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  1. SweetCyanide

    Writing Styles

    well you see, long ago, before the fire nation attacked,
  2. —Days later, after a chance meeting at a forest: On a sunny afterrnoon, IV. foul your own nest Underneath the bright blue skies of Corinth, the clash of a dozen blades fills the humid air; not sharp enough to cut through it—but not sharp enough to cut through a sparring partner, either. It’s a beautiful day for a fight, with no wind to blow off the sweat and no cool shade to offer the courtyard. Merciless summer sun shining behind him, he glares down at the Orchid’s acolytes, perched atop a balcony like a crow preying for its next meal. "Faster!" yells the voice of a knight that rips through the clamor, "On your knees! Up, I said!" "Fight like you mean it, you lazy cunts!" "My fucking grandmother can swing a sword better than you! Again!” The Master-at-Arms barks orders while able-minded soldiers bellow their war cries as if maddened by the heat. Voices strained, each hit quick and violent—each hit deflected and parried to a steady rhythm of blood and steel. It’s a song, they told him one day, when he first held a blade in his hand before understanding the meaning of death. Back then, he’d thought of war as a little game, where knights rose victorious and heroes were woven into legends. One-two, one-two, he utters in his head, as he watches soldiers do their dances in the courtyard below. He eventually finds his mind lost in their movement, the very reason why he’s here at all forgotten over the banter of soldiers. He watches a knight trip over his partner, both men bursting into chuckles when the master-at-arms looks the other way. The sight is so familiar that it brings back memories long forgotten. Pluto smiles to himself at the thought, at times imagining himself in a soldier’s place, remembering what it felt like to wield a sword. To fight. To protect. To kill. … A crow is lost. Pluto’s eyes narrow to the side. He can hear it. It snarls when it breathes, and it’s a miracle its heavy voice can crawl right through its fangs. … A crow is broken... and alone. Something slithers near, destroying all in its path. Stone walls crumble against it. Trees part ways for it. People go about their day, walk past it, fall deaf to its call, but not him. Only he could hear it, and only he could feel it; the whispers of power; the pull that drives him mad; the faint brush of fire against his stone-cold skin. How long has this been happening? How did this ever turn common? Too many questions with too little answers—too little time to question it at all. With its presence here, it seems that even the sun glows brighter. Its call is even stronger than the day he first came upon it in the woods. It lunges. The dragon sinks its claws into him like a phantom sting—and it twists him, grips him, fights him for control. A drunken stupor comes over him, taking over his eyes, his ears, his senses. He places a finger against his temple. And something sick twists his head with pain. … Ride like hell - and don’t look back! Voices from the past and present blur. Nine hells, he thinks, not again. … Your hand is shaking, boy. I doubt you’ve ever killed a man before. The clash of sparring swords turn sharp. It cleaves through armor, separating flesh from bone. A panic spurs inside him. Laughter among young knights turns into sobs. War cries warp into bloodthirsty roars. Soldiers become Black Knights, cutting down nonhumans one after the other. Man, woman, child—it didn’t matter to them. They all saw them as animals. … Lookit this one. Mages’ll pay a pretty penny for his eyes. The heart? Even more so. … Sell this one. Kill the rest. He presses a palm to his head, seals his eyes shut—but it stops nothing. The dragon sinks its claws deeper, lighting embers once snuffed, tearing open wounds that have long since healed. The hounds never found him. He smelled nothing like blood—and so they hunted the ones who did. He remembers the ravaged countryside; wagons of corpses being wheeled to furnaces—all of them thrown into the fire even if some of them still breathed. Deserters were hung high on trees—their bodies crowded on branches—and there came a time where peasants murdered highborns like trophies, innocent or otherwise. Witches, nonhumans—all those who smelled a hint of magic were tied at the stake. Their cries were lost to the wind, and the people cheered as they burned, thinking they rid Ursa Madeum of evil. … A crow seeks fire. Says the dragon, lacing venom into its words—fueling a part of him he wishes were not true. … A crow seeks to watch the world burn. Snap! Pluto jumps, startled out of his trance. A hand came to snap their fingers in front of his face. “Having a little headache, are we?” Pluto turns his head. Jasper Hildebrand is looking at him with a face full of confusion and no concern, his tone equal-parts patronizing and annoyed. Two knights standing guard at the colonnaded hallway behind them crane their heavy-plated necks to see for themselves the esteemed Golden Crow losing his graciousness. The realization sinks in hard. Pluto’s mouth is agape. With a dipped head, “I apologize, m’lord, I-” Jasper sighs deep. “For the third time, crow, I’ve had to make sure you were actually listening.” He rests his arms on the balcony. Pluto stands at his side. Uneasy. Stiff as a statue. In all his years of service, Pluto has never tested the patience of any Hildebrand. And yet, here he is, bumbling like a stuttering buffoon before the eldest son of Strom—whose ears now burn red with anger. It may seem like the most minor of inconveniences, but Pluto’s knack for inhuman perfection has raised his lord’s standards. The clamor of the Orchid training down below resurfaces, sun shining down upon them. The dragon is gone, but its shadow remains. “It’s unlike you to be such a...” Jasper clenches the air with his hand—but the way Pluto sees it, it seems like he’s imagining the air was his throat. “What’s the word? Ah, yes—a prat.” Pluto shifts. He opens his mouth to say something—but wisely decides to shut up. They stand beneath the sun, boiling under Jasper’s temper. A nobleman would usually call for shade and a seat under this heat, but Jasper is a man raised by a history of green thumbs—something rather common among him and his siblings—though the only difference is that he’d rather do anything else other than sullying his hands with dirt. When it comes to the man beside him, however; it’s better said that it would take much more than sunlight and humid air to bother him at all. “However,” Jasper sucks in the air through his teeth and barely manages to contain a vitriol intense enough to melt Pluto down completely. “I doubt your behavior these days is not…” he rolls his eyes when he says this, “cause for concern. Tell me, crow. When’s the last time you had a good night’s rest?” He asks, not even sparing a glance—most definitely out of spite. Softly, without hesitation, “I’m afraid I haven’t had a good night’s rest in months, m’lord. Not ever since my… arrival, I suppose.” “What, are you saying that you need a little nap? If you’d have asked nicely I’d have made sure you’d be lovingly tucked in six-feet under—” A loud roar from down below cuts Jasper off completely. Two knights have begun to fight with vigor in a light sparring, grunts loud enough to reach their balcony. Jasper whips his head in their direction, and Pluto drops his shoulders in relief. The knights inspire the rest of the soldiers—and suddenly, all of them are in high spirits. Perhaps they’ve been reminded that the prospect of impressing Jasper Hildebrand is too good of an opportunity to pass up. Many of these recruits were brought in recently by the Lord Steward himself; he’s developed an interest in bolstering their military—a rather concerning interest, as once noted by a dear friend of his. As he is saved by two screaming knights, Pluto and his lord take the time to spectate their spar. They study how the men fight, with what skills they have to show and just how they show it. So far, both of them are impressed. Both of them are swordsmen themselves. Eventually, decorum slowly comes familiar to Jasper. He takes a sigh before trying again. “Something keeping you awake at night, crow?” Jasper asks, eyes still trained on the two knights. “Is it the Devil under our roof?” The thought is plausible. But Pluto shrugs. “Not particularly, m’lord.” That makes him turn. “Really, now?” Jasper faces him as he leans one arm on the balcony fence, a grin cracked across his face. The notion that a man like Pluto is ballsier than he thinks seems to completely wash off his sour mood. The drastic change in attitude would have startled Pluto, were he not a man under his orders for the longest time he's known. “Walter Crowley: the very reason why elves check under their beds and light their candles before sleeping at night?” Pluto smiles at Jasper and tells the answer with his eyes. Ooh. “So you’re not scared of him?” “No, m’lord.” “You fancy him, then?” “No, m’lord.” “Hmm. I always thought you liked black hair,” “Not quite, m’lord.” “What do you like, then?” “I prefer someone who doesn’t have the desire to bed me, m’lord.” “Oh, quite difficult to come by that, unless you plan to court a eunuch.” A pause. The notion happens to be incredibly unfunny, though Pluto entertains Jasper with a forced, firm-pressed smile. It obviously doesn’t work, and Jasper returns to spectating the training of their military. Prior to his short-lived trance, he and the Lord Steward had been exchanging not so pleasant pleasantries over the music of training soldiers, as well as negotiating work and barely cooperating for the good of the estate; it is, after all, mandatory for the house’s two stewards to work together—as much as they both despise it. It just so happens that out of all the Hildebrand children, Pluto likes Jasper the least. To say they have a rocky relationship would be an understatement—it’s been complicated since the day they first met. When Pluto eventually learned how to adapt to the ways of humans, he’d learned that to win in Jasper’s mind games, one should never play. He’s turned from a cruel boy to a vicious and cunning expert of exploiting weakness and turning it into his greatest weapon. He always won. But never against Pluto. As he is a man without desire, picking him apart piece-by-piece to find out what really gets under his skin has turned into a favorite hobby of Jasper’s. A silence—save for the spar-turned-fights below—stretches out between them. It’s not until the fights have reached their climax that another conversation, one of peculiarity, strikes Pluto at an odd note. “I must say, I find it quite strange that you choose today not to bite back, crow,” Jasper says. He spares the man a look, and not a very kind one at that. With a shrug, “No quips? No back and forth? No nothing?” Under helmeted gazes, the guards at their back glance at Pluto. His eyes widen at Jasper’s words, and his concern spikes up quick. Just what has he done? Have they argued? Pluto is grasping at his memories, finding the missing link—only—he doesn’t remember. He couldn’t have... With caution, “... Beg your pardon, m’lord?” Another silence. Jasper turns. Locks eyes with him. There’s a sharp glint in his own eyes, like steel. For a moment, it would seem that the Lord Steward is dumbfounded himself. But then—he explodes with a loud ha! Pluto, guards included, glance at their lord with alarm. He grows confused by the second as he watches Jasper wheeze, like he’s told him that the mad king has risen from the grave and has brought with him an undead army of oathsworn. He’s nearly tempted to smile himself, were he not absolutely frightened. “Oh, of course,” he says, placing a hand on Pluto’s shoulder—earning a half-smile in the process, “you haven’t had a good night’s rest in months—you poor thing. It must explain the attitude for the past few weeks.” As Jasper wipes the tears from his eyes, Pluto does nothing but nod in agreement. It’s the only thing he could do, really. “Take a day off, crow.” Jasper pats the man on the shoulder, and turns to walk down the colonnaded hall behind them, sunlight peeking through the columns. The guards, adorned in heavy armor, shift to the side for their lord to pass. “It’s the wisest thing to do, seeing as you enjoy testing me these days.” Those words linger in his head like the polite threat it is. Pluto watches as his Lord disappears down the hall, two knights of the Orchid trailing behind his shadow. His eyes trace back to the training of soldiers down below. Commands ripping through the air, the clash of blades ringing raw against dulled ears, anxiety rising slow in his marble veins. Pluto stands alone against the blinding sun, glowing ever so brightly.
  3. LOCATION | DINING HALL ➔ TO THE LIBRARY If it were any other day, Pluto would be dreading the posh outfit and the nicely-done hair. In the background of all the festivities, among the lovely sights and the usual merry-making, the Seneschal of the Queen flits here and there and makes the job of supervising the entire staff of Brightstone Manor a graceful and effortless dance; just like a professional at work. He is busy even on the day of his Queen’s wedding, and often he'd smile and wave at her like the proudest, happiest caretaker in the whole wide world—then the next—disappear into the flow of people, a crowd of many faces with many titles, a crowd he’d hardly ever gotten to converse with ever since the party started. In his eyes, he belongs to the backdrop of the banquet—the many set pieces of the wedding—among the glass chandeliers and the ornate fountains, where by his side, are the many servants he guides. “Bring in some more wine to the courtyard. Yes, they’ve drunk it all. No, they’re not drunk. Yet.” “Shoulders high. I can sneak in some cream puffs for you, if you’d like.” “Is that—? Soup in your hair? Oh, for-” The evening went like this for the first hour—with him strolling up to the staff, having a bit of banter, maybe trying to tease the guards at every doorway with a little conversation, and every so often thinking about his good friend Iyalon, and how he must have his head in a barrel of wine, the poor man. Then—on the next hour—came a little bird with a little tip. Psst, it had chirped, carrying a startling tower of dirty plates. There’s a turniphead gobbling up all the chickens in the Dining hall. I swear, I saw it misself—he just inhales all the meat, doesn't even chew. Makin’ all the guests cry, he is. Startin’ to look a bit messy, if you’d ask me. The tip led him to the Dining Hall. Initially hoping it was an over-exaggeration, he eventually witnessed firsthand the spectacle that was the 'turniphead inhaling all the chickens' in all its glory, and found that it was not an exaggeration, but a very accurate description. What came afterwards was a painful public humiliation. A soft pang of pity stabbed him in the heart when he saw it. He decided to follow after said turniphead, who had proceeded to see himself upstairs. “ . . . It’s like watching a monkey at an art gallery.” A draconic purr rumbles in the back of his mind. As he heads up the stairs, Pluto casts a quick glance around before he starts talking to himself. “Sunscar,” he hisses. “. . . You were thinking it.” “You don’t have to say it out loud.” “. . . I don't. But I can. And I'll say it as many times as I want.” “Are you going to be like this all night?” ". . . For the rest of your life." A noble couple passes his way. Pluto gives a slight nod of the head and a soft smile. When they go down and he goes up, he drops the smile right away and picks up the speed. Nobody (except one) knows about his bonding with an oathblade—and he prefers to keep it that way. He catches a glimpse of the 'turniphead' heading inside the Library, and perhaps cringes on the inside when he thinks about what he would do to the precious books without gloves. “. . . Going to throw him out?” “What—? No! That’s terrible.” “. . . What, are you going to ask him to leave and say ‘pretty please’?” It rumbles a guttural laugh that jumps him. It still needs some getting used to—it's like a pattern of ear-splitting croaks that sounds like a dragon’s poor version of laughter. With a scoff and a roll of his eyes, Pluto approaches the library. Places his gloved hands on the door, then pauses. “I’m just... going to talk to him. Give him a bath, maybe. Now shhh. I don’t want you grrr-ing in my head every five seconds.” Sunscar growls. Pluto groans. And the doors gently swing open. In the corner of his eye, he can see the chicken-gobbler. White hair greased with oil and a face greased with… more oil. Seeing as he hasn’t noticed him enter the room yet, Pluto approaches the man with a sincere smile, and with a clear of his throat, tries to catch his attention. “Don’t let them get to you.” He kindly says, in a voice polite and soft-spoken. Holds up his handkerchief with a black gloved hand and offers it to the stranger. “Use this to wipe yourself; don’t worry about staining it.” Pluto hopes that the fact that he is nonhuman doesn’t disturb him; with how the light reflects against him, he is inanimate, still and never breathing. A literal porcelain doll with eyes full of life, marble for skin and gold for flesh and blood. He wouldn’t be surprised if the stranger mistook him as a noble with how he spoke, how he looked as if a sculptor had crafted him themselves. “I, for one, am quite flattered. It means the food is great, and actually edible.” He chuckles softly. After a moment, he glances around the room. “My name is Pluto. I arrange all the books in the library, so if you're looking for something to read, I can find something interesting. Unless you like reading about, er, plants and farming and all that."
  4. He thinks the fact that Iyalon's lovesickness is an alleviation from his problems is quite endearing, if not disgustingly sweet—goodness, he's hopeless—and he chortles at that. As he gazes into Iyalon's dark cobalt eyes, Darker days are coming. He tilts his head, mulling over his concerns. "Yes, I suppose." And in the middle of thinking about it, accidentally sets his sleeve on fire. Pluto pats it down furiously; the formerly white garment now partially burned with streaks of black and smeared ash. With a muttered ugh, he falls on his back with a thud, places an arm beneath his head and stares up into the sky and the stars above. "So you think he's up to something?" Pluto asks, letting the question hang in the air. He places an arm over his head, suddenly sleepy under the light of the moon. "I don't blame you. He doesn't-" Pluto pauses for a moment. Scrambles for the right words. Gestures with his hand. "He doesn't do things without a reason." And he means that there's always a catch. Jasper always had a knack for scheming as a young boy. He often cut himself on his cunning, walking on eggshells on every conversation that treaded on the boundaries between loving family and household servant born from nothing. Jasper is cruel, but it's the type of cruelness that stems from ignorance, the type that broke the hearts of a hundred girls because he couldn't care less. It's very unlike the kind of cruelty he carries with himself nowadays—the kind that came with a bloody ambition eating at him from the inside; an ambition that would have him destroy everything that came his way. When he looks at Jasper, he no longer sees him. He sees the hollow shell of a boy he used to know replaced by something else. It's not him—it's not him at all—and yet he still thinks of him dearly as the boy he once served, as the devious man he still serves. (A memory: a bright afternoon, the warm colors of spring, the patterned melodies of birds. A lush garden in the manor, where Jasper hurt his sister in a fight. A young Varda sobs softly, sitting on a rock, dandelions at her feet. He tends to the wound on her hand ever so gently. Her brother looks on worriedly; but the stubbornness steeled in his heart would never admit that he is worried, it would never let him apologize.) The Greywoods flicker faintly in the back of his mind. Gods, he thinks to himself, he couldn't have. "Well," Pluto curls up on his side, glances at Iyalon. "Don't think too ill of him," Pluto says, yawning. "I doubt he'll be off conquering the islands, or something. If he's going to do something crazy I reckon he'll do it soon. Now—I'm going to sleep like a rock. I suggest you try it; it'll take your mind off the fact that Lord Jasper Hildebrand is a cunning man."
  5. He hands over stale bread and cheese to his friend. “What is that?” “What’s what?” Iyalon points at his shirt. “Have you been injured earlier at the rapids?” Pluto squints, then looks it over. “Oh, you mean this?” He points at his collarbone. Wet fabric clings to it; a foreign black symbol burned into his glass skin, a heinous thing that should be cursed; a physical proof of madness that Iyalon has no way of recognizing. Or, at least, he thinks—he never struck him as the kind of man who buried his nose in books for the hell of it in the first place; he still thinks of him as the chippy young knight who took plenty of pleasure in clashing swords and punching in teeth for the glory of House Hildebrand. But even if he did know, what would he do then? “This isn’t an injury,” Pluto chuckles. He picks up a waterskin from his bag, then tosses it at the knight. “Just a little something I brought back from my trip outside Corinth.” He drapes a cloak over Iyalon—warm and dry—and sits beside him, wet clothes clinging to skin perpetually immune to this cold. He watches the fire bite at the wind. “Don’t think too much about it.” His words are bittersweet, soft and melancholic. He’d rather not tell his friend about his escapade, not while the memories still hurt him. Pluto smiles at Iyalon, eyes tinged with sadness. “Keep it a secret between us, okay?” His life depends on it. It’ll unravel one day, but only when the time is ripe; he’ll have to do it slowly, carefully; all of it leaves a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, and god knows what would Iyalon think—what would he think? What would become of their friendship? He knows now the first of his secrets, but can he keep all of them? Blood stains his blade, trickles down his wrist, pools into his tight grip. Crimson sprays his eyes. He cannot cry. ... Perhaps he shouldn’t tell him about it, at all. Minutes pass. Melodies of insects and the crackling of the fire fill in the silence. Pluto tends to the fire with his bare hands, unharmed by the embers, glowing lustrous gold. “So, how fares your lovesickness?” Pluto cups his cheek, smiling a cheeky smile. “I was just under the impression that it’s the reason why you’re so broody nowadays. Am I wrong? Or is it Jasper? Crushing you under his heel, is he? I know how that’s like—I was his manservant for a couple of months, if you can recall.”
  6. —In the lovely dawn: After a long trek back home, III. too early for breakfast Never has he thought that in his wildest dreams, Pluto would be cooking pancakes for the man that genocided his kind. To treat him as a guest within Ravenel. To care for his every need. Whatever resentment he has left from the reign of Gillick, he keeps on a leash. Besides—it's been a week or so during his stay, and in that time, he's gotten to know a little bit more about the first of the Oathsworn. And—surprisingly as it may sound—he's not at all how the stories paint him to be. A soulless killer. Darker than night. No nonhuman in Ursa Madeum has ever gone to bed without feeling a little skittish, and for good reason. When the shadows crawl, that's when you run, he heard one night, when survivors like him gathered around in the pit of a suujali ship. It means the Devil's near, they would say, whispering among themselves rumours and eye-accounts. Tales of horror to keep eachother on their toes. Blood for the barrier; he'll slit your throat ear-to-ear to make sure of that. But as it turns out, the Devil is a fun-loving dork. It’s not bad, of course, it's a good thing he's not at all what he'd imagined—what a relief, really—he imagined a brooding war-scarred man who liked carnage for breakfast and women for dinner. But instead, he got a snarky young boy in the body of a war-scarred man who liked pancakes for breakfast and pancakes for dinner. He requested one day that Pluto needn’t be so formal in his presence; he politely refused, of course, as much as he admires his leniency; but as days went on, (and after he accidentally broke a candelabrum) his amiability and sharp sense of humor eventually got the best of him. So now Pluto, the ever-professional servant in charge of servants, speaks freely with Crowley as if he were any other man. It’s been days since they’ve met, and yet; he can’t stop the subconscious fear that rises whenever he’s near. Perhaps it’s the stench of death. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, he knows all too well that blood never truly washes off—and Walter Crowley is stained with blood all over. “Apologies if the food’s not exactly your,” Pluto hums. “Palate.” The servant’s kitchen is empty at this hour. The faintest trace of daylight shines through the windows, glowing against him as he cooks on the hearth. Though cozy from the tropical chill of dawn and lit by candlelights all around; it seems the darkest at Crowley's end of the table. He's seated behind him, relaxing into his chair, robed in loose casual wear of his own choosing. Sizzles and sparks from the fire fill in the silence in the cramped space, bombarded with an abundance of fruits and fresh harvest. Curiously, “I heard you used to own a noodle shop?” Crowley stretches from his seat and takes an apple. “Yep,” he says, rubbing the dust off it on his chest. He takes a bite out of it, and nonchalantly, “Nothing but ashes now.” In the middle of his cooking, Pluto turns his head to look at Crowley with a sympathetic smile. He brightens up not a second later. "I'm sure it'll be fine, though." After flipping the last pancake onto a big wooden slab, "We've lost so much in Misral," Pluto says wistfully. "We were trying to stop the fires," he says, walking to the table, "but there wasn't much we could do. So much fire, so much ash- "But then, suddenly—crccck—KA-DUUM! There was lightning from the caldera! I couldn't believe my eyes." Pluto pushes aside a lit candle, places down a glorious mountain of pancakes before Crowley. "I’m sure that if it weren’t for you and the other…" he takes a clay jar, starts pouring his drink, "oathbearers?" "Oathbearers," “The other oathbearers,” he chuckles, “the, er, the—the island would have definitely... definitely-” -gone to shit. Pluto clears his throat. And smiles again, taking a seat across Crowley. “Anyways, enjoy your food, dear sir. Hope it isn't too much; I figured you had a stomach of a knight, or something." Crowley strikes him a wry smile. "Why, thanks." He takes a piece of cutlery—Pluto is surprised he doesn’t just use his own hands instead—and he blows off the heat. Starts stuffing ungodly amounts of titan-berried pancakes into his mouth while Pluto watches him fondly, clearly relieved he’s enjoying his cooking. And with a mouthful of food, “Spit it out.” Crowley says. Pluto blinks. “Sorry?” “I can tell you’ve got something on your mind.” Pluto takes a few seconds. Pulls his knee up onto his chair so he can hug it. “Does it taste good? I’m afraid I can’t taste it myself,” he gestures, “I’ve no sense of taste-” “Pluto.” The tone is firm. Crowley seems to catch himself moments later, and his gaze softens. “You know you can talk to me.” Pluto softens up, too. He smiles, unintentionally, nervously, looking elsewhere but Crowley’s eyes. He has too many things he wants to talk about. Too many things to ask. Too many answers he wants to hear. Half of him wants to ask about the woods, about the beast that whispers in his ears. The other half, however... If I’d never escaped, you would’ve grounded me to dust, wouldn’t you? Yikes. And so his questions pile up. If he asks him this and that, would that sound strange? Would he sound crazy? Oh goodness, he can't have that. But he's an Oathsworn, won't he understand? He has to settle for something and quick—he's looking at him, staring at him, waiting for him to say something—just—ask him—say something—anything— "You’re Oathsworn, yes?” Crowley pauses mid-chew, raising an eyebrow. “Obviously.” Pluto coughs, clears his throat, chuckles, curses inwardly, dies inside silently—he rests his elbow on the table, places a hand on his cheek and tries to recover. “How—how’s it like, though?” He asks, curiosity shimmering in his monochrome eyes. “I have—oh, so many questions to ask. But, ah—I’m sure you don’t want to waste your time with-” “I don’t see why not,” Crowley says, smiling. “Go for it-" “Can oathblades speak?" Pluto beams, suddenly leaning a bit forward. "How do you summon them? Why do they just come out of the air like that? Are they nice or all-knowing or evil or deeply mystical or something? By the gods, I can’t really figure it out.” A long thoughtful pause. Crowley chews slowly, taking his time. “That’s a lot of questions.” Crowley says, stuffing a whole ungodly disc of pancake into his mouth. “Wuy d' shudden indewest?” "With respect, Ser Crowley, don't talk with your mouth full-" Gulp. "Why the sudden interest?" A pause. Pluto shrugs. “Shirin likes to tell me about Himei and her dreams sometimes. But I've heard a lot about the Oathblades. Rather, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m sure you’ve met the Lord Protector.” “Iyalon. White stoic big guy?” “White stoic big guy. He may seem like it, sure, but Iyalon talks very fondly of you.” “You’re kidding.” Pluto chuckles, “I’m not.” “Tell me about it.” “I can’t, I can’t. He idolizes you, methinks—but let’s keep that betwixt you and I. He might just come busting through that door to rip my head off.” Both of them burst in chuckles. Moments after, Crowley looks at Pluto. He sucks in some air and takes a swig of his drink. “Oathblades can speak. Only to their wielders, usually. They have to manifest in the physical world in order to interact with others. I can summon mine with a thought,” he takes another sip, “and some are nice. Some are shitty, and, I don’t know how they come out of thin air—but you could probably ask a mage about that.” He pauses. “That a good enough answer?” "Oh yes, absolutely. Is yours nice?” . . . Stupid question. A chill rushes in his fingertips. “Orenmir’s about as nice as a mouthful of glass.” Says Crowley, peering down at his own shadow. When he does so, Pluto is looking around, wide-eyed. . . . Haven't heard that name in a while. Crowley looks back up. Pluto stops looking around—then smiles at him—all his trepidation kept intact. “Is Orenmir a... he?” Pluto manages to squeeze. Crowley shrugs, stuffing the last pancake in his mouth. “I don’t know if he has a gender. I’ve always referred to him as male and he’s never…” A low growl. His eyes pace back and forth, to Crowley, and to the source of the growl. “... bothered me about it, so…” Pluto nods. And nods. He cannot hear Crowley over the sounds that echoes in his head, but he nods regardless whether he hears him or not. These sounds. They’re back. Why? Another growl. It’s coming from the candle. Pluto looks. And regrets it almost immediately. No matter how much he tries—screaming in his mind to look away—he can’t tear his eyes away from the fire—from its pure luster. Too drawn to it’s flame, attracted to a power within it he can’t explain. The shape twists, flickers, and forms —and lo and behold—the eye of a beast. He can see it—hear its wicked laugh; but only him. The dragon from the woods. . . . So you're not deaf, after all. A guttural snarl. When it readies to pounce— “Crowley,” Pluto whispers. “Mhm?” “Do you hear that?" Crowley, having been in the middle of a tangent about Orenmir, pauses and blinks. Seconds pass, though it felt like a minute. "... Hear what?" "Shh." Silence. Pluto stares at him, his chest slowly pressing down unto the table. Crowley stares back. "Listen." Another pause. More silence. Both of them keep staring, and with whispers, "What?" "Do you hear it?" "Hear what?" "You don't hear it?" "I have no idea what you're talking about." A final pause. Just silence. Pluto sits straight, clearly bewildered, lost in thought. "I could've sworn I heard something." . . . It slowly dawns on Crowley. "Pluto." His tone is tense. "What did you hear?" Pluto taps his finger on the table, hesitant. After a moment of humming, "Well, you see, I heard—" CLUNK Both men jolt. Pluto snaps his head to the left. The door from the hallway budges and shakes. They can hear shushes and whispers, hisses and curses. Crowley squints. Pluto rolls his eyes. The seneschal stands up from his chair and walks over to the door. With a hard pull, he opens it wide, revealing three servants—Marjorie, Brigette, and Duny—all crouched down, ears pressed against the wall. As they look up with nervous grins, pleading mercy with their eyes, Pluto glares down at them with supreme authority. Marjorie bows her head down. Brigette lets a shaky laugh escape her. Duny lights up with a forced smile. "I knew I heard something," Pluto sighs, gloved-hands on his hips, disappointment written all over his face. "Is it Lord Nairne?" He asks them, brushing over their little eavesdrop session. "Oh—yes sire!" "Indeed, indeed," "Yesyesyes—he requested the mushrooms you promised?" "I'll have them up right away." Pluto turns to Crowley, a sweet smile plastered on his face. "Forgive me, sir," he says, hand on his chest, "your company has been swell, but I best head back to work now," "No problem," Crowley says, nonchalantly. "Say hi to Nairne for me. Tell him I probably borrowed his horse, or something." Pluto tries to keep a straight face—god forbid he loses composure in front of these three—and smiles, bowing at the shoulders. "Of course." With that, he shuts the door behind him. Shoos away the giggling servants down unto the hallways. When their banters can no longer be heard over the crackling of the fire, Crowley slumps into his chair, head tilted back. Sunscar was the last thing on his mind.
  7. Their swords withdrawn and away from each other's necks, Pluto manages not to crumble out of sheer fright in front of the Devil. “What are you doing here?” Crowley asks, his eyes narrow and his tone taut. “Heavens,” Pluto stutters, still catching a moment. “You—you scared me half to death.” “Sorry.” “My whole life flashed before my very eyes,” “Need a moment?” And a moment he gives him. Eventually, Pluto tries to stand straight and proper; he might be frightened, but he still has some sense of propriety. “Forgive me, sir,” Pluto says, nodding down briefly. “I didn’t mean to pull a blade on you, truly,” he slings his basket of mushrooms into his arms, showing it off to Crowley. “I was just picking mushrooms. See? What on earth are you doing outside your room? And how did you find my secret mushroom forest?” Crowley looks puzzled. Secret mushroom forest. He shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep. Decided to go for a walk and ended up here,” he gestures with dirt-smeared palms. “I’ve always been a bit of a night owl.” Pluto eyes it. “Right. Um—Crowley?” “Yes?” Perhaps out of habit, Pluto gently takes Crowley’s hand—calloused unlike his—and places it in his gloves, taking a good look at it. Worriedly, “Just what have you been doing out here?” Crowley quickly pulls back his hand. “You didn’t bump into those terrible Cerda, did you?” “No.” Crowley declares. “Are you hurt?” “I’m fine.” "Are you in pain?" "Pluto, I'm fine." “What happened? Did you-” “Tripped.” Pluto blinks. Stares up at him. “I tripped.” Crowley repeats. “You tripped?” “Yes.” Pluto keeps staring. “... Aren’t you supposed to see?” Crowley stares back. “In the... dark?” Crowley keeps staring. Pluto sighs. “Nevermind.” He turns, walking over a few bushes. “Shall we head back to Ravenel, then?” Pluto says, smiling with his words, “We’ll have you all cleaned up. I’ll fix you a good breakfast, eh?” Crowley squints. “Pluto.” “Hm?” “It’s two. In the morning.” “Four, actually.” A long pause. And Crowley shrugs. “I could go for some pancakes.” Pluto beams. ”Excellent.” He swings his mushroom basket onto his back. Pluto goes first, leading the way through the valley’s forest, making sure the Oathsworn watches his step. “Careful, Ser Crowley. Wouldn’t want you tripping again.” At that, Crowley clears his throat. Something whispers—or rather growls—in his ear. It's faint. But he hears it nonetheless. Pluto turns his head. There’s nothing but the forest and the approaching light of dawn, turning clouds orange and the sky a gradient of sun and night. He mistakenly stares at Crowley—clearly curious to what he might say next. “Crowley,” Pluto says, eyes somewhere else, his tone implying an air of curiosity. Crowley trudges up a slope. He glances at the seneschal, whose mind hasn’t clearly recovered from what’s happened. “Yeah?” They stare at one another. And after a few seconds, Pluto grins. “I never took you as the clumsy type.” A pause. And Crowley shoots him a sly smile; perhaps amused that the formal and oh-so professional Golden Crow is subtly pulling at his leg. And so he presses his thoughts all the way back to his head; he can think about it later, he tells himself, that the man following after him in the woods should be far more important than that thing, whatever it is—damn it all—he really is losing his mind, he must be. His lantern flickers faintly, igniting and dying. As they return to the warmth of Ravenel, Pluto leaves this hidden valley with the hogshrooms for Lord Nairne and a sleepless Walter Crowley to bathe and feed. He doesn’t know yet that he’s captured the attention of a vicious oathblade.
  8. —Before the sun rises: After a very long nightmare, II. something's in the woods “Where are you off to so early?” “Mushrooms for Lord Nairne!” In the maze-like confines of the Ravenel Estate, there lies a passageway to a valley carved by the River Symarron. It’s lush, peaceful, and quiet—and it’s where Pluto has planted his hogshrooms. An hour before dawn, fog rises from the ground, the light of his lantern keeping him from tripping on a tree root and tumbling off the side of a hill. The passage isn’t exactly safe, per se, it’s a trail of trampled undergrowth on uneven terrain, where the pawprints of Cerda litter the ground. He’s never had to deal with one (since Cerda have no taste for gold), but a weapon stays on his side nonetheless. As he trudges through the tropical forest, Ravenel is now a shadow in the distance, drowned out by the noises of cerda calls and mockingjays. He stops in his path. Bringing his light close, he scratches off the moss on a deciduous tree, revealing an etching he’d done years ago. He shines his lantern in every direction, trying to spot it. That one? No. There? No. … Oh, there it is! He could see it. There’s the mushroom farm he’d grown—festering on a huge rotten log. Pluto takes care not to trip, and gently jumps down from his hill and onto the forest floor. Not for one second does he doubt Lord Nairne and his intent with these mushrooms; hogshrooms are colorful and beautiful, but poisonous to the touch. Maybe it’s for research, he tells himself, but now Pluto wonders if he’s being too loyal. Though he’s not at all afraid of the poison, (it does nothing to his skin), he uses tools to wedge out the hogshrooms from their roots. He doesn’t expect it, not at all. But there it is. A hushed whisper. Maybe two. Three. Pluto freezes, then stops picking at the rotten log. Holding the lantern tight, he looks around. And in the corner of his eye, he sees it. There’s something in the woods. Just a few feet away from him. Pluto crouches—then falls to one knee—smothering the light of his lantern behind a thick bush. He parts the leaves with his gloves to look at it. A shadowy figure is bent over, doing something with the ground. Digging? He can’t tell. But it’s not a bloodthirsty hog, no. It’s the shape of a man. But what’s a man doing here? He looks closer. But still he can’t tell; the shadows of the woods are swirling and swaying, alive against the approaching light of dawn. It can’t be another trick on his eyes. No matter how much he blinks, it won’t disappear. But shadows don't move on their own—and—he can hear something; the sound of a shovel piling dirt. Whispers. Muted words. This man is talking to someone, but who? Pluto isn’t going to take any chances on finding out. Slowly, and carefully, he backs away. Never does he pry his eyes off from the man in the woods, inching away with all his things, but then- There it is. An ear-splitting growl in his ears. He spins around, frightened. What was that? Whatever it is, it isn't there. He's all alone. There’s nothing but the dark, and the dying flame of his lantern. But something is here—he can feel it. The flame flickers, and twists. Pluto notices. How his lantern seems to die, how it lights up again moments after. It isn’t long before he’s woken it up. And he isn't alone anymore. An awful noise fills the air. The guttural snarl of a beast rattles him. Colossal. Ravenous. The very earth beneath his feet shakes as claws the size of men dig into the ground, pulling itself closer—the trees groaning against its weight. A hiss. Then a growl. An invisible beast is snaking around him, trapping him in an impenetrable prison of fear. And this—this couldn’t be real. If it’s not a trick on the eye, then is it a trick on his ears? I'm going mad, Pluto thinks. It isn’t real, Pluto hopes. But his blood, gold and pure, is lit aflame—and that much is real. Something is calling him, he realizes, that thing is calling him. Yet he denies it; it isn't real, it couldn’t be. He sees things in the mirror. He sees creatures in the dark. It must be something new. It isn't real. But he can hear the valley crumble. It isn’t real. He can sense its hunger. It isn't real? And he can hear its call. It longs for fire. . . . How very lovely. Coarse like embers. Hauntingly baritone. It laughs slow. The voice of a dragon. It is one that has brought armies to their knees. One that has brought death, misery, and destruction—and yet—with its breath of fire brushing against his ears—the heat of it’s scorching scales on his shoulder—it does not burn him. It is warm, even. A warmth he hasn't ever felt. . . . You’re a special one. . . aren’t you? SNAP—goes a twig. And the beast is gone. He looks to his side. Nothing. Pluto shines a lantern in every direction, but still, nothing. It isn’t long, however, before he notices that the peculiar shadow man seems to be gone, too. Oh, bollocks- Pluto musters up the courage to stick his neck up, to try and see him, wherever he's gone. Is he the one behind this? His free hand unconsciously reaches for the blade at his side. Listening, waiting, praying- A gust of wind on his back. He doesn't remember unsheathing his blade the moment he swung his arm behind him—but then—he’s paused mid-swing, the dull length of his rapier pressing against someone’s neck. When he turns his head, his jaw drops. “I-” Dumbfounded. At a loss for words. “Crowley?" Black tousled hair over icy blue eyes. And—dare he say—a handsome yet gritty, familiar face? He doesn’t realize it, but Crowley’s holding up a sword against his neck, too. Shadows. Black like the void. Crawling. The Oathbearer is looking at him with wide eyes. “Pluto?”
  9. —After the eruption of Misral: July, 597 WTA I. double life Unable to drift off no matter how much he tosses and turns—sealing his eyelids shut until he’s tired of keeping them shut—maybe, he thinks, maybe it’s the nightmares. The nightmares he has every night. Each one the same. Each one lucid. They haunt him beyond his very dreams. ✦ ✦ ✦ Just like any other day, Pluto is elbow-deep in work first thing in the morning; he keeps the noble estate of the Lords and Ladies in tip-top shape, and it's up to him to preserve it. Clean this, manage that, handle those; too many things to do, and all at the same time. Some could argue that all this work—balancing the jobs of seneschal, chamberlain, and occasionally courier—are all too cruel for one man to handle—inhuman, even. But that is exactly what he is. Inhuman. Someone who may as well as be some kind of ceramic doll with a kind soul with gold for flesh and blood. The job is all too perfect for him, a boy who may be bound to a life of servitude for the rest of his years. Half of him likes that peaceful life. The other half thinks it’s an absolute fucking nightmare. Before the sun even rises, he’s off doing chores. With his impeccable eye of detail and annoying sense of perfection, no rock is left unturned, no pest is left alive; it is because of him the estate remains clean and spot-free. He once thought how they’d ever cope without him; but that’s already been answered—the day he returned to House Hildebrand in open arms—after the death of Gillick. After dusting paintings and slaying rats, he’ll have to wake up the Hildebrands when the sun is high, after the sky turns violet and the clouds are painted pink. And it is this, this calm, and scenery in the dawn, that he loves to wake up to. But it’s tedious! At noon, the kitchen bustles with about a dozen servants preparing the mid-day supper. Pluto, the keen orchestrator of this cacophony, ducks under a silver platter of fruits, then narrowly dodges a cook’s shoulder as she turns his way. “Duny, is the pig ready yet?” He glides across workstations, smoothly catching a pan or two before it hits the ground, placing them back on the table as if it were routine. “Nearly done sire, I’ll ‘ave her up in a bit!” “Who put their fucking - codpiece in me soup?!” “The hell are you goin’ on about, Tibbs?” Pluto snorts suddenly, startling some others with a stupid grin plastered on his soot-smeared face. Since he’s laughing, the others laugh too. It’s little things like these he cherishes; when all sorts of formality dissolves in the chaos of the kitchen. To act so freely, even under his supervision—he finds it admirable. They’re fun. They’re all a bunch of sods. And so are you. “Pluto, won’t you play the piano for me?” Somewhere in the gardens, his Lady Esme latches herself onto his arm, silvery-white hair spilling over her shoulders. How she holds him so dearly may come off as strange to anyone else; but the toastmistress is simply trying to steal her guardian away from his hourly duties. For years he’s looked after the Hildebrand siblings, and each and every one is a special bond. “Nairne’s always too busy, falling in love with his studies,” she teases in a sing-song tune, looks up with puppy eyes. “And I want to sing. Sing to my heart’s content.” And at this, Pluto sighs. “Oh, but I’ve pots to clean and butlers to scold,” he says, and with a dramatic flourish, places the back of his hand against his head. “I must refuse, my fair lady, lest the consequences of my actions follow.” A pause. Then, laughter. Oftentimes, he thinks it hilarious, that the knights of the Orchid used to envy him—how the Lady Esme would flirt with their smitten hearts, and how she would shower only the butler with her affection. Why, they would cry, why have you forsaken me so, you honorary servant boy? But truthfully, he thinks of the Hildebrands as his own family; he loves them as if they were his own brothers and sisters, a sort of unconditional love. It is dear to him, no matter what anyone else says. If you ever misbehaved, they’d throw you out like a stupid mutt. And it goes on. The day stretches, the chores and the duties and the list of requests—they pile up like bricks on glass. Maybe one day, he’ll shatter, and break, and realize he’s been living like this his whole life. But I like it this way, he tells himself, that it’s better than anything else, that he’s been doing this since the day he was born. Why would he want anything else? He does his duties with a smile. He always does. He always does. “Would you clean all these vials? I need them by tomorrow.” “We have guests over. Bring us some tea in the solar room.” “Pluto, can you catch a frog? Don’t tell anyone. Especially Varda.” “Ah, there you are! Quickly, quickly - the spider is over there!” “Fetch me a rose, will you? The prettiest rose in the garden.” “Pluto, that’s not what I want.” “Pluto - I said - oh, nevermind!” “Pluto, can’t you run faster?” “Pluto, are you deaf?” “Pluto.” “Pluto? “Pluto!” … Click-click. Creaaak. It’s midnight. His room is dark, and filled with plants. It used to have all his things. But when he left—escaped the clutches of the genocide many years ago—they’ve turned it into some kind of botany room. He thought it cruel at the time, that they’d eagerly throw away all his things, as if they believed he was dead to them. His room is a reminder of it, and yet, he chooses not to get rid of this abundance of ferns and flowers, vegetables and fruits. He closes the door behind him. Navigates through his jungle of a room. Pots hang above the windowsill, where fumellara—indigo dreams—bloom against the moonlight. His ceramic skin shines from it; a faint, cold glow. He drops his jacket on the floorboards—scrubbed clean to his satisfaction—and looks to his bed with tired eyes. Finally. Pluto falls on his bed with shoes still on his feet, too tired to care. Half of his face buries deep into a hard pillow, and for one second, he closes his eyes, drifting into nothingness. . . . Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp He opens his eyes again—stupid crickets—and, sleepless until they quiet down, settles for begrudgingly staring at what’s there in his room until he feels heavy eyelids. Only moonlight illuminates the dark, lighting up all sorts of things Shirin has dumped. Bottles of tea leaves. Some herbs. Spices here and there. A collection of dead lanterns. There’s feather and ink on his desk, and a- He blinks. Pluto reaches for it without getting up from his bed. It’s in his fingers. A note? He flips it, places it against the moonlight. Lord Nairne’s missing some ingredients. Will you find some hogshrooms? We need them by tomorrow morning. I have the feeling his Lordship is in a foul mood. Pretty please? -Shirin The note slips from his fingers. Pluto drops his arm. He can send someone else to do it. Maybe Duny. Or Tibbs. But it’s been a while since he’s gone to the forest. He can do it himself, perhaps? It might be fun; walking in the woods, all alone, enjoying the scenery and watching the jackalopes hop by with their fluffy little tails. Tomorrow morning. He turns to his side with a groan, curling into a ball, the ferns and plants around him his little nest. Frustrated. Sleepless. His eyes find themselves on the mirror in front of him: a gift from Lady Varda. He watches his reflection, perhaps a little too intently, staring into those eyes of his. One black, one white. Call it a trick on the eyes, but as he stares, his reflection smiles at him. But he isn’t smiling. He isn't. That’s not him.
  10. i could like, make a whole army of these if i wanted to 👀 💦 a) Ares Shezmu b) Pluto c) Roxanne Robicheaux d) Sunhild Scarborough e) Candelaria Scarborough f) Raccoon Loyola
  11. Hawthorne is undoubtedly the luckiest woman in Ursa Madeum. The lady knight is still finding the strength to speak and a mind to speak from, still in the arms of the Lord Protector, absolutely spent. She slumps over the boulder in a manner so unladylike, even the most unsophisticated of fishwives would gasp. The sight of the servant boy's hands are burned into her memory, but at his question, she slowly turns to look at Iyalon with a straight face. "Do I really have to answer?" ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ Under the cover of darkness, the heat of the fire provides warmth for all, except one. His gloves lost to the Kiken'na, the seneschal feels as if he's lost a part of himself. A shame, really. He did not think of bringing a spare. Sitting near the fire, he rests the back of his head against a boulder, crossing his arms to smother the glow of gold, layers of his soggy clothing stripped down to the bare minimum: a loose laced white tunic and a pair of high-waisted pants. Though it may not be such a big deal to his brother-in-arms, he feels a bit—stripped of his dignity, per say—to be quite bold in the presence of an acquaintance, a woman, no less. But then again, he's already been bold; he's saved her from the gallows and now she knows. And now he doesn't know if she's thankful or painfully bitter. After he set up camp, Hawthorne left moments ago, to look for wood to throw in the fire, or perhaps to go on a thoughtful walk. The rage of the river can be heard like a whisper under the crackling of the fire. The wind drifts lazily through the jagged stones and grass, where crickets chirp. Pluto feels as if he's done this before, sitting near a fire under the night sky. With someone he doesn't want to remember. However, he does remember something else. "Oh, right," he says absent-mindedly, turning to look at Iyalon. The man has been stripped of his armor and laid bare like him. "Could you be hungry?" Pluto stands, then walks to his bag beside his hung-up, still-dripping clothing. He crouches, and searches. His shirt loose, the boy is painfully unaware there's a glimpse of the heinous mark eating away at his collarbone. "Sorry. I forgot you actually eat. I'm afraid all I have is... bread and cheese," he chuckles, "is that enough to satisfy your knightly stomach, milord?"
  12. ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ First there was a growl. Then there was a ROAR The water reverberates from it's guttural voice, goosebumps flittering across her body like frightened sand mites stampeding under her skin. In a second she stood there frozen, in the next she snaps her head to Ashton, face pale with fear. Tommy tries to talk—but something rumbles the sewers; dust and shards of debris fall from the ceiling as the rodent in her hands scutters into her jacket pocket. It roars again. This time it's nearer. It's shrill, hollow, and many voiced. Tommy pulls her bag around, panicking, searching for something. It's turning around the corner, splashing in the water. Placing its hands on everything. Moaning, sobbing. And then she saw it. "A-Ashton," she stutters under her breath, frantically patting his shoulder, a gun in hand. Fight or flight teems in her nerves—reluctant to fight, but also too terrified for flight. The crying was louder now. In the distance, shrouded in the haze of the sewers, it approaches. Walking—no—crawling, lurching, teetering it's way towards them, struggling beneath the weight of a dozen humans melted into it's skin. It's limbs were their limbs, it's arms were their arms. Suddenly, it stops. It studies the creatures far from it's reach, arms from the back of its spine flaying about weightlessly. The thing had a mind of its own, and it thought, more bodies to take. And, without a single roar, it sprints on six limbs towards them. ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪
  13. Very crabby today, Pluto thinks, and keeps to himself—lest another jest land him in the Lord Protector’s bad side. Yet again—as he is golden and porcelain, and unfortunately his brother-in-arms is no doubt a fleshy human with the human feelings to boot; it is understandable that Iyalon will personally throw him over the cliff himself if he hears another unfunny jest in his direction. And so, Pluto, the most unaffected of the three against the Kiken’na river, supressess yet another cheeky laugh. It takes no sweat of the brow (not that he has any sweat) for him to turn and gaze upon the fumbling knights, watching them, waiting for them to take another step closer. “I’m steady as I can be, my good Lord,” against the noise of the waterfalls and its river, he yells, “would you like a hand? You’re stumbling!” “What about me?! I would very much like a hand,” yelps Hawthorne, “maybe two! Damn river is stronger than a devil’s piss-stream—” Continuing forward in this hellish march; fumbling, faltering, scrambling—even taking boulders to the knee, Hawthorne finds herself growling like a maddened beast; pained and disoriented, but still she stands—pressing on against the ice-cold current with fire in her eyes. How bewildered she must feel, that a frail-looking boy—of a servant’s position no less—is leading the group as if the current felt like drizzle while she scrambles for dear life like a piss-drunk drunkard. Should it not be the knight offering their hand to the weak? Or is it the blessing of the Hinode, that he is favored, and that it has damned her? In truth, it is the gold in his veins, the secret she knows not of; but has yet to discover. As Pluto waits for his comrades to step closer, Hawthorne takes one step that may very well be her last. She screams louder than the river itself, and Iyalon has jumped for her, to grab her, to save her from the cruel fate that awaits her at the bottomless pit; they scramble for balance, and with each passing second, draw closer to the edge. “Shit,” Hawthorne hisses, holding on for dear life, as Iyalon struggles to withstand the force of the Kiken’na, feet planted but slowly slipping. “Shitshitshitshit-” They teeter closer, strength fading in her arms, the sensation of wind brushing her back. Hawthorne could see her life flashing before her eyes, that the last thing she will see before heading off into the underworld is the man she lives to make sport of. The last thing she feels, however, is a touch most alien. It wraps around her body like rope, and pulls- Pluto pulls, and pulls, and keeps pulling until he cannot pull. The knights reach behind a boulder, where finally they can rest their bodies from the thrill of dying a horrible death. The rope - no - the gold uncoils, and retreats into his wrist. His hands shine a strange sheen, and for now, the gloves do not come on. “Are you alright?!” He shouts, wading his way towards them. His comrades, out of breath, and still trying to catch their breath, respond only with the reaction one might expect when they nearly fall off a cliff and die.
  14. Roxanne was the next person to wake up. By the time her eyes fluttered open, fluttering away at the stars and the temporary vertigo, she couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t because of the shock, that at the perfect moment she decided to talk to him, Gaia said ‘nah’ and blasted their ship into the high heavens—no—it was because she couldn’t breathe. It was like her ribs were being folded—her lungs flattened into pancakes—her entire body being laminated into the floor. Stomach flat on the ground, she craned her neck up and gasped. Her knees managed to get up, and next were her arms. But—what arms? She couldn’t even feel her limbs. She trembled like a newborn baby deer and growled like an angry tiger. Everything was dark and dimly red. Can't see a thing. Can't breathe at all. Something was crushing her, but what? Debris? Her hand shot out to feel it, but all she felt was fabric, and this very familiar sensation of a man, and—wait. That’s not debris, that’s— “Teddy,” Roxanne squeaked, “Ted-” All she heard was a groan. Her hand went from frantically patting (his stomach?) to pinching him with nails. Teddy, who was pressing his back against hers, didn’t register the pain. At first. “Ah—ARGH!” The man jolted awake. But like Roxanne, he was still recovering from the shock. “Teddy! Get—” “Rox? What the-” “Getoffme!” “-hell happened,” “TEDDY!” “What-” “Teddy—god—DAMN IT—help me!” Roxanne yelled and kicked her legs. It was a matter of seconds before Teddy actually registered what had happened, what position he was in, and what Rox was even saying. It clicked eventually, but he struggled to find something to hold onto, other than Roxanne. “Just-” (shuffle, shuffle) “—stop moving for a sec-” “Ow! Owowow-” “Sorry—sorry,” “OW! That’s my shoul-DERRR-” “Let me just-” “Teddy! Don’t!” “—turn over here-” “Hey—don't put your hand there!” “Sorry—I thought that was your-” “Okay, you know what-” Roxanne vanished into black mist. THUD. Teddy fell flat on his back. The mist—though it looked more like a black swarm of tiny tiny bees—retreated to the bolted-down sofa nearby. It formed into the shape of a woman. Then there was a blink of light, and a sharp disembodied whistle. She popped back into the physical realm, where she underestimated the weakness in her legs and stumbled hard onto the wet floor. Still dizzy. She groaned and leaned her head against a toppled table. Only then did the scent in the ship hit her. Smoke. Gunpowder. Is that—rain? She looked up and saw the crack in the hull. Light and rain filtered in. Her eyes went on to scan everything else, including herself. Her nails, chipped but not bleeding, traced bruises and scrapes. Nothing broken. She licked her lips and tasted iron. Busted. She didn't bother with her lipstick this time. There wasn't any point in applying makeup anymore if she kept looking like hot trash. Red eyes went to linger on Teddy. She went to give him a hand, wading through ankle-length water. "Up you go," she said, helping him up. Then she went to pat down her thigh-highs. It was like habit; in times of stress, pull out a cigarette. There was a compartment somewhere, up her leg—where a lighter and tiny box of cigarettes were just waiting to be lit. Roxanne smoked a stick to counteract the similar smell in the ship. Her fingers ran through her hair, though it still came back down disheveled. “Want one?” Roxanne asked, offering Teddy a cigarette. The cowboy glanced at the nicotine. “No thanks,” he sighed, “I don’t really smoke.” “Right, right.” She looked at the hull again. Burn marks at the cracks. "We got hit?" "Looks like it." "Where's everyone else?" She looked around. "Yau?" She called, "Yau," "Don't see her anywhere. Must have went to the cockpit." "Maybe." "Any chance the pilot's still alive?" Rox went to the medical compartment in the living room. Punched it open and took some bandages. "Hope so. We need a ride back home," she taped her wounds, "and what about Ares? Wasn't he sitting with you?" Teddy looked at the couch they sat in. It was still in place, thanks to the bolts, but Ares was nowhere to be seen. A thin layer of water rippled at the wreckage inside, carrying blankets and junk. "Don't see him." Roxanne sighed. She went over to Teddy and helped look. "He couldn't have disappeared. Probably not dead, either." "Probably not." "Under the sofa?" "It's too low." "Um." "How do you even lose a kid like him?" "It's Ares. He's a small guy." "Yeah—but he's like, white as a sheet." "Guys," "I can't see shit here." "Maybe we can get a flashlight?" "Guys." “Hold up." "What?" "Do you hear that?" A pause. "I hear a little bitch." "I can't hear anything. That explosion really messed with my ears—" "GUYS!" Roxanne jumped. She looked up. Ares was on the ceiling. “I'm up here." NOW PLAYING: lay-z-boy His hands, feet, and tail had dug deep into steel. He was looking at them upside-down. It was like seeing a frightened cat in a cartoon, except this cat looked more like a newly discovered creature who was better off being undiscovered. Disturbingly bony. Disturbing in many ways. Ares shot them both a nervous grin. Teddy and Rox exchanged a look. "This, is, uh, its kinda hard to explain, but you know—" “How long have you been up there?” Asked Roxanne. “How long have you been down there? Hmm? Hmm? Who even counts time in this situation?” She shrugged. “Probably Yau.” “How did you even get up there?” Asked Teddy. Ares dropped his jaw in search for a reason. “Oh, you know." Pause. "I panicked.” “You panicked.” Roxanne folded her arms. He inhaled. "Yeah." “...Okay. Uh—do you need some help?” “Who, what, me? I’m fine. I can-” Ares pulled. He didn’t budge. “I can manage. I’ve done this kind of thing—before.” “Right.” “Sure.” “You’re stuck, aren’t you?” “Me? Stuck? No way. I’m just—uh—chilling. Nice view up here. Can really see the… uh, destruction. I can actually feel blood rushing to my head. You can die from this, right?” “I suggest just hanging your head upside-down because it’d make you die faster.” Ares wobbled. “Har-har, very funny. You know how this feels like? It’s like having your funny bone hit except it’s literally every bone inside the metal-” “Are you suggesting we should just hack your bones off?” “Don't you dare—Teddy, I swear to GOD if you even touch me—this is Nar Oeste all over again-” “How else are you gonna get down from there?” “Uh—I dunno—help me?” “Help you how?” “Help me get-” Ares pulled again. "Down-" Frantically. “Just—oh, my fu-” “You’re a big boy now, can’t you figure something out?” “Yeah, what she said.” “This is how I die. This is literally how I die. I can't believe this is how I'm going to-" Footsteps in the water. Ares's violent push and pull session was so intense that the ship’s ceiling started to shake. Yau appeared from the darkness, her face lit by a screen. “So." Said Yau. "We got hit.” CLANK. Ares freed his limbs from the steel ceiling. "AH-" CRASH! Ares fell off the ceiling and landed on the table. The other two ignored Ares. They looked at Yau attentively. Rox spat out her cigarette. It landed in a puddle. “Go on.” * * * Oh, Galaxy Fort. This place was like the stuff of legends! Just kidding. Galaxy Fort was like a rip-off of a normal mall in Martial Town. It had a pretty good thing going on with its terrible taste in interior design with the whole retro-future theme, but you can’t have good things in Palgard—cause everybody wants good things. I mean—we’re talking Palgard—where order is chaos, chaos is order, and the people likely have turf wars over in and outie belly buttons. Not to mention the cults and the pirates, and the fact that eighty percent of the locals have probably murdered people with their thumbs. Needless to say, it got ransacked in days; the people are just that nuts. I mean—I should know. My family chilled in Palgard before everyone left for Martial Town. And—today? Galaxy Fort rests on flooded mystery water and broken dreams. It's still a big new world to explore, albeit a hauntingly depressing, and vacant world. It's dead. A cesspool of crappy graffiti. A ghost mall. And—since nobody really lives in Palgard anymore, it’s a ghost mall in a ghost town. The Black Ridge isn’t far off from here either, meaning it’s a ghost mall in a ghost town haunted by ghosts, manhandled by bomb smugglers. Fun stuff. Nature seems to have taken it back, though; evident in the overgrowth of moss, roots, built-up dust and rusty decaying foundations. Debris is everywhere. Broken glass sprinkle every tile. With all this water in the building, I’m convinced the mall is just floating on it. After finding a way out of the ship, and having to get past old floating bits, we managed to get up a broken escalator that led us to the second floor. The place is dark, save for a few cones of light that shone through unstable flooring above our heads. With how empty the place is, and how distant my footsteps are, and how I can literally hear the air here—I feel like inhaling and exhaling through my facial orifices would just offend everything that moves—maybe like wild animals, dudes with guns, and the not-so-friendly unnaturals that would bite my face off. Which is not a very good thing, because right now, we’re trying to sneak away from the crash site. My tail tips over a trash can. CLANK! It echoes like crazy. Everyone snaps their heads to look at me with their flashlights. “Ares!” Yau hisses under her breath. “Quiet, you friggin rhino!” "No swear words, please-" She’s quaking in anger as she mimics crushing my skull with her hands. I open my mouth to whisper an unapologetic sorry, but she cuts me off with an angrier motion that involves a fist. Anything else out of me and she’s gonna taser me on sight. There’s rain coming through the high roof of the mall, so it mitigates most of the trash can problem; but Roxanne’s looking at me like I’m some kind of amateur—which isn’t really fair—cause she’s an, ahem, assassin. On my right is Teddy, who is staring at me with a look that is equal parts patronizing and—well, patronizing. “Can’t you retract this thing?” He very quietly says, while rudely holding up my tail, aka my spine. “No,” it wiggles out of his grasp, “I have to let it loose like a free willy or else I can't feel the rest of my spine. Unless you want to put it up my-” Roxanne slaps me on the nape to shut me up. It works, because I squeal in pain. Yau whips out her phone. A sketchy map of our whereabouts—that looks like something out of a notepad app—flickers into view above the digital screen. It’s a map of Galaxy Fort, and she traces it with a finger. We huddle near a destroyed and heavily vandalized terran fashion shop. The dim light illuminates everyone’s faces as they all peer over. "Kay,” she starts, “we crashed here. Trajectory of the rockets meant the smugglers base is here at the mall, the northern part with the third story annex. We need to make our way through the flooded bits, to the old mall without being seen, then from there sneak to where their base is." "And then we just..." I punch my bare-bone palm twice. "take them to Pound Town?" "I mean..." Yau gestures. "I want whatever energy source they're cooking up. But sure, yea!" I pause a bit, pinching my chin between skeletal fingers. “Where do you think they’re holing up? The grocery store?” "Maybe. Probably somewhere wide of a space that they can set up a production line." “Hmmm." Then—a light-bulb flickers in my beautiful brain. "Don’t you have mind powers, or something? Think you can,” I gesture with my hands, suggesting something to the likes of ‘you smart, do smart thing’, “do some mind power stuff?” The grown-ups look at me with a look, but Yau looks quite pleased I actually know about that. And I mean—why wouldn’t I? I spent like a good five hours researching this girl. "Yeah, but I don't just grab info from the air. I gotta be there, get a feel of things. The vibe of things." She wiggles her fingers vaguely. "I have to have something to work on, like seeing the shape of a building, footsteps, Grumbles. Also my head hurts right now, I gotta recharge." Yau pulls out a bottle of juice out of nowhere. Did she steal that from the ship? “Wait, you can read Grumbles for—” ♪ DING - DING - DING - DING ♪ Suddenly, the mall announcement speaker crackles to life. Everything freezes. (( ATTENTION, SHOPPERS! )) Warbled and robotic. An auto-generated announcement by an artificial announcer. (( THE TIME IS NOW -----. GALAXY FORT )) (( WILL BE CLOSING IN ----- MINUTES. )) “What the hell?” (( PLEASE TAKE YOUR FINAL SELECTIONS FOR OUR FAST— )) “I didn’t know the speakers still worked.” (( AND FRIENDLY CHECKOUT. )) (( SELECTIONS FOR OUR FAST— )) “They’re not supposed to.” (( GALAXY FORT WILL REOPEN—TOMORROW—AT— )) (( THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING, AND HAVE A GOOD ------. )) The announcement cuts. I glance at everyone, then at the empty halls, my senses slowly teetering into fight or flight. That’s not a usual thing, right? Abandoned malls still having announcements? I mean, this was built after a MT-grade mall—of course they have automatic announcements. But—the question remains: How the hell are the speakers still working? This place is like decades old! Seconds pass. We wait for another sound—or another announcement—but we hear nothing but the rain and the distant echoes. This could be nothing, but my hand starts to reach for the gun I stole from the ship. I let out a long sigh that said it all. “That’s not totally creepy at all,” says me, feigning humor. Roxanne starts to lower her gun. The red shade in her hair has completely melted down to her original color—black. I assume it’s for being sneaky, or something like that. She rests a free hand on Yau’s shoulder and smiles. “Let’s get going before we get killed by ghosts,” she says, “maybe we can survey the area and-” Then there was a gunshot. BANG! It crackles throughout the hallway and throughout the entire mall. Dozens of shots come after—scattering right after the other.
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