up.

The woman was soon joined by a few others, though she was the only one down in time to hear Sven’s question. Poppy, as she’d been named, shook her head with wide eyes, and pointed silently to a spot on the horizon. There, if one was careful to observe, one could make out the silhouette of the Elysium, headed towards ground, trailing a plume of black smoke behind. “She…” It was impossible to finish the sentence. Sven's gaze swung up, and he froze; lips drawing back, eyes widening. There was nothing he could do. Nothing.

Theon stumbled away, in a daze, watching but not really believing anything he was seeing. The massive ruins of the colossus were still sagging into pieces, having yet to fully settle, and there was an extremely injured dragon that he knew to be Lohengrin, a creature that had just granted them a miraculous safe passage from the rock monster's back. By all logic, they should have died there.

The ship smoking away on the horizon was the most alarming to him, however, and the scryer continued to move away from where the dragon had let them down. There was nothing he could do for him, after all, unless he sought a bullet or an axe. He found a boulder to prop his back up against, and sank down to the earth, watching the Elysium go for a moment before he let his head fall into his hands, and closed his eyes. Leaving his body behind, he soared as quickly as he could to the ship's side, intent on following it all the way to the ground.

The ship was not much longer for the sky, and that much was unmistakable. For a while, it seemed like its landing might be hard but slow, though this lasted only until there was a large metallic shudder from the bowels of it, the engine at last giving out several minutes after having taken critical damage. From there, it no longer limped steadily downwards, but began to fall in earnest, turning slightly in what was plausibly an attempt to land on a hill rather than in one of the depressions between them. Not an illogical maneuver, when more time to fall would only mean more speed in the crash, but it was unlikely to make much difference, considering the swiftness with which the Elysium hurtled to the ground, her aerodynamics now a disservice to her.

The crash itself was loud, certainly enough so to be heard by Theon’s natural ears as well as his extended perception, and thus by the rest of those who had parachuted away from it as well. The sound of wood, glass and metal all breaking was cacophonous and grating, great grinding sounds uncomfortable in the same way chewing aluminum foil would have been, only amplified. It was hard to tell exactly where the initial impact hit hardest, but bits and pieces of the ship were left behind as it continued to skid forward, at last coming to a rest after sliding down the hill it had landed on. The wreckage was everywhere, the vessel more broken than whole, and as the smoke cleared around the crash site, all was still, the silence broken only by the occasional soft creak as the shattered fragments of the Elysium settled against one another, forming her inevitable boneyard.

The best guess for where the cockpit had ended up was given by the fact that the broken halves of the bank of controls were still close to one another. What had become of the pilot was not immediately evident, but many of the chunks of ship were more than large enough to cover a person of Gwen’s size—or crush one.

There was little that could hide her from the scryer, if she were still alive, and mere pieces of the ship weren't enough. Watching the ship crash and break apart wasn't easy, but it was difficult to look away, so mesmerizing was the destruction. And with his sight, he really couldn't avoid it. He saw everything.

Theon searched for life under the wreckage, reaching out to feel for it, and quickly locating a feeling of intense distress under a large piece of siding. She was wedged between a fairly ruined stump of a tree and the ground, and in a significant amount of pain, but very much alive. He forcefully pulled himself back into his own head, pushing hastily to his feet, almost falling over. He had forgotten how dazed he was still.

Dio was just landing nearby, separating herself from the crewman that had helped her make the jump as soon as she touched down, and running over to the group. "I saw the ship go down!" she cried, visibly distressed. "Do you think Gwen might have—"