Chapter 1: Surefooted Messenger/Silent Mnemonist
The Silent Mnemonist wandered, all too aware of the weight of the pieces of rubber tied to her feet to protect them as she picked her way through fields of bones and shards of glass and open cans.
The sun almost had a palpable beat (although that may have been the blood rushing in her ears), its rays bearing down upon the surface of the planet with a scouring, bleaching intensity, like the winds it inspired. Full of sand, and glass. Although, she recalled, glass was just the amorphous form of sand, melted, twirled together with small quantities of something else to keep the silicon dioxide molecules supple and disrupt crystal formation. So it was either all glass, or all sand. She decided to call it sand.
Words kept the Silent Mnemonist's mind straight. Nights spent with a campfire made of wood (driftwood, she thought, or shipping pallets), and maybe tinned meat (spam or tuna or chicken; she liked the spam best, it reminded her of vatmeat, a treat for the Calendrical Reset) or a can of vegetables to keep her company.
She'd found a can opener, the first night she was on the surface. She tied the little can opener, a rectangle with a sharktooth, to another string, and kept that around her wrist. She knew it was a can opener because it matched the one she saw in the books. It said P38 on one end. She thought maybe that was the ID number of the pawn - no, the Hero of Time said that his species called their fighting classes soldiers or police or militants - who had used it. Whoever "P38" was, their job-name was Standard Issue, and they were probably a soldiers. She was satisfied with herself for reaching this conclusion.
She had the light carapace of a Prospitian, though she'd joined the army of the Whiteblack Vanguard, so she was a Whiteblack, just like the rest of them. White was better here, it meant her carapace did not heat up so much under the planet's sun, so she needed to wear less to prevent blistering. Though it also meant her carapace was thinner, so she ran more of a risk of getting injured. Thus the rubber on her feet, after she had a festering cut from a shard of glass that kept her from traveling for two weeks.
The Whiteblack Vanguard had explained to them about how carapaces were grown. A thin black skin to keep the internal organs together; then a thick layer of white carapace, and a thinner layer of black carapace upon that if the pawn or bishop or knight was destined for Derse, rather than Prospit. Their internal organs were the same, the Hero who advised him had concluded.
The hero of Mind had also said something about epigenetics afterwards, too, but the Silent Mnemonist didn't really know how that worked. Back then, as a Surefooted Messenger, what she cared about and understood was that it only took a few chemicals' difference to turn the slime that would become a Prospitian into a Dersian, or vice versa. Chemicals that were kept in bottles in the Veil, to be dropped pre-mixed into the cloning tubes. The heroes set something up, that there were two identical pawns, in two identical tubes, facing - and one chemical in one, and the other in the other.
The two pawns were extracted, at the end of their gestation, and they were introduced to each other as brothers. She smiled. She asked why the Hero of Time was crying. Humans cried when they were sad and happy at the same time, he told her, and then he picked her up and sat her on his shoulders to get a better look at the proceedings.
Blood was more important to the Heroes, because they didn't have carapaces so the blood showed through their skin and crept up into their faces. Especially the Hero of Time, who explained to her that he'd come from a world where nobody liked the fact that his skin was darker than others'. He talked about racism, about the hundreds of years that people like him had spent as servants only because they were considered different from the ones with white skin.
He also talked about the fact that for his species, the difference between "races" was a little more complicated than one or another bottle of chemicals; that they were all grown inside one of the "parents" whose genetic material they came from, inside an organic equivalent of a cloning tube, and they usually came out wet and screaming and only half-formed. He pointed out that the "children" would double their weight 6 or 7 times before they reached their adult stage - "like me," he said, gesturing to himself. They were their species' adult stage.
She listened, asked questions. Listened intently to the answers, to try to memorize them. The Hero of Mind said something dismissive, but the Messenger had been told that the Hero of Mind had the habit of concealing her heart under her worlds. She thought hard, put her words together differently, and then said something else. "Does that mean I'm a carapaceman?"
The Hero of Mind laughed. She felt good about it.
She asked, and was allowed to stay, as the Hero of Time sat down at the ectobiology equipment for himself and created the Heroes, or players as it were, from paradox slime. She peered down at the tiny brown child he'd placed carefully in the crick of her arm, and the "baby" had grabbed for her uniform's top button, and she'd let him have it. It was nothing much, she assured the older version of him. Merely the class symbol of a Pawn, the emblem of the Whiteblack's squadrons. Which he wore on his shirt, she pointed out.
He stared at her, mumbled something about chess, or about caste systems, or about paradoxes. "Come again?" she said, remembering one of the words the Heroes used amongst themselves.
"Nothing," he said.
And then he told her about a kind of dream his species had, where they all knew that, if any of them really wanted to make a difference, they just had to work hard and take opportunities as they were given. She wondered if this was the kind of dream they had in their sleep. He said no, it was a kind of dream he said was "American", and he found out too late that the people who had told him it existed were lying to him. They'd fall to their planet as children, grow up "too quickly", and eventually end up in this Incipisphere because they played a game, instead. He said he'd wanted to be a philosopher.
Then he laughed until he started crying. He said it was bitter tears, although when she reached out and tasted one, they were exactly as salty as his other tears.
Chapter 2: Dauntless Aviator/Driven Astrogator
Just for clarity: the Hero of Space is of nonbinary gender and is referred to with "they/them" pronouns.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Driven Astrogator had run out of flashlight batteries years ago, and her clothing had long since turned to rags, so she traveled on all but the darkest of nights and rested and slept through the day. The stick in her belt thudded reassuringly against her side as she walked underneath the stars.
The humans had given the patterns of the stars names, the Hero of Space said, but the Driven Astrogator didn't know any of them, so she decided to come up with her own. The Siege Engine rose to her left, brandishing its sword; behind it came the constellation of the Great Frog, and the Pillar underneath the stars of the Proclamation Scroll. The sands shifted quickly, but the stars shifted not at all, and that reassured her.
When she came across ruins she would draw a map on the stones, of the stars above and how far it was in days to the other ruined cities nearby. Sometimes she camped and dug holes to find supplies; but more often these days she left quickly. Something was driving her forward now, a magnetic, instinctive pull. Towards what? She didn't know, but she'd find out.
Flying was the only way to get anywhere on the Hero of Space's Land. So when the Hero of Space requested aid from Prospit, the Kingdom sent a Dauntless Aviator. The Aviator picked the Hero up and promptly decided to show them what loop-de-loops were.
After the Hero of Space stopped being green (they could turn a color other than pink? That was new), they asked what the hell that was for. Fun, said the Aviator. The Hero asked what the hell about that was supposed to be fun. The Dauntless Aviator wasn't sure how someone could find swooping through the air in circles not fun, but decided to keep to straight flying for a while anyway.
The Hero of Heart was waiting, below. The Hero of Space called out to him, and the Dauntless Aviator dove, and then coasted to a stop. The two Heroes talked, for a little while, and then they drew a map on the ground, and then one of them took a picture of the map and gave it to the Dauntless Aviator. And then the Hero of Heart jumped off the cliff, and his backpack sprouted wings.
The Hero of Space thought that was odd. They told the Aviator a story about a man called Icarus who'd had wings, but flew up close to the sun and the wings burned away so he fell. The Dauntless Aviator asked if the Hero knew this Icarus person. The Hero of Space shook their head. No, they said, it was just a story. But the Heroes came from a race that told many stories, and used them as landmarks for the development of their children. So remembering what the stories said was as important as remembering where Knightshead Mountain was.
The Hero of Space drew many more maps after that - at first, just scribbles on a piece of paper. But after a while, the maps became more complex. The mountain ranges were scaled by how tall they were; the landmarks became small pictures of what they looked like in real life rather than just X's; the roads between the villages had the twists and turns they really did. The Dauntless Aviator showed the Hero of Space the units on their airplane's dials, and the Hero of Space started writing those in too. The Great Promontory was fifteen processionlengths from the Line; three one-hundredths of a circumference of Prospit was how far the Hero's spire was from the nearest consort village.
The Hero of Space had a jetpack now, but they still flew with the Dauntless Aviator, and sometimes one of the other Heroes came along. The Hero of Space might jump out, sometimes, now, and wade into battle, with a staff topped with a shimmering silver Frog on the end, that made the ground itself ripple wherever it struck. And when everything was done, when the Underlings were destroyed, they would kneel on the ground and draw another map.
These maps found their way to the Consorts, and so now when the Hero of Space needed to complete a quest they would ask for landmarks, and the landmarks would help. Not only the physical landmarks, but also landmarks of how far they'd come - the quest would be half over when Skaia rose above the horizon wreathed in clouds; the Hero of Space's work would be done when the last of the tokens was placed in its pedestal.
There were other landmarks, that nobody could see. The Dauntless Aviator asked the Hero of Space how one measured a "personal growth", after a Consort Elder had mentioned it once. The Hero of Space smiled, thinly, and replied that their species didn't really know how to measure that; not precisely, anyway. They guessed, and they used their stories.
The Hero of Space had a tripod topped with a little thing that swung and bobbed, now, and they would set it up on a spare flat piece of rock and take measurements of where the other planets were. And they'd sit down, and talk with the other Heroes of Skaia, with their mouth or their fingers, while the little bobbing thing lined itself up with the light of Skaia and printed out a thin strip of paper with numbers on it. The numbers didn't make any sense to the Aviator, but after they had collected many thin strips of paper the Hero of Space put the numbers into a computer, and the computer turned them into pictures - pictures of a miniature Medium, with little planets and the two Moons drawing lines behind them that curled around Skaia protectively.
Those lines didn't exist in real life, of course, but the Hero of Space then did some more things to the computer and the computer kept drawing the lines forwards, even though the little planets didn't keep moving, until they became circles. And then the Hero of Space explained about planets and stars on their home world, and the Dauntless Aviator remembered about landmarks, and the Hero of Space said that the Dauntless Aviator was on the right track. Then the Hero of Space explained about astral navigation, and about telling time by using where things were in space. The Dauntless Aviator asked if the Hero of Space was doing this to help the Hero of Time.
"There's more than one of him now," the Hero of Space explained, and that made perfect sense because Heroes of Time did that. But then the Hero of Space explained that no, something had happened with the Hero of Mind and now even the Hero of Time was sometimes confused about time and space, so they were doing this to help him. Or the four of him, apparently. The Dauntless Aviator said that didn't make any sense, but the Hero of Space said that was fine because it didn't make sense to the Heroes, either.
The Aviator had heard of the Whiteblacks, of course. Everyone had. The Dauntless Aviator asked the Hero of Space what they thought, one day. The Hero of Space thought a little bit, and said that it was good that the Aviator had asked their advice. The things that other people said were a kind of landmark, too. The Aviator said that she'd asked a question and that the Hero of Space hadn't answered it. They laughed, and the Hero of Space said that if the Dauntless Aviator wanted to know more, they'd both meet up with the Hero of Mind.
So they flew across the imaginary little thin lines that the planets carved out, and landed on the Hero of Mind's planet, and the Hero of Mind came out with a Whiteblack mask on and a flash of silver in her hand. The two Heroes talked for a while, and then the Hero of Mind told the Dauntless Aviator that the Aviator was probably more useful where she was right now. The Aviator replied that she had been flying a plane for the Hero of Space, so if she didn't move from where she was at the moment then she wouldn't be useful. The Hero of Space laughed, and explained that the Hero of Mind wanted the Dauntless Aviator to stay around the Hero of Space as if the Hero of Space was a moving landmark.
But the Aviator wanted to help anyway, and so the Hero of Mind gave the Aviator instructions on how to use a special field communicator that needed a password, kind of like the one that the Hero of Space would use while they were standing but had to talk to someone. The Aviator was supposed to put into the field communicator if anything weird or interesting happened, and everyone else would find that little bit of information a help. And the field communicator would tell the Aviator if there was anything that she needed to do in the area. The Aviator nodded, and the Hero of Space slapped the Aviator on the back and said that they should probably get going now.
The Aviator replied to the Hero of Space that she wanted to finish trying out how to use it first, and both of the Heroes laughed.
The shards of the Hero of Space's land never did come back together, but the Hero of Space and the Dauntless Aviator would pull strings from one boulder to another, and turn them into rope bridges. The Consorts, who had been isolated on their shards since the Denizen had broken the planet with its first terrible roar, came together now, and they danced, and the Hero of Space would sing and the consorts would show the Dauntless Aviator how their dances went.
But then the Consorts would come up to the Hero of Space and ask for advice, too - and here the Hero of Space's childhood came in useful, since the Hero of Space had grown many vegetables on something called a farm. They would go with the Consorts and teach them about how some plants fed the soil and some plants ate the soil, and about how one could keep the weeds down by rolling fabric out between the rows. The Consorts nodded and put the Hero of Space's advice into action, as well as the Hero's incidental comments about how farms worked on their world and what they were called, and the signs sprung up: "Skaiadale Farm", "Yellow Yard", "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here".
When the Hero of Space started laughing about that last one, the Dauntless Aviator took a picture and put it into the field communicator. And then the Hero of Space talked to someone with their fingers, stopped laughing, and showed the Dauntless Aviator how to hold a stick and swing it - because, they said, one day it would come in useful.
It was soon enough after that the Heroes had to face the Black King. The Dauntless Aviator wasn't allowed to come along; she was given a different mission, one from the White Queen herself. She would go through the Portals, and in so doing leave her life and her home behind, for shifting sands and - eventually - a piece of machinery that the White Queen showed her a picture of. The Dauntless Aviator swallowed, and nodded.
But she met with the Hero of Space for a little bit, before she had to leave, and the Hero of Space talked about how they too had left their lives and their homes behind, and that a Dauntless Aviator shouldn't be afraid. The Dauntless Aviator insisted she wasn't afraid at all, and the Hero of Space pointed out that she was stuttering. And the Hero of Space gave the Dauntless Aviator a little pack, too, that had what the Hero of Space said was a "survival kit". It had cloth in it, and a stick, and something to start fires, and a can opener, and a flashlight, and a map of the Incipisphere. The Hero of Space apologized that the map of the Incipisphere wouldn't be very useful on the planet, but said that maybe it would come in useful later on.
And so, when the Dauntless Aviator crash-landed on the planet that didn't have a power field for her plane, she rummaged through the pack, and put the cloth on, and tied the stick at her waist. She didn't know what to rename herself at first, but then the sun set and the stars came out, and after that it was obvious.
The Hero of Space had told her once that the stars were a kind of landmark, a kind of signpost. The Driven Astrogator knew a lot of things about landmarks now. Enough that, by the time she came across a half-buried capsule in the shifting sands, she knew what to do. The Hero of Space needed advice about plotting things, and about signposts, and about growing. All of the Heroes did, really. But the Driven Astrogator looked through the viewport, at a younger version of herself turning corkscrews in the air, and remembered how the Hero of Space was at first, and helped them especially.
She explored the capsule, one day, and came across a piloting interface, and a set of coordinates written upon the far wall. The capsule's engines came alive at a touch. The coordinates were in no system she'd ever learned, but she compared them with the coordinates on the piloting interface, and steered the thing through the air in what the numbers said was the right direction, towards the signpost she'd been given.
The stars turned silently above.
I only intended to write the one fic for SM, but it turns out apparently I had a lot more in me. The other four Exiles in this session will get chapters too.
Chapter 3: Shy Baker/Staunch Bodyguard/Studious Beachcomber
The Studious Beachcomber had a knapsack, from before. It used to ripple, when you put it on, and assume the patterns of the ground below, but it had long since become... stuck, somehow. At first it had just been patches that didn't quite change as quickly as they used to; but then they spread, and before long the Studious Beachcomber had a dull gray bag. So one day, walking along the shoreline, the Studious Beachcomber dug, until the wet sand turned to wet dirt and the wet dirt turned to wet clay, and slathered a thick layer of this on the knapsack. And then the Studious Beachcomber put a thick layer of the wet clay on himself, too.
It was a bit like things that the Whiteblacks used to do, when they needed to do things on the Planets; but even though there wasn't a war here, the Studious Beachcomber still thought it would be a good idea to be prepared in case something like that might happen again. And anyway, even if it didn't prepare for that, it would at least keep his shell from heating so much in the sun.
The Studious Beachcomber didn't have very many habits, but after that first time, he always came to the shore at least once every time the moon became a circle again, and washed off the old mud and put on some new. The sound of the ocean was a constant companion, now. It was like the sound of a shaker that made noise that he'd had as a young one, once. It soothed him. So he stayed near the beach, and walked along the shoreline.
And then one day he saw it. A ruin that, unlike the others, still stood defiant above the shifting sands, with a strangely blobby top. He'd come very close before he realized what the strangely blobby top of the ruin was.
It was a frog.
The Hero of Doom had a habit of walking along the streets of Derse, when he woke up. And every time he walked along the streets of Derse, he would buy a pastry from one Shy Baker - a bean bun, usually - and walk along the streets of Derse, chewing it. After the first few times, the tabloids and the paparazzi had gotten used to the idea that the Hero of Doom walked the same route every day, in the same clothing, eating the same pastry, and the crowds thinned.
Nobody interviewed the Shy Baker, which was just fine with him because, after all, he was shy.
But one day the Hero of Doom stopped short, in the pastry shop, and asked the Shy Baker to come with him. One did not turn down a direct order from one of the Dreamers, especially one that was such a good customer, and so the Shy Baker swallowed and turned around the sign in the window. And the Hero of Doom talked about how he used to walk like this before he Entered, too, and about his brother and his friends and the baker that had been on the corner in his barrio, when he was younger. The Shy Baker nodded, and didn't say anything.
The next day, the order came down from the Black Queen herself - accompany the Hero of Doom in the waking world. The Shy Baker gave the shop keys to his assistant, and reported to the Archagent to receive a suit of armor and a blade and a field communicator.
He'd been trained in the fighting arts, of course. All Derse citizens were tube-born with the knowledge, so that they could be drafted if - no, when - the war became desperate. But the imprinted knowledge was that of fighting in formation, not that of fighting one-on-one, so when the Shy Baker left himself unguarded from one side and an Underling took advantage of that, he was slashed in the side. The Hero of Doom rummaged in his pack and produced a green paste for the wound. The Shy Baker had been raised on the propaganda of the Heroes that would come to destroy their world. The kindness was... unexpected, to say the least.
They talked more after that. The Hero of Doom talked about how his world had worked, and about the plans the Heroes of Skaia had, and the Shy Baker listened, and sometimes talked about how daily life worked on Derse. He didn't know much about heavy industry, or about the politics of Derse, but that was all right. The Hero of Doom didn't mind listening to the Shy Baker rambling about the strings of lights he'd helped put up for the Apogee Festival, or the difficulty of obtaining cheese for cheese buns ever since the meteor holding one of the major milk operations had gone flying into Skaia.
Of course the Shy Baker called into Derse regularly, when the Hero of Doom was sleeping, to see if there were any new orders. He didn't get any, but he did get snippets of the news: Derse was launching further incursions.
The Hero of Doom knew about the incursions, and said that they'd been unusually accurate as of late - as if they'd had an inside source. He didn't say anything else at the time, but a few days later, after meeting with the other Heroes, he became suspicious, and started asking questions - why had the Shy Baker decided to follow him? The Shy Baker was never practiced at lying - it had never been necessary for his job and he hadn't been tube-born with how to do it either - so he told the truth. The Black Queen and the Archagent had sent him.
He was about to show the Hero of Doom his field communicator, too, to offer the Hero of Doom the opportunity to speak with the Archagent himself, when something smacked into the back of his head.
He woke up inside a bag, to the voices of some of the Heroes arguing about whether 'that' was trustworthy. The field communicator was gone. He didn't have the sword. He couldn't even find his clothes, except for two strips of ragged material tying his limbs together. There was light, on his left. He wriggled towards it, and then something grabbed the bag. "What the hell are you doing?" asked the Hero of Time. The Shy Baker replied that he was trying to figure out what was going on and where he was.
"He can't do any harm, hog-tied. Let him out." The Hero of Space's voice sparked another spirited discussion about whether letting him out was a good idea, and they settled on letting him out of the bag but not untying him until he agreed to something involving not working for Derse anymore. He was unwrapped, to the light of a lantern and the faces of the Heroes of Skaia. The Hero of Doom sat in the corner of the tent furthest away from the lantern, head bowed. The others were variously sitting and standing around the light that had been hung in the center of the tent, lanternlight and faces weirdly reflected off the silver material that the tent was made out of.
The Hero of Mind came very close, and kneeled down to the Shy Baker's eye level. "So. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Did you know your field communicator was a bug?" Well, it didn't have legs, the Shy Baker said. (The Hero of Might stifled a laugh.) The Hero of Mind clarified that this meant a surveillance device, like one of the cameras and microphones that had been springing up on the street corners of Derse as of late. The Shy Baker shook his head, and said that he had no idea, he thought the field communicator was basically just a phone that didn't need wires.
The Hero of Heart talked a bit, about how the field communicators had changed in design over time since the Prototypings and that now they were on all the time rather than only when they needed to be. The Shy Baker didn't like this new development, and indicated as much. If that spread to regular phones it would be like putting a spy inside everyone's house, he added, and that would be a bad thing because it would make Derse's already strict rules impossible to get around. People needed to get around rules sometimes to be productive, after all. He didn't always get the cheese for his cheese buns the normal way.
The Hero of Mind smiled, and said that there was hope for this one yet.
The Heroes outfitted him with a different kind of field communicator, one that he needed to put a password into to use. He got a different set of clothing, checkered white and black like the Battlefield. He got promoted, even, with a little medal that he pinned to the front of the uniform. And the little black pawn made a little speech, in return, about how it was a great honor. The Shy Baker thus became the Staunch Bodyguard.
The tradeoff, of course, was that he was committing treason, by joining the Whiteblacks. But he would stay with the Hero of Doom, which would be a lot safer than the risk a lot of his peers were taking when they joined the Whiteblacks - as a companion to a Hero of Skaia, Derse could not simply kill him on the field of battle; he'd have to be taken prisoner first, and the Heroes would have to be offered the opportunity to bribe or exchange prisoners. (Or, of course, stage a prison break.) It was the same privilege a Prospitian would have as a companion to a Hero of Skaia, ensured by a law with roots so deep that it had been laid down for the very first carapace by infinite Skaia itself.
Only the war between the kingdoms wasn't supposed to have three sides. Even the Heroes weren't entirely sure how that would turn out.
There was a motto that one of the Heroes used, and then all of them did; they would prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. The Staunch Bodyguard thought this was very wise, and repeated it to himself while he practiced combat forms, just in case.
Night, on the Land; and night-black was the carapace of the Derse agent who came to apprehend the Hero of Doom.
The Staunch Bodyguard sprang into action, giving the carapace a good crack across the back with a sword; and the noise of it woke the Hero of Doom, and the Hero became a whirl of action that sent a broom through the Agent's skull. And then they were standing there, panting, looking at the body of the Defiant Delator, in the sudden silence.
The Hero of Doom's scouter pinged; he read something aloud off it. "Apparently he plastered his suicide note across the Derse newswires."
The Hero of Doom looked around, and cracked a grin. "Get some pictures of this mess, Bodyguard, and see what the Whiteblack newswires think."
The Staunch Bodyguard's communicator was buzzing nearly constantly now - the Whiteblacks were excited about the fact that one of the Agents was dead, and the news was all over.
Someone had drawn a crown and a scepter on the picture, and was distributing it as a propaganda image: "YOU ARE NEXT". Someone else had reenacted it. And yet another had come up with - and recorded! - a marching song about the inexorable advance of the Whiteblacks.
Really, it all made the Staunch Bodyguard nervous. He was shy, after all. This was all too much attention for him.
After some consultation with the Hero of Doom, he made his way towards one of the meteors, where he wouldn't be found, at least not until the portals started opening around Skaia.
It was hot. It was hot, when the meteor went streaking through the sky; and the memory of that heat seared itself into his memory.
He still had the field communicator, but it died, after a few days: and he left it on a rock in the middle of the sand, as a sort of memorial. (Which wasn't much different from just throwing it away, but he liked the idea of it being a memorial better.)
He left the sword at that rock.
He left his name at that rock.
And he walked away, through the shifting sands; and in the sands he became the Studious Beachcomber.
Below the ruins there was a capsule, waiting for him; and he knew it was waiting for him specifically because when he passed his wrist barcode over the door, it clicked open.
Inside that capsule -
Inside that capsule he found sheaves and sheaves of papers. They all had different titles, and some of them were in binders, and some of them were in books, and some of them were just stapled in the corner.
First he read all their titles. Glitch FAQ. Etiquette Guide. There Are No Sburb Walkthroughs.
Then he studied them carefully, studiously. And when the monitors finally flickered on, in the dim half-darkness of the inside of the capsule, he was ready.
Chapter 4: Gallant Watchman/Gladhearted Watcher
Below a sky filled with stars, below the great temple of the Frog, the Gladhearted Watcher waited.
The others - well. They would come soon enough. In the meantime he sat and meditated between the stars, thinking about how the world turned, and about himself, and about what had happened to put him in the position he was right now.
He'd been there for years, thinking about himself, remembering the things the Hero of Heart had said about inner peace - "if you find the stillness inside yourself, the world beyond you cannot break you" - and thinking about his place in the universe.
He had long robes, held together with a dusty pin; a pawn, the emblem of the Whiteblacks. He had a staff, an old measuring-stick the human society had left behind, inchmarks still faintly visible despite decades of sandblasting.
The whirr of helicopter blades behind him stirred him out of his reverie. So he stood, pushed his hood out over his face, and presented himself to the newcomer from the sky as if he was a statue, to see what would happen next.
The Gallant Watchman was not satisfied with his job.
He did like being someone who stood in front of the storehouses, protecting the critical materiel of Derse. He did like his co-workers. But he didn't get paid much, and the price of bread kept going up, and Derse kept claiming that the further cuts were the fault of the Whiteblacks.
The Gallant Watchman was not stupid. He knew what the Whiteblack line was, and he knew that Derse did not tell him the whole story, especially after they covered up a particularly egregious break-in at his storehouse. But he only wanted food to eat and a bed to sleep in, and it was not until both became tenuous that he began entertaining the thought of treason.
Really, he would reflect later, even that wasn't quite enough to actually make him cross the line. Things would have continued in this way for some time, if it wasn't for the fact that his landlady decided to evict him.
The Whiteblack recruiters had an uncanny sense - quite probably provided by Player magic, because nothing less could've explained it - for people who were vulnerable to their message.
They had a sort of hidden barracks somewhere, where they assigned him a bunk; they didn't even require him to sign up for their cause, for that, although they encouraged it.
He was grateful enough that he figured he may as well repay it. So he told them he was good at watching things, and that is what he did, for many weeks: trading watch, finding out that an old coworker had fallen upon the same circumstances, noting down if anything interesting happened. Sometimes they saw training groups go deeper into the Derse catacombs; sometimes they saw groups leave for the Battlefield; but the Gallant Watchman stayed.
He was just fine with that, because watching things was what he was good at.
He was watching the tunnel entrances, then, keeping an eye out for movement outside the safe zone, when it happened. There were furtive movements, black on black, in the tunnel. Nobody was scheduled to be moving forces at this hour, and nobody had buzzed his field communicator to say they were coming in.
The Gallant Watchman crouched behind the parapet and pressed a button. That would raise the alarm. And then he took his field communicator out, to document how many there were, and how many - and when he raised the camera to start taking pictures, he froze in fear.
The force coming in was dozens of highly trained Knights, a force you'd normally never see together in such groups. The Knights were special forces, trained for infiltrating Prospit, causing mayhem, and then slipping back out before they were captured. They trained on Derse, yes, but they were not supposed to be in these tunnels. Unless this was a training exercise --
Then they just turned around, and left. But he'd seen glittering bead-black eyes in the distance, and the eyes... well, the eyes had seen him right back.
The Gallant Watchman's fingers tapped a message out, furiously, on his field communicator. Their location was compromised. They had to run.
It would take a fully trained Whiteblack force about twenty minutes to evacuate a stronghold. Unfortunately, this was not a fully trained Whiteblack force.
The Gallant Watchman was still on watch. He would be sacrificed, quite possibly, to make absolutely sure that the others had advance notice of what was going on. Really, he was fine with that. It was the duty he had been born to do, and at least he would die doing the job he loved.
Then something tapped him on the shoulder. He drew his sword, pointing it at the intruder's throat -
The Hero of Heart nimbly caught the blade in a gloved hand. "There'll be no need for that. I'll take the watch. You go on ahead."
The Gallant Watchman gathered back together the pieces of his mind and replied: no, he had to stay on duty. It was his job. And, to his surprise, the Hero of Heart nodded, and let him stay -- if he promised to stay out of sight, no matter what happened.
And so they sat there, together, in companionable silence, until the Knights came.
The Knights surrounded the Hero of Heart like a cloud of missiles, and the Hero of Heart had a frying pan in one hand and some steaming glove-like thing in the other, and -
The Gallant Watchman watched him fall.
The Knights poked the body, a few times. They looked at the Gallant Watchman's hiding place, and the Watchman dared not breathe. But their eyes slid over it, and they moved on.
The Hero of Time showed up, then, and dragged the body of the Hero of Heart away.
A few minutes later, the Hero of Time found the Gallant Watchman's hiding place, and said: "Hey, if you don't mind, can you... put in a call for help? On your field communicator, I mean. Retroactively."
After thumbing in a passphrase the Hero of Time had given him, the Gallant Watchman asked, hesitantly, if the Hero of Heart was alive.
"Sort of," said the Hero of Time. "It's a long story. Now, we need to get you out of here, or... well, things are about to blow up."
They ran to the shuttle depot, and caught a shuttle out; and just as they reached cruising velocity, there was a booming noise. And then another, and another.
The Watchman watched the great cathedral heights of the Queen's Castle fall; as he watched the rest of Derse burn with it.
"He's alive, now," said the Hero of Time.
The Watchman could only stare, as the Dreamers' towers succumbed to the flames.
When he got to the meteor, the Gallant Watchman found a letter, from the Hero of Heart.
It started with an apology for all the things he had to see, and offered... well, it wasn't really an explanation. But it was the closest a Mage could do, and the Watchman appreciated it.
After that - "These are the things I know are true," wrote the Hero of Heart. The words that followed would take the Watchman years to understand.
Finally, at the bottom of the letter, there was a pin, a pawn, the emblem of the Whiteblack army. Around it, in the Hero of Heart's loopy handwriting, was written: "For extraordinary service."
The Gallant Watchman - no, the Gladhearted Watcher - held the letter to his breast, as the meteor sped towards Skaia. And he closed his eyes.
Chapter 5: White Queen/Willing Quadruplor/Waygone Quaestor
Mind the tags; I've had to add an extra warning for this chapter.
When her capsule thunked to a stop just beside the Frog Temple, the Waygone Quaestor reviewed what she knew.
She knew that the Frog Temple was always, always the first meeting-place of the first Exiles. She knew that someday, there would be children on this world that were Players, and not Carapaces, and that seeding the ground and civilization was the best thing to do to prepare the world for their arrival.
This was what she had been working for this whole time; but even now, their victory was still fragile. There was still a nation to build, and that was another lifetime's work.
She gathered what little dignity she had left, held the folds of her rags in one hand so she would not trip, and descended.
The White Queen stood, in her chambers, looking out the window, watching the citizens of Prospit in the streets. It was a lovely day, as always; the Skaian eclipse would come in another sixteen minutes, precisely as scheduled. The Prospitians were finishing up the last of their errands, so that they would be inside when the eclipse started. While it wouldn't necessarily kill a carapace to stand in that light, it did dizzy and confuse them, and often left them unable to do their jobs afterwards, so the White Queen arranged - as all White Queens did - for her citizens to stay inside, or underground, for the duration.
As all White Queens did, then, she shuttered the windows, and went to her desk. There, she began to review the speeches that she would make, for the next week.
The curse of being the White Queen, of being in that highest office, was that - unlike most of the pawns below her - she knew she was doomed to fail. She tried not to show it, of course. She was good at putting on a brave face; it was what she had been born and bred to do. But she wondered, always wondered...
What was the point of their war, if the result was foreordained?
The Hero of Might presented herself, one fine Prospitian morning, to the palace of the White Queen. She prostrated herself appropriately at the entrance, gave the guards sweets, and had made herself respectable for the occasion - so even though the White Queen hadn't been initially inclined to meet with her directly, her mind was soon enough swayed.
And the Hero of Might had requested a private audience, which the White Queen was hesitant to grant, until the Hero of Might pointed out that killing the White Queen would not be useful to the plans of anyone in the Incipisphere right now, least of all those of the Heroes of Skaia themselves. The Heroes of Skaia depended upon the protection of the Kingdom of Prospit until such time as they could defend themselves; the Hero of Might herself had been asleep and vulnerable for years. She trusted that the Queen would return the favor.
And so the White Queen led the Hero of Might to her quarters, leaving even the bodyguards stationed outside, and asked what the Hero of Might wished of her.
The Hero of Might replied that she wanted to start a revolution.
It wasn't her idea, she hastily backpedaled; it was technically mostly the Hero of Mind's idea, and the Hero of Mind was good at that kind of thing, and the Heroes had gathered for a meeting and agreed it was a good idea, and here was how it would work.
The White Queen listened. It made a lot of sense. Take the fight to Derse, using the superior tactics that the Heroes of Skaia outlined. Even if it didn't ensure victory - and the White Queen cautioned that Derse would be strengthened to meet any foe it was presented with - it would destabilize the Incipisphere, and throw the otherwise inevitable course of the War into doubt.
But the White Queen absolutely could not let such acts be pinned on herself. There was the Ancient Law of Skaia; and Skaia said that there were rules of engagement, for the Chessboard War, and that a White Queen absolutely could not deviate from them. If she were to break the Ancient Law openly, there would be nothing preventing the Derse army from murdering all the Heroes in their sleep.
But there was something the White Queen could do, continued the Hero of Might. The White Queen could quietly prepare things so that any carapace who wished, Prospitian or Dersite, could be evacuated from the Incipisphere at the first sight of the Skaian defense portals. There they could establish a new society, a better society -
And even if they didn't, it certainly wouldn't be any worse than the current state of affairs, would it?
The White Queen hesitated. She wanted to do it, wanted to create a future for her people where they could live in peace - but there was an ineffable wrongness in it all. Even though this was objectively the best choice, every fiber of her being strained against it. The Ancient Law did not want this, and the Ancient Law's chains were built into the deepest parts of her soul.
She stood, frozen in indecision. The Hero of Might sighed, took something out of her sylladex, and yanked.
The world unraveled and scattered before the White Queen's eyes; and then it snapped back into place - but with some ineffable difference, as if all the meanings of things had been all mixed up and then haphazardly pasted back on...
Damn the Ancient Law, she thought. Damn the rules that kept her from protecting her people; damn the rules that forced her to make war on the kingdom of Derse; damn the rules that bound her to the role and behavior of a Queen. She would protect her people, whatever it took. And if whatever it took meant a revolution, well then, that was what she would do.
The Hero of Might had given her a disguised field-communicator. The White Queen cradled it in her hands, staring at it. It was a thin adhesive patch, the same satin-white as her own carapace, color-matched to perfection. It would let her communicate with the Heroes in a way Derse couldn't intercept.
Was she really going to do this? Would she really abandon the name of Prospit? Prospit was going to lose either way. She had nothing left to lose.
She peeled the backing off the adhesive and stuck the communicator on her chest. The thoughtwave interface booted up, sending a few routine system messages to her consciousness, and then opened a file automatically.
Welcome to the rebellion, the Hero of Might had written on that file. And thank you. The next few files will explain what we need you to do...
She was still the White Queen, to everyone else. But in her own thoughts, now, she called herself the Willing Quadruplor.
Too obvious a behavior change would make Derse suspicious; she would continue to participate in the activities of the Prospitian head of state... just with a blind eye turned to the supplies that were increasingly disappearing from their storehouses without explanation, and a quiet order that the shipyards should make as many civilian passenger shuttles as they could.
She couldn't be known to the rebellion, either -- they couldn't risk compromising her position, and there was no guarantee that the rank and file would take her presence well. The rebellion was, after all, rebelling against the presence of monarchs.
The Heroes had sent her a calendar and countdown, so she could better plan for the upcoming mass evacuation. She thanked them, told them what she'd managed to do and what her projections were, and told them that if they needed any more help, she would be willing to provide it.
She quietly cheered on the rebellion, even as she publically dismissed it. The worlds turned. Skaia shone in the Prospitian sky.
As soon as she knew the Reckoning had started, the Willing Quadruplor initiated the final phase of her plan.
She announced that what was left of the Prospitian army would provide evacuations to Earth, via shuttle, for any civilian. And by that she meant any civilian, Prospitian or Dersite. The news would probably have a field day with this, she thought, before shoving any concern about public opinion out of her head. In twenty-four hours, public opinion wouldn't matter. In twenty-four hours, she wouldn't matter.
She slipped off the prototyping ring, shoved it in the Vault so nobody else could get to it, and found a quiet place in a back alleyway. There, she wrapped herself in a cloak and a Whiteblack mask and put on gloves and shoes so that nobody would see her delicately jointed fingers. And then she found her way to the shipyards, and left on one of the empty shuttles that would be evacuating people from Derse.
When she arrived, she found Derse in an uproar.
The Black Queen had just announced that she was setting off the explosives buried inside Derse - that the White Queen would not take her citizens, because they were hers. She would rather kill every Dersite than let the other Queen take them away --
In the living districts, desperate Dersite pawns were cramming themselves onto any shuttle they could reach. They climbed on top of each other, they snagged handholds and ledges on the outsides of the shuttles, they hung in long chains from the open doors of slowly-rising shuttles; and, in the mayhem, the Willing Quadruplor found herself forced out of the shuttle so that three pawns could cram themselves into her seat, stacked one atop another atop another.
Something knocked her down. And even as she realized that there weren't enough shuttles, there were too many Dersites, the explosives would go off before they could save most of them -- something, someone, stepped on her left hand with a sickening crunch.
Well. It wasn't as if she was going to live through the Reckoning even in a normal session. Although she was supposed to die on the Battlefield. Not jostled and trampled beneath the feet of a stampede.
And then the Hero of Might grabbed the Quadruplor around the waist, yanked her jetpack's joystick controls upwards with her teeth, and pulled her into the air.
Sburb's healing items didn't work on carapaces; they had to practice medicine the old-fashioned way. And in this case, said the medic looking at her, they weren't going to be able to save the hand. And with the Reckoning already underway... well. It wasn't like she cared, anymore. So she told the medic to just cut the damn thing off.
The Hero of Might squinted, but WQ stared back at her, serenely, impassively, as the medic got the amputation tools.
Really, said the Hero of Might. Really.
Well, said the Quadruplor, she was supposed to die with valor and dignity right about now anyway.
No, said the Hero of Might. She hadn't tracked down WQ via communicator-patch just for a social visit. She hadn't stolen the Ancient Law from the once-Queen's soul just to let her die. Not here. Not like this.
So what did the Hero of Might expect her to do?
The Hero of Might looked her directly in the eyes, and said: she was to go through the defense portals just the same as the rest of her subjects, and help to create a new society. To demonstrate that they were better than that. To demonstrate that they could pull life out of the midst of death.
Was that an order?
Yes, said the Hero of Might. Living well was the best revenge.
She was sent onto the Heroes' former planet on a meteor, because there weren't any shuttles left. She had a case of documents that the Hero of Might wanted her to study. Most said things about natural law, and constitutions, and the social contract.
If she was going to create a new civilization, the Hero of Might reasoned, then she should know how other people had created civilization before, so as not to make their mistakes. She should establish a strong system, one that would stand the test of time: and it would take fair laws and evenhanded government to get there.
There were also some documents about how Sburb was usually supposed to go; and from those she would eventually learn that she was not the only White Queen, but one instance in the infinite sea of paradox space. But the Hero of Might had added notes, too: that didn't mean she didn't matter. She did. And the best thing she could do for future generations was to make sure that future generations could exist.
Apparently, WQ noted, this was also an order.
She wandered out into the dunes, carrying the case of documents on her back. She couldn't be a Willing Quadruplor anymore, not if she wanted to build a new society.
She would be a Waygone Quaestor.
Chapter 6: Warweary Villein/Whiteblack Vanguard/Warworn Vagabond
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The Warworn Vagabond’s capsule touched down at the Temple, and the door hissed open.
He pushed himself upright on the wall. They knew he would be here. They knew that they needed to learn to rule themselves. The Hero of Mind had told him as much, at least. But knowing that this work was needed, and actually doing it, were two very different things.
As he waited, he thought about he wanted to do next. They’d build a public meeting-house, for them to discuss things in, while they were still few; there would be elections, later, but there was no point holding them yet. Not when their new town had a population of six. Perhaps it would be good to have a constitution. Agreements on what kind of government to use and how it would work would be important now, because now that they were outside the Incipisphere, they no longer had Skaia’s guidance on how to act and how to treat each other.
They had choices now, so it was possible that they’d end up doing the wrong things.
But it was also possible that they’d do the right things, instead.
The Hero of Mind came to the Battlefield early - too early, nobody expected her to be there until months later - and so the forces of Derse didn't have a force ready to scramble to apprehend her. They tried anyway, but by then the Hero of Mind had found the home of one Warweary Villein, talked with him briefly, and spirited him away on a bicycle with wings.
That was what everyone knew. The speculation ran rampant, within the ranks of both armies in the War: the Hero of Mind had killed him and was hiding the body. The Hero of Mind was secretly working for Derse. The Hero of Mind was secretly working for Prospit. The Hero of Mind needed the essence of a Dersite for secret experiments. None of this was the truth, of course. Some of them came close, but only in the sense that you'd eventually hit upon a correct opposition headline if you had an infinite number of Pawns at an infinite number of typewriters hitting keys for a very long time.
The posters started going up after that, as did the rogue transmissions on the field communicator bands. Carapaces started deserting, at first in ones or twos while on leave, but then in greater and greater numbers. The positioning beacons for regiments started simply disappearing into thin air. The electronics specialists of the armies of Derse and Prospit were working day and night to figure out what had happened and where everyone went; but as soon as they thought they were making a breakthrough, the patterns changed.
The Warweary Villein stood in front of the Hero of Mind. She paced back and forth and talked about oligarchies, and elections, and how leaders could suppress the will of the people. He drank it in like the great towers yearned for and absorbed the Prototype Orbs. It was electrifying. It was more than he had ever dared dream of.
He’d been a Pawn who had refused to fight when shipped to the Battlefield; a Pawn who was supposed to be shipped back to Derse, but who had been tacitly allowed to stay on the Battlefield so long as he didn’t interfere with anything. But he dreamed of revolution, still, when tilling the garden he’d managed to coax out of the Skaian soil. How had she known that? Player magic, probably, but he dared hope that perhaps this was something more. Perhaps he had been written into the prophecies. And if he was... he dared hope that maybe, just maybe, his dreams could be more than dreams.
She asked him if she could help him start a revolution. He immediately said yes - but she said that she wanted to do it in a way that’d work, in a way that’d last, and that she needed him to hide for a while so that it would work better.
She left him, that evening, with a device that had books and books on theory of government. Probably far more than he’d need for now, she said, but it ought to keep him busy, while she figured out how to help him. And if he had any questions, she would answer them after she got back from doing whatever Heroes of Skaia needed to do.
She started by bringing in a few stray Derse and Prospit troops, ones that had deserted for their own reasons. She wouldn’t speak to them herself, because she didn’t want them to fight for the Heroes of Skaia. She wanted them to fight for themselves.
And so he talked to them about fairness, self-governance, a future that wasn’t soaked with blood. They listened, and they followed him.
They’d been tube-born as soldiers, and so they all thought they knew how to fight. But the Hero of Mind would come, every few days, and teach them different ways of fighting: ways that a small force could fight a much larger one. Ambushes. Sabotage. Jamming. Morale.
They started doing missions. Small ones, at first. Fouling supplies, or blowing up storehouses, or recruiting. The Hero of Mind might’ve been able to do some of these things, but there was only one of her.
Eventually, they had what the Hero of Mind judged to be enough of a force, and they started thinking bigger. Once, they kidnapped an entire shuttle full of newly-born Pawns. He was particularly proud of that operation.
Somewhere between a platoon and a company, they’d decided to call themselves the Whiteblacks.
And he’d become the Whiteblack Vanguard.
He wasn’t used to being at the top of a chain of command, but he learned quickly. Field promotions weren’t exactly rare on the Battlefield, after all. Still, it wasn’t what he had been born to do, and despite everything, he didn’t know if he could keep it up.
The Hero of Mind was, these days, increasingly busy with electronic warfare - making sure they had safe communication channels, and breaking into the field communicators of the Dersites and Prospitians. She sank into her work, little by little. She gave the Whiteblack Vanguard more power and responsibility, little by little.
But he doubted himself, still, so he asked her a question: What did the prophecies say, about the rebellion?
She was busy, but she made time for this, because she trusted him. She was a Prospit dreamer, so she decided that she’d look through the Prospitian libraries for likely-looking books, scan them into a computer, and then look through them later, as her realself.
The first two of these things went off without a hitch.
The third one --
The third one didn’t work so well.
She’d sent him a ping when she started looking through the files, saying that she would get back to him when she finished reading everything. But she never sent him the message saying she was done.
He didn’t know what the Hero of Mind’s silence, there, meant. Maybe she was doing something sensitive or undercover, he thought, but by the third day he was getting very nervous, and so he checked in on her Dwelling Spire himself.
He found the Hero of Mind curled in on herself, and called to her from the doorway. She stirred.
He asked how the prophecies had treated the rebellion. She laughed a bit, or perhaps choked, and said something about that not mattering anymore.
But what did they say, he asked?
“The world said no,” she said, voice ragged, hysterical, lost. “So I broke the world.”
He followed the Hero of Mind to her next few meetings with the Heroes of Skaia. In oddly hesitant words she explained what she had done. In words of distress and confusion and care the others talked about what they were going to do next:
the Hero of Time spoke about a timeline that had gone completely wild, timelines randomly splitting off, splintering, turning themselves back into alpha, about the alpha timeline no longer being a sure thing but a matter of thousands and thousands of probabilities, about scrying abilities gone haywire and telling him that he was in timeline -6 at time ERR -
the Hero of Heart spoke about how he was watching himself and the others, and about how they were shattered like the timeline was, about how they had always been shattered, about how maybe that was why the Hero of Mind broke the world -
the Hero of Might spoke about how all she could do was take integrity and not restore it, about how her abilities could have been used to fix this if she’d been given a slightly different Class but she couldn’t and so she was sorry, about how she wondered what she was supposed to say to her contact in the Prospitian court -
the Hero of Doom spoke about how he, too, had scrying abilities gone on tilt, about how once Doom wasn’t a binary classification everything he knew about using his Aspect fell apart, about how he too was learning to think in terms of possibilities and not certainties -
the Hero of Space spoke about her Denizen’s ruling being that they could do this themselves, about the way that the Planets moved through the space and time of the Medium just the same, about how she had absolutely no idea what else she could do but she would try her best -
The discussions were indecisive, everywhere, pointless, rambling, unfocused.
And then, after several days of this, the Whiteblack Vanguard spoke, from the back of the tent: “What about us?”
They turned and looked at him.
He did not shrink away from this. He continued: while the Heroes of Skaia were arguing about how to save a frog, they weren’t saying anything about saving his people. If they did this for much longer, someone would eventually slip against the Ancient Law, and then there would be no rules between Prospit and Derse anymore, and then...
He didn’t have to go on. The Heroes of Skaia looked at each other.
Finally, the Hero of Mind stood up. “We have spent a week arguing amongst ourselves and we have no answers. I’m not going to wait to see if another week improves things any. I’m going to act.” She told the Whiteblack Vanguard to leave with her.
As they left, he looked back at the other Heroes of Skaia. Through the open tent-flap, he saw them standing up too.
He asked her why, afterwards. And she said: “We have choices now. So it’s possible that we might end up doing the wrong things. But it’s also possible that we might do the right things, instead.”
After that, the Heroes all helped wage the war, in their own ways: monitoring the field communicator chatter, letting the Whiteblacks know if anything relevant came up in their scrying, making sure escapes and safehouses were open.
He wasn’t the general. He wasn’t the king. But he was the first of the Whiteblacks, and so sometimes he would give speeches or visit encampments, and they would listen to him. He listened to them, too, and he read his books, and he made sure the right people contacted each other. Derse sent an assassin, once, while he was with a group; he was injured, but they fought the assassin off.
Eventually, they took the fight to the Battlefield. The Whiteblacks sang songs, and linked their arms together into great chains and barricades, and spoofed signals to keep the armies guessing.
Prospit and Derse eventually formed an alliance against the Whiteblacks, trying to stuff the War back into the confines of what they were programmed to understand. But since the Hero of Mind had broken the world, prophecies were about as useful as blotter-paper, and so they flailed increasingly desperately, trying and discarding new strategies as soon as they came up with them.
In the end it was the Heroes and the Whiteblacks against both of the kings.
As soon as the Whiteblacks saw the meteors begin, they told the Heroes that it was the end, and the Heroes came.
The White and Black Kings did not know how to fight side-by-side, but they were still a formidable force together. Every Whiteblack that could fight did, from the Vanguard on down. The Heroes called great bolts of electricity, and made the ground crumble beneath the Kings, and fought with rainbow-striped frying pans and Ring-black polearms and every sort of weaponry in between.
Shuttle after shuttle of civilians streaked by overhead; the Whiteblacks were taking advantage of the battle to evacuate as many as possible.
The battle was long. Though the Whiteblacks tried their best to not waste manpower if they could help it, the Battlefield eventually had rivers of blood. Though the Heroes were valiant and clever, the Kings’ terrible arts were powerful and dangerous. But - wounded, perhaps, but certainly alive - they all fought on.
He didn’t see the way the battle ended. He had to leave on one of the meteors. And he cut it as close as he could, stayed to fight as much as possible, but eventually the Hero of Mind found him and told him that it was time to leave.
The fight against the King is not a test of strength but a test of dedication, she said, as she brought him to the transportalizer pad and put in the coordinates. And though Mind always spoke in probabilities and likelihoods, the last thing she said had a ring of certainty to it: they were fighting for the right thing, so they would win.
The Warworn Vagabond stumped into the half-buried shipping container with a crutch under one arm, having decided that it was sufficiently stable as to provide a good shelter for the day.
He'd spent the last month working his way up the coast, only having turned inland early that evening when he knew he was approaching his destination. Skaianet GPS satellites still blinked above, and the key in his pocket urged him on in the direction he needed to go.
He'd had a blade driven clean through his leg in the last confrontation, and in the rush of the battle he’d failed to notice. Now the leg was gimpy, and he was still missing fingers from the attempted assassination previous. But the message of the Whiteblacks had reached farther and wider than he'd ever thought possible - thanks to the Hero of Mind and her sharp eyes for revolution in the making.
He smiled. He'd have to thank her again later, when he got to where he was going.
This might or might not have an epilogue. I keep going back and forth on that topic. For now, though, I'll mark it complete.