Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
A fire was spreading.
The beavers were the front lines of containment, working in shifts to build a dam that would divert a couple of rivers directly into the fire. This effort was held up by protests from the rivers themselves, who pointed out that they would have diverted themselves if anyone had only asked nicely but now that they didn’t have a say in it weren’t sure that they were overly keen to be thrust face-first into a probably-magical inferno of death. After flowing upstream for a bit, the rivers were told off by their sources, forced to swallow their pride, and began flooding the afflicted area.
Sir Cedric stood amidst the flame, watching it consume monsters by the thousand. Across three battles, he had developed a very, very comprehensive definition of the term “monster.” The family of chipmunks stuffing as much food into their cheeks as possible before abandoning their home to the fire were monsters. The butterfly, barely intelligent enough to register that a hole had been burnt in her wings, was a monster. The clovers that all had four leaves until the moment you picked one, at which point they all turned into poison ivy, were just weird, and obviously monstrous. Admittedly, they were not very challenging monsters, but then again, what was, nowadays? Cedric had killed everything worth killing already, including the God he’d used to fight for and more Grandmasters than he could name. He could only name two Grandmasters, but that was still pretty impressive.
Cedric’s beard whispered to him the secrets of the flame. The fire was in pain, retreating under an assault from two rivers, the first of which would be bearing down on his location in a matter of moments. The knight smiled. He hadn’t expected these monsters to defend themselves so effectively or so quickly. Well, they clearly had magic and knew how to use it. So did he.
The river came upon him like a two-story-high wave, all at once. It was angry. The knight had been around the block enough times to know the difference between an indifferent force of nature thoughtlessly mowing down everything in its path, and an angry force of nature mowing down everything in its path with purpose. The river was the second kind, and he was the first.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unstoppable force with a bigger sword?
Miles upstream, fish were boiled alive. The beavers’ newly-constructed dams caught fire from contact with the water alone. The riverbanks defaulted on their debts and started a financial crisis affecting businesses far inland. Jennifer Tull, rushing toward the fire through the treetops, paused to see the horizon blocked off by a wall of steam.
Cedric stood panting—dry as a bone—and turned around to face the second river.
From atop his zebra, Hector held one hand palm-up and blinked. In his palm was now a tiny, beautiful yellow canary. The canary took one whiff of the smoke rising from the forest and died. ”Damn,” grunted the king, tossing the dead bird onto the ground and hoping there would be time enough for it to decompose and live a second life as soil.
Cedric’s victory against the second river was not so graceful. Coughing and sputtering and knee-deep in mud, he was clean-shaven for a terrifying minute before a five o’ clock spark began to spread across his chin. His forest fire dimmed a bit in the humidity, but remained flickering among the canopies of the trees.
A shadow passed in front of the flames.
A human girl maybe a year younger than Hector, dressed in a hospital gown of all things, jumped down from the canopy to face the firestarter. She looked vaguely familiar--pretty in a boring sort of way--but the king’s eyes were drawn to her sword. The flickering beige of the sword looked very familiar.
A purple-clad warrior maybe a year older than Jen rode in on a purple-and-black Pegasus and interposed himself between herself and the arsonist. He was handsome in a forgettable sort of way. He was unarmed.
Cedric admired his reflection in the water. He was gorgeous. He turned towards the newcomers. “You kids come to fight me? Why would you want to do that? You’ve seen what I can do.”
”Have I? When was that?" asked Jen. The ex-queen then looked down at the water pooling around her feet. "Oh, the river thing. That's what you can do?"
Cedric smiled. "Aye, 'twas I who turned back--"
"Well, then, you're right. Why the fuck would I want to fight you, Sir Cedric? I have kind of a code against killing people who can't defend themselves."
Cedric advanced a step. "I used to think that way," he said. "Then for a while I just didn't kill people who got the hell out of my way. Nowadays I don't--"
”That’s enough out of both of you!” interrupted Hector. “I’m king in this Place and I don’t allow humans here. Go back where you came from or die. Those are your only options.”
Jen rolled her eyes and drew her sword. ”Oh, great, another anti-human shitbird,” she spat. “Like I didn't get enough of that last round.”
”That is no way to address royalty when you're trespassing in his kingdom, bitch!”
”D’you just say ‘round?’”
”Kid,” sneered Jen. “How about we kill this pyromaniac first, and then go back to my place and have a serious talk about lines of succession. Does the name 'Jen the First' ring a bell?”
Hector’s face softened with recognition. “Jen the First,” he repeated. “Huh. The hell did you get back from the dead?”
”Ha! Which time?”
Cedric’s megaphone blared to life. ”THIS CONVERSATION IS BORING!” he shouted. ”EITHER FUCKING FIGHT ME OR JUMP INTO THE FIRE AND DIE QUIETLY!”
The two monarchs turned. Cedric’s Silver Sword was strapped behind his back. In one hand he held the megaphone, in the other a silver cube. Etched on the cube was what appeared to be a crude silhouette of a turkey.
Jen shrugged. “Since I haven’t had to kill a magic-powered warlord asshole in fifteen fucking minutes. Alright, Captain Redbeard, since you’re clearly so fucking anxious, you can show us what the fucking cube thing does.”
Cedric had no time to decipher the girl’s sarcasm. He smiled, showing off his lovely new silver teeth, and threw the cube into the mud.
Where there had been a forest half an hour before, a four-story tenement building sprouted up under the three warriors’ feet. It was a soulless, purely functional entity of glass, metal, and concrete. From below them came the buzz of thousands of fluorescent lights flickering on at once.
Cedric laughed and drew his sword. “Nice place for a duel, isn't it?"
The building was still growing. Down on the ground, a web of sidewalks were beginning to spread, choking the roots of those trees that had survived the fire. A sewer grate appeared and began to suck in the riverwater. The Silver City began to overtake the Place, inch by inch.
Jen raised the beige blade and charged. Hector took a step back and blinked.
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
The dungeon was not what Arkal had been expecting. For one thing, he had been expecting a dungeon.
What he found, when the mothmen let him go, was a large, purple room with no furniture at all. A dozen or so creatures sat in a half-circle; in the center of the implied circle was a man in blue armor who appeared to have a large golden key for a head.
"Jailer, the King wants this one for questioning," one of the mothmen said to the key-headed man. "Try to keep him sane enough to answer."
"Man is a fragile creature," he replied.
"Yeah, whatever. His Majesty should be back in an hour or so, after that you can do whatever with him." The mothman and his partner left, clearly not interested in staying any longer than he needed to.
"A mind is a terrible thing to waste!" the jailer called after them.
For five minutes, Arkal could do nothing but stare at the proverb-spouting stranger. Finally, he decided not to bother waiting around, and stood up. There was no cell here, he might as welll just leave.
He took three steps before he hit something he couldn't see or feel.
"We are all trapped in prisons of our own making," the key-headed man said calmly.
Arkal tried to pound on the invisible wall, but this was difficult because the wall didn't seem to actually exist - he just stopped when he hit a certain point. Finally, he gave in and simply asked.
"What the hell is this all about? Why can't I leave?"
"No man can escape himself," the Jailer replied. He sipped on a cup of tea; Arkal was sure it hadn't been there two seconds ago.
A large snail in the next "cell" turned to Arkal and chuckled.
"It's no use tryin' to get any real words out of him," the snail said. "I've been at it longer than anyone. He never says a thing."
Suddenly, the snail's eyestalks widened.
"Hang on a second! You're a Human! A real, bonafide, honest-to-Hoss Human! How did you get in here?"
Arkal stared back at him.
"I'm in a battle," he said. No other explanation seemed to fit.
The snail squealed with delight.
"A battle, you say? It's arrived here at last? Ooh, that means it's time! The end is coming! I can hardly wait!"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't tell me you don't know! About the Amalgam's glorious plan to wipe out the last of us inferior species and make Humanity reign supreme! The battle's how it gets in and finally destroys the filthy nonhumans in the Place and puts an end to its greatest foe!"
"Silence is golden," the Jailer interjected.
"Shaddup yer ownself!" the snail yelled back at him. "Cut me some slack here, it's not every day ya get to meet one of yer gods. Place, it's rare enough that you see that devil Hector."
Arkal had been called by many titles in his lifetime, but "god" was a new one. It wasn't one he was comfortable with.
"Shame Jailer here's driven the rest of the boys mad," the snail continued. "They're in no shape to hear the good word - that our miserable nonhuman existence is about to come to an end. We just need the Champion of Silver to win this battle." He suddenly took notice of Arkal's anvil. "Well, wouldja look at that! Yer carryin' a fine hunk of it on your back there. Well, what are you waitin' for? Use it already!"
Confused, Arkal set it down and took out his hammer. Then he scratched his head.
"So what am I supposed to forge with?" he asked. "I can't exactly move very far, and I can't even see a single thing in this room besides the walls."
"What kind of Champion are ya? The silver's supposed to transform this cruel, wicked, inhuman world to a paradise of Humanity, wipin' the filth like us out in the process. It ain't suppose to just sit there while you hammer on it!"
"Have you never seen an anvil before?"
"What the Place is wrong with you? Have you forgotten your duty in the name of Hoss?" A dawning expression suddenly crossed the snail's face. "Oh. That's gotta be it. Some other contestant messed with yer mind!"
Arkal hadn't fully grasped what his fellow captive was saying, but he knew an opportunity when he saw it.
"Oh no," he said unenthusiastically. "I guess I'd better get out of here and stop them, then. And then go and dominate everything for humanity."
"Yeah! You go, oh Human! I may not have a damn clue how to break out of a prison that doesn't exist, but that's what makes me inferior! But a perfect Human like you, a Champion of Silver... why, a weakling like the Jailer can't possibly hold you!"
"It is rude to talk behind someone's back right to their face," the Jailer said suddenly.
"Consider yourself lucky, Keyface!" the snail fired back. "You'll have your inferior nonhuman existence wiped out well before the rest of us!"
Arkal ignored them and looked down at his anvil. Then he sat down, and reached for the wall that wasn't there.
The world's greatest blacksmith smiled. He wasn't entirely out of materials.
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
The Fates were nothing like Xadrez' Fates at all. He couldn't be sure why that offended him, as a perfect parallel would've just irked him further. And lo, he hovered wordlessly scowling in the corner like some sleek-chic-meets-spectre-tech coffee table, shoved from centre by the livelier engagements in life.
His Fates were similar to him; they were souls uplifted from the shoal by a divine smile cast upon them. His were birdlike, if they were like anything better-defined than the incorporeal celestial haze, formless wings hefting talons which seized and tugged eddies from Scout's Cloak. It was said they were the audience to those who died while Scout watched over the wars and plagues to end all disasters, the kind that came with the tidal frequencies of civilisation. They had a reputation for misfortune, or rather for the universe coming knocking on your door to collect whatever fortune had distanced you from the battlefield in the first place. Soldiers called them cowards' deaths, but, come disease or hubris or a sword through your vitals, soldiers and cowards alike joined the fold. The great whirling shell betwixt nothingness and the tiny, all-encompassing world, that was everyone's end.
It had been easier, Xadrez reflected, when the only Fates were his own. Well, no, not his. Scout's. His Fates, the ones that should've answered to him when the gods disappeared (because he had His knife and he was Her lieutenant), they were just scared and confused as he was - but with neither knife nor office were free to screech and panic and bedraggle Her gutted Cloak even worse.
It rained souls that day. The Monochrome slunk out of her catacombs, and feasted.
These Fates had just enough similarities to sting - more snakelike than birdlike, sure, but sisterly. They stared at him in the same unison with that same, shared, pre-emptively resentful expression before he opened his mouth. He settled for a nod, and they returned to their gossipping like he wasn't even there. Their wall-lent chattering was in no language Xadrez could understand, which struck him as odd after having travelled so far.
It is said, in the Place: if the gods had a house, the reason nobody's been invited is because it's too untidy for polite company. The saying continues that if you were to stand on the doorstep of the house of the gods and knock, nobody would answer. If you were especially curious, you could stand on the tips of your toes and peer into the immaculately polished fisheye lens. The gods, all distorted and reproachful, would stare right back. All of them, even Canis Days' half-lidded hangdog gaze right at the back of the crowd. One might tell you that your staring was rather rude, and you'd concede they'd made a fair point and go back to where you came from.
The gods didn't exactly have a house, and they didn't exactly have a fisheye lens through which they could appraise the world either. They did almost definitely had a big, round, table, though, and it hummed with the magic of the Middle-Gem and had a great grey dog slouched across a good two thirds of of it.
Canis Days was the only god left at the table, which for most intents and purposes meant he was the only god currently left. The thought would've pleased him, if he hadn't done absolutely nothing so things conspired that way. (Having said that, he had done absolutely nothing, which for a god of atrophy was a satisfying little victory in itself.) He basked in the Middle-Gem's apathetic, avoidant glow. Like the other gods, he found there was little else you could do when its moods swung that way. Unlike the other gods, Days was quite content doing little else.
Days' fur was less like a dog's, more the unkempt scraggle-gray of a man lost in the wilderness. The Staglander heard a ringing, and raised a paw to watch the Librarian, who knocked with methodical impatience at the heartwood plinth. It was the only piece of echoak trim in the whole building, and he'd grown to prefer it that way. Echoak ents, despite their habit for repeating things in their ponderous tree-voices, were prized for the resonant properties of their wood. They travelled the Place as they wished, rewarding hospitality with a branch that could connect you back to the trunk. The signal was better in older trees, and from branches gifted during the ent's youth. The best signal, of course, came from the heartwood; after the tree had set roots and stopped thinking in the way you or I think.
The ent whose heartwood the Librarian rapped upon had settled in the Grove of Knowledge. Its polished stump was cut flush to the ground, and the central rings glowed like something festered away in there. Moses had just gotten off the conch with His Majesty, and couldn't think the Librarian contacting now of all times would improve matters.
"Mr Smith," he gently remonstrated, "you should know this is not a good time."
"I know." The Librarian did, and he still sounded apologetic. You don't bother a tortoise like Moses even at the best of times, but events had conspired and here he was.
"It's the Once-General."
The fact the Librarian had to call him to relay this was odder than the event itself. "Which one?"
Moses was silent for a time. "I trust you're certain on this."
"I know my history, of course it can't be him-"
"But it's him?"
The tortoise adjusted his spectacles - somehow - in a way as to attract a wandering bee's attention. It saluted a little too smartly at Moses' request, nectaries sloshing with beadlike droplets. One fell in Moses' eye, to much apologetic thrumming and the tortoise's assurances that no, this was quite all right, the bee had been a tremendous help, and would he please direct a hummingbird to the flower he'd just harvested, and have said hummingbird deliver it posthaste to the Library.
"Are you still there, Librarian? Tell me what the Once-General wants."
"I, uh-" there was a scuffling on the line, characteristic of an Echoak respondent's lifting their hands from the link. There was a pause just long enough to mutter "fuck", then a second round of scuffling. "I'm not entirely sure. I'm pretty sure he out-logicked me into agreeing he's a god, but I think he's lost. He sounds lost. Something about finding his pantheon?"
There was some sort of commotion at the gates to the Grove. Not that the Grove actually had any walls around it, but it was one of those sort of places that still somehow only had the one front entrance.
"Right. Assistance in that regard is on its way. Now, if there's nothing else-"
Days leapt from the table with a shriek, as though it had glowed blue-hot. The noise startled a pack of other gods, who despite not being all that here mere seconds ago were feeling belligerent, exasperated, alarmed, and self-satisfied all at once. It was all spontaneous and disorienting and everyOne waltzed or stomped or skulked their way around the table like they'd all just woken from a thousand-year nap.
All this activity was too much for Canis Days, whose last act as de facto ruler of the pantheon was to flee over the Whichwerenot Hills, and never be seen again.
Meanwhile, back in the Place, a very well-followed phone call was still underway. One of the Fates had emerged from the sitting room, and chirruped with the sorrow of the disaffected - for Xadrez had killed the Librarian. Important as he might've been in the cosmic order, him and his fragile human skull were no match for a ghost with little sanctity for social orders.
(And a paperweight. Xadrez had killed the Librarian with a paperweight, plucked straight from the dead man's mantelpiece.)
The tortoise, despite himself, suppressed a shudder. That voice had stripped the Place of its able-bodied folk, and sent them all marching off to fight in some war of its own implacable championing. Xadrez could feel all of the eyes in the world worth transfixing upon him. It was almost intoxicating, like hanging suspended delirious in a great sparkling web of everything interconnected with the tactician at its heart.
A billion, trillion eyes could judge him. And under their judgement, he could do no wrong save be a legend.
what was the answer I could not be given
Moses hung up, partly because he had no wish to negotiate with an insurgent usurper who should've been dead, but more because they'd found "the rock".
Ring ring ring, unanswered, went the rings on the echoak stump.
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
Five smokestacks of polished aluminum burst through the bedrock like a hand coming out of a grave. They swallowed up the sandy lower layers of the soil and engulfed the looser topsoil, devouring the grass and the purple-tinted dew that rested on the grass. The Silver City burst into the sunlight of the Place, and made no attempt to be gentle.
A blast of heat from nowhere fused the soil into a rocky foundation. Unneeded materials—plant matter, nutrients, insects, woodland creatures, traces of the Place’s inherent magic—were discarded, fed to the smokestacks, and ejected as a wispy, silver fume. An overcurious bird got a lungful of the smoke and took a dive; by the time she hit the ground, there was a rooftop in the way.
It began to rain. The clouds put their best effort into beating back the smoke, to little avail; when that failed, they threw their largest hailstones against the building rising up against them, resulting in nothing but a bit of ambient noise and a minor inconvenience for the three figures dueling on the rooftops. The building sprouted gutters, transporting the hailstones link an unholy Plinko machine to a gleaming new storm drain.
Dejected, the clouds allowed the wind to shuffle them along to safer regions, and the sun shone through the windows of the burgeoning factory. With a faintly purple tint it illuminated the complicated and mysterious machines assembling themselves on the factory floor. The industrial process sprang to life with a grand hum. Strange energies unseen in the history of the Place began to broadcast: wireless Internet, radio waves, Gamma decay. The latent magic clinging to the air attempted to incorporate these new phenomena and was instead itself replaced by something else.
Some unholy energy source began turning the pistons on the great machines. Silvery steam hissed out of vents as loosely-defined blocks of superheated metal were carried by conveyer belt from one apparatus to another. A giant gear, appearing more decorative than utilitarian, began to spin counterclockwise, then, as though changing its mind, stopped and spun clockwise for a bit.
Within the bowels of the building his-n-hers bathrooms were hastily assembled, linking up to a spidery sewer network that dug its way through the earth like a giant worm; non-organic paper substitutes fluttered around a burgeoning office before arranging themselves on a metal desk; a calendar, adorned with images of indistinct beige feminine figures in silver lingerie, flicked over to the current date. Outside on the curb, a sign burst forth from the Earth, proudly declaring INFINITY days since our last workplace injury.
The conveyer belts looped around in an endless circle, warping the molten metal into different configurations, producing nothing. The factory itself, and its flagrant mockery of what had minutes before been a tranquil meadow, was output enough.
Something rotated into being, something flesh-toned and loosely ovoid. An arm burst out of it, wiggling its fingers experimentally, then a leg. It grew a thin brown mustache, then almost everything about it that wasn’t a human melted away. The fragment coughed up about a tablespoon of something pink, then pulled a jumpsuit out of four-space and stepped into it carefully. On the breast pocket of the jumpsuit was the label “4-Man.”
The 4-Man manually pulled one of its heavy, goopy eyelids back up into its forehead and revealed a malformed eye, which without an iris could only properly focus on things about two meters away. “Demet,” it mumbled. It peered through the window as though to make sure that the sun wasn’t shining, and squeezed its eyeball with its fingers in a rough approximation of squinting.
Something clicked in the 4-Man’s developing brain telling it to run, but didn’t quite make it to its legs. When the giant shimmering rainbow-colored snake first smashed its head against the window, it looked for a moment like the glass was going to hold. The reinforced pane rippled against the impact out to the edges, and then abruptly shattered. A shard of glass perforated the 4-Man’s neck, and it noticed to its surprise that it was full of blood before being crushed out of existence by several hundred pounds of snake skull.
Outside, the numbers on the sign fluttered. “It has been ZERO days since our last workplace injury, it corrected.
Jen, perched on the poor unconscious monster’s neck, caught her breath. She threw her head forward and hurriedly combed through her hair with her fingers, dislodging a few bits of broken glass, a scale or two, and a terrified moth. Her sword clattered to the floor. She recalled having been better at this at some point.
Outside, she could hear the battle between Sir Cedric and King Hector raging outside. Hector, she judged, would be able to hold him off for a bit with his weird pulling-animals-out-of-the-air magic-but-not-magic-magic powers. Cedric was strong, though. The kind of strong you can’t count on to tire out or make a mistake. She would need to get proactive.
As though mocking her plans, the Silver City gave the ex-monarch something to react to. Some half-dozen shambling Amalgam-fragments began to shimmer into existence around the factory floor, briefly contorting in unearthly many-limbed forms before settling on standard-issue three-dimensional bipedalism. They hung together as though their creators had designed their skin to be one-size-fits-all. They adorned themselves in work boots, baggy pants and wifebeaters, welding masks, goggles and industrial-strength gloves. Then they turned to Jen.
“4-Man gone,” lamented one worker.
“Oonion employss only,” another barked at Jen.
“Nun-regallation equippent!” shrieked another, indicating the snake. “Safety hazzid!”
A fragment pushed through the crowd and brandished a hot poker at Jen. “Oonion ordinnits nummur two states: kill! Dustroy!”
“You know,” sneered Jen, retrieving the Ovoid-sword, “Last time I killed all you people you were a lot more articulate.”
Her sword went through the worker’s neck but didn’t come out the other side. Through it, Jen could feel a strange pulse, like the opposite of an absence, the stuff of the Amalgam itself. Even compared to the Ovoid she had known, there was something wrong about this entity. She pulled the sword out. The fragments were closing in all around her.
During her reign, Jen had gotten herself in a lot of fights with what she might tactlessly describe as “minions.” These fights fell into two camps. There were fights against minions who genuinely believed they could kill her and reap some sort of benefits from this victory, and then there were fights like this.
* * * * *
A swarm of anti-fireflies flew out of a vent, absorbing the light in the alleyway and giving Hector some time to escape. This was not going well. Where had Jen the First gone? His Progenitor powers weren’t doing him much good without a decent swordfighter to back him up, especially in the Silver City, where he was having a tough time triggering plant growth. He had a strain of crabgrass doing its level best to disrupt the pavement, his strongest ivy was working on bringing down some of the less stable buildings and a cloud of pollen was valiantly attempting to disrupt communications within the City, but he was barely even slowing its growth, let alone creating conditions that would give him the advantage. This place had become stifling for all life except humanity, and Hector didn’t make humans. It was a rule of his—he could make humans, but couldn’t fathom a situation in which the world would be improved by the addition of another human.
Taking to the street, Hector climbed onto the back of a charging hippopotamus, then grabbed on to the tail of a sky-manta and took to the air. The sky-manta dropped the monarch off on a low rooftop and perched chirping on a ledge, keeping watch. Hector closed his eyes and tried to think. “Huginn, Muninn,” he muttered, speaking the names aloud to give them power. Obediently the two symbolically-charged ravens appeared on his shoulder and began to whisper to him.
”This is not a fight you can win alone, my King,” counseled Huginn.
”Look to the former Queen,” agreed Muninn. ”If necessary, look to the other.”
“Find her,” commanded Hector to Muninn. The raven of memory cawed affectionately and flew high above the city.
Hector opened his eyes. “What happened?” he asked Huginn.
”Ill tidings, King,” warned the other crow. ”Memory will return to you as soon as it is able with the Queen you asked for.”
“I’m getting married?” asked Hector.
”You must think, my liege. Sir Cedric will seek the Middle-Gem to initiate a paradigm-shift. Place a call in to your Librarian.”
There was a conch shell in Hector’s hand. Still a bit dazed, but knowing to trust his raven of thought, he spoke into the shell.
“Librarian,” he said.
The intended recipient of that call, of course, was dead already. The powers that operated the soundboard on these intraPlacial lines of communication, however, quickly conferred and agreed that his murderer was the natural inheritor of the title, and directed the spirit to take notice of the sound of the ocean emanating from a small object sitting upon an end table.
* * * * *
Jen stuck the beige blade through the interior of the single whirling gear. Despite the fact that the cog remained completely disconnected from the remainder of the factory’s process, all progress ground to a halt. Jen wiped the sweat off her brow and various beige-tinged bodily fluids off of her hospital gown. Killing the fragments had been a welcome but unproductive distraction. Now she needed to—
“Caw,” interrupted a raven, entering through the broken factory window. ”I am to lead you to the king,” it explained curtly, landing on her shoulder.
“His Majesty requests me on the front lines?” asked Jen.
”His liege has opted for a tactical retreat,” chided the raven. ”A tactic with which you are well familiar.”
”Can it.” Jen walked out of the factory into the shadows of the Silver City, which now spread out in all directions. The raven pointed with one wing, and Jen began to walk.
”You remember what this Place used to look like,” said Muninn. It wasn’t a question.
”Will look like,” corrected Jen. “This is just... a complicated past. This isn’t my home.”
”The past is everybody’s home,” countered the raven. ”It’s what we all secretly wish to go back to after a busy day at work.”
”Like I said, it’s not my past. Everything that happens here, I have a friend who I know is going to take care of it, because he already has. That’s the theory, anyway.”
An Amalgam fragment peered at Jen out of a storefront. “EVERYTHING MUST GO,” read a sign, completely honestly. They did not appear to be selling anything. ”We all owe responsibilities to the past,” nagged the raven. ”You have spent years neglecting yours.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure if I were a mythological incarnation of memory that just fell out of a king’s ass—remember that?—I’d feel differently, but as it stands—“
”Do you even remember why you left?”
”I got bored. The queen business just turned into another sort of real life.”
”A fine narrative, my once-queen,” mocked Muninn. ”A note-perfect ironic twist on the narrative of rousing adventure that is your life. (You’ll want to turn left into this alley lest Sir Cedric come this way.) It is a lie that has suited you fine thus far, but now the time for lies is past.”
Jen shrugged her shoulder very suddenly, throwing the bird off-balance. She ducked into the indicated alley and traced the patterns of the fire escapes above her, saying nothing for a good while. “You’re just a stupid bird,” she finally said, petulantly.
”You cannot lie to your memory, your formal majesty,” warned Muninn. ”I can lie to you, if I wish, but never you me.”
The alley swallowed girl and bird. Somewhere not far away, a fire raged.
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
It had been nearly an hour since Arkal had begun his work. After a quick request to the snail to be quiet and let him concentrate, the smith had managed to craft a sword, a shield, a hammer, a club, a lance, a morningstar, and the front half of a suit of armor from the walls of his nonexistant prison. He now had a veritable arsenal that he couldn't see or touch.
He'd started calling the material the walls weren't made of "Stuff", for lack of a better alternative. And an hour of working with it had taught him surprisingly little.
The exact nature of the Stuff was a mystery. But the blacksmith's senses were becoming more honed to it; he still couldn't see it, of course, but he was now able to see where it was pointedly not existing.
That turned out to be most of the room. There was a lot of Stuff.
In fact, it seemed there was never less Stuff. Whatever Arkal took from the walls was quickly replenished; unsurprising, given its ethereal nature. Clearly, Arkal's smithing was not going to let him chisel out an escape route.
His only chance, then, was understanding the Stuff's true nature - how it worked, what it was. But as he finished the back plate of the armor, he also felt he had learned all he could from working with it. If he was going to discover anything new, he would have to try using it.
He donned his newly-crafted armor, and promptly fell to the floor under its immense weight.
Yskalt the snail was perplexed. What was the glorious human overlord doing? He'd been sitting there for nearly an hour, just hammering away at nothing. And then he suddenly fell over. Was this truly humanity's champion?
He matched the Order of the Silver Hand's prophecies well enough; he was human, he had a glorious beard, he was well-built, he was here for a battle, and he carried a silver object. Granted, Yskalt had been expecting someone younger, but clearly that was merely a limitation of his inferior nonhuman mind. A human would have realized that the hero could just as easily be someone older and more experienced.
But was this the one they had been waiting for all this time, ever since the Order's founding two weeks ago? He hardly seemed up to the task.
He shuddered. His faith was wavering. He wished he could speak to one of the prophets, surely they could reassure him, tell him that this was indeed the savior, and that he would bring about humanity's ultimate triumph.
But that was no option now. The wicked Hector had found the Order ten days ago, and locked away most of its members. Only one of the four prophets had evaded him; the second had been executed promptly; the third driven to madness by the Jailer; and the fourth was deemed the most dangerous, and held in the most secure section of the prison.
Indeed, Yskalt's only solace in this time was the thought that humanity would ultimately triumph, even without the Order's direct aid. At first, he had been delighted to see the human savior, sure that he would destroy the inferior nonhumans and bring divine perfection to the Place. Now he found himself wondering if the champion had succumbed to a heart attack.
It was hopeless.
What could Arkal do? He had fought the Amalgam before, before it had attained as much power as it had now, and he had failed. It was only through sheer chance that he had even been able to create a weapon that was remotely effective.
This was beyond him. He was useless here. The Amalgam would win, no matter what he did. He might not even be able to escape if they assimilated him again.
And would they even do him that favor? He had turned on them. They'd see him as a traitor to humanity, and make an example of him.
He couldn't turn to the others to help; if he couldn't craft a worthwhile weapon, what use was he to Jen? And Xadrez was stubborn. Even if he could be convinced to help, he'd be more useful without Arkal getting in his way.
There was no chance. Certainly no chance that involved him.
He was doomed. He would never see his home again.
He would never see his sons again. No.
He would see his sons again.
He would be a father they could be proud of.
A father who faced overwhelming odds, for the sake of what he truly believed in.
"So that's what the Stuff is," he said suddenly.
Arkal stood up, picked up his anvil and forge, then picked up the rest of his intangible arsenal with one hand. Their combined weight was less than a feather. But they'd get the job done.
He walked out of his cell, towards the snail.
"You can talk again," he said. "I'm done."
Yskalt breathed a sigh of relief.
"Forgive your unworthy servant, oh exalted human," Yskalt begged. "I was beginning to doubt you. I see I never should have."
"If you want to get out of here, you're the one you need to stop doubting," Arkal replied.
"Only a man who knows himself is truly free," the Jailer added.
Yskalt simply stared at his savior oddly.
"I do not understand, oh valiant human. I am an inferior. I have always been inferior."
"Well, if you want to stay in this prison for the rest of your life, keep telling yourself that," Arkal shrugged. "So tell me more about what exactly I'm going to do here."
"I know little," Yskalt apologized. "I have but heard the prophecies secondhand. Our prophets would know more, but..."
Yskalt turned towards one of the other prisoners, a small urn with an alligator's head sticking out of it. The alligator mumbled something incomprehensible; Arkal thought he could make out the words "toast" and "yellowjacket".
"That is one of our four prophets, and as you can see, he is not the most informative at the moment. If you wish to speak to another, the easiest way would be to search the deepest part of the prison. But..."
Yskalt turned towards a doorway in the distance.
"I know little of that place. Only that it is where they keep the prisoners deemed most dangerous. As such, I imagine you would have a difficult time getting out."
He walked off. Just before entering the door, he turned back to the snail.
"I hope you find your way out of there. I'd be lying if I said it were easy, but it's within your power."
He walked through the doorway. Yskalt simply stared at him, puzzled.
But then again, how could his inferior nonhuman mind possibly grasp the wisdom of the divine?
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
Time, and the weird pseudotemporal pseudocircular bullshit Battles tended to inflict on their participants, hadn't been kind to This Kracht. Physically, he was still the flawless crystal constant any geologist would kill for a sample of, but Kracht had (in all his iterations (that he'd lived to reflect upon)) always felt the first time round had been the toughest, without even factoring All-Stars into it. The cameo round had been a particular kind of existentialist horror, which only got worse once all the old faces became familiar enough that he recognised new ones trickling in every couple of iterations.
He got used to it, though. It helped in a recursively heartwrenching way that he never saw Emma again, nor did anybody he ever talked to recognise his description of her. He could question whether the thousand deaths of Jen and Arkal and the others were actually things that had happened, on whichever string of existence was arbitrarily the one that mattered. He could feel omniscient and inconsequential within his extended nightmare, and not have to fight the Hand of Silver's ubiquitous squriming digits at every turn.
This Kracht hadn't suffered that disenchantment. Owen still remembered the electric roiling that thrashed its way up through him, juddering up through the radii of cracks he'd punched into Xadrez' chessboard. Her hand, gripped so hard at his hilt she'd die before she relinquished him, pounding with blood. Then blood and adrenaline, then just adrenaline, once the screaming hole through her shoulder finished sobbing its heart out at what they'd all done. This Kracht still fought for their memory, and hadn't yet had that memory bastardised a thousand iterations over.
Time, in all its screwed-up callousness, hadn't been kind to this Kracht. Yet.
With all the brash and youthful rage of a man who didn't understand the way the world worked (how it worked was you'd keep living, even when everyone you loved couldn't anymore), This Kracht marched into the Grove, looking for Moses.
The Princess was dead - had died a long time ago, by any linear standard of the word, most likely. Didn't mean Kracht didn't owe her this. Wasn't like Emma had screwed him over, given him a chance to fix everything. Not just yet.
The glade was purple, under the glossy deep reddish of the canopy and with the prickle-less thistles amongst the roots, the two linked by trunks with moss the colour of a bruise just before it hurts to touch. Kracht plucked a mulberry-hued bloom on a low-hanging branch, and for want of a nose couldn't smell some stranger's home in there.
"Kracht." It was a question, clad in enough officiousness to make it fact. Moses didn't normally resort to such tactics, but this was wartime. The air thrummed with the wings of bees and hummingbirds, and Kracht felt an impatient distant drumming of the Place through his feet, impacting where his stomach should've been.
"Moses," murmured Kracht, staring uneasily about the throng. He caught the tortoise's eye. "Moses?"
Kracht took a few slow steps, then fell to one knee - a little clumsily, sure, but he couldn't recall having voluntarily knelt for anything or anyone. If someone fell, you didn't stop. You grabbed them by whichever hand was more gloved against your radiation, and you kept running. He glanced about again, an attunement to the temporal that was so close to foregone telling him something was amiss.
He pressed on, anyway.
"Moses," Kracht began, "J- the princess is dead. I'm... I'm not really sure when she left here, but I promised myself I'd see her home safely."
"I failed her, Moses. I failed you as well, as her friend. And I'm sorry."
"I'm so sorry."
Xadrez drummed his fingers on his chessboard, glaring at the phone for lack of a less juvenile reaction to being cut off. The youngest Norn was still watching him, so he carefully placed the phone back on its plinth.
You look as bored of all this as I feel
what do you make of it, Fate
She blinked, not expecting to be addressed, and glanced back to the sitting room. Threads of life interlinked her trailing fingers, already entangling and congealing in spite of the gunmental glint of the Undercurrent upon them.
In this strange land
you are stranger
we chase the wondrous threads like you
with barbs and burrs, that snag, coerce so many other threads
the Agents in our tapestry
the warp or weft
the party line
but what is found is no beginning
a separate River, to wit
So you know nothing of my history before-
But that is the thing
would catch our conscience
We've not dredged the River for you
For Ti-a says you're much the same
As the liege of the merwitch queen
The phone rang, and the two spirits glanced at it together. Kajura motioned to it, but Xadrez was already thinking. Kajura watched and waited, toying with the fibres at her fingertips like a game of cat's crade. The tactician saw some pattern in her dancing digits, and flicked a gentle dismissal to the telephone before bidding her continue. She smiled into her little web, speaking more to it than Xadrez.
Wove Ti-a, he was her mastermind
A warlord from beyond
When the Tyrocean's beasts and the millionteeth
of her dragons flailed and cracked
She served to him a demon's neck
upon a silver platter
And the demon
on his ebon saucer served the witch in turn
Ring, ring, ring.
He brought resources - hers - to bear
turned the tides, no less, bore them down upon the Place
but never bore his burdens well
like spawn of daws and vultures
nemeses between campaigns
skirmishes, and seiges
Until the mound of common foes rose to meet the steps
to the palace, burn down its doors
and claim, at last, her crown
That barely begins to make sense, growled Xadrez. You speak of all this as if it were the past, yet-
"Oi. Hate to cut you off, but it's his Highness on the other end here."
The phone had stopped ringing, but a rather ugly grub had stuck its head out of the earpiece, glaring without eyes somewhere to the left of Xadrez. It twitched a stubby leg in what might've been a jab over its shoulder at the Echoak telephone.
"He's looking for the Librarian, and he's pissed off as fuck. Either of you seen him?"
"Th- that can't be right."
Moses glared witheringly over his spectacles. "The past is immutable, Kracht. Moreover, I was there personally."
"But we killed Xadrez! I was there personally!"
This was... too absurd. Xadrez had never made mention of having had any association with the Place, and in his stupid naivete Kracht had let the ghost tell him at some length about his goals and history. Xadrez had told Kracht a lot of things, including how he'd make a fine chess set of the rock if Kracht ever crossed him - all in all, Kracht had vastly preferred being a sword to being a token on a game board. He'd never mentioned the Place - even the twisted hateful mockery of himself that jeered and goaded the princess in that final round couldn't tell her they fought for nothing, that he'd crossed the multiverse already and tore apart her home before the battle had begun.
Because it hadn't happened? Because the only alternative was where, of anyone that could've cheated death, cheated the battles, and lived out his days content playing generals and ruining lives, it had to be him? How could the big, unfeeling, uncaring multiverse have conspired in its dark corners to make it him?
Of all the beings, after fighting his way through All-Stars and All-Stars All-Stars, with the first rare glimpse of hope come the endgame that there might be some good left in the world - that maybe he could even stir up hope this was her Place, and maybe even hope against hope that she might be here herself, that this was the past and the Amalgam's spite would only make him fight all the harder for seeing her again?
After all that, it had to be him?
Kracht glanced up, found his fist in a tree, and leveraged it out. Moses had waited politely enough, but unreadable to Kracht was the tortoise's measuring of its words.
"I daresay it's in your interests to know, Kracht. Xadrez contacted me not moments ago."
"It is a truly discomfiting thought, yes. Worse, he's in the Library. Killed the Librarian already, we fear."
Kracht only remembered one story about the Library from Jennifer. It was enough to know Xadrez' being there - killing people - was bad. Really bad. "Shit. I'm going after him."
Moses didn't look especially surprised, which really only registered in Kracht's peripheries. He still had no idea how he was going to stop Cedric, let alone defeat the Ovoid or the Hand of Silver, but Xadrez he could handle. Emma knew the plan; could look after herself if Cedric had no intention of killing her.
Moses conferred in a low voice with a hummingbird, which buzzed over and settled on the shoulder of Kracht's bandolier. It had a purple flower in its beak.
"Zhizz'ere'z a Homesick Honeyzuckle," explained the hummingbird. "It grew'n bloomed in th'light of th'sun what which shone in the Ol' Gen'rill's world. We were gonna send it 'im, zeeing's he jez' wann'd ter find 'iz way home, but then he went'n murdered the Liberian. Idiot. Might help yer take 'im down a notch. Might not."
"Mozzes, zhir," grumbled another, that had just hovered its way beside the tortoise's ear, "The rezzt of th'Virate've azzembled a fleet in Aubergine Bay. Take'z many'z the shipz'll handle, cross the Tyrocean t'zhomewhere ellzwhere. They've zhent a carriage t'leave pozthaste."
Moses nodded, and pre-empted Kracht's question. "Very well. Kracht, the Library is concealed in the Feethills, a half-day's march and the folowing of a tenuous, constantly-climbing track which you'll have to trust is there. It'll be the first path your feet take you down, so you shall not miss it lest the gods conspire to their own demise. If my people give them advance warning, the trip should take a man of your constitution a mere several hours."
"Right. I'll do what I c-"
The sound of metal on metal, with something organic trapped inbetween, tore through the air and left the edges on everything raw. The horizon, by now tinged with smoke and the too-sharp reflections steel and glass, seemed to skew and twist around, dragging the earth underfoot with it.
Everything settled, but the ragged quality remained in the air, and the distant clang and crunch of the Silver City had taken on a new inescapability.
Kracht got back up to his feet, and stared up at the Library, mind racing.
Xadrez, what the hell do you think you're doing?
About ten minutes prior, Hector had let the wood-boring wasp shelter in his cloak; it'd only get itself killed if it flew off into the Silver City. He grabbed the phone as soon as its progeny stuck its grubby little head out, and ignored its displeasured squeal as he roared into the conch's depths.
"What the fuck are you playing at, Librarian!?"
Is that what I'm doing now
You might be onto something there
Hector ducked out of sight as something screeched above; an overpass crashed into a rainbow and sprayed concrete and gold everywhere. He hissed into the shell again as soon as the coast was clear. "Don't give the King your cryptic bullshit! This is war! Get the Middle-Gem to safety, if Hoss' minions hunt you down the Place is done-"
you stop for a moment, your highness
take pause, consider
the relative importance of all of this - Xadrez waved the phone about to nobody's benefit, his other hand gently fingering the Middle-Gem shaped weight in his chest - in the grand scheme of things
I do not, as should be obvious, trust the green devil
"What the fuck are you talking about-"
but if he lied about this future being a mere parable
an object lesson
Is this real? does this change anything?
what any future holds, real or not, when, moreover
even the Grandmasters cannot change the past, it seems
They will not - can not - return her to me
So what should I care of this diversion
from the fact that nothing in this wide awful world deserves to be spared from burning to the ground
Xadrez idly spun the black disc beneath him, marvelling at how quickly he'd lost track of it without the knife, lost all the notation that encircled each piece. The Middle-Gem's pulse, slow as a planet's heartbeat, was washing out whatever vestiges of memory he had tied to the board.
"Who- who the fuck are you!? Is this some kind of game to you? When I find out who you are-"
The tactician arrested the black with a grip upon its rim, leaning into examine a metalloid smudge by his palm. Structure, crystalline - all glints and right angles. His hand beside it hummed alarmingly, like two vibrations approaching a glass-shattering harmony. His other put the phone down, flicked off the last few pieces still somehow hanging on to the board, gripped some ridge or nodule of the metal in one of those moments of vertiginous clarity, and-
twisted. Spun his disc full circle, dragging the smudge in a perfect circumference.
Xadrez felt rather than heard a city's ever-encroaching borders warping, enclosing this pittance of a world this king held so dear. The Middle-Gem bobbed about, vacillating between a lump in his throat and a knot in his stomach as the Library's altitude adjusted. When everything calmed down, he drifted to the nearest window, and the Place radiated outward like a tree stump under ultraviolet light. Beyond its meadows and forests and dales, though, the steel and smoke and glass was omniprescent and creeping inward no matter which direction you cast your eyes in.
A spire, at the peak of which rested the Middle-Gem, radiating upon the Place the order du jour. The Place encircling, and smoke and concrete marching in from the peripheries. The sacrilege wasn't lost on Xadrez, who interpreted the layout as some subconscious admission to himself of his guilt in how things had played out. Kajura picked up the phone, handed it back to him. Xadrez felt oddly calm, the same sort of calm that a pivot might have felt as the world spun around it.
Remember, your majesty
Its not about whether you win or lose
not to me, at any rate
He tossed the phone out the window, and closed his eyes to the soon-immolated idyll. The industrial chorus wasn't actually in earshot, but the tactician had little else to do but wait.
For the game's end or his demise, he didn't know. Or care.
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
The door led to a dark spiral stairwell. The air was damp, and thick with Stuff. It was no obstacle to Arkal now, though he wondered just what sort of prison he'd find at the bottom that needed such protection.
The stairwell seemed to continue forever, and more than once Arkal wondered if it did, if he had simply stepped into an endless prison of stairs and this prophet was simply walking deeper for eternity. Would he even be able to catch up?
But as the thought crossed his mind the third time, Arkal realized that it was getting harder to proceed through the Stuff that filled the stairwell. This was a security measure, he realized. The more you doubted you would reach the bottom, the longer it would take.
And perhaps that would work in reverse. Arkal marched down with conviction, certain that he would reach the bottom as soon as he turned the next bend in the stairway.
And as he rushed down, a doorway greeted him, a light shining through its frame. It was just as he thought.
Of course, he was on guard now. The nature of the prison was becoming clearer; and though he was better-suited to it than most of the prisoners, he still had no idea how exactly this dungeon would try to trap him. He stepped through the door, expecting the worst.
He hadn't been expecting a bright sunny day.
Emma Broderburg had been expecting a bright sunny day. Every day had been like that for her, after all. The fact that the sun was a drastically different color didn't change anything; she had only experienced sunny days even in worlds that had no sun.
"Are you certain you wish to see the Silver City?" the unicorn asked. "I know nothing of its nature, of course, but I can tell it is a wicked place."
"It's all right," Emma assured him. "Cedric won't harm me unless he has to."
The unicorn trotted on, carrying Emma up a hill. It didn't have to avoid any ant-castles, because there were none in its path. At the top, an old man in a chair waved at them.
"Hello, little girl!" the Chairman declared happily.
"I'm twenty-five," Emma explained.
"Don't mind him," whispered the unicorn. "I've been this way before. He calls everyone 'little girl', I heard he even called the King that once."
"I'm the Chairman," he continued, unperturbed. "For a mere penny, or similar token of insignificant value, I'll tell you what sort of chair your soul is."
Emma reached into her pocket and pulled out a penny.
"Let me down," she said.
The unicorn did, of course, but not without doubts.
"I don't think you should take him up on his offer," he said.
"It's just a penny," she replied. "And it's not as if I'll have anywhere else to spend it."
She dropped the penny in the Chairman's open palm. His smile grew wide.
"At last! Oh, how I've waited for this day! At last, a chance to see the chair in someone's soul!"
He stared at Emma for nearly a minute.
"Can't accept this, I'm afraid," he said, tossing the penny back to her. "Terribly sorry, it doesn't seem to be working right now. Come back tomorrow."
Emma put the penny back in her pocket, and climbed onto the unicorn's back once more.
"That's a shame," she said sadly. "I was really hoping to find out."
"So he's just a fraud," the unicorn muttered as it trotted towards the Silver City. "Guess he couldn't bear to keep up the act in front of you."
As the unicorn marched away, the old man was left muttering to himself.
"A chair so wondrous cannot possibly exist," he said, dumbfoundedly. "To lay eyes on such a soul is worth at least a thousand pennies!"
Arkal found himself in some sort of village. The doorway had, unsurprisingly, vanished behind him; he was standing outside the wall of a candy shop.
A few of the villagers stared at him as he walked down the road; but mostly they kept to themselves. Humans were a rarity in the Place, but far from nonexistent, and Arkal looked more or less like the sort of human the Place tended to produce. And so he generated little attention as he made his way to the town square.
Here, he noticed two odd things. The first was the man behind the podium in the center of the square, who was babbling about the inevitable victory of the Amalgam and the Hand of Silver. The other was that the villagers seemed to be ignoring him; an ankylosaur walked past the podium and knocked it over with a stray swing of his tail and nobody save the speaker seemed to notice.
"Must be the prophet," Arkal concluded. He approached the podium just as the prophet picked it up, clearly frustrated.
He was dressed well for a prisoner; overdressed, in fact. He seemed to be wearing multiple coats and shirts, and appeared to have chosen them for how poorly they went together. A large hat covered his head, goggles obscured his eyes, and a pair of thick scarves covered what was left. Arkal wondered if there was an actual person under there or it was just a pile of clothes. Either option seemed possible in the Place.
"May I ask your name, prophet?" Arkal asked him.
"What does it matter?" he replied, his words muffled by his scarves. "I'm just a stranger to you."
"Not that strange compared to what I've seen already," Arkal said, undeterred. "So why are they 'keeping' you here?"
"They fear the truth," the stranger replied. "The truth I have seen."
"And what is this truth?"
The stranger laughed, or perhaps coughed; it was hard to distinguish one noise from another under those thick scarves.
"It is as I just said. The false Progenitor will be punished for his betrayal of humanity. The Silver City will rise, and the Place will join the rest of the multiverse. Humanity's ascension will be complete, and all else shall be destroyed."
"Sounds boring," Arkal mused. "I mean, what would I even make in a world like that? Humanity's a pretty mediocre material."
"It is not a world for you, traitor," the stranger said. "You turned your back on your race. You're even lower than we are."
"We? You mean your snail friend and the rest of your little cult?"
"All insignificant. But at least we have the wisdom to be aware of it, to acknowledge the necessity of our demise. And to work to hasten it."
Arkal puzzled over this for a bit.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because that is how it must be. You cannot comprehend it. If you could, you would have opened your mind to the Amalgam."
"I tried that once. Didn't care much for it. I mean, it was the most amazing experience for a few minutes, but then it just wasn't working out for me."
For the first time in the conversation, it was the stranger who seemed dumbstruck.
"Do you mean to tell me you left the Amalgam? How?"
"I don't know the technical details. One moment, I wanted nothing more than to be there forever, then the next moment there was something I wanted more than that. So I stepped out and went to work."
The stranger lost his composure completely, slamming his gloved fist down on the podium.
"No! The Amalgam cannot be rejected, it can only reject! You must have angered it!"
"Probably did, after I tried to kill it. That does tend to get most things pretty upset, even if they're beyond mortal comprehension."
"The Amalgam is perfection! It is the future of humanity, no, the future of everything! To deny it is to deny the Progenitor!"
"That's the second time you've mentioned a Progenitor," Arkal mused. "First you mentioned a false one, now I guess this is the 'true' one. So what is it, exactly?"
"The Progenitor is salvation! Only through the Progenitor can all achieve its purpose! Your pathetic traitorous mind cannot comprehend the Progenitor's grand design!"
Arkal was beginning to realize that the conversation was headed nowhere. The stranger was frantic, and nothing he said made any sense. He turned to leave.
"Then I guess I'll have to take my pathetic traitorous mind elsewhere," he said calmly.
"If they'll allow you to," the stranger sneered. "You've gained quite the audience."
It was true; dozens of villagers had wondered why this human had been talking to himself, and judging by the expressions on their faces, they had come to an unpleasant conclusion.
"He must have been communicating with Hoss!" a seven-foot tall penguin declared. "I knew he was a filthy spy!"
"Moo!" the cow next to him declared approvingly.
"No doubt. Look at that big hunk of silver on his back," a mole piped up. "I bet it's gonna make another of those cities!"
"Moo!" the cow agreed angrily.
Arkal sighed, and pulled out the club made of Stuff.
"I really don't want to hurt any of you," he began.
"Yeah, you just want us eradicated when the Amalgam assimilates the Place!"
Re: The Grand Battle S2G1! [Round Five: Round Six!]
The map of the underground was a silvery spider on the wall, spreading out into the fringes of the Silver City as Jen traced her finger along the route that Muninn pointed out to her. Something about the world was becoming more angular. Her hair hung down a little straighter. Her thoughts proceeded more logically than they ought have. “We can’t be this far away from Hector, can we?” she asked the raven. “We should be going on foot.”
”The streets of the Silver City are deceptive, my Queen—and so am I. You’ve been walking in circles.” The bird shrugged his wings innocently.
Jen sighed. “There’d better be a point to all this. I had enough of a spirit quest last round.”
”Yes, your spirit is prepared for battle,” admittted Muninn. ”You’re ready to face Xadrez, yes, and Kath too, should she raise her beautiful-ugly head again. But the Charlatan changed the course your spirit must take.” Jen descended further into the dark tunnel, hopping gracefully over a turnstyle. ”Are you prepared to see your home destroyed? To see Kracht again? See, this battle is no longer fair for anybody. Unfairness is the root of the Charlatan’s power.”
”What’s Kracht have to do with any of this?”
”You know. You can feel him.”
In this, at least, Memory did not lie to Jen. Something green and young and rough around the edges was marching around the periphery of her magical senses—something that would take more than a Silver City to break.
“He’s the key to all this, isn’t he?” asked Jen. “We’re in another one of his time loops.”
Muninn squawked. ”A key needs a lock. A rock is just a material.”
Tunnels stretching out to either side of Jen stretched endlessly into the darkness. She stood behind the yellow line. ”The girl. The third contestant.” Jen searched her memory, found it coming easier to her in the presence of the raven. “Right before he died, he mentioned an ‘Emma Broderburg.’ Last round I spoke to what I guess must have been her sister.”
”A lock is a much more delicate instrument than a key,” advised Muninn. ”One mustn’t force it.”
A distant roaring. Either Jen’s train was approaching, or Cedric had found a weighty monster to kill, up above. “Kracht was forced, in the end,” Jen noted, almost conversationally. “Turned into a door and then kicked down. Imagine the panic. He was living his life according to a routine, and then, just... everything falls apart.” Muninn didn’t respond. “Nothing lasts forever, I guess.”
Deep in the tunnel there shone a light. ”Kracht was the last of your toy soldiers,” suggested the raven. ”You cared for him as you care for a piece of property.”
”That’s not fair,” dismissed Jen. The train barreled down the tunnel, shrieking as though in pain or anger.
”It’s not an insignificant care,” mocked the raven. ”You always cared more for things than for people.”
The brakes locked into place, not gracefully. Sparks shot up as the wheels skidded on the rail. The train emerged into the station a little too fast, a silver bullet with no windows and a barely perceptible door. There was nothing elegant about the Silver City, Jen saw. It was not the groundwork for a human-dominated utopia but an ugly silver paint-splatter over everything sensible people might appreciate about the world. To Muninn she said, “That’s not fair either. The lines between people and things are blurred here.”
The train reached a halt, its doors snapping open hungrily. The raven flew inside and beckoned. ”Toy soldiers,” he repeated. ”You were supposed to be twenty-three then and a queen grown.”
”Also not fair.” Jen leapt inside the train and the doors shut behind her. Inside the car dim fluorescent lights reflected off every surface, accentuating the lack of windows. The former monarch took a seat on an uncomfortable bench. “I was eleven from the moment I came here through the moment I left. Only my body aged. And that was a temporary effect.”
The raven eyed her judgmentally.
“I was a kid,” Jen repeated.
The train began to roll along the track with a metallic howl. Memory ruffled its black feathers began to speak.
* * * * *
The adult Jen had an athletic, underfed look, fidgety and tightly wound. Her dimples wobbled a bit, her hair clawed at her face like external veins, and her eyes were elsewhere. If it weren’t for the gold lace delicately sewn into her swishy knee-length green dresses she would have looked more like an assassin than a queen, a force of chaos rather than order. She sat in her throne cross-legged or not at all. She could be called, but never summoned; sought, but never found. In those last couple of years if Jen felt that you needed her she would come to you, never when you expected her and frequently when you weren’t sure you wanted her around at all.
In spite of the wobbliness of monarchical authorities in those days things were peaceful in the Place. The major troublemakers and schemers were banished, assimilated, or dead. The monsters were more mischievous than cruel, held in check by a burgeoning population of heroes and adventurers. Wealth and magic poured out of forgotten places; wishes were granted; the world made just enough sense for ordinary people to get by but not so much that extraordinary people couldn’t find extraordinary circumstances to work with. The gods gambled with low stakes, content for the most part to sit out on the porch of the world and watch the sun set over an era.
Just before it went down over the horizon you could sometimes see a flash of green.
In the palace those days there was a constant creaking, a low groan like something about to snap. This was the grinding of the joints of the toy soldiers, who made up the majority of the palace staff nowadays, most of the Queen’s original followers having since been given minor dominions or sent abroad on important tasks. The toy soldiers were not quite inhuman enough that you would feel polite sitting in a room with one and not offering it a seat or something to drink. Sometimes they would even accept with a gruff and wooden “Thank you” out of their copper-hinged mouths.
There were toy soldiers of all sizes, genders and demographics, some dressed anachronistically in the styles of another dynasty, others spiffily reflecting the fashions of Queen Jen’s mythical home. They cooked food, they washed dishes, they tended to the horses, they saw to the defense of the palace, they alternatingly welcomed and turned away guests. A wind-up toy cat usually failed to catch the rats, who were alerted to its presence by the ticking of its gears. A clockwork cuckoo marked the time and sang songs of broken families and discontent. Queen Jen, who appreciated both craftmanship and servitude and who was becoming increasingly dismayed by the notion that she was a woman grown now and would have to put aside her toys and childhood things and be a proper queen, loved her wooden soldiers, considering them to be the perfect servants.
The creator of the toymen was none other than the toymaker Klaus Gepetrovich, one of a long tradition of powerful magicians in the Place refashioning themselves as Santa Claus analogues. This one, though he had the magic and the dedication, lacked the physical presence to be a proper Kringle—he was a were-stick-insect, dark and thin and rough about the skin even on a new moon, beardless, wide-eyed, and who smiled only in epileptic bursts. On the full moon he stretched fifteen feet, coiling around his toyshop and working uninterrupted for three days at a stretch. There was something about the toymaker that inspired pity, some quality about his thin and trembling face that begged decent people to take him in and cruel people to cause him pain. Jen had saved him from a malicious toy drive puppeteered in secret by the Infraternity of the Krampus Campus on the southern borders of the Place a year back, and had taken him under her wing—specifically, under the northern wing of the palace, establishing a toyshop-slash-arboretum in a vast unused space that had probably once been something other than a cave.
Down in his workshop, Klaus didn’t have a list of who was being naughty or nice, but he did have a calendar--a novelty item promising a new made-up word every day--and made sure to remember his queen’s birthday. The made-up word for the day in question was “vunderdaut,” an adjective describing the state of foolishness one enters between a run of uncanny good luck and its inevitable reversal. Jen, who usually made sure to read the calendar hanging up on the wall when she went to visit Klaus, was distracted in this instance by her birthday present, which stretched wall-to-wall across the workshop.
“You shouldn’t have,” gushed the queen, surveying the scene laid out before her. It was a miniature replica of the entire Place made up in green felt and wood, with mountains carved out of diamonds, blue-dyed water pumping out tiny waves and tidal patterns, and a dollhouse palace that opened up to reveal the miniature toy soldiers toiling away inside.
“Of course I should have!” assured Klaus. “Anything for milady’s birthday.” His thin legs tramped a careful path over village and road, hill and stream, circling Jen possessively. “Milady likes?”
“She loves,” corrected Jen, ducking her head as the lantern sun swung overhead, illuminating the tiny caves hidden deep in the tiny forests. Klaus bristled. At this stage in his lycanthropism he used words only as a formality, resisting his natural urge to communicate through chemicals and the movement of his antennae. Jen nimbly stepped over lake and meadow to survey the floating moon, which spun lazily around the miniature Place. It was a beautiful moon, catching the light of the lantern sun and spilling its reflection in precise phases. “Is this real moonrock?” she asked.
“Yes,” confirmed the werestick. “But the true significance of the gift is yet to be known! Behold!” A bug-leg stuck out of the folds of Klaus’s robes and flicked a switch. With a surprisingly loud horn-blast, a delicately crafted model train snaked out of a cliff face and made a leisurely circuit of the model, rattling in playful ellipses around Jen’s legs, wafting potpourri-scented steam into the air. Klaus knelt down beside the locomotive, peering into the tiny glass windows. “The beginnings of a toy infrastructure. Standardized time, standardized distance. A beautiful, simple wind-up nation for the young queen to play with.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Jen. The moonrock, she understood, was exacerbating Klaus’ lycanthropism, bringing out more and more of his stick-mind at the expense of the man. Having more reason to distrust humen than insects on the whole, she didn’t think much of it. “Just remember that this would only work in the toy-world,” she reminded her toymaker. “I destroyed all the real standardizations years ago.”
Klaus made a highly ambiguous clicking noise. “I noticed,” he said. “My calendar has been acting strange of late.”
Jen’s head turned to the wall. Vun – der – daut(a): the state of foolishness one enters between a run of uncanny good luck and its inevitable reversal. “It’s not my birthday,” she said.
“No, it isn’t,” said Klaus. “Come receive the rest of your present.”
Jen became cognizant all at once of the noise pollution that she had visited upon the castle through her reliance on the toy soldiers. Ticking, whirring, creaking. A bomb about to go off, or a building about to collapse. An old woman’s body pushed beyond endurance. Vun – der – daut. The queen followed her toymaker into the back of his workshop, wrapping her hands around the spot on her hip where she ought to be keeping her sword.
The model train arrived at the dollhouse palace. Choo-choo. A little doll dressed all in green stepped across the drawbridge and boarded. The train departed, carrying the toy queen with it.
* * * * *
The silver bullet cut its way through the tunnels as the Silver City dug them out, burrowing deeper and deeper below the Place, upsetting gold veins and silver arteries, awakening things that ought to stay buried. Jen, listening to Muninn whisper in her ear, was only vaguely aware of the train’s movement as the rail sloped gradually downward, resolving itself into a near-vertical helix.
The silver train was no toy, had no whistle to warn passersby of its approach, released no steam. Its exhaust was the same foul mixture of heavy metals and fumes that seemed to seep out of every pore of the silver city like sweat off of some immense and evil-made golem. Jen didn’t notice her own vertigo and disorientation until the car leveled out and stopped abruptly with a snarl and a hiss.
The doors opened and admitted several dozen indistinct beige Amalgam fragments holding what appeared to be empty goldfish bowls in their arms. They milled into the train, squeezing shoulder-to-shoulder into every available seat, making half-intelligible small talk though their ill-defined mouths.
Muninn squawked and flew up into the carry-on rack above the seats. Jen, repulsed by the sticky quality of the fragments and the cheap, rough fabric of their orange jumpsuits, elected to stand, holding onto a pole in the middle of the car. A single fragment shared the pole with her, clinging to it easily with one hand, clutching his goldfish bowl in the other as the train took off again. He looked at his wrist expectantly, tapping his foot. “You know, you don’t have a watch,” Jen pointed out, trying to make conversation.
The beige man tried to roll its eyes and succeeded merely in making a bloop sound and spreading an eerie ripple across its face. ”Timezz mezzerd in pruhgress,” it explained. ”Wuddur thabbordurz zof thuzZilver Zitty? Do thennemies of-hummannaddy ztill walk thuh-Hurth? In theez metricks dewey mezzure thuppazzage of time-hyeer.”
”And does it measure up?” asked Jen. “Everything going according to schedule?”
”Thuhinnvizzible Hand alwuhzz makes thuChrainz runnontime,” gargled the fragment defensively. ”Ztill therezz much wuurk tuhbead duhn.”
The train suddenly accelerated and began to slope upwards, leaving Jen clinging desperately to her pole with both arms. The fragments sat calmly and affixed their goldfish bowls to their jumpsuits. Helmets. Space helmets. Jen only hadn’t seen it because the idea seemed somehow more absurd than empty goldfish bowls.
“What kind of work?” she dared to ask over the ambient noise of the train’s ascent.
”Whir gohunduh duhstroy thuh moon,” explained the fabric, his already distorted voice muffled by his helmet. ”Ur help wud be muh-chappreshee-hated.”
Hector, deprived of his memory and instructed in caution by his shoulder-perched thought, stayed back from the front of the stampede, merely directing it in Cedric’s direction. Even his seemingly limitless power had been taxed in the creation of this assault, which would at best prove a distraction to the fire-knight—dragons, rhinoceri, big cats, large dogs, landsharks, low-flying magnet-eagles, chinchillae and chimarae of all sorts, all funneled through the main street of the Silver City in a single direction, accelerating constantly as a natural result of their incongruity with their environment and with each other.
Cedric stood in the middle of the square, five towers rising around him in the shape of a hand. The primal force of the animal kingdom, unleashed by a boy-king too afraid to fight his own battles, bore down on him. The perfect knight decided that the resultant battle would not be an effective use of his time. He had already sown an environment inhospitable towards all this pesky life. The problem would resolve itself without his aid.
Before the wave of flesh and claw and fang and tusk bore down on him, the nose of a great subway train burst out of the ground beneath him and carried him laughing smugly into the air. Hyenas, apes, ostriches all circled around the event, some banging harmlessly off the side of the car without decelerating, others stopping to look, only to be trampled by the rest of the multitude. The stampede dispersed, slipping between the five finger-towers like so much sand.
Emma Broderburg watched an octopedal alligeightor and four or five penguolins in armor-plated tuxedos pass by on the sidewalk, seeming to her to be hurried but polite. She coughed. In her weakened state, she was possessed by an instinctive need for shelter, for a home to rest her head, for a home-cooked meal. The Silver City was not inviting in this fashion. The doorways and awnings were all sharp angles, hard concrete and leering statuary. Amalgam fragments peered out of the windows in the way one peers out one’s window when one is holding a gun or at least a baseball bat out of sight.
She coughed again.
”There you are,” Hector said, stepping out from behind an alley and immediately realizing his mistake. Humans, he supposed, all looked the same to him, especially in the shadows of the buildings, which seemed to cast an aura of conformity, reducing browns and auburns and blondes to a dull beige, rendering individuals into averaged-out pieces of a whole.
The girl looked at him quizzically, holding her arms. Something was wrong with her. She didn’t look very much like Jen the First at all, he realized. He pitied her instantly. “Sorry,” he said. “My mistake. Thought you were someone else.”
The girl wiped her nose. ”One of those faces,” she suggested. She did not have one of those faces; rather, she had one of those faces.
Hector looked up. The bullet (which he saw more as a rocket than a subway train, it being perfectly sealed and vertically oriented) had left the ground completely and was making rapid progress out of sight towards the moon. He could no longer make out the figure of Sir Cedric clinging to its nose, but could easily imagine the monster-slayer looking down at him and grinning. He shuddered and turned back to the girl. “Do you need a place to stay?” he asked her.
The girl looked around contemplatively. ”I’m looking for someone,” she said. Then: ”I don’t know if I’ll be here for long.”
Hector shrugged. He reached his hand out imploringly. “Come see my flying whale,” he begged. “I have to take care of some things, but I can get you where it’s warm.” This was, to some extent, a pretense—without his memory he was not certain exactly what he was supposed to “take care of,” though he suspected there was something.
”The belly of a whale sounds nice,” admitted the girl.