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Phobos VII [Complete]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by HypoSoc, Nov 3, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Thirty One
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Once more Stas found him alone in his room. The days since the incident had been like a haze. Even still, he felt like he might just wake up and the nightmare would be over. Every time he opened his eyes and saw Phobos’s mask resting on his dresser, he felt the haze grow stronger.

    He woke up in the morning, ate, trained, and went back to bed, never speaking, never setting aside the routine. He did not know why he did it anymore, or why he even woke up. He was like one of the Stone-faced golems, simply doing a task until informed otherwise. He had nothing else.

    Perhaps Ludo would enjoy that…

    A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He said nothing and watched as a servant came in. Was it time for the room to be cleaned already? He had lost track.

    “Master Stas?” the servant called questioningly. “There is a visitor for you at the front entrance.”

    Stas blinked, trying to think of who it would be. The woman who promised a sponsorship, perhaps? The opportunity had slipped his mind after the events with Alain. The joy of it had been sapped entirely and he hadn’t been willing to follow up.

    The servant seemed to take Stas’s silence as a dismissal. “Shall I send her away, Master Stas?”

    Stas shook his head. “No.” There was no reason not to, his feelings didn’t matter any more. If he was to be a golem for Ludo then this would be part of that. “I will go see her.”

    The servant bowed. “As you wish, Master Stas. I will inform the madam that you will be present shortly, after you have had a moment to make yourself presentable.”

    Presentable, right. He should change his clothes to something more appropriate. He nodded, and the servant left.

    Stas changed to less comfortable attire. He took a moment to change the wrappings on his arm. The silver streaks were only growing, slowly spreading from the site of the injury. Maybe he would be lucky and it would kill him soon.

    After securing a new wrap to hide the mirror-like affliction, he donned a cloak. Then he grabbed Phobos’s mask from its place on his dresser. He did not like being without it, almost as much as he disliked seeing it or wearing it. He also grabbed Enjolras’s shield and the fish hook. He didn’t want to risk those getting taken.

    Prepared, he made his way outside.

    Stas stilled when he saw who was waiting for him.

    “Good to see you are still kicking, Stas.” Eponine said with a smile.

    Stas froze. Had he snapped? Was he dreaming? Was he finally waking up? In a flash Stas crossed the distance to the woman and clasped his hands over both her shoulders, waiting for the figment of his imagination to disappear.

    “Okay?” Eponine froze from his sudden movement, a bit of red dusted her cheeks, as Stas clenched her tightly, his face close. “That’s a bit of an unexpected greeting, Stas. Can you let go? Your grip is tight.”

    Stas released his grip, and almost gaped at the woman. “How are you alive? Weren’t you at the hideout when the Watchers attacked? Is anyone else alive? Is Enjolras alive?”

    “Be quiet about that for now.” Eponine commanded. “We’re rationing elixirs, so I can’t deflect attention. We can talk about it at our new place. Everyone’s going to have questions, I imagine.”

    “Everyone? How many people survived?”

    “Shush, I said.” Eponine reiterated. “Are you good to go meet everyone right now? I understand if you need to wait until night to avoid drawing attention.”

    “No.” Stas answered quickly, barely keeping from shouting. “No, I can skip training for today. Please,” he spoke, bordering on begging, “take me to them.”

    Eponine shrugged her shoulders. “Alright then. Enjolras will be happy I managed to find you so quickly. Come along then, I’ll lead the way.”

    Stas nodded and followed the woman. Hope and dread rose in equal measure for what he might discover at the ‘new hideout.’

    If this ‘Eponine’ was an impostor, someone mimicking her corpse much like the Dominus had, then so be it. Stas would accept his death. And if by some miracle it actually was Eponine and Stas hadn’t gotten literally everyone killed, then…

    Stas killed his hopes before they could rise too high. He allowed the haze to overtake him as he silently followed Eponine through the busy city streets in a completely different direction. He clutched Phobos’s mask against his chest and walked.

    The place Eponine was leading him to was not a warehouse with a secret entrance. Nor was it a bar. And despite some of Stas’s expectations, it was not a Watcher outpost where he would be captured and interrogated. Instead it was a modest home, near indistinguishable from any around it.

    Eponine walked in without a care. Stas followed. From there, she led him up a floor to a thick wooden door, and opened it.

    The silence on the other side was replaced with a rancorous argument as soon as the door opened a crack. It was some form of soundproofing, it seemed. The arguing stopped as the door opened wider, and Eponine stepped through.

    “I managed to find Stas,” she announced to the gathered crowd.

    Immediately the cacophony resumed. Stas could not tell what was being said in the shouts. He was too distracted by the sight. Sanson, Henri, Romeo, a great many people who had not joined him on that ill-fated raid were present, cramped together in this relatively small room. And standing above it all, with a smile on his face and brightness in his piercing silver eyes, was Enjolras.

    “I’m glad to see you found us, Stas.” Enjolras spoke, his words carrying over the din. “We would greatly appreciate knowing what happened since we last spoke. What happened on the mission?”

    “What happened on the mission?” Stas repeated. “What happened to you all?” he demanded in return. “How did you survive? I saw the hideout burn down. I saw all the Watchers kill everyone in the district. How did you all escape?” It was insanity. Perhaps the impossible explanation would force him from this waking dream.

    Enjolras nodded. “I can imagine the confusion. It was a grisly scene from what I heard, so I am not surprised you assumed us all to be dead. And it was not that we managed to escape, such as it were. Rather, by providence, none of us happened to be present.”

    “What?” Stas questioned.

    Romeo opted to answer. “It was Henri’s fault,” he said, pointing at the smaller man who cringed at the address. “The daft idiot was playing around in the arsenal and set a fire. The whole place went up. We all had to run out of there.” Romeo chuckled. “Boy, Odette and Sanson looked like they were going to string Henri up by his innards. It was only after that we realized that him destroying the hideout saved our lives, since it meant we were already gone when the Watchers showed up to do the same thing.”

    “That sounds unreasonably lucky.” Stats declared.

    “I know, right? I’m thinking of gambling since my luck is so great.” Romeo joked.

    “You already waste too much money gambling, you drunk,” Eponine chided, and turned to address Stas. “And I wouldn’t call it that lucky. We did end up losing most of our supplies. We grabbed the important things, documents, the treasury, the spying pen. But we lost our weapons and our elixirs.”

    “And our booze!” Romeo bemoaned. “Our precious, delicious alcohol! It was a travesty, now that I think about it.”

    “Enough of that,” Sanson bellowed. “We survived by random chance, yes. But the real question is how the hell did the fucking Watchers know where we were? What happened on that fucking mission, Stas? We can’t contact anyone who went, they’ve gone to ground too hard for us to tell them that we lived.”

    Stas’s eyes widened as he realized that they didn’t know. He wanted to laugh at the irony. He had been assuming everyone was dead and they had been assuming everyone was alive.

    The pain was fresh. He wanted to cry. He refused to cry.

    “Dead,” he spoke quietly.

    “What?”

    “They’re dead. All of them. There was no stockpile. It was a trap. An ambush. Two dozen Watchers and the Dominus were waiting. Everybody but me died.”

    His words elicited pandemonium. Shouting. Disbelief. Asking about specific people, if everyone actually meant everyone. That surely someone else must have escaped and was just in hiding. Romeo clamored about Lucian, in denial. It was a clamorous cacophony that all mixed together, slamming against Stas’s tired ears.

    “You fucking traitor,” Sanson screamed, his loud voice carrying over everybody else. “Is that what happened then? You sold us out? Let all of our friends die and gave those fuckers the hideout in exchange for your own sorry hide? I bet the Dominus was oh so happy to deal with one of his pet gladiators, to let you just waltz back to your life with all of us dead.”

    Stas froze. He might have been a failure, but the accusation of treachery touched a deep nerve.

    He moved to speak, to defend himself, but found someone else had beaten him to it.

    “How dare you, Sanson, you unwashed pig shit.” Eponine growled. “You have some fucking gall to accuse Stas, to blame him for your own fuck up. The only reason we put up with your ugly, pox-ridden mug is because you are supposed to prevent shit like this. We had an operation and it was compromised. That is entirely on you.”

    Stas vaulted from the defense, laying his own attack. “Perhaps the reason you keep accusing everyone else of treachery is because of projection. You assume everyone is as vile and self-centered as you. Were you the one to let the Watchers know what we were planning? Is that the reason why you didn’t volunteer? Because you knew we were all walking into a death trap?”

    It was an outrageous accusation, but that didn’t matter. Sanson’s own accusation had been just as ridiculous and unfounded.

    The shouting resumed. Heated arguments. Cursing. Some members seemed to fall in line with Stas and Eponine against Sanson. Others sided with Sanson against Stas. Even more were just shouting, making their voices heard, angry and afraid. Henri wilted into the corner.

    “Enough.” Enjorlas spoke and his voice carried over the crowd. “These accusations are pointless and the both of you should know it. Sanson, you know as well as I do that if any of us collaborated with the Dominus in the manner you described, they would not be free to walk the streets. Eponine, Sanson did caution against this mission. I made the decision to push matters through. The fact he was not able to perform his duties is my fault and my fault alone. As for the accusations of treachery, they are beyond ridiculous. I know the characters of Sanson and Stas and I know them both to be above reproach. More than that, I trust everyone here. Wasting time accusing each other of betrayal does nothing but weaken our bonds and give an advantage to the enemy.”

    Enjolras looked everyone in the eye one by one. “If you have a concern about my ability to judge character, or if you truly distrust your fellows so greatly, then I have failed as a leader. Please let me know so I can resign.”

    Nobody spoke. A weight hung over the room.

    “Thank you. I understand tempers are hot. My own feelings are in distress. But it is clear to me that this was not a matter of intentional betrayal. Rather, we fell for a trap that was specifically set to catch us. If Lucian were still with us, we might be able to find the true source of it, but that is unfortunately beyond us. This is the danger of our fight. It is a risk we have all accepted when it comes to opposing the Dominus. It is tragic that the trap was so effective. I mourn for our lost companions as much as anyone else.”

    Sanson interjected. “A trap doesn’t explain how they found the hideout, though. Perhaps if it hadn’t been so quick, somebody might have blabbed under torture, but everyone on that mission was somebody I vetted, and everybody I vetted wouldn’t break that quickly. Well, I say I vetted everybody, but there is one exception.” Sanson glared at Stas, the implication hanging.

    Was that truly the source of Sanson’s distaste? The fact Stas hadn’t been subjected to the ugly man’s care? It was pitiful. It was insulting.

    “I could have explained that if you asked. It’s a fact that needs to be shared regardless.” That the Dominus was stealing bodies and memories was not something that Stas could keep to himself. “The Dominus… it’s not a person. It’s a monster of arcanum. It’s closer to a chimera than a man. I saw it sprout masses of flesh, eyes and teeth. I saw it regrow from a third of its size. I saw it change faces.” Stas did not know if he could convey the horror of the sight, but he tried his hardest. “After everything, it ate Katriane. And then it turned into her. It had her face, her body, her voice. And her memories. The Dominus had the address for the hideout after a moment’s thought, then it teleported the Watchers across the city in a wave of shadow faster than me. That is what happened and that is how they discovered the hideout.”

    “That sounds like a complete crock of shit.” Sanson responded.

    “But it’s the truth.” Eponine spoke up. “I’ve read Stas’s mind to check, and looked at what he remembered. It was disgusting.” She glared at Sanson. “Unless you are calling both me and Stas a liar?”

    “But it’s crazy!” Sanson insisted. “Arcanum doesn’t work like that.”

    “It can,” Henri spoke up quietly. “I’ve heard of things like that… worse than that.” He didn’t elaborate further.

    “So…” Romeo ventured. “You’re saying the Dominus can just eat people and turn into them? Learn their memories and pretend to be them perfectly?”

    “That’s what I saw, yes.” Stas nodded.

    Again, there was pandemonium. That the Dominus was a master of Arcanum was a given. That they could steal the form of anyone broke a layer of trust. A level of panic emerged as people considered that anyone they encountered might secretly be replaced with the Dominus, that anyone in the room could be replaced. Sanson seemed especially incensed by the idea of it all.

    Once again, Enjolras interjected to calm the room. “Peace, my friends. This is indeed disturbing to hear, but it is not as dire as it may appear. I have met the Dominus before. Some of you have had the same misfortune. But the simple truth is that he is an impatient and capricious man. The Dominus is not one to slink or to spy or to pretend to be another. He would send his Watchers in his stead, rather than sully his hands with that which he considers beneath him. The character flaws of our foe protect us from the most devastating uses of his Arcanum.

    “More than that,” Enjolras continued, “an important consideration has slipped your mind, a great boon that we have seized from this tragedy: the Dominus thinks us to be dead. He and the Watchers believe they have slain us, rooted us out of our hiding place, killed our allies. They think that their cowardly trap has ended us, and they have no reason to believe otherwise. They have no inclination that the Soul of Libertas burns as strong as ever. Our fellows may fall as martyrs, but our fellowship itself survives untainted, as pure as the shield we wield.”

    Enjolras inhaled. “We will always mourn those we lost. Lucian. Maria. Katriane. Raoul. Josselin. Basile. Arsene. We will remember their sacrifices to our dying day and beyond. Take the time you need to mourn them, to celebrate their lives and all they stood for. Let us honor them by carrying onward, by taking advantage of the opportunity their actions have granted us, by ensuring that their mission was not in vain. We will recover, stronger than ever. For we are Libertas, the enemy of Tyranny!”

    Somebody began cheering. For the first time in days, Stas was joining them.
     
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  2. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Despite the The Thing vibes from Von Graft I don't think they're wrong that he wouldn't bother abusing his Aeromancy to root them out, if not for the right reasons. He seemed to very much dislike being "forced" to graft Katriane after all, and already seems bored of the whole situation.

    Makes me wonder how this all ends. I doubt they'll actually succeed in bringing him down. That just seems pure fantasy, as even if they somehow revealed the truth to people and got them to accept it, what's stopping him from just wiping the slate clean?

    But hey, despite the vanishingly low odds that Stas ends up punching out Cthulhu, I could see him maybe finding employment with Kroll in the end. That would be amusing.
     
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2021
  3. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Well, I am increasingly optimistic that I am going to finish this year. But you also have the option of reading the prologue/epilogue if you want a peek.
     
  4. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Interesting. So Stas dons the mask, Von Graft gets yeeted somewhere(though likely to return), the gate between Gaia and here is destroyed and Stas ends up returning to Gaia, the mask slowly turning him into the monster we see in the Polyhistor interlude.

    Definitely a bittersweet ending, but it fits.
     
  5. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Ah, no. The interlude is depicts Phobos V and VI. The Phobos from this story is the little kid in the interview. Stas is Phobos VII.

    Stas returns to Gaia and joins up with Kroll (sort of), because the Mad Monk IS Kroll('s dimensional duplicate).
     
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  6. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Aha, so I was both right and wrong about him joining up with Kroll in the end. Ngl, the continuity is well-crafted, makes me want to start putting my own original ideas to "paper" instead of fanfiction, fanfiction and more fanfiction.

    Did you already have the idea for this when you'd written up that interlude?
     
  7. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Yes, actually.

    I came up with a general plot outline for this story almost a decade ago. Some things have changed (Stas was originally supposed to have a psedo familial relationship with Phobos's "civilian identity" and gladiator politics were a bigger thing in the original conception, for example), but the ending, Kroll coordinating with his dimensional counterpart to influence the city, and the soul crafted revolution group being incapable of losing OR winning were there from the start.

    I've got documents I've transferred across multiple computer with plot notes for this story, and that ending is a big part of it.


    As for writing OC vs fanfiction, I find it gratifying, but more daunting. Also it is far, far less popular with readership.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2021
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  8. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Yeah, tried writing an original quest before and the audience wasn't anywhere near the same as with big fandoms. It's a shame but I'm still determined to publish something one day, maybe a complete series if it kicks off.

    Really, I just hafta stop procrastinating, sit down and write. Worldbuilding can be a very circular process with no end in sight if you let it like I have.
     
  9. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Amen. That's why I made this my NaNoWriMo goal.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Thirty Two
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The following months were spent laying low, to take advantage of their assumed deaths. That combined with Libertas’s priorities of recovering stockpiles lost to the district eradication and trying to slowly recoup core membership to shore up those who had been lost, meant Stas didn’t have much, if anything, to do for the time.

    It rankled him, but he understood that Enjolras could not afford to conduct missions at this time. Occasionally he had been called up to serve as a bodyguard for some tough negotiation. The city had become a harsher place in this time, as the temporary food rationing became more frequent and lasted longer. Crime was on the rise, with formerly peaceful neighborhoods descending into poverty. And Watcher reprisal was increased as well. Executions were taking over larger parts of the Arena schedule these days, with more emphasis towards mass killing compared to the usual, solitary death plays of the previous year.

    Stas spent this standby phase as patiently as he could manage. Every day where the Watchers didn’t burst into Ludo’s school was another bit of weight of his anxiety. It seemed that, despite his unique Arcanum, nobody had recognized him from his arena showings. Some months past that would have rankled him; that he was so unrecognizable that not a single Watcher nor the Dominus could identify him by his signature reflections. Now though, he found he didn’t really care about the fame or fortune of his career.

    He simply went through the motions, training to the point of exhaustion every day, fighting his matches as they came. And each time he fought, the Watchers failed to arrive to arrest him. It was a near mindless haze, a distraction from the matter he actually cared about; the only thing he found himself caring about anymore.

    If his position as a gladiator weren’t so useful to the cause, he would have no qualms abandoning it. But it still opened the same doors that it had at the start, so he soldiered on, swallowing his disgust, being the perfect, stoic gladiator for humorless Ludo and the bloodthirsty crowd.

    Phobos’s mask had become a constant companion in this time, as was his hook. He hardly went without either of those reminders of his failure. The fish hook in particular was a pain point. He had tried training with it, to use it as Phobos had. But every attempt in utilizing the weapon ended in failure. Stas could not accomplish any attack with the hook, even against a target dummy, and the so-called ‘perfect’ object burned his hand whenever he made the attempt. Stas had no idea how his old teacher had used it so effectively. Whatever secret the man had to make use of the tool died with him.

    It was a shame he never managed to convince the man to let him try it out when the masked man was still alive to teach him.

    Even the very thought of the fish hook seemed to make it burn in his coat pocket. But Stas did not mind the painful reminder. It served his purpose; it forced him to remember that Phobos was dead and that it was his fault… that the man who may have assassinated the Dominus was killed before he could make his true attempt and it was his fault.

    Stas’s dreary routine had finally been interrupted when he was contacted to meet with Libertas in the new hideout. Enjolras had arranged a simple arcanum device that could be made to break remotely. As soon as he had discovered the broken toy in his room, he made his way there swiftly, no small amount of excitement building.

    When he arrived there were few members present. That was not unusual as the new hideout lacked the status as a bar and rest location that the old one possessed. Some were working to excavate a new suitable space, he had heard. Enjolras, Eponine, and Sanson were all present, as he had learned to expect. A bit more surprising was that Henri was also present, sitting in the corner.

    “Stas,” Enjolras greeted warmly. “I wish I could give you grim tidings, but we have learned of some dire information that we must discuss.”

    “No need to keep us all in suspense,” Eponine responded. “Or are you waiting for somebody else?”

    “I wished to ensure that you three were able to learn the information simultaneously. It would be unfair otherwise. That Stas has the most personal obligations and longest commute of all of us should not be held against him. A delay of a few minutes is not an issue as we only learned of this an hour ago.”

    “Is that damn pen finally showing its worth?” Sanson spoke with a bored tone. “Or is there another reason why the brat is present?” he asked, gesturing towards Henri. There was no heat in the insult, but Henri shirked all the same.

    “That is indeed the source of the information. Henri was on monitor duty during today’s morning Senate session, and he brought the information to light. Henri, if you would?”

    Henri nodded and passed out some sheets of paper to all three of them. Transcriptions of the Senate’s session, Stas realized. Sanson growled, but set to read, as did Eponine and himself.

    It was dry, and rambling, and a lot of the flowery speech and specific language went over Stas’s head, and the particular tiny handwriting was harder to understand than the large slate he was used to. Stas noted that Eponine was a bit faster at reading than him. To his annoyance, Sanson was also a better reader. But he was able to parse it all the same with some work.

    “Those bloody fucking bastards.” Sanson growled. “Senseless, immoral, fuckers!”

    Eponine said nothing, her eyes growing narrow in anger.

    Enjolras watched with tired eyes.

    “Is this…” Stas struggled to believe what he was reading. “Are they really planning on culling the population? Just exterminating people to deal with the famine?”

    “Of course they fucking are.” Sanson seethed. “Instead of halting their own banquets or getting more farmers or converting their cotton farms to wheat, they jump straight to murder. The two parties aren’t even questioning it. The fuckers are quibbling over the percentages, how many to kill, how to pay for the killing.” Sanson smashed his fist into the desk. “Who gets the money from the elixirs they produce… disgusting!”

    Sanson was right in his description. The pages and pages of transcript seemed to depict committing this monstrous act as casually as they might discuss any other spending bill.

    Eponine, with a frown, gestured at her paper. “It cuts out here, skips a bit. What’s missing?”

    “Ah,” Henri responded. “That’s when the Dominus’s Monk took the floor. He argued against the plan… quite a long argument, pages and pages of it. Two other Senators also argued against it. I have the speeches in the original copy if you want to read it.” Henri restored to another stack of pages. “But it was long and nobody really listened to them, so I didn’t transcribe that part when I was copying.”

    Sanson grunted. “Two Senators spoke up… out of five hundred bastards. Disgusting.”

    Stas continued to read. The paper detailed the potential logistics, arguments over implementation, property seizures, and the specific date to enact the murders. He skipped forward to the end of the transcription, where it listed the particulars of the vote. He was dismayed, but not surprised to see that it passed.

    “Enjolras,” Stas asked the currently silent man. “What is the plan?”

    Silver eyes met his own. “Determining that is precisely why I have asked you all here. We absolutely cannot allow this travesty to come to pass. The question of how is something we need to determine. But to me the crux of the answer is clear:” Enjolras clasped his hands together, and rested his chin on them. “We must stage a general revolt.”

    Enjolras tapped the Senate transcript. “This is the key. The Senate relies on the secrecy of the meetings. It can enact its aims without care because they know the populace is ignorant to their designs. Even the vile methods that they would embrace for their desired slaughter rely on keeping the populace unaware. They know that their plan would be resisted. They know they would not be able to succeed.”

    Enjolras’s silver eyes widened in a smile. “Our course is truly a simple one. We must distribute these words to the people, ensure that everyone knows and is ready for the slaughter to come. And we will allow the people to express their displeasure directly. The weight of the populace is great, the justice of the masses will see us through. We can empower the people to save themselves and ensure the Senate is destroyed for contemplating this horror.”

    Stas, Eponine, and Sanson all stared at Enjolras silently.

    Sanson broke the silence first. “Are you daft, Enjolras?!”

    The insult to Enjolras irked Stas, but he was forced to admit he was wondering the same thing. So often Stas felt comfortable trusting his leader’s plans, the unshaking confidence the man had in himself and in his fellows inspired great belief. But the plan Enjolras had laid out rang of madness to Stas’s ears.

    “You are planning a riot, Enjolras.” Eponine stated simply. “A recipe for mass panic. The populace would turn on itself in fear. The city would burn itself to the ground. The gangs would take advantage of the chaos.”

    Enjolras frowned. “I understand your fears. Handled poorly, that dreadful state could indeed come about. But I am confident that with the proper messaging and careful coordination with community leaders, we can ensure an organized resistance against the Senate. The people of this city are better than that. They are good people at heart, strong people, and they would rise to free themselves from the shackles once they know the true corruption of the Senate.”

    “No.” Stas spoke softly. Images of the crowds in the stands flashed through his eyes. The callousness, the misdirected rage. He imagined the selfish audience in a panic: how they would so pointlessly trample over each other with the same lack of care that they would consign an innocent entertainer to an ignoble death. “People are creatures of instinct. The masses break when there is not enough food in their belly. They turn on anyone, anything, even if they had nothing to do with their suffering. There is no justice in that, just reaction.”

    Enjolras frowned deeply.

    Sanson gaped. “I never thought I’d hear you speak sense, gladiator. When the hell did you learn some proper smarts?”

    “When did you learn consideration, Sanson?” Stas spat back. “Here I thought you would be overjoyed at the idea of the city burning down.”

    “Feh. Parts of it, maybe. But I don’t want anarchy. Especially if the Senate might be able to survive it.” Sanson turned to Enjolras. “It’s a shitty plan, Enjolras. This is not the kind of information we can let free. Not until after we solved the issue.”

    Enjolras frowned. “I feel this is something that people deserve to know. Are we to be no better than the Senate to decide who gets to know what in our wisdom? To place ourselves above the freedom of the people by dint of position alone?”

    Eponine scoffed. “When that information will get them to panic and die, yes. And don’t make false comparisons with the Senate. They are the ones trying to kill a fifth of the city. We are the ones trying to stop that. Any sort of equivocation is inane.”

    Enjolras inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes. “Can I convince none of you of this? It feels to me that allowing the people to free themselves is the only truly just response.”

    Stas, Eponine, and Sanson remained silent. In some ways Stas wished he could be convinced, but he had seen the truth of the matter for himself. For once, Enjolras was unequivocally wrong.

    Enjolras sighed. “I suppose this is why I have advisors, to identify my failings.”

    Stas swallowed. “We should agree to keep this a secret. To tell only those who need to know, and to make sure it can’t possibly leak to the public.” It seemed like a nightmare scenario in his mind, almost worse than what the Senate described in their session. That at least would be swift and orderly. “We should swear to it.”

    Sanson rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to blab. It would be moronic.”

    Eponine nodded. “I feel the same way. I can’t see any benefit of letting this information leak.”

    Henri, from his corner, meekly spoke. “I won’t say anything, I swear. I’ll make sure the transcript copies are kept in a secure place.”

    Enjolras nodded. “If it would make you feel safer, Stas, then I will do so as well. I swear on my honor that I will abide by the decision of this meeting and not spread word of the Senate’s heinous plan without reason.”

    It did make Stas feel better. “Thank you.”

    Enjolras clasped his hands once more. “Then, if my plan is shot, how do we go about preventing this travesty?”

    Sanson grunted, and pulled out the last few pages. “This,” he exclaimed, “isn’t salvation. It’s a target list. Every single fucker who voted to slaughter us has forfeited their right to live. We’ve talked about mass assasination before, Enjolras, and you’ve always dismissed it on moral grounds. But if anything it is more than fair. If they are willing to callously order people to their deaths, then we should be just as willing to end them.”

    “The problem with pulling a coup through assassination wasn’t just ethical concerns,” Eponine interjected. “But preventing anarchy or crackdowns. People wouldn’t have been willing to accept the deaths, especially not the Patricians. But we have casus belli here. We can safely publicize the Senate’s plan after the fact. If the danger is revealed after it has already been solved, it won’t cause nearly the same panic. Instead it would legitimize the new regime.”

    “Aye.” Sanson nodded. “It’s a propaganda boon if we use it correctly and don’t blab it too soon. Our next government would be far more stable. But more important than that is getting rid of this one. Everyone on this list that voted yes needs to die. Every single one of them. Everyone that voted no gets to live, simple as that.” Sanson spat to the side. “I’d say that the ones that abstained should die too, for not standing up for us, but I’d be happy if they just got the boot. As long as the ones who voted yes are gone, we can let them live. Millions of lives are at stake here. And we have a time limit. We need to go loud, Enjolras. Use up our stockpiles. Activate non core members. Buy out the gangs. We have the resources to get this done if we put them all on the line. We can’t afford to do anything less.”

    Enjolras exhaled. “You do not have to convince me that this is worth using everything we have to prevent. I would prefer if we had more time, if we could enact the smoother, cleaner coup that we desired, but I acknowledge that this limitation has been forced upon us. I agree that the Senate, in their callousness, has crossed a line that cannot be forgiven. I see no reason to offer them consideration anymore, not when the lives of the innocent are at risk. The ones that proved their moral fiber may prove an asset, and I will scope them out for collaboration, to at least ensure they are out of harm's way. We do not want our city’s new regime to be born under the taint of innocent blood. Sanson, we will be counting on your contacts more than anything, to ensure we have the manpower to pull off the assassinations in the short time period we will have. Henri, I know your father courts with the Antiquiae. See if there are any social events planned for this month. It would be an opportunity to catch many of our foes at one location. I will check the same for the Honorae.”

    The planning was moving quickly, and in directions Stas did not feel he had the expertise to offer aid. But Stas felt there was a big issue being ignored.

    “What about the Dominus?” he asked softly.

    The name of the city’s ruler cast a stark pale over the gathered resistance fighters.

    Enjolras was the one to break the silence. “The Dominus should hopefully not be an issue. He is known to be unconcerned with the running of the city, the composition of the Senate, the matters of governance in any respect. So long as he doesn’t interfere in the process itself, we can accomplish our coup and present the change of government to him as fait accompli. We may have to offer some concessions, but the ruling of the city would no longer be in the hands of the Senate.”

    “And what if the Dominus does interfere?” Stas forced the question to be asked aloud. “What if the Dominus refuses to accept the death of its Senators? Or worse, what if it decides to fight us when we are attacking? The Dominus is a monster. The Senate would not be making a plan this outrageous if it did not think that their master would disapprove of it. Do all our plans rely on hoping the whims of that pile of flesh align with ours? Are we completely at the mercy of an immortal being we cannot defeat or outlast?”

    Nobody responded to Stas questioning, for all that it looked like they wished they could. Not even Sanson interjected.

    It was the cruel truth. The Dominus held sway and could not be opposed. The monster’s personal power was too great.

    “Ah… what about the Legendary Hermit?” Henri inquired.

    “What about that nonsense fairy tale, Patrician brat?” Sanson grumbled.

    “Well,” Henri gulped. “I’m just thinking. The Dominus is an old, immortal man that mastered arcanum. And the Legendary Hermit is also supposed to be an old, immortal man that mastered arcanum. The stories say that the Dominus was the one to chase the Legendary Hermit out of the city, back when he, the Dominus I mean, first arrived. So, wouldn’t that make the Legendary Hermit an enemy of the Dominus?”

    “The Legendary Hermit is just that, brat, a legend.” Sanson scoffed. “A nonsense legend at that. How could he have been around before the Dominus if the Dominus was here since the start?”

    “That’s not…” Henri struggled for his words. “I’ve read things in my father’s collection, seen things, the Dominus might not have been the one to found the city And there might have been arcanum even before elixirs, so it’s possible the Legendary Hermit is a real person. And maybe they might still be alive. And maybe they could help us.”

    “That’s a shit load of maybes.”

    Stas found himself recalling Eponine’s depiction of the legend, and how he could use magic before elixirs were invented. He recalled Phobos’s knowledge of elixerless magic. He thought of his own abilities. That Phobos seemed to know of that meant there was some precedent, a commonality. It would make sense that there would be others like himself out there. Why couldn’t the Legendary Hermit be real? Wouldn’t it fit the logic?

    The Dominus was evil, an overwhelming barrier that opposed Enjolras’s dream, his sole remaining purpose. Wouldn’t it be fitting for there to be an equal and opposite to the monster in the form of the Legendary Hermit.

    “I think it is worth investigating.” Stas offered, interrupting the argument between Sanson and Henri. “I can cover a lot of ground with my arcanum. If the Legendary Hermit used to visit the city, then he couldn’t have been that far outside of it. I can head out immediately and try to see if there is any sign of him. If he is real and alive, I can bring him back.”

    Enjolras frowned. “Are you sure you wish to attempt it, Stas? I will admit that the legend strikes me as a tale more than anything of substance.”

    Stas shook his head. “We need something to deal with the Dominus. This is the best hope we can think of.” Now that Phobos was dead and his plan to assassinate the Dominus was gone with him. “It’s not like I can be of any aid in this planning phase, so there is no loss in me heading out to check.”

    Eponine nodded. “I’m with Stas. The Dominus can’t be unique. There have to be others like him. And it costs us nothing to check. The potential benefits are extremely high, too. I don’t want to depose the Senate and still be forced to live under the Dominus’s filthy claws. That’s not enough for me. In fact, I think I should head out with Stas to look for him.” She grinned and elbowed Stas in the side. “I think I’d do a much better job convincing some immortal arcanist to join us than a provincial gladiator, right Stas?”

    Stas snorted and rolled his eyes. It was probably a true statement, after all.

    “Are you sure, Eponine? Outside the city is not a hospitable place. And we could use your talents here in preparation.” Enjolras said.

    “I’m sure,” she nodded. “I can handle bad weather. And you don’t need me that much for this. It’s better for me to do something that could make a difference.”

    “You actually think you’re going to find him,” Sanson scoffed. “Feh, better that the two of you are not mucking around now that we are doing important work.”

    Enjolras closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “You all know I am loath to give orders without need. If the two of you believe there is value in this quest, then you should go. I will see that you have supplies available for the trek. Sanson, Henri and I will ready everyone to strike at the Senators. I will ask that the both of you be back within a week's time, with or without the Legendary Hermit. If you find him, and he is willing to join our righteous cause, then we will be forever grateful. But if your quest goes as I fear, we will be forced to proceed without such aid. I have hope that the Dominus will accept our change of government, but I acknowledge I can do nothing but hope. Inaction is not a possibility for us now. Not when so much is on the line.”

    Enjolras bowed his head. “Make your preparations as you need and return here in two hours time. I will have travel supplies ready by then. May Libertas favor you.”

    Stas bowed his head, already formulating a plan.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Thirty Three
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas and Eponine made their way to the edge of the city, making sure to head for the edge that contained the oldest districts. Their hunt for the Legendary Hermit lacked any real location other than the fact he wouldn’t be in the city and that it happened a long time ago, so heading towards the oldest gate made sense. In truth, the both of them realized it said nothing of the actual direction the Legendary Hermit would have come from if he were real, but it was better than nothing. The important thing was getting far enough outside the city that Stas wouldn’t be distracted by the myriad people and buildings when using his arcanum-granted sight.

    Stas had never actually been to the city’s walls before. He had seen them in the distance when he had climbed the bell towers at Phobos’s direction. But they had always been a distant thing, at the edge of his consciousness. This would be his first time actually visiting the imposing stone structures, near as tall as the bell towers and thrice as thick. As it turned out, it was also Eponine’s first time. There wasn’t actually much reason to go to the city’s walls unless one lived there, or plied the farmer’s trade.

    The city gates were imposing. Large enough to allow the passage of three full carts of produce abreast, and with a height to match. The thick iron trellis barred their way under the stringent watch of a dedicated contingent of bird-faced guards. Nobody could get in or out of the city without the Watcher’s sayso.

    Stas would have reflected the two of them to the top of the wall and past, but Eponine cautioned against it, warning of patrols at the wall’s top. Instead she opted to use her own arcanum. A discrete discussion with a lone gate guard saw the two of them through a much less imposing guard’s passage. Eponine assured him that the guard would think nothing of the encounter and would soon forget it.

    And so, Stas left the city for the first time since he arrived through the great. The sight that greeted him was grain. Lots and lots of grain. A veritable endless ocean of farmland dedicated to wheat and maize and other core crops, vegetables of color and golden grain with the occasional cotton bough and tobacco, divided into tidy little plots, separated by simple fences and irrigation channels with small streams of water.

    Stas saw Golems at work, harvesting rows of wheat as others watered and planted and sowed and tended to this sea of produce. Simple, well worn paths carried horse-drawn wagons driven by a a mix of humans and golems, carting mountains of produce towards the gate where they were inspected by the bird-faced gate guards and granted passage in a slow, laborious process.

    The amount of food seemed insane to Stas’s eyes. He never would have imagined the city was currently undergoing a famine.

    Grabbing a hold of Eponine’s hand, Stas reflected away from the city, deep into the farm crops. And he reflected again. Again and again, keeping a steady pace, working at the almost leisurely speed that would not tire him out. As he moved, and took into the sights, he conversed with Eponine.

    “Why aren’t there any farmhouses? Or any real communities out here?” The farmlands around the city were not like those of the Provinces, built around manors and livable plots.

    Eponine shrugged, and they reflected again. “This close to the city? Any human workers would just like by the walls or walk and take a cart. Not much need for housing out here. More than that, these are prime plots of land, so they are probably owned by the wealthiest of Patricians, so they have golem workers, not plebeians. It’s a point of pride for those people, to own and use golems.”

    Stas frowned, and reflected again. “Are there farming communities further out? It seems like a waste to just put all the farmland by the city. It would be more efficient to have villages at the center of good farmland to collect the produce, then market it in the city.” That is how he had assumed it had worked, at least. But he wasn’t seeing anything like that.

    “What good farmland? Plants can only grow near the city. That is why the city is where it is. Everybody knows that.”

    That didn’t parse to Stas. “Really? If only the city can grow food then where are the Provinces?”

    Eponine paused. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I suppose there are other places where food can grow, somewhere out there. I’m not sure where, though. It must be far, because everyone always travels through the gate to get here.”

    It was something to ponder. Stas reflected again.

    As they got further and further from the city Stas started to notice a trend. The glorious golden wheat stalks were browning. They failed to reach the same height. The orchard trees stood weaker, with fruit that wasn’t as plump. The air was growing hotter, and the wind drier.

    More golems stood in the fields, watering the worse crops. Stas noticed some familiar barrels with somewhat familiar symbols on them.

    “Are those Elixirs?” he asked. “Are they watering the plants with Elixirs?”

    “Hm? I suppose so.” Eponine nodded. “Something along the same lines at least. I don’t think you could use them for Arcanum, but it’s a byproduct of the creation process, I am pretty sure. I know that the elixir manufacturers sell their offshoot stuff to farmers, but I didn’t realize this was how it was used. Like a fertilizer, I imagine.”

    “It might be more than a fertilizer.” Stas noticed the crops directly under the elixir product seemed to be healthier. A near dead plant seemed to return to life with the infusion. “It might be necessary for these plots.”

    A poorer looking farm with a human worker was using regular water in her plot. The crops were almost completely withered, with few fruits to show for it.

    Stas reflected onwards.

    If elixirs were necessary to produce food, Stas realized, then the Senate bill made a bit more sense. Slaughtering people to render them into elixirs would address a famine problem on two ends: production and consumption.

    It was getting hotter now. The sun seemed to scream in the sky. The air felt hostile, like the wind wished it could peel off his skin. Stas reflected.

    “Let’s take a break.” Stas suggested. He was more tired than he should have been. Perhaps he wasn’t pacing himself properly. He might not have perfectly accounted for Eponine’s presence or the weight of the food pack and water canteens on his back.

    “Alright then. We have been at this for a while. Getting out of the city was more of a pain than I thought it would be. Can you take us to a tree so we have some shade?”

    Stas nodded, and reflected. The two of them stopped beneath a withering apple tree. It offered some shade, but it felt like it wasn’t enough. Eponine took a canteen of water and sipped from it. Stas did the same.

    He looked around and frowned at what he saw. “That’s indigo over there.” He said, pointing to a plot where a golem was deploying elixirs. “I recognize it from the provinces.”

    “Yes? What about it?” Eponine lazily inquired.

    “Elixirs seem like they can be used to make plants grow, but indigo is for dyes. We are going through a famine and somebody is wasting the stuff on indigo.” The primary component of elixirs were human lives. How many people had died to allow some Patrician to make some money with a luxury crop?

    “What you put it like that, it’s pretty heinous.” Eponine agreed.

    “More than that, every golem here is fueled by elixirs. Everyone of them could have been a person instead. There are more than enough people in the city to work the land. Why not hire people?” And why was the Senate resorting to killing people to solve a famine when they were being so inefficient with the resources of the city already? It was criminal.

    “I told you. It’s a status thing. Poorer Patricians do hire people, but golems are more effective. A human laborer can’t work all night, would tire while working, might steal food for themselves… and they have to spend time commuting from the city. Golems let the Patricians ignore all that and show off their wealth at the same time. If elixirs are cheap enough, they might even save money compared to labor.”

    “Couldn’t we have communities out here? Houses? Ignore the commute by having farmers actually live and work the land?”

    “Fertile land is valuable.” Eponine responded. “Nobody wants to waste it on housing for plebians.” Eponine held up a hand. “I don’t believe this myself, just explaining how a Patrician might justify it to themself.”

    “It’s sick.” Stas could recall Enjolras’s rage at the organization of the city right now. It seemed especially evident here.

    “It is what it is,” her words were dismissive, as if the wastefulness was a given. “Do you want some bread? Or are we good to head out again.”

    “Let’s keep going,” Stas proclaimed. He had assumed that they would be going from village to village asking after the Legendary Hermit, but it did not seem like that was an actual consideration. Should they have tried to go through the gate instead in their search? It would have been much, much harder to sneak through the gate. He would just have to keep going and see what he found.

    Stas kept on reflecting, opting to make shorter hops to avoid tiring himself out in turn.

    The trend he had observed continued. The farm plots got worse and worse, despite the presence of elixir watering. The land seemed to dry up of any and all life as they travelled. Here the famine was obvious. Very very little was growing.

    Stas reflected further, and reached the edge of it all: neatly parcelled plots of completely dead wasteland. Not a single sprout grew here, and yet the plots continued onward some distance.

    Here, Stas could see into the horizon, around the hills in the distance. The wasteland stretched on and on and on, beyond his view. No plants. No water. No grubs. No life. It was a sobering sight, all this land and nothing of value, agricultural or civil. The sun seemed to weigh on him like a heavy blanket. The air clawed at his lungs.

    Stas shifted his awareness to the world of reflections to see what was on the other side of far away mirrors. It was even worse than he had thought.

    The wasteland appeared endless. Truly endless. Stas stretched his senses out further and further, looking for the reflections of the ever growing distance at lengths that he had never been able to see before. And there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a wasteland that stretched farther than the eye can see over the horizon and beyond. Barren hills crumbling to dust, mountain ranges as dry and desolate as a burned pot, deep, deep trenches that went down and down and down and held nothing in them.

    The entire world, from what he could see in his desperate searching, was simply the city, its farms, and the wasteland.

    Where were the provinces? Those fertile, bland, dismal fields where nothing happened good or bad. Where was his home of youth? Stas found a profound sense of isolation, the confusion clawed at him just as the sun and air did. He searched everywhere for anything.

    And, in his search, he found something. A simple, modest cottage, surrounded by a garden, on the top of a rolling hill of browning green. An oasis in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wasteland.

    Stas swallowed. The air was dry and he hacked up a cough. Eponine handed him the water canteen and he gratefully took a sip. How long had he been searching?

    After he had calmed his throat, Stas turned to Eponine.

    “I think I’ve found something,” he stated. “It’s a cottage all on its own, with a small garden. If the Legendary Hermit is anywhere, I think he would be there.”

    Eponine grinned. “Excellent. And even if he isn’t there, we can ask whoever lives there about him.”

    “It’s quite far away.” Stas explained. “It may be a few hours, even with my teleportation.” Strictly speaking, he could step through the reflection right now. He could see the mirror to do so. But Stas had never reflected such intense distances. He didn’t know what state he would be in on the other side, pushing himself through such a small mirror. Nor what state his companion would be in. He absolutely did not want to collapse in this miserable wasteland, where it felt like every part of him was being sucked up into the sky.

    It was safer to go with what he knew he could handle. They had a time limit, but it wasn’t so outrageous that they couldn’t afford to spend hours.

    Eponine shrugged. “Better get to it then.”

    Stas nodded and reflected. It was a marathon, going so far, reflecting so much, in these desolate conditions, carrying supplies for himself and a passenger in the form of Eponine. But he paced himself, and the grueling journey was manageable.

    Eponine stayed silent through it all. Likely she did not wish to speak with the air so dry. Or perhaps she had nothing to say. Stas would have agreed with both accounts.

    Finally, after some time Stas could not determine but felt like too long, they were at the location Stas had seen. The sun here did not feel as harsh. The air was cooler, and the wind was gentle. The earth beneath their feet was a healthy colored dirt, and not a scorched waste.

    The hill had grass, leading up to a simple cottage, with a simple garden of flowers and food. In the center of the garden was a single tombstone, polished like marble.

    Stas fell to his knees, panting, as the exhaustion of the journey caught up to him. Eponine handed him some bread and water and cheese he ravenously tore into all of it. Eponine herself took a few bites of the dried jerky Enjolras had prepared for them. Stas grasped for some himself.

    “Interesting place.” Eponine commented, observing the hill. “Quaint. Quiet too. I don’t think there are any neighbors.” She frowned. “I wonder where they get their food. That garden isn’t big enough to feed a person.”

    “It’s definitely a tended garden though.” Stas observed. “It is very neatly arranged. Plants don’t do that naturally. And if the Legendary Hermit is a master of arcanum, they could just teleport like I do.”

    “True,” Eponine nodded. “Let’s go see if anyone is home.”

    Eponine began walking up the small hill, rather than wait for Stas to reflect them both again. Stas shrugged and walked as well. It would be good to stretch his legs after non stop teleporting.

    Stas paused, sensing something amiss, but not knowing what, precisely. His instincts were calling at him, and he realized that his arcanum-granted sight was catching movement.

    Stas reflected himself in front of Eponine, Enjolras’s shield raised just in time to catch a blow from a long, rusted sword. The strike staggered him, and Stas forced himself to regain his footing.

    Eponine stumbled back, falling to the grass-covered ground.

    Stas raised his shield to defend against another strike.

    His opponent was a tall, elegant looking woman in a simple, sharp dress. She wielded an engraved longsword in a two-handed style. The blade of the sword was wracked with rust, but its edge seemed impossibly sharp regardless.

    The woman twisted, bringing her force to bear up and across Stas’s shield; the blow aimed for his chest curved towards his head instead. Stas reflected out of the way, his own single hand sword aimed for the woman’s back.

    His opponent caught his blade with her own, sapping him of momentum in a motion that would have seen his sword instructure nod in approval. She was unhampered by the change in position, and settled into her stance naturally. Her sword rested in her hands in a relaxed grip, belying the force behind them.

    And the woman moved, quick as a whip with the strength of a bull and the perfect form of a dancer. The soul-crafted shield saved him once more, it’s ability to take a blow and bleed the force off proving invaluable. Stas’s counterblow was deflected by the woman’s hilt catching it in the crossguard. He felt as weak as a baby compared to the casual, ill leveraged movement from the woman. In the same motion, the woman released a hand from her sword and punched Stas in the face. Stas leaned back to avoid it as much as he could, but the fist brushed against his skin at an angle.

    Stas reflected away, and reached up to feel his cheek. It was bleeding, and badly at that. It was as if the woman had sliced a dagger across his face and not an empty fist. Wary of invisible weapons or other arcanum tricks, Stas changed his guard. The woman was strong. And skilled. And she either had some sensory ability or impeccable instinct to block a blow from behind without seeing it.

    The mystery fighter dismissed him for a moment, turning to Eponine with a scowl. “Dog of the parasite,” she addressed Eponine with a harsh, cracking voice. It was as if the woman had not spoken in years and years. “Your mind magics are an insult. Do you think I am so pathetic that your paltry attempts could control me?”

    Eponine flinched, but resolved herself and stood firm. “I’m just trying to calm the situation down. Why are you attacking us? We mean you now harm.”

    “Why?” The woman scoffed. “All dogs of the parasite should die. It is all you deserve. I have contented to let you starve in your city, but if you present yourself before me, then I am forced to hasten your death.” She held her sword in a taunting pose. “Come then. If I am to whet myself with your blood, then make a fight of it. Cease your worthless magics and fight me in truth. I yearn for it.”

    In some sense, such a declaration was a relief to Stas. An honest fight was something to be treasured, in a way. Even the faithlessness of the audience couldn’t take that away from the arena sands. But on the other hand, Stas wasn’t actually sure he could win. Not if he had to protect Eponine as well.

    More than that, they weren’t here to fight. They were looking for information, and this woman seemed like she might be a good font of it.

    “By parasite, do you mean the Dominus?” Stas inquired. “Because we are not willing subjects. We are looking for a way to fight the monster.”

    “Truly?” the woman asked with a frown. Her stance remained wary, but she dropped into a less aggressive guard. “I don’t hear deception in your words, so I would take them as truth. Monster is an apt description, and one she would not stomach, vain as she is.” The woman exhaled. “You are free to depart my land, no…” she turned to the gravestone for a moment and reconsidered. “Rather, I would invite you into my home. Never let it be said that I am not a gracious host to those that are not my enemy. Come”

    She turned abruptly and began walking up the hill.

    Stas turned to Eponine with a questioning look. She shrugged, and began to follow after the woman fearlessly. Stas, a bit more wary, kept his sword at the ready.

    The woman opened the door of the cottage, and gestured for them to go inside. They obliged, and found themselves in a simple single-room home with a table, two chairs, and a bed off to the side. A cabinet was set against the wall and was stocked with cutlery and flatware and herbs and trimmings from the garden. In the back of the room was a pedestal holding a pillow, upon which an ornate dagger rested.

    The woman tossed a bit of cloth at Stas. “For your cut,” she declared, and went to the cabinet on the side. Stas applied it to the dripping wound on his face as a bandage, applying pressure. He wondered if it would scar.

    The woman fiddled with two cups and filled them with water. She placed her hands on the cups and, in a flash, they were both filled with boiling water. The rusty sword she had been carrying had disappeared at some point when Stas hadn’t seen.

    Both Stas and Eponine noted the arcanum usage with great interest.

    Eponine spoke first. “Are you the Hermit of legend?” Stas found it strange that a legend could contort a young, stern woman into an old man, but he was reaching the same conclusion as Eponine, given the evidence before him.

    “What legend?” The woman asked, as she added some sprigs of some herb and some flower petals to the boiling water, allowing it to seep. She placed the cups before the two of them.

    Stas gave his cup a wary glance, as did Eponine.

    The woman scoffed. “If I wished to kill you I’d do it myself, not resort to poison like a coward. It’s a simple tisane from the garden. Hosts are supposed to offer something to their guests and I seldom grow food.”

    Stas frowned, but understood the sentiment. For the sake of civility he took a sip of the drink. It was slightly sweet, with a bitter tone. Eponine took her own sip after him.

    “In the city, there are stories of an immortal hermit who lived far outside the city. He visited occasionally to talk and to trade, until he was driven out by the Dominus.”

    The woman shook her head. “In that case, no, I am not. I have never been to that miserable city, nor do I have any desire to.” She prepared a drink for herself using the same herb and petal mix, and sipped from it. “The stories are likely referring to my husband. He would visit that place occasionally, hundreds of years ago. He was prone to that sort of foolishness.” Her harsh voice rasped with a gentle fondness as well as a backdrop of simmering anger.

    Stas swallowed. He hadn’t actually thought their quest would bear fruit so quickly and easily. “Ah, miss…” he stopped as he realized he didn’t know her name. “What may I call you?”

    “I was granted the name Feddlebrine. Knowing it will give you no more control over me than your mind magics, so don’t insult me by making the attempt.”

    “Miss Feddlebrine,” Stas continued. “Is your husband around? May we speak with him?”

    The cup in Feddlebrine’s hand snapped. Scalding water spilled over her but she didn’t seem to notice. “No,” she rasped. “You cannot speak with that bastard, seeing as he is long dead. Murdered by the parasite.”

    An intense pressure exuded from the woman, like the rusty sword digging into his skin.

    “She came to this world to kill him, the ungrateful bitch. For the imagined slights she had. For their history. My bastard husband was so happy to see her alive again, so remorseful, that he let her do it. The damn bastard ordered me not to interfere, not to fight her, and he didn’t even fight back. Even when that sanctimonious parasite desecrated his body, my worthless, inconsiderate, unthinking, selfish bastard of a husband had me stand by and do nothing. So no, you cannot speak with my despicable, cowardly husband, because the parasite has already taken him from me.”

    Long, deep cuts etched into the cottage walls and floors as she talked. The pressure grew and grew until the end. Stas almost deployed Enjolras’s shield, but realized it was simply mental force, not an actual threat.

    “If you hate the Dominus,” Eponine began, seemingly unphased by the display, “would you fight him with us? We came to seek out the Legendary Hermit in hopes of finding somebody who would be capable of slaying him, or at least keeping him in check long enough for our goals. Are you willing to be that person? For vengeance? And if that is not enough, we can pay you for the services, both from the Dominus’s stupendous treasury if you succeed and our own coffers.”

    “I would like nothing more than to tear the parasite’s head from her shoulders,” Feddlebrine growled. “But beyond anything else, beyond my desires, I am loyal to my husband. Even though he was never the same, abandoned me, I am better than him. I will stand by the vow he forced upon me until the end, until I rust away to nothingness.”

    “Is there truly nothing we can do to convince you to aid us?” Eponine inquired.

    “There is not.” the swordswoman spoke with finality. “Do not insult me by trying to convince me otherwise, lest I declare you to be enemies in truth.” Her glare focused on Eponine at that, and she flinched at the piercing stare. Her gaze died down. “Even if I were so spurious as to break my vow to my husband, it would do you little good. The parasite is beyond me at this time. In my prime she would be of no match for my prowess. The parasite’s punishment would have been swift and total at my hands. But I have been rusting away for centuries now. I have had no need for my original might.”

    Stas swallowed. Their prime objective was shot, but Feddlebrine seemed to know of the Dominus’s past. THe woman was willing to talk, for all that she refused to offer them direct aid. Perhaps she had knowledge of some weakness or a method to defeat the monster. It was the least he could attempt.

    “You said the Dominus was from another world,” he began. “What does that mean, precisely?”

    Feddlebrine looked at him askance. “Is that so confusing a concept for you? You yourself bear the stench of Gaia, one this dead world has lost. Like yourself the parasite was not born on this world, in this timeline. She travelled here through some means unknown to me, same as you.”

    The gate, Stas realized. It was not just a link across vast distances, but one across worlds. The reason he could not locate the provinces with his sight was because they were nowhere on this Earth.

    Eponine seemed to reach the same conclusion. “The Dominus’s secret is that he was born in the provinces? Being a Provincial is the source of his Arcanum?”

    “Wyrd ones and their magics were common before this world died.” Feddlebrine explained. “Gaia provided shelter to them from the voids beyond. A Wyrd one in this age would need to have predated her death, or be born in a realm where Gaia still offers her succor.” She frowned. “This was near common knowledge in my day. Is it not taught in your accursed city?”

    “No,” Eponine replied. She was staring at Stas now, seeing him perhaps in a new light. “That sort of knowledge is not known to us anymore.”

    Feddlebrine spat to the side. “Truly, I thought my opinion of the parasite could sink no lower, but she proves herself regardless.”

    “Even if you will not fight the Dominus,” Stas began, “can you offer advice? Do you know of any weaknesses? Any methods of fighting?”

    “I cannot,” the woman responded. “I do not know the nature of the bodies the parasite has taken over these centuries, so my knowledge is far out of date. Be grateful that my husband thought to cripple himself before she stole his body. If he had not, your task would have been impossible.”

    Eponine rose from her seat. “Thank you for hosting us, Miss Feddlebrine. I believe we need to head back to the city now.”

    Stas was confused. Why was Eponine seeking to leave now. Wasn’t there more to be learned here. “Are you sure we should go now?”

    Eponine nodded. “I believe we have gained what we can here. It is a pity she will not fight, so we are best situated to return to the city.”

    Stas frowned, but rose himself. “Thank you,” he said with a short bow. In truth, he was angry at the woman. How could she let something as simple as a promise made to a dead man centuries ago, a promise it was clear she did not wish to make, prevent her from doing the right thing? She would see an enemy live forever because of her pride.

    As they turned for the door, the swordswoman called out to them. “Wait.” She commanded.

    They did, turning around. Eponine had a small smirk on her face that she quickly hid.

    The woman turned to the pedestal in the room and the dagger upon it. She grasped the hilt of the implement gently, almost lovingly. After a silent moment, she presented the dagger to Stas.

    “Take her,” Feddlebrine commanded. “If you are enemies of the parasite, then she deserves to join you. She deserves a wielder other than me, someone who would give her the chance to avenge her father.”

    The dagger seemed to gleam as Stas took it. “Is this soulcraft?” The weapon rang in his hands in a way that reminded him of the shield. It lacked the dust that had collected in other parts of the house.

    “Soulcraft?” the swordswoman considered. “In a sense, one could call it that. In a kinder world she would have been somebody. In a softer world…” Feddlebrine shook her head. “But there is no life for her here, with a lonely widow on a dead world. I would rather have her accompany the parasite’s would-be killer. She has always been eager to taste the parasite's blood. Perhaps you can make that happen.” The woman sighed and turned around. “Perhaps you can give her the life she deserves. Promise me you will give it to her.”

    “Thank you?” Stas did not really know what to make of the swordswoman’s ramblings. Perhaps she had gone mad in her time of isolation.

    “Promise me,” Feddlebrine demanded, her voice a steel blade.

    Stas swallowed. “I promise.” It was a strange promise. He did not know what it would involve. But the conviction of the woman cut into him. This was a woman who had kept a promise for centuries despite her hatred of it, a vow that currently made Stas’s life harder. It was moronic to Stas, but the conviction also spoke to him. It was clear that a simple promise meant a whole lot to the woman, and Stas craved for that meaning.

    “Good,” Feddlebrine nodded and turned away. “Leave now,” the woman commanded. “And do not return ever again. Go before I change my mind.” There was steel to her voice again, a promise of violence behind her dismissal.

    Stas nodded and left the building, leaving the sharp-edged widow alone once more.

    The two of them walked down the hill slowly. Stas felt the weight of the truth press against his soul.

    “There is no hope it seems,” he declared softly. “No chance, no hermit to fight the Dominus for us, nothing that can free us from its whims.” He looked at Eponine. “I felt it in her blade. Feddlebrine was strong. Stronger than me, perhaps. But she was not nearly as powerful as that monster. Even if we had managed to convince her, she would have had no chance.” Stas looked ruefully at the gravestone. “There was one bit of hope left, and the Dominus killed him already centuries ago.”

    “Is that it, then?” Eponine inquired. “Are you giving up? Are you accepting that that bastard Dominus can do whatever he wants? Ruin whomever he wants? The Dominus isn’t an incomprehensible being. From what we learned, Wyrd ones were apparently common, way back when, and in the provinces too. Aren’t you willing to fight, knowing that?”

    “No.” Stas looked down, dejected. “Whatever I am, I am less than that monster. I have a high opinion of my skills, but you weren’t there that night. You didn’t see how beyond everyone the Dominus was. You don’t realize how outmatched I would be. I am not suicidal.” And he knew that for a fact. If Stas had any inclination towards such cowardice, he would have ended his own life back when he thought Libertas had been destroyed.”

    “The Dominus doesn’t train. He spends his time watching games or overseeing the Senate. You train more than anyone else. The Dominus fights without weapons, but you have them. With the magic shield and this new dagger, don’t you think it would make a difference? Don’t you want to fight?”

    The words resonated with Stas. Shouldn’t it make a difference? The fact he trained every day, worked himself up, compared to the Dominus who poorly ruled a miserable city. In a just world, that would be enough, wouldn’t it? That he would be entrusted with the magic weapons of both Libertas and a legendary arcanum wielder... it was almost enough to force the memories of that disastrous ambush from his mind.

    Eponine continued, her words wrapping around Stas like a scarf. “Doesn’t it just make sense? You and the Dominus were born in similar circumstances, provincials with innate arcanum. The Dominus chose a life of tyranny and you chose to fight against it. You fought for a resistance group that suffered injuries from him, survived a fight with him, quested for a solution and received a magic dagger. Why shouldn’t this story end with you standing as the Dominus’s equal and opposite, slaying him after a hard fought battle?” Eponine’s emotions were worked up, Stas could feel it to. “Wouldn’t that be right? Wouldn’t that be justice?”

    It would, wouldn’t it? The words fit easily in Stas’s mind. He was being a fool, letting cowardice hold him back, letting the Dominus defeat him without even a fighting chance. This was something that needed to happen, for the sake of millions of lives, for the sake of Enjolras and the rest of Libertas. It didn’t matter if he thought he might lose, he needed to fight and needed to win.

    “I believe in you Stas,” Eponine continued. “You say that hope has been lost, but I still have it. You are still here. You can defeat the Dominus. You can save me. You can save all of us. I believe in you.”

    Stas nodded, the urge to justify that belief lifted his spirits. He grabbed a hold of Eponine’s hands, and reflected. He needed to get back to the city before it was too late.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2021
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  12. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Bit of an info dump chapter, but a bit of an important one. Only two chapters left.

    This is almost certainly getting finished this month.
     
  13. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Interesting. So Von Graft was originally a woman? Or just another body stolen/taken over. Though I suppose male and female mean little to the body horror schtick Von Graft's got going on. And Feddlebrine. Have you ever used that name in an interlude? Feels like I've heard it before...

    The more I get into this, the more I'm starting to miss Polyhistor too. Different protags and all, but the tone is very much familiar. I'm a sucker for the magic too.
     
  14. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Von Graft was born a woman and identified as female at the time. Now they identify as male if they bother to identify as anything at all. As you said, the boddy horror schtick makes it irrelevant to them.

    https://forum.questionablequesting....tting-survival-quest.614/page-251#post-467592

    It is the same Feddlebrine in a divergent timeline. The memory happened before the point of divergence.

    Von Graft is Charlotte.
     
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  15. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Oho. That's the one. I knew I was feeling Charlemagne vibes from how she described hubby. Von Graft originally being a stalker/yandere so very fits too, and neatly explains the obsession with Charlemagne.

    Curious how both Feddlebrine and Charlie think the other lost to them too. This dead world being so similar to Gaia would be neatly explained by timeywimey shenanigans born from whatever happened between Von Graft and Charlemagne, I suppose.
     
  16. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Neither of them have happy lives in either world, though DeadWorld!Fed did actually marry DW!Charlemagne. The accident that got Fed lost in the multiverse was butterflied away.

    The divergence point is that in PolyWorld, Von Graft survived the Gaia Cult and Charlemagne defeated Gaia sexually.

    In DeadWorld, Von Graft was killed by the Gaia Cult, and that led to Charlemagne killing Gaia. He was horrified after realizing what happened (literally brought the world to the apocalypse, with the few survivors doomed to die out eventually as the universe can no longer sustain life), became a depressed wreck, living alone with Fed. When PW!Von Graft discovered Dead World, DW!Charlemagne was so remorseful he let VG kill him, which, as you saw, royally pissed off Fed because he literally abandoned her via suicide in her view.

    I might write an extra in a few days if I have words remaining to go into the details of the divergence.
     
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  17. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Oh damn. Did Charlemagne even know he could kill Gaia? You mentioned beating Gaia being possible, not killing, but I guess you never really know until you try.

    Did Von Graft end up grafting DW!Charlemagne? Cause now I'm thinking that mighta been the point of transition from Charlotte the woman to Von Graft the monster. Though Feddlebrine saying "the parasite" makes me think the transition mighta already happened by that point.
     
  18. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Charlemagne didn't know if it was possible, but he was trying it at the time. He did know that he could destroy objects by killing avatars he created with his Aeromancy, so he had reason to believe it could happen for real.

    As for whether it actually is possible... that's debatable. Gaia did die, but death is a concept within Gaia, not beyond Gaia. As is time, and cause and effect. Metaphorically, a part of Gaia's "body" of universes is necrotic. Anything within that section of the multiverse is fucked up. But outside that section things are fine.

    Yes. That explicitly happened.

    It had been a hundred or so years between the divergence point and VG discovering DeadWorld. VG was a mess before that, but finding an alternate version of Charlemagne who was apologetic and remorseful and killing him did not do them any favors, mentally speaking.
     
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  19. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Ah, right, Gaia is also the multiverse, not only individual universes. Not hard to see how killing an entire section of existence and dooming who knows how many people to a slow death would give even a selfish bastard like Charlemagne the mother of all depressions/existential crises.

    What's his Aeromancy anyway? Avatar? Icon?
     
  20. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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  21. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Was wondering if it was indeed that simple. A product of his Aeromancy might be avatars but the Aeromancy itself might be something like Icon or Image or Model or Form or even Body. Guessing HypoSoc already weighed in on it somewhere.
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2021
  22. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Aeromancy concepts are more like working knowledge than anything else. It is extremely hard to objectively figure out what they are.

    Charlemagne knows his concept is Avatar and treats it as such. But he could have easily "known" it to be Anthropomorphism, or Embodiment instead.
     
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  23. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    HypoSoc confirmed it was Avatar years ago. Don't remember exactly where.
     
  24. Threadmarks: Thirty Four
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas made it back to the city far more quickly than he had left it. A great sense of urgency was pulling at him. Yes, the date for the senate’s mass murder was still weeks away, but nothing could prevent them from moving up the timeline if they wished. Nothing could stop the Dominus if that monster decided to massacre them all for real this time. There was nothing he could learn in the short time period he had left to justify putting off the fight.

    After leaving Eponine to find her way home, he rested as well as he could. It was the only delay he would allow himself, as it would allow him to recover from exhaustion. It also allowed him to make a showing before Ludo at the school. As much as that life didn’t matter to him at all compared to his true tasks, he didn’t want to make anything more difficult for himself unnecessarily.

    The cut on his face had garnered a bit of attention but he managed to stave it off. It would scar, he imagined, but he didn’t particularly care about that anymore. It would be nice if the scar had come from a true enemy, or had a good story to it all, but he supposed it was fine that his first visible injury had come at the hands of a multiple-centuries old hermit in a fight. It was better than a training accident.

    But all of that was a distraction from his real task: defeating the Dominus. Nothing else could compare. The need for it refused to leave his mind, and for very good reason.

    So, when dawn broke and Stas was as rested as his mind and body would allow, he gathered his gear in preparation. Enjolras’s shield remained with him. He had not thought to return it before now, but it would serve of great importance to Libertas’s cause in this endeavour, so he was certain Enjolras would understand. Feddlebrine’s dagger too joined his arsenal. If it was anything like the shield, as the swordswoman had hinted at through her response to his soulcraft question, then it would be integral in actually harming the Dominus. The dagger seemed to sing happily at such a thought, a marked change from the stalwart shield’s silence, and the obnoxious reticence from Phobos’s hook.

    As for the hook, he did not dare let it leave his person. He needed the reminder, now more than ever, of the horrors the Dominus could inflict. This was his chance to make up for his failure. He would avenge those who had been slain in the ambush, those who had died in the ruler of the city’s arenas for a bloodthirsty audience, both the executed and the gladiators and the hunters as well. And perhaps, once he avenged Phobos, the man’s fish hook would work for him as it had for the man.

    That the hook burned in his pocket at the thought indicated otherwise, but it was more of an idea than he had had otherwise.

    And the mask… Stas would not wear the mask of Libertas to this fight. This was not a fight simply of Justice and Freedom and the safety of the filthy animals that called this city home. It was to be an execution. If Phobos’s mask was one of tyrants and murderers and thieves, then the Dominus would be its victim on this day.

    It would be better, perhaps, if Libertas were not associated with the death of the Dominus regardless. The ruler of the city was revered as much as it was feared. Nobody else had the personal experience to know just what a monster it was, walking in the guise of a man. Or many men and women. Stas did not know how many had been taken by the ‘parasite’ over the many, many years.

    So, Stas donned the mask once more. It seemed to fit more smoothly against his face now that he had a purpose for it. It was fitting that he planned on completing Phobos’s mission in Phobos’s mask. It was justice in a way, as he was the one who had ruined it by convincing his teacher to go against his instincts.

    He was ready. The only problem was, he didn’t actually know how to get the Dominus’s attention. The simplest and most expedient way, he determined, would be to make a nuisance of himself against the Watchers. After all, the bird-masked guards were supposed to be the Dominus’s eyes and ears across the city. They must have a way to contact the monster, to pass on the information they saw and heard.

    The most public location with the greatest number of Watchers was the central plaza. Between the proximity to the palatial estate, the numerous markets and attractions for the Patricians and the richest Plebeians, and the presence of the Gate, it was a prime target in need of constant guarding. Despite the famine of the city, the central forum maintained its prominence without halting. Stas would be best served by causing an incident there.

    So, Stas made his way into the city, and set a careful eye on the Watchers on the rooftop. There was nothing else to this, he needed to act.

    Stas reflected across the rooftops, in plain view of the Watchers and the colorful rabble below. He produced Feddlebrine’s dagger, and stabbed forth.

    The blade cut through the Watcher’s armor like it was simple cloth. The blood of the Watcher’s heart spurted, but despite Stas’s expectations born of previous experience, it doesn’t lead to any blood spray. Rather tha dagger seemed to swirl it around and deposit it cleanly back on the body of origin. The dagger, and Stas’s hands holding it, remained pristine. Much like Enjolras’s shield, it was unmarred by the gore of combat.

    It was such a simple motion, a surprise killing blow from ambush, but even with this alone he could tell that the magic weapon was superior to any mundane blade. It was definitely better than the hook, by far.

    The knife seemed to preen at that. Stas felt some sympathetic joy emanating from his gripping hand. It was strange, but he did not have much time or desire to consider it. Rather, he reflected to the opposite roof, and slit the throat of another hapless Watcher.

    Once more the dagger seemed to preen. It was enjoying this, from what he could tell. Or perhaps Stas was the one enjoying it, and he was ascribing the feeling to the magic weapon to avoid admitting to his own sadism.

    But whether he enjoyed or detested the act didn’t matter. There was an important mission at hand.

    The Watchers responded to his actions, swarming from the rooftops, attacking him with all marner of weaponry and arcanum. It was a near mindless situation for Stas. He reflected. He blocked with Enjolras’s shield. He killed with Feddlebrine’s knife. And the Watchers died.

    Some bits of Stas took blows from the coordinated action of the Watchers, despite his skill and his magic shield. Parts of him bruised and burned and he was shocked worse than he had ever been in training with Zola. But all of that was insignificant. All of this was insignificant. His fighting and the Watchers fighting back. It was all a prelude to the real matter, that fight with the Dominus that he needed to see through.

    People were shouting. Scores of finely-dressed people were running amok in the plaza, trampling over one another and pushing past the stone-faced golems to escape. It was sickening how they would harm one another for their own safety, how chaos so quickly overtook them, when there was nothing that was stopping them from calmly leaving. It was not like Stas was going to hurt them, nor would the Watchers. Stas was fighting on their behalf after all, to save these miserable people from the fate that would befall them.

    Or perhaps that was less accurate than it would seem. These were Patricians; only the rich and the privileged could afford to partake in this pinnacle of the city’s markets. They were not at risk of being slaughtered by the Senate, not compared to the poor and the homeless masses that made up a large portion of the Plebeian class. Perhaps these well off would have supported the Senate, had they known of the plan. Killing the hopeless to alleviate famine would only aid them. But Stas knew that wasn’t special. The Plebeians would be just as happy to sacrifice anyone else if it meant they could feel slightly better. RIch and poor alike had delighted when Alain had died.

    Stas did not care about the civilians. He had no reason to see them dead, no reason to see them to safety. He did not care about the Watchers he slaughtered either, but there was purpose behind that action at the very least. He needed to see the Dominus dead.

    “Where are you, oh Dominus of this fair city?” Stas cried out in a mocking shout. “Can you not see me poking out your eyes? Can you not hear me cutting off your ears? I am laying waste to you in the very heart of the city you claim dominion over, and yet you can do nothing, you insignificant Parasite. Corpse Eater. Wretched Husk! Come out and fight me, or prove yourself a coward, oh Dominus! Come out and die as you should have centuries ago!”

    This needed to happen. Eponine’s words kept resounding in his head. It would be righteous for him to slay the Dominus. There was nobody else who could do it but him. Enjolras’s depressed resignation, his acceptance of the Dominus’s rule, would be proven wrong. He would let the man lead Libertas to the ending it deserved, absent the Dominus.

    Killing the Dominus was all Stas wanted out of life now, right? It was the thing he desired most…

    No. In truth it was the only thing period. Stas had nothing left but this task, this need to see something go right in a world that lacked any and all meaning. Why fight for the entertainment of crowds he hated? Why fight to help and save people he hated? He had nothing left for himself of the life he naively thought he was building for himself. There was no reason to do anything for himself. But if he could help a better man accomplish his true goal, then wasn’t that something worth doing?

    Killing the Dominus had a reason. Nothing else had any reason any more. The Fame and fortune he had foolishly sought without consideration no longer appealed to him. It was an empty glory. Skill to its own end no longer appealed to him. It was a meaningless effort. But helping a great man succeed, that seemed to have meaning.

    In a sense, this was the same as his hopes of boyhood. He sought fame and recognition, but he was choosing the audience, the opponent, the arena. Libertas would witness his deeds, not some bloodthirsty, undeserving crowd of nobodies. His enemy would be a monster who deserved death, not a fellow athlete who risked their life to no end. The arena would be the grand plaza of the city, surrounded by the bodies of the Watchers he slew, not the sands of the Solar.

    This was the same as any match in all respects, except it would be one of his making, one that mattered.

    Stas held a hapless Watcher in a submission hold. “Contact the Dominus,” he demanded. “Let that coward know I would kill it. Contact him however your organization can. Let that monster come and try to save you. I may let you live if you do.”

    He did not care if this bird-masked watcher lived or died. They were insignificant, interchangeable. They were mere tools of his true foe.

    “Die, you criminal bastard,” the Watcher seethed, erupting in a flash of brilliant light. Stas reflected away, and Enjolras’s shield defended him from the remainder of the explosion’s blast.

    Perhaps, Stas reflected, he should have invaded the Dominus’s manor, rather than stage a one-man attack on the plaza. Why didn’t he do that, he wondered? But the answer was as obvious as it came, resounding in his mind. He needed to fight the monster. That was important. It mattered. Trying to assassinate the Dominus was not sufficient. That might have worked for Phobos, but not for Stas. He had been raised to be a gladiator, raised to fight in the open against an armed combatant. To fight the Dominus and be seen fighting the Dominus would be the culmination of his life. That was how the narrative should go.

    Perhaps the Dominus had defences in its manor, some arcanum that would make the task more difficult. That would also explain his decision, but it didn’t matter.

    The fight was all that mattered.

    After some indeterminate time fighting a seemingly endless stream of Watchers, Stas wasn’t keeping track, a pool of shadows formed in the center of the plaza. Stas grinned under his mask as it appeared. His opponent had finally shown himself.

    Now that Stas had the mind to observe it, it seemed that it was the Shadow Arcanum that provided the teleportation ability, as no flesh but the human suit the Dominus currently wore appeared beneath the inky darkness. It seemed this arcanum had actual use beyond hiding the Dominus’s true form.

    The lord and master of the city appeared in the plaza. It’s vile gaze turned to Phobos on the roof. A visage of rage, greater than any Stas had seen of the monster before, erupted from the cloaked form.

    “Insignificant insect,” the Domonus seethed. “You think to make a mockery of me? Do you mistake your worthlessness for skill? Mistake my lack of care in catching you for inability? You are meaningless before me, something to squash if and when I desire it.”

    “And yet, you came.” Stas spoke clearly from the rooftop, looking down upon the raging lord of the city.

    “That mask is a blight on my city. The face of Phobos is a curse on the world. You don’t even comprehend the magnitude of the original’s crimes, of the terrors he brought into that world. That mask is perhaps the greatest of them, for the crimes it inspired, and I should have seen it destroyed the moment it was in my grasp,” the Dominus growled. “But you are not Phobos. Your predecessor was not Phobos either. You are a simple gnat, aping at men far greater than yourself. You are a thief and a criminal, a wart upon my city, an insult. I will annihilate you to save myself the nauseating sight of you. The mask is the only thing worthy of my attention.”

    “The opinion of a walking corpse is of no matter to me, Parasite.” Stas mocked. Angry opponents were easier to handle. If the Dominus had any gladiator training at all, it would not have risen to his mockery. “You claim the name of Phobos belongs to greater men? Well, I know myself to be greater than you. To that end, I am Phobos. And the man before me was Phobos too, for I know he was greater than you.” His teacher might have been an honorless cur, but he had had lofty goals and a noble, misguided purpose. That was far superior to the miserable get who would look upon this disgusting city and claim it to be a paradise.

    “None are greater than me!” the Dominus roared. “I have killed anyone who could even pretend to be my peer! I have become greater and greater with each passing year! In this world, I am a god!” A wall of flesh, without any shadow to hide it, propelled forth to Stas’s position. He reflected just in time to avoid being hit. The building he was standing on collapsed under a wave of twitching flesh.

    “You are a monster.” Stas declared. “So bleed and die like one.”

    Feddlebrine’s dagger cut into the Dominus’s nape, drawing a line of blood. Four grasping arms erupted from the monster’s back, but Stas reflected away.

    And so began their dance, this fight on patterned stone so like that on burning sand. Stas held his shield and dagger proudly.

    Between a shield that could block anything, no matter how forceful, a dagger that could cut through hardened flesh like it were pudding, and the ability to change location on the battlefield to wherever he wanted in an instant, he could feel the flow of the fight in his hands. The Dominus was enraged, and Stas was deft in avoiding the monster’s flailing.

    Eponine was right. He could defeat the Dominus. His need would become a reality. The proper ending to this story was at hand.

    Stas avoided the monster’s disgusting swings, blocked its pillars of squirming flesh, cut through the Dominus’s skin with Feddlebrine’s blade. He kept light on his feet and quick with his arms. He was feeling the flow of battle completely, a clarity of mind that made each action trivial.

    Nicks and cuts made their way across the Dominus’s stolen body, and Stas felt his election rising with each one. His dagger shared in his joy, laughing at each close dodge, delighting in each cut, no matter how shallow. The dagger was a joy, far more involved than the shield’s stout determination. He felt free in this fight, freer than he had been in a long time.

    Stas went for yet another stab, severing what would be a tendon in the Dominus’s arm. Then, to his great surprise, a pillar of flesh rose from the stone road beneath him. Stas flew through the air, and his head cracked against the solid marble of the bathhouse.

    And with the pain of the head injury the clarity of the fight left him. Or perhaps clarity finally returned to him.

    What was he doing? The question pounded in Stas’s mind. What had he been thinking? The certainty that had exuded his being for the past day seemed strange and alien to him at this point. What had he thought he was accomplishing here? Was he trying to trick himself into dying? To commit suicide in a way where he could pretend it wasn’t cowardly?

    Bereft of the confidence he had mere moments before, it was obvious now that the Dominus was unhindered by his attacks. The monster’s flesh knitted itself back up even faster than he could induce new injuries. Even when he had practically cut off the monster’s head, the Dominus’s flesh had reconnected without any issue or even a sign of pain. Every action in the fight so far accomplished nothing, and he had no reason to believe anything would change.

    For all that Stas had been pushing himself to the limit, falling on perfect form and reactions, knowing that a single mistake could cost him his life, the Dominus was not. This was not a fight from the monster’s perspective, only from his own. The Dominus was not fighting him, because the Dominus did not need to fight.

    It was akin to swatting at a fly. An annoyance to be dealt with, but not a task of great urgency or danger.

    “You are an absolute pest.” The Dominus grumbled. “For all that you had made a nuisance of yourself, made a mess of my Watchers, you really have nothing. I had expected some trick, some magic to garner my own interest. I have given you so many opportunities to invoke it. And yet you are incapable of even the most basic attempts. All you have is your little teleportation trick.” The ruler of the city scoffed. “Do you believe that keeps you safe? Do you think you are capable of dodging me? Escaping me? Fool, there is nothing beyond my reach.” The Dominus grinned a cruel grin. “Come now, allow me to show you.”

    The earth rumbled. The buildings shook. The street cracked. All around the Dominus a sea of flesh erupted. Everywhere in the plaza, the ground broke away revealing flesh, transformed into flesh, collapsed under the weight of flesh. The pristine buildings of the central forum were engulfed, consumed, demolished, destroyed, simple debris in the rising tide of human meat and organs. Stas saw some hapless people, both Watchers who had remained nearby and civilians who had failed to escape, get overcome by the substance. They were pulled in, screaming, eaten alive and incorporated into the sea of flesh, teeth chewing on the bodies, skin melting into the Dominus’s skin.

    In the distance great, blinking walls of the Dominus’s arcanum rose, blocking out the sky. And in the center of this infinite flood of grotesqueries, the Dominus stood, bored and uncaring, as if the destruction of its own city and death of its own people meant nothing to the monster.

    It did mean nothing to the monster, Stas realized. The Dominus’s own actions were causing destruction on a scale that completely dwarfed Stas’s contained rampage. And yet it was a matter of minor inconvenience for the Dominus.

    The walls rose upward, curing around, inward. Stas noted with some horror that he could no longer see the other side with his arcanum, the mirrors that were always present were blocked. He could not hope to reflect past the blockade. He hadn’t even thought it possible that his Arcanum could be circumvented, but it seemed like the Dominus figured out how. The ruler of the city possessed a mastery of Arcanum far greater than Stas’s own.

    The great sea of flesh was akin to a giant, grasping maw, ready to swallow the entire central plaza and Stas with it. The center of it all was the Dominus, the hinge of this disgusting, otherworldly jaw, that was closing upon him, blotting out the sky.

    There was no escape from this. He could not reflect through it. He could not risk cutting through it, even with the dagger and shield, lest he end up like the poor saps incorporated into the wall. The ground below him was just as hostile as the walls growing to surround the city block. Nor could Stas escape by killing the Arcanum user. Nothing Stas possessed seemed to do any real damage to the ruler of the city.

    Stas was reminded of Phobos’s first lesson, of the circle of fire, of how one might expect the situation to roll out. In this circle of flesh, only a single exit remained: upwards. And yet Stas knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would die if he fled in that direction. Stas did not know how he would die, but even if he had a way to survive falling from so great a distance after reflecting up into the straight air, the Dominus had to know that the gap was the only escape.

    Reversing the positions, if Stas were the one trapping his foe in these walls of flesh after establishing his own invulnerability, he would expect an attempt through that obvious gap. He might even leave it on purpose, to force his opponent to be in a single location.

    To go up was to die. To try to cut through was to die. To go down was to fruitlessly perish. To attack the Dominus was to accomplish nothing before the immortal monster, dying as the maw closed shut and swallowed him and the entire plaza.

    And yet, there was another direction. One that the Dominus had no reason to know about. One that Stas had spent most of his life ignoring.

    Stas teleported to the Dominus, and placed a hand on the monster’s fleshy back.

    He then looked for his reflection, not in the few safe, sane mirrors that surrounded him, but one of the many, many chasms of the world. The reflection on the other side was pained, distorted. Stas grasped it.

    Then he, the Dominus, and that endless sea of flesh all reflected.

    There was no arrival, because there was no place to arrive to, no time for the arrival to occur in. There was no light to see in this void, no sound to hear. There was only himself, the Dominus, and the void that stretched and twisted and turned.

    And it was truly only himself and the Dominus here. There was no body to experience this world, no mind to process it. There was no pain because there was nothing to feel it. THere was no numbness because that also didn’t belong in this strange, distorted void. There were many things here, but none that Stas could comprehend without a mind. Stas would scream but that was impossible on too many fronts. No voice. No pain. No sound. No ears. No screaming. The objects could not fit in this void, no more than Stas could teleport himself into a small box.

    Stas could not see anything, because he had no eyes. But the reflections remained, and with those he could know, understand, make out the images. The reflections persisted even when the object was impossible.

    The Dominus was no longer a man in this not space. Nor was it the monster of its truth. It lacked its shadow clock, or its annoyance, or its power. There was only the flesh, that ravenous, cloying, lonely flesh that yearned to embrace all it encountered, to join with the flesh of all. The whole of the massive maw was here in this not-space, but size didn’t matter any more. The Dominus was massive beyond compare, but there was no mass. The Dominus was the process, consuming, adapting, joining, embracing, and growing eternal.

    Stas observed his own reflection. But there was nothing to see. Unlike the Dominus, he lacked flesh. The reflection of his body tore apart without the body to cast it. The skin peeled, and the mirrors that had been growing underneath all these months burst forth.

    He was the mirror, the process of reflection. There was no mind to it, no action to it. There was no happiness or anger or glory or fame or pride or hope or despair. There was no room for any of that, when there was so much here where ‘here’ could not be, so many things that would be alien in any sane world. The mask and the shield and the hook and the laughing little girl he held were wisps of themselves.

    The only constant was reflection. That was the sole link that allowed the connection between reality and this chasm. The mirrors remained. The reflections remained. Stas remained.

    And Stas found the mirror he had used to arrive and reflected. He fell into the plaza, that broken, ruined place, and his body screamed as it existed once more.

    The Dominus did not come back with him.
     
    GWrangler, Raron, Ladoss and 3 others like this.
  25. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Just one chapter left, then the prologue/epilogue I already wrote.

    It's a strange feeling to see this coming to a close after all this time.
     
    Paradosi and Acronym like this.
  26. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Hell of a showdown. I suppose even a Body of 10 would be of little use in a place with no traction, no space, not much of anything. Unless Von Graft's been doing more than big fish in a small pond act these past centuries, not seeing how he/she/it/whatever's getting out of that.

    Stas' Aeromancy also provides for a cool shift in perspective. Curious if he overloaded on Heat a little there, went a little too deep.

    I mighta only caught up towards the end, but it's been a fun ride for how short it was.

    Anything on your mind for whatcha wanna do next? I remember Kroll Academy was only a prologue of sorts to a VN, but even just that got me a little invested in Jack and Cal. I suppose it would be a massive undertaking trying to encapsulate the entire Polyhistor experience in a visual novel, all four years of it. Unless all paths led to predetermined death at some point. That might simplify things some.
     
  27. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Glad you liked it. I always feel like my fighting scenes (and sex scenes) are very weak.

    Consider this WoG that Von Graft is getting out of that. Body 10 allows them to survive in the hostile universe, and their knowledge of magic is enough to figure something out eventually.

    Finding one's way back to their home universe is possible, but Von Graft's issue is that Dead World is NOT their home universe. They can get the Polyworld, but because they broke the Gate, they no longer have a way to get back to the city, nor a way to find Dead World in order to make a new Gate.

    Stas definitely fried himself with that stunt.

    Next I am going to edit this down into a decent novel and try to publish.

    After that, I am undecided. I do plan on getting back to Kroll Academy, which might be my next project. Or I could do Charelmagne stuff or Phobos I. I am unsure, and it likely depends on how well editing/publishing goes.

    I am up for taking input on this. For clarity, projects are separate from my quest writing. They don't impact my quest writing frequency, positively or negatively.

    I've been sitting on the outline for Kroll Academy for years now. But the VN only covers the first year, and with many planned time skips.

    I have very vague plans of writing sequels, but they would likely choose and follow a single path ending only.
     
  28. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Maybe I bought into Stas' obserations too much. If there's no way to interact with or find purchase in your environs, a Body of 10 may as well be a Body of 1 or 0. But of course Stas wouldn't know about all of the Aeromancy Von Graft's consumed/grafted over the many years, or Geomancy for that matter. Of course when Von Graft finds their way out of whatever hole Stas stuck them in... well, Polyworld is very much not a small pond. Not even Kroll or Charlemagne but Black(who Von Graft might not even be aware of given that Black is a relative newcomer). Almost inevitable that the two would butt heads given Von Graft's tendencies.

    And you just know Kroll is going to have his hands all over any such confrontation. The ensuing clusterfuck might even rouse Charlemagne.

    While you've written too little of the latter for me to really weigh in on(though I will say that the Camila stuff is very, very good at provoking visceral reaction), I've generally enjoyed the fight scenes. Graham going Modern Major-General on Gargoyle is still a scene I remember fondly, and the recent throwdown with Bird Club though leading to a Game Over on Mikelle's part was really rather well written. Isn't much I really remember negatively except maybe the Wolfboy bits, but those can probably be chalked down to Wolfoy himself(not even that he didn't pose a challenge, Mikelle's dressing down of Muhammad was a treat to read), and Darcy. Both for similar reasons, I suppose, in that their magic is very uninspired compared to say Lucia or Camila or Leroy/LeRoy.

    Can't say it doesn't make sense though, everyone can't excel if and Wolfey unsurprisingly never made it past Y1, while Darcy's success can be put down more or less entirely to outside help. But I forgive her since it lead us to Kurt and his much more interesting magic, despite how frustrating it is to be matched up against it as a plucky second year.

    Phobos I would be retreading a lot of the same ground I figure, which has upsides and downsides, and Charlie stuff could certainly be fun(in the same way One Punch Man can still make for a compelling story despite how blatantly overpowered he is).

    Kroll Academy left off on a fun point, IIRC, with the whole fake it 'til you make it thang almost immediately backfiring on him(unsurprisingly). The whole Intranet thread after with peeps shitting on "Mister Shitty Rainbowman" was hilarious. I definitely wouldn't be against reading more of that, different routes and choices taken maybe, or maybe Y2/Y3/Y4 stuff that might help you start to solidify Jack's journey as a whole(important considering it's a visual novel and not a quest that's up in the air, even if you'll be splitting it up into separate years as mentioned).
     
  29. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Phobos I would be a villain protagonist story. It actually predates Charlemagne chronologically.

    Charlemagne's story wouldn't be like OPM. He was always powerful but he grew into overwhelming power.

    I am leaning towards Kroll Academy, but it became a lot more daunting when I realized that the actual writing for a VN is very different from writing for a quest, a book, or even a CYOA novel.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2021
  30. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

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    Yeah, it's mostly dialogue or narrative that you have to present in small bits(can only fit so much in the box). But combined with good art, it makes for a great visual spectacle. VNs have even become greatly popular in the west for that reason(only need to look at all the Ren'Py games).

    Which means it'd also predate Von Graft. Interesting. Could it be as far back as having the OG Hydromancy Division still around? It would be interesting to see, since you mentioned it being like a Fae Court of sorts, IIRC. Before they went all apocalyptic cult.
     
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