Originally posted on MSPA by Agent1022.

Aaron stood in front of a window. The plate glass was stock, the frame plain and unadorned, the surface here and there smudged by careless workers. It was an austere, unopulent and above all ordinary window - except in one detail. It occupied an entire wall.

Eta Carina lay splayed before him, a glittering cancer that clung to its floating rock like a gangrenous golden limpet. The sandy shores that girted its infrastructure swept down from the neon casinos into a nebulaic ocean, half vapor and half stardust. The effect was as beautiful as it was impossible, and therefore it was as impossible as it was expensive.

From his new office, the proprietor of the Feedback Loop watched Eta Carina slip by underneath the building's superstructure. Every so often, a muffled crash would punctuate the hum of the inertial compensators as modular propulsion units interlocked into a new pattern on the bottom of the building. It was percussion to the symphony that played in his veins, the thrill of taking everyone for everything they’d got.

And of freedom! He could taste it!

It would have been a smoother ride if he hadn’t specifically chosen for the Loop to be relocated by quantum chambers: little Casimir actuators that drew borrowed energy from vacuum to raise the place, then flew like hell to get it there before they had to give it back. He found the poetic justice fitting enough to override Harrison’s protest of the cost - “Time is everything, Harrison; we need to get uptown as fast as possible,” - and of the stability concerns - “Throw up some inertial compensation rigs around the busiest areas. No one’s going to drop into the maintenance hallways anyway.”

Blonde hair flew this way and that, accompanied with a myriad of unladylike curses. It glittered like gold in the harsh fluorescent lights swinging from the ceiling, as the passage containing them creaked and quivered under the competing forces of travel. The curses intensified as the dented metal floor did its best earthquake impersonation, while the quantum engines shat energy lurch by lurch into the Loop’s superstructure.

She’d been taken by surprise. Lady Vohuna, the best freelance espionage agent money could buy here on Eta Carina, taken by surprise! What would they say in the circles she frequented? That perhaps she was losing her edge? That she wasn’t quite right for the next job? She knew where that led - a contract and a desk job, or maybe just termination in a dark alley, to be safe. Rich people accumulated such juicy secrets. Which made it doubly odd that this new one on the scene didn’t seem to have any. No history, no records - the most concrete thing anyone knew was that he was a guest of some bigwig entertainment system out near the fringe of broadcasting space, and no one was watching that mass media crap here in the cultured quarter of the galaxy, thank you.

So what would they say in those smoky poker rooms, where jobs and agents were traded with the playing cards across a round table? They’d say:

Everyone knows this Abstract is a canny one. He appears from nowhere, lays out this blitzkrieg of money, throws out the security firms from his new place, and gets Guido protection without even blinking! He’s a mystery all right, someone we got to look into.

Well, then, guess who we got? Only the foremost expert on him! She was actually there when it got out that he was ‘looooooaded’. She saw him before he got the boot straight up the arse to where he is now.

Oh, really? Tell me more...

Eyes were turned to the sky, looking downtown; a clattering spark danced on the horizon, approaching from the less-prosperous corner of the resort. A pair of these belonged to that spark’s most recent winner, in that money from its vaults had made its way to hers.


Another gaze directed its energies skyward. What is that?

"That's where we just came from, moneybags - and your friend is driving it."

The Transaction fluttered above the heads of the crowd, to get a better view. Driving? He - he must be coming for me! He did it before, he crossed whole universes to rescue me - I have value! I have value to him! He turned smugly towards his compatriot, a nasty tone in his voice - Oh, I wouldn't like to be you. The last people who captured me were massacred, quite horribly...

“First of all, moneybags - I haven’t captured you, you’re here because as a Transaction you’re naturally attracted to large volumes of liquid assets. Secondly, weren’t you just condemning this massacre?”

You can’t float your dotcom. You were laughing at the murder of half a city!

“Because it was funny!

That’s hardly-

“And finally,” she cut him off, “what do you mean, crossing whole universes?”

The maintenance hallways had not been maintained, Vohuna noted, as she stumbled down increasingly decrepit corridors. The irony stemmed from the head mechanic’s absence; the Feedback Loop had never been able to afford proper-wearing metal for those parts of the casino unfrequented by paying customers. Now as the Loop lurched across the sky, pieces of flooring were shaken loose and sent spinning into the air like square shurikens, denting the metal where they hit even further and loosening even more plates.

One whizzed by her head and impacted the wall behind her, exposing a corner of blackness regularly interspersed with silver - an alcove for unsightly yet necessary machinery, walled off from the world out of the hands of careless cleaning staff. But - Vohuna looked closer - something was odd. Every instinct told her that was something wrong with this picture; she pulled at the cheap sheet of metal that served as a cover, peering in-

“Thank you for using the Eta Carina Banking and Mercantile Exchange!”

Artemis stepped from the building as the 527th richest person in Eta Carina. Behind her floated a shaking, swaying bundle of banknotes. But Change was different; the notes were purple rather than green, and on them were marked the seal of Monotone Entertainment, the financial power that permeated the resort. They were also absurdly high denominations. “Thanks for the help, moneybags.”

“You see, routing funds from an offshore account back into a local one would normally be difficult as fuck-” She took the bundle by the band, and dragged it down to her eye level. “But a Transaction... a Transaction is a local bank account; an unregulated, self-guarding vault! It’s genius!”

Change lurched sickeningly, some monetary dry-retch wracking his notes. Aaron...Aaron will save me...I have value...I am an investment...

The Loop took this cue to fly deafeningly overhead, conspiciously not stopping. Craning her head upwards, Artemis took in the Loop’s new lines, the new machineries attached to the increasingly fuselage-like walls, the ever-building mechanisms that scuttled about on the underside.

“Interesting.” She got a firmer grip on Change and began to walk further uptown, pulling him behind her. “Very interesting. Come on, moneybags. We need to go see someone.”

-everything was absolutely normal. Gleaming gears whirred as their teeth meshed with each another, lubricated flanges of metal sliding across naked silver with nary a sound; camshafts thrusting pistons back and forth, back and forth. It was perfection. To an engineer, it was ecstasy. To Vohuna, it was simply mechanisms; odd mechanisms to find in a casino, though. They seemed more characteristic of a clock tower’s escapements and cogs, ticking away in hidden spaces, untended and ignored. And then it hit her.

All of it was new.

“Tell me again.”

This office was extravagant. Here, too, a plate-glass window dominated a wall, but the glass here was mined from rare sandy asteroids and etched with a nearly-invisible decal, depicting the Eta Carina skyline as seen from its half-panoramic view. Everything in the room was constructed from materials rare, unbelievably rare, and nonexistent (one bookshelf in the corner was constructed from absolutely nothing. What the books were actually standing on was an unsolved mystery).

Artemis sat across from Montcorbier’s gargantuan spaceteak desk, her booted feet propped up on the extinct-wood surface. Behind her, Change lounged miserably in a corner, making agonized circles in the air. “Don’t play dumb, Corbie. Everyone knows you’re the one running the heist. Buster’s gone straight to ground, your film crews are all over the’re planning something, Corbie, and knowing you...”

Montcorbier leaned back in his leather-upholstered chair. “Knowing me...?” He prompted.

The mechanic leaned back in her chair as well, not falling for the trap. “You tell me.” (A prominent theory circulating among Eta Carina’s financial analysts: by the laws of sociological economics, becoming rich instilled an instinctive social maneuvering skill in people, if they were not to stop being rich very quickly).

“You don’t know anything. All you’ve heard is a mass of rumors and misinformation - I have many enemies, as you should know if you seem so acquainted with Eta Carina society. I don’t think I’ve even seen you before, miss...”

“I don’t have a name, Corbie; I’m just someone with information you need.”

“Ah, I need it now?”

Boots swung off the table (much to Montcorbier’s relief), landing on the floorboards with a muffled crack (much to his chagrin). “Let’s assume for the time being that you have a heist in the works. How about that?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Now why don’t we break down a heist?” She raised a hand, five fingers extended, and drew in her thumb. “You gotta prepare. Bribe people, rub shoulders in the nitty-gritty of high society, make those deals with cash in back alleys and get bags of uniforms in the morning.” Her pinky finger withdrew, leaving only three standing. “Then you gotta get into the place. Run the job, put all that planning into motion.” Ring finger met thumb and pinky, leaving only the victory sign in place. “Then you steal the money. Easy as pie - so far.” She folded her index finger over. “So now you got to get out. Getting out of the casino is simple if you got this far. But now what?” She gestured at the study window with her other hand, keeping her present single digit facing Montcorbier. “As I understand it, it’s a little hard to leave here at the moment.”

Irritably, Montcorbier swatted the profane hand away, and rose from his seat. “That’s of no consequence, even if such a ‘plan’ were going to happen. I’ve got concerns more important than handling the logistics of such shenanigans. Now, if you’ll excuse me-”

“Oh, I’ve heard, Corbie. Who hasn’t heard? The Feedback Loop, on the ass end of the resort, suddenly explodes into prominence as the richest, gaudiest, shiniest tourist trap of all Eta Carina, finds a place all the way uptown...” A resounding thud came from outside, in tandem with another set of lights brightening amongst the rest. “Oh, that’d be them now. Who’d have expected it? Funnily enough, what you need to know relates to that phoenix from the ashes...”

The study door opened just a crack; the silhouette of a butler appeared behind it. “Master Montcorbier, sir, Vohuna is here to see you.”

Artemis rose before Montcorbier could. “I won’t take up any more of your time. Two words. That’s all you need to know.” The butler opened the door fully, ducking into the room as Artemis stepped out. In the doorway, she turned to face the desk again, plucking Change out of the air and tossing him out over her shoulder. “Two words, Corbie: engine clock.”

The butler shut the door.

Thank you.” Slowly, Montcorbier tried to regain his composure. An engine clock! Impossible! Those things couldn’t be constructed! He’d heard talk of them, hulking machines that dominated horizons and moved planets across universes. As asteroidal Eta Carina was, such a machine would be noticeable. She was just another crackpot then, albeit a rich one. And rich people almost always had crackpot tendencies.

Everything was just fine. Back to business.

“Send Vohuna in.”

Whereupon the butler pulled a device from a coat pocket and pushed a few buttons; combed black hair turned blonde, tumbling to Vohuna’s shoulders with the swift removal of a few strategic bobby pins. She stepped out of the suit, which crumpled to the floor, and was dressed for a cocktail party in the time it took to blink.

“Did she say ‘engine clock’?”

Pages were strewn over the conference table. Harrison paged through the dross with his good hand: detritus remaining once he had contracted and handled every last schematic, design document and blueprint Aaron had handed him, searching for clues as to what his new employer was planning, and whether he needed to go ahead and learn how to shoot left-handed. He leaned over to examine a particular diagram, and whimpered when his bandaged right hand bumped against the table. “I don’t understand...”

“Of course you don’t, Harrison.” Aaron cut an imposing figure in the light flooding from the conference room door: the menacing Alistair was nowhere to be seen. Almost unconsciously, Harrison thought of the tiny pistol in his pocket. He could kill him now, and make good his escape before everyone realized that the man with the magic cash was dead...

“Harrison. I can see you’re trying to figure this out.” Aaron’s voice was soft, soothing, but not patronizing. Almost involuntarily, Harrison began to relax, and he realized he’d been tensing. “I know what I’m doing, Harrison. I hope you do too.”

“But, but Mr. Abstract, sir...”

“Are we finished with all those contracts and things?”

“Everything’s been requisitioned, sir. They’re building right now, down in the new sub-basements, sir.”

“All right.” Silk glided on mahogany as Aaron took a seat on the table, legs dangling. He pulled over a tea set from the side counter, poured tea into two expensive-looking teacups, and pushed one towards the assistant. It sent a signal: this is informal, there’s no need for ‘sirs’, we’re just having a talk, man to man.

Gingerly, Harrison picked up the cup and balanced the handle in his bandaged hand. And then he burst into tears. “Mr. Abstract, I don’t understand!”

Aaron raised a finger to the handicapped assistant’s lips, shushing him. “I think you deserve some answers.”

Hope swelled in Harrison’s heart, pushing all the questions ahead of it. “What are we doing? What is all this? How are we going to make money? Why?! And what the hell is-” he grabbed a random schematic from the table, “-the, the...gravity escapement?”

Aaron smiled, warmly. “Now, Harrison...I’m very glad you asked about that one.”

“The what?”

“The gravity escapement, Monty.” At the impatient look in Montcorbier’s eyes, Vohuna gave up. “The machinery was all new, see? But it was hidden behind old plates, so that no one would know. So I began following the gears, all the way back to the-”

“The...gravity escapement.”

“Yes.” Vohuna sighed. “I’m not an expert myself. But it definitely looks like the beginnings of, well, an engine clock; and yes, Monty, I know it’s impossible, but bear with me here. Remember the old saying? Something’s only as impossible...”

“ it is expensive.” Montcorbier steepled his fingers and leaned forward. Little balances were being made in his head, payoffs and plans circling one another to form the completed jigsaw puzzle of the Final Plan. And a new piece had just fallen into his reach. A slow, tiny smile began to play around the corners of his face, going nowhere near his mouth but showing brightly in his eyes... “Let’s - let’s assume for the time being, that there is an engine clock at the Feedback Loop...”

“Holy fuck. Moneybags. Holy shitting fuck.”

Mechanic and Transaction stood on a walkway overlooking the chronochasm. By the rules of technicality, it was actually several sub-basements of the Feedback Loop that had been built in midair and driven into the ground when it had landed, but chronochasm was the only fitting word for its size and contents. A pendulum, its bob the size of a car, descended from the ceiling to dangle only centimeters from the steel floor. Massive metal bars curved gracefully down towards the pendulum’s cable, and upwards to the ceiling where they stopped a gargantuan cog from turning. More gears and pinions coiled away from the large cog, spilling down the walls and pillars into the black boxes that covered the floor of the chronochasm and turned its topology into a static sea of high and low square faces.

“That’s the gravity escapement right there, see, does away with the old gravity drill design so it doesn’t need stabilizers, the whole thing turns gravity in on itself and uses it to drive the pendulum through different cosmological spaces...”

Change heard nearly none of this. Everything hurt. He barely knew where he was. He was comprised of a rapidly fluctuating currency - a ridiculous amount of a rapidly fluctuating currency, and Aaron wasn’t going to save him, Aaron didn’t even know he was in trouble, and they had been together forever but he, Change, loyal familiar, was going to die alone, worthless, dropped like a dotcom stock.

“ the escapement is the driving force behind the project. By utilizing the gravity of the circumstances to power itself, it deforms the fabric of spacetime in the same way a gravity drill would have before, rotating conic Minkowski spaces...”

Harrison tried to fight through the slog of words assaulting him, but it was like attacking an oncoming wave of syrup with a shovel. “Mr. Abstract - Mr. Abstract, sir, how do you know so much...”

“How do I know so much about this sort of thing? Well, that’s a yarn and a half.”

A yarn and a half? “All due respect, sir-Mr. Abstract..but I don’t think...I could survive even half a yarn...” Where had all the light gone? It was awfully dim in the room. “Could you...could you turn up the lights, Mr. Abstract...”

Aaron slid off the table, and reached for the dimmer control...and stopped. “It won’t help. Half a yarn? You couldn’t survive a reel of thread, Harrison.” In one swift moment, he upended his teacup into a nearby pot plant. “And you certainly couldn’t survive metaethylene glycol poisoning.”

The unbandaged hand tried to reach into a pocket, but froze halfway there, fingers locked in mid-spasm.

“Don’t worry. I’ve taken care of the worst symptoms. Can’t have muscle spasms if you have a nice paralytic inside of you. In this case, bloodborne curare extract.” He flicked off the lights, leaving only the glow from the open door.

Accusing, unseeing eyes, frozen open, glowing in reflected light they could not see.


Nothing. Only the liquid sounds of laboring lungs to suck in life for a dying man.

“-I bid you adieu.”

There wasn’t anything but the pain. There was too much change to Change for Change to handle, and there was too much Change to change into anything less; Change was changeless, and that wasn’t about to change.

Aaron! Aaron, Aaron, Aaron...


Aaron and Change.


“Change! Oh, seven hells, Change!”
Originally posted on MSPA by The Deleter.

Bararon's Private Reserve - the beer that calms your fear!

yeah it's a reserve
Originally posted on MSPA by The Deleter.

Edit: Still nope.
Originally posted on MSPA by Sanzh.

Timothy Yessic awoke with a start-- he had somehow managed to fall asleep while hanging off from Alaster's shoulders, and he had only remained on by snags in his robe being caught between plates of armor.

He tugged slightly, freeing himself and landing on the floor. The floor rattled slightly, as though in motion, and Timothy quickly noticed the others that were with him-- the weird avian, the pimply wizard, along with a few others. They were in the suited man's van, Timothy realized. As he stood up, he straightened his frayed excuse for a wizard's robe and tried to recollect what had happened-- everything the eight-year-old had experienced since his arrival in Eta Carina had seemed to blend together into a continuous blur of activity. As hard as it was for his prepubescent mind, he tried to remember. He remembered that he had gone out to a warehouse with Alaster when it was repairing itself, and that later they had headed back and done-- something?

His eyes widened as he remembered just what he was part of-- and that he had slept through the meeting planning out what the suited man had called a 'heist'. Timothy desperately hoped that nothing important had happened while he was asleep.

"Kid's awake." Adric Toleth said, his voice thickly laced with disinterest.

Kriok almost stirred in response, before returning to her work and continuing to calibrate and fine-tune the assortment of gadgets the burglary would require. As callous as it was, she had little concern for the juvenile human-- he had the construct to protect him. While he had been asleep, the avian had memorized all of the countless, myriad details of Montcorbier's plan; her cybernetic mind involuntarily recorded every manifold contingency, regardless of whether or not she wished it. She had an entire world of information readily accessible-- from the information Tick and Adric had collected in preparation, to the planned machinations ready for any eventuality, to the host of other preparations that had been done.

In spite of all of the reassurances to the contrary, Kriok was worried.

A taloned hand reflexively scratched against the bandages wound around her abdomen, reminding her of the stakes of failure-- that was all she could think about. For every mental process that analyzed and guaranteed success, there was another set of heuristics scrutinizing the same circumstances and predicting an inevitable failure. Montcorbier's threat to entice her into offering her services had turned into a premonition of an inescapable future-- she wouldn't escape, she'd be trapped in this gilded labyrinth or forced to continue in the fight to the death; she would never receive the freedom she desperately craved. She would never so much as receive the freedom to die on her own terms, a pessimistic cluster of circuit-neurons autonomically derided.

That thought caused her to pause her work, her fabricator-arm loosening its vise-grip around a complicated device. The momentary lapse into total despair made her realize just how tired she was. There had been no time to rest, no time to waste on an obsolete physiological necessity her body had eliminated. But even without needing to rest, the mental strain of her situation fatigued her. She clicked her beak, trying to push aside the accumulated paranoia and stress. Her work resumed, as the avian desperately tried to distract herself. Layers of cortical circuitry cycled towards the notion that this would be the end-- that after this, she would be free.

Kriok began to speak. "How soon until we--"

"We're already here." Montcorbier interrupted. He stood up, straightening his smoking jacket as he did to an appropriately rakish degree. The thief's face was a mask of utter confidence-- as though they had already successfully emptied the casino's vault and the entire escapade had been completed. He was in his element now, and approached his coming task with utmost certainty.

"I suppose this is where I tell you that you're the best there are at what you do, how--"

"U-um, e-excuse me? What am I going to do, again?" Timothy ashamedly interrupted. His arms were nervously folded together, and he had slightly curled up self-protectively.

"--ever I don't think that needs to be said." He finished.

Montcorbier shifted his attention towards Timothy-- he made sure to mentally remind himself that the child's safety was all that maintained his defender's cooperation. His mask-like face shifted once more, becoming something approximating a paternal geniality. "You just need to stick with Alaster, okay Timothy?" He calmly said-- as much as he disliked children, countless years of experience in manipulating others overrode his petty distaste.

Timothy's clockwork guardian imperceptibly stirred in response to its name.

"Oh. Okay!" The apprentice wizard answered. His face perked up with excitement-- he was about to participate in an adventure, about to relieve his suppressed desire for excitement in the most breathtaking fashion possible. The eight-year old's memories of nearly dying at the hand of a demon-wracked abomination were far from his mind, a faint recollection that was now completely forgotten in light of the escapade to come.

"Well then. Let's get to it, shall we?"

The van rumbled to a stop, its back sliding open to reveal a back alleyway-- the distinction could only barely be made, as the bright lights of the nebula above illuminated it nearly as brightly as the harsh fluorescence the casinos emanated. The crowds of tourists and gamblers that lined the main promenades were gone; the heist team was no longer in Eta Carina's arterial passageways, but instead deep within its capillaries.

Alaster was the first to move, scooping its designated charge into one arm and hopping out of the gently-hovering vehicle. The other, more experienced wizard quickly followed, and soon after the cybernetic alien, burdened with a multitude of tools.

"Alaster, why aren't we all going?" Timothy asked, readjusting to his usual position taken when riding atop his guardian.

"They Are Required Elsewhere." The automaton replied. Its stride remained uninterrupted by the child's question. The machine was set in its objective now, prepared to do what was required to permanently ensure his safety-- away from the threats of Eta Carina.

As they walked, Kriok noticed a faded purple crescent painted above one of the doors. After Adric walked through that door, the avian's manifold layers of neural circuitry and quantum microprocessors made an abrupt, nigh-instantaneous realization: she was about to steal from The Traveler's Rest.


"She did what?" Maria incredulously questioned. Trepidation marked the receptionist's appearance, from the lines creasing her face to her nervous pacing back and forth as she struggled to collect her thoughts. Yaelja stood opposite her-- her normally neon skin had taken on the shade of a mournful violin dirge. She offered a soft whisper of inky shades, confirming what she had said. The alien's language-- as riotous and disruptive as it was-- painted a very specific connotation in Maria's mind; any alternative interpretations were quickly brushed aside, leaving only the grim reality.

"I-- I see." Maria quietly said, sitting down.

It was nearly too much to take in-- that Kriok had become involved in the heist she had heard rumors of. The alien was far from being a friend, but she still wanted to see her safe. She could offer Kriok a job at the Rest, assist her with making arrangements with Owen, something-- the receptionist didn't know the circumstances that would have prompted her to take up larceny, but she was unquestionably certain there was some alternative. Maria stood up again. She had to try to persuade the cybernetic avian to reconsider. In their past encounters, she was driven by logic-- a twisted, paranoid logic, but her actions were nonetheless spurred by a cold, alien rationality. There was nothing rational about deciding to risk her life, and reminding her of such undoubtedly would be enough to convince the alien to reevaluate.

"I'm-- I'm g-going to find her. Can you tell me where she is now?" The receptionist asked, her uncertainty fading as she spoke.

Yaelja responded with a gradient of indigo hues.

"No. No no no. She's here?"


Tschichold disdainfully regarded the rumpled pile of a suit occupying his room. The garments reeked of corporate attitude.

The past day had been miserable for the painter-- at first, he had delighted in the authority vested in him, but his authoritarian delight had burned out quickly. Whatever joy could be extracted from ordering around the crews of artists and decorators had faded as he realized that, no matter how much direction he gave them, they would never truly produce art-- only the dilute reproductions of teams of sellouts. It was all so overwhelmingly mainstream, even under his direction. The entirety of Eta Carina's artisans-- the shallow, capitalistic assholes that pretended to be artists-- would never produce so much as a infinitesimal scrap of art. Two minutes of angrily vented invective punctuated the room's silence, as Tschichold gave a voice to his stream of thoughts.

"My god, I'm-- I've... I've gone corporate." He finally sputtered out.

The realization, as plainly manifest as it now was, startled Tschichold. He wasn't aware of it at the time, but the very act of accepting a wage for his labor compromised every principle he stood for. His glowing eye squinted, trying to focus as his mind struggled to work through its drug-addled haze and remember just what were the principles he had violated. A hoofed foot irately tapped against the floor's synthetic wooden paneling, as Tschichold's lines of thought were lost in a sea of overblown, melodramatic irritations. His violent despondence only magnified and reverberated as he thought about how petty his actions had been; he had compromised everything he stood for and the most he had done as penance was bitterly complain to himself.

He wished his paints were stored, if only to have the pleasure of ruining his stock of supplies-- and even as he thought that, his mind pessimistically taunted him for his best thoughts of revenge being nothing more than some minor property damage.

The nebula and sparkling edifices of Eta Carina glistened as Tschichold turned his attention to the window. Even in his perpetually-bewildered sensory state, the view was pleasant enough that he could push aside the mental notion that it was all an extravagantly-constructed capitalist mockery of true beauty. As he stared out, one of the countless glittering spires caught his attention-- nothing about it seemed immediately striking, it was just as impossibly tall as every other one of the towers. The only distinguishing feature it had was the violet crescent on its facade, it shouldn't have interested him as it now did.

Tschichold realized just how offensive the building was-- its architecture was that cultivated, corporatist design intended to be as benign as physically possible. The painter imagined the no-doubt countless hours spent with focus groups designing a building that would not alienate any prospective customers. Art was supposed to be offensive, not something like the innocuous, soulless spire of silver and glass he now saw in front of him.

In an instant, Tschichold stormed out of his room. He had every intention of doing something about the towering offense to his vision. Whatever parts of his mind that had the foresight to consider consequences were drowned underneath the thoughts of revulsion as the painter inexorably marched towards The Traveler's Rest.


"This was not what I had in mind." Jill Traynor indignantly whispered.

"Yes, well, you wanted a better part. Blockbuster forced my hand, and now here we are." Montcorbier shot back, his voice an unnaturally precise murmur.

Gamblers, socialites, staff and attendants-- nearly all were watching the pair as they walked across the casino floor of The Traveler's Rest. Between Jill's status as a famous starlet and a new-found awareness of Montcorbier's larcenous history, they had attracted an unhealthy degree of attention. In any other circumstance, this would be disastrous, but Montcorbier saw how it was an advantage-- as the miscellany sensory organs of Eta Carina's populace expectantly watched him, the heist would go unnoticed. It was a shame that he couldn't put his skills to use, but his service as a distraction was far more beneficial.

Jill glared at him. "I was expecting--"

"--Expecting what? Blockbuster was the one who recommended your, mm, assets was the phrasing he used." He dismissively interrupted.

The gentleman-thief reflexively looked over his shoulder, as well as up towards the net of security cameras protecting the casino. There was only one opportunity for the heist-- and more importantly, only one opportunity for footage. The hacked network of cameras, along with a handful of invisible eye spells Adric had cast, would provide more than enough material. His walking stopped at an empty table. One hand flicked out a stack of chips as he sat; a dealer responded with a suspicious glare as he dealt a hand to the thief. Jill followed his lead, successfully managing to hide her disgust with Montcorbier.

It was then that Tschichold entered the casino floor, paint still following him with every pigment-drenched step forward.

Montcorbier immediately took note-- he had skimmed the collection of dossiers enough to recognize him as a former contestant from the show Blockbuster had demanded he included-- and that was enough to recognize him as a liability. He passively sorted through the hand of cards he had been dealt, his attention clearly fixated on the shadowy silhouette stumbling through the building.

Tschichold's glowing eye twitched, both with anger and the constant influence of his hallucinogens. "Who--"

Just as his diatribe was beginning, he immediately interrupted himself with an angry shake of his stubby, clawed fingers and an accompanying splatter of paint.

"--is responsible for this." He irately finished, gesturing at the entirety of the casino.

There was no response-- the staff were too busy watching him from a safe distance, their already-high tensions from the rumors of a heist amplified and magnified by his bombastic, furious presence.

"No one?" Tshichold yelled back to his silent audience. With each of the painter's steps came a faint after-image-- a series of half-animate phantasms and shades, clinging to the walls and floor of the inn and only barely visible. Below the threshold of any physical sensation, the hotel roiled and subconsciously shook with the rising fumes.

"Get ready to run." Montcorbier whispered. Being immortal, free from the risk of death from old age or disease or any of the countless petty threats that plagued others, virtually guaranteed a horrible demise-- be it in some form of accident or the deliberate work of another. Montcorbier had only survived as long as he had on a well-honed sense of danger, and the part of his millenniums-old mind that was attuned to calamity knew that their confrontation would not end well.

"Are you telling me that no one is responsible for this crime against art? That no one is responsible for this tasteless example of soulless, corporate decadence?" He vociferously cried.

"Didn't we just arr--"

"Get. Ready. To. Run." He repeated.

Even as the group of nervous attendants kept their distance, the wafting psychotropic fumes spread out, away from Tschichold's corrupted body to fill the casino floor. Even as it spread, diluting itself amongst the myriad gases of Eta Carina's atmosphere, it still remained just barely concentrated enough to maintain its psychedelic properties. All it would take was one sniff, one inhalation and a person would experience the paint's effects.

It was only a matter of time before one of the inn's inhabitants inhaled-- and began to hallucinate.

The inn was a curious building-- where other buildings had brick and mortar, its building blocks were those of dreams. The now-hundreds of sleeping occupants present were used to give it both form and function, giving it a means to shape and transform itself. Through the aggregated dreams of Eta Carina it had shaped itself into a slender spire of silver and glass; through the subconscious thoughts of its gamblers and socialites it had grown and expanded into the sizeable, prestigious casino it now was. But with the introduction of the toxic hallucinogen into the minds of its dreamers, the dreams the building was sculpted and pruned from were polluted and poisoned. The countless subconscious moments-- fleeting and ephemeral as they were-- the inn came from now were laced with the hallucinations of its dreamers; their apparitions and phantasms were no longer solely locked within their minds, but made real.

The vague sense of anxiety and alienation of the inn's inhabitants soon became manifest-- flitting, translucent images, half-formed yet somehow real reveries haunted the casino floor as the effects of Tschichold's psychedelic paints began to set in. The effects of the psychedelic drugs were normally enough to terrify, but to now see their hallucinations as being something real, something substantial, was just enough to gradually push the dreamers into collective insanity.

A few of the awake inhabitants of the inn-- those not asleep within its myriad, branching corridors-- urgently checked their designer drug cocktails, wondering if hallucinations were amongst the intended effects.

The sudden, shared disconnect from reality, the already-latent apprehension-- for the subconsciousness of the inn's dreamers, the hallucinations were enough to tip an already-fractured collective mind past its breaking point. A handful of minds sunk into unrelieved terror-- but that was all it took, as their psychotropic, toxin-afflicted minds projected their fears. What was the inescapable horror of one mind was now that of every mind, and with each negative thought an even worse horror became reality; every new fear and primal instinct repeated, reverberated against another mind and became real.

In seconds the inn's facade had fallen apart, recreated into the ever-descending nightmares of its now-terrified collective unconsciousness.

Montcorbier didn't have time-- time to see Jill Traynor pop off her high heels and attempt to escape the inn as reality buckled around her, time to react outside of the shock of seeing something unknown to his millennia of experience-- time to have anything more than half-formed fragments of thoughts as a cloud of malevolent nightmares descended upon him.

In a single, violent instant, the master thief was dead.

Tschichold didn't so much as notice the thief's demise. He was far too busy running, moving deeper and deeper into the inn to try and escape the nightmare-- and he was completely unaware of the trailing cloud of psychotropic fumes that he carried along with him, and how every step into the inn affected more of its populace.


"This is definitely not going according to plan." Adric said, his voice strained from over-exertion and fear in equal measures.

Kriok cawed tetchily in response-- but even as she did, the avian couldn't deny that this wasn't what they had planned.

Synthetic nerves struggled to analyze her now-desperate situation, to put the sudden changes in their environment into a heuristic framework that made sense. What had been a sterile, unoccupied maintenance hallway had nigh-instantaneously become a knotted labyrinth of corridors, changing in shifting even as they hopelessly ran forward; walls formed and reformed from fragments of lines and colors in indescribable, malevolent patterns. The walls were getting closer, growing spikes and barbs, threatening to crush them in this inescapable maze. Kriok tried to think, to force herself to apply logic and rationality to their state of affairs even as she perilously stumbled forward, but her cybernetic mind couldn't think-- primal instinct and terror clouded her judgment, made anything more than thinking about the next harried steps impossible.

"A-Alaster? I-I'm scared." Timothy whined, clinging to his perch on the clockwork automaton's back.

"It Will Be Alright." The machine clanked in response-- but even as it did, the limited faculties for free thought within its memory core strained and faltered, trying to gauge if there was any truth to the assurance. It adjusted and fixed its helmeted gaze on the others, silently judging them.

"Alright, stop." Adric panted out. Sweat drippeds in heavy beads down his forehead-- occasionally dropping free with the grinding shake behind them as the inn's corridors closed behind them. The noise grew louder, echoing from every direction, the shifting walls crushing together in the distance as they worked their way closer and closer to enveloping the party. The teenager's clammy hands reached into a pocket, withdrawing a thin wand. "I didn't want to use something this expensive, but it's our only way out." He said-- a quick flick and a portal opened against a wall, leading outside and away from the nightmare the inn had become.

"You want us to give up." Kriok chittered back as her taloned feet stopped. The distant grinding grew louder, reverberating against the increasingly constraining walls.

"I want to live, gods-damnit. I don't know if you noticed, but we're unprepared for whatever this is and if we don't get out we will all die. The heist is over." He shot back-- it was plainly manifest that the wizard was past the point of exhaustion, and was only now conscious from a stubborn spike of adrenaline.

Run-times, processor cycles-- nearly all of the manifold layers of Kriok's mind stopped with his statement.

Adric's assessment likely correct-- not worth staying. I'm sorry, Kriok. Her communication interface buzzed to her-- although Tick had not been physically present, the invalid hacker had still been able to provide support, monitoring the situation from a universe away.

The avian's stunned mind slowly refreshed itself, trying to accept what they had said-- that she wouldn't be able to escape, that she wouldn't receive compensation for her efforts with the fulfillment of the one desire she had left. Isolated processes seethed with anger, impulses of circuit-nerves flooded her memory stacks with simulated rage at the injustice, the humiliation of being so close-- and just as quickly her mind reasserted itself, nerve-cycles shifting back and forcing her back to dispassionate logic. It still might be possible to escape.

"Alright. Let's g--"

Kriok was interrupted as the hallway suddenly stretched and tore, like an overextended ligand or tendon-- she could only briefly see the rest flee into the portal, away from the fraying ends of a corridor suspended over an endless abyss before she had fallen into a new nightmare.


"Alaster! A-Alaster, we have to go back. We have to help her, we can't leave her there!" Timothy wailed, his half-curled fists pathetically pounding against the mechanical knight's armor in between futile sobs. The apprentice's face was red, swollen with tears that continually streaked down his cheeks, occasionally pattering to the ground when he paused his weak strikes against his guardian. The rest of the world was a blur to him-- all he could think about was how they had abandoned the alien; even though she hadn't been particularly amicable towards him, his eight-year-old mind knew that they couldn't just leave her there.

"I'm sorry, kid-- your friend's as good as gone." Adric said, making a half-hearted attempt at consolation.

"No, she's not! She can't be, we have to save her!" Timothy retorted back, his voice cracking against the tears and anger welling throughout him. "Alaster, she needs help!"

"It Is Too Late." Alaster buzzed in response-- the machine remained motionless, not even responding to Timothy's strikes against its metal carapace. The memory core nestled deep within knew its priorities rested with protecting the child-- it could not risk the apprentice's life against what lay within the casino on saving someone, no matter how important or how piteous his pleas were. All the clockwork machine could do was watch-- watch as the casino flickered and shifted, its form indeterminate and wavering with every second as its nightmares-made-real struggled to escape their confinement and go out into the reality surrounding them, as crowds gathered from across the main promenade and innumerable alleyways to watch the newest spectacle being offered.

Alaster stood by and watched as Eta Carina began a steady descent into anarchy.

Originally posted on MSPA by Ixcalibur.

Saint and Owen ran as a fresh peal of screams echoed from behind them. There was the sound of gunfire punctuated by the occasional piercing scrape of rusty metal and a sickly wet sound, like someone cleaving a hunk of meat, as the screams gurgled to a stop. There was something coming, but in a weird way it felt like it was already upon them in the air itself. There was this tension, this sense of something heavy and oppressive hanging over them; something mocking and cruel all around them. Saint’s heart was pounding, her head thumping, her lungs burning as she pushed herself as fast as she could. This wasn’t like home, where a brisk jog would see you safe from the shambling hordes. That wasn’t even in the same league. Normally she knew how to run, how to pace herself, but that was forgotten in the panic; her instincts overridden by sheer unbridled terror. All that was important was to get away as quickly as possible.

They turned a corner and the vault door was in sight, it was unfortunate that she could not keep up this pace. She desperately needed to stop, to take a moment to catch her breath or else collapse. She took it, leaning on the wall while she gulped down huge lungfuls of air. Owen didn’t stop. He didn’t even seem to notice. He was too fixated on his own escape, perhaps gripped by the same intangible terror that she was. He did come to a stop as he approached the vault doors; he slammed his hand down onto the biometric scanner and gave the password with no sign of breathlessness. The heavy vault doors took a second to analyse and then the heavy doors started to slide open.

From somewhere back down the security corridor there was a scream. Well honestly the screams hadn’t really stopped but this scream in particular wasn’t a scream of terror or of pain, but of frustration. The sound of gunfire had finally ceased and now the security team (or whatever was left of it by this point) that had been left to hold of whatever it was that was coming towards them was left with no option except maybe to throw their guns at them. Within moments the tone of that scream had changed, accompanied by the squelch of cut flesh it spoke of agony that Saint didn’t want to imagine and then came to a sudden stop and what was left was ominous silence.

Saint was running again, as much as she could. Ahead of her the doors of the vault opened just enough for a person to fit through, and Owen without hesitation squeezed through that gap. Once he was through it seemed that some of his wits returned to him and he looked around trying to work out where it was that Saint had gone. He turned and saw her struggling towards the vault, and without hesitation he started back towards her.

Moments after he turned back the doors reversed, began to close and almost instantaneously they had slammed shut upon him. But no, it was less than moments; it was almost as if it had happened at the very instant he had thought of going back for her. It was inexplicable. There’d been no use of the console that controlled the vault doors and even so the doors shouldn’t have been able to move at such absurd speed. It was impossible but yet there it was.

For a second Owen just stood there, too stunned to form a response to the impossibility of what had just happened, then he started hammering furiously on the doors and shouting Saint’s name. It was pointless of course, the doors were thick metal slabs and the vault was entirely soundproofed, but he wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking of whatever it was that had been chasing them and of Saint trapped on the other side of that door. The thought made his stomach lurch and renewed his futile efforts; until some part of his brain surfaced above the ambient terror and he ran to the secondary scanner, placed in the vault for just this contingency. He slammed his hand down and said the password and yet nothing happened. He tried again, attempting to modulate his tone, to drive the fear out of his voice in case it was messing up the thing’s voice recognition. Each time it was futile and each time it was harder to hide that panic.

Eventually he stopped, and sunk slowly to the ground. He was too late now. He wasn’t a natural optimist but he had trouble believing that even the most hopeful person could still believe that she was still alive. Though he hoped and wished it were not the case he could not convince himself; she was dead. She was dead and he was trapped, now more than ever. It was like a nightmare.


Maria and Yaelja found themselves in an empty guestroom. It was tidy enough; the bed was made, the surfaces were clear and the furniture straight, but yet everything was covered with a thick layer of dust and the wallpaper was faded and in some places peeling away. The windows had been boarded up; a little of the exotic starlight filtering in through the cracks; just enough to make the room look odd and otherworldly. It looked like nobody had been in here for years.

“How…” Maria hesitated, not because she was unsure what to say, but because in some weird way speaking had felt wrong. Everything was silent; the everyday background noise of the world seemed to have vanished almost entirely. Words pushed out into that void seemed to wither and die in the dead air. It was just silence and yet it was eerie how overpowering it felt, Maria only broke it again with hesitance. “How did we get here?” They had intended to find Kriok and dissuade her from participating in this heist, and then something had happened. Neither Maria nor Yaelja were exactly sure what it was that had happened; it was all something of a blur. There had been some shouting and a lot of running and even though they hadn’t ascended any steps they somehow found themselves here, in this part of the Inn that Maria had never seen before. It made her shiver.

Yaelja responded with an equally confused muddle of greys. She looked just as uncomfortable as Maria felt.

“I think we should go.” Maria said nervously. “Maybe it’s not too late to stop Kriok?”

With just a touch of hesitation she made her way to the door and slowly pulled it open. The hallway was just as unsettlingly bleak as this unoccupied guestroom only more so. It was dark, lit only by the occasional dim bulb overhead; the wallpaper was greying and peeling away where the walls were not scorched. In one direction was an upturned maid’s trolley near spotlighted by the light fixture above it. Around it the walls were a crusty red where blood had dried. In the other were doors left hanging eerily open as far as the eye could see. Directly across the door to the opposite room was likewise hanging open, and silhouetted in the dim light standing next to the bed was Owen. Maria was sure it was him immediately; there was no mistaking that wild hair. She was about to call out to him when he raised something in front of him, light caught on the blade but before she could think he plunged it down.

The person who had been sleeping there began to thrash and kick completely soundlessly as Owen raised and plunged the knife again and again. It was all Maria could do to stop herself from screaming at the top of her lungs. Yaelja darted past her, pushed the door closed and for good measure leaned against it to ensure it would stay that way.

“That can’t be him.” Maria said in a whisper, more to herself than to anyone else. “It can’t be him. It can’t be.” She repeated uselessly. It was obvious that she’d misinterpreted what she’d seen; it was just someone else with wild hair. One of the guests they had picked up in Eta Carina most likely. She’d known Owen for years, for longer than she could remember. She knew him and he wasn’t like that. He was quiet and brooding sometimes yes but that wasn’t a crime, he was just a reserved individual. It was obviously not him and yet, Maria found herself muttering that denial again and again like a mantra, as though she were trying to convince herself. There was something that didn’t ring true; something that just wasn’t right. He was always so private about his office; she couldn’t remember a single time in the many years she’d been here that she’d actually seen what was inside. And he never talked about himself, where he was from, how he came to own the Traveller’s Rest or whether he’d founded it or even really what he thought about things. Sometimes she felt like she didn’t know him at all, but yet that couldn’t be him, she said once again.

Yaelja was trying to get her attention; the sensation of tree-bark conveyed a desire to focus on the situation at hand but Maria wasn’t listening, at least until the thud of whatever that thing was (which couldn’t be Owen) trying to open the door with more force than Yaelja had been expecting. She stumbled to the ground; the door swung open and there stood Owen; no longer in silhouette, there was no mistaking him. His suit was stained crimson with splatters of blood. His face was more drawn, his eyes marked with heavy black bags and his expression was blank; as though he was completely disconnected from his actions, from the world itself.

“Ah, Maria there you are.” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Maria couldn’t respond. She’d known this man all her life, if this was real and if that was not, then what did that say of her life? She stepped backwards almost instinctively, while Yaelja scrabbled to her feet and started looking for something that could be used as a weapon; only all the drawers and cupboards were empty. Maria eventually managed to construct a response: “Me?” a single syllable hanging in the silence was the best she could manage.

“Yes, of course.” ‘Owen’ replied. “Some of our guests are just so uncooperative; I need you to hold them down for me.”

Maria continued to back away in horrified disbelief, only coming to a stop when she reached the foot of the bed and there was no more backwards to be had. “What? No!”

“Alas Maria, you don’t have a choice.” ‘Owen’ said.

“No! I said no!” Maria yelled. “Leave me alone. This isn’t real. You aren’t real.”

“Neither are you.” ‘Owen’ replied. “And you really don’t have a choice. You are mine Maria. You owe your very existence to me. You will do as I command.” He held his hand out to her as his blank expression shifted into the perfect semblance of a reassuring smile. Gingerly, unable to understand exactly why she was doing so, Maria took his hand and he led her from the room, completely ignoring Yaelja. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll save you for last.”


Owen sat sprawled out against the impenetrable vault doors, his body limp as though he had just given up entirely. Despite everything he still wasn’t sure what was going on out there. It would be an easy assumption to make that some kind of dangerous creatures had invaded from the outside, but it wouldn’t make sense as to why such wild creatures would be found roaming the streets of Eta Carina; unless of course they had been moved on again. Theoretically it was possible. If they were somewhere where there weren’t many buildings the Inn could possibly have retained the same form due to having nothing to blend in with in which case the transition could have happened totally without his notice.

But no, there was more to it than that; something about the Inn was different. He didn’t need a connection to the building to notice the change in the atmosphere. Which wasn’t to make mention of the vault itself; Owen was trying not to think too hard about just how confined he was. It wasn’t that he was claustrophobic, but that being trapped in here hit a nerve. It undermined a point of pride and with the way that it had happened he suspected that it couldn’t just be a coincidence. The only conclusion he could reach was that someone had done it on purpose; utilising the semi-unreal nature of the Inn for the express purpose of making him feel small and pathetic. Though he couldn’t conceive of who or how anyone could directly manipulate the fundamental nature of the Inn, and with such finesse.

He needed to be out of here; in order to have any chance of combating whatever was happening to the Inn and fighting off whoever was responsible he needed to be in his office. Instead he was stuck here, in this harshly lit room no more than a couple of metres deep. In the centre of the vault there were stacks of what appeared to be gold ingots, though Owen had had trouble believing that the vault could contain anything so mundane. He and Saint had come to investigate not long after their arrival in Eta Carina, while everyone else was getting things set up. Owen had picked up one of the ingots and suddenly it was as though he was somewhere deep in the countryside amidst a couple of tents and a roaring campfire, his, or rather someone’s, family gathered around him. He’d dropped the ingot before the scene had played out, but it was enough for him to figure out just what they were. They were the things that the consciousnesses that made up the inn held most dear; their most treasured memories given physical form.

Eventually Owen climbed to his feet and walked over to the pile of treasured memory ingots. He couldn’t escape from here, but perhaps the illusion of escape would be an acceptable refuge until this vault inevitably crumbled around him. Also the possibility that he might be able to escape into one of Saint’s treasured memories and see her again didn’t hurt the cause. He tried the ingots one by one; each was different but there were recurring themes; the innocence of childhood, or in the case of whose who most likely didn’t have a good childhood; the freedom of early adulthood, companionship which as a category ranged from holding hands at sunset and stolen glances to more intimate moments. Eventually he found something he recognised; an almost empty street-corner café.

He was looking into his own disconcerted eyes. It hadn’t quite clicked that he would be looking at things from her point of view, but this was her memory so it made sense. Watching himself explain the workings of the inn, he was disappointed. This wasn’t what he’d wanted. He supposed that there was probably no way to get exactly what he wanted. The memory of him stopped and after a second Owen got the impression that he was being stared at; not that Saint was being stared at, but that he himself was being stared at.

“We really are pathetic aren’t we?” The memory of him asked. “Trapped in increasingly smaller boxes. Look at us; can you even remember what we used to be? To think that we could be caged; once we’d have considered it laughable.”

Owen was stunned. This had to be the work of the same thing that had trapped him in the vault in the first place. Now whoever it was was mocking him to his face. “Who are you?” He asked coldly.

“You really want me to answer that? I thought that was a secret.” The memory teased. “But you told that bald chick didn’t you, Owen? How sad it makes me to see you mourn her. How sick it makes me to see you stooped to their level. I have to wonder if I’m still even in there.”

Owen threw down the ingot and yet as the memory faded he couldn’t seem to dispel his own grinning face from his mind. As much as he hated it, it had been right. He was Owen now. He wasn’t even Mister O any more. Owen would be stuck in this safe until the last sleeper was dead and the inn was no more, but Owen was never his name. He’d made his mind up; he was getting out of here no matter what.

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Timothy angrily sat on the sidewalk across from the inn. An outfit of corporate rent-a-cops had set up what could be generously described as a barricade around the convulsing hallucination that The Traveler's Rest had become. A handful of them loitered around, urging the throngs of people-- tourists, gamblers, a few wealthy elite emerging from their glass spires-- to keep moving. A few tried to slip past, driven by hedonism to experience whatever was inside the phantasm. Most kept moving, the initial sensation already having faded.

His feet petulantly kicked the street, his wooden shoes scuffing against it with his petty display of rebellion. He was powerless. She-- the bird lady, the one with a name Timothy couldn't remember-- was in there, along with everyone else who was trapped, and no one was doing anything to stop it. The apprentice hadn't even tried telling one of the adults. They wouldn't have listened. There wasn't anything he could do-- all he had were a handful of useless cantrips and his stupid wooden shoes. Timothy hated wooden shoes.

The apprentice looked up at Alaster, who vacantly stared at the phantasm-inn. "Why don't you do something," He half-asked, half-pleaded.

Alaster did not respond.

Timothy stomped one foot down, scrunching his face angrily as he stared at the clockwork automaton. He glanced at the barricade again. The outfit of corporate police had relaxed-- the danger had passed, it was just everyday business again. They probably wouldn't even notice if someone snuck in, Timothy absentmindedly thought. Alaster has to protect him, Timothy then thought. If he ran inside, it'd have to follow him-- and it could stop all the nightmares. It'd have to, if it wanted to protect him.

The apprentice nodded to himself as his eight-year old mind put the various pieces together. He wasn't helpless. He could do something. The realization had only barely sunk in before his wooden shoes beat against the tempered-glass avenue of Eta Carina, as Timothy took off running.

A half-second too late, his clockwork guardian noticed him escaping. The ticking cogs and mechanisms of the automaton did not even pause to think as it charged after the child, into the living nightmare he had disappeared into.


The vorpal blade was the pinnacle of magical enhancement to bladed weaponry. The magic used in the forging and enchanting of one had taken centuries to perfect and had, after only a handful of the weapons had been made, been deemed too dangerous. Any written records of the methods used were destroyed-- in part because the strong, muscular fighters that wizards loathed could pick up and use the blades. The blade's impossibly-honed edge could cleave the intangible, and it was a weapon that there was no defense to-- no amount of iron or magic or skill or regret could hope to stop its blade.

When Alaster's vorpal blade swung through a cloud of nightmares, the Inn's wraiths did not reform-- the hallucinations-made-real had no defense against its edge. It stormed through the labyrinthine hallways, its blade scything through the hotel's apparitions with every stride forward. The spirit directing its motion was lost in the inn's labyrinth, following the barest hints of Timothy's location.

"Alaster!" Came a voice, echoing down from three separate corridors.

The automaton automatically chose a direction and barreled forward, not paying attention to the subtle changes in the hallway's direction, or that it had twisted against itself and Alaster was now marching along the ceiling. The lesser angel bound to its clockwork machinery was far too constrained to have anything close to intuition, but something within it knew it had chosen the correct way, and nothing else mattered.

"Alaster!" Came the yell again, followed by the clatter of wooden shoes.

A noise somewhere between a foghorn and a church's bell was the clockwork knight's response as it charged. The gear and mechanisms of its legs strained to keep up with the exertion put on them. Even though they were the finest clockwork the artificers of his home plane could produce, that was barely enough to handle the stress of the mass of adamantine and brass now running forward. Alaster only began to slow down as Timothy came into sight-- the boy was tired, bleeding, and had clear scratch-marks across his robes. A pale blue bubble of magic surrounded him. The apprentice weakly held his hands out, projecting the protective ward keeping him alive.

"A-alaster," Timothy faintly said as the knight entered the abjuring sphere. He didn't have time to say more, repeating the incantations and sustaining his spell for another six seconds.

"You Should Not Have Done This." Alaster half-bellowed, half-admonished. The inn was constricting around them, with a myriad of half-formed phantasms circling around, barely outside the protective ward. The spell wouldn't last forever, not when an apprentice mage was maintaining it-- and neither of them could move, not if they wanted to maintain the sole barrier between life and a grisly death. The lesser angel bound within Alaster's clockwork and crystal machinery realized that there were too many nightmares to fight, even for a machine that could never tire. Simple attrition would be enough to wear the knight down.

For something fundamentally incapable of fear, the automaton somehow felt the slightest wavering of its programmed conviction.

"I-I w-wanted you to do something," Timothy whimpered. The protective ward flickered for a split-second before reasserting itself. "You wouldn't listen to me."

All around them, the inn's walls cracked and broke apart, transforming from drywall and plaster into a mass of innumerable slavering mouths, all around the boy and his protector. Impossibly-sharp teeth clattered hungrily, eagerly anticipating their next meal. Feed, feed, they inaudibly whispered, drawing closer and closer.

"You wouldn't listen." The apprentice pleaded for one last, final time as the spell protecting them fizzled and failed and the Traveler's Rest collapsed around them.

The droning panic of Kriok's consciousness's scattered processes was now a thoughtless white noise, a thousand conflicting ideas all working at once. None of it was meaningful-- the only thing the avian perceived was her terse breaths. Breaths came heavily, pressure building and releasing against mechanical lungs-- valves opening, sterile oxygen diffusing across synthetic filters, the same process repeated over and over to an unceasing, constant rhythm, everything else was meaningless. Everything else was meaningless.

"You are infected." The dissonant, clinical serenity of the voice immediately shattered whatever calm the avian had.

Error messages darkened Kriok's vision for a moment. Layers of visual interface shuffled across Kriok's optical feed as the avian looked up.

A new environment imprisoned her, one of sterile, bleached walls and tile floors and painful incandescent lights-- a hospital, molded from the nightmares of another trapped dreamer. Something moved closer, entering her vision-- an indistinct humanoid shape, supported by abnormally long, stilt-like legs and stretched to spider-like proportions. A tattered medical lab coat covered the half-real phantasm, and its sleeves draped over its hands; a hostile glint of surgical metal was barely visible underneath. Its face shifted, an indistinguishable and unreadable blur as it spoke again.

"You are infected. You require treatment. Please, let us help you." It implored, its composure now replaced with melancholic pleading. One of its feet tapped against the unreal floor as it drew closer.

"Get away from me." The avian cawed in response, taking a few steps backwards. Her taloned feet awkwardly scraped against the smooth floor, tracing out thin scratches as her hooked claws reflexively curled and dug into the surface. A hissing trill escaped as her hand failed to grasp a now-missing weapon. Innumerable subroutines raced through the avian's algorithms and pseudo-synapses-- she wanted to run, run and never stop, she wanted to escape. Her mind quickly worked to reassert itself-- context flooded back to her, heuristics now dealt with the immediate, subroutines ignored the hazy static of probability. The droning panic ended as she heard another step.

"Please, please." The nightmare's desperate begging grew louder. The scrape of metal against metal returned, the hollow sound echoing in the distance as the shade took another set of steps forward.

"I am warning you to stay back." The avian crowed.

Kriok's fabricator-arm whirred, the manipulator-appendages at its end clicking together menacingly as the disassembler warmed up. A coating of visual overlays draped itself across her vision-- power levels were in acceptable parameters, magnetic confinement was operational, fabrication components were nominal. The end of her cybernetic arm flickered, alight with the warm glow of electromagnetic ignition. She tried to ignore the nagging subroutines that diagnosed her desperation, that chastised how she was willing to use a delicate and irreplaceable tool as a weapon. Only her immediate survival mattered now-- if she had to reduce this threat to its constituent atoms, she would.

Only her survival mattered, she thought. Sterile air diffused across synthetic filters as pressure built and released against her mechanical lungs. Only her survival mattered.

"Let us help you. Please, please, you are infected." The sound of another step forward echoed against the floor.

"Stay back y--"

The nightmare was next to her in an instant, moving with an unreal and impossible speed. There was no malice behind its face or its motions, only the detachment of a surgeon regarding an organ to be removed.

Circuit-nerves fired, her fabricator-arm swung towards it, its workings crackling with the brilliant ferocity of barely-contained fusion-- everything became an automated blur as Kriok unconsciously responded. Her vision lit up with warnings as the creature countered just as fast-- blocking her swing and tearing into her, cutting with a cold precision. She fought the urge to panic as the nightmare's hands became clear-- they were menacing, mocking appendages, constructed from scalpels and hypodermic needles and glistening surgical implements. Pain pierced her as a cluster of syringes impaled her arm, brushing past feathers to scar the skin underneath. Agony nearly-overwhelmed her as a blade made thin, methodical cuts-- as though testing her responsiveness, testing whether electric neurons could transmit pain.

"Please, please." The phantasm begged, pleading even as it cut away at flesh.

The avian's beak clicked as she desperately swung the fabricator towards the nightmare again-- directing the searing heat towards the nightmare in one final attempt. Her optical sensors refocused in horror as it failed to react-- as forces that tore molecules down to their constituent atoms did nothing to the nightmare, to something this unreal. In an instant a thousand panicked subroutines set in. A million isolated data packets of primal terror drowned her cybernetic consciousness.

"You are infected."

Kriok fell backwards, her own balance lost from the phantasm's assault-- and landed, stopping on a surface that had not existed until a half-second ago. Her leg made an attempt to kick forward but accomplished nothing more than spasmodic twitching as restraints came into being and tightened around her, as the inn's nightmare shifted and reassembled itself. The walls lost their bleached cleanliness, now coated with dirt and grime and blood. She was a specimen to be dissected, a patient among the insane-- even amidst the madness her automated heuristics analyzed and analyzed.

She was among the dead. She could see them-- not the ones the nightmare had consumed, the ones she had killed, the ones she had let die. Their dead faces looked back at her, taunted her, judged her-- she should have been among them. As she tried to look away, a set of scalpel-fingers descended into her view, closing around the avian's eye. The walls closed in around her, tightening and constricting just as much as the restraints that now held her in place.

"You are infected." The nightmare's voice came one more time, barely audible against the dull scrape of metal against metal.

Kriok screamed and screamed and screamed.


"K-k-kr-kriok Searae?"

Leon flipped through the multiple pages of assorted dossiers, before settling on one. He alternated between looking at the individual lying on the floor, flinching at her injuries, and scanning the page to confirm that he was, in fact, examining the right individual.

It took my eye, a lone subprogram processed. Half of her vision was flooded with the black of disconnected optics, alongside a host of error messages. Critical loss of function, right eye, one warning read. Please reconnect optics unit, another. Kriok's talons curled, involuntarily attempting to grasp and eviscerate an imaginary prey.

"Y-you are, um, Kriok S-searae, c-correct?" He asked again. A polite cough escaped his lips accidentally. The agent checked the pages once more, looking at the glossy images that had been attached. Ostentatious plumage, industrial-grade cybernetics, and what he assumed was an irate glare were all matching characteristics-- The wounded avian seemed to fit the provided visual description.

"B-because, um, acc-according to t-th-this, that's your i-i-id-identity." He mumbled to himself, idly skimming the surprisingly in-depth personal history that had been compiled.

It took my eye, she thought again-- a half-second later she realized she had said that out loud, as the voice she heard responded.

"I-I-I don't th-think so, n-no. T-th-this is just an ill-illusion, p-p-perhaps you injured yourself? Th-th-they could be, um, s-s-self in-inflicted."

The avian stood up, glancing at the human briefly-- before noticing that the inn's illusory trappings had dissipated. A bare room, stripped of any furnishings and lined with years of accumulated dust and cobwebs, greeted her instead of the inn's shifting pandemonium. She wasn't inside the nightmarish recreation of a hospital, she wasn't restrained as a phantasm cut and tore at her, stripping away flesh and tearing out the infected metal that was part of her--

--She shifted uncomfortably, the wooden floor groaning as her claws dug into the buckled and warped paneling. Those thoughts of weakness and vulnerability were forcefully pushed aside, locked away as a facade of programmed stoicism reasserted itself. Her remaining eye shot a glance at the human standing in the room with her.

"Who are you, sj'tet." The question inadvertently came out as a dry, hissing statement.

"Oh! I'm, um, J-ju-junior Agent Leon An-antaros. I've been, er, ass-s-s-assigned to m-m-monitor you." He immediately replied, fumbling through the folder of papers and his satchel to produce an identification card that he quickly displayed-- the picture on it somehow managed to make him look more tired than he already appeared to be. The alien insult had gone either unheard or unnoticed, as he didn't acknowledge it.

"W-wow, you're, um, you're r-really an a-alien, huh?"

Kriok ignored the question-- there was too much to process before she rashly made a decision. Her remaining eye looked away, examining the extent of her injuries-- her finger brushed back tattered and frayed feathers, noting scars and incisions. One talon dipped into the empty metal socket that once held her eye-- nothing seemed to be broken, aside from the disconnected and frayed cable. Her hands began to unwrap the bandages around her long-healed abdomen.

"You have been assigned to monitor me." Kriok repeated back to him. Her beak clicked shut, holding one end of the scavenged gauze taut as she coiled the bandage around a wounded limb. A single robotic eye focused and predatorily stared at the human. She didn't trust a self-admitted agent-- he was probably added by the competition's organizers, in order to ensure their battle continued. Her paranoia-addled subroutines easily accepted the justification.

"Assigned by who?" She asked.

"I, um, y-yes. T-that's correct." Leon responded in a sheepish attempt to deflect the question. "I-I-I'm, um, n-negating the i-i-ill-illusion, you kn-know," He immediately added. "It's a, um, a t-talent I ex-exhibit. An e-e-e-extraordinary n-negation field."

The avian examined the room again, her head swiveling exaggeratedly to compensate for the missing field of vision. The inn wasn't like her earlier recollections. She wasn't being hunted and chased by half-real phantasms. It wasn't the opulent palace it was before the nightmare began. And, if the human was right, she was wholly dependent on him if she ever wanted to escape.

A moment passed in contentious silence before she spoke again.

"How do we leave?"


Moving through the inn with the human disquieted Kriok. With each step forward he made, the illusions around the hallway faded into nonexistence, with opulent wallpaper and carpeting returned to unpainted walls and wooden floors dusty with years of neglect. The illusion reasserted itself as they passed, leaving them walking in an island of normality in the midst of the hotel's facades. That sort of ability was unnatural, for someone who spent the vast majority of her life unaware of anything approaching the supernatural.

She checked on her fabricator implant as she walked. It miraculously appeared to be intact, but her interface indicated it was malfunctioning. She ran a diagnostic check on the device, running through each part-- and each part returned back that it was functioning normally. The human's ability must have somehow disabled it, and it gnawed at her that she had no idea how.

"S-so, um." Leon began, breaking the awkward silence they had since their initial encounter. One hand nervously ran through his hair as he continued. "I-is it o-okay if I, um, a-a-ask y-you about your s-s-sp-species? Is th-that, um, in-insensitive?"

Kriok sighed tetchily. "Is that not included in the profile you apparently have on me?"

"O-oh. S-sorry." He sheepishly replied. The agent made some effort to not look completely dejected over the avian's dismissal, which consisted of looking away and uncomfortably clearing his throat as he walked.

Nice work, sjiit, Kriok mentally self-deprecated.

"Sj'te-- Leon." The avian began, taking a few stilt-legged strides closer to the human. A subroutine sarcastically noted that she was already off to a great start on her apology, beginning it with an insult like that. "I, ah, I apologize for speaking like that. I--"

She stopped, reconsidering what she was about to say. Her eye scanned the human-- Leon, he has a name, a process corrected. He was just an adolescent, Kriok realized. If he wanted the battle to continue, it would have been as easy as leaving her alone and letting her die-- and he hadn't. Circuit-neurons fired, calculating how to reconcile his behavior with everything the avian knew, before Kriok interrupted their computing and spoke.

"I have been dealing with considerable trauma. It has made it--" She paused, hesitating again. "--difficult, to interact with others." She finally admitted.

An awkward silence hung in the musty air as she finished, punctuated only by their breathing and their footsteps.

"O-oh," Leon finally said. His walking pace slowed, as he thought about what she had just confessed. "I a-am, um, s-s-sorry to hear that. I g-guess that explains t-t-the injur--"

"They were not self-inflicted," The avian immediately retorted, immediately after catching herself as she realized just how vitriolic her tone was. "How could I have removed my own eye?"

"It, um, it w-would be d-d-diff-difficult." Leon hesitantly agreed. "B-but, um, t-this is a v-very powerful i-i-ill-illusion, s-so it would not be im-im-impossible. N-nothing here can h-harm us, however. O-only un-unnerve us."

The two of them turned a corner, into a new hallway. Just outside of their protective field were the barely recognizable remnants of Alaster and Timothy-- tattered scraps of what had been a robe, a broken clockwork armature stripped of armor and machinery, fragments of bone with no flesh remaining, and little else. The agent pointed at the remains. "L-like this," He said, gesturing awkwardly with his outstretched hand. "Th-this will j-just, um, dis-dis-disapp-p-pear, as s-soon as we are, um."

What was left of Timothy failed to disappear.

"O-oh. Oh no, n-no no no."

"Leon?" Kriok asked. He had fallen to both knees in a quiet state of horrified shock, too terrified to cry or do anything but stare at the remains. The avian glanced around nervously. They needed to leave, and remaining here like this did not facilitate that. She almost considered dragging him out before realizing that Leon might not have ever seen someone die.

"It's m-m-my f-f-fault," Leon sobbed, unable to maintain what emotional composure was left.

"Leon, listen to me."

Kriok knelt beside him, and almost extended an arm to comfort him before retracting it-- she doubted her capacity to be anywhere close to reassuring with the level of industrial implants she had installed on her current body. Her neck contracted slightly as she looked at him, attempting as best she could to be at eye level. "Leon?" She asked again.

"It's m-my f-fault th-they died, b-because I-I was, I w-was--"

"We can't change that, Leon. We--" She began, but stopped as a sudden rush of old memories resurfaced. She was looking back at her dead home, a too-perfect digital recollection of everything that had happened-- every sight, every sound, every sense, perfectly recorded. She could recognize everything, everyone who had died that day. Every body that remained catatonic, every machine that stood dormant and silent, every building that was empty and slowly being reclaimed by rust. She was asking him to move on when she had never done so herself.

"--We have to accept what has happened and keep going. Nothing will let us fix the past." She finished, trying to push the memories into a distant recess of her mind.

Leon waited in silence until he finally nodded, sniffling slightly as he wiped his eyes. "Y-y-you're right," He said, unsteadily moving to stand back up. "L-let's, um, l-let's k-keep going. I th-think I kn-know where t-t-th-the exit is."

Neither of them would have any real chance to enjoy their reprieve, however, as they were immediately plucked out of their relative positions in the multiverse and forcibly flung across the cosmos. After an indefinitely-long hiatus, Last Thing Standing was back on the air.
And then, in front of a live studio audience…

“Weeeelcome back, sports fans!”

The voiceover slammed them back to RealityTV, the audience’s roar crashing about itself into something far divorced from its organic origins. The cages were gone, the contestants captured instead in the spotlight beams from on high.

“It looks like our little gladiators have been through hell - schedule hell, that is!”

“That’s right, <unpronounceable wailing>! You wouldn’t book it from the look of them that they’ve been kicking back in sunny Eta Carina -

“Say, Jeff, does the glow of a nebula still count as ‘sunny’?”

“An excellent question, <heat death of a universe made aural>! It’s all stardust to me no matter how sloppily you package it!”

“Folks at home, if you want to experience this self-proclaimed ‘8th wonder of the Multiverse’ with your own photon-receptive organs, the fine folks at Supernova Tours have a package deal available. Just call the number currently tickling the back of your subconscious mind, and quote the promotional code ‘LTS’. Back to you, Jeff.”

“Thanks, <flesh shattering in defiance of all its material properties>! As you might be aware, Last Thing Standing’s been plagued from the start with all manner of mismanagement, and lucky for everyone that kind of meta-bickering is what passes for great TV in this corner of existence!”

“It almost makes you lose sight of the real heroes of this show, our plucky contestants waiting patiently down at Camera 3. What are they waiting for, you ask?”

“Is it facing their impending death for the singular purpose of others’ entertainment?”

“Spoken like an entity with no personal concept of mortality, Jeff!”

“Haha! But what’s this?”

The contestants felt the perspective shift with that final word, the gaze of a multiverse’s worth of viewers tuned in and turned upon them.

“It appears we have a special guest joining our roster tonight!” Jeff’s voice dropped several dozen octaves, you know, for dramatic effect. “A cerulean stunner striking out onto the multiversal stage tonight, she’s beauty, she’s grace, she’ll shove a pistol through your face, she’s…. BEUNISSIMA! COEL Y OS! TIEMUASIIIIIIIIIIIIIYYYYYYYY!!!

The darkness parted, and upon stage upon screen strode the populuxe princess. She was beaming but for the briefest second as the spotlights struck and the crowd exploded, and with that glint of fear she beamed all the harder. Most people would have only one chance at their debut.

Bennie knew for a fact she wasn’t most people.


The penthouse suite dining room, stand-in centrepiece of the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s domain, was as much an integral piece of the agent as the suited woman - neither existed more than strictly required. It applied this conditionality to many facets of its personality, up to and including personality itself. The table itself was a solid slab of black marble Business, arrayed with laden dishes only so the champagne flutes wouldn’t look out of place. Everything sparkled.

To Bennie, the experience was of masterfully refined condescension, threatening as the very particular kind of laugh that she herself liked to think she could pull off. Our celebrity wasn’t quite disoriented - though she could recall the studio, the interviewer, as very recent; a direct contradiction of the nagging feeling that Bennie had spent the last <PROCEDURALLY APPROPRIATE TIMEFRAME> being very Professionally and Properly wined and dined.

Not quite sure how to proceed, Bennie reached for a glass of nothing specific. It was perfectly served and very very expensive, and its lack of other tangible descriptors didn’t improve her mood any.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority noted her discomfort, and laid down its knife and fork. Bennie couldn’t recall it having taken a single bite.

“An acquisition,” it began, “of the conceptual package (and associated sentient entities) Grandmastered by The Entity Formerly Designated As The Broadcaster, hereby summarised as Last Thing Standing, has been tendered and accepted following expression of interest. Your addition to the roster of Last Thing Standing was personally requested by the new owner, and it is on their behalf-” click-click, a smile flashed antiquated like a scratch between vacation snaps on a maltreated slide projector “-that we take great pleasure in presenting your employment contract.”

Bennie took an immediate dislike, but the mundane surreality of the situation had a rather firm hand upon her metaphorical shoulder, halting an interruption. The Broadcasting Standards Authority drew a stack of paper from nowhere, a trace too much insistence in its neutral tones that they’d already been over all this, a simple formality, it’s been a long day and let us sign posthaste.

Something tickled the back of the celebrity’s brain, before lashing out with a kick and a holler of HOW THE HELL DID I GET HERE. She surveyed the room the best she could without turning her head; if there was a door Bennie had come in through it lay somewhere behind her.

“Who the fuck do you think you are.”

The woman didn’t bother looking supercilious, its power overwhelming an obvious a remark on things as the day of the week. Bennie was unimpressed

“I am the Broadcasting Standards Authority,” began the Broadcasting Standards Authority, “acting executor of Last Thing Standing. It would-”

“That’s a gameshow?”

“Yes, and broadcast across the Multiversal cluster in (and my employer has requested I here quote my employer) ‘an unprecedented range of demographics-spanning profile spectra’-”

The parentheses felt less like a knife to the temple, and more like its unnecessary subsequent twist. “Multiversal-? Shut up. Press-ganging me into some contest I’ve never heard of? Like that’s ‘unprecedented’,” scoffed the celebrity. “I’m Princess. Beunissima. Fucking. Tiemuasyi.”

Brostauth seemed unmoved. “I have an agent for this kind of thing.”

A less authoritative sort of Grandmasterling might have actually bothered to have done exactly what had been requested of it - patiently introducing Beunissima to the Multiverse, to battles, to the exciting career opportunity she had ahead of her. A more standard kind of Multiversal entity might’ve shown some frustration at this contrived role it had been shoved into, squashing just enough of the infinity of its existence through a mold into a facade capable of charisma, rhetoric, or empathy.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority instead brought her less-than-enthusiastic employee-to-be up to speed with a flash of pure reality. Bennie took the information dump(truck (collision)) to her cortex surprisingly well, though her brain itched a little as it filtered from there through to her hippocampus and other regions.

The Multiverse, the inverse incomprehensible smallness of everything as Bennie had known it not ten seconds ago, bloomed before her, lending a fresh perspective that at least made the whole situation sensible, if not quite palatable. The princess massaged a temple, trying to get a sense again of where she stood in all this.

“So this is all just a formality, then.” She smirked. “Theatrics.”

“My employer deemed a better use of your services to Last Thing Standing were you a willing and informed participant. To the former, they have requested your creative inputs-” no disapproval there, what were you talking about “-for the betterment of Last Thing Standing.”

Bennie digested that (the lawyertalk was somehow tougher to parse than raw fact), exhaled sharply, and sat down again with the contract. For a minute or so, the only sound in the room was swiftly-turned pages of fine print, though Brostauth could hear the tiny shutter-flick-click of Bennie’s ocular implants scanning.

“Seems pretty straightforward,” Bennie eventually lied. “Other than the Meducin and the Hotel California, which I would’ve expected more on the likes of BIOSFEAR or some godawful collaboration of the Travel and Discovery channels, there’s nothing I can’t handle. Not that I couldn’t, granted, but this thing’s enough of a scruffy pastiche as it is.”

“Your filming schedule (Appendix XVI) notes a five minute in-studio segment to make any changes.”

“Workable,” sniffed the princess. She peeled a separate appendix (labelled “Rounds”) from the stack, blitzing through the pages. “No, no, potentially, over my dead body, save it for the mid-season ratings drop, no, if you’re desperate, absolutely not...”

The Broadcasting Standards Authority didn’t flinch as Bennie ripped out a scant tenth of the sheaf and tossed it back to its end of the table. “Those are my recommendations for the-” Bennie glanced down at the top sheet of the dossier “-rounds. Make the next one something cozier, though - I can’t tell if you’re trying to run a travel infomercial or an attempted-avant-garde kids’ cartoon.” She glanced up again, the disarrayed sheets neatly arranged and paperclipped in front of Brostauth (unmoved). Bennie’s unflappability cracked momentarily, she slid the main brick of contract within writing’s reach and rearranged herself in the chair.

“Bear in mind,” beamed Bennie, screaming internally, signing with a flourish and stabbing the pen through the contract, into the table, “I’ll come and kill you and your boss just as soon as I figure out how. Don’t think the crowd wouldn’t be all over that.”

Bennie meant it as an idle, bitter threat; the petulant parting shot of the resoundingly crushed. Brostauth, employer’s best interests in mind, foresaw her own destruction at the princess’ hands, and grinned a smile both genuine and alarming. “We eagerly await your patronage.”

“In the interim, however, Ms. Tiemuasiy, you’re needed on set.”


Bennie cut a striking figure, all Lichtensteinian flats and geometric silhouettes against the indistinct blackdrop of offstage and the audience. She took the scene in with a subtle tilt of the head, made sure she had every other contestant’s attention.

“Greetings, Multiverse!” she sang, voice booming unassisted over the cacophony. She raised a regal hand - the other contestants would’ve jerked on the spot if they could’ve, fruitlessly tested their restraints - as she strode forward into centre stage.

“This queen of the small screen’s no novice to the televised elimination tournament circuit - she’s dismantled ensemble casts bigger than what’s lined up for her today!”

“I must say!” Bennie glowed. “It is an absolute pleasure to be here, and I eagerly look forward to all of you meeting me. Although…” her eyes narrowed, she twirled about, gestured with theatrical abandon to the still-frozen six-and-an-inn.

“I seem to have brought the game back to eight contestants!” Leon flinched at the last word, though the confusingly attractive alien drew no especial attention to him. “In a deathmatch? That can’t be right!” She laughed, one hand on her hip and the other twirling out of nowhere what must’ve been a microphone. Her speech was still voice-over crisp.

“No drama! No tension! No tenterhooks in heartstrings! I’ve seen infomercials with higher stakes than this.”

Something about Bennie - no, everything about Bennie, right then - provoked indignation. The formless crowd bristled at the cock of her head, the prim-pernickety disapproval, the smirk, the gall. The <bleep> did this backspace popart hack know about anything?

The other contestants felt the hatred, let it curl cold and cozy in their stomachs. Who the <hell> would revel in joining bloodsport like this?

Leon, seething with the best of them, got the best (most foreshortened) view of the microphone as it unfolded into a wicked little pistol. His eyes widened.


“Shooting Stardust! Looks like this princess isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty! We’re going to need a cleanup on Round 2, <intrastellar deathcore remix>!”

“If this were any other programme Jeff, I’d probably raise contention at a non-Earthlet being the one who gets executed in front of the live studio audience, but that’d be a blue pot calling out a blue kettle. Poor guy never got much screen time, no chance to gain an edge wordways with the crowd.”

“Not that you’ve got much experience with that!”

“Haha, yeah. Did you know the vocal chords of my physical manifestation extend to nearly half a light year long?”

“That’s an <layered ululations> fact for you kids out there! Please remember that parental guidance is recommended for Last Thing Standing.”

“Anyway, if we see how our contestants are doing, wow, that sure is a lot of blood. You guys call that blood, yeah?”

“Close enough! It looks like the initial plasma round wasn’t enough to finish him, so our intrepid assassin is bringing those pretty little blades of hers into the fray. She’s going to want to mind all that blood, though, the set’s adamantium surfaces quite neatly disguise the highly corrosive-”

“-I’m going to have to stop you there, Jeff, because Ms. Tiemuasyi appears to have done. Her. Homework! That, or she’s making one heck of a fashion statement with those inch-thick gloves. If that jellyfish doesn’t have a trick up its sleeve, it’s jam on toast for him!”

“And that’s done it! The crowd goes wild as-”

The crowd went wild as Bennie threw down a sizzling glove, freeing a hand to pointlessly tuck her hair back. The circle Nizzo had been trapped in flashed like a camera, vanishing away the acid and corpse and leaving a single, still-smoking hilt of an energy sword.

Bennie let the noise wash over her for a breath, before striding into the circle and doing a neat 180 so she faced back into the ring of contestants. Her sword leapt back into her waiting hand, an unexpected but welcome feature. This was acceptable.

The demurest of curtsies. An exaggerated wink. “Back to you, Jeff,”
said Bennie.

“Well, how about that! After the break, we’ll see what the contestants have in store for them in Round Two of…….. Last! Thing! Standing!”


"Dreams?" Freefall, on the edge of the harbor, looked into the sparkling ocean and scoffed, "More like delusions..."

The mighty heroine was sitting, alone, letting her hair flow in the sugary breeze. A wave of pink water that probably wasn't water crashed against the crystalline rock under her just like her hopes of ever leaving this battle. How had everything gone so wrong? How could she let this all happen? Even if she hadn't had anything under control before, at the very least she was getting a grasp on things... but then... so many changes, all at once, all so fast.

Even if there was nothing she could have done to prevent Nizzo's death, it still hurt, not because it meant that this wretched game would go on, but because it meant that one of the new elements obviously wasn't on her side. Well, as much as she had a side. Freefall knew that while Kriok, Aaron, and the rest had more or less sided against the ringleaders of the event, they weren't unified on that front. But Beunissima seemed to... enjoy this, to almost revel in the carnage... it was disgusting.

"Just like all of these dreams..."

Freefall had dreams once, but that was such a long time ago that it's hardly worth remembering. She was young, five years old, just learning to read, spending her days playing with her friends, the usual things. Those times would soon be swept away, like hopes are swept away by reality. Everything changed on that fateful day, when The Beacon died. Sunny skies were replaced by a cloudy darkness, and a grim reality began to rock her world...

The death of the highest profile superhero does more than destabilize the world of super heroics, it touches upon every life, no matter how young, no matter how poor, no matter how utterly pathetic and weak. Freefall doesn't remember when she realized that she wasn't like her friends, how they all still seemed to have plans and options and places to go... but when she did, it wasn't the sort of thing that she could just... forget.

Oh, it wasn't immediate, she still had hope at first, even if she couldn't be super, she could at least be strong, carry on the messages that The Beacon imparted unto her and others like her. In those first few mourning weeks, she thought that even if his light got snuffed out from this world, someone else would carry it on. Instead, the world turned against him... journalists questioning if the new, more brutal waves of heroes, raised while The Beacon was at his peak, were encouraged by his acts of so-called violence. Saying that if he was so great, why did he fight, couldn't he have talked his enemies down, set a better example? Slander. All of it was slander, but the world wouldn't listen, even less to someone like her.

So her strength became a strength for herself. She began to fight, and fight, even making it to real fights. Until she got her powers, that was all she thought she would do, her fourteen years of failure...

"Am I... jumping to conclusions? What if Beunissima was lost, like I once was? I need to be sure... I can't just..." Freefall got up and tied her hair back. She took a few breaths of the air, clenched her fist, and looked back into the town. "What should I do? What would..."

Freefall took out her communicator, now in the worst condition it had ever been. What was she doing? What could she do? Her hand was shaking, maybe... it was time to let go...

Without another thought, she tossed her communicator into the ocean, watching it slowly sink and get carried away. Despite being so close to the shore, the moment it was fully submerged, it vanished from her sight. It was gone, but Freefall was not, she resolved to solve things here, on her own terms. First on the docket, Beunissima. Given the type of person that the new competitor seemed to be, the best place to start would be the shopping district, plenty of people, plenty of chances to show off, and plenty of things to do, on both sides of the law.

"Alright Beunissima. I'm coming for you."

Freefall dashed from the harbor-side, intent on questioning the enigma that was Beunissima...thoughts and memories interweaving into a haze that overcast the town's blue-grey crystals beneath her feet, the glinting golden twilight, and one singular blue light, focused on her...


Olive City... a multiverse away...

METAL and Ace had been working away at the Eagle computer, scanning across the multiverse for signs of their lost member, both of them knowing little other stimulation than the sounds of METAL's fingers tapping the keys and the glowing data scrawled across the screen, with the exception of a report or visit from one of the other members of the group.

"Why can't we find her? It's been days, and we have some of the most sophisticated equipment in the universe!"


"That shouldn't matter! We've traveled it before, we've made it back, before! Why is this time different?"


"And let me guess, the fact that her communicator's busted doesn't help?"


"The one thing she'd never let go... a beacon to always keep her on the path of righteousness..."



The two looked at the computer screen, which suddenly seemed to be working faster. The numbers and letters that made the various calculations began to finally slowing down to a reasonable pace,much to the shock of Ace.

"What's going on?"


"What, how?"


Ace paused for a moment before answering, "No, the two of us should be enough, whatever is going on is obviously powerful, the less noise we make taking her back the better."

Any ship’s captain with more than a couple of months experience upon the Somnocean learned to recognize the subtle silver sparkle upon the waters that indicated a shoal of dreams had taken up residence somewhere nearby. This particular shoal was barely out of the Ceridwen docks so it was hardly surprising to see so many ships competing for this valuable ethereal haul.

Captain Magna the Great was the first to spot the Inn. She was a tall and sturdily built woman with darkly tanned skin and hair like stiff bristles of straw. She was heavily scarred, the only parts of her that were not were the parts replaced with dull bronze machinery, and even those parts were dented and scratched. Even as she stood still, doing nothing more than taking stock of the other ships in the area, her body ticked and clicked relentlessly. A blood red spyglass lens whirred idly as she warily moved her gaze from ship to ship; it wasn’t unheard of for dreamfishers to attack rivals if they thought the haul was going to be valuable enough.

Captain Magna just happened to be looking in the right direction when the Traveller’s Rest Casino snapped into this new reality. It appeared a good ten feet above the calm carmine ocean and hung there longer than ought to be possible as its shape adapted to its new environment. Captain Magna watched as the building transformed from a run-down looking casino to that of a small black ship as smoothly as if it was water being tipped from one container to another. For a second she half expected it to sail away through the sky, it wouldn’t have been the weirdest thing she had seen sailing the Somnocean, but once the transformation was complete gravity seemed to catch up with the Inn.

Magna was ready to call out for her crew to brace themselves as the Inn hit the water, but the impact was surprisingly shallow; the resulting wave only barely jostling the other ships. Even so it can’t have gone unnoticed, Magna mused. She’d never seen a transformation so smooth, and teleporting into the middle of a busy shoal… just how valuable could one shoal be?

“Captain Magna!” A distressed voice yelled from above. It belonged to Young Gail Brass, the ship’s rookie lookout. “There’s a-“

“I see it Brass.” Magna called back. Brass hurriedly climbed down from the Crow’s Nest, while the rest of the crew alerted by her cry ran to the prow of the ship, gathering around Captain Magna to get a look at the new arrival.

The Traveller’s Rest floated there, more still and stable than it had any right to be after falling out of thin air. Wind billowed gently in its dark purple sails, and above them flew a flag displaying the crescent moon logo of the Inn. Captain Magna’s eye zoomed in on the ship, slowly scanning along the deck. She observed what appeared to be a bar constructed around the central mast, with only a couple of bottles still remaining safely upon their shelves, and across the rest of the deck were scattered wooden sun loungers. A difficult to describe woman with skin like the relieved liltings of a harp sat amongst the upturned recliners.

Captain Magna’s crew looked at her expectantly. “Black sails captain.” Brass said, giving voice to the unspoken concern of the crew. “They’re probably pirates.”

“I can’t see any weaponry…” Captain Magna observed, not taking her gaze away from the ship. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any, she considered the transformation she’d just seen. Magic like that was potentially more dangerous than any cannons. After a long moment in thought she turned to face her crew and ordered them to battle positions. As the rest of the crew hurried into place Brass stayed staring out at the mysterious black ship.

“Captain?” Brass asked, concern evident in her voice.

Magna turned back to the Traveller’s Rest and she could have sworn it was bigger than it had been a moment before. Before she could dismiss this suspicion the Traveller’s Rest began to expand before her eyes. Slowly at first, the ship retained the same basic appearance but now bigger, more luxurious than it had been before. Though the eye was drawn to the ship, Magna couldn’t help but notice that the water around it was no longer the pale pink it had been before, now it was pure glittering silver. Though it could only mean one thing it still took Magna a minute to come to that conclusion, she’d never seen a shoal gather around a ship before. And still the Inn was growing in size, now as large as any of the other ships that surrounded it, now larger. At some point it had started shaking violently back and forth in the calm waters.

Brass was looking expectantly at Captain Magna. “Everyone brace yerselves.” She called out uncertainly. She had no idea what was about to happen but she doubted it would be anything good.

As the Inn continued to swell up to impossible size some of the ships around it started to move away as hurriedly as they could under whatever means of propulsion they had to hand. The nearest ship, a brig with a golden star upon its flag, fired a volley of cannonballs at the Inn. They crashed through the side of the enormous ship with little resistance but within a moment the damage was gone as though it had been healed over.

The glittering silver of the dream shoal slowly began to fade, whilst the rocking of the Inn got more and more violent, until finally it shattered like glass. Exactly like glass in fact. The Inn fell away in pieces which dissipated in the air, revealing the emptiness underneath. As chunks of illusion sloughed away eventually all that was left at its heart was a small burnt out husk of a building, no more than two storeys high when upright, though at the moment it was lying on its back. Water, or whatever this ocean was made up of, gushed through the rotted planks of the shack and slowly the structure that had passed for the Inn began to sink beneath the ocean of dreams.

No more than five minutes after its arrival the Traveller’s Rest was gone, the only traces of its existence a handful of figures bobbing in the waters where it had so briefly been.


Some time earlier.

The proprietor of the Traveller’s Rest Casino stood squared off against the near-impenetrable doors of his vault. He was the very picture of focus. His eyes closed, his body rigid, his hands clenched tightly, his brow thick with sweat. The only movement was the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest as he slowly breathed in and out. Breathing in and out slowly, he tried to marshal his thoughts, turn them away from the fate that Saint had surely met, from the mocking voice of his own past, from the horror that had befallen his inn, from the names that he called himself and the one he didn’t. He breathed in and out so slowly thinking only of what he must do now.

Eventually, after who knows how long doing nothing more than that, he could feel the Inn around him, he could feel his breath rippling through it as though he and it were one thing. He opened his eyes and they shone. He raised his hands before him and slowly, with a considerable amount of effort he pulled them apart his actions mirrored in the heavy vault doors before him.

His focus faltered and failed as he saw what lay beyond those doors. Saint lay… mangled… in a pool of her own blood and… She was… in pieces. Her limbs… He forced himself to look away. This was everything that he’d feared but no amount of preparation could have prepared him to see her like that. He felt as though he’d been stabbed in the guts, as though someone had knocked all the breath from his lungs.

“Owen…” Saint rasped, somehow still impossibly alive.

In the second it took her to say that name it was like his entire body had turned to ice. He couldn’t speak; he could hardly even manage to form a coherent thought. He looked down at her, saw the anguish in her upturned eyes and forced his gaze away again. It was too much. He just couldn’t.

“You look different.” Saint struggled to force out the words. And he did look different; it wasn’t just the loss of his suit jacket or the slicking back of his wild hair. He looked older, his face more drawn. Whatever essence it had been that had shone through his eyes earlier had long gone leaving them paler and emptier than ever.

“I’m dying Owen.” Saint’s voice was barely louder than a whisper. “Hold me, Owen…” she sobbed. “I don’t wanna die alone.”

He’d been trying to maintain his composure, trying to stop himself from being the same weak person who had let this happen in the first place. That resolve crumbled in the face of Saint’s plea for comfort. Within moments he was by her side, holding what was left of her in his arms. Her heartbeat was so soft. Tears streamed from his eyes. “I’m sorry.” He whispered. “I’m so sorry. I should have…”

“It’s okay.” Saint shushed him into silence. Her breathing grew shallower. She looked him in the eyes, that mischievous fire already extinguished, and forced out: “…nothing you could have done…” And then she was dead.

And she was dead wrong.

And he knew it.


Elsewhere in the inn.

Maria was following placidly behind a nightmare wearing Owen’s skin. She knew that he couldn’t be real, couldn’t really be the same man she’d known and trusted all her life, or at least she hoped and prayed that he couldn’t. But what she thought didn’t seem to matter in the least; she was like a puppet on his strings. She watched as her body followed the twisted facsimile of the innkeeper through the dark ransacked corridors, she tried not to watch as he carved open the guests as they slept. She especially tried not to think about how her body helped him do so.

“Oh look Maria.” ‘Owen’ said as they entered yet another guest room. This one was in better shape than some of them they’d been in. There was no overturned furniture, no dried blood or other signs of a struggle. All that could be said against it was that it was very dusty and it kind of looked like it was a child’s bedroom. There were posters of a vaguely familiar looking boy band pinned to the wall. There was a toy chest with a princess doll. At the far end of the room there was a canopy bed with the curtains pulled closed. For a moment it all looked very familiar and then Maria realized that of course it looked familiar this was a guest room she must have come and cleaned in here at some point or something.

Owen walked across the dark room, and she followed uneasily behind him. “I was of course hoping to leave you till last.” He said with what almost sounded like a hint of sadness. “But since we’re here already we might as well get it over with.” As he reached out and grabbed the curtain Maria was gripped by a sudden fear, as though what was behind that curtain was even more terrifying than the bloodstained nightmare that stood before her.

“Please don’t.” Maria pleaded.

Without releasing his grip on the curtain ‘Owen’ turned to face her, his face contorted into the biggest grin he’d wore all night. “Do you remember?”

“No.” Maria snapped. “Please, no, please don’t do it.”

‘Owen’ just chuckled. “Sorry Maria. I’m afraid it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.” In one swift moment he drew the curtain back, but she already knew what was lying beyond.


Once upon a time there was a little girl called Maria. She had a family who loved her and she had friends who loved her too.

One day Maria went for a hike through the woods with her friends, for she lived in a small village with not much to do. She was distracted maybe daydreaming, maybe watching the scampering of some adorable woodland creature while her friends hurried onwards and soon she found herself on her own. She tried to follow their path and catch up to them but pretty soon she was completely lost. By the time she thought to call out to her friends they were well out of earshot.

Maria wandered through the woods hoping to find some landmark she could remember or some helpful woodsman to lead her back home just like how it happened in the storybooks. As the sun set and rain began to fall she had found neither, she was more lost than ever and her hopes of rescue had faded considerably.

The rain continued getting heavier and heavier and soon there was the flash of lightning and the distant crash of thunder. When Maria stumbled upon an old burned out shack, she was grateful for the shelter despite the fact that she’d heard stories about an old shack deep in the woods that was once home to an evil old wizard. “There’s no evil old wizard.” She said with rather more certainty than she felt.

“Well, not anymore.” A voice from deeper within the shack replied.

Maria to her credit took this opportunity to scream and flee the shack. She only stopped when she tripped over a tree root and landed in the mud, and upon climbing to her feet she realized she wasn’t being pursued. Cautiously, ready to turn and resume her flight at any moment, she made her way back to the shack. Stood in the doorway was a man in a black suit with pale skin and wild hair. He looked ancient, and that’s not just because as a child anyone over a certain age looks ancient.

“Hello again.” He said.

“Hi.” Maria replied while half hiding behind a tree. “Are you an evil old wizard?”

“No. Well maybe. I’m not the person you’re referring to but I could see how all three of those could be applied to me.” He said thoughtfully.

“Oh.” Maria said. “If you’re an evil wizard don’t you want to…” she hesitated unsure exactly what it was that evil wizards are supposed to do to you if they catch you, “turn me into a toad?”

“Why would I want to do that?” The man asked. Maria just shrugged. “You’re sopping wet, why don’t you come in? I’ll fix up a fire and you can warm up and rest a while.”

“My mom says I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”

“Well my name’s Oneiros.” The man said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Maria Appolonia Schutjer.” Maria said proudly, only slightly stumbling over her surname.

“Nice to meet you Maria Appolonia Schutjer.” Oneiros replied with a smile.

“Nice to meet you Ohni-, Oni-, Ohhnee-“ Maria paused thoughtfully then continued with a grin of her own. “Nice to meet you Mister O.”

“Now we’re not strangers come inside and rest for a while.” Mister O said. “Tomorrow when you’re good and warm and rested I’ll help you get back home.”


Behind the curtain lay an old woman. She looked ancient and not just in the way that to a child anyone over a certain age looks ancient. Her skin was so thin it was almost transparent. Her hair was an ash white tangled mess so long that it covered the bed and trailed onto the floorboards beneath.

“Look what he’s done to you Maria.” ‘Owen’ said plainly. She didn’t respond in shock or horror, she responded with the quiet acceptance of someone receiving confirmation of something they’d long since suspected, even though she’d never been conscious of that suspicion until this very moment.

A long moment of silence. Maria regarded her sleeping self with a sense of detachment, while ‘Owen’ carefully watched her face for some flicker of emotion. Eventually she said: “He didn’t do this to me, time did.”

“He stole your life.” ‘Owen’ spat.

“I’ve lived a life.” Maria replied stonily.

“He stole you from your family.”

Maria hesitated. It was hard to refute that. “He raised me; he built me this room to make me happy.”

“He built you this room to placate you!” ‘Owen’ snarled. “He doesn’t care about you!” He was furious, his eyes burning with rage, his fists clenched tightly, his mouth set into a repulsed scowl. “You’re nothing to him but fuel!”

“He cares.” Maria said uncertainly, backing as far away from ‘Owen’ as she could with the limited control she had of her own body.

“Ffffine.” ‘Owen’ snapped dismissively. “I hoped you would see him for the monster that he is before the end but really it doesn’t matter.” He raised the bloodied knife above Maria’s sleeping self, gripping it tightly with both hands. For the slightest instant Maria thought of pleading with the nightmare, begging for its mercy, but she knew it was pointless and she didn’t want to give it the satisfaction. Instead she threw every last ounce of strength she had into one movement, not expecting to get anywhere but not willing to not try, and somehow she lurched forwards and tackled into him.

‘Owen’ stumbled and lost his grip on the knife which careened off into some dusty corner of the room. He peeled Maria away as if she were made of damp tissue and threw her across the room, sending her crashing into her old desk, which cracked and snapped beneath her but she barely felt a thing.

Slumped there in the wreckage of her desk and a landslide of her old drawings, she watched helplessly as ‘Owen’ placed a pillow from her bed over her physical self’s face and then pressed down. She couldn’t move. Not a muscle. Her ears rang like she was underwater, everything seemed so far away. A distant booming voice she couldn’t even begin to parse. Her lungs burned. She was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it, she couldn’t even scream.

She was sure she was hallucinating from lack of oxygen when the knife floated towards ‘Owen’ and slit his throat open. He fell back, his grip upon the pillow gone and Maria gasped for beautiful precious air. ‘Owen’ writhed on the floor for a moment, screaming in pain until the pain turned into laughter. His hand shot out and grabbed nothing and then pulled it. Nothing hit the ground and slowly colour bled back into the empty shape.

“Yaelja!” Maria half yelled, half coughed.

“Fucking insect!” ‘Owen’ cursed. Yaelja grabbed for his neck, digging her thorns into his wound with as much force as she could. ‘Owen’ coughed and choked and with a great effort of will he reached up and grabbed Yaelja’s wrists and squeezed. She screamed a loud bitter taste, holding onto his neck for as long as she could before she couldn’t take it any longer.

‘Owen’ climbed to his feet, fixed Maria with a big toothy grin and kicked Yaelja in the stomach (or the area where a human would have a stomach anyway). “Sorry about the delay. Just let me take care of this…” kick “Annoying…” kick. “Weed…” another flash of the grin “And I’ll get right back to you.” He walked around to Yaelja’s head and casually placed one foot atop it. “Say goodbye to your little friend, Maria.” He raised his foot and then he vanished, dissipated into the air like dust.

Maria and Yaelja lay there for a minute slowly recuperating and thanking whatever entity each of them gave thanks to for the sudden end to the threat. Gradually the distant booming voice she’d been hearing on the edge of her consciousness became clearer:

“Well, how about that! After the break, we’ll see what the contestants have in store for them in Round Two of…….. Last Thing Standing!”

And then everything began to shake.


Saint burst through the door to the security control room desperately out of breath. With barely a break in her stride, though quite a few muttered curses beneath her breath, she grabbed one of the seats, hauled it back to the door and jammed it beneath the doorhandle. Only after testing her makeshift barricade did she allow herself a moment to rest.

“Holy fucking shit.” She swore bitterly when her breath returned. “Fucking zombies… Fucking great.” She sat down in the other chair and pulled off her high heels. They really hadn’t been the best choice, but she’d rather been hoping to go one solid day without having to fight zombies.

She’d been running for the vault with Owen. He’d outpaced her somehow, well obviously the heels hadn’t helped, got inside and then the doors had slammed shut behind him. After that everything was a blur of panic only coming into sharp focus when she saw them. Their flesh was already rotting away, their expressions vacant, their clothes torn and bloodstained. A couple of days she’d have taken them out no problem but for some reason she’d chosen not to carry a weapon today. Maybe she’d been trying to fool herself into thinking she could have something resembling a normal life.

There was a thump from the door; for a moment Saint’s heart was in her mouth, but her barrier was more than capable of holding off the shambling hordes. She looked around the security room; at the far end there was a fenced off area filled with weapons. Probably most of it would be non-lethal given this was a security office in a casino and not a military armoury, but anything would be better than the nothing she currently had. It would have been perfect if not for the fact that she didn’t have the code. The rest of the room was mostly filled with banks of monitors displaying footage from the rest of the casino and empty paper coffee cups.

Saint was about to get up and make an earnest attempt at brute forcing the code on the armoury gate when something caught her eye on one of the monitors. It was the vault and… no… how did they get in there? Owen was facing down a whole crowd of zombies, slowly backing himself into a corner. He had nowhere to run and nothing to defend himself with. “No.” she whispered. Even if she already had a weapon, even if there were no obstacles between her and the vault and she ran flat out not stopping for breath even once, even then she’d never get there in time. All she could do was watch, and she did watch.

Saint watched as they got close enough to him to lunge. He fought the first one off but she could tell he’d been bitten. He was as good as dead now even if he could fight off the rest of them. He couldn’t. In a moment he was overwhelmed and then she had to look away.

“Fuck.” She cursed uselessly. It didn’t even begin to cover the pain, the frustration, the despair she was feeling.

On another monitor she spotted Maria and Yaelja surrounded by zombies on the casino floor. She watched as Wesley Cockburn made his last stand in the ladies toilets. Kriok was overwhelmed as she fled for the exit. Saint even spotted that weird paint guy unconcernedly splattering his attackers with more aesthetically appealing colours. One by one she watched everyone die.


When she’d arrived at the Traveller’s Rest she’d claimed she was a scout for a group of survivors and that had been true, once. It was nobody’s fault, an unanticipated weak point in their safehouse’s defences. She’d been lucky to get out of there alive. Nobody else had been that lucky. She had absolutely no idea how long ago that was now. One day was pretty much like another, killing zombies, scavenging supplies, desperately trying to stay sane in an empty world. Some nights she’d considered using her own crossbow. It would be so much easier than trying to struggle on in the futile hope she’d meet some other survivors.

She couldn’t do it again. It was just too much to ask. She started to weep, barely noticing as the thudding at the door silenced. After a minute everything began to shake.

“Oh what the fuck now.” She snapped indignantly.


Oneiros made his way to his office in silence. The lights flickered as he passed beneath them. Bloodstains and deep scratches adorned every wall. There was the occasional corpse along his path but none of them even came close to affecting him as strongly as Saint’s had. He was untouchable. He was everything he hadn’t been for a long time.

By the time he reached his office there was a loud voice booming through the Traveller’s Rest announcing the resumption of the battle. Good, he thought. He’d be glad to see the back of this place.

His office was a mess of light and colour; it was trying to be so many different things all at once the only thing it actually resembled was a headache. He had to align himself with the fabric of the Inn once again, but it seemed so much simpler this time, even despite the aesthetic nightmare around him. Cleansing the inn was easy, as easy as reaching out and wiping it clean one stain at a time.

The nightmares vanished one by one; his monstrous duplicate, the zombies, the false visions of death and numerous other horrors. Within moments the inn was while not good as new, due to the drastically decreased number of guests, definitely better than it had been. If only he’d gotten here sooner, he thought but what he really meant was if only he was not so painfully limited. He’d never hated this inn more than he did at that moment.

And then everything began to shake.

Oneiros absently rested a sympathetic hand upon the wall. The inn was rearranging itself to suit its new environment again, and while this usually happened without any noticeable effect upon the interior, he supposed this must be a particularly challenging shape and the current dearth of dreamers was probably a factor. His attention was elsewhere, somewhere beyond the walls of the inn he could feel a presence; a motherlode of dreams just ripe for the taking. He grinned and ran for the deck.


Yaelja found herself on the deck of the ship once the first lot of shaking had finished. She was just thankful to be in one piece after the fight with whatever that thing was, and of course after overcoming her own exciting and horrifying nightmare scenario previous to that. She walked over to the bar, she reckoned she’d earned a little early drink after whatever the hell all that was, and took a seat as Mister O emerged from belowdecks.

She greeted him with the taste of strawberry syrup. He did not reciprocate the greeting. He swept straight past her to the prow of the ship. Almost as soon as he got there everything started shaking again, even more violently than before. She clung to the bar, ducking beneath a bottle of something expensive that hadn’t been dislodged in the first shipquake. By the time she thought maybe it would be a better idea to head belowdecks it was far too dangerous to let go. She looked over at Mister O who was standing unsupported; he didn’t even seem to notice the shaking. She considered informing him of the danger but no forget it he didn’t seem to be in a conversational mood he’d notice sooner or later.

Things got worse and worse, until, suddenly she found herself waking up in one of the cabins belowdecks feeling slow and sluggish like she’d been asleep for weeks. Pale pink water was leaking up through the floor, no wait that was the wall, huh. Well whatever was going on she needed to get out of here.

By the time she got to the door the water was up to her knees. She was forced to vault through the doorway to get into an upturned hallway she’d need to climb to hope to traverse. Rather than attempt that she vaulted into the cabin opposite (actually they weren’t actually cabins were they she thought) to find an old lady struggling to her feet.

“Yaelja.” Maria croaked, her voice not having been used for a long time.

Yaelja replied with the smell of baking bread.

“You too.” Maria said happily. “What’s going on?”

The scent of the ocean.

The water was up to their waists at this point. “Yeah I kind of figured.” Maria said. “Let’s get out of here?” Yaelja nodded and waded over to Maria, putting her arm around her. She started towards the far wall, “Any chance of a more conventional exit?”

An image of a towering cliff.

“Oh right okay.” Maria nodded. The water was up to their chests by the time they reached the far wall. Yaelja reached out with her free hand and easily prised a couple of planks loose. The pink water started flowing in faster but it was a way out.

The sensation of a seatbelt Yaelja instructed. Maria nodded and then they were half climbing, half swimming through the hole in the wall into the ocean of dreams that lay on the other side.

After a minute they reached the surface. Saint was already there, amongst a couple of other former employees/guests from the inn who had managed to survive the nightmare.

“I’m so glad to see you two.” Saint said with a relieved smile. It faded a little, “Don’t suppose you saw Owen on your way out?”

Yaelja hadn’t really had a moment to think about what had happened what with everything that was still actually happening up until that point, but she clearly remembered that for a second before she’d woken up, just for a splitsecond she could have sworn that Mister O had flew away.

She shook her head. No nope definitely not.
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Bennie opened her eyes. She was lying on her back, hair and dress splayed artistically around her.

Soft sky and whitewashed plaster, hues all from the baby's-nursery palette—dust motes a bit more excitable than usual—ah. Port Ceridwen. Not her color scheme, but a nice change of pace. And hopefully a lot of opportunities.

Bennie rose. She was on a small upper-story metal porch overlooking a quiet backstreet—not that Port Ceridwen had any other kind. Sleepy, picturesque, and useless except for the laundry-line hints to the future cut of her “blending-in” outfit. Behind her, the porch's unlocked door tap-tapped its frame in time with the breeze. She appreciated the suggestion.

The room was shadowy, warm, and cozy, which she liked, and contained a dead body, which annoyed her.

Bennie settled into the couch. She imagined, felt the millions out there watching her. It washed over her, soothing her with the familiarity. At least some things were the same.

Breathe in. I'm here. Breathe out. Me, and everyone else.

Properly centered, Bennie shifted from self-pity to calculation. The worry and confusion peeking in at the corners of her careful cover-photo face gave way to something more cold. She deigned to acknowledge the corpse.

You might think the closest thing to forensic expertise Bennie had was asking someone to “enhance the image” in her repeated guest-star roles on crime shows. And it's true that she doesn't know the first damn thing about methodology or proper procedure. But there's a lot of use in death battles for knowing who killed whom and why.

So when Bennie clipped soundlessly (hard-plasticky heels impacting high-quality rug) over to the body and bent to touch it, she wasn't just messing around.

The deceased was an average-looking man, which for Port Ceridwen meant he had at least one fairy “tell.” In his case it was a long tasseled tail. He had been stabbed multiple times in the abdomen from the front with some kind of knife, irrevocably damaging the nice rug with his ensuing blood loss. All this was clear on sight, and not something Bennie wanted to waste time commenting upon. She thumbed her earpiece in a habit-worn gesture.

The button clicked to static. Ugh! No thought-voiceover linkup, huh. Guess I'll have to go old-fashioned.

She cleared her throat. “So. Balmy vacation's cut short early by a body I didn't make. He's not yet room temp, so it's recent enough that likely no-one's noticed him gone and called cops ready to arrest me for a truly tragic level of wrong-place-wrong-time. On the real plus side--” she stalked to the wall “there's this.”

Dominating the cream-colored wallpaper and surrounding landscape watercolors was a very recent artistic addition in the hue universally known as “dead chump's blood.” An art critic might comment on the garish energy of the piece, the way the wild brushstrokes suggested an intense level of emotion, the simplicity of the symbolism contrasted with the obvious complex meaning for the artist and their intended recipient. If the art critic being questioned was Tschichold, he might take one look at the marking—a snaking line coursing across a roughly-drawn egg—and hiss something about “more goddamn death and birth symbolism.” Bennie was a little more focused.

“People don't play with finger-paints for run-of-the-mill murders. There's something up here...and hey!” She beamed too many teeth, eyes flashing. “It might be fun to find out what.


Bennie brushed around the odd-angle corners of Port Ceridwen's sidestreets, always turning in the direction of the harbor in absence of other markers for important avenues or districts. Her attire had dressed itself way down from the multiversal stage, and was now fluttering breezily in the fashion of modish resortwear. She had a scarf tied at her neck and her pistol-belt was blue beadwork that could almost be mistaken for handmade.

In between steps, Bennie quietly thanked whatever kept Port Ceridwen low-tech enough that even the well-off carried physical cash. Almost forgot I'd need the stuff to get all my props. She had remembered the existence of “wallets” pretty quickly, at least. She was adjusting.

And now she had a name for the face and a pocket full of spending money.

While she wove through the flagstones paths, the soft noise of chatter and people gradually became louder, until sidestreet spilled into marketplace in a rush of color and sound.

As fairy towns go, Port Ceridwen was the genuine article. While the trims on houses had been sedate in the residential area, here it burst forth from the white plaster in confections of woodwork and paint. Fragrant flowers bloomed from windowboxes picture-postcard-picturesque, stalls lined up under their tents just like they do in every child's imagination of a bazaar. And from the awnings hung banners, and from the rooftops flew mobiles.

The people, oh, the people were of every type—but even then, they still had a type. And it wasn't hard for Bennie to pick out the person who just didn't blend in. Despite Bennie's riot of skin and hair, her clothes matched her backdrop. And so she saw Freefall—poor, lost Freefall, head turned by every new confusing sight or noise, fighting to understand this town so obviously not of her ken—far more easily than Freefall would ever see her.

In the louche land of casinos, under the otherworldly-harsh stagelights—Freefall's paintspatter wreck of a superhero's costume had looked good, even iconic. Very “the bruiser,” very you-should-see-the-other-guy. But not here. In the light that shimmered through the clouds in Port Ceridwen, Freefall just looked like the girl the fairy godmother forgot.

“Hmm,” Bennie addressed the invisible audience, “How about I find a wand to wave and turn our little tomboy into a perfect princess?”


Freefall scanned the crowd for Beunissima. She could pick out a perp just fine in Olive City—even in a noontime rush. She knew the lay of the land, and she could tell someone rushing from someone running. But this wasn't Olive City, and—Beunissima wasn't her usual mark. If she was picking out someone in a crowd, they'd be trying to look too normal—skulking but trying to look like they weren't. But Beunissima didn't seem like a skulker...Freefall shook her head. She had to focus! Everything was glinting and moving and smelled soft and perfumed—not like Olive City, not like pavement and grime and—and--everything kept reminding her of the past! Even though it was all so different and strange, memories and nostalgia stirred with every glance.

This city is infecting me. Freefall thought bitterly, not realizing how close she hit to the truth.

A flash of brilliant red-and-blue startled her out of her reverie. There Beunissima was, ducking into a shop just a few blocks away. Finally, some luck.

Freefall edged through the crowd, cursing the shoppers and the lingering masses they formed around interesting stalls. Beunissima might be gone by the time she got there! And she was pretty tired of the disgusted glances her suit kept earning her. Sure, she wasn't perfect and pampered like everything else in this fairy city was—you'd think things would be different across the multiverse, but it was the same on every world...everyone wanted Freefall to be something she wasn't, couldn't be, and […]

Freefall, lost as ever, was too distracted by her thoughts and by relief at settling her hand on the good solid wood of the door to notice the sign indicating “PENNYFARE'S SHOP OF FINE DRESSES.” Because of this:

The soft and sudden bloom of frothy fabric assaulted her senses in the worst way. It didn't startle her out of the oft-repeated track her mind was on again. No, it chimed in, echoing the sentiments into a cacophony of all those stories she knew she could never fit. Ruffles and lace mocked her from every corner. Freefall's mind, already with such a tendency to flashback, was spinning into deadlock in the balmy corruption of Port Ceridwen's air. She was motionless, and she remained so, even as people moved about her and things were seen to. If she were aware, she might have appreciated the skill being practiced, all directed by the confident silhouette she had been chasing after.

It was done in magic-short time, but a gloved hand stopped the finishing touches.

“No.” Bennie smiled a smile that you could read either malice or kindliness into, depending on your predilection. “Now...we should talk.”

From very far away, Freefall felt silk brush across her face...and something like an incantation. And then it all rushed back together, and she almost hit the very nice dress shop attendant/witch in panic. But the figure sitting before Freefall drew her focus, as that figure tended to do.

Beunissima cleared her throat, and Freefall realized she had been waiting to allow Beunissima to talk.

“Rough, huh? Aine here tells me that the air here does weird stuff to us silly tourists. 'Course she said it nicer than that. We'll get you a solid breathing mask, don't worry.”

Out of everything, what nagged at Freefall the most was the “we.”

She continued,
“But sit down and let's talk!” Beunissima laughed like they were old friends chatting over lunch. When Freefall wasn't looking, the pointy-eared assistant—Aine—had produced cups of tea (complimentary to customers of the shop) and set them on the table. The chair Freefall would have picked anyways was already pulled out. She sat down uneasily.

Freefall picked up the cup, its warmth seeping into her hand, and suddenly whatever had been making her dance to Beunissima's tune snapped. It came fast, like back in the bathroom of the Feedback Loop, and she barely stopped her other hand from shattering the table.

Beunissima waited with a patience that made it all the harder for Freefall to get a grip.

“Look.” One syllable down. Ok. “You killed Nizzo. And you laughed. Don't think I'll let that go just because you're acting nice.” She watched Beunissima's face.

Her bright red mouth tightened into a line, and her eyes went distant, head turning to some memory.
“Yeah. Yeah...” A bitter smile. Was that regret? “Not a whole lot of ways to smoothly breach the subject of recent murder. I thought this'd be...better. A better start, at least.”

“Why'd you do it?” Freefall had wanted that to sound meaner, more interrogative.

The smile turned to a grin, incisors bared ruefully.
“If you were presented with that list of contestants...who would you have killed?”

Freefall didn't want to think about that--

Beunissima's head shook.
“No, no. You wouldn't get it, would you? You've never had to make a decision like that...”

no, of course not

“Look, I know it seemed callous...but in my world, you need showmanship to survive, and this battle is no different. D'you think the bosses of this gig will never do anything more than shunt us from round to round just because they haven't done it yet? I mean look—they added me! I'm sure if the ratings drop, they're fine with thinking up ways to encourage us—or to cut corners wherever they can.”

“...What are you getting at.”

“Freefall, all I'm saying is—my hand was forced. But who cares about that.” An unfakeable urgency radiated from Beunissima. "What's important is that we make sure it's the last time that happens."

This time, Freefall barely even noticed the “we.”

“Alright, I'm listening...doesn't mean I trust you. But I'll let you talk.” Freefall said in a tone that might have sounded convincingly hardboiled to someone, somewhere, maybe.

Beunissima smiled.
“Thanks. I knew I could count on you to hear me out.” She waved back the shop assistant who had kindly made herself unobtrusive during their rather open conversation about murder. “Ok, first...your suit is very nice. I get the importance of practicality and an iconic look. But you stick out like a sore thumb in this place.”

Freefall tried to interrupt.

“-No, no, I know!” Beunissima preempted, “It's blunt to say so, and you hate pastels. But suck it up—it's what these people are used to. 'Sides, the dressmaker is a real pro—you'll look cuter in this than you think.”

Freefall, having taken another deep breath for a spirited interjection (after recovering from Beunissima's unsettlingly correct points), began “That's great and all, but unless this dress is magically lighter than—”

Another wave of the hand for silence.
“'Magically?' Freefall, please! Take a look around you! Here—” the dress, close at hand, was proffered. “Just try it on.” Smiling like she knew Freefall hated this stuff, would never willingly touch it, so wasn't it just a teasing little dare between friends? It wouldn't mean anything if Freefall put it on, really...

Freefall, hypnotized by the swirls of ruffles before her, mutely took the dress—lighter than a feather—to the changing room.

She carefully slid it on over her suit—it was tailored to hide it, it seemed—and wondered who the person in the mirror was. She gave a little spin, and the dress floated after her movements as if it was spun of fairy silk. Which, well, maybe it was? Freefall didn't know. All she knew was that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

She came out of the changing room in a daze, only barely noticing Beunissima lighting up and clasping her hands together,
“-look wonderful! And here's a little facemask—you need it to counteract the effects of Port Ceridwen's air, although of course it can't really stop it fully-” Freefall just nodded, slowly coming back to herself. When she caught the word “murder,” her brain finally cycled up to speed.

“Wait, what. Did you kill someone?”

Me?” Beunissima pouted offendedly, “Freefall, please.” She tried to communicate something by staring intensely into Freefall's, gave up, and continued. “Right after 'waking up' here I found a crime scene that didn't fit the usual love-or-money template. Someone was trying to send a message with that murder, and my gut tells me something is rotten underneath the gingerbread-style scrollwork of this city.” Freefall narrowed her eyes, nodding. It always is.

“I didn't get you this outfit just so you'd look cute.” She grinned. “I got it because you need to blend in a little if we're going to crack this case. So what do you say?”

Freefall had been so worried about Port Ceridwen, what it represented, what it meant, and the new competitor and all the dangers she represented. But Beunissima might turn out to be alright...and she had faced down her fears and conquered them. With a regular ol' crime added to that, Port Ceridwen could end up being the most straightforward and familiar round for her so far. Forget Eta Carina...a solid investigation would be a real break.

She grinned back. “Ok, Beunissima. Tell me where the first lead takes us.”

A friendly arm fell across her shoulders.

“Freefall, please. Call me 'Bennie.'”

Kriok, party of one, your table's ready

There were birds singing in the sycamore trees.

“Dream a little dream of me…”

Aaron. Aaron!

The voice of his companion seemed to be coming from a long way away. “I did terrible things, Change.”

You gave your word, Aaron. You gave your word. Is that worth nothing?

Blearily, Aaron raised his head off his crossed arms. “Where are you, Change?”

All around. Dispersed. Unformed. You gave your word, Aaron.

The bell by his door was ringing - except he didn’t have a door, did he? This was his tent; he’d been here for… for how long? This was his tent, the Golden Sunset, where he hawked his finest wares - dreams. Dreams of gold and splendor, where the worst part was waking up.

Time had done strange things to him, and he had done strange things to time.

You gave me your word.

“When I’m alone, and blue as can be…” He muttered through half-numb lips. His eyelids drooped again. The air was sweet as summer wine.

Dream a little dream of me.


“Master Abstract? Master Abstract, sir!”

”Mnuh?” The wizard raised his head, a string of drool connecting him to the counter. “Store’s closed. Come back an’... another day.” He hiccuped.

The street urchin at the door bowed theatrically, then looked up, panic in his eyes. “Master Abstract, it’s the High Council. They want you!”

He waved a lazy hand. “Again? Go back and tell them I have no more to say. I can do no more for them.”

“You have to come at once, they said!” The urchin shook in fear and ran in from the doorway, passing a densely scribbled note onto the damp countertop. “They said for me to give you this.”

“All right, all right, all right.” Aaron waved the urchin away. “Go and tell them I’m coming. But first!”

The urchin fixed him with wide, innocent eyes. “Yes, Master Abstract?”

Wordlessly, Aaron held out an accusing hand, palm up.

“Awright, don’t get your grandpa panties in a twist,” the urchin finally said, all trace of respect gone as he dumped a shiny bottle back into Aaron’s palm and running out the tent-flap door, leaving only a fading “Thanks for nothing, ya twat!”


Thirty seconds later, Aaron was dressed and on the road, note clutched tightly in his hand. His dark brown hair had grown long in the dream. His whole life before this seemed like a dream, honestly. Or had it been the other way around?

The road was paved with gold; blocks of the stuff, laid under sparkling glass tiles. Captive dreams leached slowly into the air from behind that metal membrane, returning to the sky to fall into the sea as rain. Such was the architecture of Port Ceridwen.

He watched the edge of a golden dream flutter by his face, one he had bought and bottled only yesterday, about a long series of wonderful desserts. Sweet dreams were made of these. Who was he to disagree?

You gave me your word.

He screamed.


Aaron woke up screaming, and fell off his chair.

“Master Abstract! Master Abstract, are you all right?” The High Councillor, a weedy man with an extraordinarily long beard, looked down at him with concerned eyes. “Were you dreaming?”

“Yes,” Aaron forced out in between gasps for air. “Something strange. Powerful. Not like - not like -”

“Simply unlike anything we’d ever seen before, yes?” Sammias Lawnton, Councillor for Finance. “A level of vividity and coherence never before achieved by any dream recorded, am I right, Donal?”

The Councillor for Oneirology nodded his bald, bespectacled head. “Quite right, Sammias. It appears everyone who enters the Great Sanctum is visited by at least one dream of this magnitude. There is no other explanation: containment is failing.”

Babble broke out amongst the gathered councillors. Aaron clutched his head, and scrabbled weakly at the glass of water in front of him. “For - all right, could you all hold for a moment - for fuck’s sake.” He threw the glass, which shattered on the long stone table.

“I can’t do anything more for you,” he spoke out into the hush, “but there may be someone who can help…”

“Well, who then, Master Abstract?”


You know that split-second moment in between the dream and the waking world? One moment a ear-shattering banshee wail calls forth the souls of the dead, who for some reason are escaping from a rather nice little china teapot, and the next you’re slamming your alarm clock on the bells and trying to jam your finger into the ringing mechanism.

We are talking about neither of those moments.

Let’s face it, if you’re awake enough not to be sure if you’re asleep or awake, you’re too awake for this moment. Conversely, if you’re too asleep to question every aspect of your dream, then you’re too asleep for this moment. This moment - well. This moment isn’t so much a unit of time as it is one of force. A magnetic moment is a vector, describing the torque a magnetic particle experiences in an external magnetic field. This moment describes the spinning of the mind, the torque that a semiconscious mind takes in the presence of an externally generated field of dreams.

For the sake of argument, let’s call it an oneiric moment. Good? Let’s move on.

Now, imagine if you could take that moment, stretch it wide, open up a gulf between the waking lands and the dreaming seas. Imagine if you could build a city there…

-- Eugenne Braud, Dean of the Old College (Oneiromancy)

Tschichold balefully observed his surroundings. It was green grass and the smell of freshly cut flowers. There was also a dream-like haze that was all too comfortable, too familiar. Tschichold had no idea where he was. He took another anxious drag off his cigarette. Normally, he would be wary of accidentally setting himself on fire (again), but it’s ok. Dream cigarettes aren’t real.

“Hullo, there!”

Tschichold turned around. There was a tiny mote of light with vibrating wings. Great. A fairy. He disdainfully ignored it, letting his lack of depth perception taking care the rest.

“Fuck off.”

“Why so glum?” The voice was shrill and earnestly bordering on annoying. “Why are you smoking?” Tiny arms gesticulated wildly towards a cartoonishly large pile of empty cartons and cigarette butts. “And why are you littering? Littering is bad!”

“They’re fake and everything feels fake. I deserve them.” Tschic toss his cigarette away with all the pretension a former art student can muster. He proceeded to conjure up another carton out of dream bullshit and crack it open. There was a smear of paint on it. “I’m having a bad day. Series of bad days.”

“Why--” The fairy was interrupted by a raised finger.

“There was a television show. I met some real nice people and some real jerks. There was a beach. There was a casino. There was an inn. I fucked up there and I might had killed somebody. Somebodies.” He drolly looked at the fairy. “It was wild.”

“W-" Another raised finger.

“I was too lost in my own ego and my own miserable euphoria. I am a coward.”

They didn’t talk for a good number of seconds. The silence suited Tschic fine until he decided there was better things to do, like apologizing to everyone for fucking up. He obliterated his cigarette in one breath and proceeded to shuffle off in a random direction. Tschichold had no idea where they were. Where he was. Or where he was going. This was okay.

“Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait—” The fairy swooped at his face with a tenacity of a small bird. “Do you know where you are going?”


“Well for the low, low price of your immortal soul—”

“Wait, just my soul?”

“Uh—yes, why? If you want, we could totally do a lease clause with cheaper rates. Emotions, memories, your teeth…”

“Why, that’s practically a steal!”


The proceeding conversation was surprisingly a tedious, banal affair. Tschichold would had yawned if it were not for the fact it was his soul on stake. After putting his signature and chop-seal (which Tschic substituted with a cigarette burn), the exchange was officiated and would soon activate as he woke up. Which he did.


Tschichold fell out of bed with the majesty of a drunk brick. He felt pain and surprisingly in synch with his surroundings for once, which apparently was some tastefully high-end inn. He proceeded to scramble to what he thought was the washroom. He looked in the mirror and was surprised to see a stranger back. He touched it and as much as he tried to will it, there was nary a paint-stain on the surface. He remembered.

For the low, low price of his soul, Tschic got to his destination, got his clean clothes. Most importantly, he got his face back.

Sooooooorrrrrrrrrry, we could not totally remove your curse,” a familiar voice sheepishly reverberated from a nearby mote of light. “It was a weird curse. It felt grody. Plus, your soul was kind of grody. What the hell is wrong with your soul?”

Myeugh. It was slightly used. Slightly,” Tschichold observed his face. He hadn’t seen it in months, maybe years. “Someone tried to sell my soul once. It failed horribly.”

He made a face. “It sucked and I hoped he died.”

“Right. I guess I’ll deal with…this,” the fairy was holding a glowing jar. It was grody and the fairy was trying its best to hold it with least amount of fingers as possible. “Good luck then? With this Aaron fellow?”

“Yes, that Aaron fellow. He’s a wizard,” Tschichold said as he put on a jacket. He paused. “Wizards are more useful than artists.”

The orb shrugged and faded away. Tschichold could not care any less as he proceeded to turn in his keys to a pleasant innkeeper and walked out into the street. It was a fairy-town and as expected filled with weird buildings. There was an especially weird one in the distance. It was probably filled with wizards because wizards are weird. Aaron was weird.

Tschichold shrugged. He could start apologizing to him first.
Lawnton narrowed his eyes. “An inn? Is this going to be an expensive solution, Master Abstract?”

“Not if my hunch is right.” Aaron spread his arms wide. “The inn was a grand vault of dreams. A repository, I think? It should have shown up not long ago, about the same time I did.”

“There was a small incident in the bay not too recently…” Shapiro, Councillor for Currency. “An unregistered… ship... landed in the ocean and sank.”

Carefully, the wizard began to massage his temple with two extended fingers. “Damn. I was hoping… there was a certain… expert on dreams - as far as I knew, anyway. On board there, I mean.”

“There were survivors from the sinking,” Shapiro continued, “we put them up at St. Braud’s.”

“St. Braud’s?”

The councillor nodded. “A hospice, near the shore. Many fishermen and the like lose their minds in the sea. St. Braud’s takes care of them as best they can, at least until they remember who they are.”

“Could you take me there?” When Shapiro nodded, Aaron rose from his seat.

“Wait!” Lawnton stood, his bulging eyes even further narrowed in suspicion. “You’ve brought us no real progress! Why should we spend more from our coffers to keep your little shop open?”

“Well,” Aaron began, with no idea what he was going to say next. “You’re all in terrible danger. Not to mention you’ve got no precautions against this threat, and no way to deal with it when it emerges. Tell me, Councillor Lawnton, how much do you value your safety?”

He held up a hand, not waiting for an answer. “I know what your life is worth, and all the lives in this city. I have a hunch here, and I don’t know how much value I should give that,” he paused, “but I know much you should give it: a lot.”

It felt good. Brilliant. He felt alive - no, awake - for the first time in what seemed like forever. The words flowed like silver, as he wove together strands of deceit and belief into a beautiful, shared dream. He was flying from the seat of his pants, as it were, and payday was just around the corner.


“Yes, m’sir.”


Mister Sandman, bring me a dream…

A half-formed figure of aphroditean beauty began to form out the mists, its corners and curves undefined and infinite, trending deep blue into the sky, as peaches and cream came bubbling from in between the golden cobblestones. White trails rose into the air and formed snow-white flesh from nothing, peach-pink suffusing the the interior, a heart beating, bearing the hydraulic load of a hundred thousand capillaries...

Aaron carved through the delusion like a knife cutting cloud, in two easy slashes of his outstretched palm. Dream-stuff came away in his hand, collecting like sand in between his closed fingers, outlining his life-lines.

Behind him, Shapiro shook his head, as if dislodging an errant fly. “M’sir… how in the world did you do that?”

“Dreams are only another lens through which to see the world.” The wizard cupped his hands together, raised them to his lips, and blew. “Strictly speaking, I didn’t do anything in the world. I just reached past the veil and brought us out from the-”

You gave me your word. Louder, this time. The intrusion on the psyche struck like a battering ram. You gave me. Your word. Your. Word.

“Your word…” Slowly, Shapiro uncurled himself from the cobblestones. “It’s getting worse. The nightmares are coming loose.”

Aaron sucked at his lip where he’d bitten it. “If my hunch is correct, a stray nightmare or two may be the least of our problems.”

“What do you think it is?”

There was a brief hesitation on Aaron’s part. Despite himself, he liked the Councillor for Currency: stoic, no-nonsense, more flexible than the fossilized, moss-encrusted old fogies around the Citadel table. But he had no idea who he could trust, or how much his trust was worth.

“I think it’s something bigger,” he began, the words tumbling slowly in his head, losing their dangerous corners and fitting together: creating a helpful truth, devoid of nearly any fact - “I think it’s something squatting on top of your Cistern, full of resentment and malice, taking on the worst parts of any nightmare it can find.”

Briefly, they were climbing an infinite ladder, which folded in on itself. Aaron leapt off the nearest rung and tore a hole in the sky, helping Shapiro back through to wakefulness.

“These fragments that we’re passing through - they’re just what’s left after all, or nearly all, the nightmare has been stripped away. They’re empty husks of half-dreamed desires, cast out while the… thing… gathers together all the worst parts it c-” He stopped, suddenly, staring down the road.

“M’sir?” Shapiro looked down the oncoming path, and started. There was a figure, which looked if it ought to be hunched, in a tattered jacket that looked as it it ought to be wet, and glistening in multiple varied colors. But the jacket was dry, and not tattered, and the figure was standing up straight in the mists. “Hello? Who’s there? Are you a dream?”

“Would I tell you if I were?”

“Is it…? Tschic!” Aaron started by exclaiming happily then began to tail off uncertainly, wondering if at any point he’d managed to fuck the art critic-shade-painter-interior decorator-pirate in the many assholes of misfortune people around him tended to end up once he was done using them, but rose back up immediately after he decided that he’d done no such thing and would fob it off as lies if it turned out he had had done such things, ending in a happy, “Is it really you?!” with only the barest quiver of the voice to indicate the complex mental process he’d just gone through. Not his best work.

That is to say, not his best work, considering he’d just realized that the worst part, the very, very, very, absolutely worst part of a dream was... waking up.


What is being awake, really? Let’s analyze that. The layman’s definition is that being awake is the opposite of being asleep, and vice versa. But that becomes a heterological loop - being asleep defines being awake, and being awake defines being asleep. Circular logic means no truth can be determined.

Alternatively, one can define being awake in literal terms of consciousness - that when you are awake, you are conscious, and a ‘you’ exists inside you, observing everything you do. But who then exists inside the tiny ‘you’? This turns into an infinite regression, retreating unto infinity, meaning that no truth can be determined.

Finally, you can simply declare, by fiat, the state of being awake the portion of time when your eyes are open and you walk around in the world. But this is no better than our previous attempts. Truth can be determined, but we have no clue if it is the truth, making our axiom epistemologically invalid. No truth can be determined, not really.

This is leading us to the Münchhausen trilemma - circularity, infinite regression, and axiomatic thought - which indicates that another approach must be taken if we are to understand what is true.

What should be grasped here that in the dream, simple meanings are valued over the logical.
You are awake. You are a wake. From the context of the dream, you are a continually existing, living celebration in remembrance of your life. Conversely, in the context of reality, you are a sleep - a singular nothing, disconnected and hidden.

In our hypothetical city on the border, these meanings twist, turn and cross between each other, each one making the other true.

So what is being awake?


-- Eugenne Braud, Director of the Ceridwen Project
Aaron jolted up in complete darkness, aching and sweating all over. He struggled to untangle himself. Clatter. Shuffle. A sound of a dropped magazine. He soon found nose-to-nose with an elfin woman who was wearing something along the lines of an old-timey nurse outfit. She frowned.

“Aaron Abstract,” She said rather peevishly, not exactly appreciative of closeness. “You’ll be able to visit the patients in fifteen minutes.”

Then she left in a huff, not even giving the Aurumancer enough time to apologize. Aaron stood in awkward silence before realizing (to his relief) he was not the only person inside of the waiting room. Two figures sat across from him. Shapiro was nervously bouncing a knee. Tschichold was a bit more cavalier. He waved.


Hey, hey, hey. Aaron started blurting out everything that happened since they last met. The artist seemed to take it in stride, though there was a great degree of flustered embarrassment when Aaron talked about his fucked-up mural in explicit, panicky detail. Aaron’s speed slowed when he got to the recollection that Change, well, changed. Should he tell him about that? Yes? No…Maybe? Let’s delay that with a question. Hey, hey Tschic. How do you do? What you been doing?

“I feel great!” Tschichold beamed. The fanged rictus of his grin said otherwise. “I sold my soul to a strobe light.”

Yeah. Maybe not. Aaron mentally backpedaled and put on his best Aaron-y impression, which lied somewhere between intense apathy and mild concern. “Why did you do that.”

Silence. The lackadaisical attitude drained from Tschichold and for once, he looked very tired. This lasted for about five seconds. “W-well, I’m pretty vain. Sometimes you just want to look mediocrely handsome for once, you know?”

“No, really.” Aaron furrowed his brow. “Why did you do that.”

A profound, merciless silence filled the waiting room. Tschichold looked a bit taken aback as though he was shanked in the gut. He was still trying to look casual, but that conceit was slowly slipping away with each second. Tschichold looked like a wild animal backed into a corner with nowhere to go. Aaron looked coldly at the artist.

“I. I did it,” Tschichold swallowed. “Because—”

“-Master Aaron Abstract,” the nurse seemed to materialize out of nowhere, pointedly ignoring the emotional fracas in the room. “As I said before, are you very much ready to see the patients?”

“Yes, yes,” Aaron waved away the nurse, who clucked in disapproval. “I’m ready. And can I ask you a favor?”

Files were signed and guest-passes were doled out. Aaron and his informal entourage made their way into the bowels of the hospital. He glanced back at Tschichold, who slunk behind at the back in immense shame. The Aurumancer felt a bit sorry for him, but it was sorry born of sympathy. Sorry, Tschic Aaron mulled.

I’m the liar around here.


“We are so happy to receive you, Master Abstract. It has been while we have received a proper wizard.”

The senior physician toothily smiled, which did not give Aaron much confidence. She led the group down a hallway into the emergency department. The state of the patients was…best left unstated, to say the least. The wizard felt a lump in his throat. Guilt was a bitter pill to swallow, after all.

Shapiro looked as though he was about to faint. Meanwhile, Tschic leaned over a particularly florid-looking patient. He looked this-way and that, going about that for a few seconds, before flashing a grin at Aaron. “Very aesthetic.”

Aaron frowned, eliciting a wounded expression from the artist. “…Just a joke,” he mumbled. “Can’t take it I guess.”

Tschichold then proceeded to sulk away, presumably to look at the state of other patients. Aaron was not really quite sure why he was doing that (artistic inspiration?) or even why he was allowing him to indulge in his morbid curiosity. Tschic was a bit too mercurial for the wizard’s tastes but he was harmless. Mostly. Aaron felt okay with leaving him to his own devices, eliciting a mortified what-the-hell expression from Shapiro.

“Strange man,” the physician unhelpfully observed.

“Mm. How are the patients?”

“Bad. Twenty require inpatient care. Ten are in critical condition. Five are dead.” There was an uncomfortable pause as she let the sordid facts sink into everyone’s mind. “Worrisome but interesting. Very interesting. We had not seen these sort of injuries for decades.”

Interesting!? How can you find any of this interesting?”

“Well, these injuries and residual symptoms are obviously from nightmares. Mildly concerning considering nightmare attacks are as rare as the hair on Braud’s head but it is not what I consider out of place. Nightmare related injures tend to rise and fall over time, after all. However, one of own — yours truly — had a clever idea to look further.”

She gave Aaron a document as dense as the councilors of Citadel. Aaron quickly leafed through the papers. Divination results, he recognized, identifying the residual auras of patient injuries. Aurumancy came up with alarming frequency.

“M-hmm. Mm.” Aaron muttered, trying not to have a meltdown on the spot. “And this says what about our situation.”

“The nightmares are using spells.”


“Nightmares do not use spells unless empowered by an outside force. These nightmare attacks are deliberate. They are searching for something. Perhaps, someone. And that is what I find interesting.”

She smiled, not that Aaron saw in his guilt-induced stupor. He found it hard to concede the fact the spectral wad of cash was also the malevolent force currently eroding at the integrity of Ceridwen. Change was his familiar, his…friend. He could not be it, could he? Could he? This was too absurd to be true. Horrified laughter started to spill out of his mouth. Haha ha ha…ha…

“Is there something funny, Master Abstract?”

Yes. “…No. No!” Aaron made his point really clear. He pulled himself together. “When was the last time the nightmares were empowered with such intensity?”

“Well, decades ago,” the physician sheepishly said, barely hiding her glee about her secret side hobby. “Something about an egg. Not sure if a literal egg or just a symbol for the cycle of death and rebirth—”

Egg. Right. Good enough. “Thankyoumadam and goodbye.

Much to the senior physician’s disappointment, Aaron proceeded to stomp out of the hospital, cheeks red with guilt. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he inadvertently ran into Tschic, who had apparently finished making his round of observations on the patients. Aaron expected some non-sequitur critique on the hospital wallpaper, but the artist seem to be rather deep in thought.


“Aaron.” A pause. “There is something weird about the patients.”

Aaron opened and closed his mouth, not really sure what to say.

“All of them have brown hair, grey eyes, and blue clothes.”

Oh my gods, Aaron thought. I have brown hair, grey eyes, and blue clothes.

“In fact, they almost look like you—”

Aaron knew Tschic was trying to be helpful but the wizard had enough serious revelations for the day. He proceeded to trap the artist into an awkward headlock — a task surprisingly harder than he thought — and proceeded to drag him kicking and screaming out of the hospital. Shapiro scuttled behind, still wondering why his superior turned uncharacteristically for the belligerent. Not that he minded, of course.
Sunlight filtered in from the balcony Kriok stood on. The beams of light were broken by the thick dust motes that hung in the air, but still illuminated the village sprawling below her. Off-white plaster houses leaned against each other and perched on the hills. Narrow cobblestone paths turned to stairs on the town's periphery, and spacious villas gave way to cramped shanties clinging to the steep cliffs. Her optics implant focused as she stared at the town's edge-- where the town met the ocean was a labyrinth of canals, piers, and docks as the town transitioned into a harbor. Everywhere the avian looked there was color-- the pink of the ocean, the pastels of hanging fabric, the riotous patterns of kites and banners that fluttered in the sea breeze.

Kriok was still missing her eye.

She had managed to staunch the flow of conductive fluid and repair the frayed wiring, even without specialist tools. The hemisphere of error messages had subsided, leaving just a void of disconnected black static. Even then, she could feel the emptiness, the hollow where her artificial eye had rested.

Her recklessness cost her something practically irreplaceable. Even a makeshift sensor would require materials she doubted-- no, knew, even without the most basic of analytical subroutines-- she wouldn't be able to locate in a pre-spaceflight society like this. No circuitry, no plastics, nothing worthwhile she could salvage into something even approximating an optical implant. Stupid, stupid, stupid, her subroutines reiterated. Everything she had relied on to survive she had forgotten, just for the faintest promise of being allowed to rust away on a dying world.

Her memory played back the moment of Beunissima effortlessly dispatching Nizzo, a blur of brutal, almost artistic execution. Kriok shuddered. She was back to where she had started, all because of her stupidity.

Kriok paused. A background heuristic runtime remained dissatisfied with that explanation. She had been careless, but it had been others who rescued her. She could escape. The fact that she-- Kriok involuntarily shuddered, the playback still fresh on her digital memory-- was here meant that the entities organizing this were desperate.

She turned around, entering the abandoned house she had been deposited in. Her mind struggled to reconcile the two conclusions she had reached, alternating a binary switch between faint hope and paranoia. Kriok pushed past the dusty, abandoned furniture, walking down creaking wooden steps as the background routines of her digital mind calculated.

More information was necessary-- that much was certain. She was trying to solve an immeasurably complex problem without knowing any of the variables. She could not afford to make mistakes off of conjecture-- not when the burden of her entire race rested on her. Not when she was all that was left. She had to be completely without fail, there was no more margin of error.

Kriok stepped out onto the street-- a narrow, winding path that was precariously wrapped around the hills and cliffs of Port Ceridwen. She breathed deeply and exhaled, taking in the humid, salty air. A bystander looked at her, then stared--

"D-demon," they finally said, stepping a few shaky steps back. "D-dead metal, i-iron flesh. Cold, cold, cold. You're a demon."

Kriok opened her beak to respond, but didn't have a chance as the bystander ran, moving with the panicked energy of someone who had nearly seen their life taken. She made a low, exasperated caw that went unheard in the now-empty street.

This new location was already promising, a sarcastic subroutine logged in the back of her mind.
Through a silvered lining in a cloud - well, a fog, really, creeping across the golden roads, snaking into the gaps in between the glass bricks and the black grass, a grey haze twinkling with sparkling argentine shards, half-remembered shades of dream - Aaron brushed the shades of rainbow grey away. It felt like a hug. Aaron wasn’t sure why, but at the moment he hated hugs: useless, intangible shit that would be of no use to all but the most emotional of people, and those could always, always be bribed another way. He saw Tschic shiver as they brushed through the empty husk of that dream, sticky strands of sap clinging to that half-reconstituted body - the unsettledness of which Aaron could not place, other than the fact that it didn’t leak paint-covered footsteps behind them.


The sappy half-dream dispersed as they followed the golden path. “Not good. He must have consumed most of that one. The better the remains, the worse the stuff he must have eaten.”


The silver tongue tripped over itself. “Wh-whatever your nightmare is. Doing this.” He shook his head. “We need to find out more about the Cistern.”

Shapiro thought for a moment: “The Great Library, perhaps? It holds all of Port Ceridwen’s historical texts in its archives, though I don’t believe they’ve been touched for a long time.”

“Sounds boooooooring.” For emphasis, Tschic lit up a cigarette and fell, facedown, onto the multicolored grass. Then he threw up.

“The Great Library is one of Port Ceridwen’s most unique landmarks!” Shapiro protested.

“Look,” Tschic rolled over, thankfully away from the puddle of puke, “how can a place be the most unique? Every landmark is unique by definition, that’s why they’re landmarks.” The cigarette leapt into his mouth, igniting the grass on the way. “Mmmm.”

“The Library sounds good. We can plan a strategy there.” Aaron looked down at the smoking Tschic, and Aaron wasn’t in a particularly dealing with Tschic mood, to be completely fucking honest, and Aaron was getting to the end of a particularly short mental tether, and Tschic wasn’t helping. “You coming or what?”

“This is fine,” came the reply from the burning circle of grass.

Sigh. “Shapiro, grab a leg.”

The classical elements: fire, water, earth and air. Intuition rules in the dream world, and logic rules in the waking one. Hence, the interplay in between the elements of the periodic table, and the elements of primal force, makes Ceridwen a fascinating place for the the study of magical sciences. The issue is in writing things down and remembering them, we’ve found, as dreamworks are inherently unstable in the waking world, and vice versa. Elementally speaking, dreamstuff is made mostly of air and fire, ephemeral things, not easily captured or understood. Reality is mostly silicon, oxygen, hydrogen: essentially, earth. Conjunctivin, or “sleep sand”, is one example of a compound made from both dreamstuff and reality. It is more common than you think: the beaches of this onieric moment are covered in it.

Interestingly enough, the only element that seems antithetical to this project is iron. The water of the sleeping ocean is similarly reticient to experimentation, but iron refuses to cooperate in any way. It refuses to acknowledge anything comprised of dreamstuff; it expurgates the results of any experiment we try to perform on it here in Ceridwen. Definitively a matter requiring more investigation.

--On the Nature of Elements, Eugene Braud (Head Onierologist, Ceridwen Project Director)
There must be a universal constant among all libraries, Aaron mused. All libraries seemed to be same; large and empty, with rows upon rows of tightly packed shelves. The Great Library was no different and in fact, reminded him vaguely of the one back at home, not that he wanted to remember it. They never saw his potential, his value, but any proper aurumancer worth his salt (like him) knew to take their investments somewhere else –

He felt a familiar presence. A tiny prick of delight that lights up when you find a lucky, heads-side-up penny between the sofa cushions. Aurumancy, his choice of arcane school.

It wasn’t exactly a lucky situation. He knew why.

“I detect…something.”

A pause. “What.”

“Something vast and terrible. Perhaps – ,” Aaron fumbled over his words. “Perhaps, the scion of your nightmare? Just an educated guess. Regardless, we need to be prepared. We are not the only visitors to this library – ”

He was here.

One part of him at least. It was just a nightmare, Aaron knew; a minor one, but like all nightmares, its amorphous appearance belied something far worse. Aaron could sense something borrowed within. It was the heavy heat of molten gold, the overwhelming guilt of blood diamonds; it was aurumancy. An golden arrow primed and notched to his heart, and he knew who was behind the bow


There is a startled yelp from earshot (courtesy of Shapiro) and the pitter-patter of feet. The nightmare was in focus now and far less indiscernible now. It was a serpentine dragon, sinuous like an ink-smear and foreboding like the first inklings of dusk. It was smallish, thick in the middle, and didn’t scream intimidating – yet despite all that, Aaron felt the lurch of trepidation going up his throat.

“– Just a minor one, easily dealt with. Shapiro, get the cash register. Tschic, well. Just stay there and –”

You gave me your word.

Aaron froze.

You gave me your word, a pause. I thought we were friends.


You didn’t lie to me, didn’t you? Didn’t you?

Shapiro may had vocalized something, but it seemed so far away.

Look into my eyes. Tell me the truth.

Aaron couldn’t bear to look but the forces that may be helped him anyway. The aurumancer felt his chin slowly wrenched to the front, where he made full eye-contact with the thing.
You gave nothing, the animal-yellow glow said, seething with borrowed resentment. So I shall give you nothing. Aaron felt his mind open and his consciousness lead down a memory lane of possibilities in a golden, expensive haze. What should had happened. What actually had happened. What mistakes he had done in explicit, high definition detail that totally ruined the chance of the things that should happened, you terrible, no-good person. You need to pay, Mr. Abstract, with interest. Give me the promises you should had kept. Give me your life you wasted. Give me your word. GIVE ME YOUR WORD


Huh?! Whasit –”

“Aaron! You’re being – ACK.”

Aaron tried to look for Shapiro but he only caught a glimpse of a grotesque bulge going down the throat of the nightmare. The nightmare realigned its jaws to its proper position and stared down at him. Aaron dropped to his knees. He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut but he couldn’t. He didn’t deserve this punishment but this was the end for him. He might as well give himself the courtesy of the last few fleeting seconds of consciousness.

The nightmare struck –

And Aaron felt a great force striking at his right. At first, he thought the nightmare finally deal the killing blow or perhaps, dimensions bend at irrational directions while going down the throat of an oneiric beast. However, he was still conscious and whatever counted as pain was mild and rapidly faded away. He looked up and found the reason why.

“Don’t worry, I’ll live.” Someone in the nightmare’s mouth said. “I’ve been through worse.”


Tschichold opened his one good eye to nothingness.

The place was cold, very small, and had an unsettling texture to the walls like borax slime. He stood up, a feat much harder than it looks due to the giving nature of the floor and like all good addicts, he lit a cigarette.

Okay, okay. Even his devil-may-care attitude had limits and the dire nature of the situation banished all pretense on defensive casualness, he managed to fumble out a matchbook and strike a light, illuminating the iridescent sheen of the area (not unlike oil on water), an immobilized Shapiro, and several lumps stacked against what approximated a corner in this horrible area.

“Shapiro!” Tschichold yelled. Gears turning in his head. “Other people!”

The artist trundled his way to the man, trying not to focus too much on how squishy his steps are. He tripped over and his heart skipping a beat when he nearly dropped the match. Shapiro was frozen, shielding his face with his forearms, his expression mid-frozen in terror. Which was terrifying. What was more terrifying was what the agitation of his steps revealed, the lumps turned out to be Ceridwen natives – all uncannily similar, all wearing the drab blue-grey attire which Tschichold supposed was the uniform of the Great Library. Huh, no wonder the library seemed ridiculously empty for an important landmark.

Tschic squelched around, observing the frozen figures. After place two and two together (and substituting his sputtering match for a more slow-burning cancer torch), Tschichold cracked his knuckles and used every ounce of his mediocre strength to lift up Shapiro.

“– AARON!”


Tschichold abruptly dropped Shapiro and the poor man was immobilized again, although he was in a far less miserable position. Silently apologizing, the artist gave another go.



“It was terrible,” Shapiro’s frightened tone relaxed once he realized someone familiar, if only barely. “I ruined everything. I disappointed everyone. The fall of Port Ceridwen and the slander of Council, all my fault. All my fault –”

“Just a nightmare.”

“…I should had never been the Councilor of Currency," he faltered."I...I don’t deserve the position.”

“I get you. I understand.”

Tschichold could only see his own trembling arms (he was very heavy) and Shapiro’s chin. He waited for a rebuttal, a retort against the veracity of the statement, but there was only neutral darkness and silence surrounding the feeble glow of the cigarette. Shapiro spoke again.

“…How are you not affected by any of this?”

Tschic nearly dropped him again. He wanted to. His arms were tired but he was tired of running. “I been through worse,” he said all matter of fact-like. “I was covered in psychoactive paint. I was naked.”

“Yes – no, no, not just that. You’re not screaming or panicking. You’re not even questioning this situation, the situation of being eaten by an enormous dream-monster no less, which is frankly absurd. You have the grim intent of those with experience,” Shapiro looked down. “Have you been in this situation before?”

“No.” It was technically the truth.

“Have you been in a situation like this before.”


Silence came along with a wash of relief. Tschichold wasn’t exactly a private man but he liked to keep his cards close, so to speak, and the fact that he kind-of-sort-of revealed he is more well-versed with the supernatural than any half-starved ex-art major should be made him feel vaguely vulnerable. He didn’t want to give a wrong impression. He didn’t have fine control over reality like other wizards. His world wasn’t like that, no. Magic was unfathomably powerful and ambiguous, the only constant being a great cost. He remembered the cost. No amount of psychoactive “paint,” no amount of embarrassing blunders in the past three locations could push that memory out. He paid dearly.

“...Had you figured a way out?”

“Sorta, I have to put you down in this stuff again. Is that okay?”

Eehhh, can I borrow your jacket?”

After some acrobatics, Shapiro sat on the makeshift rug formerly known as Tschichold’s jacket, observing as the problem-solver deftly freed something helpful from a frozen fairy’s grip. It was a hobby knife, with a surprisingly modern mechanism for varying the length of the blade. The fairy was probably doing papercrafting, which Tschichold always approved.

“Are you sure it will work?” Shapiro said incredulously.

“Well remember what Aaron said?” He pushed up the button, exposing the shiny edge. “‘Just a minor one.’ Let’s see how it can handle some major injuries.”


Aaron fumbled for spare change.

After some close calls with the hunting nightmare, Aaron finally managed to muster up a half-handful of coinage. His closed his fingers around his to-be spell components, his head heavy and hurting with guilt. The entrance was nearby, the daylight promising freedom and safety. The aurumancer would gladly take it, but he knew he could not live with that decision. Shapiro had promise and potential. Tschic was well, Tschic. He was familiar enough, he supposed. Aaron hoped the nightmare was intelligent enough to realize what a transaction was.

Every click-clack raised a hair on Aaron’s neck. Each second of silence took a year out of his life. Every retch – wait.

Aaron peered around the corner. He could see the edge of the distant nightmare as it was doing something analogous to a dog trying to vomit after eating too much grass, which was frankly more pitiful than intimidating.

The hacking and coughing raised into a nauseating crescendo when just at this moment, its midsection burst.

Aaron darted back to safety as a few errant coins whizzed by and embedded itself a nearby woodshelf. Currency of various internationalities spilled over to him, gently lapping at his toes like an expensive ocean tide before sizzling away to worthless metal and paper-bits.

“Seven hells.” He muttered, lifting his foot. Chunks fell off like snow.

He looked again.

Two familiar figures stood in distance, surrounded by the ring of the same stuff caking his shoes. Shapiro! Tschic! Barring the fact they looked like they took a bath in sewer water, they seemed to be no worse for wear. They seemed to be standing very still, as though they are still in the process of trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

“SHAPIRO!” Aaron ran to them. “TSCHIC!”

Tschichold unceremoniously spit out his soggy cigarette.

“Here’s your jacket, sir.” Shapiro said, picking up the soggy excuse for fashion and delivering the sopping mess to the artist, which he slowly donned. The process took some amount of time, which meant the resulting silence had some amount of progress developing into comedic absurdity.

“…You did this on purpose did you.”

“I deserved it,” Tschic snapped. He turned to Shapiro. “I know what happened was cool and all, but don’t tell anyone and don’t tell anyone I did it.”

“How did you do this? How – ”

“He’s dead.”

The three men turned around to the source of the voice. Voices. The Library staff managed to rise themselves from the nightmare-induced stupor and it was easy to see how similar they are to each other – ordinary men, fairly average, with long-tasseled tails lashing anxiously at their heels. Even without the uniforms, Aaron could say they are exact duplicates. Clones.

“You mean him?” Aaron pointed at Tschic much to the latter’s annoyance.

“No, no,” they mourned, shaking their head. “One of ours.”

“A slow death by blade.”

“Many times.”

“Once was enough.”

“So much blood!”



They shedded tears, the death still fresh in their unified minds. The most cognizant one deeply bowed down at the toes of Aaron. A desperate plead. “Master! We want justice. We want blood, but we know this is no mere murder. We cannot stress how much danger the entire port is in. Ceridwen is not as infinite as it seems and as much as we are afraid to say, the Council is not as powerful to take it on.
Leon at first did not notice the dreamlike beauty of Port Ceridwen, because Leon was busy throwing up in an alley.

What the hell? What the hell?

That kid… Timmy. All that blood. That butcher’s-floor mess. The meat all mixed in with the metal of the golem that had been assigned to protect him. The smell… the teeth

Mentally, Leon tried to pull himself together. He’d barely processed the round transition. That theatrical girl had killed the contestant Nizzo… Leon didn’t know how he felt about that. The dossier had said that Nizzo was sapient, but it was just a jellyfish, wasn’t it? Not a person. Not like the kid. Leon swallowed hard, his mouth bitter with bile. This was a far bigger mess than he’d anticipated. He’d imagined monitoring would be less… gory.

Leon coughed, resting his forehead against the faded brick of the alley. It was cool to the touch and smelt faintly of lilac. He closed his eyes, reflexively patting the pockets of his uniform. His bag was gone, he noticed, the dossiers with it. His stun gun was still securely in its holster. His ID was tucked in his pocket. He took it out, squinting at the unflattering picture of himself. He had to get word to the Authority that he’d been moved without his supplies. His communicator… he checked again. Gone. He must have dropped it somewhere in Eta Carina. Sloppy. He’d get a demerit for that.

He stood up, noticing for the first time the smell of the salt air. For a moment, it reminded him of the islands of Exarkhos- but there was no undercurrent of old fish or factory smoke. Just something sweet and bready, like an undercooked cake. He would have to find some way to contact the CEB and update them on his status. No doubt they’d tracked him here- the move had been broadcast on television, after all. His handlers were probably monitoring him from their stations.

Leon looked around. There were no cameras. He was in a low alleyway, alone, near what he guessed was a market by the sound. Drifts of hay and dry grass had gathered in the corner behind him. The brick underfoot was cheerily painted and surprisingly clean. The sky overhead was a pastel green, painted here and there with cotton candy pink clouds. Things like four-winged swallows flitted overhead, their wings glittering in the noonday sun.

Despite himself, Leon couldn’t suppress a thrill of excitement. He’d never in his life imagined he’d ever leave Exarkhos. This was something beyond his wildest dreams. But then he remembered Timmy’s mangled body, and the deranged woman with the sword, and the feeling ebbed.

He stepped out of the alley cautiously, hand resting lightly on the grip of his gun. It emptied into a market after all, up on a hill with a fine view of the harbor. Stalls were scattered in front of peaceful-looking homes, their canopies fancifully painted with swirls of color. Customers haggled good-naturedly with the sellers over dreams encased in bottles, sealed in vases, sewn into silken pouches. Occasionally a stall would feature a grand chest bolted shut from which loud thumps would emanate- heavier fare, Leon guessed. All of the people were clothed in colorful robes that glittered as they moved, and they wore content, pleased expressions.

Leon frowned. None of these people seemed likely to have the kind of communication systems he’d need.

He approached the nearest stall- as he did, the vendor and the woman he was selling to slumped, gasping for air. Their candy-cane-striped horns seemed to wilt as Leon got closer. The bottles of dreams carefully arranged on the stall’s table dulled as the contents within dissipated into nothingness. The vendor stared shocked down at his wares, scrambling to shield them from further harm.

“H-hello,” Leon said, brandishing his ID card. “I n-need to contact the B-B-Broadcasting Authority. Promptly, please. I-I-It’s important.”

The vendor shot him an angry look. “What are you doing? What are you? What-” he broke off into another coughing fit. His customer took the opportunity to flee, stumbling away from Leon. The closest stalls were experiencing the same effects. One woman had passed out in the street.

“I am J-J-Junior Agent L-Leon Antaros,” Leon explained patiently. He pointed to his picture on the card. “I need to c-contact my emp-p-p-ployers.”

“You’re an abomination! Look what you’ve done!”

Leon was a little taken back. “I am n-not. I just need-”

“Get OUT!” the vendor screamed, brandishing a knife from underneath the table. His peachy-purple skin was breaking out into unhealthy blotches. Leon kept his hand on his gun for a moment, debating whether to subdue the man. He decided against it, reasoning that it would only cause more of a scene.

He drew himself up. “I will leave. B-b-but you have not been very helpful. I will h-h-have to report you to upper m-management.”

Leon retreated as the vendor swiped clumsily with his knife, missing by feet. He collapsed onto his table groaning, shattering a few of the empty bottles. Leon considered. The magical corruption of the populace seemed to react poorly to his ENF; it was unlikely that he would be able to speak to them for any length of time. At least, not any of these people. That meant he had to turn to outside help.

For Leon, that met the only contestant who had proved non-hostile.

Freefall was on the beat, she was in her element, or, at least that’s what she was telling herself. Bennie was leading the way to the scene, smooth talking them past any curious minds, and being far more helpful than Freefall could have expected… but still, she couldn’t help but feel a bit like she was just along for the ride. Beunissima (she could call her Bennie but she was Beunissima) gave off a feeling of… something, something that Freefall just couldn’t pin down, and beyond that, beyond that she knew that something was...wrong, but what…

“Freefall, what do you think of this?”

Freefall snapped back to reality for a moment, turning to the scene, which was as miraculously Bennie had left it. “Well, for one thing, it’s incredible no one’s found this yet, you weren’t kidding when you said it was fresh.”

“I’d just missed whoever did it, I don’t think I could have cut a closer entrance unless I heard the killer slam the door on their way out. Too bad, that, confronted with the killer, starting off with a chase, what an opener that would have been, eh?.”

Freefall rolled her eyes a little and looked over the body and found much the same information that Bennie had before, the stabbing was excessive, the man had definitely been dead before the killer finished his work, and it was for the sake of the “message” plastered in blood that so many wounds had been made. Freefall stared at the blood on the wall, a swirling mess of nothing if you asked her. “I don’t think I have to tell you that this is important, but shit if I know what it means.”

“Hmmm, well, I can’t say that’s unexpected,” Bennie took a picture of the wall. “I suppose we’ll just have to find our resident artist! Or perhaps, you have someone else in mind?” Regardless of if he could actually help or not with this conspiracy, Tschic’s perspective on things could only be interesting.

Freefall shuddered for a moment, not really wanting to get into whatever… Tschic was probably doing here and somewhat blatantly confirming Bennie’s suspicions. Emboldened by a desire to avoid the ever raving artist, Freefall looked at the corpse one more, before being hit by a flash of realization. “I’ve seen this man before.”

Bennie was actually a little hurt at Freefalls obvious, if not terribly unexpected disdain for her fellow artist, but she supposed there would be a time and a place for enlightening Freefall in the benefits of the Artistic Eye. “Pardon? You saw him before he died?”

“No, I mean I’ve seen this exact man before, he was heading towards a large building, where, I, at the time, assumed they were just similar looking people or the mist, or something, but… maybe they were all the same…”

“So triplets? Quadruplets? Sounds about right for this place, power in numbers and all that... Well, that’s an excellent lead, let’s leave before things here get hot then, shall we?”

Freefall nodded, although she still felt… off… like there was a pressure… She darted her eyes all around the room, but couldn’t see anything.

Bennie noticed, obviously, and couldn’t help but feel some pity. You’d think a spunky super-heroine would be a better fit for this kind of thing, but Freefall was clearly not only a bit paranoid, but also somewhat lost… it was kind of cute actually. As Bennie followed along to where Freefall had seen the identical men, she wondered if she was really making the most out of this relationship. Freefall wasn’t stupid, naive, wanting to believe in the best in people, prone to emotion, but while Bennie was an excellent performer, it was only a matter of time before the heroine's sense of justice caught on to her less than shining moral compass. Still, it’s always fun to play heroes, it makes the perceived face-heel turn all the sweeter.

In her personal mulling, Freefall finally landed on something that she hoped would clear some of the air, “Bennie, you said that, in your world, you need showmanship to survive? What… what do you mean?”

Bennie smiled, and sighed, as her insides screamed at this golden opportunity that she had been handed, “I won’t lie to you Freefall, I’m used to this kind of thing. Do you know what they say about stars? They aren’t born… they’re made… Well, as for me? I was forged, in more ways than one. Do you know what it was like? Could you imagine, what it was like, to feel the weight of a thousand eyes, seeing your every move, sometimes, your life, in their hands, based on what they thought was the most entertaining?”

Freefall gasped and stopped running, clenching her fist tightly… before letting out a deep breath. “Bennie… I… I had no idea… I….” Freefall thought back to Bennie’s introduction, how easy it seemed to her, how easy it came to her… She wasn’t sure what to say, what to think, there was just a lot to process at once, and so little time. Freefall continued her walk, catching up to Bennie who had slowed her pace a bit to compensate.

“Listen Freefall, this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question, don’t worry about it, I’m used to living my life, after all, we all have our roles, don’t we? Which, brings me to a question for you. What do you think your role in this is?” Bennie couldn’t help but plant just a little seed, “I mean, you obviously want to be a hero, but… how’s that really worked out for you so far?”

Freefall looked away from Bennie, her mind wandering once more, tip toeing around the question of just how much Bennie knew about the events of the battle so far. What was her role in this? What was she doing? In the immediate, she was trying to solve this crime, trying to stop whatever force was trying to consume this port town. In the long run, she wanted to unite everyone, bring them all together to stop this horrible contest, but somehow, it just, hadn’t come together. Was it her? Was someone trying to weave chaos amoung the contestants, to prevent that very thing? She had been wondering, and while she would love to believe the latter, she couldn’t help but conclude the former. Freefall wondered what Ace would think, and that told her everything.

“Bennie, I think, if I’m being honest, right now I just want to go home. Not, not by myself, I want all of us to go home… but… I don’t think that I’m cut out for this, not by myself. If I had my teammates, Ace, METAL, even...” Freefall muttered to herself, clenched her first, and hurried her pace towards the library. Maybe she couldn’t do what the other Eagles could do in this situation, but she could at least do this.

As Bennie giggled to herself at the determined heroine, unaware that she had been blissfully indulged in some foreshadowing, the single light that neither of them had noticed ceased the deterrence it was running on the scene of the crime. While it didn’t know where this was going, it would be inconvenient if the two “heroines” couldn’t follow the threads… “Soon…” said a whisper.


“How could you!”

“Listen, I.”

“We all care about her, the two of you can’t just, barge in by yourselves! We are a team!”


“Ugh, if Gadget hadn’t been sent away, I can assure you that he would agree with me.”


“Don’t you “Magenta” me! We are a team, Ace. Freefall too. If it was me, I know that she’d want to come too. We’re all going to save her, and nothing will stop us from getting her back. How long?”

I wanna be a real friend, Don't wanna break when I bend
I wanna a be no seeker, I wanna scream eureka
Cold iron, silver tongue, the beginning and the end of all Aaron’s psychopathic education could not possibly come to bear to begin an understanding for this. Dead people? Dead people? Murdered? He wasn’t responsible for this, was he? He didn’t do this, did he? He stared at the remains of the nightmare thing. What did life matter, unless it served its betters, he remembered, an old lesson half-surfacing in his mind as his practicum tutor slashed a knife across a slave’s throat, and he almost went back there, if it weren’t for the little golden thought missing at his side. Change would have urged him to kill or leverage their lives somehow against a further goal, but…

He’d had a little shop, where he sold little dreams. That had been all he’d ever wanted, right then in that moment. He’d lived that little dream of his own. A life free from managing an economy, a life free from cruelty and strange anachronisms and a world that didn’t just loop around in every direction if you didn’t want it to… oh, how he missed that little shop. He sighed. But it was never to be. He saw his future laid out in front of him: he would tear his way across the worlds the strange and twisted authorities above brought him, just as he used to trek from town to town, rebalancing books and deleting debts.

Change had been his friend then, a trusted companion, an advisor, and an ally. Now, Aaron wasn’t sure if he could ever make things right.

“M’Sir?” Shapiro was saying something. “Mister Abstract, sir?”

“AARON” Tschic yelled bigly, “YOUR DUDE IS TALKING TO YOU”

Aaron moaned, covering his ears. “I heard, Tschic,” he began, but didn’t bother to finish. “Could I get a little quiet, please.” The librarian clones nodded in agreement. He clutched at a bookshelf for balance, but the feeling of guilt kept coming, not going away like dreams usually did. Slowly, he realized it was no dream. This was coming from within. He’d always been taught as an aurumancer not to feel guilt, especially since all events were consequences of market forces, but it kept coming, it kept coming…

Unbidden, the image of Nizzo came to mind.

There was a commotion at the door.
Leon strolled through the dream-swept streets, idly watching the rainbow of kites that snapped and danced just off the shore, tethered by silken ropes to some of the pleasure vessels that bobbed pleasantly in the bay. Port Ceridwen’s two moons were visible even in the broad daylight, two pink eyes gazing down on the candy-pastel town. It made a pretty picture, but Leon was growing annoyed.

He’d had no luck contacting anyone who might help him reach his handlers. The locals had reacted poorly to his presence- screaming and crying and vomiting blood, some of them, and all of them had been extremely rude. Leon wasn’t used to resistance in his work for the Agency, and he was reaching the end of his interrogation techniques that didn’t fall under the category of Extreme Coercion (for use, he remembered from his manual, only on those subjects whose powers were causing such societal distress that their use could be justified before the Board). Furthermore, his feet were hurting, and he was hungry.

The streets were growing emptier as the day crept on, the soft brick tinged pink by the afternoon sun. It would be impossible to find Kriok without help, Leon thought dismally. As soon as this had crossed his mind he caught sight of a pair of locals fleeing between a quaint florist’s shop and a bakery, one of them pale and moaning.

Leon sped up in pursuit, overtaking them before they could shelter underneath the cafe’s orange and green-striped parasols. “W-w-what have you s-seen?” Leon demanded, almost reflexively pulling his gun from his holster.

As soon as his field overtook them the weaker of the pair passed out- a woman with a hint of rabbit about her, her long pink ears flopping weakly as she slid under the table. Her companion- a deer-like man with glittering silver antlers- turned to Leon with an expression of horror. “It’s a plague,” he said, horrified. “Oh gods, they’re everywhere.”

Who is e-everywhere?”

“Iron,” the man gasped, clutching at his embroidered collar. Flecks of silver were falling from his antlers and he seemed to be struggling to breathe. Futilely he pulled at the hand of the unconscious woman, succeeding only in awkwardly jamming her between the delicately carved chairs.

Leon gestured with his gun for the man to keep talking, but the antlered creature was growing as pale as his companion. “She’s not breathing,” he said to no one, shaking the woman’s shoulders. “She’s not breathing!”

“Where d-d-did you find iron?” Leon said with what he felt was a good deal of patience. He idly flicked the gun’s controls between power settings.

The man pointed to a distant street, piled high with candy-colored balconies and widows’ watches. Flags fluttered gaily from castle-like spires, condensed down to miniature proportions.

“Th-thank you,” Leon said, satisfied. He replaced his gun and headed towards where the man had indicated, hoping that his directions were accurate. It seemed to be a street crowded with what he guessed were inns or hostels, cheerily painted signs hanging from above the doorways depicting beds and meals. The man’s sobs faded into echoes behind him as Leon cautiously opened door after door, finding only meals half-eaten on tables and kettles whistling forlornly on abandoned stoves.

Then, in a burst of luck, he spotted a flash of brightly-colored plumage through a window left open with a steaming cup of tea still perched on the sill. “Kriok!” Leon called joyfully, “Kriok! I-it’s me!”

The alien was leaning under a silvery awning, her feathers clamped close to her neck in irritation. The look she gave him was cold- but she’d been through a lot lately, Leon thought sympathetically.

“H-hi, Kriok,” he said once he was under the shelter of the awning. She’d barely moved. “Do you r-r-remember me?”

“We last spoke exactly 15.7 sjirn ago,” the alien replied coldly. “I think I can remember at least that far.”

“Oh,” Leon said. “I w-wasn’t sure i-if- I-I-I know these changes can be c-confusing. Did you end up f-f-far from here?”

Kriok gestured with her beak to somewhere a few streets over.

“That’s g-good,” Leon said, beaming. “I was worried you w-would get lost. I’ve been trying to understand the l-layout of this c-c-city. It’s so provincial, don’t y-you think? Some of the s-s-smaller islands on Exharkhos are like this. E-Exharkhos is where I come from,” he added.

Kriok’s crest bristled. “How nice.”

“I interrogated some l-l-locals. They were quite i-irrational. They said something about iron?”

“Yes,” Kriok said flatly. “They were distressed. They called me a ‘demon’.”

“That wasn’t v-v-very n-nice,” Leon said, feeling somewhat guilty. He had already badly overstepped the boundaries between himself and the subjects he was supposed to be monitoring, but he found Kriok easy to talk to. Her feathers reminded him of a parrot. “I- In some old fairy tales,” he said hesitantly, “Iron is h-harmful to m-m-magical creatures. But those are stories for ch-ch-children. It’s clearly psychosomatic. Th-these people are co-co-corrupted.”


Leon nodded vigorously. “Oh y-yes. People with u-u-unn-n-natural powers- they are often superst-st-stitious about silly things l-like this. Oh! I mean- you- you’re not- f-f-for you, it’s-” he realized too late what he was implying about Kriok.

Kriok cawed and folded her arms. Leon wasn’t sure what the gesture meant so he continued hurriedly, “W-well- you’ve n-never hurt anyone, anyway. I d-don’t think these people are dangerous, not very, and I c-c-can protect you, i-if th-they are- my field- h-have you seen anyone else?” he finished somewhat desperately.

“What does your field do to the natives of this place?”

Leon blinked, a little hurt by her abruptness. “W-weakens them, a little. They wo-wo-won’t come near me. N-near us.”

“Good,” Kriok said, and strode off, leaving Leon to stumble along behind her, hopelessly confused.
The Awen Library was huge, marble, and just as decadent as the rest of the city. The kind of buildings Freefall passed every day but never entered. It was bleeding thick black blood-stuff. It heaved and sighed woundedly.

“Well. Can't really say if it's supposed to do that or if this seaside air is getting to me.”

”I'd prefer a fight over research any day.”

“Haha. One way or another...” Bennie strode up steps. Her skirt clung and became loose capri-legs.

They stepped over the shuddering threshold. Fallen beams that had sprouted leaves—or maybe had always been like that—and other debris blocked the way. Bennie sliced through them, her dual swords flickering.

“Well, now they know we're coming.”

The Great Hall of the library was upended bookshelves and a very recent struggle. Freefall tensed, ready. Bennie clicked her tongue.

“Even the stained glass know, it was one of the few examples of that style.”


“You never been on a vacation?”


Bennie sighed.
”Anyways, I hear voices thataway.” Her heels moved surprisingly quietly over the mess.

Behind some still-standing intricately carved shelves was a bunch of identical guys--Oh, huh--and three others. Aaron, a wizardy looking guy, and—someone. They were all standing on a bunch

“So.” Bennie stepped forward, and the sparkling light from what remained of the ceiling hit her just so. “I see you've been doing a little problem-solving on your own. I'm glad we've all managed to meet up. Freefall and I are investigating a murder. And it's led us here.

She waved at all of them, “I'm Bennie.”

They were a little shocked. Especially Aaron, and the raggedy--

“Uhh. Hi.” The man waved awkwardly back.

“Tschic?!” He was surprisingly normal-looking.

“So, decided to change your brand?”

“I guess.”

“Gotta keep things fresh.” Bennie smiled encouragingly. It was kinda odd.

The 3 identical ones took this opportunity to pipe up.

“Y-you said...murder...our LEADER...was ALSO-”

“Yep. Saw him spilled out all over the carpet.” They flinched at the memory. “We're here because the symbol we found scrawled in sanguine on the wall.” She dipped gloved fingers into the ichor and made a few quick strokes.

“Now,” she said, and Freefall couldn't help thinking of that one gameshow host she occasionally saw on late-night reruns, “Can anyone tell me what this means?”

The librarians recoiled. The wizard guy blanched.

“The- egg-”


Aaron broke in.



Bennie- I don't think we'll be needing your help.” Bennie raised an eyebrow.

“You think I'm here to help you?”

“I don't think you're here to help anyone but yourself.”

“Aaron!” Freefall couldn't help bursting in. “I get it. I do. I felt the same way. But Bennie's not—she's forced into this just like us. She HAD to kill someone, she didn't have a choice...we need to all...” How to explain it to him?

“It's okay, Freefall.” Bennie put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I don't expect everyone to trust me right away.” She smiled at Aaron.

He looked cold, and angry, and tense, and...sick?

“We are fine here-”

“Really?” Freefall's voice was hard. “Cuz it looks like you guys got beat just a few minutes ago. What happened?”

Aaron was tight-lipped. What had gotten into him? Tschic just looked awkward. She gave him her hardest stare.

“Jeez, Freefall. It was just a nightmare. They've been attacking the whole city, it's not-” he glanced sidelong at Aaron, “-some big secret.”

“Nightmares?” Freefall nodded professionally. “I fought some of those with my team once. Guy named Dr. Nyx that made your id come alive. Was it a big one or uh-” Ace had barred her from actually coming on the mission, telling her that she needed experience doing support, but they didn't have to know that “-one of the small ones?”

Tschic looked at her weirdly.
“Well, a big one? But seriously, we just got eaten and then it dissolved. 4/10 honestly.” He nudged the pile of coins on the floor. “It's where all this came from.”

“How exactly did it die?”

“Wellll, uh—they're kind of weak on the inside, actually.”

The other wizard opened his mouth to speak. Tschic shot him a look. He cleared his throat.

“Ahem. I think, that, with all due respect, Miss Freefall, Miss Bennie-”

“Princess Beunissima Coel Y Os Tiemasiy.”

“Um.” He blinked. “Er--Princess--with all due respect, while I appreciate Mr. Tschichold's contributions, I believe that if Master Aaron feels your input is not needed, then I must agree with him. After all, he is-”

“I do not care what Aaron thinks. I want,” Her voice turned sharp, “A quick explanation of what went down here, a summary of relevant local lore, and a lead on either this symbol or who'd want to murder a library elf.

“In whatever order.”

Or what? said Aaron.

For a moment, Bennie's hands twitched, and Freefall thought she was about to slice a table in half. But she untensed and sighed.

“Tschic, you can tell me what happened? Freefall, interview those guys about the murder. Try to be...sensitive.”

“Okay.” said Freefall, dubiously.

She ushered the identical guys over to a corner, away from the soon-to-be arguing. Doesn't Aaron get what's at stake here?

“Ok, so, uh, what are your names?”

“Llygoden.” they said in sync. Hoo boy.

“Is there one of you that I can just, talk to, and not do this—I mean, it would make things easier for me?” Sensitive, sensitive.

They all looked at each other.

“ Llygoden Dau.” One said hesitantly. “The one of us killed, he, he was Llygoden Un.” [color=#7474FF]One of the others began silently crying.

“Do you...have any enemies?”

They shook their heads rapidly, protesting.

“No enemies!”

“Never harmed anyone!”

“O.K.! Okay! Just a standard question. It's okay. Uhh. Anyone you can think of who might have done this?”

One of the Llygodens stepped forward and clasped Freefall's hands.


The port is in danger.

“Danger.” The Llygodens murmured.

“The Serpent's Egg foretells great upheaval.” said Llygoden Dau.

“That's, is that what the symbol is?”

You must protect the Port.This guy really isn't letting go of my hands, huh...From the other corner of the room she heard indistinct arguing.

“Sure, of course I will. Of course I will. But you gotta give me more to go on.”

“You must tell the Council.”

“You must make them understand.”

“Understand what.”

A murmur again of half-started sentences.

“The things in the dark-”

“Things grow in the dark.”

“What feasts on scraps moves to bigger prey.”

Cryptic riddles. Great.

“Morfran-” said one, and was hushed by the others.

“What? What was that?”

They looked at each other, embarrassed and shut-mouthed.

“Please. I want to help. I want to solve this case.”

“...the Sunken City. Morfran's Ward. The Library—the Library's sister—the Library is mirrored there. They...know things.” They were talking in fits and starts now, over each other, too frightened to individually tell the whole truth.

“In the depths.”

“Away from the light.”

“We dare not go there.”

“...There you will find secrets.”

Freefall stood there and processed.

“Ok...okay. Thanks. I'll...I'll figure this out.” She tried to smile reassuringly.

I hope Bennie was more successful than I was.

Freefall came back to what looked like a staring match.

“Freefall. Tell me some good news.” said Bennie without moving her eyes.

“Jesus Christ.” said Tschic.

“Well, they—the Llygodens, said the symbol is called the 'Serpent's Egg,' that it's an omen of great disaster, and that we have to warn 'the Council.'”

“Sounds about right.”

“They also said there was a place for secrets...Morfran's Ward.”

Shapiro gasped.

What? Aaron broke eye contact. Bennie looked slightly smug. He stared at the Llygodens. “I wasn't expecting much, but I certainly wasn't expecting you to advise dangerous strangers to traipse around in a volatile sub-city filled with militants who harbor nothing but antagonism toward the Council and the Port as a whole!”

The Llygodens pulled together like a frightened herd.

“Sounds fun.” Bennie grinned.

Aaron was I've never seen him like this.

Bennie sneered.
“Oh, was that your last nerve, bean-counter? Cuz you've been getting on mine.

“Here's how it's gonna be. You're going to talk to the Council—tell them to raise a militia, brace for impact, stop trying to hide the disaster from the populace, whatever. You're a wizard, they're wizards, go talk their ears off. Stop me if you've got a better idea! Freefall-”
She clapped Freefall across the back, “Dearest darlingest shit-wrecker, will go with you, to provide protection and a sense of heroism.

I will be going down to wherever these unplumbed depths are, and discovering whatever terrible-and-or-day-saving secrets there are to be found. I would like Tschic to come with me, because I am intrigued by him, because I think he'll come in handy, and because with you he got eaten alive.

“I would say 'any questions,' but the time for questions. Is over.”

Her heels click-click turned and she was out the door. As the echo faded, an awkward silence settled over the library.
The harbor that supposedly led to Morfran’s Ward was innocuous-looking enough. The horizon vibrated with magic, shattering the moons into a thousand pink pieces. Tschichold scanned the barnacle-pitted area, trying his best not to breathe in the scalding air. He frowned.

“Real fixer-upper, no?” Bennie cheerfully said. She somehow procured a hat while he was not looking. He politely decided not to question this. “Morfran’s Ward had been closed ages ago, since the time of Braud.”

“We should go back and get Aaron.”

WHY?!” Bennie bristled, although she seemed to relax after she saw him jolt back. “I mean…why. As much as it is a good idea, there is the issue of urgency. We simply do not have the…time.”

Tschichold slowly nodded, not because he necessarily agreed with her but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Time wasn’t really an issue when you could literally teleport with a nap but Bennie was…odd. Hard to reconcile the fact that the murderer on stage and the oh-so-determined investigator was the same person. Perhaps, Bennie just changes her personality like how she changes clothes. How…mercurial. Confident. He envied her.

He walked into the ocean with Bennie because there was nowhere else to go. Also, no boat.


Shadows shrouded the sunken city. Alien light revealed the buildings, highlighting their unnatural shapes and angles. Walking was more of a falling sensation than a feet-on-ground deal and the temperature was just shy of burning, a fever dream. As much as Tschichold hated to admit it, he felt right at home here. He did not want to ponder the implications.

“So! How are you?”

“I’m fine…I guess?” Tschichold was a bit taken aback. “Could be better.”

“Oh definitely,” Bennie beamed a plastic-tiger smile. She was charming enough to make him crack a smile back, but he stopped. He knew what she did after all. “At least look on the bright side, at least someone would dig your missing eye. You really need to get an eyepatch, by the way.”

Jesus!” Tschichold snarled. How long was his eye gone? How long?

“How long have you been going without one? It was never mentioned on your dossier.”

“I thought we are here to probe secrets about the Egg, not about my tragic backstory – ”

“ – the Egg?”

Two mermen – city guards – accosted them. They were rather beautiful, the piscine features only serve to heighten their attractiveness, but it was a threatening sort of beauty one might get from a predatory animal, only in fey form. Tastefully displayed scars, the near-perfect musculature – it was rather…distracting. Tschichold thanked his lucky stars and thanked the surrounding darkness.

“We can’t have secrets flying in the open, can we?” A trident was threateningly waved in his face, destroying any level of desirability he had in him. “Not especially from a softskin like you.”

“We were sent by the Council,” Tschichold carefully chose his words. “On the blessings of – ”


“Our honor,” Bennie shoved aside Tschichold. She had morphed into a princess-warrior outfit, bodice and all. Her eyes had a wildness that even her currently glam-rock hair could not compare to. “Our blood and honor.”

“You wish to fight? You are willing to throw your life away for this damaged, one-eyed brat?” The merman stroked at his chin, clearly more impressed by the fancy costume than any word from the Council. He smiled dangerously. “I like that.”

Tschichold froze and mouthed, Bennie, no.

Bennie turned around and winked. Bennie, yes, the wink said.

“WHY are you doing this?” Tschichold screamed as she was led away. Mildly relieved by a temporary lack of Bennie, he contemplated his next course of action. He could follow her, but he could not. BUT on the other hand...his decision was made for him by a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re part of this too,” the other merman wrinkled his nose. “Along with a new change of clothes.”


The coliseum was one of the few well-maintained landmarks of Morfran’s Ward. Upkeep was rare due to the regular onslaught of local monsters. The city was practically crawling with nightmares and the humidity was certainly not helping. Blood-sports were probably one of the few indulgences they had. Tschichold sympathized. He knew too well how an environment could get to you.

So you might as well adapt. His reflection frowned back. He was moderately armored and in a cloak forged from some dream-beast. As much as he was embarrassed, he felt rather pleased in his appearance. A wearable, generic-fantasy reinterpretation of his past. As much as he hated to admit it, he felt more…confident. There was probably a point to Bennie’s antics.

“You’re not too shabby yourself.”

“What’s the point? Leaving behind a good-looking corpse?”

“Ha! I like that!”

Tschichold was discombobulated. He had mixed feelings about Bennie. She was agreeable, he supposed. She knew what to say but her volatile nature left something to be desired and she most definitely did something to Freefall. He preferred Aaron, but he was starting to have second thoughts. The ravaged inn-guests, the library-serpent, the currency (the currency) – the situation in Port Ceridwen was much…closer than he thought. He could guess why. He didn’t want to.

He only could trust his own judgement, he realized. He was alone. Again.