I really hate the jungle.
Nothing in my training prepared me for extended operations outside of Cheldrun territory. I will correct this oversight, in time. That won't help me now.
I walk through the jungle, thoroughly lost. I don't understand why navigation is so much harder here than it is in the city. I am struck by the sheer, vast silence of the wilderness. There are no minds here. Anywhere. I am... alone.
I tread through a small stream. take off my boot to empty it of water. And then I'm not alone. There is a sharp pain in my foot. I look down. Something is squirming there. I feel vaguely sick. I activate my psychic knife and deny the parasite consciousness. If I must endure it, I will not endure squirming.
I thought it would be a simple matter to raid the Cheldrun camp for materials. I need a handheld computer in order to read the files on White-Rock research. I hadn't anticipated this kind of trouble.
Now I'm being watched. I leap into a tree to gain a vantage point on the clearing below.
There is pain. Something is crawling on by back. I hate the jungle. It would not bother me at all to see every square mile of it burned. Burned.
It does. The fires ripple out from my body, and everything around me bursts into flames. I feel better. There is joy in destruction, even if it's only a tree, and whatever it was that bit me. The smoldering body of a thing the size of a grapefruit falls from the tree. Then another, and another. Several dozen bodies fall all told. It isn't satisfying - not like eliminating a target - but it will do. It still seems strange not to experience the pain of my targets. I'm so used to feeling what they feel as they die, their pain and their panic slowly fading away into silence, it's... I don't know. I sometimes think there is something very wrong with me. Moses thinks so. Maybe he's right.
I look back. There is a nest of some kind of ... giant bug. It's on fire. The whole tree is on fire. The insects are pouring out of the tree.
I leap down.
Something is here. Something is here. I whirl around a second too late. A claw digs into the flesh of my back, and there is pain. I am pressed heavily to the ground. A mind full of hunger and eyes in the dark, ripping talons and torn flesh. "You are a long way from home, little Biomade," a voice says, low and threatening.
I allow my psychokinetic barrier to snap into place and tense, readying myself to do battle. "Long story," I say. It is.
I feel hot breath on the back of my neck, and long fangs nick the edge of the shield around my neck. "I wouldn't do that, little Biomade," the voice says.
I would. Mama Pain told me a thousand times: the correct response to being in mortal danger is to kill the thing which seeks your life. If you surrender, you lose your agency. You become a victim, and you will deserve whatever happens to you.
"Rei!" comes High Dive's high pitched voice. The creature releases me and dashes off into the woods.
The Zipsum have found me.
I am a long time recovering from my ordeal in the jungle. I don't remember most of it. I have vague memories of telling Moses that I had been sent to kill him. I hope those were only fever-dreams. Mokuzai says I spoke of Project Scion, and Inase Spark. He asks what these things are, and I tell him.
He seems disturbed. His thoughts are all fox-tricks and shaken shadows, like they always are. Nothing intelligible. Not for the first time, I wish I could read the minds of Karians. Aimi can. Is there some purpose in this, Inase? Did you mean for me to be deaf to Karians? ...
The Zipsum laughingly tell me that if I eat a horrible pepper all day for two weeks, I can drive the parasite out of my foot, but it will have numerous inconvenient side-effects that are obviously calculated for as much humiliation as possible. I sterilize the tools I have on hand and cut it out myself.
After three weeks, the big Zipsum party finally ends. We are then told that we can prove that we are not 'defilers' by going into a cave caused by a 'giant purple vorax' which crashed nearby, finding said Vorax, and bringing it back to the village.
I briefly consider the feasibility of killing every Zipsum in the village.
No. Moses wouldn't like that. He often tells me that killing is wrong. Una and High Dive probably wouldn't like it, either. Kiyoshi? ... I bet he'd be OK with it. I'm not sure what Mokuzai would think.
Moses confuses me. He reacts with horror to practical suggestions. I find myself reconsidering those sort of practical courses of action for his sake. Even worse, there have been occasions in which his horror and Kiyoshi's distaste for the suggested course have produced an... echo, in my head. Something that doesn't come from an external source. This never happened before. Why now?
We depart for the cave.
Eyes. Eyes in the dark. A mind full of wrong angles and twisted geometry. We walk. There is a flash, and I am covered in dirt and gasping for breath. Moses says that I was buried under
the Earth. Something in the cave is playing with our minds. Making us see and feel things that aren't real.
The whole thing looks like a drilling machine has forced its way down here. Spirals of cooled magma line the walls. A strange mist is everywhere.
Mokuzai thinks that whatever it is that is in here, it is trying to teach us something.
We enter the mist again. There is a flash, and the world fades away.
Fire. Fire is everywhere. Fire pours down from above. Beneath is a stone surface. Mokuzai whirls and falls out of view, and the whole world is fire.
I barely think to shield myself. I leap up to find the source of the flame: it is a tiny black speck.
I am disappointed. I had hoped to meet Amaterasu again.
The speck ripples. It becomes a handful of flowers. The floor becomes soap bubbles, and I fall.
I stop my fall with a telekinetic shield. There is nothing. Above me, below me, nothing. Mokuzai dwindles away in the distance, falling, falling into nothing.
Mokuzai flickers. Mokuzai is above me, falling towards me.
Who are you?
It's not a voice. I feel the question in my bones. "Who are you?" I ask the emptiness. "What do you want?"
Mokuzai continues to fall, and at length, I shake my head irritatedly and jump after him. I catch him in short order and put an end to his fall.
"My hero," he says sardonically.
I raise an eyebrow. "What do you think all this is?" I ask.
He thinks for a moment. "It tried to tell me that I am helpless. It showed Moses that he cannot save everyone. It showed Kiyoshi the price of his inheritance. It shows you..." he considered his answer a moment longer, "There does not appear to be a rhyme or a reason. Perhaps that is the point."
Who are you?
"I am Rei."
Whoever the asker is, that response does not satisfy it.
Chaos and emptiness swirls everywhere. No. Whoever is doing this is wrong. They don't understand. Understanding is a three-edged sword, and they have only one of its sides - theirs.
I will make it better. I will make it better. I try to make the world around me into something else. I think of Amaterasu, and the thought makes me smile. I make the world into the place where she showed how even Heishi can be beautiful - the exit to the mines.
It turns to sand and falls away.
I grit my teeth. I make a floor, and we stand upon it for a moment before it too turns to sand and falls away.
I summon the door to my room back Home and open it. Tentacles and madness and horror shriek at me from the other side, and I slam the door shut again.
Who are you? Are you unable to answer even such a simple question? Have you nothing of your own? Nothing to stand on that is not provided, defined, stamped, sanctioned, numbered, and approved by others? WHO ARE YOU?
I'm not sure if I'm asking this or if the source comes from outside. But wherever the questions come from, they're wrong. I tell Mokuzai of Purpose. I tell him that my Purpose was to serve as a tool of the Oversight Council. My purpose was to kill. I tell him that Mama Pain and Doctor Soren lied to me. They hadn't created me at all, and they didn't know why I had been made, or what I had been made for. Mokuzai tells me that I am in the same position as every other sentient being on the face of Karia.
That's unacceptable. There is one man who does know. One man who can tell me why I was made, and what I am for.
A sense of horrific failure rises up all around. Whatever it is that has created this world believes I have failed, or am failing, or that this response is incorrect, and it wishes to enforce this feeling upon me. It feels like Mama Pain said it, and that makes it true, except for one thing:
I will not be dictated to by eyes in the dark.
As the world solidifies around me, and around Mokuzai, and we find ourselves in the cave once more, I clench my fist. I will find my creator. I will find him, and I will learn from him why he made me, and for what Purpose. I will.
Moses is near. And Una. And Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi's thoughts are full of the pain of others, but he doesn't appear to appreciate it, the struggle of life and death. And then there are eyes all around. Eyes in the dark. Eyes and teeth and tongues. I ignite my psychic knife, and it glows redly in the dark.
Eyes. Everywhere, eyes.
Everything went wrong all at once. With a demon and a flying train. But you know about that already.
And then BANG we all went into Mokuzai-land where there was plenty of tea and I ate all of his candied nuts but you couldn't leave no matter how much you tried. Seriously. I walked all over and even tried to go backwards when forwards didn't work. People talked and I don't remember what they talked about. They sounded serious and I didn't have any Magic Stickers for Kyoshi so it'll be a while before he gets any better.
Una has magic that's better even than Magic Stickers, but she can only use it when she's sad, which for her I guess is all the time. Sorta. Except for...you know who. And stuff. Um.
Then we came back out of Mokuzai-land, and we were up on this cliff with Una where other Vorax used to live. No nuts. Nuts! Of course. Because they're Vorax. Or they used to be Vorax. Or they're still Vorax but they're gone. Or because they're gone they're not Vorax anymore. Or something. Empty nests and paintings.
And then Zipsum came! Drum-drum-drum-drum-da-drum-drum. Profound-Speaks-Always and I negotiated. It went better than with the Biomade because no one had to be tied up. And I didn't lie to her because:
1. She asked about Cheldrun defilers, and our Cheldrun weren't defiling. Moses kinda smells, but I wouldn't call it defilement.
2. I thought it would be better to, you know, just go with them and hang out with them and eat and run and jump (and splash! but that's later) but not talk about the Cheldrun with us because it would make her mad.
3. Yup. It made her mad.
4. I'm not sure why I'm numbering these anymore.
5. Now lets get back to the story and stop numbering stuff.
We ran and ran and got there really quick with Una. And they were all over the place! It was great! The Riverswift Clan smells like foam and algae and they jump and they dive and they have loads of nuts and we ate (we're sorry!) a very special fruit that they explained to me but I forgot while I was eating it and I jumped and no one ever jumped so well ever before and splash! (see above) and then they thought I was dead and I went all crackly-tingly and bounced around (I think that'll help when we have to kill more Cheldrun) but that was before they thought I was dead-
Ha! But I wasn't!
And then we partied but then Profound-Speaks-Always got mad and talked at us, like I said. So now they're prisoners, which means they get the last dibs on the food! Ha-ha!
Oh, and there's something about a big Vorax and a hole in the ground. But I don't think I'm going into any holes that aren't in trees and filled with nuts thankyouverymuch.
"Chitter, squeek, squeek," a Zipsum told her helpfully, holding out a wooden mug full of some sort of dubious purple liquid.
There were many chitters and many squeeks in the Zipsum language, and the young Biomade was beginning to despair of ever learning it. Despite her efforts in trying to work out the language, Rei was no closer to understanding it now than she had been yesterday. It would be easier if she could hear their thoughts, but apparently Karians all thought in triangles and mirror-mazes. At first she had been intrigued by their peculiar silence. By their triangles and their mirrors and their fractal minds. Now, surrounded by this vast crowd of incomprehensible Zipsum who were definitely not Her, and whose thoughts could only be approached through deliberate effort, her reaction would be better described as irritated.
"Chitter, chitter, squeek," the Zipsum told her again. It was a young girl in Cheldrun form, wearing some kind of rough fabric that Rei had never seen up close before. Her blood red eyes met the Zipsum's green, and after a moment's inner debate, she took the cup from the girl's hands and nodded her thanks.
The Zipsum smiled, and Rei wasn't altogether sure that there wasn't the slightest hint of mischief there.
Rei could see Moses across the deep, aquamarine lagoon that filled the center of the Zipsum village. A horde of tiny Zipsum in squirrel-form darted over his body. Nearby, High Dive watched the goings on in her Cheldrun form, and Rei thought she could hear the faint cry of, "Lefty loosey!" through the din. The sound of Cheldrun thoughts in her mind immediately calmed her, lifting that empty, confused feeling that had plagued her since her arrival in the village.
She wasn't sure where Kiyoshi was, nor Mokuzai. Una was the center of attention.
Una. High Dive. Kiyoshi. They seemed so very at home here. It came so naturally to them. They belonged.
Not for the first time, Rei wondered whether it had been a mistake to leave Cheldrun territory. What good was she here, out of her element, surrounded by unfamiliar and alien things? How could she keep the others safe if she herself had no idea how to plan for what might come next? It was a strange thing to be so dependent on others.
She drank from the wooden cup. It tasted like burning with a faint hint of some kind of fruit. Alcohol. Very concentrated alcohol. Very unexpected, very concentrated alcohol. Rei coughed and spluttered and dropped the cup. The purple liquid splashed out onto the ground.
"Chitter, squeek, chitter chitter squeek!" the Zipsum girl said, and laughed, her eyes dancing with mirth. A dozen other Zipsum laughed with her.
Rei grimaced. Damn Zipsum.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Sever had asked her in an uncharacteristic moment of empathy. They conferred briefly in the filthy backroom of a clandestine surgery where Stitch was having his shoulders reconstructed from his last encounter with that bird-woman. She'd shown up there, covered in concrete dust, running from the scene of an incredible explosion, feeling like her heart had been ripped whole out of her breast.She was not a capricious little girl anymore. She had become, all in one moment of dreadful clarity, a steel vice. She clamped down on her emotions, she crushed her tenderness, she made herself into exactly who she wanted to be - which is never vulnerable, never lost.
"We could make good money in other cities too. Our particular talents are in demand." In his own way he was trying to comfort her, even though he had no idea what she was going through. He thought she was worried about getting caught, about getting put down like Malicious, like a dog. No one in this city has the brass balls to get me in a trap like that, she thought, but even her own bravado failed to lighten her mood.
His body flew out over the city, spinning like some kind of grotesque frisbee and slivers of - was that his soul? - dissolved in the air.
"But why Blade? You know his reputation as well as I. What makes you think he'll accept your offer?" It was extremely odd to be on the other end of a conversation where Sever was the one attempting to be sensible. Had she been in any other mood she might have been more responsive, or at least she might have made a demeaning remark. As it was she just shook her head and gave him a look that made it clear that she would not be talked out of her decision. Sever loved and feared her, and compared to her he was weak-willed. From now on he would follow her orders, and both of them knew it, so neither of them bothered saying it.The speeding boat she was on pulled alongside the Mothra and giant mechanical arms were lowered to lift the shuttle up to the deck. Goshi soldiers looked at her nervously, and at the package by her feet. Katashi Blade refused to delay the departure of his ship even when he heard of the explosion. His business with the Biomade Oversight Council would brook no delays. That he'd changed his mind for this woman, young girl really, disturbed them. One after the other, the soldiers, sailors, and Goshi functionaries mentally promised to erase her face from their memories as soon as she was out of sight, but that pink bob, those swinging hips and, most arrestingly of all, those vermillion eyes stubbornly refused to be forgotten.
Once on deck she was hastily led, package under arm, to the highest and most luxurious state room on board. She felt her mind being probed by a presence not unlike a gynecologist, gentle but precise, as if intimately familiar with the territory. Despite all her preparations she knew that it would be pointless hiding anything here. She would be known for exactly who she was. Very well Blade, take a good look. See anything you like? Do you see that I am determined? Like a bone that, having been broken once, becomes stronger than ever. You can search as deep as you like, but you won't find any shame in me. It was ripped out when that thing ripped the soul out of his chest.
"Not that you asked, but of course I'm going to help you. The fact that our mark is an associate of those cunts Rei has fallen in with just makes it that much sweeter for me." She nodded. She didn't have to explain to him that she would be going alone to see Blade, or that Sever and Stitch would have to continue laying low for a while as... insurance, Sever understood already - one benefit of being a family of telepaths. Neither did she tell him that the tiny part of her that had indeed come seeking comfort, was gratified that he had offered it in his own inept way. That part of her, though, was quickly being crushed by the vice."Start by telling me what you want. Then show me the proof of what you claim."
She stood erect in the Executor's suite. He had not offered her a seat, she would have refused. She looked him directly in the eyes, and as everyone always is, she was impressed by something indefinable about them, something alluring and repulsive at the same time, but she let that thought leave her mind as quickly as it came. She came for business, she would keep it that way.
"A person in your position needs someone who can operate outside the rules. Someone who isn't on the payroll, whose name doesn't appear in any company memos. Perhaps you already have a few of these people, but none of them can do the things I can. What I'm asking is for you to give me a purpose. I will be your weapon, and you will find you can reach places even you had trouble accessing before." Her speech was rehearsed, but it was completely genuine. She knew that she wasn't bragging or exaggerating in anyway. Katashi Blade was inscrutable, but he appeared to agree.
On the way out the door Sever raised one eyebrow, "I am curious though. What spurred this decision? Why this sudden resolve?" Because! her heart shrieked at her. Because I felt my kiss on his cheek, our link, I felt it shredded into nothingness. Because I know with a certainty that I've never felt before that he was obliterated, and he did it for some reason to save me, but he failed. That thing destroyed me just as definitely as it did him, only I have to keep on living with this empty spot where he used to be."You've got a lot of courage coming here like this. Courage can be useful or it can be a pain in the ass. Usually I find it is the latter, but you're young so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. However, you must know that I don't play games. Now that you're standing here in front of me, the choices you make are deadly serious," as Blade was speaking she stood perfectly still. She was not foolish enough to try to appear nonchalant, but neither did she let herself be drawn into reacting. "That is why I'm going to give you a choice. If the thing you've got in that package is just going to be an embarrassment to you I'll let you walk out now and never show your face in my presence again. If you are ready to stake your life on my satisfaction, then by all means, open it up."
She waited for Sever to mock her feelings, but his face showed no expression. He was still waiting for her to explain herself. Her thoughts had not leaked out, even slightly. The vice had closed.
"Someone's got to do something now that Mama Pain is gone." She said as she left.
That was what she had been waiting for. Aimi neither hesitated nor made any attempt to be dramatic. She set the case on his desk, and flipped the latch. The lid swung open with a hiss revealing the bloody head of Acetylene Sue.
As he grew into the fullness of young adulthood, the young Vorax found other concerns to occupy his time: the search for others of his kind, the daily needs of survival on Karia, his own training in the ways of medicine, in herbs and roots and salves, but he never forgot, and each time he saw the sunrise, his heart yearned for the far green country he was sure lay just beyond the horizon.
The night his nest-village burned, Sun-Chaser was wheeling far afield, soaring over the woods south of Stardown. There was a rabbit somewhere in a clearing far below, and he was sure it would make a tasty treat. His first clue that there was anything wrong was a line of smoke rising on the horizon. A sudden updraft of warm air gave him the lift he needed to pull out of his downward spiral. He flapped his wings once, twice, three times, and soared off towards the line of smoke, thoughts of the rabbit pushed from the forefront of his mind.
When Sun-Chaser came within view of his nest-village, horror struck him like a physical blow. He landed on a nearby ridge, shifted to human form, and looked down upon a scene out of a nightmare, utterly silent. His nest-village was simply gone. Something had burned it, but this had been no ordinary flame. The very mountainside on which the village had been perched had melted. The rock itself had become liquid, and of the nest and the one other Vorax who had dwelled there with him, there was only ashes floating above patches of molten rock. He glanced about in panic. Two nests on the edge of the village had been spared, including the nest of the old lorekeeper, but the rest... the rest was gone. There was a pattern to this destruction. The lines of now cooling, hardening magma ran out from the heart of the village in a radial spiral. But what could cause this? What would cause this? Was this some new Cheldrun weapon? Why would they use it here? His nest-village had never opposed the Cheldrun! ... No, surely even the children of steel could not accomplish destruction on this level. It was as if the Sun herself had settled here.
The Sun was rising, there, the faintest gleam beyond the mountains. Grief rose up in Sun-Chaser like a tide, each wave washing higher and higher until he could see nothing, feel nothing but pain and loss. His eyes burned with tears. He shifted, sprung up upon the wind, and letting out a mournful call, he turned and flew away into the morning sun. He knew not how long or how far he would fly - he only knew that he had to get away, and now. Far away. Perhaps somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, he would find what he had lost. He flew.
Into the morning sun.
Daitokuji Kiyoshi, second son of a Grand Master of Washisan Academy and patriarch of the Silver Phoenix clan, has an indefinable allure. Perhaps it is the sense he gives of being slightly off-limits that makes women so attracted to him. Perhaps it is his unshakable confidence, or his adorable insistence on following "the tradition", or maybe it is his striking good looks and skill with his blade (rumors suggest it is quite long). Whatever the cause, Kiyoshi has certainly garnered attention lately.
Which is why, today I am bringing you the unseen side of the man who combines the attraction of a noble heart and a daring outlaw. Our readers may be surprised to learn that Kiyoshi himself is quite a sensitive soul. Behind the stoic facade he puts on when entering the void, this samurai is a man who feels pain in a way that no one else does - with every nerve in his body.
"It's true," Rei assured me, "that guy knows what it's like to hurt. From the first moment I met him he was all touchy and stuff."
I ask Rei whether its true that when she met him his father had just been killed in an explosion at the Goshi Corp Tower.
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. When people die Kiyoshi seems to feel things. It's weird."
Some of Kiyoshi's companions are more sympathetic. Una, for example, is very fond of his tender side.
"It's a good quality in a nest-mate."
Mokuzai nodded at that, "Compassion is a sign of wisdom."
Of course it isn't his "wisdom" that has made him the subject of so much emotional drama in this campaign. From assisted suicides to crying teenage assassins, Kiyoshi has had to star in some intense scenes, and there's no sign of it letting up anytime soon. Right at the end of the first season he leapt in front of a tentacle attack destined to kill Rei's sister.
Choices like that confuse his companions, especially High-Dive who asked, "What does he see in her? She doesn't bring him exotic nuts."
Exotic nuts or no, the emotional turmoil will probably continue to swirl around this enigmatic figure. He's not just a guy with a really deadly sword. That's why we've brought you the softer side of Kiyoshi: the Tender Samurai.
I hope no one tries to stop me. A debate is not what I need right now.
I rise to my feet slowly, allowing the Song of Clarity to fade with the night breeze. My senses close back upon me, suddenly leaving the world feeling much, much smaller. I open my eyes and find the room is even darker than the now impenetrable blackness of the night.
You really need to learn to keep your thoughts grounded, old man.
I stumble about my abode, feeling for a candle. There. The dim light plays tricks with the shadows as I make my final preparations. Little trinkets and mementos of my life adorn every inch of the little domicile. There, a carving of a swan that was made for me by my grandson.
He always had a good eye for craftsmanship, even as a pup he- you're sidetracking again, old man.
I don my well-worn robes, appearing yellow in the light of the weak flame. I hang the folds about my frame carefully, making sure to have everything in its proper place. My eye catches the image of the Eye on my right shoulder and the writhing Maelstrom on my left, the flickering illumination giving it the appearance of movement.
We all choose the ways by which we mark ourselves. With my marks, my memories shall ever be a part of me.
I finish tying my sash and reach for my traveling hat, as worn and well-used as the paths of the Chantry itself.
You path isn't so well traveled today, is it old man?
My hand hesitates as I reach for it. My nose picking up the smell... her smell.
I turn and slowly walk over to my bedside table, opening the ornately carved box I keep all my dearest treasures in. The smell fills my senses, amplified by its meaning to me. I withdraw a lock of hair, neatly held together with a bright yellow ribbon and hold it to my nose. Tears begin to well up in my eyes. I remembered clearly the day my then-future mate had given it to me. "Even should you fail your test for Guardianship, remember you still have me."
Your resolve is weakening, old man.
I quickly, but delicately place the favor in the box and snap the lid closed. Too much time. If I linger any longer, I'll lose my will to go. I steel my thoughts with my purpose, and stride out the door.
The walk is easier the further I go. I gaze upon the impeccable architecture of the Chantry as I walk its winding paths.
You go to preserve this. You go to preserve your people, your family. Most of all, you go to preserve Karia.
As I leave the city, I turn and gaze for one long moment at the Chantry itself. At this distance, one could take in its full beauty... and I did not hastily end what could very well be the last time I see my home.
"You're actually going, aren't you?"
I turn to my left with a start. Elder Moon stands before me, her eyes glowing like a pair of celestial bodies in the shrouding night. Her scent nearly buckles my knees as I experience it directly from the source. I let out a long sigh. This is exactly the debate I wanted to avoid.
"Yes." I reply curtly. Hopefully a visage of stubbornness will end this before it starts.
"You seemed very set in your plan, but I wasn't sure even you would be mad enough to pursue it. You are a bit of an embellisher, after all."
She's toying with me. But that's... yes. Admiration in her voice.
"Embellishment is only justified when the basest kernel of the story rings true, is it not?" I say, cocking a playful eyebrow. She knows me too well. I should have known a petty act wouldn't end this. Not with her.
"In that case, I, and several others on the Elder Council, would like to extend their wishes of fortune to you."
My mouth drops. This was the last thing I had expected... Quit kidding yourself, old man. You didn't expect this at all.
Elder moon smiles impishly at my response. "Well, I see I still have a knack for getting you to gape like an amazed child." My mouth snaps shut and I feel my cheeks redden. She cuts me off before I can muster a witty response. "We also wish to give you this." My eyes widen as she produces a staff. The moonlight strikes the fist-sized nevergem embedded in its head, bathing the clearing in a blue light. My eyes travel down its length, noting the impossibly gnarled state of the wood and noting with further amazement how my eyes never seemed to find the same knot twice.
You're gaping again, old man.
Elder Moon, still grinning from my reactions, holds the staff out for me to take. As it passes to my hands, I note how comfortable the staff feels. Hesitantly, reverently, I place the base on the ground, holding it as it was meant to be held. "Felt the need to give an old man a walking stick, did you?"
You and her both know why.
A cloud passes over the moon and the blue light fades. We stand near each other, feeling each other's presence. We embrace, each holding the other as if they were life itself. No questions needed to be asked. No answers needed to be shared. No words at all were needed. The embrace slackens, and as the moon once again sheds light on the clearing, Elder Moon is gone.
She never was good at goodbyes.
I cast one more look towards the Chantry, basking beneath the night sky, and turn down the path.
At 2 meters in height Moses makes an impression when you first meet him, but despite his rough miner exterior, Moses breaks the mold a little bit with his gentle nature. When you realize that this is a guy who can hammer straight through bedrock and doesn't even have to breathe air if he doesn't want to, the fact that he's so accessible comes as a big surprise. After having seen his face in graffiti for so long, I was almost nervous when I went to do the interview, but he put me right at ease.
"Yeah, Moses is like that," Kiyoshi told me while filling my cup with tea. "I remember the first time I saw him, he was busting into the Goshi Corp Tower and he had a huge hunk of concrete raised over his head, but then he just spent all his energy trying to keep people from getting hurt. I knew right away that he isn't your average rebel leader."
Though he doesn't like to brag about it, Moses really is the catalyst for a lot of the stuff that happens in the campaign. From his spectacular break-in at the Goshi Tower to inspiring a whole army of Mechified to wage war against the oppressive regime of the Biomade Mega-Corporations, Moses has been right in the thick of it. Perhaps most memorable of all was the time he set Goshi up with his own surrender - a debacle that ended with thousands dead or wounded as a battle broke out in the streets.
When asked what he thinks about his companions being so loyal that they would try to rescue him under those circumstances, Moses is characteristically humble.
"I wish they wouldn't," he says in an understated way.
His companions know better than to let such a remarkable man get away from them. He's always teaching them something new. High Dive for example recalls, "He's made me a much more effective saboteur. That whole lefty-loosy thing. I was always getting it backwards before."
"Yeah," Una chimed in, "He's got this way of making you feel like you're fighting for a cause, so when you dig your talons into the enemy it's just so much more fulfilling. Isn't it Moses?"
Moses modestly looked out the window, but heads were nodding all around.
Rei probably articulated what everyone was feeling, "I mean, at first I was just following him so I could assassinate him, but after the things he's shown me. I would follow him anywhere and kill anyone he asked. He's just that special."
Man, Machine, Legend: Moses.
Now, Muses, let us begin to sing of younger men ...
Like most stories, this one begins with a girl.
Well, no. Actually, it begins well before that. It actually starts with this galaxy-spanning civilization. Its name and its politics stopped mattering a long time ago, but its people called themselves the Cheldrun. Still do, actually. They were really something, these Cheldrun. They'd unlocked the secrets of the universe. They walked among the stars like gods.
Funny thing about pride: it never ends well. Even gods can reach too far. The Cheldrun did. Long story short, they went from being lords of creation to being a civilization of refugees on a backwater planet terrified of their own shadows.
Two hundred years later, that's when our girl makes the scene. Her name's Eris, and she's a Biomade - that's a kind of Cheldrun. She's not like a lot of the newer models. No fancy psychic powers or sixth senses, though she had always had a talent for resisting telepathic scans. It isn't that telepaths can't get into her mind, it's just that some quirk of her brain chemistry means that they only see in her mind what she wants them to see. But sheer physical and mental superiority is her game, and that combined with a grasp of strategy that had downright terrified her instructors and the finest training available this side of Karia makes her one of the most dangerous Cheldrun alive. She worked with the Heishi out of Geneva Prime - a field commander of a sort. Devoted. Loved her job. She had something of a talent for directed, deliberately applied chaos, and that sort of thing was valuable to the powers that be. She'd fostered a few kids as a part of her civic duty to Cheldrun society. Lived with a man who worked as upper management for Goshi. She had a good life. Things took a dive with the events at the mine entrance, but despite her grief, life went on as it had before.
All that changed the day the demon leveled twenty square blocks of Geneva Prime.
It was now two days after the explosion, and the dead lay strewn about the rubble in great rotting piles, the steady rain-beat mingling with the fading heart-beats of those who were yet dying. Over a million Cheldrun had died, and the rescue efforts were stymied by the sheer scale of the destruction. Battle and carnage had come to Geneva Prime, the streets with human gore imbrued, and the rainwater mingled with the blood of the fallen.
Eris lay facedown on the cold pavement, hovering somewhere between the moments, between life and death. Her dark, dark hair hung in a wet tangled bundle around her head. A rifle lay discarded close at hand, slick with rain-water. It would have been easy to let go. Easy to drift away into the death that seemed so comforting, so welcoming in that moment.
One thought stayed her from this course: the sight of the fugitive, Moses, rising from the rubble of a destroyed building some ten minutes before the explosion. His involvement couldn't be a coincidence. Somehow, she was certain that this had happened because of him, just like everything else in the city had been happening because of him.
Just like Rain's dismissal of her lover and his banishment for his involvement in the incident at the mine entrance. He'd died en route. It's a long walk to Stardown. She herself had only escaped that fate on account of sheer talent: she was too useful to send away. That had been the first time Moses had ruined her life.
This was the second.
She would not allow herself to die. Not yet.
She had to make him pay. She knew just the way. It was nothing so simple as direct physical confrontation. That hadn't worked against Moses in the past, and there was no reason to suppose it would work in the future. But then, there were other ways. He had companions. Helpers. After the incident at the mine entrance, they'd all received a full report: A scythe-wielding Karian. An Allskin clinging to his pretense of nobility. A Zipsum. A red-eyed Goshi assassin. Yes, that would do nicely. After all, she'd always had a talent for directed, deliberately applied chaos.
Eris came back to herself with that thought, pushed herself out of the puddle that would have drowned her had she lay there for only a few moments longer, and sucked in a long, hard breath of charnel-stained, rain-tinged air. Her eyes seemed to crystallize as she rose to her feet: they had always been an icy blue, but now they were as cold and pitiless as the frozen north.
Surrounded by the bodies of her Heishi squad, Eris coughed once, twice, scooped up her rifle in one hand and clenched her fist with the other. "Moses," she whispered, as though her voice could reach him across the vast distance that now separated them. "Let the First Minds stand witness. If it takes a thousand years, I will find you, and I will make you pay."
Lightning flashed, sparks showered, and Eris limped away into the rain-drenched night.
Ryuunosuke lounged as he waited. He knew he looked dangerous, and he was. Known as The Dragon, he was the champion of the underground fighting circuit of Geneva Prime. At least, he was until three days ago when half of the fucking city blew up. He had been an Allskin once, and so had been taught by the finest masters of Kenjutsu in the city. Now that he had become a Biomade, had received augmentations to his strength, speed, stamina... he was practically invincible. But practically wasn't good enough.
There was a rapid staccato knock at the door. He grunted. Finally. "Come in!" he yelled. The door opened to admit a short, slender man with a cigarette between his lips. Tricks-the-Wind was just the Zipsum he had been waiting for. "Is everything arranged?"
Tricks nodded. "Tomorrow night. Everything's set. You got my payment?"
"Yeah, I got it. Matthew?"
A Mechified stepped out of the corner, and tossed a small bag to the Zipsum, who deftly caught it and peered inside.
"It's all there, squirrel-breath. Two whole fucking days; your contacts had better be able to get us out without a fuss." Since the explosion, Goshi had quarantined the entire city. No one in, no one out. He had had to hire a mercenary little furball to get him out.
"Yeah, yeah. The cost of Sikolo powder isn't going down, you know. I've set it all up with the Grand High Muckity Muck. There'll be a distraction when we need it; we'll get out fine."
"The Grand High what?"
Tricks looked up from counting his money. "The Grand High Muckity Muck; the title of the leader of the band of Zipsum I'm part of."
"Are you fucking with me?"
The Zipsum dropped his butt and immediately lit another cigarette. "I shit you not. Well, it all seems to be here. I'll see you tomorrow evening." And just as quickly as he had arrived, he departed.
Fucking Zipsum and their addictive personalities. Most of 'em liked sweets and shiny things; this one was addicted to the hottest new designer drug. Little did Tricks know that he was an associate of the creator of said drug. "You catch all that Matthew?"
"Yeah, I got it Ryuu." Matthew was a hulk; there were no other words to describe him. More machine than Cheldrun, only his face showed more flesh than not anymore. He was the strongest person Ryuunosuke had ever met, bar none, and his metal body held several nasty tricks besides. You did not last long in the underground fighting world unless you were a dirty fighter.
"How 'bout you, donkey-man?" On the other side of the room, a figure almost as large as Matthew raised its head from the couch it was laying on. Both of his ears were ragged stumps and a deep scar had obliterated one eye. Bandages wrapped his massive barrel torso and bruises covered the rest. "I'm gonna get you out of the city, just like you wanted. Just you remember your promise."
The Gogajin glared at him. "Don't ye be worryin' yerself. I remember it well."
Ryuunosuke nodded. He had found this one alone and injured, trapped in the city. He had gotten his associate, Dr. Watanabe, to fix it up; she was mostly a chemist, but she knew a bit of medicine as well. While feverish, the Gogajin had spoken of a weapon, a blade of unmatched power. When it awoke, he pressured it to tell him more. Eventually the injured Karian promised to take him to its tribe to learn more, if he could get them out of the city. Now that had been arranged. An ancient blade of Karian magic could stand up to a First Mind artifact, and it would not care that he was no longer Allskin. Yes, he, the Dragon, would become the greatest warrior that ever lived.
Despite being a member of the most fragile species of Karians, widely regarded as the symbolic bearers of the vitality of Karia, Una makes a statement with her 7' long double-ended Scythe known as a Griever. Carrying a weapon that is taller than she is and standing with a jaunty pose that says, "I know 101 ways to disembowel people who annoy me," Una consistently made her foes, eyeless or otherwise, regret their decision to tangle with a feathered funnel cloud of fury.
Party members recall with admiration and horror moments like the time, after she had buried one curved blade in the neck of an eyeless abomination on the balcony above her, she ran along the wall twisting her weapon till the head popped off and it rained gore.
"Yeah, I was scarred for life by that one. I still see it in my dreams," Moses said.
Not everyone was necessarily negative about it though. Rei, for example, had this to say, "With Una, it's really a spectator art. To the untrained eye one bisected torso looks just like another, but those of us who can appreciate such things notice delicate aesthetic sensibilities."
Even Moses concedes that she really took it to a new level though once she acquired the Blood of the Fallen Vorax technique and began flaying her opponents from the inside out. Mentioning her malice focusing talent gets every head in the room nodding.
"I'm not sure I fully appreciated the potency of that woman until I saw her turn Nero's arm into a gore spattered skeleton," Kiyoshi said, speaking for everyone, in the group. "There's something about that kind of power that demands respect."
"Respect, hell she scares the shit out of me," Rei quipped. "When Mama Pain had Kiyoshi here in the pleasure seat she let me know in no uncertain terms that she could pop my head off like a cork."
High Dive, munching on some candy, perked up then, "Gross."
"Like a cork. Pop."
That's One Vicious Raptor, and our very own Kick-Ass Queen.
Karia weeps, a little. But her tears of sorrow are mingled with ones of joy because hope flies out of the rubble on those regal wings. A chance. A possibility. A riddle.
Three weeks and a day. That is the time which passed from the first explosion at the Goshi demonstration till today. Three weeks and a day during which the foundations were laid, the roots took hold, the wheels were set in motion. The fate or destiny of life in the universe begins to be revealed, though the fundamental question remains unanswered. The drama is in progress.
But now purple wings are carrying the plot in new directions. Horizons are beckoning. The clamor and ferment of Geneva Prime are receding into the past. Goshi Tower fades in the distance. Nestled in that mountain valley, within the haze of blackrock furnaces, memories remain...
A feast of broiled meat with greasy hands, hissing pistons, and generous hearts...
A wall of flesh and machinery riveted in place by eyeless malice...
The home of a surgeon torn from its moorings, tumbling into peril...
A train screeching to a halt against the exhausted form of a foolish Mechified savior...
An exhausted Vorax refusing to leave the surgeons side, tending to a wounded nest mate...
A horde of miners charging the barricade of the refinery, a rebel leader coming into her own...
A glass door and mysterious runes, which lead to an even more mysterious crystal...
A tribe of Gogajin fearlessly finding joy in the darkest recesses of the mine...
A desperate escape and a blazing sun which leaves living, breathing, Cheldrun in ashes...
A collapsed tenement, a sullen surrender, a bright pink blade blossoming from a samurai's head...
A flying purple banner and a force of destruction unleashed on Goshi Corp Soldiers...
A middle-aged woman lying slumped in her lab coat, a needle plunged in her heart...
Neon lights and cloying perfume at the entrance to a garish underground brothel...
Blood seeping down the dais from the enormous belly of an old warrior...
A wall of crackling lightning casting shadows over the enraged face of a murderous boy with a blackened skeletal fist...
A train full of the cost and stench of civil-war...
A rumbling voice announcing doom...
The sky becomes clearer. The countryside more vibrant. A Vorax flies over farms and villages, rail lines, and canals. The poison of Geneva Prime becomes less and less oppressive. It tastes like freedom. On the horizon a lush violet forest looms.
The Sygola groan like pale old lizards on a misty night. The storm has brought darkness early and sleep is deepening in Sighing Web of Trees - a sprawling settlement named by a legendary poet, Saborakalys, after a line in one of the poems she created near the end of her long life. The trees sigh and sway and groan; raindrops drum on thatched roofs and rush down the sides of the venerable Academy, Arborealis Heliophilius; wheezing snores can be heard escaping through rubbery lips and interlocking teeth -
but Jin-kalys is not sleeping. He scratches his dewlap absently, a claw briefly catching on one of his piercings - and immediately he is reminded of eight summers ago, lit by a fine sunset mingling gold and red and green through the high canopy, when he demonstrated the irreducibility of nine-branch formal logic as a representation of rational cognition.
The piercing next to it came five years later when he demonstrated the paucity of his own theory as it came from the lips of a favorite rival, Asterakon. Rather, it is clear that non-rational processing seems necessary to resolve certain radical dichotomies - a theory which some refer to as "post-meteotropic root-ism". It is still considered a radical theory, even though its germ can be traced as far back as the great sage Monikostara and -
There is a scratch at the door. Too low to be another Anakarix. Jin pulls the door open quickly and a Zipsum blurs her way into the small room. The fire brings out bluish highlights on her dark fur and glints in her bright green eyes. Poison-Frog-Kiss of the Lighteningstrike Tribe, the nearest tribe to Sighing Web of Trees. She deposits a heavy satchel on the floor unceremoniously.
"I dunno why me but I got all the stuff you were after and you wouldn't believe the trouble it was I've had to stay in this form because of the rain and this stupid bag is pretty heavy" there is an explosion of water as she sakes off at least a gallon of rain, spattering everything in the one-room domicile. Jin flinches, unnoticed "and so listen we need to talk about payment now we agreed to the same weight but considering that I had to carry it in my mouth in this form I think that a markup is..."
Her huge bright eyes are inquisitive and acquisitive at the same time. Jin doubts she would appreciate the etymological deliciousness inherent in the look. He's holding out a pile of gourmet candy, stacked in a careful pyramid shape on a layer of anannu leaves which can also serve as wrapping.
'Indeed. This is yours, of course, and the rest is stored in the hollow tree as we discussed..." but the conversation has ended, as with a rapturous sigh Poison-Frog-Kiss begins cramming glistening candies in her mouth by the handful like a starveling. Jin goes on, distantly aware that he's talking only to himself but also quite nervous, now that its come to it, "I appreciate your discretion in this matter. It may seem odd that I don't simply requisition these accoutrements from supplies among my own people, but you see I have made a very important decision..."
Moans are now escaping Poison-Frog-Kiss. Her soft belly is visibly distended and her paws and face smeared with sweet dark cacao and the juice of the anannu-fruit. She is languorously licking each digit on each paw the the careful attention of a starstruck lover.
Ahem. "A decision which, I surmise, my colleagues will not appreciate. At the very least, not until it has borne some fruit, so to speak." Poison-Frog-Kills looks at him, blinking dully, with a clear expression of who are you again? written across her face. "We have spoken of the Cheldrun, and I have done some of my own research on the matter, in some cases at considerable personal risk - and I appreciate your help in those matters. You have...well, you have clarified..." she is looking at him and he can't finish the sentence. She gave him a raw barrage of information that could take weeks to untangle in his own methodical way.
"Yeah, I know what you're up to. And you're gonna die."
"I...I beg your pardon?"
"Look, its up to you. At least you're not talking and shooting out that purple thingy on your head like you did last time we talked -"
"I do apologize for that outburst, you see it is merely a vestigial-"
"And anyway its fine if you want to go get killed that's up to you I've got my candy delightful by the way and I'm happy as a punched Gogagin I just don't see the point of going to find some Cheldrun when they're busy chopping down all the trees they can get their hands and roasting the last Vorax from what I've heard I'm pretty sure that they'll just blast you or eat your brain like they do but hey its your life."
She opens the door, letting in a little more rain and grimacing at the force of it.
"Its..." Jin-kalys shakes his head, making his dewlap flap to express his lack of clarity. Its about the Nexus. Plot influences as lines on a two-dimensional representational Tree and it points to Apogee. Plot the same function over time and you can determine when it will happen. It is predictable, rooted in demonstrably reliable principles, and what is predictable can be addressed preventively before it cascades out of possible control. The function is geometric, and after the Nexus, the meeting of the influences, hope diminishes quickly for any kind of salvageable result.
The Zipsum is already gone, and the wind is blowing rain into Jin-kalys's home, sending rivulets along the carefully fitted boards.
"Its the end of Karia. Of everything. Unless we do something."
Nine-branch formal logic is still quite functional for known quantities. Nine races mean that the Arboreal Model's factors are accounted for (three kinds of Cheldrun, he did get that much from the Zipsum's barrage). The Dusk Sages? They could stand for the Perigee-Curve's intersection point. But the Apogee, when the nine-branch function is applied to an Asterakalys Helio-synthesis model, represents...what? What's the opposite of rationality, of connection, of life and vitality? What is the inverse of the Dusk Sages, the turning of wisdom and power for the good against itself...most distant from the Solar Source along the great Ellipse of cyclical time?
Whatever it was, Karia would be finding out soon, too soon.
Jin feels his tail straighten in anxiety and crouches down to meditate until it relaxes. He gathers up his satchel and adds a few oddments from his home. He leaves the fire in the tiny hearth to burn itself out so he won't be missed too soon, closes the door behind him, climbs along the tree to the next, and the next, slowly and groggily now that the fear has faded somewhat. He goes a long way before he realizes that he didn't say goodbye.
He pushes on through morning, and then moves with gathering speed. He feels the lines tightening, Apogee closing in. The thought comes unbidden, like it did in the dream.
I am the revelation of Karia.
It was a word Rei had applied to many in her time. The face of Typhon rose up before her, struck down even as he willed her to burn, her psychic knife draining the last of his power away at the very moment he would have destroyed her. Her hands around his throat, squeezing tightly, feeling the pulse of his life slowing, slowing, gentler and gentler against her palm, his whirling thoughts fading and fading until... silence.
The word rolled like a pulse of light on the surface of her mind. She saw the face of Nero, greasy hair and red eyes full of quiet hatred.
Aimi’s face swam into view. An image floats before the screen: a thirteen year old Rei crying bitterly as Mama Pain praises a very young Aimi for behavior that she had punished Rei for the very same day.
The Infected, swarming through the mines, threatening Moses’ life.
Aliya Pain, dead on the floor, a needle sticking out of her heart.
Nero. Nero with a blackened skeletal arm and a malice that burns with the fury of a star. He clenches his skeletal fist; bits of metal float into the air and flow together through the gaps in the bones, knitting together of his accord, melding, fusing: in moments a gleaming metal arm glitters dangerously beneath the stars.
Rei flings herself into the very maw of doom, into the Shadow with teeth bared, defiant to the last breath.
The fire comes forth, and the fear is swallowed up in fire. It feels right to bring the fire. It makes her wish Amaterasu were here. In that moment, everything is gloriously, perfectly clear; in that moment, with golden flames burning all around her, when death is like a light and blood is like a rose, Rei loves her Enemy.
Enemy. Now, looking down at the beast even as it melts beneath the combined barrage of the Goshi heat-bombs, Rei can’t help but feel sorry for the demon. This abomination. This creature which should not and can not be allowed to exist. This thing of malice which feeds upon the living souls of its prey.
She doesn’t recognize the feeling at first. It’s not something she’s ever experienced before, after all. This strange movement of the heart is altogether new to her. There is no frame of reference for it. There it is, burning in the heart of the young Biomade like the searing light of the sun-child. Every Cheldrun lived in fear of that thing which waited in the starless void. Every Cheldrun had heard whispered tales of the Enemy. Rei had learned of it through Others. Through their thoughts. Through their darkest fears, their moments of weakness, through the moments in the night when the pulse quickened and terror grew within the heart of a young man just outside the compound as he thought he saw the shadows move. And the reality was every bit as terrifying as the stories had suggested, and yet...
Though the creature be terrible, abominable, and fearful beyond all measure, as she watches the Demon melt - though she says nothing, and the thought of it disturbs her more than the feeling itself - Rei’s heart is moved to pity for the first time.
She would never admit it. Not to anyone. Not ever. Not even to herself. But there it is nonetheless.
Ichirou looked at me sternly, but no longer with anger apparent. "I am not sure I will ever understand you, Kiyoshi."
"And as your brother, I am asking you to trust me anyway."
"In that case, of course. I apologize for my earlier temper; I misjudged your intentions. If you wish to bring honor to the clan in a manner other than being a mecha pilot, I will support you as well as I can. I am sure that father will say the same."
"Actually, father understands me better than you would think. He has already set up a meeting for me with his old friend, Lord Tsuchinaga Yamoto."
"That old lech? What good will he do you?"
"He is a Director of Goshi Corp. He says he might be able to get me a job there, eventually. I would like to work in Personnel so that I can help to improve the worker's conditions, but I will take what I can get and go from there."
"Kiyoshi, you are sixteen. I do not think you will be moving the world just yet."
"No, maybe not. But every journey must be taken one step at a time, and this could be my first step. Apparently I might be able to start at a low level position in Public Relations dealing with Karians of all things..."
"And how do you feel about Karians now, Kiyoshi?"
I am once again floating in the blackness. The Void? Before me stands Una. "What do you mean?"
"Back then, and not very long ago for that matter, you considered Karians inherently inferior to Cheldrun. Do you still feel that way about my people?" She looks at me with tears in her eyes. "About me?"
I shake my head. "It is not that I considered them less it is just... they are not my people. I still do not understand what it is you see in me, why it is that you seem to have taken to me so, but I intend to ask you if I ever get out of here. In the last few weeks, after getting to know you, and Highdive, and Mokuzai, and Balder, and Grimm and all the rest... no, I would not call the Karians an inferior people."
"And after Nero, and Mama Pain and Katashi Blade... do you still hold your fellow Cheldrun up on such a pedestal? "
"Those are some rather extreme examples. I choose instead to look to Moses, and Yamoto, to my father and my brother, even to Rei who, despite everything, despite what she was made for, is trying for a better life and to be a better person. There is good and bad in all people, and in all peoples. I will continue to fight for the honor of the Cheldrun, because that is my duty, and to honor the vision of the First Minds. But I will no longer discount the wisdom of the Karians either."
"And what is this wisdom you seek?" The voice had changed again. I look up to find the wizened figure of Mokuzai before me now.
"These creatures that seem to feed on 'manna'. These marks, these Kata Kariana. It seems likely that Karians would know something about them."
"That we probably do, boy, that we probably do. There are thousands of secrets and bits of lore that we keep that would probably aid you."
A look of annoyance passes over Mokuzai's face. "How would I know? I am not really Mokuzai, I am the personification of your concept of arcane Karian wisdom!"
"Oh. Right. Sorry, I forgot."
"One thing we will probably need your help with, though, is the Enemy. They found you, somehow, tracked you through the endless stars and now they are here to finish the job. You have seen that we are just as vulnerable to them as you are. Well, other Karians are as vulnerable to them as other Cheldrun. We may need the wisdom of the First Minds, as we have not faced such a foe before."
I frown in thought. "I remember a notice awhile back. Something that has been tickling my memory, because it seems similar. Something about dead Karians rising..."
"Did you here the latest from the mines? Apparently the workers are in an uproar because some of the Gogajin are blaming the recent cave-in in Epsilon 8 on some sort of ghost called a 'Teeshee' or something. Can you imagine? I can't wait to hear what those backwards rustics come up with next!"
I heard this just as I turned the corner into the break room at Goshi Corp. It was someone in my department; Soni, or Sora or some such. I lose track of them with how quickly they transfer out; no Biomade wanted to work directly under an Allskin for long. I approached him and his laughing fellows, and was upon them before they noticed my presence. "I trust that these stories are not hurting the miners' moral, are they?"
The laughter cut off abruptly and the executives gaped at me for a moment before their leader responded. "Oh, you know Mechified; they'll believe anything they hear. I hear a lot of them don't even want to go into the sector anymore."
I frowned. "That could hurt productivity, which would discomfit Operations. And if Operations is discomfited by such a thing they will bring it to Personnel. And you can be damn sure that Personnel will bring it to PR, to my desk, to take care of. And that will mean a lot of extra paperwork. Extra work that I will be sure to delegate. So perhaps someone who seems to already be knowledgeable about the problem should take care of it before it escalates. We do not want the miners, our fellow Cheldrun who have recently suffered such a loss from the cave-in, to have to worry about silly superstitions when they will need to have safety foremost in their minds, do we?"
He sneered at me and looked like he was about to say something flippant. I simply gripped the left lens of my glasses and focused my gaze upon him, pinning him down with every once of authority I could muster. He quickly dropped his gaze and muttered, "No sir. I will get on it right away."
"That is a good man, showing some initiative. I want an announcement ready to go out about these Teeshee by tomorrow morning." I shifted my glare to take in his compatriots. "Do you gentlemen also find yourselves in need of assignments?" With hurried denials they all darted away to scurry back to their respective offices. I sighed. In order to achieve any level of respect as an Allskin Director I had to be ruthless. I went to the side table to help myself to some tea and a peanut bar.
Highdive is crouched in front of me, chewing a large nut. Chew, chew. Chew, chew. Seemingly reluctant, she pulls out another one and holds it out to me. "Want one?"
I shake my head. "No, you go ahead." Without further ado she shoves it in her mouth, one cheek bulging with it as she continues to chew on the first nut. Munch, munch. Chew, chew. I clear my throat. "So, what do you represent?" She shrugs. Chew, chew. I glance about, but nothing is different. "So... did you have anything deep and important to say to me?"
She pauses for a moment, seemingly deep in thought. Finally she nods, and goes back to eating. Munch, munch. Chew, chew.
"Well?" I ask, somewhat exasperated.
She looks up at me thoughtfully and pronounces "You give good tummy rubs. You should do that more often." With a look of great dignity, she goes back to eating.
I blink. I blink again. "Oh. Okay."
Another familiar voice: "Do I get a tummy rub too?" I look up to see a too-young girl with bright pink hair. Her face changes from impish humor to... what? Wonder? "You saved my life; my soul I guess."
I want to tell her it was nothing, that it was simply my duty, but... I know she will take it the wrong way. And besides, I am not entirely sure that is the truth. All I say is "I guess I did. Are you just another figment of my imagination or are you the real Aimi projecting into my dreams again?"
She shrugs. "Does it matter?" I shake my head. Instantly she runs to me and hugs me like I am her last hope of survival. "Was that really the Enemy?"
"I... I think so." She smells good. She is fifteen! For a moment I think I see a shovel floating in midair out of the corner of my eye.
"Me too, Aimi. Me too." I stroke her hair as she clings to me.
This one is important. The voice seems to echo in my mind. "Who is there?" Aimi does not seem to notice the voice, nor that I have spoken.
She has a great part yet to play in the coming story. "Do you mean she is marked, like the rest of us? This Kata Kariana thing?"
There is more than one kind of mark. She has a destiny to fulfill. Perhaps not as great as yours, but important nonetheless. "That is not why I saved her."
I know. That is part of the reason that she is so important. "Who are you?"
"Mecha are not the only First Mind artifacts that we use, as you know, simply the most prominent. Since you have chosen to pass on that particular inheritance, I present you with one that may fit you better. This is Keibatsu, the Blade of Celestial Judgment. It can cut through steel as easily as flesh, will never rust or pit, dull or break. You are sufficiently advanced in your Kenjutsu training that I believe you will make us proud by wielding this blade."
I knelt before my father and he placed Keibatsu in my hands for the first time. It seemed somehow... right.
There I am. "You are... Keibatsu?" I have been asleep for so long... but I have tasted the flesh of the Enemy once more. I begin to awaken. This is only the beginning, Kiyoshi. We are one, you and I, and we have much to do. The Enemy has returned. And I hunger.
A voice like a thousand tormented souls resonates through everything in that car, including my own body.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are..."
Moses begins, well, tunneling through the roof. There's no way I'm dragging my creaking bones through a window. As if to answer my thoughts, a terrible howl, like the voice of the void beyond fills me with a terror I had only ever expected to feel once; the split second before my untimely death. The roof of the car is torn open like wrapping parchment, and I see the source of my doom. The body of a woman hangs suspended in the body of a creature that defies everything in existence. To gaze upon its grotesque form was to know the face of malice. Kiyoshi bares his sword, roaring his challenge into the demon's face, and his courage brings me back to my senses.
The tone was set, and the battle raged for what felt like an eternity. It repeatedly attempted to pull the very souls from our bodies, throwing our forms about like rag dolls while everything we threw at it seemed to only make it stronger... and larger. Hordes of eyeless dead hounded us from all sides, aiding their creator in its attempts to destroy us. A little green fireball seems to take care of them rather effectively... isn't that the Zipsum? No matter, it's too fast to focus on anyway.
The battle climaxes as the demon tears the car free from the rest of the train and hurls it, with us ON it, into a nearby building. As the car impacts, my body is thrown clear- through a plate glass window. Darkness overcomes me.
Water. Its raining. The water burns my whole body. Why? I'm covered in lacerations... some of them still full of glass shards. The memory of the battle with the demon floods back into my mind. The car landed lower than me. Go down. I slowly rise to my feet, barely noticing the screaming people running all around me. I make my way to a stairwell, jammed with panicked people. Best stay out of there old man, you're libel to get trampled. And so, I wait, bleeding.
Then, a figure runs up the stairs. Kiyoshi? Then a pink-haired girl. I know her from... somewhere... A heavy tromping heralds the passing of Moses, hot on the tails of the first two. I look down at my blood-soaked clothing, wondering just how bad the damage is. Well, at least they were courteous enough to clear a path. I ascend the stairs after them. Kiyoshi says something about "The Enemy" which stuns the pink-haired girl. Is that what we face? The girl looks at me over the shoulder of Moses as he scoops her up. She looks stunned, confused, and... terrified?
The battle rages on on the rooftop. It seems every time we strike it, the creature grows in size. The building starts collapsing, taking the demon and Moses with it. A voice on the wind calls to me, beckoning me. I listen, then a flash of light, the crack of thunder, and the smell of ozone fills my senses.
I'm standing in a snow-covered courtyard with a fire and a teapot in the middle. A feathered face appears in the smoke of the fire, and asks me to sit down and have some tea. Wasn't I just in a battle? Am I dead? The face and I begin chatting. It tests my resolve, tempting me with the easy way out.
The easy way out? Aren't I already dead? Hmph, I guess not. In any case, the riddle of peace is one I intend to solve.
"Yes, the riddle of peace. Your companions are important pieces of the puzzle, Mokuzai."
My companions. Are they alright? Has the demon destroyed them? Have I failed so soon?
"You could bring them here, Mokuzai. A priest would bring even unworthy souls to a holy place if they needed help and shelter."
A point well made, spirit- face- whatever you are.
"They are marked Mokuzai. Marked as you are. Take them to the chantry. Learn of the Kata Kariana, if your people have not forgotten."
My pride stings at the comment. We would NOT have forgotten.
A flash, the crack, the ozone- I am standing on a different rooftop next to Una. Good, she is safe.
In the distance, Goshi's armies are bombarding the demon with everything they have. Still it lives?!
The rest of my companions are scattered about around me in various states of repair. Kiyoshi and the Zipsum look like a pair of mis-matched corpses. No, there is life in them yet.
Rei looks at me suspiciously, "Where did you go? And how did you get here? Did your staff... eat you?"
I shake my head no. Dear child, there is so much you should learn.
The atmosphere fills with a sense of looming doom, drawing my gaze back to the demon in the distance. We must leave, NOW!
Moses begins tearing into a nearby wall, looking for an escape route. "Wait!" He stops, looking at me confused. I look at my companions. "Will you trust me?" Only Moses answers. "Take my staff Una, fly to the southern forest. I will safeguard the rest of us." With that, I open my will to the staff again, drawing all my compaions save Una with me.
The blinding light, the deafening crack, the stink of ozone.
Sages please, let this work.
In the category of Best Episode of Season One, the clear winner was 'Surrender or Else' which also has the distinction of having been the longest episode of this season. During this immortal episode our Heroes' participation in the insurrection of the Underground Mechified Army against Goshi Corp came to a head when Moses, the inspirational leader of the Mechified rebels decided to surrender himself to prevent further violence. Much to his dismay the episode ended in a full-scale civil-war breaking out in the streets.
In the category of Favorite NPC of Season One, another landslide victory gave the award to Aimi. The churlish, sexy, dangerous assassin sibling of Rei and love-interest of Kiyoshi was the group's favorite recurring nemesis. Memorable moments include her sticking her knife in Moses, or Kiyoshi or even Garandou Oni and paralyzing them. Was it her potent blade or her startling eyes?
The player-characters also voted on awards for each other. The winners of these awards will be profiled in subsequent days.