Actions

Work Header

Negative Aperture

Chapter Text

clockworkGriefer [CG] opened memo on board GRAND BLAZE

CG: OKAY FUCKASSES EVERYBODY IN HERE
CG: WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY MEETING
tacticalArisen [TA] responded to memo.
TA: What seems to be the problem?
CG: EVERYBODY HAS GOT TO PUT THEIR QUESTS ON HOLD RIGHT NOW
CG: OPERATION REGISURP IS ALSO ON STANDBY STARTING NOW AND IT IS NOT RESUMING UNTIL WE GET THIS BULLSHIT UNDER CONTROL
angelicCute [AC] responded to memo.
AC: well not like thats not great to hear :p
AC: but whats even brought this on
genocideAura [GA] responded to memo.
GA: leon is an idiot that’s what’s brought this on
CG: YOU SHUT UP.
CG: ELENA’S MISSING, IS WHAT THE EMERGENCY IS
tiaraTenuto [TT] responded to memo.
TT: What.
AC: whoa :o
TA: Hm.
TA: Perhaps you should back up and explain the circumstances a little bit.
TA: I was aware that she had entered the game with you, but how did she go “missing”, when, and from where?
TA: We’ll need to know if we’re to help you in whatever way you need.
CG: I NOTICED SHE WAS GONE LAST NIGHT I GUESS
CG: SHE COULD’VE RUN AWAY EARLIER THOUGH?
CG: FUCK I DON’T KNOW
GA: ok what leon’s not explaining is that he had elena locked up in her room in order to “keep her out of trouble” while he was prancing around his land playing secret agent with jack
CG: THE FUCK IS WITH THOSE SARCASTIC AIR QUOTES.
GA: pipe down dude
GA: anyhow it looks like at some point yesterday she tied her sheets together and snuck out
CG: AND SHE DOESN’T HAVE A PHONE OR A PDA OR A COMPUTER OR ANYTHING
CG: SHE COULD BE ANYWHERE JEGUS DICK
AC: umm
AC: ok theres a lot that i could say about how completely dumb and kinda creepy that stuff you guys said is
AC: but whats the problem seriously elenas pretty strong so she can handle herself
CG: YEAH
CG: NORMALLY MAYBE?
CG: BUT RIGHT NOW
CG: JESUS
GA: what leon means to say is that like a complete fuckass he made his sister empty her sylladex and took all possible weapons and means of communication out of her room before he locked her in it
TA: Well.
CG: DO YOU SERIOUSLY WANT ME TO BAN YOUR ASS
GA: if you try to ban me i’ll just steal your headset
GA: if you want help now is kinda not the time to be worried about getting the stink eye from the others over your being an overprotective fuckhead whose idiot plans all backfired
CG: FUCK YOU
GA: so that’s basically the situation
GA: nobody can contact elena and she’s unarmed
AC: wow i kinda feel sorry for her
AC: we all knew leons a big fuckass but this kinda takes the cake :c
TA: Quite.
TA: By the way,
TA: Gulcasa, you and Leon are together now, correct?
GA: yeah
GA: he tagged me last night and so i got him to stay put until i’d had a little time to sleep and then i went straight to meet him
GA: is everybody else on their own world or
TT: I still can’t leave mine, for reasons I discussed with you earlier. :(
TT: However, even though I’m occupied with my own quest, in order to complete it I have to travel all over my planet, and so there’s no reason why I can’t keep an eye out for Elena on the way.
GA: that works just fine
GA: nessiah emilia what about you guys
AC: yeah im on lofam still
AC: and ill look for elena because shes my friend but im really not cool with taking her back to leons place if i find her??
AC: locking her up is kinda much leon!
GA: well, yeah
GA: if we find elena we need to make sure she has a weapon and a communication device i guess?
GA: and if you can convince her to come with you that’s probably a good idea
TA: I was just about to go to sleep anyway, and so I’ll alert the queen as to the goings-on here.
TA: I’ve been up all night, though, so I don’t know that I can explore LOCAS immediately.
TA: I’ll try to have my Prospitian network watch for her, since Operation Regisurp is apparently on hold anyway.
GA: dude
GA: what have you even been up to recently
TA: Shenanigans.
TA: It would probably take too much time to explain in full, but since I’m Leon’s partner in crime as it were, I’ve been stuck playing spymaster.
TA: Speaking of Operation Regisurp, though,
TA: How has Jack Noir taken the news that it can’t move forward?
GA: idk seeing as this’s the first time i’ve seen the dude
GA: but he looks kind of pissed
CG: YEAH HE’S NOT TOO PLEASED
CG: BUT IT LOOKS LIKE HE AND HIS CRONIES MIGHT ACTUALLY DECIDE TO HELP SINCE THEY WANT TO GET THE PLAN BACK ON TRACK?
GA: i looked around lodaf while i was headed for the gate but for what it’s worth i couldn’t find elena
GA: and it sounds like nessiah’s prospit buddies will have locas mostly under control
GA: emilia’s got lofam and leon and jack have got lomah taken care of
GA: it’s probably gonna take a while to find elena and honestly she might be anywhere if she’s figured out the gates
GA: we have no guarantee that she’ll be staying in one place either so searching every planet’s gonna take some serious hoofing it
GA: get help from the consorts if you can
GA: yggdra you’re gonna be all over logaf for a while anyhow right
TT: That would be the gist of what I’ve been saying, yes. :/
GA: that’s my next stop anyway going back to my own planet so i guess i’ll help you look if we run into each other there
GA: is this a problem
TT: Not at all.
TT: But you do know what that means, yes?
GA: yeah my loins are girded
GA: but everybody’s okay with this plan right
TA: I have no objections.
AC: guess not
TT: As long as Leon’s not going to put us in the exact same situation once we’ve found her.
CG: WOW SHUT THE FUCK UP OKAY
GA: he knows better
GA: i think
CG: UGH NO
CG: I’M NOT GOING TO PUT HER BACK IN HER ROOM I GUESS
CG: NOT UNLESS I CAN FIGURE OUT HOW TO KEEP HER IN THERE
GA: welp
GA: looks like that’s the best we’re getting
TT: Sigh.
TT: But if Elena’s in potential danger, then what choice is there?
TT: I’ll participate, but I really can’t abandon my quest for good.
TT: If I let a target escape, there’s no telling what kinds of setbacks I’ll be in for. :(
GA: aight then i guess i’ve really got no choice but to help
GA: two heads are bound to be better than one if there are two tasks to take care of
TT: You had better not regret those words, because you are not getting the chance to take them back. >:P
GA: whatever
TA: Will that be it, then?
TA: I don’t think I can stay awake for much longer.
GA: yeah that’s it
GA: also your sleep schedule kinda explains a lot
TA: To quote the common phrase,
TA: >:?
GA: it’s no big
AC: k im out
AC: leon you are a dumb
AC ceased responding to memo.
CG: SHUT
CG: THE
CG: FUCK
CG: UP
CG banned himself from responding to memo.
TA: These memos are always such a disaster.
TA: Anyhow,
TA: In the event that one of us finds Elena,
TA: We should probably get in contact with the others and make sure everyone is aware.
TT: That sounds like a reasonable proposition.
TA: In that case, I’m stepping down.
TA: I am really exhausted here.
TA ceased responding to memo.
GA: catch you on the flip side then
GA ceased responding to memo.
TT ceased responding to memo.
CG unbanned himself from responding to memo.

CG closed memo.

Chapter Text

> Be the Page of Life.

You lift your hair up from underneath your shirt, tighten your hair ribbon, and secure the droopier brown specimen around your shirt collar. Presentable now, you captchalogue your Blackberry and give yourself a smile in the mirror. That’s more like it—now you show no trace of a day’s frustration and several hours spent trekking through the storm-and-glass desert of your planet in search of oases.

Of course, you’ll be doing much the same today, but that’s no reason to go about your heroing business looking uncivilized from the beginning. This would be bad enough in front of your father/sprite, but you especially don’t want to look slovenly if your server player really is going to be here. You aren’t particularly enthusiastic about giving him ammunition to criticize you.

Exiting the bathroom, you pick up Flamberge from where the sword lies on your bed and run through a couple of passes with it. Enough to limber up muscle, but not enough to break a sweat. You do a little pirouette and twirl your shoulder and wrist to bring yourself into a satisfactory victory pose. Maybe you came a little dangerously close to nicking the wall there, but you didn’t, which is the important part.

You slip the weapon into your strife sylladex in a self-congratulatory manner and do a few stretches. Part of you had wanted to slack off last night rather than exercise, but now that it is morning and you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with your shoulders and biceps straining a little bit, you are glad you decided to finish your push-ups. Artwaltzes are many things, slackers not among them.

When you exit your bedroom and descend the stairs to the ground floor, your father is there waiting in the living room, hovering green and ghostly around the vicinity of the sofa. You wish him a good morning, to which he replies in kind.

“You know, now that I’m in this situation, I find myself fully appreciating all the lessons,” you say after you have a plate of strawberries with sugar for breakfast. “Ballet, fencing, weight training—they’ve all served me very well in this game, and I’m grateful for them.”

“Yggdra,” says your father with a smile, his crow’s feet deepening, “you never objected to any of those things at the time. I would say that you quite enjoyed them.”

“I did,” you tell him, “but I looked at them like they were play, or like training for the sake of upholding the family image.” And occasionally contests of one-upmanship with your sisters, which was hopeless because Luciana and Aegina were always a year ahead of you in skill, and furthermore Luciana never shied from fighting dirty. But if your father doesn’t already know about that, you certainly don’t need to enlighten him. “I never thought that my life would depend on learning such things. I might have taken it all much more seriously if I had known.”

You look at your father curiously. His smile seems sadder now, the creases between his eyebrows and on his forehead deepening. “I could not possibly have told you something like that from such a tender age.”

“How long did you know?”

He doesn’t answer, just looks at you with that sad smile. You aren’t sure what to make of it.

In any case, further pursuit will apparently be meaningless right now, and you have a job that needs doing. You give your sylladex a quick run-over, flicking through ephemeral menus with your eyes squeezed shut, and then slip on a pair of crisp burgundy loafers. You ascend the stairs, and open the door to the terrace.

The house itself goes up so high now that you can barely make out the top, an endless spindly tower that spits in the face of physics. You would have to be able to fly to make it up there in any reasonable amount of time. The journey could take days.

You’re not at all sure how the spire has managed to avoid being struck by lightning by now. The laws of nature on the Land of Glass and Frogs are very strange.

Staring over the banister, most of what you can see are long stretches of desert and storm clouds and great twisted formations of glass which you suppose must have been built up over time from strikes of lightning. It doesn’t rain here, but flashes of light in the distance tell you that the periodic flashes of lightning are still going strong.

There are villages, and dungeons and a handful of oases, but none of them are visible from your house at all. Your Land is mostly desert, mostly barren. This is both a blessing and a problem.

In a rare display of common sense, your server player set all of the equipment you have to use here on the terrace. It is easy to access from inside the house and from outside it, and at least something might as well be.

The thought occurs to you, as it did yesterday, that you may spend your entire time playing this game stuck fast to this dusty world. For all that it is austere, strange and beautiful, the thought fills you with distaste bitter as coffee grounds. Part of it is pride: You are an Artwaltz, ruled by none but your own sense of justice, and your special quest smacks of a cage. Another part is despair, or boredom that is nigh indistinguishable from it. The swirling formations of glass are beautiful, but you are sick to death of sand and storm clouds.

You don’t like glum thoughts, but it’s pointless to leave before your company gets here. He’ll never find you in all this desert, it’s not exactly like the planet is small enough you’ll stand out, and it isn’t so liberally peppered with dummy gates that you can hop back and check for him every five minutes. You have already been signed up for two wild goose chases, and you are decidedly unenthusiastic about putting your name down for a third.

As if timed, there is a thump from upstairs. It is too distant for you to make out any expletives that come after; you are sure there are expletives, because that is the kind of man you are dealing with, the kind that does not quite understand that swear words are a garnish best used sparingly, lest they lose their punch.

Next there is a scraping as a window goes up, and sounds of clambering. You don’t grace the noises with an upward glance, just stare steadily at the wall and the desert; he needs to learn that he is not such a big deal as he thinks. There is no way that he will learn if you make a great show of paying attention.

More scraping—at least he’s conscientious enough to close the window after himself—and then a whoosh, and you turn around very casually as your server player touches down on the floor a few feet away from you, waist folded over and knees bent low to absorb any shock of landing. His rocket shoes shut out, and he straightens up with a flourish, fluffing his acres of hair out with both hands. The peacock. You remember when he used to wear it tied back. It gave him a sweet look, at least when he wasn’t scowling over something or other.

You look Gulcasa up and down, straining to keep your face neutral. This is your first in-person meeting in a few years. He has gotten even taller—you hate him—and bulked up with shiny round muscles in his upper arms and under his shirt—you really hate him. There is more of all that red hair, both in matters of volume and length, and it hangs past his knees all flyaway and soft. Tantalizingly touchable, or it would be if you didn’t already know that he would yell like a thrown cat and kick you in the shins hard enough to bruise if you ever tried. The shirt is sleeveless and red, with a black dragon rampant on the front; the pants are black cargos with extraneous-looking straps of fabric hung from belt loops to pockets. You would not wear something that looked so apt to get caught on things at critical times, but then you have been blessed with common sense, unlike this idiot. He is wearing an actual, honest-to-god leather collar with an actual, honest-to-god padlock hanging from it, as well as a green spirograph pendant like your father gave to you, which is caught on a wrinkle in the shirt. You raise a withering eyebrow as you take in the ridiculous ensemble.

“What’s taken you so long?” you ask.

Gulcasa puts both hands on his hips. “I was stocking up on food and water at Leon’s house. I get the feeling we’re going to need a lot of both, seeing as, you know, desert.”

His voice has gotten deeper, but it is still every bit as annoying as you remember. You fold your arms, determined to show that just because he’s developed the ability to use foresight, that doesn’t mean you have to be impressed.

“Which is what I would have been doing, if I hadn’t been standing around waiting for a certain someone who couldn’t get here punctually,” you reply. “Now come on, I need to run calibrations too before we get going.”

“You couldn’t have done this earlier?” he asks, his forehead creasing.

“It takes concentration as well as undivided attention,” you snap, “and a courteous host waits to greet her guests—not that I would expect you to understand that.”

Gulcasa looks at you like he wants to comment, but seems to think better of it.

“You’d better get on with it, then,” he says. “Like a gracious guest—not that I would expect you to understand that—I will assist you in the kitchen.”

You seriously consider kicking him, and only batten down the urge because striking first will make you look like a petulant child. And the only kind of victory that will leave you satisfied is a complete one on every front—which includes maturity and morality.

“At least don’t make a mess,” you say, and usher him inside.

 

 

He does not make a mess. Instead, he makes polite conversation with your father/sprite, too soft to listen in on and too loud to easily ignore. You consider kicking him a bit more seriously. This time, you refrain because you have no attention to spare.

Your inventory is as full with supplies as you are with breakfast, and the only thing in your hands is a radar device cobbled together with a lot of alchemizing and cross-alchemizing yesterday. You have not got the slightest idea how it works, other than the fact that it is fueled at least in part by your latent Life powers—powers which you have not the foggiest idea how to work or even to quantify. That the radar device works at all is your only proof that you even have any powers.

You are a Page. What that means for you, your father said, is that your path to unlock your full potential will be long and grueling and hard. At first you heard page and thought of the medieval kind of all-purpose assistants—page-boys, the first step towards knighthood in your favorite childhood books—which made a little sense in a first-step-of-the-journey sort of way.

But your father said that that was not entirely correct: That for you Page doesn’t signify a bottom rung on some mythical echeladder, but a blankness, a boundless potential. That a Page must either utilize her blankness or fill it, but also must beware, because people are instinctively drawn to a Page’s potential and will try to shape her for their own means.

Your teammates are an heir, a seer, a knight, and a fairy. You are a sheet of paper. It grinds at your pride that an Artwaltz such as you should be brought so low.

But: The task before you is to wrangle your powers by yourself and for yourself, and an Artwaltz does not shirk her duty, no matter how difficult or ignominious.

The thing is that it is hard. So hard that it feels like screws are being drilled into your skull, and if you are being honest with yourself, only your pride has kept you from throwing the stupid radar into a wall and having a completely self-indulgent cry into a heap of pillows.

Your quest isn’t cut out for heroes of Life. Maybe a Space hero would have it easier; maybe a Page of Space would be able to shut her eyes and visualize and pick out whatever she was looking for, but you aren’t one, and all you can do is—is visualize strands of DNA and RNA, characteristics, hold them in your head in the same way you can hover just on the edge of focusing on something you’re looking at, its edges still fuzzy, giving yourself a headache.

You are breeding frogs for an endgame-critical sidequest. You are breeding frogs via the application of paradox ghost slime—picking and choosing out of all the specimens all over your planet to make a superfrog that you can’t claim the so-called “Ultimate Reward” without. You have a knack for picking out the right strains on the first or second try, but breeding from frogs scattered all over the world instead of from frogs on your doorstep means that you have to pick out their locations and plan to mess with them, or you get the frogs themselves instead of their slime when you try to transportalize them.

And so. You’ve got tubs of frogslime chilled and ready for mixing tonight, and you’ve tabbed some thirty frogs that you need to track down today, in the interest of keeping causality nice and tidy. No one in your party has a Time aspect, which would make things easier for you—your father, and the lore you’ve stumbled upon, have informed you that a Time player’s major function is repairing game-breaking mistakes—and so you have quite literally no room for error.

It isn’t that you have no sympathy for Elena, or don’t understand Leon’s worry for her. It’s more that your responsibilities are so vast, so frustrating, that you have no room for distractions no matter how you want them.

By the time you have entered all the frogs for today’s expedition into the tracker, you have a roaring headache. You could stand a nap, but you have work to do, and so you stump off to the refrigerator and fish out some health smoothie, digging in the cabinet for the Tylenol bottle.

Gulcasa and your father are still making small talk, which grinds to a halt when you come back to the dining room rolling your shoulders and twisting your neck side to side in a vain attempt to loosen the muscles.

“So,” Gulcasa says.

“So,” you say back.

“Frog hunting?” he says.

“They’re not going to hunt themselves,” you reply grimly, and head for the door.

 

 

Once you’re trekking across the desert sands, you swiping hair out of your face discreetly every time you check your radar, Gulcasa’s billowing out behind him like a cloud, he pulls his spirograph pendant out from beneath his shirt and calls up his own sprite.

Siskier is just how you remember her, aside from being headachey bright teal and sporting cracked horns and pointed teeth. It’s quite awkward: What do you say to a girl who’s spent the last two years dead? You could thank her again for her help with your entry to the game, but that might be overly formal for her. And either way, your concern is useless: She waves to you and starts up a vibrant chat with Gulcasa and your father.

You try not to be annoyed with the high, chipper sound of her voice. Not all of Gulcasa’s associates are as infuriating as he is, and Siskier was—is—more or less a good sort.

Every now and again underlings try to sneak up on you from under the sand. Their loss—you are powerful enough after yesterday to make short work of them, and even Gulcasa manages to make himself useful when you aren’t quite fast enough for a kill in three hits or less.

The only real scare is the sandworm skeleton—your father informs you after the thirty minutes it takes to kill it that it was far above what you ought to be handling at your echeladder tier.

“Excellent,” Gulcasa pants. Straggles of his hair are stuck to his sweat-shiny cheeks and arms, and you have to bite your cheek and look away. He is unfair, is what he is. “We are literally in one of those don’t-come-here-til-the-endgame areas. You couldn’t have picked frogs that are in more accessible places for people who’ve only been playing two days, huh?”

“These are the frogs we need,” you tell him pointedly. “Do you want this sidequest to get finished or not.”

“Oh my god, will you nerds stop fighting,” Siskier says. She and your father are busy gathering up the grist that the monster spilled for you. “We beat the thing, isn’t that what matters?”

“Look, just because you’re a sprite and have a boundless amount of energy…,” Gulcasa begins, and cuts himself off coughing.

Because he looks pitiful and because he spared you from having to say it yourself and lose face, you dig through your sylladex for a water bottle and hand the thing to him.

 

 

Just about when you feel like your legs are going to fall off from all the walking, you reach the first oasis on your checklist.

“Fucking finally,” says Gulcasa, and the utter loon pulls his shirt over his head and drops it on the sand, collapsing into the water. Frogs startle and leap into the shallows. You narrow your eyes at his plebian antics, scowl some at the reflection of the water on his muscles, and square your jaw against the urge to peel your own shirt and do the same. It wouldn’t be proper, though, so you can’t.

If only he weren’t around you could convince your father to look elsewhere and maybe cool yourself off a little, but here he is, splashing around like an asshole and keeping you out of the water.

God, you hate him.

About half the frogs you need are thankfully here; you pick your way through the edges of the water and go captchaloguing them (Emerald Contraband, Jade Contraband, Aquamarine Contraband et al.) while Gulcasa floats on his back and is generally useless. One of these days you are going to ask your father why on earth this game thinks that frogs are contraband, and keep pestering him until you get a straight answer.

“Are you done already,” Gulcasa says carelessly, and it is only years and years of having proper Artwaltz poise pounded into you that keeps you from turning around and giving him the finger.

“Just about,” you say, and captcha one last frog. “We have another ten left and they’re less bunched up, so if you want time to look for Elena today you had better get out of the water and let’s go.”

Gulcasa looks up at you like you have personally razed and salted all the fields in his nonexistent kingdom and swims to shore. “Shit,” he says, pulling at his pants. “Now my underwear is gonna ride up my ass all day.”

You wrinkle your nose at him. “It’s your own fault for diving in there like you’re all of six years old,” you say, “and I don’t recall inquiring as to the state of your underwear.”

“It’s fanservice,” he has the gall to tell you with a straight face. “You ought to be thanking me.”

You consider your options for about ten seconds and scoop up a handful of wet sand to throw at him. This is not altogether dignified, but it makes him jump back with a yelp and fall on his butt. The disgusted look on his face as he tries to brush the sand and grit from his pants is worth the raised eyebrows your father gives you.

 

 

And so it goes. You get the tracker back out and let its peeps and chirps lead you from the oasis to a muddy pond in the shelter of some fairly beautiful glass cliffs, and again into a rough rock grotto with collected puddles. You scoop all the sorry-looking frogs out of that one, make Gulcasa take half of them so that your sylladex won’t start spitting your things all over the sand. You can copy your sink or bathtub or something and they’ll be happier there, surely.

Gulcasa doesn’t even complain about it, which you almost appreciate until he starts complaining again—“Does this godforsaken planet even know what consort villages are? Fucksake”—at which point you grit your teeth and long for someone to find Elena so that you can be free of the man’s vile company sooner. You take to surreptitiously checking your Blackberry during stops for water, but it’s no good; Emilia and Nessiah are both offline and Leon is idle.

Twenty-nine frogs into your daily quota of thirty, your tracker leads you to the entrance of a dungeon. You want to swear—you are exhausted, you are on your last damn nerve—but Gulcasa is already cursing a blue streak, and it makes you look better in comparison to hold your tongue, so you do.

“What do you think,” he says to Siskier. “Can we just turn back?”

She makes a troubled face and looks at your father, then shrugs. “If Yggdra already got this frog’s slime…”

“I did,” you say wearily. “If we leave now it will cause a paradox and our game will fail. Our session unfortunately didn’t come with a Time player, after all.”

“Shit,” Gulcasa says with feeling. He lifts his hair off the back of his neck and sighs. Sweat is running down his biceps and staining his shirt, and his thick knuckles are rimmed with cuts; it should disgust you, but instead an animal heat is thrumming through your unmentionables. You are angry at yourself and him and Elena and Leon and everything in paradox space that conspired for this to happen.

“Complaining won’t let us go home any sooner,” you say, and square your shoulders. Glaring at the dungeon gives you an excuse to not ogle him, so you do.

“You’re a real trooper,” he tells you. The tone of his voice is too weary for you to read it, and you frown into the dark.

“It’s not cute when you’re patronizing,” you say, biting your consonants.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says, and this time he’s definitely amused. Damn him. “I’m actually reevaluating my opinion of you a little. Spoiled baby of the family and all—I thought you’d be all for running for home at the first sign of adversity.”

“Artwaltzes don’t run for home,” you retort. Your voice betrays how miffed you are. “Everyone has an important job to do, and we do ours. We don’t complain and we don’t quit.”

“Right,” Gulcasa says in a bored-sounding undertone. You dearly want to kick him right now, but you stamp into the dungeon instead. Your manners are getting a real workout today.

Most of LOGAF is staticky dry, but inside this dungeon it’s warm and damp and the walls drip. It’s almost beautiful—stained glass rosettes pour beams of colored light onto patches of weird vegetation and coral-lined pools where happy frogs croak and cheep. None of them are your target, but they smile up at you nonetheless, and you look them over critically for potential genetic usefulness as you pass.

Unfortunately, the humidity begets lichens and mold in the corners and cracks of the floor, and your nose is running after half an hour. This kind of ruins all the beauty of the place. You glower at Gulcasa through puffy eyes, daring him to say something about how unladylike your sniffles are, but he just makes a sympathetic face and roots through his sylladex until he comes up with—of all things—a tissue box. You are too miserable to spurn the offer just to spite him, and blow your nose with greater frequency every time you descend a set of stairs.

Gulcasa even conscientiously accepts your gross used tissues and captchas them—“We don’t need to litter, do we?” Your incredulity mixes with the hate and resentment and ends to the muddy misery of your dungeon trek.

“The basement was so much easier to—‘spelunk’ in, to use your word,” you say ruefully.

Gulcasa just shakes his head and rubs his nose. The mold may even be getting to him now, because he is being pliant and agreeable for a change. You like him better this way, but not enough to want to stay down here a minute longer than you have to. “Do we know how much deeper the frog is?”

“It shouldn’t be too much further,” you say, and give your tracker a reproachful glower.

“Sure hope the humidity hasn’t got that thing on the fritz,” he mutters.

“Perish the thought,” you reply, and shudder. “I do not want to have to alchemize a second of these. The materials cost was simply obscene.”

Gulcasa nods fervently, the whites of his eyes showing all around the pupils. With that you both shut up so that you can watch your feet as you descend the too-narrow staircase.

The chamber you emerge in is wide as a cathedral, with a tall relief of the beast you expect must be your Denizen on the far wall. Even without the excited chirping of your tracker, you can tell this is your destination: Over by the far corner is the little iridescent frog that stood out in your mind’s eye like a beacon when you were picking and choosing samples last night: By far and above the best slime you’ve added to your tubs yet. All you have to do is catch it and you are home free.

You make to step into the chamber, but Gulcasa’s hand closes on your shoulder then: Warm and sweaty and squeezing too painfully.

You turn to glare at him, but he hisses your name without looking at you and points at the ceiling. You follow his finger and your stomach heaves.

There’s an underling there—at least you think it’s an underling; it’s bigger than anything you’ve yet seen in the game: Long, serpentine, flying like an old Chinese dragon, except gleaming and slimy and hideous, with more legs than a millipede. Just looking at it makes your hair stand up and your insides roil from the visceral disgust.

“How quietly do you think you can catch that frog,” Gulcasa says in an undertone, maybe an inch away from your ear.

“I don’t know,” you whisper back.

“Sprites stay up the stairs, the light will give us away in a second,” he says after a moment’s thought. “If there’s trouble I’ll be a decoy and they can back me up, I’m at a higher echeladder tier, I’ve got a better chance of lasting longer.”

You want to snap at him to not play the hero, but you hate crawly bugs, and this monster looks like something out of a horror film. “I’ll try not to need you,” is what you say, and you pad into the wide chamber with your heart giving its best jackhammer impression against your ribs.

Sneaking has never exactly been your strong point, but then you’ve never been threatened with death by flying millipede either. You do your best not to breathe all the way down—for a terrifying moment you start needing to sneeze, and when you bury your face in your sleeve and prepare for the worst, the urge goes away, something you never thought you’d be glad to have happen—and you crawl down to the shiny little frog with your sinuses rioting.

You get down on your knees and reach, but it hops away; you growl a little and shuffle on your knees after it. “Come here, you silly thing,” you exhale, and close your hands softly around its sticky sides: It flails its awkward legs and lets out a rrrrRRRIBBIT of complaint that echoes weirdly throughout the damp halls.

There’s a long hiss exactly like a horror movie monster from above. You grip the frog hard enough to make it squirm, mind gone blank from fear.

Gulcasa yells then—you jump a little and nearly drop your hard-won frog—and when you turn he’s coming boiling out of the staircase like an idiot, Siskier and your father on his heels. He’s got his oversized scythe in both hands, swinging like he’d like nothing better than to chop that giant monster up, and he’s a fool but as long as you’ve got the chance you’re going to take it. You don’t even bother to captcha the frog; you clutch it squirming against your chest and run for the staircase with your head down.

The dungeon beast coils and dives for Gulcasa, who rolls through mold and wet yuck out of the way, popping up in a whirl of red hair to slash at its too-many legs. The underling shrieks. You fight the urge to drop to your knees and cover your ears, and your side starts to hurt as you keep running.

Your foot catches and you fall, skinning knees and tearing the elbows of your shirt on the slimy stone. You squeeze your eyes shut on impact, but though the air rushes, no pain comes: Instead there’s a clang of chitinous claw against metal, and a brightness that burns your eyes. You squinch them open, and your father is there, shield upraised to protect you. This monster is so above the level of what you can handle that your sprites are apparently allowed to help.

Gulcasa comes charging, skidding along slime, spraying the ground with boss ichor in his wake as he cuts at the gigantic thing’s underbelly. White arrows sprout along the wounds in the trail he makes: Siskier, sniping from the direction of the staircase.

If you concentrate on the underling you can see that between the three of them Gulcasa and your sprites have made a nice-sized chunk in its health gauge, but it is still huge and disgusting and you like your chances not a lot. You pick yourself up on stinging hands and shaky feet, and—

This is when you realize that your hands are empty.

You whirl around with your heart and your head thumping, look ahead of you, and there pinned by a gigantic claw is your hard-sought frog in a smear of its blood and viscera, blowsack shivering.

You think that you scream; you’re not sure. All you know is that your eyes and your throat are aching and you are on your feet with pure rage coursing through your blood and your sword is in your hands.

The fight passes in flashes: Your shoulders wrenching in protest as you cut legs off, hot sticky spray on your legs, your nice loafers scraping the slippery walls as you leap for height and weight. Your father shields you from the blows you can’t take, you think; Siskier continues to shoot steadily. Gulcasa is snarling like a monster himself, reaping bits of underling like wheat.

You’re out of breath, you feel like your body is about to burst in a supernova of anger, you are about to collapse, and then the monstrous underling erupts into grist and it is over.

And the hell of it is you don’t even care. You shift Flamberge back into your strife sylladex and with your body all over shakes you return to the wall, to the circle your father and Siskier and Gulcasa are already making, and you sink down to your knees to stare at the ruined body of the frog.

“You already got the slime, so—” Gulcasa is saying, from far off.

“When I took the slime from tonight it was alive,” you say, mostly numb.

He’s silent for a long while, then: “Siskier. Light—healing—can’t I—”

“No,” she says. You’ve never heard Siskier sound that bleak. You would howl if mannerliness had been beaten into you with a little less severity, or maybe if your throat felt a little less like ground meat. “You can’t, you’re not, even if you could you’re not at that level yet, I’m sorry.”

“So it’s just—” Gulcasa struggles with the words. There is a slow dumb anger in his voice, as if he is a child grappling with the arbitrary rulings of some adult. “It’s over? We’ve made a paradox we can’t fix and it’s, we’re stuck unable to win?”

“I’m sorry,” Siskier says again.

You grit your teeth and cup the frog’s nearly dead body in both hands. It’s like a child too young snuck into a biology class’s dissection lab and decided to play with one of the specimens, except that this animal isn’t a pickled corpse, its blood and innards are slick and disgusting against your palms. You grit your teeth and close your eyes, willing Siskier to be wrong, willing something to happen, something to change, for this injustice to be overturned: This poor animal is less than a pawn in this cruel game and it never stood a moment’s chance.

Your eyes are burning with angry tears. Your palms are scalding. There is a light inside you, steady and indignant, and all the strength leaves your veins in a rush.

There’s a faint croak. You open eyes gummed half shut with sweat and grime and tears and impending sleep and sniff through the gross runny snot. The frog beneath your hands is alive, whole, kicking feebly in protest against your bloody fingers.

You captcha it automatically. There isn’t room for disbelief in you. Your whole body is sticky with unspeakable things and there is blood and bits of frog intestine stuck under your nails.

You lean forward and throw up.

Chapter Text

Somehow—by which you mean, via the grace of dummy portals hidden behind the dungeon—you manage to make it home and stagger into the shower. You may have to burn your outfit for the day. You stand naked and shivering under the hot spray of water until your nasal passages clear, til your face stops hurting and the bone-deep sensation of uncleanliness abates somewhat.

The water doesn’t get cold, so you take your time shaving your shins and rubbing shower lotion into your thighs and stomach and don’t bother to get out until you notice that your fingertips have gone wrinkled.

You set a towel out overtop your bed and just lay there and let yourself air dry. It’s good to just lie around nude, like you’ve fallen back into your old life and you are rattling around the house so unbearably lonely but also at peace, somehow. But never mind your father; Gulcasa is just a locked door away, and it’s weird and makes you feel funny and kind of bashfully angry so at length you put underwear and a new dress on. This one is soft, and the brown and cream makes you feel gentler. You tie up your hair on both sides, take a deep breath, and leave your room.

Gulcasa is rattling around in your kitchen, from which is wafting a delicious warm smell; Siskier must be down there with him because you can hear her voice. When you walk through the living room your father is there and he nods to you in greeting; you make yourself smile at him back and then you duck back through to the old lab.

You set up troughs and barrels the other day and so when you come in it’s to a chorus of happy ribbiting. You disgorge your modus of today’s new frogs one by one, sending them to play with their amphibious friends. All of them—even the shiny hardest-to-get last specimen—seem to be perfectly fine.

Really you ought to be out looking for Elena right now, and you think of poor silly blustering Leon off making a mess of things and you feel terrible, but just the thought of going back out is making your head clang. So you sigh and you head back for the kitchen.

“Good timing,” Gulcasa says, peeking over his shoulder at you. The complete ass has not even tied his hair up even though he’s cooking at the range, and you make an angry cat noise through your nose before you can stop yourself. “This is all ready—”

And he steps back from the tall stewpot to ladle a red, meaty-looking soup into the nice big bowls—who told him he could go through your cabinets, really—and set portions for two on the little square kitchen table, side by side.

You look at his seating arrangements, and you look at him, but he’s already sitting down with utensils for the both of you. “It’s not going to eat itself, you know.”

It smells too good to just walk out, even though it would serve him right if you did. So you pull out the chair and sit down and tentatively spoon yourself a bite.

You taste tomato and spices and you realize as you chew that Gulcasa has probably taken just about every single kind of meat in the house and thrown it all into the stew. There’s vegetable too—big halved chunks of canned skinned tomato, neat little rounds of baby corn, the occasional crunch of water chestnut—but mostly it is meat, meat, meat all the way down followed by more meat. There’s ground beef, chicken, pork—your third spoonful in and you realize with indignity that he’s opened up the can of good clams, that he’s gotten into your best crab lump, and what utterly incenses you beyond speech is that he has done it all justice.

“Meat,” you say finally, imbuing the single syllable with all the disgust you can muster. Your eyes are watering, it’s so hot. “What is it with you men and meat? Did you really have to empty the entire contents of my pantry and freezer?”

“I duplicated everything I took with the alchemiter, it’s no big deal,” Gulcasa replies, sounding a little defensive.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” you say, scowling. “Why all you manly types seem to make a contest out of how big a carnivore you are…”

“Yeah, well, I drink pineapple juice if it bothers Nessiah, so,” he says.

“What,” you demand, “does pineapple juice have to do with anything?”

“Nothing,” he says, but he blushes bright red, so it’s obviously a lie. You don’t know what to make of it.

“And anyway, I’ve been sick,” you go on. “So did you really have to make something so spicy?”

Gulcasa stares down at you with eyes half-closed. “What, do you really hate it that much?”

You look down at your empty bowl and then back up at him, and hold the thing out at him. “I hate you,” you say with relish. “I hate you so much. Give me more.”

Somehow you wind up eating three more bowls, and Gulcasa puts away ten, which is kind of appalling. You are probably going to be peeing acid later but his heartburn will be much worse, so you think you’ll be able to deal with it.

He’s off doing the dishes and you’re sitting on the couch when your Blackberry begins cheeping at you from inside your sylladex. You jump approximately a foot in the air and are piteously grateful that Gulcasa was not watching you make a fool of yourself, and retrieve the thing with no small amount of ire at whoever has decided to bother you.

You frown. It’s Nessiah.

 

tacticalArisen [TA] opened memo on board GRAND BLAZE

TA: I certainly hope that all of you have Internet access right now.
tenutoTiara [TT] responded to memo.
TT: Gulcasa is a bit tied up at the moment, but I expect that he’ll be along.
TT: What is it? :/
TA: We
TT: Yes?
TA: Have a bit of a situation on our hands.

TT: :O