Follow The Ashes: Familiar Faces, Familiar Foes, Familiar Places

The door threw Cas forward into the room beyond, slamming shut behind her. She turned around to discover a featureless wall emitting a dull, white glow. The room was entirely plain, save for a simple, metal table and a simple metal table with one polished metal chair standing next to it. A dull hum resonated from all around.

A door, its surface like a mirror, occupied the space where two of the walls met. No soft, white light came from the door.

“Back to square one, I see,” Cas muttered to herself. She approached the door and saw her reflection staring back at her, as she expected. The surface of the door wavered, revealing a familiar face wearing a familiar smirk. A cybernetic eye glistened and blinked. Cas gasped, stepping back, and the door vanished.

There was a soft crackling sound accompanied by a soft inhale.

“You’ve been very busy, Cas,” Gavin’s voice said from all around. “Very busy indeed. Yet here you are, back where you started. Or are you?”

Cas clenched her fists, ready for a fight. “Why don’t you say that to my face, coward?”

Gavin’s laughter surrounded Cas as it echoed within the small room. “Temper, temper. Short a fuse as ever, Cas,” Gavin taunted. “I would be a fool to approach you in such a state. Oh, no. We’ll talk at a distance for now, I think.”

One of the walls disappeared, and beyond the room was a lush, sprawling forest.

“A trick, I’m sure,” Cas muttered.

A soft breeze rolled into the room, and with it the aromas of fresh rain, pine trees, and a hint of campfire smoke.

“A very convincing trick,” Cas said as she stepped into the forest. Tall grass waved gently. Numerous stars twinkled above in a cloudless, pitch black sky. Numerous trees stood tall and proud, their leaves vibrant, warm hues of near-winter autumn. Cas reached out and touched a tree, surprised to feel bark and not metal.

“There had to be a baseline to build the simulations from, naturally,” Gavin’s voice said. It was softer now, no longer amplified by the size of the space Cas occupied. The room behind her had vanished, or perhaps the wall had closed again.

“Where are you?” Cas demanded. “You can obviously see me, so why not just show yourself?”

“In due time, I assure you,” Gavin replied.

Cas inhaled deeply, eyes shut. She exhaled slowly, turned, and started walking in the direction of the campfire smell.

Wisps of smoke drifted gently through the air. A faint, warm glow was visible in the distance, casting curious shadows on the trees and along the grassy field. Cas walked towards the fire cautiously, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.

Anything more suspicious than a real, live forest among the endless catwalks, strange places where the past and future seemed to converge, and the simulations of places Cas was certain she had been once before.

“You’ve been very busy,” Gavin said again. ” Fixing your past mistakes.”

Cas froze, suddenly tense. “What did you just say?” she demanded.

Gavin chuckled, a sound deliberately amplified to roll across the forest like thunder.

“You heard right,” Gavin said. “Fixing your past mistakes. There should have been a familiarity to the things you’ve encountered.”

Cas fell to her knees, a sharp pain suddenly present just behind her eyes. “What the hell are you doing to me?”

“Nothing,” Gavin replied flatly. “You did this all to yourself, but that’s a topic for another time. You’ve still got plenty to do before we can discuss that. Until then, Cas.”

There was a soft, metallic sound, followed by only the gentle breeze rustling through the trees and rolling along the grass.

Cas waited, and the pain slowly seemed to subside. She slowly stood up, every fiber of her being aching slightly from whatever had just hit her.

The glow of the fire seemed far closer now, and so she willed herself to continue.

The fire was bright and its warmth pleasant, even from the modest distance from which Cas watched it. She could see a solitary figure, hunched over something by the fire. The wind picked up ever so slightly, casting just enough light over the person’s face.

“Raph!” Cas cried out, running over. “Thank goodness you’re okay!”

Raph blinked, his expression blank. “Is this another test of yours, Commander? I must admit, I’m a little confused by it but I suppose I’ll play along. Yes, I’m quite adequately all right. I’ll turn in now. Your turn to keep watch.”

Raph stood quickly, turned, and walked away. A chill wind blew through, extinguishing the fire. The stars still twinkled pleasantly overhead.

Cas felt the hair on her neck stand up. Someone or something, unseen in the cloak of the darkness, was watching her intently.

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”

Warpt Factor – Installment 11

Izzy held her finger above the big, red button. It was the oft-spoken about, often-depicted Big Red Button. Izzy tried to keep her attention on the four world leaders she had very much gained the attention of by threatening to atomize their planet, but the button kept grabbing her attention. It was a bit underwhelming.

“You’ll kill us all if you do that,” the Supreme Leader said flatly, the sweat rolling down his face as he spoke.

Izzy shook her head. “Doubt it,” she replied. “A big, scary bomb like this doesn’t show up for free. It’s to look scary and sound scary, but there’s definitely fine print attached to it.”

Prime Minister Todan raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile on her face. “I wonder if you’re right,” she said. “How to determine such a thing?”

“Todan, have you gone mad?” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This isn’t a matter of trial and error. She presses that button and none of this matters. The Rigellians and the Ruklans all…” Geln trailed off, realization bright in his eyes.

“Press the button,” President Kelran said.

Fontaine gasped audibly, having regained consciousness just long enough to hear the exchange, process the gravity of the Big, Red Button, and faint back into Professor Everest’s arms.

“If this actually kills us, might I offer my heartfelt apologies and a hearty oops,” Izzy said, pressing the button. A countdown appeared in the upper right corner of the monitor, beginning at 30.

“You know, this is highly irregular,” CMO Carter said. “I’m beginning to fear you’re not exactly fit to lead such a complex mission.” It was a type of doubt Izzy had grown accustomed to and learned to ignore.

Izzy instead offered a smile. “You seem nice enough, CMO Carter,” she said. “Smart, I’d bet. Looking forward to getting to know you better. How’s about this? If we all die, you’re right and wow will I be embarrassed. If I’m right, you join my crew. We could use a medic.”

CMO Carter blinked a number of times, her response stopping short of being spoken as her eyes kept moving back to the countdown.

“This wasn’t planned for at all.”

“Shit. Shitshitshit. What do we tell the Weapons Master?”

“Transmission received. Response pending…”

A sigh. “Something tells me he already knows.”

Long strings of red text, unintelligible coding language, moved up and down the display, the countdown suddenly disabled. At the same time, the Supreme Leader let out a startled cry.

“My Superheated Plasmoid Barriers are down!” the Supreme Leader shouted. “You monster, you’ve let the Ruklans right into my palace!”

General Inar’s communicator began to chirp madly. He glanced at it, then to the three leaders. “A million pardons, but these are all…Quite urgent. Excuse me.” He walked to the back of the room, towards the entrance, briskly before answering the first of many commlink calls.

Izzy couldn’t stop smiling.

“The timer,” CMO Carter muttered. It had stopped between numbers, a solid block of black.

“Color me awestruck,” Professor Everest said. “Brilliantly done, Captain!”

“Lieges of the Citadel,” General Inar said, returning. “Our troops are reporting their weapons have failed. None are functioning as the should.”

“Excellent! They will be taken into custody and interrogated,” the Supreme Leader said. “Whoever gives up the location of your wretched Citadel will be given a light sentence.”

General Inar held up a finger. “They have reported the Rigellian weapons are not working either,” he added. “The troops have set down their weapons and are…Conversing, from the chatter I’m picking up.”

“Conversing?” Prime Minister Todan asked, smirking.

President Kelran held a hand up. “It would appear there is much to discuss,” she said.

The Supreme Leader deflated, the bluster gone from him. “May a moon fall upon my house, I never thought I’d arrive at the day when I’d say this,” he said. “You’re right. We have much to discuss indeed.”

Izzy held up a hand. “Slow it down a little there, buddy,” she said. “Let’s start off with an easy-peasy question to answer. What’s your name? You weren’t born as Supreme Leader, or if you were I don’t know how you dealt with the bullying.”

Prime Minister Todan stifled a chuckle. Archbishop Geln shook his head, but a hint of a smile played at his lips.

“Calvin Rigellus, of the ruling Rigellus family,” the Supreme Leader, Calvin, replied. “Captain what was it, again?”

“Izzy Warpt,” Izzy replied.

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “I would expect these talks could only benefit from you and your crew present,” he continued. “Are there any objections among the Ruklan leadership?”

“I should think not,” President Kelran said, looking to the Archbishop and Prime Minister.

“Then it’s settled,” President Kelran said. “Should I assume you will be expecting us shortly?”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “Our mutual troops appear to have set up small encampments around the Palace, so I’ve requested the staff to begin preparing suitable rations for all.”

“I’d like to bring Captain Warpt along if that’s quite all right,” Prime Minister Todan said.

“I see no issue with your request so long as Captain Warpt does not,” President Kelran said.

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “No problem here as long as you don’t try anything shady with my crew,” she replied. “No surprise imprisonment, please. Not a fan of that kind of thing.”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” President Kelran said.

Prime Minister Todan rose from her throne gracefully, gliding down the stairs. She stood at least twice as tall as Professor Everest. Two of her arms were folded behind her back.

“This way, Captain Warpt,” Prime Minister Todan said, leading Izzy to a small alcove off to the side of the Citadel’s main chamber. Izzy followed, stopping at the wall they reached. The Prime Minister placed her right hand against it. A panel flashed with a dully, mossy green light for a brief moment. When the light had gone, the area that had illuminated was replaced by a simple doorway. Beyond it was a cavernous chamber lined with burrowing tanks similar to the one they’d arrived in.

“Easiest way to travel is to do so unseen by prying eyes,” Prime Minister Todan said.

Izzy chuckled. “A friend of mine’s got a similar philosophy,” she said, following the Prime Minister.

“I’d ask you listen and consider what I have to say with care,” Prime Minister Todan said. “With some measure of luck, perhaps my words will have some use to you.”

“Listening,” Izzy said. “Ears wide open.”

“You seem to be a clever young woman, full of energy and enthusiasm,” Prime Minister Todan continued. “Not everyone you meet will appreciate that. Some will twist it and try to use those qualities against you.”

“Uh-huh, I’m already noticing,” Izzy muttered in response. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Prime Minister Todan shook her head. “I’ll have no apologies from you, young Captain. Your bold approach was exactly what Rigel Six needed. Not just the Ruklans. Not the Rigellians. All of us. I’d very much like to send my regards to your commanding officer on your performance here.”

Izzy stopped dead in her tracks. “Ah, yeah,” she said. “Maybe…Oh, right. Duh. This was actually a very secret mission. Couldn’t discuss much with my immediate CO, so best to keep it under wraps.”

Prime Minister Todan stopped and smiled. “Is that so? In that case, your confidential mission will remain as such for the time being.”

“Can you make sure you mention that to the others, too?”

Prime Minister Todan’s smile was a warm, summer day back at home for Izzy, pure comfort in a simple gesture.

“Don’t you worry about them,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ve got my ways of sorting them out, whether they realize it and admit it or not.”

They arrived at a plain tank, unremarkable in its outside appearance. Its front hatch opened, revealing a luxuriously comfortable interior. Izzy ran past the Prime Minister, leaping into the cushioned seat. She felt the tension leaving every fiber of her body as she settled in, the Prime Minister joining her.

“One last thing,” Prime Minister Todan said as the tank closed up and began its ascent. “How are you with formal dinners? I suspect this one will have all of the trappings of one.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Never been to one? Last time I had to do something even a little fancy I got my family banned from the restaurant, but to be fair it was awful and stuffy and full of people who thought their farts had greater worth than us.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Did I mention you’ll certainly be the guest of honor? May want to consider having a few words prepared before we arrive, Captain Warpt.”

Wanted Adventurers: Sage Wisdom in a Dark Place

There were no bars to the prison cell, but no prisoners dared set foot near the openings to their holding cells. The air was rich with magic, the stone floor worn to an unsettling smoothness where the spellweaving touched. There was no need for a guard because of this, but there were several on rotation at all times.

The Guild didn’t want its prisoners getting any clever ideas, as it had a reputation to uphold. No one ever escaped their dungeons.

Aranza sat in the corner, her back against the walls. Her arms were folded across her chest, her eyes fixed on a point in the distance as she considered what The Broker had said to her. She and Monty were alone in their cell, the guards particularly attentive to them.

“You’re quieter than usual,” Monty said. He did not break stride, continuing to pace the width of their small space as he did when he was deep in thought.

Aranza shrugged. “Not the first time I’ve been arrested,” she said. “Nothing special about this time either.”

Monty stopped, turning to face Aranza. He waited until she made eye contact. “Nothing special about this time? Nothing at all?”

“Nothing at all,” Aranza said flatly.

Footfalls echoed along the walls of the dungeon. Aranza perked up. The spellweaving silenced all sounds so the prisoners didn’t try to talk with one another. Two guards shoved someone through the spellweaving. He staggered, nearly fell, and straightened up to face the guards.

“Don’t need to be so rough, you know,” the man grumbled. He was tall and lanky, dressed in tattered, ancient purple robes. A long, scraggly beard framed his gaunt features. He offered a sheepish grin to Aranza and Monty.

“No respect for their elders,” he said. “I’m a respectable Sage, and this is what I get?”

Monty shook his head. “This is a Guild dungeon,” he replied. “You did something to end up here.”

The old man clicked his tongue a few times before turning his attention to Aranza. “He’s a ray of sunshine.”

“Grows on you with time,” Aranza said. “What’s your story, Sage?”

The old man smiled, scurrying to Aranza. He plopped down, legs crossed beneath him.

“You are in the company of none other than Alistair Starspeaker, Sage extraordinaire!” the Sage, Alistair, declared. “And who might you two be?”

“Aranza. My traveling pal over there is Monty,” Aranza said. “What landed you in here?”

Alistair leaned back, his face a mask of exaggerated shock. “I was simply minding my own business, passing through Valarmount. I stopped to sell some of my wealth-enriching potions.”

“Wealth-enriching potions?” Monty asked.

Alistair chuckled. “Perhaps their effectiveness varies from person to person,” he admitted. “Hardly a reason to throw an old man in a dungeon, wouldn’t you say? What’d you two do to end up here, anyway? Murder? Dabbling in the occult?”

“Hardly your concern,” Monty said.

Aranza shook her head and Monty quieted himself. “I’m sure you’ll have thoughts on it,” she said.

“I’ve been around,” Alistair said. “Heard quite a few things. You’re not about to surprise me.”

Aranza chuckled. “We tried to rob the Guild’s private vaults.”

“Did what now?” Alistair said, eyes wide. He broke into a roaring laughter that seemed to draw from deep within his very core. Fine lines of tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Needed that,” Alistair said. “But what did you really do?”

“Tried to rob the Guild’s private vaults,” Aranza replied.

Alistair blinked, then shook his head as if trying to banish a particularly troubling thought. “You weren’t joking, were you? Absolute lunatics, the both of you. Why’d you go and do a thing like that?”

Aranza shook her head. “We needed money,” she said. “That’s how it started.”

“Ended with you getting caught by the Guild’s elite guards, yeah? Hardly a story,” Alistair replied with a snort.

Aranza held up a finger. “Not that simple,” she said. “My life’s been strange. Found myself wondering what good I could be doing with it. These are dark times, after all.”

Alistair grinned. “Now that’s a line of thinking I can appreciate,” he said.

Two guards appeared suddenly, moving through the spellweaving as if it were nothing.

“On your feet, old man,” barked one of the guards.

Alistair shrugged. “Guess my number’s up,” he said with a wink. “Until we meet again, Aranza.” He leapt to his feet and brushed the dust off of his robes. As the guards walked him out of the cell, he nodded at Monty.

Silence settled back in and Monty resumed his pacing.

“Hopefully the Guild goes easy on that old fool,” Monty muttered. “Probably a fanatic of those strange herbs the magically-inclined enjoy so much.”

Aranza snorted. “Who knows,” she said. Her smile gave way to a stoic expression. “We should be worrying about ourselves, anyway.” She pointed to the spellweaving in the air.

A paladin stood at the edge of the cell, hands clasped behind her back. “On your feet, prisoners,” she snapped. “You are next to face the Council of Light’s judgement.”

Aranza got to her feet slowly, dusting herself off. “Come on, Mont,” she said. “Don’t want to keep them waiting.”

Monty huffed. “Fine, fine,” he snarled. “I don’t like this, though.”

The paladin clasped both Monty and Aranza’s hands behind their back with heavy manacles. She walked ahead of them, and something in their restraints urging them forward.

The dungeon corridor was carved out of the surrounding earth, thin veins of crystal visible along the stone walls. Persistent echoes from water dripping down echoed all around.

The paladin didn’t speak a word, walking several paces ahead.

“She seems pleasant,” Monty snarked.

“Very talkative,” Aranza replied.

The corridor ended abruptly. A circular platform was visible, standing slightly higher than the floor around it. The paladin stopped before stepping onto it, turned, and pointed for Monty and Aranza to step ahead of her. Tendrils of light poured forth from the manacles and pushed them forward onto the platform before settling into markings on the floor.

Monty and Aranza both tensed as a wave of pain hit them.

“You’ll find trying to speak or move will only cause you suffering, so it’s best to simply await your time before the Council,” the paladin said. It was a statement of fact, but there seemed to be a little more to her words. She stepped onto the platform without another word.

The platform shuddered, the stones groaning quietly as it began to move upwards. The stone ceiling above was dark obsidian, polished and sharp in places. Just as the platform raised its occupants to the point their heads nearly grazed the ceiling, it shifted and vanished, allowing them to pass through. The platform stopped, flush with the floor above.

The chamber was designed to draw focus to the towering thrones along its back, semi-circle wall. Each one was draped in banners declaring a name and class of training.

“Ever the punctual one,” rasped a voice from behind the trio.

“My lord, I have brought the prisoners the Council is to judge next as asked,” the paladin replied.

There were soft, calculated footfalls. Tattered purple robes briefly flashed into view before they shimmered and were made whole again.

“Told you I’d see you again soon,” Alistair said, smiling at Aranza. “I suppose I left out the details of why. Don’t worry. This next part will be a walk in the park compared to what your futures look like.”

Follow the Ashes: A Tale of Two Rulers

Cas paced, piecing together what the curious man in equally curious clothes–no, more a costume, really–had told her.

“So your name is Bertram,” Cas said. “And this is the second time we’ve met, correct?”

“Bertie to my friends, and I like to think of you as a friend,” Bertie corrected. He added, “Third, technically, as I did knock you unconscious prior to the reboot that lead us here. Sorry about that, by the way. A necessary evil.”

Cas stopped, turning to look at Bertie. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Reboot?” The rest of what Bertie had said processed.

“Hang on, you said you knocked me unconscious?”

Bertie offered a half-hearted smile. “It’s complicated and we haven’t the time for me to properly explain,” he said. “You’ll remember some day, I hope. Meanwhile, do you understand why I’m just approaching this in such a forward way?”

Cas nodded. “I have an assassination attempt to stop, but I have to do it right or Junction will be decommissioned. I feel as though I should know what that means, but…” She trailed off, a dull pain creeping in behind her eyes.

“Easy does it there,” Bertie said. He patted Cas on the shoulder. “The celebration is winding through Junction towards the Room of Unity. Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is preparing her remarks there.”

“And Gin of Datum Junction is moving to the Nexus of Unity to make her way to assassinate Regina,” Cas said. A brilliant starburst of agony erupted, her vision briefly going entirely white. Cas faltered, steadying herself.

Two faces drifted across her vision, afterimages imprinted against the backdrop of the field she and Bertie stood in.

“Are you all right?” Bertie asked, the concern on his face both apparent and sincere.

“There’s more to all of this than just a murder plot,” Cas said. “That’s all very old-timey Scottish play, but I remembered something more to it that I’m not sure I should know?”

Bertie scratched his head. “Forgive me my confusion, but I’m not certain that’s how memories work. I hope I didn’t administer too high voltage a jolt.”

Cas frowned. “We’ll return to that point of conversation later,” she said. “I have two lives to save.” She took off across the field before Bertie could respond, unaware someone else was crossing the field towards Bertie from the opposite direction, also watching her intently.

The crowds were dense, and Cas had to navigate them with great care. She stole a spare mask from one of the many people enjoying a tall glass of potent-smelling alcohol and donned it, its sparkling features hiding her own quite well. She feared she would be recognized by someone and stopped, but somehow she found herself at the doors to the Room of Unity. Guards stood posted at either side, their smiles warm but their grip on their weapons sent another message entirely.

“Early arrival, I see,” said the guard to the left of the door, her eyes sparkling in the LED lighting. “I understand, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed with joy. Just a few minutes and we can let you in.”

Cas hesitated, a dozen possible responses sprinting through her thoughts before she settled on one. “I can hardly contain my excitement,” she said, offering a polite bow of her head. “I waited all day, hoping to get a good vantage point from which to see the Lady Imperious deliver her speech, as it’s…” She paused.

“It’s the anniversary of my arrival in junction,” Cas said at last.

The guards leaned towards each other, and a whispered conversation ensued. They opened the doors, just barely.

“In you go, but don’t tell anyone,” the guard to the right of the door said, her smile warmer than the false torchlight. “Joyous Junction Anniversary to you, deary.”

“You have my deepest gratitude,” Cas said, rushing through the doors.

The Room of Unity was dizzying in its size, but the focus was clearly on the throne at the heart of the room. A dozen or so guards surrounded the small, square dais, all heavily armed. Their attention wasn’t on Cas, however, but the numerous doors along the walls that had started opening to allow the many people in who had previously been celebrating their way toward the Room of Unity.

Cas knew time was short, but how she would achieve the outcome she knew she needed to occur wasn’t a thought she’d managed to come across.

“Damn it,” Cas muttered to herself, the crowd filing in around her. She was as close as she could get to the throne’s dais without encroaching upon the guards’ space, but she couldn’t quite remember where the cloaked figure would appear. There was a cloaked figure, wasn’t there? There almost always was under such circumstances.

Time seemed to slow as Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus was announced, and Cas caught sight of the cloaked figure at the edge of her vision.

She watched herself call out that something was wrong, only for the cloaked figure to be taken down by the guards.

At the same time, she also saw what happened when the cloaked figure succeeded.

“Regina,” Cas muttered. “Gin.” She blinked hard, slapping herself on the forehead.

“Gin!” Cas shouted, her voice carrying over the din of the crowd. Both the Lady Imperious and the cloaked figure froze, their eyes suddenly fixed on Cas.

They spoke simultaneously, their words not the same but their voices identical. The walls went white, and a large message appeared high above the center of the room.

“Error Located,” the message stated. “Initiating repairs…”

Cas was thrown backwards at startling speed, the Room of Unity racing far from her view as she hurtled through Junction and back towards the field. Aromas of food and drink and diesel rapidly gave way to wild onions and flowers.

She awoke in the field, standing at a simple, silver door. Once again, Cas was alone. She found herself puzzled, having lost a chunk of time without realizing it. Had she come across the door and gotten lost in thought over whether it was safe to proceed?

A telltale smudge of ashes occupied the door’s handle. Cas sighed, hoping that her time spent in the field–however long it may have been–had been well-spent. She opened the door and walked through, unaware of the message above her in the sky and equally unaware of the bustling city far behind her.

It was both a Medieval castle and a remarkably sleek series of metal spires, and it was alive with celebration. The Feast of Unity Day had commenced.

The message ready, quite simply, “Reboot successful.”

Bertie sat on a tree stump, a snifter of something exquisite in his hand. He swirled it, appreciating notes of caramel and tobacco, aware of his guest’s impatience.

“Why so sour, Gavin?” Bertie asked, taking a sip of his drink. “Was this not what you had hoped to observe? Junction is restored.”

Gavin’s robotic eye zoomed in on Junction, a series of statistics displayed only for him to see.

“She successfully defragmented your living hard drive,” Gavin said.

“One Regina, one Junction,” Bertie replied. “A pity she won’t remember until later. She saved thousands of lives.”

Gavin nodded

“Are you certain you don’t have time to pause and enjoy a drink?” Bertie asked. “It’s been so long since you last visited this sector, after all, and it seems like things are heading in the right direction for a celebration.”

Gavin shook his head. “Not yet, no,” he said. “There is much to be done still. Things are accelerating, but her memory remains as stubborn as ever. I have much to do before she and I can meet again.”

Bertie sipped his drink again. “Do you think she knows you pursue her through this twisted maze of memory?”

“How poetic of you,” Gavin said as he turned to leave. “No. But I continue to be careful to keep an eye on her.” He tapped his cybernetic eye, offered a quick wink, and disappeared, leaving Bertie alone on his tree stump.

“Such strange behavior,” Bertie mused to himself. “But then again, what do I know of siblings.” He shrugged, returning his attention in equal measure to the city in the distance and his drink. Both brought him warmth and comfort.

Fireworks dazzled brightly in the simulated night sky above Junction, its people celebrating as one.

Piece 11 – A Tale of Trees

Curian and Sophia backtracked slowly along the path to the Orcish encampment, the sun still exactly where it was overhead.

“Wonder how long we were there,” Curian muttered as she constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. Kil’Gronn had warned the Treants were excellent at remaining unseen until they wished to be observed, and that by then it was often too late.

“Keep your wits about you,” Sophia chided.

Sophia replied with a mock salute.

“Soph, your head’s full of knowledge,” Curian said. “Where would we be looking for this ol’ Treefellow’s ashes?”

“Elderbark,” Sophia corrected. “Treant burial mourning and burial practices vary from grove to grove, so I can’t say for sure. Since we’re looking for the remains of one of their leaders, however, I’d say we’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us.”

Curian sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that,” she said. She paused, holding a hand out to stop Sophia. She pointed to a between two trees flanking the path. A slim branch shifted gently, its motions mimicking a light breeze blowing through.

Sophia nodded. “We’re not alone, that much isn’t in question. What is it they’re waiting for, I wonder.”

Curian stroked her chin. “I’ve got an idea,” she whispered to Sophia. She turned to face the moving branch and offered a silent thumbs-up to Sophia.

“Hey, you! Shady pine over there!” Curian shouted. “What’s your plan for us once you’re done watching?”

“Subtlety isn’t something you pride yourself in, is it?” Sophia asked, eyes fixed on the now-stationary branch.

“When it counts, sure,” Curian said, smiling.

“A question you’ve asked, an answer you’ll receive,” rumbled a voice from among the trees behind Sophia and Curian. They turned around as the trees parted. Two Treants stomped their way into view, their faces worn by the elements but not beyond the point of recognition.

They did not look pleased.

“Crush these intruders now and leave their remains for the Orcs to find,” said the one Treant. It was the slightly shorter of the two, its bark dense and covered in callous-like knots. A dense tangle of vines fell from its canopy.

The other Treant, taller and lanky, its trunk and branches slender and stripped of much of their bark, made a grumbling sound. “These are no Orcs, no, but what curious creatures. An elf and a….”

Curian sighed. “Half-dwarf,” she said.

“Oh, how delightful,” the taller Treant replied. “I used to hear about Dwarven-kind all of the time from my saplings along the mountains.” They turned to the shorter Treant and gestured to Curian and Sophia with a long branch.

“Not Orcs.”

“Intruders,” the other one snapped back. “And we watched them go along with the Orcs.”

“As prisoners. Isn’t that what you saw earlier, Gnarlroot?”

A rumble issued from the other side of the trail, and a third Treant stomped into view. It grumbled and rumbled, moss-ringed eyes fixed on Curian as if it were looking through her.

“I do not trust this one,” Gnarlroot said. “She is an abomination.”

Curian clenched her fists and her sides. She inhaled deeply and let her breath out slowly, between clenched teeth. Sophia placed a hand on her shoulder. Curian flinched, almost imperceptibly, and Sophia took a step back.

“You look like a tree that’s seen its fair share of bird droppings,” Curian said. “Birds who like berries, I’d bet.”

The two Treants were silent, their focus fixed on Gnarlroot, whose expression remained impossible to read.

After a painfully long silence, Gnarlroot let out a low, long sound. It was like a persistent breeze dragging fine branches against a cliff wall. The other two Treants joined in.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian muttered. “They’re laughing.”

Gnarl root leaned forward, its face taking up most of Curian’s field of vision. “Why are you free, little ones? What did you give to the Orcs in exchange for you release?”

“They told us a story and let us go,” Curian said.

“Liar!” snapped the shorter Treant.

Curian tensed. “I’m not lying,” she replied, taking a step back only to bump into the towering leg of the taller Treant.

“Then tell the rest of it,” the taller Treant instructed. “We can tell if you’re not being honest.”

Sophia snapped her fingers. “That’s right, how could I have forgotten,” she said. “Treants can detect deception easily as they can sense changes in breathing.”

“Hearts beat faster at the thrill of a lie,” Gnarlroot grumbled. “You’re not lying, I don’t think, but you’re not telling the whole story. Tell, or I’ll let Burlknot punish you.”

“I’d like that,” the shorter Treant, Burlknot, said, clenching and unfurling the thick, dense branches of its hands.

“A question first,” Curian said. “Fair?”

Gnarlroot straightened up, looking skyward for a moment. “Perhaps. Yes, I suppose that would be fair. What is your question?”

“No story has just one way of telling,” Curian said. “What’s the Treant side of how things played out between Elderbark and Kil’Gronn?”

Gnarlroot grumbled and rumbled. “A story our ancestors have passed down, muddied by time,” Gnarlroot said. “The Orcs arrived on the eve of longest day, their numbers few. They paid no attention to our kind, as if they knew not of our presence.”

Gnarlroot waved a mighty branch through the air, and a dense curtain of pollen fell. Shapes moved through it, dark outlines easily visible amid the particles. A line of small figures moved through a miniature representation of the forest. The trees, many of which Treants, watched the Orcs silently. One Treant loomed taller and mightier than the others. It watched the Orcs closely, following after them from a distance.

The Orcs gradually slowed to a stop. They spoke to each other, animated in their gestures but with no words. One Orc stepped forward, a mighty spear in hand, and the other Orcs knelt down and gave him their undivided attention. They began to craft simple huts from mud and fallen branches.

The shapes sped along in the pollen, Gnarlroot waving its branch to add to the pollen occasionally.

The Orcs began to cut down trees.

“The Orcs cut down trees at first, and then they came for Treants,” Gnarlroot said. “Elderbark, the first of our kind to spring forth from the soil of this forest, would not stand idly by. They confronted the Orcs, asking that they simply take no more than they need.”

The Orcs grew darker amid the pollen, outlines of weapons becoming clearer. Some, however, wielded clubs surrounded by pollen with an ethereal glow. The glow spread from the clubs to anything they touched, and soon the pollen was gone.

“The Orcs caused much destruction that day,” Gnarlroot said. “It was only once their foul leader, Gronn the Terrible, was felled that we could find peace. Or so our ancestors had thought.”

Sophia stepped forward. “I’m beginning to think I understand,” she said. “I wonder if there may be a way to help both you and the Orcs, but I suspect it will be no small feat.”

Gnarlroot leaned down, closer once again. “And just why would that be, do you think?” they asked.

“I believe,” Sophia replied, “that your kind and the Orcs would have to work together.”

A rustling sound came from the underbrush. Orcs rushed forth, weapons at the ready. Kil’Gronn emerged, a broadsword held effortlessly in one hand.

“We would sooner die than ally ourselves with these murderous trees!” Kil’Gronn shouted.

Burlknot roared with laughter. “Allow me to make that a reality!”

Warpt Factor – Installment 10

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances, then returned their collective gaze to Izzy.

“We will not rest until we are given what is owed to us,” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This war, thanks to the anonymous gift of weapons and armor, shall ensure as much.”

Izzy wagged a finger. “It’s a lot of shiny guns and ways to keep your people safe, but you didn’t once think to question where it came from? And if there’ll ever be a bill that comes due later?”

President Kelran smiled. “That is a matter we have already begun to address,” she said. “Our payment is the removal of Rigellians from power, which we find most agreeable.”

Izzy frowned. “Why’s that, though?” she asked. She turned to face CMO Carter. “You’re familiar with this. Explain, please.”

CMO Carter shook her head. “We don’t have the kind of time necessary for such an explanation, Captain Warpt,” she replied frankly.

Izzy tapped the tip of her nose with her right index finger, her eyes focused on a point well beyond the confines of the Citadel.

“Is there a comm-link in here I could use?” Izzy asked at last. “I promise this isn’t me just trying to buy time.”

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances once again, a muttered conversation going on among them.

“Out of the question,” Archbishop Geln snapped.

“And do you agree with that, Prime Minister Todan?” Izzy replied sharply.

Prime Minister Todan laughted, a soft and sinister sound that chilled the room.

“I will allow it,” Prime Minister Todan said, waving one of her hands.

A panel at the base of their collective thrones swung open revealing a screen and controls. It was rudimentary, and undoubtedly not the one used by the trio above, but Izzy knew it would suffice. She approached and began tapping away at buttons. The screen betrayed little of what input was being entered, and Izzy only paused her feverish typing to look up briefly.

“Sorry, total dummy moment,” Izzy said. “Any chance someone could tell me the signal to contact the Rigellian…” She glanced back to CMO Carter again.

“Supreme Leader,” CMO Carter provided.

Izzy winced. “Not a great start with that title,” she said.

“This young woman is wise, as I have been saying the same for years now,” Prime Minister Todan said. “Sol Nebula Gamma Foxtrot is the code you’ll need.”

Izzy entered the information provided and the communication link began to reach out. “Bingo!” she cried out. “Big thanks to Prime Minister Todan, the real star of these efforts so far.” She winked at Todan, and the color drained from Inar’s face.

“We’re all going to be executed for this,” Inar muttered. He leaned toward CMO Carter and added, in a whisper, “Prime Minister Todan is often referred to as Lady Death. She is quick to anger and does not allow for second chances.”

“Ah,” CMO Carter said. “This surely will end well.”

A round, anger-reddened face, framed by a receding gray hairline and a dense beard appeared on the screen. “You have the audacity to make contact as your troops storm the Palace.” He blinked as he seemed to register he was not speaking with the trio of Ruklan leadership.

“And just who the Hell are you, young woman?” the Supreme Leader demanded.

Izzy grinned broadly. “An exceptional question,” she said. “Gold star to you, Mister Supreme Leader of Rigel Six. I am Captain Izzy Warpt of the Lofty Albatross, flying under the banner of Spiral Reach Academy. We have come to de-escalate this situation.”

The Supreme Leader’s face reddened considerably more. “You should be stopping the lunatics with whom you are currently company! This is all their doing!”

“A fine thing to assert from your palace, as you continued to subdue us with excessive taxes while preventing us from voting,” President Kelran said.

“You’re not true Rigellians, and so why should you have the right to vote?” the Supreme Leader barked back.

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Listen, buddy,” she said. “Supreme Jerkface. I regret to inform you that I have an ace up my sleeve and so you should probably try to check that ‘tude at the door.”

The Supreme Leader narrowed his eyes. “Or what will you do?”

Izzy smiled. “Terrific question,” she said. “The longer answer is that nameless benefactors, which is a bonkers term since we’re talking a ton of death machines being gifted out of the blue, included an easily accessible list of the goodies they sent to the Ruklans should someone need it.”

Izzy paused for dramatic effect, leaving her crew looking particularly concerned.

“And so upon looking through that list of goodies, I found one that really grabbed my attention, pulled it in, and said it was up for a good time if I was,” Izzy continued.

The Supreme Leader leaned forward, his face looming larger on the screen. “And just what the Hell does that all mean to me? I’m safe in my bunker.”

“Party-pooper,” Izzy replied. “Short version of the answer, since that seems to be what you wanted, is that the Ruklans were provided with a secret, end-it-all kind of weapon, and it’s near here. I just happened to unlock it.”

“You did what?!” Archbishop Geln howled, leaping to his feet. The other two maintained their composure, though a hint of sweat made an appearance upon President Kelran’s forehead.

“Just in case you’re not sure why the good Archbishop here definitely just soiled himself,” Izzy said. “Sorry, by the way, I know that’s a total overshare. Where was I? Right.”

Izzy raised a finger and dramatically positioned it over a large, red button on the console’s control board. “There’s a Magnetar-Heart Warhead. I’ve got it primed and ready to go, so unless you four feel like maybe putting aside your differences for a bit I might just feel crazy enough to see what happens if I detonate this big, bad boy.”

Wanted Adventurers: The Heist, and A Secret

The Broker laughed throughout the meal, which was perfect and undoubtedly cost more gold than both Aranza and Monty had combined. Dessert arrived–candied fruits served with caramel sauce and saffron cream accompanied by the three glasses of mead–and The Broker perked up significantly.

“Have we got a deal?” The Broker asked.

Monty turned to Aranza, smiling. “The heist to end all heists,” he said. “We could take the payment and enjoy retirement far from our troubles.”

Aranza smiled in response, holding up a finger as she reached into the leather pouch at her side. She produced a scroll held shut with a wax seal.

“Didn’t think I’d have to break this out so soon, but here we are,” Aranza said. She offered the scroll to Monty.

“What’s this?” Monty asked, turning the scroll over in his hands. “I thought we had agreed on to not have any contractual agreements in our mutually beneficial companionship.”

Aranza shook her head. “No contract at all, friend,” she said. “Just a long-running list of the bad ideas you’ve dressed up as our ticket to freedom from our past. Some of the examples even have pictures. Drew those when you were going on about other big, great ideas.” She leaned back, hands behind her head, and shot Monty a wink.

The Broker cackled. “What a delight she is,” he said.

Monty turned the scroll over in his hand. “It’s sealed, though,” he said. “That must mean you’ve come to your senses and now understand I have excellent ideas.”

Aranza chuckled. “Oh, honey, that’s cute,” she replied. “I’ve got at least six more of those and one in the works. I might have to devote a whole-ass scroll to just this dumb idea.”

The Broker leaned forward, the smile gone from his face. “What if I sweetened the pot?” he offered. “I can’t say much, what with client-Broker confidentiality, naturally, but there are a few especially juicy details you might be interested in. Care to hear?”

Monty glared at The Broker. “You were holding out on me?”

“No, no,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “Not you. I know you’re interested. I was talking to the discerning, charming young orc woman who has clearly been keeping you alive.”

Aranza snorted. “Flattery doesn’t pay for food or grog,” she replied.

The Broker held up his hands in mock-surrender. “But of course! This, however, is information that is more valuable than gold,” he explained. “And I suspect you’re the kind of clever that could put it to good use.”

“You’re the kind of guy who doesn’t give something for nothing,” Aranza said. “What’s in it for you?”

The Broker offered a Cheshire smile in response. “I share these very valuable details with you and then you must accept being part of this heist,” he responded. “You’ll find the two things are quite inextricably intertwined. A puzzle wrapped in an enigma, battered in a riddle, and then fried in a conundrum.”

Aranza shook her head. “How’s about we eat dessert first and then you tell me?” She pointed at The Broker’s face. “You, uh…You’ve got a little drool.”

Dessert was enjoyed in silence, Monty occasionally stealing glances at the scroll Aranza had given him. The Broker dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief.

“Lean closer, please,” The Broker said to Aranza. “I don’t bite, I promise.”

Aranza narrowed her eyes. “You do and it’ll be the last bite you ever take,” she replied. She leaned closer, and The Broker whispered something that made her jaw fall slack.

“Griffinshit,” she muttered.

“All from reliable sources, as all of my sources are reliable,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “You are not to share that information with a soul. Let it serve you well, and it will serve you well.”

Monty opened his mouth, and was immediately hushed by The Broker.

“Absolutely don’t tell this one,” The Broker instructed Aranza. He turned his attention to Monty. “I won’t lie and suggest no offense was meant, as you’re a darling and you’re so reliable. You also can’t keep a secret to save your life.”

“So very happy I could arrange for you two to meet and torment me over dinner,” Monty huffed.

“Trust me, Mont,” Aranza said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Just trust me.”

Monty studied her face for a moment, waiting for the smirk. The chuckle. Anything to indicate some levity, but such a sign never arrived.

“Here are instructions,” The Broker said, handing a small square of parchment to Aranza. “Follow them precisely, and when the time is right they’ll sort themselves out. As for you, my dear Monty? Listen to your Orcish partner-in-crime and don’t die. Can’t pay you if you’re a corpse, you know.”

He gestured to the glasses of mead before them, grimacing. It was a necessary evil to seal their pacts–the original pact Monty had set out to satisfy with The Broker, the whispered pact with Aranza, and perhaps more.

“To success,” The Broker said, raising his glass.

“To obscene riches,” Monty added to the toast.

“May the Gods be with us in our journey, or at least have the decency to greet us if we die,” Aranza concluded.

“I’ll certainly drink to that,” The Broker said.

The trio chugged their mead. Aranza drained hers first, loosing an impressive belch upon completion.

“You really get the notes of wildflowers, you know,” Aranza said, wincing, “when it creeps back up your throat.”

The Broker and Monty both finished drinking their mead, similar looks of disgust on their faces.

“No need to be so colorful with your language unless your goal is to make one of us revisit that foul brew all over the table,” The Broker snarked. “The pact is sealed, then. Payment will occur once my client is thoroughly satisfied.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary there,” Monty replied.

The Broker gave a slight nod, clapping his hands three times. The valet appeared at the table with two leather satchels. They handed one to Monty, then one to Aranza.

“Parting gifts, as we discussed,” The Broker said. “The sun should be low on the horizon, and you’ve both got places to be.” He averted his gaze elsewhere to indicate he was finished with having company.

***

The Guild’s headquarters was an unremarkable building left of center to the main crossroads of Valarmount, and often referred to as the heart of the city. Only Guildmembers were allowed entry, and so the true nature of the headquarters was only known through rumors. The one detail that remained consistent was a simple warning: no one who valued their lives would cross the Guild by trying to enter without invitation.

“You seem to have warmed to this,” Monty whispered, sidling up to the back wall, his nightshade cloak rendering him inconspicuous enough in the low light of dusk.

Aranza rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not telling you anything.”

Monty held his hands up in mock surrender. “I would not dare attempt to break your oath to The Broker,” he replied. “I don’t suppose he provided some information on how to get in, though, did he?”

“He did,” Aranza said. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon. The last of the sun’s rays, barely visible through the clouds, crept from view. The clock tower began to chime, and Aranza counted along under her breath with each chime.

The bell sounded for a fifth time. Aranza grabbed Monty by the arm and pulled him towards the wall–stone, iron, and very solid as it was–and the two passed through as if it were fog drifting about a field. The room they found themselves in was cramped, an extinguished torch mounted on each wall.

Monty turned around and placed a hand against the wall, finding it quite present.

“You have additional steps to follow beyond that initial one, yes?” Monty asked, a hint of concern bleeding through in his words.

Aranza held a finger up as she considered the room. She retrieved a small scroll from the leather satchel The Broker had given her and unfurled it, her eyes darting from the curious writings on it to the walls and back. She reached into the leather satchel and produced a ruby vial. She removed the stopper, whispered something into the container, and replaced the stopper. Liquid within the ruby vial glowed with a brilliant light.

“Hope your friend’s half as smart as he thinks he is,” Aranza muttered as she removed the stopper again and poured the glowing liquid onto her free hand. The glow spread to her skin, her palm radiating light.

“The path ahead is open to those who know the way,” Aranza said as she reached out and ran her glowing palm down the torch on the wall ahead of them.

“The light will guide those who walk its path,” Aranza added, reaching out and touching the torch on the wall to her right.

“The way is hidden only to those who do not know to seek it,” Aranza said, an air of finality to her words, as she reached out to the torch on the wall to her left. She stepped back, standing next to Monty.

The three torches sprang to life, ruby flames curling upwards from them towards the ceiling. The floor shuddered, heaving upwards, and then down. A section of it sunk a little further, followed by another shudder. The process repeated, gradually revealing a spiral stone staircase that lead downwards. Whatever waited at the bottom of the stairs was bathed in a soft blue light.

“Only one way to go,” Aranza said. She followed the stairs downwards, Monty following close behind her. The walls were stone, until suddenly they weren’t.

The stone staircase stood in the middle of a vast chamber, its floor far below. The blue light, however, was from no torch. A faint glimmer of magic was all that stood between the room and a vast underground lake. Dark shapes, larger than any ship Monty had ever seen, glided through the deep blue distance and made the highborne elf feel very small and uneasy.

The staircase continued beyond the floor of the chamber, spiraling downwards to their end. The landing stood at the lowest point in a long chamber, the doors at the opposite end taking up the entire wall. Golden dragons framed the edges of the massive double-door, their ruby eyes fixed in sightless gaze upon the room leading up to them.

Aranza put a hand out, stopping Monty abruptly. She turned him to face her, eyes fixed on his.

“You trust me, right?” she asked. “I need you to trust me or this could fail.”

Monty glanced at the doors, then back to Aranza. “Treasure’s just beyond those doors, yes?” he asked.

Aranza nodded.

“Not just treasure, is there?”

Aranza hesitated, then shifted her head upwards ever so slightly.

“I trust you,” Monty said. “We’ve traveled this long and far together. If I die in your company, then I will have peace.”

“Sweet of you, but I’d bring you back from the dead just to knock some sense into that vacant head of yours for being so dumb as to bite it too soon,” Aranza said. She walked along the incline of the room, pausing at the doors until Monty was there by her side.

Rings of light, interwoven and ever-moving, danced along the elaborate carvings in the wooden doors’. Aranza glanced at the scroll, noting the instructions once again.

She unsheathed one of her many concealed daggers and stabbed it into the tail of the dragon nearest to her. The spells stopped moving on the door, their barely-visible lines suddenly blinding, bloody red. The ruby eyes of the dragons began to flash as well, a deafening roar piercing the air.

At least a dozen knights emerged from hidden passageways along the walls at a full sprint, surrounding Monty and Aranza in seconds.

The captain, whose armor was far more decorated and elaborate than the others’, stepped forward.

“And to what end do you try entering The Guild’s vault?”

Aranza straightened up, staring down the captain. “We seek to serve the light, and so we hurl ourselves to the darkness to find our way into its sight.”

Monty blinked, hesitating. “Yes, absolutely what she said,” he added as their arms were shackled behind their backs and they were marched away from the vault and its treasures.

Follow The Ashes: An Attempted Coup, Take Two

Cas walked along the field, the tall grass swishing gently at her sides. There was nothing particularly striking about the landscape–the occasional boulder here or tree stump there, but otherwise it seemed like there was nothing, and an abundance of it extending far into the distance.

“Question everything,” Cas muttered, thinking back to her time with Raph. “Well, what am I looking for here? How do I proceed?” She sat down on a tree stump to pause for a moment. There was a sharp clicking sound, followed by the click-click-clicking of gears. The stump rose up, lifting Cas just high enough her feet weren’t touching the ground. Before she could react, the field in front of her lowered into sharp decline into darkness.

“Oh, shit,” Cas said as tilted forward, dropping her down the ramp. She fell into the darkness. Every muscle tensed as she focused on not screaming. She landed on something smooth and continued her descent, sliding along without control nor any light to allow a guess as to what her destination may have been.

Cas’s downward journey ended as suddenly as it began. She fell forward onto something soft, face-first, and groaned quietly.

“I should hope I don’t experience that again any time soon,” she muttered to herself.

The room exploded in blinding white light. Cas shielded her eyes, wincing in pain. There were footsteps very near. Someone pulled Cas to her feet and bound her hands behind her back before shoving her away. She landed on the soft surface of the floor, and waited.

“Who sent you?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Cas couldn’t place it. She hazarded opening her eyes slowly, the sting from the shift from absolute darkness to blinding light still lingering. The room was less harshly lit, and outlines of several people–blurred, but gradually coming into focus–surrounded Cas.

One leaned forward and snapped in front of Cas’s face. “Who sent you?” she demanded.

Cas blinked. The woman wore a simple gray jumpsuit, a patch sewn on above her heart depicting a phoenix rising from flames.

“No one,” Cas said. “I was lost, and found this place purely through bad luck.”

A man, remarkable in how average he was, stepped approached the woman. “Ma’am, the footage shows our guest wandering the Stratofield outside of Junction proper,” he said, adding. “She’s clearly lost, if not perhaps even clueless.”

Cas narrowed her eyes at the man. “Yes, thank you for vouching for me, a stranger who is also obviously a buffoon,” she snarked in response. “And what is Junction, exactly?”

“Junction’s the reason we’re down here,” the woman replied. “If you’re not with them and you weren’t sent by them, you’re about to get put to work. we need all the able bodies we can get for this mission and you look capable enough.” She extended a hand to help Cas to her feet, then smirked.

“Hang on a second,” the woman said. She reached into a pouch on a small belt around her hips and produced a thin strip of metal that gave off a dull blue light. The woman squeezed the piece of metal between her thumb and index finger, and Cas felt whatever had held her hands together behind her back as it fell away.

“Thank you, I suppose,” Cas said, massaging her wrists where she’d been bound. “If I am to aid in whatever it is you need of me, perhaps some details could be provided. Is that fair to ask?”

The man looked nervous, but the woman shrugged. “You’re here, like it or not, but I don’t see how having some intel on what you’ve gotten yourself into could hurt,” she said.

“Call me Gin,” she said. “Good a name as any. You got a name, newbie?”

“Cas,” Cas replied. “Also good a name as any, as I’m not even certain if that’s my name.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gin replied. “Don’t need to know your past. Walk with me.” She offered Cas her hand again, and Cas accepted. Gin pulled Cas to her feet effortlessly, turned, and walked towards a large opening.

Cas followed, finding herself on a long catwalk flanked by modest dwellings.

“Welcome to Junction,” Gin said. “Datum Junction. Or Neo-Junction if you ask the Stratodwellers. Sometimes they even call it Dead Junction when they don’t realize we’re still around, walking among them.”

Cas attempted to take in her surroundings while also focusing on Gin as she spoke. The technology of the houses looked very modern. Display panels in place of windows, each capable of going fully transparent on command. Doors opened and shut based on the approach or departure of the homeowner.

“Dead Junction?” Cas repeated, curiosity piqued. “This seems a bit too lively to have been labeled as dead.”

“You’d think that, right? And I can’t fault you for thinking that way,” Gin said. “Makes sense.” She stopped, turning around on the catwalk. She gestured broadly at the homes and people.

“You’re looking at one of the last pockets of our society,” Gin explained. “The Imperious family, wealthy and endless in their ability to overlook their least cared-for people, ceded control of the oxygen pumps to the power barons. Rich goons running the power plants that keep the lights on in Junction. They keep the party going, sure, but there’s a cost. Only so much power to go around.”

Cas considered this. “And so it’s diverted from here to keep things moving there,” she thought aloud.

Gin snapped her fingers, pointing at Cas. “You got it,” she said. “They make sure the lights stay on there and, hey, if part of the less important population suffocates in the middle of the night it’s not a major loss.”

“That’s monstrous,” Cas replied.

“A strong grasp of the obvious,” Gin said. “We’ve tried reasoning with the Imperious family, but haven’t made any progress. Tonight’s the night that’ll change.”

“How so?”

Gin tilted her head to the left, then to the right. “Good question,” she asked. “Let me answer with a question of my own. Ever overthrow a government?”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Not that I can recall, and I suspect that’s a detail of one’s life they would remember,” she said.

“I’d hope so, or you must have a pretty damn intense life,” Gin said. “Anyway, you’re here and you’re going to help assassinate the Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus tonight. The coronation ceremony has already begun, a long party in the streets before they arrive at the Room of Unity.” Gin laughed mirthlessly.

“If I refuse?” Cas replied.

“You’d be dooming the rest of these people to untimely deaths,” Gin said. “I’d ensure your survival just so you knew what you did. One death versus hundreds. That sit well with you?”

Cas tensed. “I have no choice, then,” she replied. “What role will I play?”

Gin stared at Cas for a moment. “That’s it? No other questions?”

Cas looked around. There was little effort by the many people watching from their homes to hide that they were watching the conversation between her and Gin. Many of them looked anxious or afraid.

“No,” Cas replied.

“One death over hundreds of murders it is, then,” Gin said. “You and I will be there to see this through while a handful of my most trusted soldiers will keep Junction’s guards busy.” Gin turned on her heels and continued forward. The catwalks sloped gently upwards, stopping at a tall building that reached into the earthen ceiling.

“The Nexus of Gathering,” Gin said. “It’s directly beneath their Room of Unity, and how we’ll arrive to the party in time to put a very early end to Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus’ reign.”

They entered the chamber. Gin paused at the doorway, retrieving a hooded cloak and two pistols.

Cas froze as Gin donned the cloak, her face shrouded by artificial shadow upon pulling the hood over her head. Gin held out a pistol, which Cas reluctantly accepted.

“Something wrong? Or have you had a sudden change of heart?” Gin asked.

Cas shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused. “There’s no way I’ve met you before, is there?”

Gin shrugged. “I’ve lived in Datum Junction since I was a child,” she said. “Never met an outsider until today, so I’d say no. Don’t know you. Never met you.” She pointed upwards.

Staircases lined the walls, crossing overhead before winding their ways back to the walls. Points of artificial light were barely visible high above.

“Better get moving,”

Gin approached the stairs along the left wall and started walking up them, not waiting for Cas.

“Suppose I should follow.” Cas began to climb the stairs, pausing for a moment. Gin moved with purpose, the pistol at her side. Cas glanced at the identical pistol she’d been given. It looked simple, almost primitive, compared to some of the tech around them.

“Hurry it up or we’ll miss our chance,” Gin demanded.

Cas climbed the stairs faster, ignoring the dull ache beginning in her legs. Above, she could hear a crowd cheering. The door they arrived at was concealed in a pillar. Gin pushed it open silently, disappearing into the room beyond. Cas followed, and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd on the other side. Brightly colored clothing and masks everywhere.

“Good people of Junction!” boomed a man’s voice. “It is my great honor to present the crown to our beloved Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus. May she watch over us and guide us to continued prosperity for one hundred years or more!”

“Now!” Gin shouted over the roar of the crowd. “They’ve spotted me! Do it now!”

Cas looked to the stage ahead, targeting Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus with the pistol she’d been given. Cas froze, unable to process what she was seeing.

The woman on the stage – Regina Andromedus – looked exactly the same as Gin.

There was a loud crackling sound and a blinding pain. She fell forward hard, and the world went dark.

A deep, warm voice said something Cas could barely hear. “This didn’t go as it should have either. Third try’s the charm, yes?”

The field was empty, stretching out far in each direction around Cas as she staggered to her feet. A dull ache pervaded the back of her head.

“What the hell happened?” Cas asked.

“An excellent starting point,” boomed a warm, familiar voice. “Asking questions.”

Cas spun around, fists raised. A portly man stood where Cas was certain no one had been seconds before, dressed in an elaborate, garishly colorful outfit. He offered a polite smile.

“There isn’t much time,” the man said. “Very little time indeed. We must get it right this time, so I’ll need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say. I know that’s asking a lot, but can you do that?”

Cas winced, the throbbing pain in her head rearing its ugly head again. She squinted through the pain, and when her vision refocused she noticed something out of place. A smudge of gray-white among the bright colors.

Ashes.

“Something tells me I’ll want to hear what you have to say,” Cas said. “What is it I must get right?”

Piece 10 – Elderbark and Gronn: Eternal Enemies

Curian considered her words with great care. The Orc soldiers stood around the net she was still trapped in, each one wielding broadswords with the ease one might casually wave a dagger around. Sophia’s nervous gaze didn’t help reduce the pressure of the situation.

Kir’Gronn leaned forward, her chin resting in her hand. “Well?”

“Honestly, I have no idea who Elderbark is, but that sounds like the name someone with high hopes would give their wolfhound even knowing it’s going to die some day,” Curian rambled. She paused for air, then added, “We’re searching for pieces to some stupid, awful puzzle that could bring about the end of all worlds, and being all trapped doesn’t exactly aid in that quest.

Kir’Gronn chuckled. “And what of you, quiet one?”

“Sophia,” Curian said. “She’s the brains of helping me save the world. Worlds. Oh no, I hadn’t thought about it much until now.”

“Deep breaths,” Sophia instructed. “I am Sophia, a Keeper of the Astrarium and all of its knowledge.”

“The Astrarium, you say,” Kir’Gronn mused. “Then surely you know where you are, do you not?”

Sophia shook her head. “We traveled here by way of a tunnel,” she said. “I had no time to regain my sense of direction before your snare snagged us, I’m afraid.”

“Snagged us good, too,” Curian muttered.

Kil’Gronn stood, slowly approaching the net Curian and Sophia were trapped in. “Then you will find the answer varies depending on who you ask,” Kil’Gronn said. “If you were to ask my people where you are, you would be told you have found your way to the heart of Grimtusk Glade.”

“Catchy name,” Curian said.

“And who might say otherwise, if I may ask?” Sophia added.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “That answer is a story, but that story will cost you. Do you think you’re willing to accept such a steep cost?”

Curian leaned towards the netting, eyebrows raised. “What kind of cost for what kind of story? I’ve told some premium stories for only an ale or two, so it must be good. Plus you’ve got us at a disadvantage since, you know.” She gestured at the net.

Kil’Gronn unsheathed a dagger and, in a flurry of silver blurs, cut the net open. Sophia and Curian tumbled out to the floor, not a scratch from the blade on either of them.

Curian leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed despite Kil’Gronn still having her weapon drawn. “You could’ve just untied it and let us out,” she said. “Had to be flashy about it.”

“You’re free of your ensnarement,” Kil’Gronn said. “And so you can choose to listen or not. It will cost you, but trying to leave this forest on foot without our help would come at an even steeper price.”

Sophia shuddered. “So there’s something else that calls this place home,” she asked. “Is that why it felt like we were being watched as you brought us back here?”

“Captured us,” Curian added.

Kil’Gronn nodded.

Curian sighed. “We don’t have all the time in the world, you know,” she snipped. “So we’ll take whatever your cost is. Tell us a story, Queen Orc.”

Kil’Gronn tightened her grip on the dagger’s hilt abruptly. A loud crack resonated throughout the chamber, causing Curian to leap back and look away, shielding her face. She hazarded a glance back. The dagger rested on the floor, its hilt in pieces around it. Droplets of blood dripped from Kil’Gronn’s closed hand.

“I have been kind and patient with you,” Kil’Gronn sneered. “It would be wise for you to not to be so disrespectful.”

Sophia stepped in. “My apologies,” she said. “She’s not from this world.”

Curian gently moved Sophia aside, eyes narrowed. Her expression softened and she averted her gaze to not make eye contact.

“I don’t need anyone making excuses for me,” she said. “Apologies all the same. What’s this costly story of yours?”

Kil’Gronn picked up the broken dagger and sighed. “This forest was once bountiful and full of life,” she explained. “That was three generations ago, when my grandfather first brought my people to this forest.”

All of the other Orcs fell silent, their heads bowed.

“His name was Gronn,” Kil’Gronn continued. “His people respected him, and in return he never settled for anything less than seeing our people thrive. We made use of the plentiful trees here to build huts. We hunted the bountiful wild game that roamed this forest, taking only what we needed. And yet the forest grew angry with us.”

“You see, the forest happened to also be home to Ancient Treants lead by Elderbark the Terrible. He was a mighty sentinel, towering over every other tree in the forest canopy, and so my grandfather saw him approaching well before he arrived. He demanded audience with our leader, and so my grandfather met with him.”

Kil’Gronn paused, her eyes fixed on a distant place. “What my grandfather thought to be the beginnings of negotiations so that we may share the forest quickly turned into a slaughter of our people. The Treants surrounded our encampment. Their numbers were great. Their fury was inescapable. I watched my grandfather and many of my people die that day.”

Curian hesitated, stepped forward, and placed a hand on Kil’Gronn’s shoulder. Tears ran down the orc’s cheeks, but rage filled her eyes.

“My mother hid me well, and the few survivors you see are those present here. One day years later, I became the Chief over my people. My first act was to take a handful of my most elite guards with me to where Elderbark slept, and when we were certain he was alone we burned the bastard to the ground.”

Sophia gasped. “The magic in a single Treant,” she murmured.

Kil’Gronn huffed. “Indeed, the magic in a single Treant, and one so ancient as Elderbark, is something to be respected and feared,” she said. “That day was the last this forest saw and it is the very one we are living this moment. None of us have aged. No animals move within the forest. All is still. In freeing myself from the pain by exacting my revenge on Elderbark, I trapped us all in that moment.”

Curian opened and shut her mouth several times. “What can we do, then, to pay the price of hearing this story?” she asked.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “In truth, you are free to go should you wish,” she conceded. “The cost is the burden of knowing the nature of this forest, and the punishment my people have faced for as long as I can remember.”

Curian shook her head. “Right, and that’s awful,” she said. “But what can we do to make this right?”

“You would seek to help us though we captured you?” Kil’Gronn asked.

“Sure, you trapped us and brought us back here, but you were nice enough to us,” Curian said. “Besides, we still need to find the piece of the Prognosticarium that fell here. No going anywhere until we do, so we might as well make a full day of it.”

“I agree,” Sophia said. “What is it we must do?”

Kil’Gronn sighed. “The Treants will ignore you to a point, as you are not one of us,” she explained. “Your task, however, is sure to capture their attention, and then they will not likely be warm in their reception of your presence.”

Curian shrugged. “What’s going to get their branches snapping?” Sophia rolled her eyes so hard it was almost audible.

“You must find Elderbark’s ashes and bring them back here,” Kil’Gronn said.

Curian blinked a few times. “Ah,” she said. “I hate this already.”