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SweetCyanide

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  1. —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 itbut 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 violenteach 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 answerstoo 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 stingand 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, childit 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 shutbut 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 bloodand so they hunted the ones who did. He remembers the ravaged countryside; wagons of corpses being wheeled to furnacesall of them thrown into the fire even if some of them still breathed. Deserters were hung high on treestheir bodies crowded on branchesand there came a time where peasants murdered highborns like trophies, innocent or otherwise. Witches, nonhumansall 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 wordsfueling 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 Stromwhose 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 handbut the way Pluto sees it, it seems like he’s imagining the air was his throat. “What’s the word? Ah, yesa prat.”

    Pluto shifts. He opens his mouth to say somethingbut 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 thumbssomething rather common among him and his siblingsthough 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 glancemost 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 soldiersand 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 militarya 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 togetheras 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 understatementit’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 silencesave for the spar-turned-fights belowstretches 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 linkonlyhe 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 thenhe 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 shoulderearning a half-smile in the process, “you haven’t had a good night’s rest in monthsyou 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.

     


  2. LOCATION | DINING HALL ➔ TO THE LIBRARY

    zxRAqA6.png
    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."

     

    Spoiler

     


  3. He thinks the fact that Iyalon's lovesickness is an alleviation from his problems is quite endearing, if not disgustingly sweetgoodness, he's hopelessand 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 nowadaysthe 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 himit's not him at alland 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. NowI'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." 


  4. 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 thinkshe 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 Iyalonwarm and dryand 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 thinkwhat 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 likeI was his manservant for a couple of months, if you can recall.”


  5. —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. 

    Besidesit'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. Andsurprisingly as it may soundhe'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 imaginedwhat a relief, reallyhe 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 offand 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, suddenlycrccckKA-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, thethe 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 cutleryPluto is surprised he doesn’t just use his own hands insteadand 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 quickhe's looking at him, staring at him, waiting for him to say something—justask himsay somethinganything

    "You’re Oathsworn, yes?”

    Crowley pauses mid-chew, raising an eyebrow. 

    “Obviously.”

    Pluto coughs, clears his throat, chuckles, curses inwardly, dies inside silentlyhe rests his elbow on the table, places a hand on his cheek and tries to recover. “Howhow’s it like, though?” He asks, curiosity shimmering in his monochrome eyes. “I haveoh, so many questions to ask. But, ahI’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, methinksbut 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 airbut 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 aroundthen smiles at himall 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 triesscreaming in his mind to look awayhe can’t tear his eyes away from the firefrom 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 beholdthe eye of a beast. He can see ithear 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 servantsMarjorie, Brigette, and Dunyall 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.

    "Ohyes sire!"

    "Indeed, indeed,"

    "Yesyesyeshe 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 facegod forbid he loses composure in front of these threeand 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.

     


  6. 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. “Youyou 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. UmCrowley?” 

    “Yes?”

    Perhaps out of habit, Pluto gently takes Crowley’s handcalloused unlike hisand 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 Crowleyclearly 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 isdamn it allhe 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.


  7. —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 quietand 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 grownfestering 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 crouchesthen falls to one kneesmothering 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 ownandhe 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 herehe 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 closerthe 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 thisthis 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 aflameand 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 destructionand yetwith its breath of fire brushing against his earsthe heat of it’s scorching scales on his shoulderit does not burn him. It is warm, even. A warmth he hasn't ever felt.
     

    . . . You’re a special one. . . aren’t you?

     

    SNAPgoes 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 thenhe’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?”

     


  8.  

    —After the eruption of Misral:
    July, 597 WTA

    I. double life

    Unable to drift off no matter how much he tosses and turnssealing his eyelids shut until he’s tired of keeping them shutmaybe, 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 porcelain machination harboring a soul, imitating a human 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.


  9. 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?"

     

     ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

     

    vNtljC5.png

    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?" 

     


  10. DixyRLh.png


    ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

    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.

     

     ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

     

    Spoiler

     

     

    ArtStation - Sewer Thing, Zack Cy

    SEWER THING - BY ZACK CY

    TIME TO:

    ➔ FIGHT

    ➔ RUN

     

     



  11.  

    Very crabby today, Pluto thinks, and keeps to himselflest another jest land him in the Lord Protector’s bad side. 

    Yet againas 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, scramblingeven taking boulders to the knee, Hawthorne finds herself growling like a maddened beast; pained and disoriented, but still she standspressing on against the ice-cold current with fire in her eyes. How bewildered she must feel, that a frail-looking boyof a servant’s position no lessis 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.

     

     


     


  12. 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 IThelp 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.”

     

    * * *

     

    JlPhoVQ.png

     

    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 Palgardcause everybody wants good things. I meanwe’re talking Palgardwhere 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 meanI should know. My family chilled in Palgard before everyone left for Martial Town.

    Andtoday? 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 hereI feel like inhaling and exhaling through my facial orifices would just offend everything that movesmaybe 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 amateurwhich isn’t really faircause she’s an, ahem, assassin. On my right is Teddy, who is staring at me with a look that is equal parts patronizing andwell, 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 whereaboutsthat looks like something out of a notepad appflickers 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." Thena 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 meanwhy 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 REOPENTOMORROWAT— ))
    (( 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 mallof course they have automatic announcements. Butthe question remainsHow the hell are the speakers still working? This place is like decades old!

    Seconds pass. We wait for another soundor another announcementbut 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 colorblack. 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 afterscattering right after the other.


  13. The men’s bathroom, though by the looks of it, the mixed bathroom, was lit like a darkroom that existed purely for aesthetics. It was dark and ridiculously bright at the same time—and for Roxanne—it was also incredibly annoying. How was she going to wash all this blood off her hair if everything looked red? How was she going to wash off at all when everything in this room was so very unsanitary?

    Roxanne begrudgingly squeezed the water out of her hair, then ran it under the faucet again, careful to not let it touch the basin.

    Geez. Is this paint or—?

    She ran manicured nails down her hair.

    I need a drink.

    Rinse, rinse. 

    No—wait—

    Squeeeeze.

    I don’t need another drink, god, no! 

    She whipped her hair back. It came down with a wet slap.

    Outside, the club blasted bops non-stop. Her heart pulsated to the bass of the music outside. Either the walls were incredibly thin or everything was incredibly loud; because she could hear the laughter of drunk and high party-goers loitering out in the hall, the telltale noise of a fight going down, and—the sobbing of a guy in the stall behind her?

    All of it made for a very stressful experience that nullified most of her six senses. Roxanne squinted at the mirror, feeling her retinas burning. She was disgusted by her reflection (her makeup was horrid!)—but felt mostly disgusted by the mirror itself.

    She had to eye herself through a space in the glass where there wasn’t a single phone number written in lipstick or a shameless and poorly drawn penis in sight. Not to mention some parts of it were chipped off and broken, like the very bathroom itself. For instance, the sink had a noticeable dent in it—like someone smashed someone else’s very tough skull into the vanity sink, leaving leftover debris. Condensation built up on the glass, maybe due to the rest of the bodies in the room who were either very dead or really alive. 

    To her left, judging by the face, is a very scary mercenary stripped of his cybernetics, slumped in the janitor’s area. To her far right is the exit, alongside a passionate couple smoking weed. And beside her, is Harper, awkwardly rinsing his mouth with plenty of water.  

    She didn’t realize at the time that Harper couldn’t actually talk with severe tongue lacerations. What ensued after was a very absurd interrogation that, out of context, sounded like Roxanne was trying to teach him the alphabet with a knife to his throat.

    She also couldn’t bring herself to kill him. That would be a little too much, even for her.

    “How—?” Rox started, immediately startling Harper.

    “How'd you even know this stuff, Harpz?” Her words slurred. Not from the alcohol, but from exhaustion.

    The question stayed while she inched close but not too close to the mirror, where she’d unfortunately noticed the lipstick smeared down the corner of her lip. While she fussed over her makeup, Harper looked around anxiously, hoping he didn’t need to actually answer that. He couldn’t really talk, not anymore.

    “Actually no—don’t answer that. That was—that was a stupid question…”

    Rox ran wet fingers through her wet hair. Streaks of red followed after, like a crimson tidal wave, transforming until it replaced every strand of black on her scalp. From black and curly, to red and wavy.

    Harper watched it happen with genuine wonder—wondering if what she did was magic or technology—caught in his thoughts of wonder until his absent-minded gaze clashed with a pair of murderous red eyes that seized his suddenly terrified soul. Roxanne stormed her way towards him in a pair of sharp heels that threatened to stab the shattered floor beneath them—closing in on the tortured punk until he didn’t have much time to react, before this woman pressed him up against the countertop so far back he bent his body over the sink. She placed her hands on his hands, placing her face uncomfortably close to his face—as if moving in for a poisonous kiss.

    Rox inhaled.

    “I’m just going to make this clear, okay?”

    Harper winced. Her voice didn’t have the same bloodthirsty and borderline maniacal tone she used many minutes ago. It was tired, and weirdly sad—but Harper could barely tell the difference.

    “If what you said was like, a bunch of really believable lies?” Rox paused, unable to grasp her words. “You’re totally dead. Like, I’ll hunt you down to the ends of the world, kind of dead.” 

    A beat passed.

    “That’s—you got that, right?” 

    Harper nodded, even more frantic.

    “Okay. Okay,” Roxanne stepped back, placing a finger to her chin in thought, but Harper stayed on the sink, stiff.

    “Good. Right. Well.” 

    Another beat passed. 

    “Run along before I change my mind.”

    Harper blinked at her. Roxanne blinked back.

    She made a gesture with her hands. “Run.”

    And so he did. 

    Harper darted out the room, darted out into the sea of drunks, and darted all the way home. 

    Roxanne watched him go. It was an impulsive choice, letting him go like that. Something welled up in her mind, as if it was a bad thing to let him leave alive. If it was her, five years ago, she’d straight-up murder the poor guy and shred his body into tiny little pieces so small he’d fit down a toilet drain. But now? Now she wondered if she was getting soft. It was a horrifying thought, even more horrifying than getting emotional at a rave.

    BVVV.

    Something vibrated in her pocket. And that something should be— 

    Roxanne pulled it out, a cute chain of a TV character dangling from it’s edge.

    —her phone!

    When she squinted down at the screen, it read: NEW MESSAGE. 

    She knew just who it was. So she made her way out the bathroom; past the couple slobbering each other to death, and back into the club itself. The music hit her, along with new scents both good and bad, coupled with colder temperatures more tolerable than that damned bathroom. Though the music didn’t spare it some silence, this floor was more calm than the rest; people often gathered here to chit chat and dawdle around. 

    Something like smog enveloped everything, so finding people here was like taking a stab in the dark.

    FRIDAY, 2:00 AM

    ilikemilk: we’re here where u

    roxoxoxo: bathroom were u??

    ilikemilk is typing…

    ilikemilk: nvm i see u
     

    Roxanne glanced up, looking around for a familiar face before glancing back down at her screen.
     

    roxoxoxo: r u at the bar? 

    roxoxoxo: w8 howd u even get in :00

    ilikemilk: try like going to ur left


    Roxanne went left, passing a group of attractive cyborgs she had to peel her eyes from.


    ilikemilk: no ur other left

    ilikemilk: getting cold

    roxoxoxo: this left?

    ilikemilk: yeah then go straight

    ilikemilk: then to ur right

    ilikemilk: yup yup getting hotter

    ilikemilk: hot HOT super hot

    ilikemilk: nono not there

    roxoxoxo: where??

    ilikemilk: behind the rlly tall dude with a fire mohawk

    ilikemilk: piping HOT

    ilikemilk: ok nice you should see us rn

    roxoxoxo: so u WHERE at the bar 😕

    ilikemilk: *were

    ilikemilk: anyways stand right there and look straight u should see us right away 

    Her eyes peeled off her screen. She squinted through an ocean of moving bodies. There were booths here, open ones. Ares said something about a reunion, but it was obvious he’d never tell with who. She would have to wait until she’d caught up with him, so she went looking.

    She stood there, one hand on her hip and the other on her phone.

    Is that him? No, that’s not a boy.

    … That guy? No, too tall.

    Too skinny. 

    Ew, too weird.

    Too… electronic?

    Hmm, too young.



    Wait—no—that’s him!

    She meant to wave, but her hand came up short. It paused in disbelief.

    Roxanne made eye contact with a man.

    Blue eyes, blonde hair, kind of looked like the kind of guy to be riddled in bullet holes AND somehow closely resembled an ex?

    Her face moulded into varying degrees of thrill and confusion. 

    Is that—?

    Her jaw dropped. 

    Teddy?!

     


     

    "Wait. Where'd she go?"

    I delicately wipe a very shiny tear containing my self-satisfied delight. It takes me a moment to actually say anything becahaohman

    "Don't worry," says me, slurping on my delectable milkshake, sunglasses on my magnificent face, "she's already here."

    You know that magician's saying? You show the pigeon, make it disappear, then show it again? This is like that, except I'm showing my buddy the source of his romantic suffering. That, uh, sounds pretty badbut this isn't on purpose, I swear. I'm like, a spectatorthe old wise wizard sending these guys twisted by fate on a bullet-hell hero's journey. These three are pretty much after the same thingso why not neatly tie them up together and hope they don't burn and crash into a dumpster fire?

    Five seconds later, Teddy should be assaulted with lots of hugs and kisses. Thenhe'll stare me down the rest of the evening (or morning?) because obviously, this guyI'm pointing at myself right nowknew this would happen. 

    Anyways, I should countdown to ten, just to see how fast this chemical reaction takes place. I'll start;

    Ten-

    "Howdy, cowboy."

    Okay, that was quick-

    Roxy, appearing out of thin air, is looking down at Teddy, who is slumping pretty low into in his chair. It takes only a few secondsbut she starts to squeal like hell, wrapping her arms around the guy while hopping up and downbarraging him with stuff like; how many years has it been, you got more muscles, what're you up to these days, and, wowyou're a cop, now?

    I could go on and on about this, like how Teddy's starting to look like a beet after she smooches him on the cheek, and how for some unknowable reason, she's looking at me like I'm about to be smothered ne

    "Baby, is that you?"

    Oh, fu-

    I scramble to duck, dodge, and evade the deadly shower of affection I'm yet to receive, to escape from the jaws of auntie love itselfbut

    What?!

    Impossible! She's behind me!

    I panic, my muscle memory egging me to leap away like some kind of feral house cat jumping away from the inevitable glomp of the human that threatens my very powerbut it's too late. Her moves are too quick and I'm snatched in the claws of snuggle-wuggle-physical contact time.

    "Not the FACE—"

    "You're so tall now, baby!"

    "ROX-"

    "Look at you, so handsome now!"

    "ROX PLEASE-"

    "Oh, I missed you! Come here and gimme some wuvvin!"

    "AAARGHH—"

    Okay, seriously, I need to get on with thisbriefing doesn't take all day. All night? Goddamnit. What time is it?

    After everything's settled, Roxanne's sitting on the table engaging in a banter with disco personI meanYaufangirling at how cute she is and how adorable her hair iswhile Teddy's glaring at me like he's plotting some kind of super intricate revenge plan involving my future children.

    Eventually, I finally spill the deets. The tea. My milkshake that brings all the boys to the yard.

     

     


     

     

     

    source.gif
     

    BRIEFING IN PROGRESS. . .

    —Weapons are getting smuggled into the Core. They're linked to the recent terrorist attacks and bombings. The MTPD's going nuts over it.

    —They're showing up in places that mirror garbage disposal routes. Everything's in Yau's file. Track down the garbage truck that hasn't yet reported to it's berth in months.


    —Speculation leads to the destroyed Lightning Rail at Old Palgard.

    PLAN (A)

    —Bust some terrorist ass and hope they don't bust ours
    —Wait do we need an airship??
    —Fly off into the sunset explosions ablazing
    — $$$ Profit $$$ cha ching ching

    PLAN (B)

    —Uhhh I didn't really think that far ahead
    —Improvise
    —Adapt
    —Overcome

     



  14.  

    The two share a glance at one another; equally aware of the Lord Protector's intentions

    "... I will require a full report to submit to the Lady Hildebrand,"

    —of having Ser Hawthorne to politely choke on her own tongue and shut her mouth until the day she's had enough of squawking, added that she is tasked with a task not quite necessary at all.

    At his behest, Pluto finds himself nearly laughing off his horse; somewhat stifling his amusement to a restrained smile. He witnesses the moment the lady knight suppresses her poisonous tongue from ending the Lord Protector's day in one second; though it would have very well been a tug on the Lord Protector's infatuation with the Lady Hildebrand.

    "Aye, sir." Hawthorne instead says, followed by faint chuckles behind Iyalon's back.

    Pluto places a gloved hand on her plated shoulder, drawing himself nearer by leaning sideways off Powder. "I'm sure you'll know of it soon, but ahI take it you're well if I leave you to your own devices?"

    "Yesyesyes," jokingly says Hawthorne, "I'll scour the land with an eye fir detail and spare our Lord Protector my good humor." 

    He chuckles. "Prithee endure your desires to humor him. I take it he's in a foul mood these days." 

    "When's he not in a foul mood?"

    "Whenever you're gone, of course!"

    They laugh. Pluto sits himself properly and kicks Powder's side.

    So then, the muzzled knight lags behind. The seneschal adorned in light armor and an honorary cloak follows after his heart-brother, placing his steed beside his. Pluto merely looks at Iyalon with that smile of his, a pang of remorse invisible.

    "I figured when you'd chime in," he starts, eyes forward to the vast and seemingly never-ending field of jagged rocks and uneven terrain, "had me worried you were utterly bitter that I'd picked the worst knight to bring along. Endure it for about... a few days. A good week, even. I'm certain it's not all that bad compared to the path ahead. Perhaps it'll place you in a brighter mood if I suggested the possibility of one of us falling to our doom at the waterfalls?"

    Pluto glances at Iyalon, a smile twisting into a smirk. "I jest, obviously."
     

    ______________________

     

    8ET1i5y.jpg

    —kiken'na pass

    Unforgiving waters. Twisting roads of jagged rock. Steep cliffs whose faces are prone to crushing travelers beneath them. The Kiken'na pass is more than dangerous for those willing to endure the trek to the Hinode Clan. Only those born in the mountains are able to navigate these treacherous paths with ease; and though many have fallen victim to this terrain, it is said tragedy only befalls those who do not have the blessing of the Hinode.

    "Oh bollocks—" 

    Splashes of water. The noise of armor hitting wet stone. Pluto glances behind his shoulder, too preoccupied by the current himself. 

    "Ser Hawthorne?"

    "I'm fine!" Hawthorne declares, managing to stand up against the strong current, the cold numbing her skin. "I'm fine."

    After hours and hours of travelling, bantering, and enduring Hawthorne's antics; the knights and seneschal leave their steeds someplace safer than a wild river with enough strength to shove them off the top of a cliffsubjecting themselves to the very cruelty of the cold Kiken'na. 

    Perhaps this ridiculously strong river is how his heart-brother feels whenever subjected by his cruelty. Pluto believes the irony in this to be quite humorous.

    "Seems like one of us will fall, after all." He says with a joking tone, pushing through the current at a steady pace. The gold in his body is enough weight to keep him on his feet, though the same cannot be said for his companions.

     


     


  15.  

    eJt4HRu.jpg

    —MEANWHILE, AT THE CLUB

    NOW PLAYING: show it 2 me - night club

    Booze. Bops. Bitches. These three things were all it took to keep Roxanne a happy woman. Luckily for her, the Purple Penguin had all of these things and more; the Martial Town clubbing experience.
    Clearly, a massive upgrade from the rat-marinated bars she'd had to endure all those years ago. She never would've thought that in the entirety of her miserable lifespan, she'd get to chug down jellyfish cocktails, dance to near-death at hologram parties, make out with a cyborg—

    and murder a poor guy in cold blood at the bathroom to get a meaty paycheck. All in good faith for the Order.

    The music was bumping. The people were raving. The disco lights are out to flaunt their stuff, but Roxanne sat alone, wine in hand and cigarette in the other; admiring the stripper at the hexagon instead. No time to start clubbing when she's here to catch a rat. A big one.

    Crimson pumps. A revealing nightclub dress. Long, wavy pitch black hair. Cherry-red lipstick. Eyes so tired that no amount of beauty sleep could fix it; Roxanne was absolutely gorgeous and absolutely miserable at the same time. 

    Three months.

    Fuck. She took a swig of wine, wiped her mouth and smeared her lipstick.

    Three months since the Order sent her for a hunt. A month of losing her guy, and another two months of doing fuck all. One more month and they'll take her tongue. After that, her teeth. Then, her eyes. And they'll just keep taking til' she's nothing but leftovers—and that was the ultimate price to pay for a target unkilled.

    Roxanne inhaled.

    Whatever. Whatever! Not like it isn't my first time panicking about these fucking consequences. Find the little rat and curbstomp the shit out of it. How hard can that be?


    Her eyes eventually went back to the stripper at the hexagon. The one in the skimpy glitter outfit, sporting the nasty kind of cybernetic that involved amputation. Roxanne smiled after exchanging some interesting eye contact. It's a good way to pass the time; flirting. Especially if you're trying to take your mind off your imminent despair.

    Oh my GOD. 

    She groaned.


    Am I crying at the club?! What has the world come to? Is this what getting old does to you? Suddenly you're cantankerous and waiting for the end of the world? Ugh! My twenties are slipping away...

    Roxanne chugged her wine. Slammed it on the bar. Took a moment to soak in the wild atmosphere, watching the locals and their marvelous way of flaunting their cyberfashion in more ways than one. 

    "Another one," Roxanne said, which was, admittedly, a bad idea. She can't handle another one. Roxanne Robicheaux is one hell of a lightweight.

    The glass got filled to the brim. She chugged that one down too.

    Stop being such a whiny jackass! The rat's coming. The hunt's still on. Keep your shit together!

    "Another!"
     
    THREE HOURS LATER.

    Oh my god—am I sick? Nooo—I'm getting all snotty, OMG, why am I heating up??

    Roxanne had predictably, gotten drunk. Eyes drooping, speech slurring, and face on the bar.

    The rat never came. So Roxanne decided to get absolutely hammered.

    How am I gonna chew if they take my teeth away!? Are they taking my tits, too? Fuck! I need those!!


    Her brain was a mess. She was a mess. Still gorgeous, but a gorgeous mess.

    She picked her head up. Put a hand under her cheek and stared at the dancefloor. Puffed a smoke in thought.

    Some kind of crisis was commencing, and she didn't like it at all, but—all this—booze, bops, and bitches, bonus the murder—what the hell is it for? Rinse and repeat for the shits and giggles? Some kind of routine bound to those of the Order? Party and death?

    What the hell have I been doing all my life?

    Roxanne frowned. Glanced down at her hands, trying to see blood.
     

    Eventually, that frown turned into a self-deprecating scoff. 


    God, I'm so tired.

    She took a sip of her wine.


    The bass from the rave was pounding her heart like a gavel. The lines began to blur. Her vision began to blur. Everything began to blur; moving shapes, blinding lights, constant chaos in her ears...

    "You look like shit." Someone said. The music from the dancefloor was luckily weak enough to talk here. "I like it."

    Roxanne managed to turn her head. Some guy sat at the seat right next to her.

    He looked like your typical criminal in Martial Town; the buzzcut, the gang tattoos, the cybernetic design—except—this one looked not that bad. A little handsome. A little young. But young meant a youthful sex drive, and god knows what Roxanne knew about sex. She knew what was going on in that bullet-ridden cranium. Just a guy looking for a good time. Happens all the time. Some moron trying to get their grubby mutts on the goods. 


    "How's about I buy you a real drink?" He said, placing his hand on her knee.

    While incredibly intoxicated, Roxanne let out a wheezy laugh. She slapped his shoulder, felt iron, and snorted. Purple highlights from the lighting followed after her. "You're so funny—a real—a real drink? Whazaa a reel dr—ink?"

    She caressed his inked, dark skin, and squinted through the lens of drunkenness. The perfume on this guy wasn't enough to mask the smell of blood and rust. She held up her glass of wine with a stupid grin. "What's stronggger than this, huh?"

    The stranger gave her a sly smile. His hand trailed, "Something stronger than fuckin' wine, I'm damn sure," upwards, slowly and gently. 

    She laughed. "I'm, ah, hmm... Maddox. Maddox, yeah..."

    "Call me Harper."

    "Harpur. Harpor—what's—whazza reel dreenk, huh?"

    "Slugs."


    "Slugs. Pfft. What's—"

    Harper squeezed her ass. Something snapped in Roxanne right away. 

    "Maddox, you know what slugs are, right?"

    Rox blinked. Slowly. "Yeah."

    "Yeah? Then you know they the good shit, huh?"

    She giggled. "Yessir."

    Harper leaned in close, "Well, how's this sound, sister? You give me a kiss, I give you a slug. Deal?"


    A beat passed. Roxanne giggled again. She leaned in closer, gliding her hands on an expensive leather jacket. "Yeah?"

    He gave her a grin. "Yeah."

    "Deal."

    She brought her face even closer.

    Time is funny. It's always funny when you're making out. With a stranger, no less. You can't tell the seconds from the minutes until eventually—there's a jolt of pain, the taste of iron in your mouth. It'd take you more than a minute to realize that your tongue got caught in their hair like barbed wire. 

    Her lipstick stained his lips. It didn't take too long to stain it with warm blood.

    NOW PLAYING: s & m - rihanna

    《 NA NA NA, COME ON! 》


    Strands of hair like thin metal wire shredded the meat through his tongue. Harper couldn't scream; he ended up gargling blood at the back of his throat. More hair—tendrils of more wire—slithered around his neck. Roxanne's pitch black color alternated between tides of blonde, ginger, brown, and red, fluctuating like a display of late warning. The hair around his neck tightened like a snake crushing its prey. 

    The scene was colorful. The party went on. Dancing shapes in the midst of a surprise interrogation. They were alone at the bar, excluding a few wasted drunks.

    "Thanks, Harper." Roxanne cooed, trailing her nail on his jawline. His grunts of pain were overpowered by the rave. "I needed that. That er," she took a sip of bloodied wine, "that wake-up call. Really sobered me up."

    Harper was stiff and tortured, an endless river of blood streaming down his jaw to his shirt. She took a big whiff of her cigarette and puffed it in his face. Roxanne trailed her nail down to his arm. "You're not dead yet because of this, Harpz. But if you move..." 

    She leaned closer. When he expected a bite, she kissed his bottom lip. Harper winced. Rox grinned.

    "Listen," the assassin whispered in his ear. "I think you're pretty cute. So how about we get to know each other more, huh?"

    Roxanne placed her arms on his shoulders, bringing her face closer to his. "I mean..." She traced his stomach, going down. "If you're not into it, I'll just kill you. Softly."
     

     


  16.  

    Tvdh0TJ.png

    The music screeches into an abrupt stop.

    My bony pinky is a bit covered in a speck of red. Confused? Me too.

    I was picking my ear the whole time this disco man-human-woman wacko started spouting some next-level shit while maybe, just maybe, my incredibly sharp fingerbone was trying to make some leeway in my ear canal to process the words coming out of the mouth I just fed. With milk tea, and with the tea.

    The. Motherfucking. Tea. I didn't even place a fucking price on it yet, what the fu—

    With my mind in shambles but my body ready to throw hands, I slowly turn my head to the one guy who'd probably threaten a child with a gun. Obviously it depends on the circumstances—but—at this point, I am so very down to sacking this girl. I meant boy. Or was it both? Wait, are there more than two genders? Fuck!

    But something's up. Teddy doesn't even flinch.

    The cowboy's fastest hands in the west don't even look like they're gonna zip down to that sexy gun at his hip. It takes a moment, but the guy looks at me, or rather looks down on me because I'm quite frankly a midget, and silently tells me with the look in his magnificent big blue eyes that he's gonna perform child endangerment through words. And also, he's going to cooperate. 

    I make an almost offended face back, one filled with absolute perplexity as I place my hand on my chest and exclaim noises of confusion. Doesn't really change anything, since Teddy just gives me his iconic 'eh' expression. We turn our heads back to the elephant in the room.

    I squint. Then place two hands together and inhale. 

    "We've discussed," I gesture.

    Yau blinks. "You didn't even talk—"

     "I know what you're looking for, and yes—" I cut in, "it's gonna cost you extra." 

    I rub my bloody and ear-waxy finger on Teddy's sleeve. "I'll be getting more tea. Jerry, stay. Teddy, sit, do NOT touch my cup. Overgrown skittle-colored pubic hair, know your place, I will fucking end you."

    I'm saying all of this while awkwardly shuffling through the matted walls, feeling for my secret compartment that probably leads to my ultra-secret hideout. And, huzzah! I eventually do. I punch a trap door that swings right open. It's like a little mouse hole I crawl into—a shortcut!

    Mid-crawl, I stop and ponder.

    "You probably get a pass because I seriously need to put a lock on that thing!" Yells me, slamming the thing shut ridiculously loud and leaving Teddy with the gal-guy. 

    The vent is tight; dark and humid inside with no air to breathe. Luckily I'm a skinny guy, so I don't even have to squeeze through.

    Weapon smuggling.

    The gears in my head are starting to wind up. So it hits me: What they're after is what she's after.

    And she likes to work alone.

    Fuck.

     


    NEW MESSAGE!
    FROM: ilikemilk
    [ares shezmu] — TO: cowmanbuckaroo [teddy leon]

    ilikemilk: so like ur prolly gonna have a reunion 
    ilikemilk: gird ur loins

     



    ↩ ARES: EXIT
    ↪ ROXANNE: ENTER

     


     

     


  17. Tvdh0TJ.png

    "Weird boxers."

    "Weird haircut."

    I give my fellow kid a big shark-toothed grin, half of my handsome face and body illuminated by a swash of alternated pink and blue from the large glowing aquarium in the dark room. It’s alarmingly dominated by a dozen of docile miniature drillbugs ripped straight out of Tethys waters.

    These things are like the gnarly cousins of Terric piranha. Or is it Fractal piranha? Fracture Piranha? Frac—? Whatever—listen—they like to burrow into your skin in the blink of an eye and eat you from the inside-out. I bet if you put your hand in that tank you're gonna end up looking a lot like me, you know what I’m saying?

    Piranha 3D™ aside, let’s pull our attention back to the disco gal I’m supposed to be servicing. God, I phrased that wrong. What is wrong with

    The teenager about my age boldly playing Zengi Run on the opposite end of the table is supposedly a bit of a zany character. But really, who isn’t?

    So I did that face reconstruction a while ago, right? Then I started sniffing out her background—went filing through my contacts, and as it turns out—

    She’s some kind of law-breaking magitech prodigy. Infamous awhile back for ‘unique’ and ‘somewhat iconic’ tech. Couldn’t find much about her other than a few articles detailing a not-all-too recent heist and an even older article about the Lightning Rail. 

    The grin on my face still staying, I head on over with my tail rhythmically swaying side to side with the low-volumed disco ambience to go place down my oriental tea set on my oriental table placed in the middle of my oriental themed room. After that, I sit my bugbear-on-fire-themed boxer butt down on my oriental chair.

    I guess you can say I make up for my problematic fashion sense with my natural knack for interior design. I just got all this furniture from Little Weland’s new WIKEA. It's absolutely great.

    “Tea?” I hold out an oriental cup with a bare-bone hand. “I’m a slut for tea.”

    The bone stops at a loose bandage wrapped around my mangled up forearm. If you want a more accurate visual representation in your mind’s eye, imagine a half-eaten popsicle.

    Disco dudette looks up from her game. Takes a once-over at my hand, then goes back to gaming. “That’s not very sanitary.”

    I place my hand on my chest and gasp. “How rude of you to insult my perfectly sanitary bony boys!” I place her cup back down. “Right me if I’m wrong—but didn’t you just crawl through a sewer?”

    “That’s roight!” Jerry chimes in, then scutters to my side of the table to plop down. “Young man righ' here sure knows how t’ crawl. Real natural, I tell ye!”

    A beat passed.

    That’s right. Is she a disco dudette? Or a disco du—

    “I’d like my tea with some milk, please.” Says the dudette-dude, not sparing a look.

    Jerry laughs and perks up. “Right-o, you adorable liddol peach pumpkin! I’ll go get that milk for ye...” 

    He stands up on his two rodent hind legs and casually hops off the table. Jerry walks behind the aquarium and temporarily disappears. I turn my head back to disco person and find that we are both comically entranced by Jerry’s cute little stride. 

    Right-o. There are things surprisingly more important than dying over Jerry; so I pull out a pair of glasses pinned on my shirt and place them on my face. And clear my throat. 

    “Anyways! You’re in a hurry. You’re hurrying. Don’t worry bout it. What you want is simply,”

    I pull out a file. Place it on the table. “The hardcopy,” I pull out a device right after, “and the softcopy. I doubt these'll take too much of your time.”

    Disco pumpkin finally looks up from their game. Puts down the phone and starts thumbing through the hard copy first with experienced briskness. 

    I place my chin on intertwined skeletal fingers. "License plates of all the garbage collection trucks in the Core. Not my usual line of work, so don't expect me pulling some prices out of my ass."

    Jerry comes right back out of the aquarium, walking and pushing a tray on wheels with a little milk bottle on it. He leads it to peach pumpkin where they internally squeal at the sight of a widdle mouse pushing a tray with tiny widdle rodent feet.

    I give them the tea. They take and pour the milk. Disco haircut takes a satisfying sip of milk tea.

    “Thorough. Ok. You’re not awful.”

    I give em a one second grin. 

    “Safer than digital, less trackable.”

    “I provide more than license plates, too. Say the word and I’ll get to it like a fuckin' workaholic on cocaine.”

    Disco lad scoffs. “Watch your language, sir. That’s so unprofess—”

    KNOCK, KNOCK

    Did I just hear that right? And not that bit about language,

    “What the he—”

    KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK

    No. Wait. 

    KNOCK KNOCK

    Could it fucking be? 

    KNOCK KNO—

    I press a button under the table. “Cinnabon, intruder alert.”

    Sound of a security gun revving up outside. An almost audible yell at the door. Oh, you gotta be—

    “Holdonjustasecond!” Says me, already out of the room before I even finished my sentence. 

    There’s only two out of five people who’d know how to get here. 

    Martial Town Police Department—

    I go up a small set of stairs leading up to my vault door and stick my eye through the peeping hole.

    —and Teddy motherfucking Leon.


  18. gqqBlFd.pngEveryone had fallen. Everyone, except for him.

    Man, did he wish he’d fallen like the rest of them.

    "I'm afraid there's no leaving."

    The sound of footsteps. The echoing groans of the rows of stairs above him. His own heartbeat. An amalgamation of spirits bred by pain festering on his hand, wailing and crying like they’d never before experienced the sight of blood.

    “Besides,"

    Raccoon cursed, unable to internalize his frustration.

    "I need target practise before we get to the real show."

    If he wasn't so preoccupied with the intensity of his situation, Raccoon would've replied with a dull comeback characteristic of his inability to formulate a good insult. Because right now, he was cornered, hiding under a staircase, gripping his wrist like a madman because, Sweet mother of Gaia there's an arrow in my HAND!

    "You've gotta be fucking kidding me," He mumbled to himself, "oh, you've gotta be-"

    This was just insult to injury. He was already bleeding prior. Fleshy red scrapes on his arm and cheek with a bit of splinters, maybe, but this—by far—was the biggest splinter of all. An arrowhead jutted out the center of his palm. The other half of the arrow shot straight through the back of his hand. The muscle surrounding it pulsated a non-stop loop of pain, and a thick river of good old blood oozed out to say hi.

    About a few moments ago, he'd cast a talisman barrier. And that required you to put your hand up in the air. With all the arcane procedures running through his head, the last thing he was thinking of were dozens of arrows with the literal ability to nullify said talisman barrier. Predictively, the arrows sliced right through his razzle dazzle like hot knives through a soap bubble.

    He reluctantly glanced down at his gnarly little flesh wound. The blood made him absolutely sick to the bone. Should he be pulling this thing out? But doesn’t that make you bleed even more? Is this mission just going to be about him throwing up all the damn time? Keep it together, man!

    He pressed his head against the wall. Keep it together. He started looking through his glasses—also stained with fresh blood from the arrow earlier. You're just having a bad day, he started feeling for something, maybe his pipe, most likely his gun, you're just having a bad day.

    You know what? Start thinking. Where's the team? Down there. Need to get to them. How? How do I get to them while trying to get rid of this FUCK—this—nice—guy up there? Think. THINK. THIIII-

    He came to mind. 

    Right, yes, of course, you stupid dum—Raccoon thought, his thoughts overlapping each other in chaotic disarray. Nevertheless, he went straight to work like the professional he was. He shut his eyes and did his thing. His, ‘zone out’ session as he would call it. He drowned out the noise, opened his third eye, and called out to him, he who was beyond the physical realm. 

    First, it was his snarl. A disembodied, guttural snarl that traveled in all directions. Second, the appearance of lazy trails of smoke rising from the floorboards; trails of smoke coming alive to  intertwine into clumps of spiraling mass. And finally, the formation of the body—the face, the fangs, the recognizable stripes on its coat—the white tiger had taken shape, once again summoned to the living world, circling his master in predatory instinct.

    He hadn't noticed the spirits around him had actually gathered in fear. They expressed their concern by twitching erratically in all places unusual. Raccoon used his hand (the non-splintered one), to reach out and pet Pepper. The spirits screamed.

    “Need you to do something for me, real quick.” Hand pressed against its head, the shaman transferred a shock of memory into him. Pepper growled in response. “Go protect them.”

    The tiger stepped backward, regarding his master with a somewhat rebellious glare, until swiftly disappearing like the trails of smoke it had been created from.

    Raccoon had been left with an air of awkward unease.

    Gaia, I need a smoke.

    Raccoon glanced up. Now, arrows go straight through his magicks. That means homeboy wants to do it the old-fashioned way. And if homeboy wants to do it the old-fashioned way,

    Raccoon whipped out an ornate flintlock with a dangerous sheen.

    He'll do it the old-fashioned way.

    “Where they at?” He asked the spirit on his shoulder. It took a moment to process, then it spoke with it's six mouths. Right there, it pointed upwards with a thin finger. Raccoon looked. He scowled deeply.

    “Target practice. Target—I’ll give you some target practice, alright. One hell of a fuckin’ target—”

    He pointed, pulled at the trigger, and—BANG

    "What the—?!"

    He manifested in spiralling ashen clouds, carrying himself with pure animosity and animalistic hunger. A predator beyond the grave, he hunched low, stabbing the floor with steel claws. His eyes watched the woman. His nose picked up the scent of blood—the scent of an unnatural! Pepper bore his fangs and bellowed his ear-splitting roar.

    Fire reflected on his glossy slitted eyes. He split apart in two halves of himself—narrowly evading the hellfire—dissipating into two clouds of smoke; chasing after the woman like two serpents. Then meeting each other, the tiger melded together once more. He pounced forward, hellbent into sinking his claws and fangs into her flesh. 

    (Should he fail, Pepper dissipates into smoke, appearing again to relentlessly attack. Should he succeed, he pins down the woman and nearly tears her arm from her body.)

     

     


  19. | One day when I was chillin. . . 
    NOW PLAYING: Word up CAMEO

    Rwo16Bc.png

     

    Ah. Martial Town. The city where your nearest brothel house shines brighter lights than your typical 9 to 5 imbecile working here for a dim and inevitably short future. Outside the core, success ain’t very common here. A normal life either. So what more a childhood? Most kids here—they end up on the street sticking together with the other street kids working to impress the local drug lord. That shit is what’s sad and funny to me. Know why? They’re a bunch of mooks, the lot of them. But me? I’m a smart boy. I was like the brightest motherfucker in class. And thank whatever supreme being is out there manhandling me like a delicate flower, 'cause you're not gonna live a day here if you're mooks like them. I never stayed in school long enough to know you never needed to—not here in goddamn Martial Town. Here? You just get a brainchip at your local cybershop and you’ll never have to go to class in your whole damn life.

    Anyways, you probably get the drift. Insane pros. Insane cons. One of the many things that everyone knows out here is that you probably need a gun for every occasion. Need to buy the groceries? Gun. Going to a baby shower? Gun. Relaxing at home? Gun. Guns! It's always about the damn guns. People here are sketchy, I'll tell you that.

    So unless you like to revel in whiffing in the glorious scent of the daily shitshow deteriorating on the side of the street inside a cardboard box, (like me), or you’re a maniac and like to bet your life around the locals—just live in the core. Or—I know an even better idea.

    Don’t live in Martial town at all. Bam! Problem solved.

    So I’m sitting here, chilling in my rad hideout hidden in god-knows-where, dressed top to bottom in my luxury pa’jammies. Bestowing my fantastic bony ass atop a royal and outdated version of a Whirly Dirly chair in front of my rad desk; listening to my latest clients and reading the latest tabloids.

    Because you know what they always say about jobs. Work what you like and not what you love. And me? I like being a smartass. On the other hand, I love the convenience of having the materials needed to collapse the government.

    But right now, I’m a housewife with a substance abuse problem trying to get this lady to squeak—and I’m not explaining anything because it’s none of your business, gurl. I pinch one of my phones between my ear and shoulder, trying to patch myself up with my bare-bone hands. 

    “Martha, you’re having a baby shower? Oh my go- gurl, you had a bump in your belly? Bitch, when?”

    Recently, I got this super cool cybernetic installed in my throat. Makes me sound like an authentic man, woman, and—well—anyone, really. It’s great. Right now, I sound like a Karen. I'm pulling it off super well too, since Martha's not very bright.

    “I. Know!” While Martha runs her mouth, I’m trying to bandage my leg propped up on my desk. Shit’s hard when your fingers are literal bones and your body is screaming: AAAAA—

    “But who knew? Geez, with all the humping me and Bill were doing, I thought our bed was going to crash down into the kitchen.”

    Ew. “Well, all that humping isn’t in vain now that there’s a precious little life growing in your belly." I reach for some antiseptic. "Bill’s a lucky man.”

    "Well..." Martha sighs like a teen girl in a teen girl daydream. Finally, I think to myself. After three hours of shit-talking detrimental to my health, Martha was about to spill the tea. "Oh, I don't know, Karen."

    "What? What is it, hun?" I accidentally spill too much antiseptic on a flesh wound. I find the strength in my diaphragm to not scream right now.

    "There's this... uhm..."  Martha's coyly curling her hair in her finger. I don't have the visual confirmation, but it definitely sounds like she's doing it. "guy at the office and... Oh. I can't. I have Bill, and it's so wrong..!"

    "Uh, bitch, please? If you're wetting your panties over some guy at the office, you can just tell me? Like, am I seriously going to tell anyone about it? Rhetorical question—no. No I'm not." I slide open a drawer with my free skeletal hand and acquire a picture of the cretin responsible for my birth. "But before you say anything else, sis—is there any chance he's six feet, two inches, white like he swam in bleach for five days and came out looking," I grit my teeth for this, "pretty much a hottie?"

    Martha gasps. "Um. Yeah! How did you—?"

    "People talk." I say, smoothly. "And with a look like that, he's just begging to be ogled."

    "I know right? It's just—he's so—handsome?"

    "Same!" Not the same. Never. Nada. Not in a million fucking years, thank you.

    "And—? Sometimes—" Martha whispers, "sometimes I wish I could marry him over Bill, and that makes me feel like a big cunt."

    "Oh..." I turn up the sincerity. "Martha, sweetie,"

    "But it's a good thing he moved."

    "That's a normal thing, you know, that's just... wait, he did?" I start wrapping my knee with bandage. "Wha- why? Where'd he move to?"

    "I dunno! Um... uh... Genesaris. One day, he said something came up, then he packed his things and just went off! It must have been something pretty bad. He was all distressed-looking. Maybe there was a death in the family?"

    Or a run-in with the law. "That does sound pretty bad. Did he say where?"

    One of my drawers start buzzing. Scared the crap out of me, but it sounds like someone's trying to contact me.

    "No... he just said Genesaris. Weird how he just left like that. Kinda makes you worry."

    "Hold on, I'm getting another call." I slide my phone drawer open using my tail.

    Oh, yeah. Did I ever mention I had a tail? It's practically an arm's length of my spine jutting out the place of my tailbone. It's bony, sharp, freaky, and pretty useful. But anyways, as the name suggests, I have a drawer clock-full of phones. I stick my free hand in there and start feeling for the vibrating one.

    "I'll call you back, Mmkay?"

    "Oh—oh okay. Talk to you later, gurl!"

    "Bye, bitch!"

    After I drop my bandages and my Karen persona somewhere on the floor, I try to end the call, but as always, have a little trouble trying to register physical contact with the red End Call button because my thumb is just—so damn—bony—

    Call ended with Random. 14:00 - 17:00 PM.

    Finally. 

    After considering to put something like resin on the tips of my fingers, I crush the phone in my freaky skeletal hand because I'm meticulous and don't want her calling this phone ever again. An audible snap, electric crackle, and a bit of smoke comes out of it. I dunk it in the trashcan off to my side and look over the other phone in my other equally freaky skeletal hand. This contact's titled: Unknown.

    Sketchy. But maybe it's a new client. Who knows? Maybe it's an undercover cop. Maybe someone passed around one of my numbers. Man—not really complaining here, but work gets busier and busier everyday with the gang wars and crap. It's like I work with the law and then I don't.

    I plug a gadget into the port so the call is pretty much impossible to trace. Before I answer it, though, I clear my throat so the little thingie in there does it's magic.

    Sometimes I do this little routine with calls. A whole 'act like a different kind of business for reasons out of my control' kind of deal, but since it's so ingrained into my big beautiful head, I end up mindlessly spouting that shit like a weirdly rehearsed puppet show.

    I answer the call.

    "Heeeeello!"  And this time, I sound like a hot, hot lady. "Good evening, ma'am/sir—Doctor Jim's dental clinic, here to schedule an appointment or you here to dilly-dally?"

    There's a slight pause. I'm starting to pick up on some rain on their end. 

    "... okay ma'am," This one sounds like a kid, maybe my age, maybe younger. Probably a girl. Can't really tell, but I start to record what they're saying. "I need to get the license plates of garbage collection trucks in the Core."

    "Appointment it is, then." I turn on my computer by clicking a button somewhere on my desk. It's one of those latest PEAR models, the fancy kind; one of those hologram types that could bombastically take up an entire room if you so much desire to burn your retinas. I got my hands on it after something complicated. I don't know just what it was, but it involved a dickpic, so I'd rather not remember. The PEAR logo hovers in front of my face before it swaps to my desktop. I use my hand to physically but not physically swipe through an infinity of files that appear like floating icons floating above my desk.

    "Looks to me that... it's not a big deal. I'll send you the directions to this place. How's about you come over here at about..." I check the time on the computer. "20:00 PM sharp?"

    The client takes a moment to answer. They're breathing kinda hard. "...Sureness."

    And they hang up right after that. I take a gander at my phone, then save their contact in my list. I'm gonna go start a facial reconstruction based on those clips of their voice, and then maybe check out all the other things I need to do tonight, but first, I'll head over to my little pals.

    I wobble a bit getting out of my luxurious Whirly Dirly 'cause I'm covered in big and small patches of pain. Passing the two arcade machines I stole and boldly placed near my workspace, I keep walking until I reach a fun little mouse cage 'round the end of my bed. Aw, yeah. That's right, I have two little rodent friends. They're having the time of their lives running around those tubes I put in there last night.

    "Sup, dudes."

    Whoops. The voice changer is still on. I clear my throat so it deactivates.

    "Sup, dudes." That's better.

    Right after unlocking their cute cage, I stick my weird ass hand in there and let Jerry sit his adorable furry ass on my horror-fuel palm. He's a black tan; that means he's got a black coat and a brown undercoat. There's a single white stripe that goes over his back which I think is naturally fashionable.

    Jerry sniffles around and stands up on his two hind legs to look at me with those big, beady eyes.

    "We got a client coming over, so here's the plan..."

     

     

    THIS MESSAGE WILL TERMINATE ITSELF IN: 1 MINUTE

    HEAD AROUND THE BACK OF PAL'S GUARD. FOLLOW THE TALKING MOUSE. 

     


  20. KFh1DayIJbNlgmNW87KAGvH9rEhG6L7NzFVKnvCBksUgZMOTYUPGscvOXDwnnNLbjCjdUX0n7LdVVKIIo_Fu7AZZY9xrmwHsk_BDZMroeyT2D4-l_iXCOCe-Rk16Bf4JN4jhnkJ29guKxcgIzDm9f9VZFHaHWOjSGSyDn9Xcvln6A3q_EQsr6Up3PLmdvMEVHSLWCsO082ibNQ25cgy0UuNy4zljx0IcGDfTa4Gyaa-s5Ef_onHzVsIh3jXXsTnzTTqs8tdnocXuxFZfu6k4856xpsluUeI_iGjNF-l7LXDzlvYZ3farFLR1KXS78z0UupTpsbgb2yS7NvjarnobbNLfdq0K6qJSMZ6m66nDRidFupsdH06GwrsoDn-WZEam2Lx6qe-2saPBSZRotARjgjO-xs-dA_qAksQnGXY6j7K0jfOi0OqS1lCPW2sQw2_iczL3yEGrZyt5TZRUQdlQ9SQH1AYeiALHWaHNzmyzOMD5Rc6MI8R-MyIDt8fW9pNkxg_gR51Buep4Bwv_14WeIIfTsgQ6pH6kdYETIaij-pk7aF9olfoeLSnK1KQp8FupUYGDUYkqC_ycO-GA9J-18VYoyfRsRc3lQYkFMiTlcFRPEDzHBkFWm-dTTn1CivjpyVP19t6-ULfFq-Egch5n-F7Ngtm0gbHJWoWidafc4O_9FImKhBjutncu4z7wMWdOwQhNB5GJ-ci2lbjzjTTLemCG=w759-h890-no
    yaugirl      
    @ripTia • 15 seconds ago
    nose
    REPLY GRUMBLE LIKE SHARE
    KFh1DayIJbNlgmNW87KAGvH9rEhG6L7NzFVKnvCBksUgZMOTYUPGscvOXDwnnNLbjCjdUX0n7LdVVKIIo_Fu7AZZY9xrmwHsk_BDZMroeyT2D4-l_iXCOCe-Rk16Bf4JN4jhnkJ29guKxcgIzDm9f9VZFHaHWOjSGSyDn9Xcvln6A3q_EQsr6Up3PLmdvMEVHSLWCsO082ibNQ25cgy0UuNy4zljx0IcGDfTa4Gyaa-s5Ef_onHzVsIh3jXXsTnzTTqs8tdnocXuxFZfu6k4856xpsluUeI_iGjNF-l7LXDzlvYZ3farFLR1KXS78z0UupTpsbgb2yS7NvjarnobbNLfdq0K6qJSMZ6m66nDRidFupsdH06GwrsoDn-WZEam2Lx6qe-2saPBSZRotARjgjO-xs-dA_qAksQnGXY6j7K0jfOi0OqS1lCPW2sQw2_iczL3yEGrZyt5TZRUQdlQ9SQH1AYeiALHWaHNzmyzOMD5Rc6MI8R-MyIDt8fW9pNkxg_gR51Buep4Bwv_14WeIIfTsgQ6pH6kdYETIaij-pk7aF9olfoeLSnK1KQp8FupUYGDUYkqC_ycO-GA9J-18VYoyfRsRc3lQYkFMiTlcFRPEDzHBkFWm-dTTn1CivjpyVP19t6-ULfFq-Egch5n-F7Ngtm0gbHJWoWidafc4O_9FImKhBjutncu4z7wMWdOwQhNB5GJ-ci2lbjzjTTLemCG=w759-h890-no
    yaugirl      
    @ripTia • 10 seconds ago 
    i typed that with my nose 
    REPLY GRUMBLE LIKE SHARE

     

    lF39o3H.png
    get_boned    
    @ilikemilk  • 1 second ago
    Replying to @ripTia
    penis
    REPLY GRUMBLE LIKE SHARE

  21.  

    sviatoslav-barabash-.jpg?1530616929

    "Milord, you'll find that your decision to bring me along this mission will not disappoint you."

    "Oh! Yes, of course! Surely, I would not have taken you along just to disappoint us, Ser Hawthorne." 

    A few minutes ago, the two men had embarked on horseback, forward to their journey en route to the lands of the Hinode clan. Pluto, of course, had chosen the fortunate knight to bring along. Surrounded by scenery offered by the wide plains of Andelusia, it is a particularly sunny and beautiful day, for exposing Iyalon to Faun Hawthorne: a woman with a tongue so sharp that the Lord Protector himself often find cutting his patience on her clever insults. Pluto and Hawthorne trailed, or somewhat, lagged behind Iyalon to engage in a cheeky banter.

    "Although," Hawthorne says, a spark of curiosity prolonging her words, "if Imay be so bold, for what reason do I hav' the pleasure of bein' your first choice?" The knight guides her steed; Bohemian, a handsome palomino decorated with the Orchid armor, along the dirt path carved by streams from the Syrramon River.

    "Hmm," Pluto hums, mounted on his white stallion. The sunlight seems to glow radiantly against him. "How about..." Pluto brings his thoughts to the running streams under them, "you guess, and I say which is right and wrong?" 

    Hawthorne exclaimed in an excited 'ooh!'. "My, my. Let's see here. . . could it be, perhaps, you been charmed by me charming green eyes and luscious ginger hair?"

    "Mmm. . . you are, as you say, charming," Pluto laughs, "but no!" 

    "Hmm. Ah! Or!" Hawthorne leans closer to Pluto, bringing her accented voice to a whisper. "Could it beyou desire the joy I bring when I frolic 'bout the Lord Protector's patience?"

    Pluto chuckles, and rolls his eyes. "Perhaps." 

    Sharing a mutual idea, and a cheeky grin, the two disengage from the whisper, and continue striding on their steeds.

    "However," Pluto says, "you are the daughter of a surgeon, are you not?"

    Hawthorne sucks the air through her teeth. "'deed I am. Me father educated me'self in the... medical arts, I say." 

    "Then you are, indeed, the perfect choice for this mission. With your quick wit and knowledge of the medical field, I am sure you will not disappoint. If the Lord Protector ever requires your assistance in... well, wounds, you will be there to tend to his needs."

    Hawthorne blinked, curiosity sparking once more. "But what 'bout you, Milord?"

    Pluto stutters, having forgotten that Hawthorne was particularly new.

    "It's quite. . . hard to explain, er, but I don't exactly possess the needs of any. . . human, I. . . believe. . .


  22.  



    Despite the startling hints of sadism seething in his otherwise inhuman eyes only about a few moments ago—perhaps even teeming with malice—Pluto suddenly finds himself at an otherwise strange and abrupt—

    state of peace.

    As Iyalon laughs away, Pluto does not notice the smile intimately creeping across his face. It brings a moment of clarityIyalon's smile, and it had brought a bit of sense back to him. Quite a moment of clarity did it bring; as he now looks into the eyes of his friend, with eyes hopefully devoid of that wickedness eating at him from the inside.

    Pluto frowns. Wickedness, is it?

    Jasper Hildebrand. The Greywood. The Broken Plains. The. . .

    The knight brings down his gloved hand into a firm handshake. Calloused. Strong.

    The seneschal slowly curls his fingers in a stiff movement. Pristine. Fragile.

    ". . .Who amongst the knights would you like to bring along for this eventful journey?”

    The question sprouts several questions that blooms so rapidly that his previous thoughts are imminently erased.

    Pluto gives himself a moment, and cups their handshake with his two hands. "Well! I am quite glad you asked, Lord Protector." He smiles. Rather cheekily, too.

     "I know just the strapping young lass."

     


     


  23. LQpH1C3.png


    Ramsey got into the passenger's seat with a big heavy sigh. The car started rolling the moment they went in, and he rolled down his tinted window just a little. He didn't want the car to smell, so he flipped off the AC. 

    "Are you carrying?" The question seemed to confuse him. Ramsey adjusted his seat with a crank, relaxing into the cushion before actually saying anything.

    "No, Emile," he said, tapping the side of his spectacles to scan for the previously marked targets, "I don't even know what that means."

    Their driver eventually brought them to the parking exit; the type where you had to roll down your window and put your coins in. Ramsey pulled out a cigarette just as Emile rummaged for some coins - casually igniting his tobacco stick by huffing a tiny gust of fire unto it. Half the stick caught fire for a brief moment before sinking into orange-hot embers, then fading to heated grey ash. When he puffed a smoke, half of his cigarette was gone, much to his annoyance. Many of his coworkers thought that he looked like a fire-breathing lizard doing that. 

    They pulled out of the driveway. Emile, their trusty driver, began to bring them to the main road. Ramsey watched the cityscape roll by, decorated by the depression that Last Chance always gave off. The people here were miserable, and it reminded him of himself many years ago. He scoffed at them, then to himself, begrudgingly puffing another lazy drift of smoke. Ramsey instead looked somewhere else, eyes drawn to the rear view mirror where the doctor was anxiously fidgeting in the back seat.

    "You're not looking so fresh, doc," he said, taking yet another puff. It was a miracle how he hadn't already died - from this - smoking until his lungs were charred, black and burning. But then again, he did breathe fire. How's a little smoke gonna hurt him? He took a pack of cigarettes and offered it to Hart without looking at her, not directly, at least. "Don't worry. We'll get you to the news agency safe and sound." He pointed to the soldier then to himself. "Private Gareau and Doctor Robicheaux at your ser-?" 

    A red target bobbed up behind Hart in the rear view mirror. Fuck. 

    "Ah, fuck," Ramsey muttered. A police car behind them was hot in their tracks. It signaled them to pull over. "Emile," he said to the sniper, tapping his shoulder with a knuckle and nodding to the mirror between them. Hart started to grow pale. "We pulling over?" Ramsey asked. It was a rhetorical question. He grew steadily anxious as Emile plastered on a devious look on his face. Oh god. Oh fuck.

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