Episode 33: Karia on the March

I wake up after having worse nightmares than usual. I dreamt that...hmm... I walk down the hallway to Kiyoshi's room and quietly push the door open a crack. Aimi is sleeping on the bed, and I lurch to the floor as reality hits me again. It really did happen and I really do have to face her every day now.

After a dazed minute I pull myself to my feet and follow the sounds of Kiyoshi doing his sword forms. I lean against the doorway with crossed arms until he finishes. He really is an amazing swordsman. His abilities of concentration alone put nearly everyone I've known to shame. He finishes and says good morning. I return the nicety and cut to the chase - before a certain someone can interrupt us.

"I hope that you really care for Aimi; because she loves you, and not like I love you." I give him a meaningful look. "If you don't respond in kind she may do something worse than try to kill herself." For a moment Kiyoshi pauses, and looks almost vulnerable, "But she's so young." I can tell that he does indeed care for her, but still holds on to his stupid Allskin sensibilities about how things should be. "I think you're going to have to look past that brother," I say gently.

Great Sages how I hate to be the one to encourage my brother to treat Aimi well! But after he (with some help) saved her from self-inflicted death, he can't just keep her as a friend or sparring buddy. He might not get that, but I've seen how she looks at him - or tries not to look at him. Kiyoshi is the person who cut through years and years of horrid training by Mama Pain and Dr. Soren. She's not going to let him be anything but her everything.

Kiyoshi nods, "Yes, I will care for Aimi." I smile supportively, but my heart creaks a little. Now I have to share my brother. I ask if he'll spar with a me for a bit to try and shake off my dreams... If only my dreams didn't follow me out into the daylight.

All of us separate on various tasks. I go get some clothes for Aimi to wear (deciding on some assassin-proper leather pants and a short kimono to tie over the top), as well as a few sundry extras. I place her clothes by the door and work on sharpening Griever after I punished it so sorely on my bed frame.

Late in the day, we all start trickling back in, and Aimi (thankfully garbed) pops into the room with us. She's painfully cheery saying hello to us all. My better nature thinks to ask if she's hungry. Suddenly realizing that she is, I beckon for her to follow me. We walk down the hall side-by-side, and I hear a some murmur from Kiyoshi about maybe not such a good idea... "Is there something besides birdseed?" she asks. I make a face, "Blech. I normally eat meat. Raw. Which you might not like either. We'll find you some normal Cheldrun food."

We sit eating together for a good while. Her asking me either very ignorant or very intentionally embarrassing questions. I try to answer as if I was talking to an innocent adolescent, which she is not, but it helps me keep my temper under control. Just when I get up the guts to ask about her motives for helping Namie, the rest of the group joins us. She asks Moses if he's going to start moralizing with her now too. "Uh, no." he stammers, then goes to leave. That surprises me; I thought for sure Moses would want a serious talk/smack-down with her, but then again the poor man is extremely overwhelmed.

I take him some food on my way to bed. He asks for the fork, then commences shoveling the food into his mouth extremely quickly. I guess he's been hungry! About ten seconds later an empty plate clatters to the floor, and he exhales. We chat for a bit about what he's been doing, and his main problems. I tell him I'll see if I can get crops to speed grow so that the people can take them for supplies. Wishing him goodnight, I wonder why I even bother adding the 'good' anymore.

Waking up, I find that Aimi has spread an entire arsenal out on the large table in the common area. "Wow." I can't help but say. She asks for a couple opinions, then I finally have presence of mind to ask,"What happened to your gauntlet-thing?" Her face kind of falls, "Oh, I smashed it. I don't know where it is." "Hmm." I mutter, "I think Rei had something like a gauntlet with her, but I'm not sure if it's yours." Aimi looks a bit surprised, "Rei didn't mention it to me." I shrug. Great, the sibling tiffs begin already!

I spend four oh-so exciting hours standing in the middle of a field, letting the energy from Karia flow through me, when finally the crop is ready for harvesting. Actually thrilled at the last, I fly quickly to our departure point to tell Moses about my success. Being a bit late I just land quietly on the stage and wait for Moses to say his piece. He bows his head at the end, holding Zipporah's hand. The sky begins to ripple (with water?), and I hope he knows what he's doing this time, because that box on his back is ticking again.

Suddenly the city grows. I mean everything that could possibly flourish - does. Giant trees, vines and bushes suddenly reach maturity, flower, bear fruit, then wither, leaving behind sustenance for his people. And then all the rail cars sprout arms and begin filling themselves up with the food! I am absolutely amazed, and then I am really upset.

I walk up behind Moses: "You could have told me you know. I could have done something more beneficial than growing a two-kilometer-diameter crop the whole morning - apparently." Moses looks sheepish, as he is so good at doing, "I didn't know what was going to happen." I try and look put out, but he didn't know what the first two 'things' would do, so why would he expect this one? "Oh, okay then. It's really amazing Moses." He nods humbly.


We all make it onto the Senin and head for the Grand Chantry for the regrettable (in so many ways) task of delivering Mokuzai's head. Several hours later Kiyoshi finds us a nice open landing spot right near the remains of Inari's Grandmother. Even this far away from the Chantry, we are greeted by Zipsum emmmisaries as we deboard. Sings-Like-Frog welcomes us and begs forgiveness for the lack of several (only-the-Prill-worry-about-them type) formalities.

We proceed first to the Choir of the Dead and Mokuzai's grandson - Twilight. He greets us warmly despite the reason for our visit. Many of us offer condolences, and he chides us all gently; he reminds us that it is he who should be doing the comforting - not the other way round. We are offered to stay vigil, or time to speak with a choir member, or freedom of the Chantry as we desire. Rei and I chose to be heard by the choir, each in separate rooms, for much of the night. I have the loss of all my people and guilt over not saving Mokuzai to unload. The idea of facing Elder Moon the next day seems much more daunting than the oni that killed her mate. The Prill that speaks to me at long length wonders what would give me closure, would a ritual help?

I nod. It seems just the thing. I think I would warm my heart beyond measure to know that anyone but me cares that the Vorax are all gone. After the sun rises, Mokuzai's effigy (with his real head) is processed out for the Prill death rites. Just as with elder Winter, at the end of the ritual, Mokuzai's remains turn into shining motes of light that disperse into the world. At least Karia has Peace, if not us. I try not to see Elder Moon standing stiffly to receive condolences from many Prill. Much to my horror, after the crowd disperses, she comes over to us.

"Would you join me for the reception?" She doesn't look angry or bitter towards us, and we guardedly accept her invitation. After some exchanged niceties and polite conversation I can't hold in the guilt any longer. "Elder Moon, we can't express how sorry we are that we couldn't save him. We really tried." I try not to cry as to make a mockery of her much greater grief. She actually smiles sadly and says, "Child, I have never been able to keep Mokuzai from doing what he wanted to do. I certainly don't blame you for his stubbornness." I exhale and nod solemnly.

We decide we're going to leave the next day. It seems that I will miss witnessing the Vorax farewell rite, but other matters are more pressing than my cultural ego. We say our goodbyes, including to Moses' new good-family. Apparently he survived meeting Zipporah's kin. As we enter the open area where the Senin rests we see Inari's Grandmother surrounded by the Choir of the Dead. One comes to ask if I have some memento of the other Vorax, or some feathers of mine own. I am loath to part with the book of Vorax that visited the Grand Chantry (that was given to me that morning) so I give a handful of my feathers. They are more Vorax-y anyways.

The Choir continues in a spectacular ritual which culminates in a glowing ghost-image of Inari's Grandmother standing up, and its leaves filled with flying Vorax...tons and tons of them. Tears fall gratefully down my face. A Choir member approaches me and I hear something about "always tended" and "Vorax never forgotten". I try to vocalize an unspeakable thankfulness and slowly join the others on the Senin. As we fly away, it's long minutes before the shining light from the new memorial disappears from view. We will be remembered.

Family Ties

A wisp of smoke is hard to see through jungle foliage in the middle of the night, on the night of the new moon.

Arrow teleported to a spot high enough in the sky that he would have time to get his bearings during the fall and choose a good spot in the canopy to disLocate into. It was quick. It was silent. He sent his thoughts through his earbud, I'm in, send the others. Seconds later the air was filling with his compatriots.

Timing, he reminded himself, would be crucial. Not speed. Timing. There was no way to be faster than a Zipsum, but you might catch them by surprise, if you were careful. Therefore, Arrow sat patiently, waiting for his compatriots to find similar perches in silence. They communicated by thought, avoiding even gestures that might rustle a tree branch and alert their sleeping quarry.

Patience and timing, were virtues Arrow prided himself on. They were his keys to survival. A Lieutenant in the Goshi army, a veteran Hei-Shi, and a survivor of no less than two encounters with the outlaws (once on the deck of the Rodan, and once at a flop house in Geneva Minor), Arrow made a habit of not getting himself killed - even when it seemed like Goshi command had it in for him, like tonight.

At his signal the first two units began disLocating into and out of Zipsum nests. Pink blades flickered to life sedating the sleeping Zipsum and their unconscious bodies were tossed into padded crates one on top of the other. Even as silent and as well coordinated as this effort was, it wasn't more than half a minute before the conclave began to stir, to awaken, and to realize they were under attack.

Now. Arrow sent the single word command out through the network.

In perfect unison the second two units of Hei-Shi deployed specially prepared gas bombs. They hissed to life all over the grotto as enraged Zipsum were drawing bows and grabbing wicked curved knives. The combination of steam and a neural destabilizer sent the Zipsum warriors into uncontrolled paroxysms as their bodies involuntarily began to shift forms and they lost all control of their extremities. While the blueish smoke wafted around trembling Zipsum bodies could be seen everywhere.

With the gas bombs deployed the rest of the Hei-Shi, including Arrow, leapt into action. It would be no use to try to contain the whole tribe. Some Zipsum had already escaped through underground burrows, or out small holes in the trees, or just by running really goddamn fast. But Arrow was pleasantly surprised by how many they had caught. Occasionally a conscious one would dive at him and he would happily bring a bluish blade into being on his fist and dispatch the maddened animal. His orders were to capture as many as possible, but he'd let his men know that they should defend themselves with lethal force. No playing games and getting injured.

While the rest of the Hei-Shi were fighting and gathering Zipsum bodies to be tossed into crates, Arrow looked around for the person that had been described to him. She would be painted in the colors of the tribe and wearing a chain of shrunken Cheldrun skulls. He found her tiny squirrel body quivering on the ground in a large hollowed out trunk of a Sygola Tree. Without hesitating he stepped on her hind legs with all his weight crushing them both, then he picked her up and brought her eyes level with his own. The pain in her legs made her lucid and as she looked at him her eyes narrowed in anger.

"Are you Living-Scarred-Heart, mother of High-Dive-Bludgeon?" He asked to be certain, according to his information she was the only one in the tribe who would probably understand Cheldrun.

She didn't reply but spit in his face, which he took as an affirmative. In response he squeezed until he felt a rib snap and walked back toward the rest of the Hei-Shi.

He tossed her into one of the crates that was nearly full, closed it and sealed it. Looking around, the work was almost done. Plenty had escaped, and one of his Hei-Shi had taken a poisoned blade in the neck, but otherwise it had gone according to plan.

The voice of Goshi Command came in over his earbud, Did you find them?

Yeah, he sent back, Tell Drives-Like-Oni that we got his whole motherfucking tribe.

Cat and Mouse

It begins as a game. Kufu has never been in a city like Marina, and he needs time to learn the rhythms of the Cheldrun here - how they live, where they find food and water, their patterns, how they defend themselves. To hunt them of course.

Two delectable options immediately offer themselves. The first is enjoyed in the Outer Market District. There is tremendous commotion as hordes of refugees and rioters and heavily armed police clash in the streets below. Kufu finds a perfect place to sleep during the day, tucked between massive air-circulation fans that are now silent and useless. Most of the grand domes of Marina are shattered, and now broken shells arch over the inhabitants, spindly and corroded metal skeletons once housing shimmering glass. At night he descends and takes prey almost at will. Bodies and parts of bodies are found - a soldier with a helmet but no face, his throat torn out and entrails eaten. A vast pool of blood in an alley in which nothing remains but a pair of shoes, a hat and a left hand.

And swirling around him are nightmares echoing in the minds of the Cheldrun, twisting their bodies in restless movement as they try to sleep, making them cry out to awaken themselves.

The second options is best indulged a few days later, when Kufu is holed up in the abandoned construction site of a southern-style high-rise building, plastic tarps snapping in the wind around him, stretched out on the floor, sniper rifle braced against his shoulder, eye peering through the scope.

Heads explode before the report of the shot is heard. Businesspeople in rumpled suits dance a jig as multiple rounds tear through their bodies with rapid succession. The wind carries the thin sound of giggling. And of course, there are more nightmares.

He learns enough. The city is in a state of controlled chaos, a Maneater Ant nest swarming with frenetic activity, but nowhere near as organized. Even Shadowfang would leave such a nest alone. Marina, however, seems far more accommodating. And he is not here for mere sustenance, mere entertainment. He has traveled many hundreds of kilometers to come here, because this is where the leaders of the most powerful tribe of Cheldrun, the Biomade, live and have their chiefs. The chiefs sit on a Council - wise, since there are more than one. Oversight is its name.

Shadowfang will eat one of these chiefs, and when he does, he will be as strong as a chief of the Cheldrun. The Cheldrun's territory will be his territory. The Cheldrun secrets will be his secrets. He will restore his real name, Eris - NO! - Kufu! Kufu! Chieftain of Cheldrun and Karian, the Hunger of Karia, the Dream-stalker...and he will then turn, at last, to sating the hunger once and for all. To devour. To consume. To evolve.

At last he finds one - called Groom - who serves one of the chiefs of the Biomade. He doesn't ask, he simply bites, and rips, and tears, and chews, and when he is done, he remembers what Groom remembered, briefly but for long enough. He learns of members of the Council, particularly the one that Groom served, and he learns of another chieftain - one called Rain. Another Biomade chieftain, but one of a different kind. The leader of many warriors, gathering her strength to crush her foes.

Rain. Rain. Rain tastes of nothing, of sky, but this rain, this sweet Rain...it is his sudden purring that gives him away, his distracted state that allows it to happen.

There is the barest intake of breath, the slightest brush of feet on the carpet of the abandoned apartment where he is sheltering during the day, and they are upon him. They are like shadow-shaped Cheldrun, flickering in the afternoon light like reflections on water, fast - how did I not smell them!? - and rage wells up in Kufu, as well as surprise. He remembers seasons ago, hunting along the edges of a Gogajin village. They are celebrating the culmination of some kind of competition with other villages. A huge one, a champion perhaps, comes outside to relieve himself, reeking of meed and donkey. Kufu took him, his strength, his iron grip, and as he remembers he swells, muscles rippling and twisting beneath his skin.

The Cheldrun hunters are upon him and are almost immediately thrown back. One collapses gasping with a crushed sternum. Another is seized and hurled out the empty window frame to fall silently, ten stories down, landing with a crack like a dropped egg. Their blades flicker pink and slash, stealing strength, then blue, shedding thick blood. At last, as he crushes the wind out of another attacker, one pounces on top of him, slashing with a flicker of blue and then slamming the suddenly pink blade into the base of Kufu's skull. He goes limp at last as she drains him, dancing nimbly aside as he crashes heavily to the floor, already shrinking in stature, forgetting the Gogajin champion, forgetting everything.

They take his limp form, the rifle he was cleaning as he mused, clear the room and disappear with a flicker.


Shade delivers the package, which she was brought in to do. She mourns the three dead bounty hunters in her crew and waits with the fourth while he is in the hospital until they say he is in stable condition. With the remaining five, she divides up the sum that the Executor has paid them - the cash is dicey, perhaps just so much toilet paper in a season or less, but the promises, written up as contracts, are far more valuable. Not for the first time, nor the last, she silently thanks the Gengineers who performed the dihybrid cross which led to her...unique ability. She'd read that the extinct Vorax could do something similar. Well, maybe explorers would come across one in some out of the way place, and she'd get a chance to read the studies that would be published when they vivisected it. She'd love to learn how they do their trick.

Goshi will land on its feet, given enough time. Who will oppose them? Refugees with a famous terrorist at their lead? Hardly, however many apocalypses he can pull off, the son of a bitch. A few seasons of starvation and economic stagnation should take the wind out of them. It always does. Until then, there's no end to the work. And after, still more work. Goshi will come right back - maybe this tiger-man will even help them out, once he hears the deal. But either way, Goshi is the future of this planet, and it isn't down for the count, not by a long shot. They'll be back -

And then everything will be right as Rain.

Hope Enough (Rei's Lament)

I sink into my bed on the Sennin, utterly exhausted. Emotionally spent. The cabin is dark around me, and the hum of the ship's engine is the only noise I hear, save my own breathing. Just once, for a moment, I shut out all the noise of Moses's thoughts, of Kiyoshi's thoughts, of Aimi's thoughts, even Ama-chan's thoughts: I shut out everyone else, and I am just myself.
Just Rei. I am alone with my thoughts.

I am alone with the Question.

The Question.

'You're a hero, Rei.' The words come back to me unbidden.

There is blood on my hands, Moses. ...So much blood. I've killed so many people I've lost count, and not all of them were guilty. Men, women, children. Executives, workers, students. I've made death with my hands since I was twelve years old... I've done terrible, terrible things, and I did them with a song in my heart. I still do. I felt the suffering of all of Karia, and I laughed.

I know that you meant what you said, but I don't believe you. I don't believe you for a moment. A hero? No.

How often I've tried to change. How completely I've failed. Time after time, I try, I try, I try again, but I've never really changed. Not where it matters.

Not inside.

Purpose. I thought I knew what that was, once. Then it all went away, and I had to figure out who I was and what I wanted all over again. I thought that if I knew the answers to those questions, I'd know what my Purpose was again.

... but who I am isn't what I want.

I am not a good person, Moses. I never have been. I never will be. I prove that every day. With every word. With every action. ... is it enough that I want to be?

Aimi wouldn't understand, either. She's never wanted to be anything other than what she is. Who she is. She's Aimi, and you either take her or leave her. Kiyoshi hasn't learned that. He thinks he can change her. If a person can't even change their own self, how can they change someone else?

... Purpose. What Purpose can there be? Is there even such a thing? ... On the Wandering Star, I thought I knew what my Purpose was, but I'm no First Mind. Half breed. Hybrid. Project Scion. Can there really be no understanding? Is there really no peace?


I am The One Who Hopes.

The words are true, but is that it? Is that enough? Is Hope the source of Purpose? Are they the same thing? ... I don't understand now as much as I did before.

What do you think, First Minds? ... Oh hell, you don't care. You just want me dead. Me, and all the Cheldrun on the face of the planet. What about you, Karia? You're supposed to be alive, aren't you? Are you watching me? Do you hear me? Is there even anybody out there at all? And is there Hope enough, is there grace enough, to forgive someone like me?


An Impossible Situation

Night is a time to let the mind wander shaded paths, to slacken one's bright focus. Heavy-lidded, Jin-Kalys is curled around a low table in an out-of-the-way tea-house in Stardown. He has been given freedom to move throughout the city, and is learning to ignore the Cheldrun who are curious to see an Anakarix sitting a tea-house, or going to a public bath, or walking down the street, or buying food with the city vouchers he receives. In the press of refugees and others who have come to the city, it is impossible to hide or to move about surreptitiously. Engineers are busy constructing temporary shelters and buildings on the outskirts of the city. Some arrive with supplies in tow, but as many others do not. Wherever possible, refugees and freedom-fighters are conscripted to work building shelters, digging new drainage, laying new pipes and power cables and so on.

There is the sense that, though there is a great deal of work to do, it need not be of lasting quality.

This will be over all too soon. Word has reached the city (by Zipsum, if nothing else) that Goshi has retreated to Marina, and is organizing some kind of massive military offensive. The hammer is being drawn back, and will be brought down one last time, not flickering Hei-Shi but the whole remaining might of Goshi Mining Corporation, wounded, hemorrhaging money, but far from dead.

Jin is distantly aware of this. He has two tasks in mind as he lounges in the tea-house, relying on the warmth of the tea to help him concentrate. Working after dark is for mammals. The first task is the completion of a sizeable letter in tiny, even, angular script to be delivered to Sighing Web of Trees via well-paid Zipsum messenger. Fortunately, food-vouchers can be traded for candy. In the letter, Jin is primarily concerned with describing his various adaptations of Nine-Branches Formal Logic. Stories of world war are of secondary interest, mentioned only as illustrations. Anakarix can be fearsome opponents if they are defending their tree-villages and particularly the tombs of the sainted lizard sages, but they are hardly a people to trek hundreds of kilometers across the continent to help Cheldrun fight Cheldrun.

It is difficult, but possible, to translate rational argument into purely written form. Jin is relying on an archaic script which retains markings to represent posture and positioning, as if the speaker were physically present. Someday, when this is all over, Jin hopes to return to Sighing Web of Trees to personally defend his theses.

The second task is...difficult to describe. Before he left his village, what seems like years ago now, Jin had made a crucial argument for non-rational processing, ultimately earning his most recent dewlap piercing. He is finding, however, that speaking is easier than doing. To clear the mind, to silence it, to wait patiently for answers to arise - almost impossible.

The conclusion he's reached about the energy-nullifying field that is currently spreading in the center of the city can't possibly be correct. If it is, then the city is doomed until the energy feedback runs out and begins to revert to a static state...and it is very difficult to predict when this will be.

The problem is a simple one conceptually but an impossible one practically. The energy-field steals kinetic energy around it. The obvious result is the intense cold that surrounds the device. Of course, any Anakarix more than a few years out of the Ovumcreche knows that Sol burns because it moves. A poet would say that it dances, spinning recklessly, dizzyingly. The movement, coupled with its immense mass, radiates warmth to the whole solar system. Karia, moving far more slowly around Sol, is far cooler, so that instead of fire, there is warmth for life, arising from the planet and radiating out from Sol. Planets closer to Sol are faster, and therefore of course, hotter, while those more distant are far cooler, moving in far larger ellipses. Karia, at the perfect distance, is the sole world with life, or so the sages say.

Obviously, some kind of intelligent being will have to get close enough to the device to alter it sufficiently. This being will have to carry with it a tremendous amount of kinetic energy, because it will be immediately sapped when it enters the nullifying field. Based on measurements taken at the edge of the field and Jin's careful calculations, aided at many points by Sousauryoku and his various calculating devices, this creature would have to be traveling at a speed that is many times that of sound. This amount of kinetic energy would burn said creature alive, incinerating it even if there was some contrivance by which it could be brought up to that kind of velocity.

There is a second solution, also impossible. The creature could be somewhat slower in the approach, only perhaps as fast as the fastest Zipsum on Karia, but it would have to continuously accelerate once it entered the field. The force required would be tremendous - more like one of the Cheldrun bullets leaving the tube of one of their guns.

Either way, once it reached the device intact, it is...possible...that something could be done. A great deal of energy must be introduced into the system, in order to buy Stardown time and achieve the two ends of the operation: 1) maintain the shield so that Hei-Shi don't rain down on the city and 2) prevent the city from being doomed to a frigid stasis, killing everyone under that selfsame dome.

If this theoretical bullet-creature could reach the device, it would be actually laughably simple to impart tremendous energy into the system - but impossible for any such creature to survive the interaction. Once the energy was imparted to the device, the creature would be left there, frozen and trapped, if it was not obliterated by the impact.

Sousauryoku has another solution, which, on the current theoretical level, is fascinating. He is designing an engine to be placed in the device. The metaphysical problem, of course, is that the device is currently powered by sacrifice, for all intents and purposes. It is fueled by lost potential. But Sousauryoku seems unable to clearly perceive this fact. He wants to understand it in terms of a particular kind of energy as the Cheldrun narrowly perceive it.

The Cheldrun cannot see - their devices are powered by sacrifice. The artifacts that they attribute to their First Minds exact some kind of price. In many cases, they pay it intuitively, not understanding why it is that ritual observances sometimes activate the devices. Even in their mundane technologies - something is expended, lost, in order that something else is achieved. The Mechified burn Blackrock. The Allskins burn incense and chant and hold to ancient ways. It is the Biomade who sacrifice most, but who understand their sacrifice the least, because it is of a kind that even Jin must admit he cannot comprehend precisely. They sacrifice aspects of themselves. They think they are being perfected, but they are only being pared down. In carving a plank, much of the tree is lost. Is a plank better than a tree? The Biomade think so. Jin couldn't disagree more...but it isn't his place to point any of this out.

In the end, however, the rule is the same. It is no different from the ancient stories of the Karians - in the beginning, the Dusk Sages created, and as they did so, they diminished. It is the nature of things.

Jin sighs and puts down his pen, massaging one clawed hand with another, staring off into the night. What will have to be sacrificed, what will have to diminish, before this is over, for better or worse?

He shakes his head abruptly. I need more tea. There is still a lot of work to do.

Just Before the Rain of Frogs, I...

Please allow me to introduce... oh hell, that line is overused anyways. I'm Sif. Mechified, I guess. Raised on the closest farm to Geneva Prime, grew up being really fuckin' useful to everybody around me. That's sarcasm, by the way. Or maybe irony. Sometimes, I can't tell the difference. Anyways, I never really knew what I wanted to be useful for. Got a mechanical arm and everything, but it doesn't do much, except what arms do. My friends used to tell me I should become a farming model, but I have a hard enough time managing one mechanical limb. I don't think I'd want to bother with extra digits, or having a fucking plow attached to my nads or something. That's not exactly my thing, and I've gotten in trouble for it most of my life.

I guess a Mechified can't just be himself. He's got to be useful for something. Well I want to paint. How's that for useful? Yeah, paint. No tricky force-constructs, no energy patterns, just paint on a canvas.

... yeah, my parents didn't buy it either.

Neither did Rebecca.

I guess it shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. Being told that you're useless by your own fiance is a bit rough, though. Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. Now there's a piece of work. Loud. Angry. Geared for office work. Yeah, a mechified office lady. We're not all miners. She'd got the data processor upgrades. You know, the ones where your fingers split open into like a hundred little fingers and you can type a thousand words a minute? She plugs into computer systems, too. Something about direct access and improved efficiency, harnessing a Cheldrun neural network. I have no idea what that means. I don't even know what the hell she does in Goshi tower every day. She's not allowed to talk about it. It's got something to do with the Heishi, but... yeah.

Anyways, I guess it comes as no surprise to know that this story starts with a girl. Most stories do. Or at least most stories that are worth listening to. It ends with one, too. Hey, symmetry. Ain't it grand? My life is a fucking poem. I hope somebody enjoys it.

Well, no, that's not true. I hope somebody chokes on it and dies. That's the sort of person I am. Now, at least.

I was in the fields when it happened, the walls of the city not a hundred yards away. You know, picking grapes for the harvest. Have to get the crop in before the year gets too late. Grapes are a finicky thing to grow, and ours are more finicky than most.

There I was, my fingers all stained with the juice of crushed grapes, already working up a sweat, when out comes Rebecca. She's as beautiful as ever, of course, and I tell her so, and she rolls her eyes like she always does when she thinks I'm brown nosing.

She really is beautiful.

"I'm going to work," she says, "You better not follow me again, or your supervisor's gonna be pissed."

I wrap my arms around her from behind and whisper into her ear, "Let him."

She gives me that look. You know the one. The one that says, 'you're an idiot, but I love you anyways.' "You can't afford to get in trouble again, Sif," she says. "Besides, whatever you've got planned, I'm sure we can do it two days from now. You know, the day we both have off?" She twists out of my arms and gives me a mischievous smile "Good things come to those who wait," she says, and taps me on the nose.

I grin, and she starts walking off to catch her train into Geneva Prime.

"You better not be messing with me again!" I call out after her.

"Me?" she asks, all innocence and light. I almost laugh. "Anyways, Joshua and Sarah are coming over tonight. You'll have the house ready for them, won't you?"

"Sure, sure," I say. I won't, but I say it anyways to make her happy. "See you when you get back."

She goes.

I should have stopped her, I guess. I could have. Maybe if I'd tried harder to appeal to her irresponsible side. Maybe if I'd told her I didn't like her working for Goshi. It's hard to avoid that, I guess, when they rule the whole damn world, but they're still creepy as hell, and I don't like the way those Heishi look. Should have done something, anyways.

I've never really been a religious man, you know. I live my life, I love the people I love, I work hard, and I try to get somewhere as a painter. Somewhere's better than nowhere, after all. I mean, I've seen those Allskins all pretentious with their First Mind worship, as if a bunch of dead Allskin ancestors are gonna bother to reply to anything we say to them, but I've never believed it. I hear the Karians worship the planet, and that's pretty weird, but better than worshiping your own grandparents, I guess. But what I saw in the skies that day...

Hours later, the day is almost over, and I'm still working in the field when there's a boom like thunder. I look up, and the sky over Geneva Prime has gone dark.

Funny. It hadn't looked like rain earlier. Our oak tree - the one my father planted when I was born, and the one I always take Rebecca to when we have time to kill - looks pale and dead in the shadow of the clouds. I guess it looks pale and dead anyways, but what can you do? It's still got leaves, at least.

There's another boom, and the wind begins to pick up. I gather up what I've picked so far and head for the shelter of the barn. Hell of a time to get caught in a rain.

Ribbit. Ribbit.
A pair of frogs hop into the barn. Then another. Then two more. Then another.

I look down at them curiously. "Huh," I say.

There's another boom, and then, in the distance, something red and gleaming falls from the sky. It lands about two hundred yards away - well inside the city walls - and I put my harvest down inside the barn and then head on over to see what it was.

... a nevergem? A red nevergem? Weird.

Something cracks against the back of my head. Sharp. Hard. OW. I reach back and... another nevergem?

What the hell?

The skies open.

Nevergems. It's raining nevergems. I'm being rained on by nevergems.

What the hell is going on? Is this ... some sort of god? Is this the First Minds? Karia, maybe? I don't know. It doesn't make any sense. Why would some big time higher power decide to rain fucking nevergems of all things?

... the crop is gonna be ruined.

"Sif! Sif, what are you doing!?" It's Rebecca's voice. She's running from the train station, but she's loud, so I hear her anyways. "Get under cover!"

I look up into the downpour. There's a big heavy chunk of nevergem the size of a melon heading straight for my head.

"SIF!" She's running towards me. She staggers as one of those nevergems hits her leg, but she keeps running.

I stare.

Give me a break here. It's not every day it rain's nevergems. Just before it connects with my head, I have time for one last thought:

'Well, at least it's not frogs...'

Episode 32: The Very Long Night of Daitokuji Kiyoshi

I was running down a dark hallway with grey metal walls. (That's still new for me. Before I came to Geneva Prime, my dreams never had long dark hallways.) A loud booming noise followed me, metal footsteps. They came closer, closer, closer....*gasp* I sat up in bed with a sheen of sweat on my forehead. I was about to lay back down when I realized that the booming noise was real, and going down the hallway past my room.

High Dive had already left our room, so I peeked my head out and ran towards the source of commotion. To my surprise Aimi was in Kiyoshi's room - naked. I could tell by his face that he was in the Void now. And whatever came before, just now Kiyoshi seemed to be trying to capture his pink-haired (it's apparently natural by the way) charity case. Interestingly enough, Aimi said that she didn't want to fight any of us. But that didn't stop High Dive from running crazy circles around her to try and bind her. Some progress was finally made in that regard, when Rei stepped up to touch her sister. We stopped that little idea pretty quick. All of us had waited waaay too long to get our hands on Aimi.

As High Dive tied the last knot, Rei mentioned that Moses was fighting mecca by himself out on the street. What?? I glance at Kiyoshi, who glances at Aimi. "We must go help Moses," he says. We all agree and run out the door, leaving Aimi alone with knots and a dubious fate ahead of her.

I shifted into Vorax form and reach Moses just after High Dive. We are lucky enough to gather that Moses is badly hurt, just before seven more mecca come to join the fight - and not on our side. While I healed our mechified friend, and did wicked damage to a mecca trying to beat him down, two more mecca appeared as well as Rei and Kiyoshi. Luckily the two new mecca were fighting with us and Rei learned some nasty new trick that turned several mecca into rag dolls. It was rather unnerving, but as is her way, she was quite proud of herself. Certainly none of us were complaining at the moment! We made short order of the last of them, and Moses x4 molded a mecca pilot cage out of rebar.

He carried the enemy pilots back to our lodgings, and Kiyoshi, Rei, and myself each carried the inert body of the pilots who had helped us. Part of the walk back I was by myself strolling down an alley, when I heard someone say my name. Not knowing whether to expect friend or foe I set down the mecca pilot against a wall. I stepped forward a bit, "Who's there?" Quite suddenly Aimi appeared in front of me. Yes. The Aimi who I just found out had escaped. Griever twitched. "What do you want?" I heard myself ask.

"Kiyoshi isn't listening. Give this to him," and she handed me a sealed envelope. So now I'm a messenger for a teenage assassin's angsty, misguided farewell letter to Kiyoshi?? I tucked the letter bitterly under my armor, and she turned to walk away. Catch her! Finish her off! My mind cried to me. Why aren't you moving? Why indeed...

The look on Rei's face when she found out about the death of Sever and Stitch still haunted me, even though they deserved the death that High Dive and I dished out. What would happen when I told her Aimi was dead too? Also, Kiyoshi had captured her for judgment. My dear brother thought she deserved a trial, but the execution seemed inevitable - she admitted to killing Amuro Naimi. Not to mention all the other lives she's ruined. If I was just willing to kill some unknown mecca in a street brawl, why in the hell am I hesitating?

I feel energy begin to thrum. I am full of it. I know I can obliterate her, right now. But every step she takes from me feels like a pain in my heart. Speaking of, I shout out, "You broke Kiyoshi's heart you know." I thought she should know that Kiyoshi wanted to love her, before I killed her. She is laughing and crying as she takes another step. Right now Una! Let the power of Karia turn her to ash! Then I remember:

Karia wants Forgiveness. I scream inside my head. Nooo! Countless people have died in these last few weeks for far lesser crimes than hers! Another step. I remember Rei when we first met her, and how hard it had been for her to learn to respond to emotions with something other than violence. Step. Why in Karia am I letting her go?!? Step...Step. Moses is going to kill me. Rei will thank me. Kiyoshi will judge me. Step...Step...Step.

Time turns to sludge as she nears the corner of a building. This is my last chance. I can finish off the bane of Aimi once and for all. I begin to raise my hand as part of my brain knows what it should be doing, but my will evaporates...and so does Aimi. I stand trembling in the middle of the alley. What have I done???

After some painful number of heartbeats I remember my task. I gather up the mecca pilot just in time to hear sounds of battle from ahead. Did I let Aimi go just so she could immediately destroy us all? How could I have been so horrible and so stupid? Oh Karia, I hope you know what you're doing. I arrive at the next plaza just after some loud explosion went off. The pilot is set on the ground once again as I see that Rei is there, grievously wounded by shrapnel. I take the energy that would have atomized her sibling, and use it to force bits of rubble from her and heal her body.

There's no time to dally; there's obviously plenty of people left out there who want us dead, in a bad way. I'm told the final explosion was a suicide bomber of all things. We return to our lodgings. I remain in an agonized stupor while the others discuss tactics and plans. Something has been agreed upon, and people are about to depart for bed. "Wait," I say. I turn towards Rei while drawing forth the envelope, and poke her chest with each word, "Don't ever say I don't love you!" My voice nearly cracks with strain at every syllable. So I simply hand the note to Kiyoshi, and glance fearfully at Moses. "Goodnight," I manage to say and high-tail it to my room.

The next hour I spent with Griever, furiously attacking the rail of my bed. All the violence and anger that I should have showed to Aimi was visited upon that poor little bed. Why did I have to feel forgiving at that moment in the alley? Now I feel fear that she will kill many more people in her life, and that Moses will hate me for it. Heck, I'll hate myself for it. Why did she have to look so damn hurt and sad in the alley? And after she had just been completely non-violent with us! Can't I just enjoy getting back at someone, even once? With no pang of guilt? Please??

I sighed, and slumped exhausted against my shredded bed. I dozed for who knows how long, when once again my name was called out. But this time it was Rei calling my name. Oh Great Sages, what could be wrong now? I ran down the hallway (with Moses close behind) and saw Rei with Kiyoshi carrying a body.

It's Aimi.

I screamed in horror and jumped back. My head shook a negation. This can't be happening. They couldn't be asking me to heal her. I could see that she was very nearly dead. "She didn't kill Amuro Naimi, she saved her. Please help her," Kiyoshi said very seriously. He looked like he hadn't slept at all, and there was a pain in his voice that tells me that she really is more than his charity case. Moses was still furious that she was there and slammed his door shut. I was too confused to hold her body as I normally do, so I placed a ginger hand on her chest. I trust my brother, and I truly hoped he wasn't mislead.

Glowing blue tears mingled with salty tears of agony as Aimi's life is restored. I was this close to killing her. I would have destroyed someone trying to make a noble change, someone who my brother loves. If this was supposed to be a brutal lesson about the power of Forgiveness, Karia, consider the message recieved.

Episode 31: From the Ruins

My home was being destroyed and all I could do was watch. I knew it was necessary and for all the right reasons but seeing Geneva Prime fall (and knowing that the same was likely happening in every Cheldrun city on the continent with the possible exception of StarDown) was still a hard thing for me.

We set down on a plateau above the city to await Blade's inevitable counterattack. Quickly we made ready as best we could, preparing the battlefield where possible. We had no idea how he was going to come for us or what he was capable of so we tried to prepare for every eventuality we could think of. In this our imaginations failed us. With a tortured groan so loud we could hear it clearly from where we were standing, the remains of Goshi Tower twisted and writhed as we watched. It reformed itself until it rose into the air in the form of a massive airship, easily as big as the Rodan had been. This was certainly unexpected.

I knew that we did not stand a chance if we simply stood there and waited for this behemoth to strafe us so I yelled for everyone to return to the ship. Once aboard I strapped myself into the pilot's chair and we prepared to take off to try to face the Enemy, a gnat attacking a bear. That is when things went wrong.

The door leading into the interior of the Sennin opened and out strode Katashi Blade, his face a mask of fury. I immediately felt the weight of an unstoppable mind upon my own, trying to crush all resistance. It was even stronger than I had feared it would be. I managed to hold him off for the first few moments, barely. Luckily it seemed my guess that he would not be able to affect Karians in the same way that Cheldrun telepaths could not proved true as Highdive launched herself at him and attacked, her movements so fast that she was literally a blur. Unfortunately her blows seemed to be stopped by a force field of some kind no matter how fast they came.

Meanwhile my fellow Cheldrun who had not had the years of training in mental defense that I had found themselves helpless before the First Mind's power. Moses, Julian, and Trencher started attacking Una and Balder, as well as each other. Rei launched herself in my direction and I thought I might have to defend myself against her, but instead she quickly dispatched the Sennin's main control panel. It seemed Blade wanted us to be sitting ducks when his airship arrived.

For my part I harnessed the anger, the hatred, the aggression, and righteous fury that was bubbling through me and I launched myself at the Executor, trying desperately to bring his defensive field down. It seemed to work as Keibatsu sliced into his clothes over and over again, inflicting what would have been mortal blows to any normal man. Blade staggered back, his glasses broken, staring hatred at me with his glowing white eyes and then I felt the mental assault renewed and... things become blurry from there.

I vaguely remember the overwhelming thought that Una was a traitor. I remember Blade fleeing inside the ship and the Karians chasing him. I remember Moses trying to hurt me, or stop me... I do not know which and I cannot remember how I got away from him. I remember being filled with a feeling of vindication and then my mind cleared. And I remember wishing it had not, because there I stood within a corridor of the Sennin, standing over the still form of Una, Keibatsu in her heart.

I screamed with primal anger. I was beyond reason and my memories are just as foggy about this point as they are about the time during which Blade was manipulating me. I ran through the ship's interior intent on finding Blade at any cost. I would have cut down anyone or anything that stood in my way at that point without a second thought. Thankfully nothing did and I reached a chamber where Highdive was continuing her relentless assault on the angry First Mind, moving too fast for him to effectively counter. I struck then with all my might, and again, and... I probably would have kept mindlessly attacking, barely heeding the overwhelming pressure of Blade's mind against mine, but even my all-consuming anger was not enough to block him for long and I was overtaken by the urge to kill myself.

This thought was not one foreign to me after having killed my dear companion. I had dishonored myself after all. But I had a job to finish. Unable to stop myself from committing suicide I decided my course of action immediately. No thought, no mind. Just action. I summoned forth Tsukuyomi and spun around toward him and Blade. I reversed my grip on Keibatsu and plunged it into myself, through my own torse, through the stunned Kyo Tee Shee, through The glowing form of the Executor of Goshi Corp. I suppose that is one way to deliver your resignation.

I could feel Keibatsu feeding on the Enemy's body and suffusing me with energy, trying to counteract the damage it was simultaneously afflicting. Tsukuyomi just looked at my quizzically and stepped aside as if the blade did not exist, contenting himself to stand and watch. Blade on the other hand grimaced and pushed himself further down Keibatsu until he was standing directly behind me and whispered exultantly "Do it again." Unable to resist Blade's command I twisted the sword in my bloody hands causing more pain than my body could handle and I momentarily passed out.

When I opened my eyes I was lying on the floor, my mind clear once more, though I knew I was probably dying. I looked up and saw Blade stumbling and wounded and thought to try to get up and finish him even if it was the last thing I did. I had forgotten that at least one of my allies was still in the fight however as Highdive appeared out of nowhere and fell upon the wounded Executor, biting and stabbing faster than the eye could follow. Blade tried ineffectually to swat her away as he stumbled and jerked from the blows raining down upon him. Still intent on making sure he paid for all the deaths he had caused I continued to try to force my body to respond to my will. I had gotten mostly to my knees by the time Highdive's assault finally proved too much for even a First Mind and Blade's form dissolved in a blinding flash of rainbow colored lights. The next instant a voice spoke in a manner that it seemed to echo from within my own skull. "I am Rensu Oni, the One Who Binds." And then everything went black.

* * *

I awoke to find myself alone, lying on the cold floor of the Sennin, covered in blood. I was surprised and almost disappointed to be alive. Struggling to my feet I started looking for any of my companions that had survived. I found the spot where I had last seen Una. All that remained was dried blood. I heard voices and followed them where I found my friends. All of them, alive. My eyes filled with tears of joy and Una and I hugged for some time.


Julian and Trencher had died and we buried them up on the plateau overlooking the ruins of Geneva Prime. Goshi had retreated, leaving the city in our hands. Moses spoke only of leading his people now to safety. And I was bound and determined to help him succeed.

Under the Dome

A gnarly arthritic hand reaches up to stroke a long snowy white beard.

Sousauryoku considers the documents before him. They are on crinkled paper, bits of papyrus and other improvised material, but the carefully scrawled script is all the same - it is the meticulous foreign hand of the Anakarix sage Jin-Kalys. Reading it is like trying to decipher an alien mind, not unlike deciphering First Mind writing really, a process Sousauryoku is very familiar with. Frequently it is unclear whether it is all a bunch of worthless arcane drivel, but once in a while something disturbingly accurate creeps through the endless equations. It is enough to keep him searching.

A young Allskin boy brings him a steaming cup of tea and bows ceremonially three times on his way out the door.

Nuisance, that. Sousauryoku had grown accustomed to being something of a celebrated rebel before all this business started. He was either known as "the Allskin innovator" or "a traitor to tradition" depending on who you spoke with. He liked both epithets. He'd earned them by his unorthodox scientific opinion that First Mind Artifacts were really just an advanced form of Cheldrun technology that society had somehow lost the necessary knowledge to duplicate. Where most Allskins treated anything connected to the First Minds with something like religious fervor, praying to them, wafting incense over them, and hoping that they would magically start working, he thought it should be possible to dissect them and learn their fundamental mechanical nature in order to recreate it.

Advice to anyone who wants to be popular among Allskin traditionalists - don't start breaking their precious First Mind Artifacts in order to find out how they work.

Of course, he'd been right, well partially. He had to admit that he hadn't been able to conclusively demonstrate any of his theories, but from time to time he'd managed to get an artifact to do a new trick, or self-destruct in dramatic fashion. Proof, as far as he was concerned, that they could indeed be manipulated predictably. If you could predict some rather surprising results.

What made him even more of a controversial figure was his adamant attachment to all the usual outward expressions of Allskin tradition. He still wore a kimono. He kept his beard long, to show his age and status. He visited his parents shrine on a monthly basis, and so on. Maybe he was just cantankerous. Maybe he just liked the lifestyle. Regardless, he never changed his mind because of popular opinion.

However, his social role of rebel genius was seriously compromised, and against his will, when that Anakarix sent the dome roiling into the sky. Because the artifact had been his, and because people were fools, he'd somehow gotten part of the credit for that feat, and now with a full blown war on their hands the citizens of Stardown had elevated him to mythic-heroic status and he could no longer go anywhere without someone idiotically bowing and scraping their faces on the floor.

Nor did it help that he'd accepted the title of General, in the newly minted Stardown Defense Force. He'd had to. He had no military expertise, but there was no one else in this 2-second operation with an ounce of good sense. Well, except for that Daitokuji fellow. And the lizard. The lizard who might just know more about what the hell is going on than even Sousauryoku.

He tossed the papers down on the desk in frustration and acknowledged Jin-Kalys who had been sitting by the window soaking in the sunlight this whole time.

"Which piece is the bloody beginning?"

The Cheldrun language sounded strange rolling off of his reptilian tongue, "None of them. The Nine branches interweave, they do not evidence an artificial priority. The quintessential aptitude of the logician is residing in the whole rather than dissecting the parts."

"That sounds like a clever way of saying you've forgotten."

Normally that might have gotten a rise out of the sage, but he was too happy in the sun to let it bother him. "Not at all. If you wish I can arrange the pages according to a variety of sequences which may increase intelligibility for a mind unaccustomed to polyvalent temporal-symbolic mathematics. Would you prefer the order in which I penned the material, or the order of increasing complexity?"

It was at that moment that Head-Like-Steel, one of the Zipsum couriers the SDF was using lately, burst into the room.

"The machine thingy got worse again. Three people got frozed. We pulled them out, but we broke two steel poles doing it. Still no one can get near."


This was apparently a side-effect even Jin-Kalys hadn't counted on. Since the First Mind artifact was activated, the dome had been thrown up, yes, but so had an inertial dampening field in the vicinity of the artifact. Jin himself had barely escaped the field when it activated and now no one, literally no one, could get close to the bloody thing to figure out what was going on. Those that attempted were either rebuffed or else frozen solid. And this was no harmless cryogenic stasis either. The victims often died, or if they lived they lost digits and patches of skin to the frost. What was worse, is that the dome appeared to be growing day by day, and as the dome grew, so did the inertial dampening field. It had already completely claimed the old facilities of Stardown Technology and Research, Sousauryoku's company. It was starting to leak out beyond the walls of that facility now.

Sousauryoku stroked his beard a few times in silence before dismissing the Zipsum with a nod.

"Change of plans. We'll assume this isn't a load of rubbish, or at least that you can use the same skills you used to activate the device in the first place, in order to control it or shut it off..."

Jin-Kalys interrupted, "Deactivating the artifact at the present would be a catastrophe! We..."

"Well, then you'll want to find a way to control it, won't you."

"But no one can get to it at the moment. We'd need someone of miniscule stature and almost impossibly fast..."

"Are you telling me that the work of the sainted and eternal lizard sage, Asterakalys, the Helio-Synthesis model, as you have applied it through nine-branch formal logic is not up to the task?"


With a jaw like iron Jin Kalys asked, "Did you retain the schematics of the artifact from your former facilities?"

"Of course." Sousauryoku couldn't help but give a satisfied smirk at that.

"Then let us get to work."

Restoring Order

Rain was still silently berating herself for having failed to follow her own safety protocols. The moment Director Kiyoshi and Moses had arrived in Geneva Prime she had insisted that all executives and officers be accompanied at all times by a disLocator equipped bodyguard. The purpose of such measures was to ensure the survival of key personnel in the event of sudden catastrophic occurrences. Yet she of all people, had been the one to tell her bodyguard to wait outside the room, during the advisory board meeting.

At the time it had seemed like an appropriate action. Her guard at that hour did not have the necessary security clearances to be present in the meeting, and Moses had unleashed one massive attack on the city just 24 hours prior. It did not seem likely he would strike again, so soon. But by the time the warnings started coming in the building had already begun to tremble. Clouds of dust burst in through the open sides of the building, where the glass had been demolished by Nevergem shards. Coughing and sputtering she had stumbled for the door. She found her man just as the entire room lurched sickeningly to the side and something struck her in the forehead.

There was no point dwelling on mistakes, but Rain was not accustomed to such narrow scrapes with death. As she sat in her new office in Marina looking at a display counting off the number of Goshi employees reporting, those injured, those declared dead, and those still missing, she could not help but reflect on how close she had come to being in the column labeled 'deceased'. A shiver went down her spine. It was the only expression of emotion she allowed herself. From that point she returned to the business at hand.

Goshi losses had been staggering, no question. Even Rain was forced to swallow the bitter admission that she had been brutally defeated. By what she could not say. By some power beyond the rational.

Katashi Blade had understood what was happening. She was sure of that. She was also sure that he had somehow intended it, or planned it. Not, perhaps, the destruction of the Goshi Tower, but at least he had intended the conflict with Moses and friends. He had known what he was getting into and believed he could handle it.

Rain had no such illusions. She would not enter into situations she could not control and since Daitokuji Kiyoshi's new associates were uncontrollable she would not engage with them. Despite her brush with death she felt no resentment toward them. They were merely an obstacle to be avoided rather than overcome. Based on the principal of avoidance she had ordered a full withdrawal from Geneva Prime - an order that included her new airship, Varan. Giving that order was the first time in her life that she had directly contradicted the will of Katashi Blade. It was vaguely possible she had been indirectly responsible for his death, by abandoning him, but she did not think it likely. The words of Moses echoed through her mind, "I'm going to show you that there is something more powerful than Katashi Blade..." Yes. She had not always believed that to be the case, but it was undoubtedly the truth. She realized it the moment she gave the order to retreat and leave Blade to his fate.

With Blade now dead, she was effectively the new Executor. Executor of a defunct corporation without access to its source of income, or means of production, and with very little capital to speak of. What she did have at her disposal was an enormous military.

Prior to the upheaval Rain had already begun the process of decentralizing, as a precaution. She'd established these offices in Marina, a series of armories and supply depots along train lines, outside major cities, and several redundant command centers for deploying the Hei Shi. Though Goshi no longer meaningfully existed as a mining corporation, it was still the most powerful military force in the world, and with this military Rain intended to reestablish order.

Order, it seemed to her, was her purpose. She had been created with a gift for figures and logistics. Not a telepath, nor physically gifted like the Hei Shi, she had nevertheless earned a place for herself in this world by demonstrating repeatedly that she understood how to make things function. Blade had trusted her like he had never trusted anyone else. A choice, which ironically had turned out to be incorrect, but he had based that trust on her incomparable competence. If you wanted something done right, Rain was the person to ask.

And so she planned to wipe out the resistance in Stardown, not because she bore it any grudge, nor even because she had any loyalty to Goshi, but because the resistance, going back to the UMA a year ago, had been the source of disorder in her estimation. Cheldrun society would go back to a normal, functional, kind of existence if she could only excise the elements of disruption.

Yes. Surely that is how it will work.

The Signal

At last, Moses is able to press his way through the throngs of gawkers and cheering Mechified, shouted greetings and growled curses, thrown garlands and bottles. He is clutching a crumpled sheet of paper to his chest. Zipporah is nimbly slipping along behind him in the space that he makes like a gleaming metallic ship in a sea of pressing bodies and hammering sound. Her ears are pressed to her head and she has a fistfull of his coveralls so they aren't separated. He is always aware of her, and will reach back now and then to pull her forward or gently but firmly push people to either side.

He enters the telegraph station, creaking and tottering on its foundation, but only mostly rusted away, and still servicing underground cables. The technicians, all Mechified, are standing when he comes in, eyes wide, shifting from foot to foot nervously, looking at each other. The floor is knee-deep in coiled paper with endless messages printed on meter after meter of it.

Moses nods to the Mechified. "I have a message to send."

They start, and then all settle back into their seats and prepare to transmit. I don't know if I can send this everywhere, so I'll have to do this the normal way.

He clears his throat and reads from the crumpled piece of paper.


"My name is Moses, and I am the servant of the power of Karia that has brought Goshi low."


"I have done this to bring freedom to my people, and I have learned in the past months that all Cheldrun and all Karians are my people."


"Now I am leading all who will follow me to Stardown."


"We are going to Stardown to face the Enemy and to defeat them once and for all."


"Goshi is broken but not yet fully defeated, and they will make a last attempt at facing us in open war."


"We will defeat them once and for all, as we have defeated Katashi Blade, because they have been serving our Enemy all this time."


"Any soldiers or other employees serving Goshi should know this -"


"-that you have this chance, this final chance, to leave Goshi and start a new life for yourself."


"Because when you bring war to us, we are going to crush you utterly, so that nothing of Goshi will remain on the face of Karia."


"All who wish to join us in Stardown to fight for the fate of all Karia should gather there with all of the resources you can bring."


"All who don't want to join us should rebuild your lives, and choose new leaders for yourselves now that Goshi is broken and its power is coming to an end forever."


"If we win, then use your freedom to build better lives for yourselves and to become better people, Cheldrun and Karian together."


"If we lose, then this is goodbye."


"Never stop fighting for what's right."

"Full Stop."

Episode 30: Bringing Down the House

Pain. My hands go to my throat.
Torn. Blood seeping out.

"Hello, sister."

Sever. Stitch.

Zippora, Raul, Terra, Julian, and Trencher are free, but their thoughts are like little fragments of pain and anger, refracting wildly across the room. Ama-chan's thoughts shine like the sun. Warm. Comforting.

I am bound in cables. Stitch's cables. Arms and legs and throat.
It hurts.

I can feel their thoughts brushing against my mental defenses, but for all the pain and all the blood, I am glad to see them.

"So you're both alive," I say, and it hurts to talk, and there my voice is at least half bloody gurgle. "I'm glad. I was worried."

They exchange glances, and I'm not sure if the troubled look I see there is real or just my own wishful thinking.

I briefly consider the possibility of grabbing Zippora and teleporting away: she's important to Moses.

"Before we kill you, sister, we need to know something from you," Sever says. "Think carefully. Do you know where Aimi went after she killed Amuro Nami?"

My thoughts race. Amuro Nami. I have no idea whatever, but I'm not about to tell them that. "I have an idea," I say, "But why would I give you the one piece of information that's preventing you from killing me?"

Their minds press against my mental defenses again, skittering across the surface like ice on a grill. Stitch looks frustrated, and he gestures.

The chains begin to pull at me, pulling me apart. He means to tear my arms and legs off.
We can't have that.

I vanish.

I reappear next to Stitch, and he whirls around, and his chains whirl with him. In an instant, I am bound again, but with one critical difference: my right arm is free.

"The first mistake you made," I say, "Is assuming that you had a chance in hell of beating me." I strike, aiming for a nerve cluster at the base of Stitch's neck. My aim is true, and he collapses, coughing and choking.

Sever flicks his hand upward in a sweeping motion, and I feel a horrible sense of tearing, and I look down just in time to see a terrible gash open across my body from my navel to my collarbone. There is pain, and blood, so much blood, and I can see my own ribs, and lungs, and something - the ground, maybe - smashes into the back of my head, and everything goes dark.


The empty void.

First Mind eyes.

Voices. Voices in the dark. Whispers. The Enemy whispers.
"One Who Hopes, will you fulfill your part in the conjunction that is to come?"

Of course I will. It is preordained. Who can escape their purpose?

Ama-chan whispers.
Mikomi, Mikomi, Reikomi, Mikorei...

The Void...


Two little boys playing in the park.

It had only happened once. Once, when Mama Pain was away on business, and Doctor Soren said that children should play. I was fourteen. I didn't understand what 'play' meant, but Sever and Stitch did, and Aimi, and Malicious.

I sat at a park bench with Doctor Soren and Nero.

Four children playing in the park on a golden day in Geneva Prime.

Ash-gray buildings rose up all around the park, pulsing with spectacular displays of force and energy. All of the playground structures did the same, and all around it was green, green grass that was curiously empty and silent. No force. No energy. Just grass.

There were other children there, too. Other young Biomade, here for recreation. A few Allskin adults accompanying their young. An Allskin child told me my eyes looked funny, and when my mind touched his, I didn't know him. I didn't understand any of the things I saw in his mind. It was like trying to read the mind of the Zipsum that Mama Pain had brought in for us to try to scan. The Zipsum thought in triangles and mirrors. The little boy thought in joy and sunlight and play and family and petty self-will.

I didn't understand.

I watched while the four of them play, with Malicious supervising the games, and for the first time in my life, I felt envy: my own envy, and not someone else's.

Sever and Stitch, laughing, and their laughter wasn't cruel but joyful.

Aimi dashing away from Malicious and shouting at the top of her lungs, "You're it! You're it!"

Malicious racing after Aimi, then darting to the side at the last second to tag Sever. "Sever's it!" she shouted.

"Are you sure you don't want to go play with them, Rei?" Doctor Soren asked.

I looked up at him, and my mind brushed against the surface of his mental defenses. "Play?" I asked.

Nero shot me a sidelong glance, and then said with the savage honesty of a child, "Rei doesn't like tag. She always thinks that she's it whenever anyone gets tagged, because she's defective and can't tell the difference between herself and everyone else."

My cheeks burned, and I sank into myself.

The laughter of children echoed around the park.


I awake in Una's arms, coughing and spluttering as if I had just been resuscitated after drowning. The pain is gone, and the wound is gone, but the blood is not. My surroundings have changed. We are in the courtyard outside of the inn. Battle rages all around us. Sennin descends towards us, and Heishi are dying everywhere.

I look up at Una. "Sever? Stitch?" I ask.

Her eyes flicker. "Did this to you," she says.

I feel a lump in my throat, and a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Where are they?"

She continues walking towards the Sennin, carrying me. "... They're dead, Rei. High Dive was too fast."

The world falls out from under me. I push myself out of Una's arms, and she watches me for a moment, alarmed, but I'm not paying attention to her anymore.

There is an explosion near the Sennin, and Una looks torn for a moment, and then rushes over to help the wounded.

Sever and Stitch are dead.

Dead, and dead.
What kind of word is that, dead?
A word of endings, darkness, and terror: a horrible, smothering sort of word, and filled with other horrible words like a corpse over-ripe in its corruption, overflowing the measure, and spilling its putrid excess into the terrified mind. A word for we know not what. A word for the descent of the Named into nonentity, and the jury still deliberating over whether any reascent is even possible. A word for all the piles of rotting leaves warming the gutters of the world.

Sever and Stitch are dead.

I'm screaming. I beat my fists against the earth, against the corpse of a dead Heishi.

The question...

And then Ama-chan is with me.

"Amaterasu-chan," I whisper. "... Feed. Take all the mana you can find."

She goes to work, devouring the White-Rock in the DisLocators, and I rise to my feet. I don't see the combat around me. Bullets whiz by my head, and I don't notice.

I open the basement doors and I descend.

There they are, Sever and Stitch, the blood all over the floor, their red eyes staring up at the sky.


I stare at them for a long, long time.

"You're not ever going to leave me, are you Ama-chan?" I ask, and my voice is a small, broken thing.

Leave you? I can't leave you. Never ever ever, unless you die. I'm bound to you, remember?

It is a comforting thought. ... I don't want to be alone.

Then I'm back on Sennin. I don't remember DisLocating, but I must have. Kiyoshi is saying something, but I don't hear him. Una takes me by the hand and leads me down to a cabin. Mine, maybe.

It hurts. It hurts more than anything. My brothers are dead.
I cry in Una's arms, and she holds me, and murmurs words of comfort.

My brothers are dead, and it hurts.



I don't remember much of the rest of the day. I do remember that I told Kiyoshi that I don't blame High Dive for killing my brothers. I was lying to him, of course. But part of what I said was true. You don't blame a soldier for killing an enemy in the course of a battle. You blame the people that sent the soldiers into that situation in the first place.

Katashi Blade.

The name is like acid on my tongue. It's taken me a long time to get here, and many people have died, but I'm here, and I know what has to be done. Katashi Blade sent my brothers on a suicide mission. He couldn't have expected them to survive. At best, he expected them to kill one or two of us before they were themselves killed.

There's something in me now, an emotional state I've never really felt before. It's not anger. It's not hate. It's not fear. It's not grief, though I feel that, too.

It's wrath.

Wrath enough to burn the whole world. I will kill Katashi Blade. I will always remember the broken bodies of Sever and Stitch in that basement: revenge be mine. Even if he is a First Mind, I am at least half First Mind. That has to count for something. He will know fear, he will know pain, and then he will die.

Truth might be changed by victory...

I realize suddenly that my fists are clenched so tightly that I have drawn blood. I am standing on the open-air bridge of Sennin. Moses is looking out at Geneva Prime in the distance. He means to call down another... plague, I suppose. He calls it deliverance. Part of me wants to stop him. Part of me thinks he's going to destroy Cheldrun civilization, but right now, a larger part of me doesn't care. What Moses is doing will draw Katashi Blade to us.

Kiyoshi stands close at hand, Keibatsu drawn. He's been very quiet since he learned what Aimi may have done to Amuro Nami. For a moment, worry for Aimi breaks through the haze of wrath, and I hope that there is enough of the Information Broker organization left intact to tell me what I want to know when this is over.

... I never should have drunk all that sake. But I needed something to make me forget the world, for a little while. I knew that drinking would break down the barriers in my mind that keep me separate from everyone until I'd sobered, but I did it anyways, and now Kiyoshi knows about Aimi and Nami.

Una asked me if I'd be able to resist the control of the First Minds. I told her it was more like being Home than like mental control, but that's not entirely true.

It's both.

Not for the first time, I wonder if I'll really be able to resist them if they ask me to do something.

They're firing on us. Heishi. Teleporting aboard. We've prepared a place to fall back to. A place to destroy all that come after us. Ama-chan laughs delightedly at the thought of eating so much mana in all those dead Heishi. I smile. Battle is joined, and for the first time since Marina, I lose myself to the joy of the slaughter.

Even as Moses calls down his plague, even as a horrible black cloud descends on the city, and the buildings begin to crumble, even as the Goshi Tower tumbles down into ruin, I smile.


Katashi Blade, we are coming for you, and I no longer fear your mental influence: I will take part in your damned fate.

... Life?

Contemplating Forgiveness

It happened right after. I was in the flophouse basement basking in the sweet atmosphere of vengeance. The bodies of Sever (without a jaw) and Stitch (without a stomach) lay upon the ground. These boys who had caused so much pain and harm were finally dead. I thought I couldn't be happier. Then I glanced over to Rei. Someone wouldn't be very happy about this.


The word echoed in my head like a gong. I tried to shake it away as I picked up Rei's vivisected body. How could forgiveness for horrible Cheldrun like Sever and Stitch possibly help Karia achieve the answer she desires? She gave me the power both to hurt and to heal. What does that mean?

My mouth sings a lullaby, and glowing blue tears flow down my chest and arms onto Rei's body as I run out of the smashed basement. Maybe forgiveness doesn't mean not fighting, but what does it mean? Moses' essence is blissfully self-explanatory. Do I just stand there and the end of days and tell everything, "I forgive you"? That can't be all there is to it.

Rei became conscious, and I had to affirm that her 'brothers' were truly dead. She ran off, and I wondered how I would feel if she hated me for killing Sever. I wondered if it would mean the world to me... If indeed it would mean all existence to me...

Episode 29: The Man in White

I hugged Griever to my chest wondering how soon I would have to use it. High Dive had been gone almost ten minutes just trying to find a way to spy on Katashi Blade's office. It doesn't normally take her so long, but then again Katashi Blade doesn't have your everyday kind of office. And then there was Rei tucked down behind one of the console-desks; where had she been? The fact that she brought Balder with her certainly went a long way towards her credit. If she had searched out Balder, then she probably wasn't planning to come back just to wipe us out for the First Minds.

My thoughts were interrupted as the elevator by my shoulder began to indicate an impending visitor. I hoped for Kiyoshi and Moses, but prepared for Katashi Blade. What I got were two Hei-Shi and some scared looking office guy with an ear bud. "Bamuna of the Reikoku nest?" he stammered. I nodded, "Yeah". "I was told that a Rei and Balder would be here as well... Where are they?" I informed him that my companions had done what they wanted to do. (In this case it happened to be hiding behind desks in the room, and staying hidden.) He wanted to escort me to my fellows in the main plaza. "Are they still alive?" I asked with a sardonic twist to my mouth. Much to my chagrin, he checked with his ear bud to inform me that they were indeed still alive. Yeah, but for how long? I promised him that I would take myself to the plaza, and took a flying leap out the broken window. Man, I would have loved to look back and seen his face...

I dove down in Vorax form to the plaza expecting the worst. On the negative side there were six squadrons of Goshi soldiers in the plaza facing my friends, on the positive side they weren't attacking yet. I called out to get Kiyoshi's attention and braced my talons to show him my intentions. He didn't move away, so I took that as permission to take him out of there. Moses was standing at the focal point of all the soldiers. Damn. It's so frustrating not being able to just pull him up out of trouble too. At least he can take a lot of scrapes and come through okay.

Then things got strange. A wind started picking up the the sky was filled, and I mean filled from horizon to horizon with stone-colored? stuff. This was immediately after one of Moses' shields appeared in front of me and some crazy red lightning danced around him. Great. What in the heck is happening now? If Moses thought we needed protection then something nasty was coming. I booked it to the roof of the nearest building with some sort of shelter.

We landed, and Kiyoshi was about to expound upon his suggested plan of action, when some beflagged strumpet in black and yellow strolled up. She spat something about clan honor and Kiyoshi and all companions needing to be killed. I rolled my eyes as her (lovely I must admit) bracers activated to shift her into a mecca. Kiyoshi and I jumped off the building planning on a smooth getaway, but the woman jumped!

She managed to land a slash on me while I was carrying Kiyoshi, which made me slam into the side of the nearest building. With the extra weight, this unfortunately sent me into a barely-controlled dive/spin to the ground. So there, back in Goshi plaza, all of us but High Dive faced off four stunningly dangerous creations... as it began to rain nevergems. Long, sharp, nevergems. Was this really what Moses intended to do?

Faced with people that we really didn't want to kill, Kiyoshi began to glow silver and laid a thick layer of guilt upon us all. Should I have physically restrained my brothers and sisters from the Last Flight? I'm sure I could have saved at least one... In the end, one mecca joined us against the others, but the other three remained stubborn. The crystal storm was also getting intolerable. High Dive showed up under an overhang, so we all hunkered under Moses and dashed that direction. Kiyoshi told Rei to teleport us to Geneva Minor, and as our little group touched High Dive we disappeared in a whiff of smoke...

...and appeared not in Geneva Minor. We were by some train station outside of Geneva Prime. I gave a questioning look to Rei, wondering if I gave her too much benefit of the doubt upon her return. "I told Surgeon that I would meet him here," Rei explains. Ah. Baldur and Surgeon. She's either really understanding who should stick together, or she's really kissing our arses so that she can catch us all unawares later. I of course prefer to think the former, but still worry about the latter.

Trainload after trainload of people arrived fleeing the city, as we contemplated the poster with 35 years for Kiyoshi's head. (High Dive was very annoyed that she wasn't regarded as equally as dangerous, and proceeded to draw up her own poster which portrayed her as a squirrel having a very very bad hair day and worth tons of years.) Moses spoke briefly with the crowd about what he felt was the right course of action for them, and then Surgeon was put in charge of making arrangements. Moses' people were supposed to go to Stardown it seemed. But of course, we had to figure out how to get rid of Katashi Blade first so that they weren't all slaughtered on the way.

Speaking of Katashi Blade: While we are at the station amongst the throng, the screen alongside the track illuminated to show the face of the man in white. A very very very angry man in white. Mr. I'm-So-Cool proceeded to lay out the most rabid string of insults and threats you could imagine. I didn't know he had it in him, literally. He reaffirmed that he would not let anyone leave the city upon pain of death, and that Moses was welcome to come and get him. I liked that last part best. Aww, he wants to see us again, how sweet! I touch the handle of Griever reassuringly, "Maybe it's time we introduced you two to each other."

After our resident machine-people affirmed that could not send an equally taunting message back to the entire city, we linked hands once again and puffed off to Geneva Minor. We landed a bit away from the flophouse, so Rei went to check that everything was on the up and up. She came back to affirm that it was indeed on the down and down. What a perfect day - sheesh. We decided that Moses and Kiyoshi would go to get the Senin (Kiyoshi had one of those "I will be okay by sheer force of will" looks on his face as he departed for the deeps of the bay). I sighed, but I knew that Moses wouldn't let him get die. Baldur and I waited in view of the front door in case things went bad, and Rei took High Dive to sneak (green glowy sneak? Oh. No. Smoky shadowy sneak.) into the basement room where all of our companions were being held hostage.

This could all go really smoothly, with us all on the Senin before a single (conscious) Goshi soldier knew we had been there. But as Baldur and I waited in the too-quiet dark, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach...

Uniting the Clans

"Sons, daughters of Karia, ye knowe me. The name's Grim, of the Fiochmahr clan. Ye know them Cheldrun bastards, too. Goshi, they be called." He stood before the leaders of the clans, proud and tall, his heavily muscled frame yet marked with the signs of the last fortnight's festivities, and Ishikawa Tetsuro stood at his side, looking for all the world as though his tattered clothing were a kimono of the finest silk.

They stood before him, Gogajin all, listening as he spoke, forty five clan heads, male and female alike. The massive camps of all forty six of the clans gathered here stretched out as far as the eye could see around this large, central, rock-strewn meadow. Or at least it had been a meadow twelve days ago, when the games had begun. Now it resembled more closely a war zone. Around the clan heads, a larger crowd had gathered. The clan heads were all stood in a a large stone amphitheatre at the edge of the meadow - a traditional meeting place, and neutral ground - that carried their voices rolling across the crowd.

"Aye, we know them. Get on with it!" Shouted a middle-aged Gogajin from the middle of the group of clan heads.

"I've spoken with ye yche one, and there no nas never any one of us what's not been struck by them at least once since the new year began, and struck a sore blow. Well I say we've had enough! I say it's about time we stopped letting these Goshi types, these Heishi, raid us whenever the fuck they want!"


Ishikawa Tomoe of the Ruby Hawk clan stared at the ... man... in front of her in disbelief. Had this... this... donkey-man actually just propositioned her? HER? As if being dragged away from school in Matamos and into the wilderness wasn't bad enough, now there were overgrown donkeymen asking if she wanted to do... THAT, with them? It was an outrage! She wouldn't stand for it! She was going to tell her father about this, and then they'd see what happened to this presumptuous...

"If you fucked him, do you think that would count as bestiality for you, for him, or both?" Midnight asked.

The Gogajin burst into belly-laughs, and one of them clapped Midnight on the shoulder good naturedly, and the biomade girl staggered, but managed to recover quickly enough, and shot the Gogajin a cheeky grin.

Tomoe tried not to grind her teeth. "Remind me why you came with us again?" Tomoe asked. "It's not like you were in danger from Katashi Blade's purge. He's one of your kind."

When her father had said that he and his Gogajin ally were going to rally the clans, Tomoe had not expected this... carnival. They'd been at it for three days now, engaging in competitions so savage that she could scarcely believe that none of the participants had died. Certainly she'd never seen anything quite like their game of 'catch,' and the boasts? She knew what that was. That was a bunch of little boys trying to prove their virility. ... and she still didn't know what to make of the women who participated, and just as freely as the men.

The Gogajin... confused her.

Midnight raised an eyebrow and turned to face Tomoe, her long, dark hair catching in the wind as she did so, a look of surprise on her face. "... Are you serious?" she asked.

Tomoe blinked. What does she mean, am I serious? Doe she think I'm... oh. Oh. No, that couldn't possibly be the reason. "... Yes?"

Midnight smiled a pained sort of smile, and Tomoe's surprise grew to ever greater heights as the Biomade gave her reply: "Because you do what you can for your friends, yeah?"

... Friends?

Tomoe stared. In all their years at the Academy in Matamos, she had never, not once, thought of Midnight as her friend. She'd thought of her as a rival, as an enemy, as a classmate, but ... friends? She opened her mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out.


For the first time in her life, Ishikawa Tomoe of the Ruby Hawk clan was at a loss for words.


"An' how do you plan to stop them, Grim? We already tried punchin' em in the face, and throwin' big rocks at 'em, and pushing 'em off cliffs, and punchin' em in the stomach and THEN punchin' em in the face..."

Some of the clan heads surrounding Orla of the Troid clan had the decency to look embarrassed. She'd got where she was by being young, charismatic, strong and tough, but had never been the brightest bulb in the bunch.

"Much as I hate to agree with Orla," said Keena of the Muintir clan, an old Gogajin well known for her wisdom, "She does have a point, if you turn her words inside out, stand them on their head, and look at 'em through a mirror. How exactly do you plan to stop a force that can appear and disappear whenever it wants?"

Grim clapped Ishikawa Tetsuro on the shoulder, and the Allskin staggered beneath the blow. "Old Tetsuro here tells me there's a place where these smoke-puff soldiers can't get to. A place where people are holdin' out against Goshi, mounting some real fightin' against them. He says that Goshi's mounting an army to take the place, and they'll probably do it, too, since they control all the other Cheldrun cities. An' he says that once we're on the move, it'll be harder for them to find us. Cheldrun folk don't do so well in the wilds. That's me plan, though. I say we march on over to this city, this Stardown, and we show those Goshi bastards what for!"

A murmur went through the crowd, then, and then Keena spoke up again. "Why should we march to defend a Cheldrun city, Grim? It's got nothing to do with us. Troubles come and go, but we endure, and the land endures. This is ours, isn't it? All this? Look around you. This is Gogajin land. Why should we up and march off to some Cheldrun place?"


Inari blinked. "You've got eyes!" He'd been trying to shake this zipsum for days, figuring that it was probably better to avoid the little bastards ever since he'd had to flee from a whole tribe full of eyeless turbo-squirrels.

"Uh, yeah," the Zipsum said, brushing the dust off his clothing as he strolled up to the young Prill. "You run into a lot of Zipsum without eyes?"

"Yes. Well, no. Well, I did once, and you can never be too careful. I think it's very important to have eyes, after all, and I don't think much of the idea of losing mine." He brightened. "But you've got eyes, so it's ok! I'm Inari."

The Zipsum raised an eyebrow at that. "Inari, huh? That sounds familiar..."

"I was named after a legendary Kyo-TeeShee," Inari offered. He thought about it. "Either that or a really big tree. I never asked."

The Zipsum wasn't really sure how to take that. "Uh, right. So Inari, you from around here?"

The woods were sparse here, and a bit further east the land began to rise into the rocky highlands of Gogajin territory.

Inari kept walking, and the Zipsum followed along behind him as they talked. "Me?" Inari asked. "No. No, just passing through. I'm on a quest. Supposed to gather up pieces of the lost music for Elder Winter." He never had managed to make it back to the Grand Chantry. Too many eyeless Zipsum. He'd been traveling ever since, and he'd seen things since then that had made him wonder what exactly was going on in the world.

"Lost music, huh? How's that workin' out for you?" The Zipsum didn't give him time to answer, but immediately went on. "Listen, Inari, I don't mean to sound rude, but have you seen a bunch of Gogajin running around with Cheldrun prisoners?"

Inari looked perplexed. "Gogajin with Cheldrun prisoners? Well... yes. But I don't think they were prisoners. Looked more like refugees, I think. They didn't seem too unhappy about being with the Gogajin, either."

The Zipsum brightened up at that considerably. "You've seen them? Really? You're the man, Inari. You are so the man. The man? That's you."

It occurred to Inari then that the zipsum's pupils were abnormally large, and his eyes bloodshot. What could that mean? Huh. "Uh, thanks?"

"No, thank you. Now, can you show me where you saw them? It's really important, Inari. I need to find them. I'm supposed to keep an eye on them and make sure they don't get into trouble."

"I guess I could show you," Inari said, now fairly certain that something was wrong. The Zipsum seemed too hyper, even for a Zipsum. He hadn't stopped fidgeting since he'd walked up, and his eyes were more intense than they should be, the pupils absolutely, fully dilated. "What did you say your name was?"

The Zipsum grinned good naturedly. "Tricks. Tricks the Wind. Nice to meet you."


"Look around, Keena. What's happening is more than just troubles. There's a change in the air, and not one for the better. Ye kenne hit too, I wist. Ye've heard from the Griolsa clan, heard what's happened. Ben Hamor's been visited by the gods! There's eyeless demons takin' over zipsum bodies, and Cheldrun bodies too, and I'm not so blind as to miss that Goshi has sent eyeless monsters just as often as they've sent their smoke-puff men, and a Zipsum messenger from the Grand Chantry what arrived the other day said that there's huge demons fightin' heroes of Karia all over the damn place. This isn't something we can run away from, and I'd be no Gogajin if I tried!"

Grim looked out across the crowd, and he raised his voice. "This is bigger than any of us, but it's not so big that we can't do somethin' about it. There's to be a fight, and it's to be at Stardown, and it's lookin' to be the biggest thing we've seen since the night of bonfire skies. Sons, daughters of Karia, we are Gogajin! And if we don't unite, if we don't take a stand against these Goshi bastards, then we might as well just slink away into the hills and wait to die, because we'll none of us deserve to be called Gogajin ever again, and we will never, ever be free of those bastards. Some of us may die, but at least we'll die free, with our own two feet on the ground, and fightin' for each other, and for Karia! Are you with me!"

A roar erupted from the vast crowd of Gogajin all around them at that, a terrible thunderous roar that utterly drowned out whatever response Keena might have tried to make. For a long moment the forty five clan heads stared at one another, uncertain exactly what to do. Then, after a good five minutes of shouting, the crowd began to die down, until finally those in the center could be heard again.

In the end, they had only one response. In the end, there was really nothing else to say: "You're a crazy bastard, Grim," Keena said, and then grinned widely, "But I'm with ye." And then, one after the other, the other clan heads each pledged themselves to the cause, and cacophony erupted in the crowd once more as Gogajin shouted, cheered, banged drums, banged stones, banged each other's heads, and made ready to march to war.


"That's a nice gun," Inari said as he led Tricks the Wind up the rocky slope towards Gogajin country. He'd picked up a walking stick somewhere along the way. It was just the right size, too. Very quarterstaffy. Idly, Inari wondered if he had just coined a new word.

Tricks grinned. "Thanks. Haven't met many Prill who know what a gun is. You been around the Cheldrun?"

"Some," Inari replied, watching Tricks warily out of the corner of his eye. He no longer had any intention of leading the Zipsum to the Gogajin, but he knew it would be very, very difficult to lose him. Scratch that. Losing a Zipsum that wanted to follow you was damn near impossible. And by 'near,' Inari meant 'completely.' "I found a fragment of a song in one of their cities. Kaberra was the name, I think."

Tricks nodded, and then looked like he was growing impatient. "Look, Inari, are you sure this is the way the Gogajin..."

Tricks trailed off as the roar of a vast, vast, vast crowd erupted from not too far away, and both he and Inari stared as a huge column of Gogajin crested the top of the hill and began marching down it.




One hundred.
Two hundred.
Five hundred.
A thousand.

Inari lost count.

Wagons were pulled by Gogajin in donkey form, laden down with supplies. Men, women, a small contingent of maybe a hundred Cheldrun, more Gogajin, even more Gogajin.

An army.

He stared in awe as they marched, and Tricks stared, too, his jaw dropped open, though for different reasons.

The Gogajin were on the move.

"... went?" Tricks finished.

That was when Inari lifted his quarterstaffy walking stick, and bashed Tricks over the back of the head as hard as he could. The Zipsum went out like a light.

Inari breathed a sigh of relief. He scooped up the furry little body of Tricks the Wind and headed over to figure out who was in charge. Zipsum were a pain in the ass to keep prisoner. He knew that from experience. Hopefully, the Gogajin would have some rope. Lots and lots of rope.

And as it turns out, they did. More than enough for both the suspicious, drug-addled Zipsum and for the troublesome Prill prankster what had been causing trouble with the local villages over the last few weeks. A few minutes later, Inari found himself bound hand and foot in the back of one of the Gogajin wagons, with the unconscious form of Tricks the Wind bound securely a foot away, and the Gogajin army marching towards the western horizon.

"Well," Inari said, "This sucks."