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hardest choices; strongest wills [artifact]

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“I’m here,” Anatase said. “Next to a stall selling… Yuuja eggs?” He poked one of them, much to the chagrin of the shopkeeper. “Nah, these are fake.”

The shopkeeper glowered at Anatase. “You insolent—”

The dark-haired man was already walking away. “Ooh, these pearls aren’t half bad. Ours are way better, of course, but these are naturally grown.”

“Hold on—I see you. Wait there.” Celestine moved into view, a grimace deeply engraved on her face. “Remind me to install a baby tracker on those birthday goggles I’m giving you.”

“Aw, you remembered! How sweet.”

Anatase turned around, spotted Celestine, and waved. He hurried forward, shoving the fruit roll into her hands. “Quick, eat before it gets cold and stops being crispy. We’ve got a thief to catch.”

Celestine took the fruit roll, wrapping paper crunching up in her hand as she bit into the sugary treat. “Delicious. Let’s go.”

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“What’s a burlesque?” Anatase asked, staring up at the brightly-lit sign.

“A business full of pretty women, and nothing you should concern your virgin mind about,” said Celestine, pushing through the crowd with single-minded purpose.

The suit tracker had let them through the Fete—whoever had Anatase’s bag was on the move, staying ahead of the two artifact-hunters. It hadn’t helped that every now and then, a bright trinket or interesting bauble had caught Anatase’s eye, slowing their pursuit.

He wasn’t worried, though. Whatever petty thief that had the luck to pick up a C’zirqonian artifact-hunter’s travel bag wasn’t going to be able to throw off their scent so easily.

Anatase squinted at the bright lights flashing through the doorway, paying no attention to the scantily-clad women standing on each side of the entrance. “It looks more like a club to me. One of those… city things. Looks exhausting.”

Disappointingly, there seemed to be few seats in the venue.

“Cease any unnecessary staring,” Celestine hissed, leading the way through the room.

“I can’t exactly look for my bag with my nose, can I?”

The pair wove through the mass of bodies, scanning the crowd. A few moments later, Anatase tapped Celestine’s shoulder. “I see him.” He jerked his chin towards a group of teenagers. The group was obviously from well-off families. Despite their simple way of dress, the signs were there: the overabundance of drinks and food on their table, the way their clothes held no wear or tear and fitted them perfectly. In the center of the group, laughing the loudest, was an elf wearing a beautifully-embroidered cloak.

In his lap was Anatase’s bag. In his hands was Anatase’s helmet.

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Anatase didn’t wait for Celestine. He strode towards the boy, hands in his pockets, a dangerous grin on his face.

“Hey, rich kid.”

The boy looked up, his smile fading.

Anatase flicked his wrist. The boy yelped as a lodepoint sprouted in the wall next to his head.

“If you wanted to have fun, maybe try visiting a museum instead of mucking around in the slums and stealing from the poot?”

The elf muttered a quick incantation and vanished.

Celestine glanced through her tiger-eye's lens. "Your little elf friend is on the roof." She cracked her knuckles as she strode forward. "Come on, we don't have all day."

They bolted outside. Anatase threw a lodepoint, lodging it into a metal windowframe. He made a fist; a hardlight chain blazed into existence from his hand to the lodepoint, and he hauled himself up. Grav-mag boots found purchase on the walls, and soon, Anatase pulled himself over the edge of the roof.

A few moments later, the thief found himself flat on his face, a knee pressing into his back.

Anatase shook his head in disappointment, shouldering his bag. “Go do something more productive with your life, kid. Maybe get over the rebellious phase and start using your money for something other than cheap invisibility cloaks.”

Celestine caught up fairly easily to Anatase, arriving at the rooftop and squinting down at the elf kid with mild amusement. "That's enough fun, partner. We better go."

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The bright mood Anatase had regained after chasing the thief dissipated as soon as they returned to the hotel. He lingered in the lobby, dragged his feet to his room, and shut the door with more force than necessary.

Celestine's eyebrows furrowed in dismay as she stared at the door for a moment, before turning to her own door. Not even five minutes after she went in the room, a knock was heard from the other side of the entryway.

“Cel—”

Anatase stood in the doorway, a blanket draped over his shoulders.

“Can I sleep here? The floor is fine; it’s just—” he fidgeted, not meeting her eyes. “... don’t want to be alone.”

Celestine tilted her head, and she very carefully offered a mild smile in her partner’s direction. "Of course, partner. Come on; one is never too old for sleepovers."

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Anatase tried let his the relief show too much.

“Praise Zare,” he proclaimed flatly, hands raised to the heavens. He disappeared for a moment, returning with two pillows.

Celestine tilted her head, watching his progress around the room. "If you start worshipping the lightning god, we cannot be friends."

Anatase looked at the bed, then at the floor, then at the bed.

“Would you consider exercising gender equality by taking my place on the floor for a change?”

"Sorry, what was that?" Celestine raised an eyebrow. "Who is in whose room right now, again?"

“Never mind,” he chuckled. It took a while, but after some pillow positioning, Anatase settled into a comfortable position.

"Now, tell your auntie Celestine what's up with you." She sat cross-legged on the bed. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

Anatase gave her a look bordering on disgust. “You’re younger than me.”

"Indulge me anyway," Celestine smirked, folding her hands together under her chin as if in prayer.

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Anatase sighed. He stared up at the ceiling, hands folded across his chest. “Same thing as earlier, I guess. Everything’s so much bigger than us. Stones that control aspects of the universe? Storms that come rolling down from mountains that slice through another dimension? I mean, running around in ancient temples is fun and all, but there’s always the risk one of us gets offed by someone. Something. Things we can’t prepare for, no matter how much the eggheads back in the Apeirogon pry apart the secrets of the crystals and outfit us with every piece of magitech they invent.”

He paused, exhaling loudly “And what happened to IVRY… it’s terrifying, when you think about it. We’re nothing. There’s always a bigger fish, always some cosmic event rolling over this damned planet, always some demigod or vampire or psion throwing mountains or making plagues. And in the end, it’s us, the little people in the middle who get stepped on. Dress us in titanium, give us diamond blades: we’re still human in the end.”

Anatase fell silent. Celestine stared. He let out a weak laugh. “Sorry. See, this is why I don’t talk about serious stuff. It gets too… serious.”

Celestine nodded wordlessly, waiting to see if he had anything else to add to his sudden spiel. It wasn't very often that they spilled whatever thoughts lay in their minds; even with each other, they were careful.

“Thanks for listening, though.” He turned to look at her. “Now, tell your dear uncle any thoughts of existential terrors you may be harboring.”

A sudden laugh burst from her throat. “You pretty much summarized everything, uncle.” Celestine paused, her tone sobering. “We are human. We are still human, and so we live, no matter what terrors lurk beyond the realm of our limited capacity.” She shrugged, let out a deep breath into the night. “We do what we can, what we must, even when the world proves to be against us. ‘Tis how we’ve always survived, even until today.”

“Mhm.”

They lay in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Stop with the ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’ calling though. It’s weird. I prefer partner.” As an afterthought, he added, “Or friend.”

“And that, friend,” Celestine smiled brightly, “is an idea I can get behind.”

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Anatase woke up with a stiff neck. He pried open his eyes, blinking as the white blob above him came into focused.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Celestine smirked, hovering above him bright-eyed and fully awake, freshly showered judging by the still-wet tendrils of white hair stuck to her forehead.

Anatase groaned, pulling his blanket over his head.

“Tomorrow, we sleep in my room and I get to be on the bed.”

She snorted in reply and wandered away out of his line of vision, presumably in the direction of the bathroom.

With much reluctance, he returned to his room to wash up.

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Anatase rejoined Celestine in the small restaurant at the hotel’s lobby.

“We’re meeting the other two hunters later, right?” he asked, carrying a plate piled high with some sort of salad.

Celestine poked the smoked sea bass on her plate with a fork. “At the docks in an hour, yes.”

“Which one is it? MICA? AMBR? SLVR?” He sat, then held up his tiger’s-eye lens. “Oh, bollocks. Why them?”

Celestine raised an eyebrow at the reaction. “What do you mean, oh, bollocks?” She fished out her own lens and studied the information in her line of sight; the team joining them was—

IRON. She vomited a little in her mouth, to be quite honest.

“I’m all for cooperation and working together to not die, but those two?” Anatase angrily stuffed a handful of cabbage in his mouth. “Shtubborn shtuck-up phair of bi—” the rest of the statement was lost in his irritated chewing.

Celestine rolled her eyes, swallowed down her mouthful of fish before replying. “This, coming from the man who had once tried to court one of the aforementioned stubborn stuck-up pair of bitches.” Her knowing gaze was unrelenting, even as she polished off the rest of her plate.

“Nobody’s perfect.” Anatase swallowed, wiping his mouth. “Let’s go. Less chance of pissing them off if we’re early.”

And with that, they each finished their breakfast and returned to their respective rooms to suit up.

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It was a lovely day in Mezthaluen, apart from the magestorm-darkened sky and the unrelenting rain.

ONYX stood at the docks decked in full combat gear, a fact that somehow made the prospect of meeting the backup easier to stomach. Celestine’s eyebrows were furrowed deep enough to leave a permanent mark on her forehead.

Anatase was pacing restlessly along the docks, hands clasped behind his back. Several of the dock workers were giving him nervous looks—as diverse the people who visited Mezthaluen were, the man decked in jet-black futuristic armor gave them pause.

Still, the bustle of the docks went on relatively unchanged by their presence. Despite the rain, the bustle of human activity continued - dockworkers moved about carrying items, sailors yelled out orders, passengers chattered with each other as they disembarked, street vendors called out their wares. The activity, however, belied a sense of franticness, a desperation to get things done before the full brunt of the storm swept into the city.

Just at that moment, the blaring of horns signalled the arrival of a new ship.

Celestine shook her head, closed her helmet to hide her expression of dismay. “I’ll go find us a boat. You deal with them.”

Anatase grabbed her arm. “We are suffering through this encounter together.”

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Celestine couldn’t help the chagrined twist of her lips at the sight of IRON trailing up the wooden plank of the ship they had commissioned to bring them to Bloodstone Marsh.

“Remind me never to ask for backup without actually checking on said backup ever again,” she said through gritted teeth, moving slightly behind Anatase before the urge to verbally spit out something unseemly could rise in her throat again.

“Despite them being absolutely insufferable to be around, they are, arguably, nearly as good as us.”

She scoffed, leaning back against the railings of the ship as they watched the two women approach them. “Arguably, being the key word.”

Anatase plastered a fake smile on his face, ignoring the fact that his activated helmet hid his expression. “Good day, ladies!”

Rhyol and Lusite came to a stop a few feet away from them, as if getting too close would infect them with some horrible disease. Celestine waved at them wordlessly; there was no hope of avoiding them anyway, so what was the point?

“Mafic. Felsic.” Rhyol said, using the same tone one would use in describing a festering wound. She was a woman in her late forties, a number of years older than them both, and Lusite’s mentor.

Rhyol’s combat suit was an older version than the one ONYX had. Flecks of grey peppered its dark exterior, countless scars from her battles. The design was bulkier, more fitting for drawn-out combat, though it retained the sharp, geometric style of C’zirqonia.

Lusite didn’t even bother to voice a greeting. Her expression was invisible behind her pale, featureless helmet, but Celestine could almost feel the scorn burning through.

“You think she’s still salty about how she said I wasn’t good enough for her, then I shot to the top of the rankings the next week?” Anatase whispered through their comms.

Celestine smirked under the helmet. “I can imagine so.”

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Back in the hotel, Anatase tossed a trio of quartz projectors on a table. The orbs glowed, projecting a hologram synced to his tigers-eye lens. The image faded for a moment, then sharpened, showing a bird’s-eye view of Bloodstone Marsh.

“This is where we’re going.”

Anatase adjusted his lens, and the view shifted to include a representation of the magestorm. Anatase pointed to a spot some distance into the marsh. “The eye of the storm’s going to pass through here. I and Celestine will be retrieving an artifact from within it, but to be able to do, we need you both on the outside to pull us out if things don’t go as planned.”

He looked at Rhyol. “Did you bring the case?”

Rhyol nodded, glancing at Lusite. Lusite lifted an equipment container, placing it on the table with a soft thud. Deftly, she worked the unlocking mechanism, and the container slid open with a click.

“Incabloc sapphires,” Anatase said, staring at the rows of blue crystal. “Time dilators.”

Incablocs were difficult to produce, often only being used for time dilation fields to induce crystal growth. Giving a pair of artifact-hunters thirty-four of the rare gemstones was a great waste—the fact that his request had been approved only drove in how powerful the cornerstones were, and how important they were to the higher-ups.

Anatase returned to the hologram, marking out a few areas. “We’ll be setting up an outpost to wait for the storm to approach.”

IRON looked skeptical as he explained the rest of his plan.

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On the day of the mission, Anatase sat on the edge of Celestine’s hotel bed, his modified suit draped across his lap.

“How are we feeling?” She asked him, fiddling with the mechanisms on her own suit.

“Still kind of pissed they sent IRON when we asked for reinforcements.” Anatase sighed. He slung his suit across his shoulder and entered the bathroom. “I just want this to be over.”

“You and me both, pal,” Celestine muttered, rolling her shoulders as she stood up to her feet and unfurled her suit, scrutinizing it with a careful eye. “When this is over, I’m taking a vacation.”

“You can join me in Union Capital, of course,” Anatase said gallantly, as if offering an invitation to a grand cruise. She smiled at him before pointing towards the door.

IRON met them at the docks. The pair of women stood at perfect attention, arms crossed.

“The equipment has been loaded,” Rhyol said, managing to make the simple statement sound accusatory.

Anatase simply boarded the ship. “Let’s get going, then. We’ve got a magestorm to chase.”

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From her perch on the mast of the ship, Celestine was so absorbed with staring across the distance to the approaching dark undergrowth of Bloodstone Marsh that she didn’t even get a chance to prepare before Lusite was five feet under her on the deck, wearing an unreadable mask over her features.

“Felsic,” came the succinct greeting.

“Pyrite,” replied Celestine, shifting to look at the other woman directly. “Did you need something?” Or are you just here to nag at me about my partner again?

Lusite looked up at her as if she were the dirt stuck under the heel of the woman’s boots. “Pardon me, but I’d like to ask after Anatase.” Celestine tried her hardest not to let anything incriminating show in her expression. “He hasn’t…really caused you any trouble, has he?”

“And by trouble, do you mean has he ever failed me since the last time we spoke? No, not really.”

The other woman’s lip twisted in mild disgust for a brief split-second before her face became carefully blank again. “I see. Thank you for your time,” Lusite murmured, turning away with a haughty air.

Celestine really didn’t like the members of IRON.

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The ship wound down the river at a good speed. Rain from the magestorm helped raise the water level, nearly flooding the banks. Anatase stood at the bow of the ship, peering forward through the unceasing curtains of rain.

Soon, the ship entered the Great Lake. Anatase stole a glance behind him. Mezthaluen’s shoreline was a mosaic of lights in an expanse of grey - grey sky, grey waters, grey sheets of rain blurring every feature in between. Sooner still, the shoreline faded into a hazy streak of light.

It was an eerie feeling, being at the center of the lake: magestorm approaching from above, unknown depths beneath, empty air on all sides. Anatase briefly considered striking up a conversation with Lusite, but the girl was nowhere to be found, as was Celestine.

There was only silence to keep him company as the ship drew closer to the opposite shore, and closer to the center of the Bloodstone Marsh.

Finally, the dark smudge on the horizon came into focus. Twisted trees draped with moss and vines loomed high above the waters, casting the land in between in shadow. Here and there were patches of clearings blanketed by reeds and rushes. The ground was uneven, the distinction between quicksand and bedrock nearly nonexistent.

The ship’s hull ground against the shore. Anatase adjusted his helmet’s settings, and the display illuminated the metals and minerals in view, disappointingly scarce as those were. The silhouette of a rocky hillock stood out in the distance- their destination.

He dropped off the ship, landing quietly on a half-submerged boulder. “Let’s go.”

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They were walking through the marsh in relative silence aside from the wet slurp of mud at their boots and pouring water from the heavens, and it was starting to grate on Celestine’s ears. Even though most of what Anatase usually blurted out during missions was complete nonsense, it was still a very welcome alternative to this tense quiet. Whatever formal, traditional reason kept IRON uncommunicative outside of succinct orders and corrective remarks was honestly a pain to implement.

“You see anything?” Celestine said into the comms, however, just to be contrary.

“Whatever dangerous creatures this place had are all in their dens, hiding from the magestorm,” Anatase said.

“This is a good place to stop and make camp,” Rhyol interrupted the brewing conversation, glancing indifferently over her shoulder from where she stood at the head of the group. “That hillock up ahead have some caves should work well for this outpost you have in mind.”

Celestine squinted in the direction where the other woman was pointing, further up ahead past the curling mist and the heavy vegetation amongst the undergrowth.

“Good catch,” she told IRON; despite her personal opinions on the matter, the other women still formed a formidable team. The group forged onward, heading deeper into the bowels of the marshlands.

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