This is the heap, a scratchpad for all the random snippets and bits that have yet to find a place.
Don't read it.
- 1 Karoliina Hämäläinen
- 1.1 trial of will
- 1.2 kikein (outing)
- 1.3 loop - god of time
- 1.4 Join the temple, investigate some murders, and generally be a drunken lout
- 1.5 Lunatic woman
- 1.6 Reminiscing on cultisting
- 1.7 Lessons
- 1.8 Arbitration
- 1.9 Wizarding
- 1.10 Random
- 1.11 stuff
- 1.12 Oath
- 1.13 Dead Agata
- 1.14 The other Coraline
- 1.15 Lost family
- 1.16 Heading to pick up material
- 1.17 Deathdealers
- 1.18 The Pampered - evening
- 1.19 Finland
- 1.20 Steel (sword)
- 1.21 This ain't even living
- 1.22 Digital
- 1.23 Before
- 1.23.1 Strange mask: Kyrule
- 1.23.2 Impromptu barkeep
- 1.23.3 Drinking and storytelling: Francis Door
- 1.23.4 Kalona - winter, four years past
- 1.23.5 Verash - spring, three years past
- 1.23.6 Verash - spring, three years past
- 1.23.7 Plains of Deluun - winter, four years past
- 1.23.8 Hadrin - winter, four years past
- 1.23.9 Winged Victory galley - summer, three years past
- 1.23.10 Soravian hills - summer, two years past
- 1.23.11 Amraeve - winter, three years past
- 1.23.12 Kalona temple - winter, four years past
- 1.23.13 Aeries - spring, three years past
- 1.23.14 Telegrin - spring, three years past
- 1.23.15 Temple at Nriya - four years past
- 1.23.16 Midnight - the Room
- 1.23.17 Temple at Nriya - four years past
- 1.24 Statue in Abaeranoth
- 1.25 To give up a name
- 1.26 Trial thing: darkness
- 1.27 Keeper call
- 1.28 Fear
- 1.29 Trials - ancient
- 1.30 Deathdealer aftermath
- 1.31 King: No time
- 1.32 Trials discussion
- 1.33 Trial: choice
- 1.34 Tyrants
- 1.35 Sword
- 1.36 Death follows
- 2 Kit et al
- 3 Vardaman
- 3.1 Something important
- 3.2 Faith in a table
- 3.3 Zombies with rocket launchers
- 3.4 Random
- 3.5 Meet in the park
- 3.6 Death and judgement
- 3.7 New god: Eapherod
- 3.8 Shrine and no mystery
- 3.9 Hells
- 3.10 Temptress
- 3.11 Escape up the river
- 3.12 Death explained
- 3.13 The mystery
- 3.14 Eapherod
- 3.15 Ariel's reactions to gods
- 3.16 Random
- 3.17 Juggling ale
- 3.18 Dead body
- 3.19 Thing with Ariel and a hole
- 3.20 Random
- 3.21 Another hells thing
- 3.22 Escape from the Hells
- 3.23 After with Kyrule
- 3.24 Retirement
- 3.25 Unreal Ariel
- 3.26 Hells plan
- 3.27 Standing
- 4 All
- 4.1 Ariel and Coraline
- 4.2 Vardaman and Coraline
- 4.3 Fuller's wife
- 4.4 Crown
- 4.5 Dead Fuller
- 4.6 Fancy last meal
- 4.7 City of Death
- 4.8 Fragments of a soul
- 4.9 Randomness
- 4.10 World's Gate
- 4.11 End of Dream
- 4.12 The Between
- 4.13 The souls within the soul, the place where they should be
- 4.14 Party info
- 4.15 Vardaman and an angel
- 4.16 More stuff
- 4.17 Avatar of Eapherod
- 4.18 Trap for a SOMETHING NOT GOOD
- 5 Misc
trial of will
hurts, ow, bad, voices screaming, midnight swirls, death of souls blah blah blah coraline on floor, Timms standing nearby, sword all bloody everything's just kind of vague, swimmy, darkness everywhere, voices chattering in skullthey're all so bright, all the trainees, white against the black. Not timms. Timms is just black. Nothing. Not there...
loop - god of time
Invocation of Eldor's Sequestration? Rite of False Walking Rite of Soul's Crucible (okay I stole that one from Cultist Sim) Khaezlan's Cessation Rite of Second ExpungementInvocation of the Medicant's Misery
Join the temple, investigate some murders, and generally be a drunken lout
Abaeranoth, also sometimes known as Abo and Waterfall City, was old, dirty, overly fancy, and utterly full of people. It was also, inexplicably, built in layers into a mountainside, right in the middle of a waterfall. Nobody who knew anything about city planning could explain the logic of this, but there were a few who suggested the answer might have been 'elves'. The elves had built it, the place had survived over 5000 years with little damage, and now here it still was. Magic was likely what was keeping the entire thing from eroding underfoot, and magic was definitely what was powering the teleporters that kept it livable, enabling passerby to jump from level to level simply by touching an obelisk.
And elves, as it turned out, made excellent brewers. After a point it became increasingly difficult to object to any inconsistencies presented in the logic.
She felt something brush by her and instinctively reached out to swat at it. It turned out to be a man, who materialised in front of her as her hand brushed his arm. He grabbed her hand and yanked her forward, and then suddenly let go, vanishing once more.
She felt... funny. Like it was raining, except there was a cramp in her chest. She noticed that the group of priests had apparently seen the commotion and were moving toward her. Why were they worried? People vanish sometimes. She'd had weirder patrons. He hadn't hurt her. Had he?
She looked down and realised there was something stuck to her chest, and everything was getting very, very fuzzy. "Oh," she said softly. This wasn't supposed to happen. Had she failed? She realised she had, and the panic filled her like the greatest of nightmares, except it was fuzzy and distant, and it was too late now anyhow. Even the magic wouldn't come, just a terrible blankness where it should have been, and a dagger where her life should have been.
Then the darkness was flooding back, full of voices. Except this time the voices were different - welcoming. Familiar, rising around her. One of them said, "Fucking batshit."
She thought she felt someone catch her.
She awoke to voices. They swirled around her, content to a roar, to a whisper, pleading and cajolling, begging and screaming and chittering. They were everything. The world. A whole lot of nothing. She had to think, to get away, to stop them, but they would not stop and she could not think, so instead she looked about in desperation and found a whole lot of some things. Some walls, mostly. Some furniture. Some objects. A couple of other objects that swirled with their own strange whispers, their own odd shadows. Souls. Mortals. The strange ones that came after. The strange ones that never were. A myth. A legend. And still the voices, yelling and shrieking and singing with madness.
One of the shadows mouthed words and they formed in the space, jostled by voices. They were torn to pieces before she could even try to read them, so she mouthed her own, told the shadows what she needed, whatever it was. She didn't know. The cacophony was too great to tell, there was only clamour and sense and what needed to be done, and so she did it, pulling out pieces from her bag and mixing them in the glass that was now before her. Vodka. Adder root. Seravos. Denna seeds. Less juice. Ghorram. A concoction that mixed to the rhythm of the voices, the voices that overwhelmed, the voices that defined the instant.
It hit her like a brick to the head. Possibly a gold brick. Possibly wrapped in a slice of lemon, possibly taken to the brain. She had no idea. Everything was just swimming. The voices were gone. The glass was empty. The men were staring at her in concern, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Gravity thought it did, but it really didn't matter either. She eyed it warily regardless.
"Whaaaah," Coraline said finally. Or something along those lines. She didn't really know. It didn't really matter. One of the men said something else, and the other responded, saying something as well. Whatever it was, it was lost on her. Then the latter was guiding her out of the swimming room into a swimming corridor and through swimming halls and everything was just gloriously fuzzy beyond belief.
Coraline's head hurt. She felt heavy. Everything felt heavy. Her body felt heavy. The blankets felt heavy. The hand on her shoulder felt heavy.
"Get up," the man in robes was telling her. "You need to get up."
She groaned, or tried to, though nothing really came out. The heaviness was immense, rather like the pain in her head. She could hardly even imagine what it would be to move. The scope of the very prospect seemed epic, a feat for the ages.
Then he was pulling her out of bed himself, and she was even helping, sort of, and then she was standing before him and he was looking at her uncertainly, and her head really hurt. The light hurt. The shadows hurt. His face hurt. Everything seemed to hurt. She closed her eyes.
That hurt too.
"Come," he said, and she realised even his voice hurt. But she followed him regardless.
Space around seemed to swim as it passed by. It still hurt her head, but swimmingly. So she stared instead at the guy's back, at the robe that rippled as he walked, but that, too, was swimming in strangeness. And that, too, hurt. She almost tried to think about what had happened, how this had happened, but the prospect of that, too, hurt. So she didn't, and simply followed.
He gave her the skull, and she held it in her hand uncertainly. She had absolutely no idea what was supposed to happen here, but clearly something was supposed to happen, so she held it up, and addressed it, "Alas! Poor Yorrick, I knew him well, Horatio, a man of infinite jest, of... er..." She looked around, then hastily handed the skull back. The keeper took it, looking rather surprised, but nodded.
Coraline stared at him blankly.
They were before an alter. Coraline looked at it blankly. It looked like an alter.
"Well?" the priest finally asked.
"Oh," she said.
"Will you pledge yourself to Kyrule?" the priest persisted.
"Sure," she said. "Why not?" Kyrule was fine. She'd not named him for nothing. Or had she? She couldn't really remember. Her head hurt too much to press the matter, anyhow.
There was an awkward silence.
On a whim, Coraline poked the alter. "Hi," she said.
Then she was surrounded by warmth, suspended in light. The pain faded away into nothing, and everything simply faded away. She found herself floating amidst nothing at all, at peace with the world. At peace with nothing. Everything was simple, clear, laid out before her.
And then it all flooded back - not the pain in her head, but the world itself; the voices, just out of reach; the room swimming around her; the alter; the mask; the priests looking on, overseeing this ritual she had probably just completely butchered.
"Holy buckets," she said.
Lunatic woman (prose)
In the simplest sense, the Zirthaad of Ord were, essentially, large mantid-like bug people, though they weren't insects, and they weren't spiders, and they weren't crustaceans, nor were they even related to anything seen on the other worlds. In fact the Zirthaad were aliens in the truest sense of the word; while humans, elves, and orcans had all developed in a sort of weird parallel across their respective universe fragments, the Zithaad had developed completely off to the side on a rather different planet, and only ran into the orcans considerably later during an interstellar colonisation mission.
They then proceeded to have a massive war with the orcans.
And they then, at the very brink of annihilating the orcans, discovered that the orcans, too, had souls.
And they then stopped and made nice and helped the orcans recover as a species and civilisation, much to the orcans' confusion.
Several thousand years later, this was all ancient history, but still, to the orcans, and now to the elves who had more recently joined them in Ord, very confusing.
To the Cerrisians, on the other hand, it was not confusing at all, because the Cerrisians knew absolutely nothing about any of this whatsoever and instead, if they ever saw one of very, very few Zirthaad who ever wound up on Cerris, generally assumed they were some sort of fae. Large, quadrupedal fae with two arms and two raptorial forelimbs, and wings, and very large eyes, and, on top of everything else, generally a full head of surprisingly mammalian-looking hair. And antennae.
The one staring down on Coraline was looking disturbingly dirty and decrepit. It looked a lot like a praying mantis. A large, dirty praying mantis with an extra set of arms, gnatty dreads, and several layers of rags, staring down at her in what, if nothing else, felt like terrified confusion.
Coraline stared back in similar confusion. If this was normal, she'd never seen one before. Had she? Where was she? Where was Agata? Her head felt like it had a nail in it, and this wasn't a hangover, or even hangover-related.
"This is not," the mantid whispered. "It is wrong. Too late." The voice was strange, buzzing, but the language itself seemed normal enough, though not one she recognised, either.
"What?" Coraline said blearily.
It jumped away in surprise, making a threatening gesture with two of its forelimbs. "Waking. Stay back!"
She was on a bed, Coraline realised, though it almost seemed more like a nest, fashioned out of rags and wadded into a corner. But there was a very definite pillow thing under her head, and some of the rags almost seemed blanketty. Maybe they weren't.
She looked back at the mantid uncertainly, not really sure if it seriously expected her to jump up and attack it when she was still basically lying on her back. "Um," she said.
The mantid twitched a raptorial forelimb at her.
"Yeah, okay," Coraline mumbled, sitting up. "Either I've been taken hostage by a giant mutant bug thing, or I just have no idea what's going on here. I'ma go with the later. What's going on here?" She directed the question itself at the mantid.
The mantid was still staring at her, now shaking its head. "Not this one. This one cannot! Cannot say the words!" it hissed.
"Um?" Coraline said again, then asked, "Are you all right?"
"No. All? Not all right. It sounds like..." the mantid clasped its forelimbs to its eyes, then covered them also with its hands, shaking its head emphatically. "No, no, not it, not the words! Not the right words, sounds like the words, feels like the words, if it could just say the words." Its voice fell almost to a whisper and it stopped. "If you could only hear what it is trying to say."
"I hear you," Coraline said blankly. The mantid's voice rang with desperation, but the whole room felt a bit of it as well. It looked like some sort of abandoned storeroom repurposed into an abode of sorts. Shelves were covered in things. Boxes were stacked as furniture. Something of a hole in the wall formed what seemed to be a makeshift oven. There was even a small trickle of water coming down one of the walls, siphoned into a bucket, allowed to overflow into cracks in the floor.
When she looked back to the mantid, it was still staring at her under half covered eyes. Its antennae were back, almost flat against its head. "What are you trying to say?" Coraline asked curiously.
"What?" the mantid said, before backing away even further until it was up against the far wall, next to the oven. "No. No, no, no. Not possible," it muttered. "That's not."
Coraline got up quickly, heading for the door, but keeping an eye on the mantid as well. It was only a little taller than she was, she realised, though definitely with far more limbs, three of which had now turned to poking the oven for some reason.
She gave it a worried look and tried the door. It opened easily, completely silently, so she poked her head outside. They were still in the underhalls.
"Do you... understand this one?" the mantid asked behind her.
"I... think so?" Coraline said, turning back around, letting the door slip shut.
"The words," the mantid said, shaking its head. "These are not... the words are broken."
"Words don't break," Coraline said. "We break, but..." she hesitated a moment, uncertain just what to do. "I understand you fine. Tell me what's wrong."
"These..." the mantid began, shaking its head, but then it stopped confused. Finally it explained, "It cannot speak words. It cannot hear them. Not the right words. Unintelligible speak. It hears people and it knows they know what they are saying, and it knows what it is saying, but they do not know what it is saying and it does not know either except it is not the right words, even in its head it is wrong. Jumbled. Wrong words. Is tries to say the words and they come out wrong. They are not right. They are not right."
"So it's the wrong language?" Coraline wondered aloud. But that didn't feel right, either. This was definitely a language. And also definitely... not, she realised. It felt like databases class.
Reminiscing on cultisting
Three hundred years ago, Coraline Henderson, then going by the name Anja Torn, had been a regular customer at the Empty Cistern, even then one of the oldest taverns in the city.
It wasn't that the place was close to where she was staying (because it wasn't), it wasn't because it had good service (because it really didn't), it wasn't because the clientelle were respectable (if anything they were the opposite), and it wasn't because the booze was good, although it actually was most of the time. The reason she went here because because nobody cared - eveyrone here was here because nobody cared; nobody cared about the law, or about propriety, or about anyone else's business. People came, they went, and they got, if not exactly discretion, a good heaping dose of apathy.
So Coraline got no trouble here walking in dressed like an acolyte of Kyrule and ordering a triple-dose of 20-stone shalott, even though it was well-known that the acolytes were not permitted alcohol. Indeed, it seemed some of the temple's higher-ups had a made a point of visiting all the bars in town to let them know, just to be clear, but they would have skipped this one.
She got the same trouble as everyone else, of course. The general suspicion, shifty-eyed watching as she passed, the curiosity of what might be wrong with her that was gone as soon as she was, but that was really it. All in all, the Cistern of the time was the sort of place where the more normal you looked, the better off you were - if you looked normal, people had to guess, and the imagination often filled in far worse nightmares than reality ever could. And aside from the robes, Coraline looked pretty normal.
The only real trouble had come the first night she was there, or might have had she responded differently.
She had been sitting at the bar minding her shalott, wondering vaguely how drunk she could safely get and still maintain her cover, when someone sat down next to her and said, "Hey, you going to stop that?"
Not even sure what she should be stopping, she looked around. Turned out someone had died, something which often happened there - a body was slumped over a table and it sounded like people were bidding.
She took this in and just said, "I don't want him."
Somehow that settled it. The guy grinned gappily at her, slapped her on the shoulder, and left. This was the nature of the place, lawless, godless, and ruled only by the order of commerce, of what people wanted. And if someone died, that was valuable.
Of course, had she really been an acolyte of Kyrule and not just posing as one, that could have presented something of a problem. The religion was very much against the mistreatement of the dead, and selling bodies very much qualified as mistreatment in their book. But she wasn't one, and in her somewhat more practical view of things, the dead were already dead. They weren't apt to care.
Nor was anyone else, there. And so, during her stay in the city of Soransie, she came to frequent the place.
As simple as a name on a board. As simple as putting it down and showing up. And then she was there. The instructor - one of many, as it would turn out - introduced himself only as Master Sos, said that this would not be a path for many, but welcome. Welcome to training.
Coraline only half paid attention as Sos ran through some basics. What the guardians were. What the guardians weren't. Principles for a fight, and for magic, and for faith. The notebook she had out in the pretext of taking notes was full of drawings, but a thought or two slipped in, and words found themselves on the page all the same. The boundary between living and dead, between fate and consequence, between waking and dreaming. These were what Deathdealers were, and others.
At one point, Sos asked if any of them had seen combat, and this was the first time Coraline had really looked up, and about, at the room. There were twenty or so of them in there, the acolytes, and a few raised tentative hands.
"Yes?" Sos said, gesturing at one of the hands to share.
"Well, um," the owner of the hand began. He looked to be in his late teens, but a bit more weathered than most. Freckles were thick across his face and arms. "We had a werewolf get on the farm, bothering the stock. Me and my pa, he tried shooting it, didn't work, but when we went at it with hoes it ran off."
Sos nodded, and indicated another to share.
This guy was taller, or perhaps he simply sat straighter. His dark, curly hair was pulled back behind his ears. "Not combat," he said in an odd accent, "but I have had training. There are moments when you do not know what will happen, even then."
"Moments, yes," Sos said. "Whether or not these moments prepare you for the real thing remains to be seen."
The dark-haired guy nodded.
"What about you?" Sos said, indicating the remaining hand, though it was well and truly down at this point.
The owner looked a bit furtive, like he'd hoped Sos wouldn't call on him after all, but then spoke up all the same. "Just... my dad," he managed.
"Your dad?" Sos enquired when he didn't continue.
The furtive guy just shook his head and tried to shrink behind his desk.
"He drank, didn't he?" Coraline said. "Lost himself and went after you?"
The guy startled, but shook his head.
"Your mum?" Coraline suggested. He didn't dissent, so she went on, "And you tried to protect her, didn't you?"
"I failed," he said.
"Maybe," Coraline said, "but if you want to know who really failed, look to your dad. Look to what put him in the position where all he had was drink in the first place. He's the one who failed, and you're going to do better."
He stared at her.
Coraline winked at him, wondering vaguely if her saying it could possibly be enough to make it true.
"And you," Sos said, now looking at Coraline. "Not many women go for this path."
"Uh," Coraline said. Sos was looking at her with a surprisingly piercing gaze. She glanced around at the room, only then noticing that she was, indeed, the only woman here. "Well," she said, "Most women just aren't pretty enough, I guess?"
Sos gave her an unamused look, though a few other chuckles occured throughout the room. "Somehow I don't think that's quite it," he said. "Why are you here?"
"Because... it didn't say I couldn't?" Coraline said blankly. Flat out curiosity didn't really bear mentioning, but of all the things she'd shown up to, this one may have had the most reason beyond that: she needed to know what she was up against.
"You're going to need a better reason than that," Sos said flatly.
"I can fight," Coraline said. "I've had training. Maybe I want to actually do something with it." That wasn't entirely true. Technically she'd been the one training others. Better with a bow than most of the town, and definitely more disciplined, she had joined the militia on the condition that she not actually fight. She had been the one to break this condition the one time the militia had been called for a real battle due to zombies, mostly out of a complete lack of any faith whatsoever in the men.
"Really," Sos said. "What with?"
"I'm proficient with a bow and staff," Coraline said. "But my specialty is guns. Ordian weapons."
"I have spoken and that is final. Shut up leave me alone I'm drinking."
Basic Necromancy was at four. It covered the general theories, and would begin practical studies in reanimation in the next few weeks. Coraline was good at theories, but the reanimation part worried her. It sounded suspiciously like magic, and she had no idea if she could actually do magic.
Not normal magic, at any rate.
Coraline had a problem with elementals. Namely with the entire concept.
They were supposed to be summoning air elementals today, but though she pointed out air wasn't really an element, the professor wouldn't listen. So she tried to think of something that was air. Oxygen? An oxygen elemental would probably burst into flame. Nitrogen? But what the hell would be the use of that? It'd be invisible. Carbon dioxide? Good way to suffocate people, if nothing else... but not exactly an element either. Hydrogen would flat out explode. Helium would be funny but not very useful.
Something radioactive, perhaps. Radon? She could give everyone cancer! Okay, maybe not that either.
She sketched out a periodic table in search of ideas. Something further up the table, something inert. Neon? Nice noble gas, and nice and colourful if given electricity... sure, why not.
So she focussed her mind on neon - atomic number 10, simple assortment of electrons, nobody cares about the neutrons - and she twisted it into the spell they'd been going over all morning, with, of course, an added electrical current thrown into the weave to make it actually show up.
There was a brilliant flash of light, and then a form of intense red appeared before her. She giggled as the rest of the class turned to look, then shielded their eyes from the red-orange glare of the neon.
"As I said," she announced to the class, "Air is not an element. This, however, is. It's neon, one of the elements that is found in air."
"Cute," the professor said, and gestured to dismiss the elemental, though when Coraline felt a bit of a rush of warm air afterwards she was pretty sure it had just exploded.
"It's not that I'm incredibly drunk," she said. "It's just that I am incredibly drunk."
"It's not like I'm worried. If I could think straight about anything I'd be worried, though."
It hadn't been the sister. It had been the sister's dog.
- three flashdrives
- bus passes
- cuddly sea-anemone toy
- two books - House of Leaves, Guild Wars Factions art book
- notebook/pad thingie
- wad of eraser - 'kneaded rubber'
- screwdriver set
- two knives
- set of upholstery needles
- pair of chopsticks
- small scissors
- extra socks
- small mask (filigree-style)
- tube of ointment
- lip colour (paint stuff and balm)
- empty metal water bottle
- bars of soap
- bristle comb
- set of small pots
- some dried food
- smoked meat
- some money (Verash currency)
- Strange coin
- xkcd sysadmin t-shirt
- huge-ass coat
...and a staff weapon. Dzang, girl, you go into the world with an odd assortment of junk.
"Kyrule of Arling Tor, I will guard you, now and always. You know I will."
"Agata..." she turned fractically back to the high priest. "I had a cat with me before. Have you seen a cat anywhere? Is she alright?"
He frowned. "No," he said slowly. "Why...?"
She looked around, trying desperately to remember. The priests were watching her curiously, but this had nothing to do with them. Something about death. Blood. One soul?
There was a knife on the alter, and she grabbed it, looked at it in momentary confusion, slashed at her other arm, and immediate dropped to the floor. "Blood of my blood," she said, drawing the sigil again on the tiles. It was almost the same as before, but not quite. This one was for the present, for renewal. For life.
"What are you doing?" the main guy cried, and jumped forward to stop her. But the last stroke was quick, and she was done before her got there, flashing the entire shape into darkness, black smoke rising and coalescing in the circle.
She was already feeling light-headed. Bad idea, perhaps. But done was done, and the shape was there. Paws, whiskers, ears. Tail. A feline smile, a weight of fluff.
"It worked," Agata purred. "You're better than my last witch."
"Agata!" Coraline screamed, and drew the cat into her arms, hugging it, getting blood all over its fur and also herself in the process, but not even caring. She kept trying to say something else, but nothing would quite come out, and just sat there rocking back and forth, cat in her arms, tears streaming down her face, blood down her arm.
"What..." someone started to say, but was interrupted by the high priest sweeping forward and covering Coraline.
"Everyone, out," he commanded, but then ammended that the main guy could also stay.
Later, after the place was cleared and Coraline had managed to calm down a bit, he mused, "So this is how you survived at all. You're a witch."
"Good witch," Agata said. "Wouldn't have done this for my last one."
"Yeah," Coraline said. "Er, sorry about your floor. I kind of panicked a bit there."
"Floors can be washed," the main guy said, "but what of everyone who saw that stunt of yours? What in the hells are we supposed to make of that?"
Agata peered at him suspiciously. "Old magic," she finally said when nobody else said anything.
"To ressurect your familiar?" the high priest asked.
"She died for me," Coraline said. "I didn't know how to face that. I could feel her gone, I just knew what she'd done, and it was too much. So..." she shook her head. "I did something?"
"Wasn't completely gone, now was Í?" Agata said. "You still knew what to do. I was the only one who ever knew that."
The other Coraline
But if I do this, what about the real one? What if it deprives some other girl out there of her birthright?
You're from Ord, right? Coraline Henderson. A peculiar name.
You don't know where you came from. Lived on the streets, hitchhiked about, eventually wound up here.
Coraline entered the room hesitantly, so much so that Faulo wound up having to pull her the rest of the way in by the hand. There were three of them waiting there - an elderly fellow who looked oddly familiar, a woman who seemed quite preocupied by the ceiling, and another guy who seemed to be some sort of guard. A cliché of a guard, at that - he had a suit, some sort of gun thing, a pair of sunglasses, and what was probably an earpiece for the ordian equivalent of a radio.
The man fixated on Coraline at once and stepped forward hopefully. "Coraline?" he asked.
She startled at the name, but managed to mostly cover her surprise. "Um," she said. "Hi?"
"It is you," he said, smiling. "How lovely you've grown, just like your mother."
She looked at him, confused. She didn't know this man. This was all just a horrible inter-universal mixup. Except the thing was, he looked like her crazy uncle Frank. Just without the long scar across the top of his face.
"I'm sorry," she said, taking a step backwards, "but who are you?" She wasn't even sure if she was playing along or not at this point. Mostly, she was just confused.
"Coraline, this is Lord Teller," Seras said. "He's your uncle."
"Frank?" she asked quitely.
Heading to pick up material
They were down to three.
They had passed all the trials. Achieved all the things. And now, standing at the end, holding their mugs, they were down to three still standing.
It was a potion, that last step that would turn them into the true swords of the god. It was just water, of course, but it was also more than water. Molecularly it could be anything it wanted, Coraline supposed. She wondered what she was doing here, what she was thinking. This was not what she was supposed to be doing, she knew that much. But at the same time, it made sense. It had made sense all the way here and now here she was standing with these two warriors who were willing to do anything for their god, to give up all the world to be his will.
All she wanted was to survive.
She clutched her mug of water-not-water closely, and the others, too, held theirs in trepidation. All they had to do was drink. It could kill them, of course, but it wouldn't, not if they were truly strong enough to be what they needed to be.
Garen smiled slightly, and Martel just looked down.
It was Coraline who drank first, first a tentative sip, then large gulps until it was all gone, deep breath at the end. The others followed suit, not wanting to be outdone, and then Garen just laughed.
"Well, that wasn't so hard!" he said.
Coraline smiled too.
"Speak for yourself," Martel said. He was almost shaking. "It's over, then?"
"No," Coraline whispered. "Now we must last the night."
She sank to the floor slowly, drifting down like a lost shawl, down down down across the tiles, her hair trailing after into a whispering puddle, the others moving to catch her as she slipped out of grasp...
Coraline was lying on the floor. It was morning. Martel was sitting up, rubbing his head. Garen moaned.
"What... just... what..." Garen said.
"Yeah..." Martel agreed.
"That was weird," Coraline said, getting up. She felt better than she had in months, stronger, more aware, the voices pushed away into the back of her mind.
"What?" Garen asked, still lying flat on his back.
Coraline opened her mouth to answer, then reconsidered. "What... happened?" she asked. "Did you dream?"
Martel shook his head, then winced again. "One moment we were all drinking, the next... floor." He spread his arms to demonstrate, and added, "Looks like we all made it. Yay!"
"I'll drink to that," Coraline said, pulling Garen up off the floor. He practically bounced.
The door to the chamber boomed open and Harrus swept in. "Well, you're all Deathdealers now. Congratulations," he said flatly. "There are those who will think you are the chosen of Kyrule, but you know that's not true. You chose yourselves. You chose this."
"Kyrule's big on choices, isn't he?" Coraline said, cocking her head.
Harrus snorted. "You'd know more than most, wouldn't you?" Then he addressed the other two, handing each a coin, "I'm proud of you, you know. Now get out there and guard the world."
"That's it?" Martel said.
"What about her?" Garen asked, indicating Coraline.
The Pampered - evening
The place Coraline wound up at was loud. It wasn't a pub, exactly. It definitely wasn't an inn. It wasn't much of a restaurant or a cafe. Mostly it was a hole in the wall that happened to to have food, drinks, and a whole lot of noise.
It was also full of smoke.
Agata just rolled her eyes. She didn't even bother commenting.
Coraline trucked up to a random guy who seemed to work there, asked if they had shalott, and when he ayed, pushed her way upstairs and monopolised a table. Then Thimble and Tress hopped on the table too, leaving no room for even anything that would normally go on a table.
Agata put her ears back unhappily.
Coraline got her shalott, and only later did it occur to her to also get food. The food wound up on top of a cat, resulting in more than a few amused looks from other patrons, and a particularly irate one from the cat.
Then Agata asked, right in her ear, "Where are you going?"
"What?" Coraline said.
"Where are you going?" Agata repeated. "Are you even planning to go on? Or are you going to do something stupid instead?"
"Everything is forbidden in Finland, or if it isn't, then it's taxed."
The thing about Finland is that, if one were to simply sit down and start describing it, it wouldn't even sound like a real county. It has seasons and people and things and glow-in-the-dark deer and giant statues of butts and tar-flavoured lemonade. It is a country where people will tack letters to the wall rather than interact with each other directly, where everyone will just stand around waiting rather than say anything when a bus driver forgets to open the doors, where personal space is not just valued, but imperative. Graffiti is short and to the point. Sarcasm and cynicism are taught in schools.
Metaphors comparing Finns to drunk, angry bears have proven effective, and general descriptions of antisocial engineers have also held quite well, despite most Finns not being, in fact, either engineers or antisocial.
One Finn explained, when asked how to approach a Finn, "You don't. You just don't."
Coraline was not necessarily an exactly average Finn, but she was also by no means unusual.
The thing with steel was that its hardness seemed to depend entirely on the carbon. If anything, the iron in it was the weakness. So Coraline had wanted a diamond sword. Just a big-arse sword made of solid diamond. Or better yet, some sort of carbon compound that was even stronger. Like... graphine or something. Because that was totally a thing.
Unfortunately Barney had thought her mad when she'd brought it up. Ambiguously more or perhaps less fortunately, this had also led to him following her around trying to sell her a sword for the better part of four months.
Now she had a sword she could scratch with her earrings, but on the other hand, she had a sword.
She drew it slightly and examined the blade, and realised Barney really hadn't been kidding when he'd said it had had her name written all over it. There, down the blade, was etched rather beautifully, 'Lyra Zidane'. An old name, now, but still a dear one, and she smiled slightly upon seeing it.
This ain't even living
You forget so much when you go digital. You forget how to cut out and store a template for a poster, how transactions are all made on location, how you have no idea at any moment what is happening anywhere else. You forget the girls they hired to manage the records, you forget the store-rooms filled with nothing but papers, the indexing systems, the boxes. You lose the uncertainty of printing, and you lose the danger of only having a single copy, because now there is never only a single copy. You forget the worth of things, and only know the worth of names.
And then you go back. And you forget how much trouble it was to guard your name, how easily things could disappear, how scary it was when your entire work could be lost. You forget the monotony, the simplicity, the boredom. You forget what it feels like to run on the road, to go south for the winter, to come home after. You forget the friends you made and never met, the things they made you feel, the things you shared with them. You forget what it's like to have fifty pens and yet find that none of them are the one you want.
And then you go back.
Back in a world of ideas, of conceptual currency and ephemeral product. A world where food is cheap and work is expensive, a world where you can hop from planet to planet in a matter of minutes and yet still see nothing new. Updates stream throughout the stars and indeed here we know it all, and yet still we know nothing, because people. People never change.
Strange mask: Kyrule
The mask was almost identical to the one she had in her notebook. Hers was a modern excuse for filigree: laser-cut aluminium. Here, intricate swirls and elaborate patterns arose out of the stone, mathematics of chaos that mostly worked out shifting in and out of focus. Only the circle at the top was empty, where the emblem should have been. The trinity.
"Who the hell are you?" she said.
"Then we'll have to come by later, get to know this new barkeep of yours." The officer nodded, tipped his hat at Coraline, and turned about and left, soldiers at his heels.
Delaroy just stared after them, panicked. "I... fuck!" He turned to Coraline, and said, "You need to get out of here. I can make up a yarn about how you fled, but you need to leave now if you're going to have any chance!"
"Wait," Coraline said, placing a hand on his arm. "Why not play it through?"
She smiled disarmingly. "What's where, what do people usually get, what sort of cocktails are popular in the area? Tell me what I need to know, and I will be your barkeep."
He looked at her incredulously. "Do you know anything about bartending at all?"
"I know how to mix flavours so they work well together. I know a good barkeep judges the appropriate shalott based on body weight and height with some sort of scaling for apparent base tolerance." He looked sceptical, so she added, "I've seen it done a few times."
Delaroy sighed. "Look, I appreciate the offer, but I can't risk it. If it doesn't work, it'd be both our heads for sure."
"I wouldn't suggest it if I didn't think it entirely doable," Coraline said. "Remember, it's both our heads on the line, mine too. And even if they buy your story otherwise, that'd still be a mark, whereas this way you come clean and get a barkeep on top. You do seem to have been looking for one for quite some time, after all."
"But..." Delaroy started, then he seemed to change his mind and shrugged. "You know what? Fine. Come on."
Drinking and storytelling: Francis Door
"Francis Door," she said.
He took a long drink. "Yeah?"
"You know the story?"
She downed her shalott and pushed the mug forward for a refill. "What do you make of it?"
He took a long breath. "Crazy shit," he said. "Damn crazy shit."
"Well," he paused, thinking. "You got this guy. A fuckin' normal guy. He loves a few things in life, his god, his work, his woman, and for them he'd give up anything. For any one of them he'd give up the others, if it came to it."
"Is that what happened?"
"Near enough. It was his wife's sister, if you can believe that. All the stories say it was his wife, what say it at all, but it was her fucking sister."
They minded their drinks. Things swam swimmily around them, objects in space. They watched, and listened, and drank.
"Some folks would do anything for family," Coraline said. "Is that so wrong?"
He stared at his shalott and tipped it randomly. "'Snothing wrong or right about it. That's just it. Just shit what happens, an' choices what don't work out. Swhat makes it all so fucked up."
Kalona - winter, four years past
High in the foothills, Kalona was walled, dead, and silent, an oasis of silence cradled amidst the snowy trees. The heavy gate was ajar, but before it were bodies: three of them, collapsed in the road, discoloured corpses frozen through, arrows protruding from their backs. No sign of the shooters on the walls. No sign why the gate would still be open, if it were so imperative that nobody get out.
Not even cawing disturbed the whispers as Coraline approached. Just silence, and the roar of the wind in the pines.
She ducked through the partially open gate and tried to take in everything at once, staff at the ready. It didn't work; instead she nearly hit herself on the head with the staff and got her foot stuck in an upturned wicker basket she'd failed to spot on the ground. She stopped and tried again.
There wasn't anyone about. No movement between the houses and workshops, though something creaked somewhere. The streets were strewn with senseless objects.
She heard a creak again, but nothing of the view had changed. Above her a banner flapped half-heartedly. She pulled the basket off her foot, searched a few of the buildings, found some supplies and no people, and few bodies. In some, it appeared as though the occupants had tried to pack up and leave, with shelves bare and tables cleared quickly, while for others it was as though the occupants had simply vanished without warning. Fires burned down to ash, tables set, food out, tools in their places.
Leaving one of the last ones, she was startled by a creak again behind her, much louder, and then realised it was the door closing behind her, simply reminding the world that it was still there. It was still a door. It still functioned.
Again she looked around. Still nothing. Detritus and nothing. Dead objects littering the cobblestones, buildings gaping at the wind. Shutters hanging open, but doors shut tight, guarding the possessions of the dead.
Then movement caught her eye. Something around the corner over there. Gripping her staff, she moved towards it, and a sheet billowed into view before catching on the ground further on.
A moment later, rounding the corner proper, she saw someone. He appeared to be an elf, but mad, crazed, a hunched figure not aware of his surroundings, scrabbling at the ground as though chasing something that was not there, shuffling forward, all the while jerking to voices that existed only in his own head.
She could almost hear them as she watched. She wished he would speak. She wished she could hear the Mad Words, to really hear them for what they were, but instead the elf said nothing as he scuttled about.
He hadn't noticed her. She moved closer, but pointed the staff at him all the same.
"Hello?" Coraline called out. "Can you hear me?"
And he just stopped. It was as though the world had stopped with him, until he turned, so very slowly, and stared at her with gleaming, hungry black eyes. He stretched out a hand, grasping toward her, and then she felt him pulling at her mind, tugging at her very being. It was the strangest feeling she had ever experienced.
Her staff went off without her even realising it, firing wildly several times, and suddenly the feeling stopped. The elf lay dead before her, claw-like hands still reaching toward where she'd been standing. One of her shots had clipped the side of his head, enough to kill him outright.
Suddenly he looked so normal.
Verash - spring, three years past
After the constant mugginess of the rest of their trip, it had been an unusually nice day.
Merrs was riding ahead while Coraline and Costa followed behind and generally utterly failed to make conversation, though a few snippets did occur. At one point she asked exactly what Merrs' deal was.
"What exactly is Merrs' deal?" were her precise words.
There was a pause while he considered the question. Then, instead of answering directly, Costa responded, "It has been my life's work to seek out and, if possible, bring forth the Light of Azorres. A chosen one who would lead the faithful, acting as a guiding star in the world of the living, out of their suffering."
They rode in silence for a moment, then it hit her like a brick through mud, which is to say very, very slowly. "Merrs?" Coraline asked. Then she added, "So he's a very holy man."
"Yes," Costa said.
"I hope he doesn't want to be a waiter," she said.
Costa gave her a look of utter confusion. She laughed happily.
"Nevermind," she said.
They'd lost sight of Merrs over a small hill, but caught sight again as they topped the rise. Now he was joined by a small group of what appeared to be bandits of some sort.
There were four of them. They seemed to be telling Merrs to get off his horse, or something along those lines. Whatever it was, he wasn't doing it, instead just sitting there, apathetically ignoring them as they shoved swords at him and yelled crudely.
"Agh!" Costa yelled, and drove his horse toward them, yelling at the top of his lungs, trying to get their attention. It only took a moment and they turned toward him instead.
"Oh, look what we have here, lads!" one of them said, probably the leader. The bandit swaggered forward as Merrs slid sideways off his horse behind him. "Reinforcements!"
"You rat bastards!" Costa screamed. Suddenly the sky was full of lightning, cracking and thundering even without clouds. Then it struck, shaking the very ground and obliterating three of the four bandits in an instant.
At the same time, the horses bolted, leaving Costa clinging for dear life in an attempt to get his back under control, and Coraline on the ground not far away where hers had thrown her.
Aside from Merrs'. For some reason Merrs' horse was still just standing there.
The last bandit, who had somehow escaped the lightning, fled.
Coraline got up quickly, grabbing her staff. She seemed to be fine, but Merrs, on the other hand, wasn't moving. As she walked toward him, she raised the staff and fired, hitting the fleeing bandit in the back. She watched the man fall without even caring, and only as she dropped to her knees beside him did a look of concern cross her face.
"Merrs?" she said, rolling him over.
He groaned. There was blood on his jacket. It seemed one of the bandits had thought it funny to poke him when he didn't cooperate.
"You idiot," she said, pushing aside a few layers of shirts and jackets to find the wound in his abdomen, still bleeding. It looked deep, but she didn't know how deep, especially with all the blood. Whatever the case, she also had absolutely no idea what to do about it - even if she could stop the bleeding, there were probably some important organs in there, and such.
So she put her hand on it, instead, because that totally made sense, feeling the blood and the heat and the sense of pain and hurt, and then there were voices rising all around her, a strange sensation of drowning in nothing, and after the screaming, only blackness.
When she awoke, the voices were still louder than they had been, more present, more constant. The crackling flames before her hissed and spit and babbled, their voices right at home amidst the rest, and she watched them dance, not really thinking, not really listening.
She realised Merrs was nearby, weaving flowers out of grass. "Costa's still trying to find your horse," he said, not looking up.
Twilight glowed off the broken clouds, mirroring the colours of the flames across the landscape.
"What..." she began, then stopped. "Oh. Are you okay?"
"No worse for wear," he said, closing his eyes. The voices drifted in and about the spoken words like fishes.
In the end, Costa never did find the horse.
Verash - spring, three years past
Coraline had always wanted magic. Through her entire life, it had been a bit of a dream, a longing, a need for something more beyond the bland, bland world to which she belonged. Eventually she'd grown up a bit and her focus had shifted to words, which were their own sort of magic - the only magic her world had - and to dreams, where it didn't matter what was real and what wasn't. But dreams ended. Worlds faded as she always awoke, and after that there were only words. Sweet, sweet, tantalising words that still left her wanting at the end, because they, too, were never enough.
So she had pushed it away, that want, that need, and she had dreamed amongst her hoarded words.
But now she was here. And here there was magic. And it was real.
She wanted to be excited. She was excited. She wanted to sing and dance and shout into the wind, but the wind was elsewhere, taking the evening off. Something about it felt off.
And that's where the uncertainty crept in. Something wasn't right, because it couldn't be.
It couldn't be real. There was no way it could be real. It hadn't happened. None of it had happened. It was just a dream. A new reality, a new world with simple answers and big dreams and strange magics... and escape.
A way out.
She was a coward. After everything, she had proven a coward. All the dreams of being strong. All the daydreams and the nightmares and the playing with swords, after the chainmail shirts and the trebuchets and the illusions of power. Even when her parents had told her, no, no, little girls are not Roman soldiers, little girls are not alien commanders, they're... well, things that exist, princesses or something, she had still wanted to fight, to take on the world, to be that elf on the elephant, leading the army into the light. And a princess too, of course, but not just any princess. But then the brick of real life had hit her, and after everything she wasn't a princess at all. Not any princess. And she couldn't handle it.
And now here she was. Playing the hero, the strong, the gal who had everything in order save for a place to belong, because in this place that she had escaped to, she could never belong. There was no way. No way at all.
It wasn't real.
Some day she would awaken only to suffer for this silly dream, as she had suffered for all the others. As everyone had always said she would, from all of those that had come before. There would be no option to simply 'show them', for there was never anything to show.
The realisation hit her like real life all over again. That horrible search for a job. That wave of despair, those months teetering on the edge, those stories and dreams and words that had kept her afloat through it all, but only barely. That final surrender before it all ended. Here she was, wherever she was, alone. Hopeless. No future at all, just useless and dreaming. Hiding behind her dreaming, but the dreaming was shallow and it could not protect her. Nothing could protect her.
She heard them now, through the silky darkness of the night, the voices of her past and present. Calling out to her. Laughing. Mocking. Wondering. They didn't even care, for she was already lost, but sometimes they wondered. Whatever had happened to Coraline? Whatever had happened to that gal down the block, that girl in Databases who had always dressed up, that barrista with the funny hair? Oh, but she had failed, disappeared, fallen off the radar, never made it anywhere, not even out her own front door. They mocked and they chattered and they questioned. Who are you, little dreamer? Who do you think you are? Did you really believe it could be true? Are you this silly, this hopeless, this ridiculous? Oh, you pathetic little girl, you, who could not even handle real life!
Voices that rose around her, shrouding like a second night, voices that called to her fears and failings, voices that reminded her of who she had been and what she had lost, voices that left no room for escape, not now, not this time. And other voices too. Others which were not her own, others which were older, stranger, but just as bereft of hope as she was.
As the blackness pulled her under, there was not even silence in its shadows.
It didn't even stop when she awoke.
Coraline woke screaming. She couldn't help it, couldn't stop. Then the others were holding her down, holding her back, gagging her, silencing here, but even still she tried to scream, scream through the cacophony, scream for silence and respite, for an end, for an escape.
And then she realised it was gone. It was over, whatever it was, replaced instead with something else, something far more real, and she finally stopped. She was alive, and free, and here, and here she wasn't alone, here there were no voices, just the wind's singing, just Costa holding her down and Merrs telling her it's okay, she's home, he won't let her go. Just her overwhelming exhaustion, just a bird calling out to the day.
She nearly choked on something in her mouth.
"Gloria?" Costa said. That was her name, as far as they knew.
She nodded slightly.
"If I take this out, you're not going to start up again, are you?"
She shook her head, and he ungagged her. She tried to sit up and had some trouble at first, but then managed it. She was so tired. She couldn't recall ever being so tired.
"The hell?" she said weakly.
"I could ask you that," Costa said. "What happened? Do you know?"
She shook her head. "How... I feel awful." Merrs sat down beside her. It was midday and the sun was gleaming with the brilliant force of spring, but though the day itself was warm, she felt cold, even wrapped in her coat.
"You've been out an entire day," Costa said, giving her some dried yam. "We found you by the trees, but when I tried to heal you it was as though nothing was wrong. Nothing physically, at least."
"Oh," Coraline said. She realised she could still hear the whispering, even now, but the specificity was gone, replaced with only the usual vague voices.
She didn't know what to say. Was this... she didn't even want to think it. So instead she chewed on the yam and stared at the ground. Nice, solid ground. Lots of dirt and rocks and little half-dead plants and bits of twiggy things.
"You almost left. Has that happened before?" Merrs asked.
She shook her head. Not like this, at least. There had been voices, of course, but the last time they had stopped when she had blacked out, not like this. This had been so much worse. And this time there had been a feeling that had come with them. A sense of space, of vastness.
"When I healed you," she said. "It was kind of like that, only not really."
"And you feel better now?" he asked.
"Better," she said. "I feel like I got eaten by a cat with a gizzard full of toasters."
"But it already happened, and now it's over." Merrs said. "Now you feel better."
"That's..." It was a reasonable way to look at things, she supposed. "Sure."
Merrs stood and helped her up as well. "Come," he said, taking her arm. "Let's walk."
It was difficult at first, as she was quite stiff and quite sore, but as they got moving she began to really feel better. The stiffness and the pain subsided. She realised she was shivering, and drew her coat tighter. But she was all right.
Costa caught up a little later with the horses and everything packed up.
It was strange going, however. The world felt wrong. Not real. Not like a hallucination, necessarily, but like how it had felt going outside after spending 40-odd hours straight in a basement staring at four computer screens working on her animation final project, getting the last bits of details in the objects, setting up the lights and camera paths, and rendering, rendering, tweaking, and rendering.
Then she'd stepped outside with it all on a CD and the real world had just looked wrong. The leaves on the trees both too clear and not clear enough, the sunlight and the shadows too bright and too dark.
This felt like that.
"Perkele," she said to herself.
Plains of Deluun - winter, four years past
When Coraline had first come through to Cerris, her hair had been different. Darker, rougher. She didn't know when it had changed, only that when she finally got a proper bath and looked in a mirror months later, it had turned almost white, bleached, perhaps, by the sun.
She had come out in wilderness, utterly alone, by a small creek with leafless trees lining the banks, and a light frost glittering on the edges of everything around, even her coat. Her bag had fallen nearby, and her staff, carried about in waiting purely for this, was gleaming in the dry brown grass. There were no signs of civilisation in any direction, only grassland beyond the creek itself, hills and grass and the bones of trees, and some low mountains in the far distance.
So she simply started walking, deciding that downstream was as good a place to go as any, with no idea where she was going, how she would survive, or what she would do for food, but simply going for the sake of going. Staying put would have accomplished nothing.
Night fell all too quickly, and she camped with fire and little else. The remains of some crackers. Some creek water she'd melted and tried to boil in her water bottle. A nagging pit of hunger that would not be sated.
Sparks rose and joined the stars when they came out, but she recognised none, so she gave the constellations names of her own, The Blob, Mr. Scruffy, Thing That Looks Almost Like The Pleiades But Isn't. But they were all wrong.
The fire hissed and cackled, whispering in the back of her mind.
And that was when the terror set in.
Hadrin - winter, four years past
After two months walking through the various wilderness, 'alone' was something Coraline had gotten quite used to. She'd figured out the staff, discovered it was a weapon, and this had kept her alive. She'd developed rituals for her days, practicing her aim, shouting into the wind, stopping to draw, to write, to read, and this had kept her sane. But still she was alone. She had no purpose, no direction, nothing, just a vague promise to live, and a vague hope that out there, somewhere, if she just kept going, would be something. Anything.
And then something had shown up in the form of a small shrine poking out of the forest growth, so old and decrepit it had looked like nothing more than a piece of cliff, blocks of stone tumbled down from high above. But then she'd seen the order behind it. The care with which the stones had been cut and placed. The opening that could be nothing else but a doorway.
The voice emanating out of it.
"Come closer," it said. "Come inside." The tones were rough, uneven, and there was something utterly unnatural about the voice, like from a poorly calibrated speaker system.
"Why should I?" she asked it uncertainly. "What... you should show yourself, first. Come out."
"I can't come out," the voice said. "I have been trapped here for what feels like an eternity, and there has been no one, nothing, to sate my boredom. But you, now you're here. I can offer you so much, for so little."
"Well, what are you, then?" Coraline asked.
It laughed, strange and rolling, but the joy and the mirth behind it seemed oddly sincere. "I am a god, little wanderer, trapped in place and time. Alone."
"In a... little building?" she asked, trying to peer inside without actually getting too close. It just looked dark, though, and smelled of forest.
"Left alone and forgotten when the old ones left the world," it said. "Just a voice in the wind, with none to hear. But you can take me. You can return me to the world, return me to those who could hear me, see me, know me. I will go unheard no longer, for together we will be more powerful than anything!"
"Really?" Coraline asked. "And why would I want that?"
"Just imagine the power, all yours," it said. "Just come inside."
Coraline sat down on the ground in front of the entrance instead, pulling off her backpack. "You seem to be oddly obsessed with power," she said. "Why is that?"
"All desire power," it said. "And I have it! I just cannot use it."
Coraline finally found her torch and shone it inside, illuminating the far walls, dirty ground, bits of rock and dirt, a pile of leaves. Some animal bones. Some sort of worn down statue. "Is that you?" she asked, shining the beam on the statue.
"Yesss," the voice breathed. "I am Maracor, Spirit of Decay."
Coraline raised an eyebrow at the state of the shrine. "Appropriate," she said.
"Take my statue, and I will be with you always, my power yours," Maracor said. The dried leaves inside swirled about, drifting out of the shrine across the forest floor.
Coraline plucked one out of the air as it drifted past, and spun it about in her fingers, and said, "And what if I don't want your power, Maracor, Spirit of Decay?"
"ARGH!" Maracor screamed, and a large gust blew out with it, full of rotting stink and leaves and flies, reaching for Coraline, full of rage and fear and a horrible feeling of death.
She jumped away, scurrying back into the woods away from the shrine, but the wind dissipated almost immediately, the feeling of death fading with it.
"Hah!" she yelled triumphantly back at it. "You don't have any power! You can just stay there!"
It screamed after her again as she resumed her path, and then she was alone once more.
Alone with the whispers in the leaves, the voices in the wind's singing, the murmurings in the river's flow.
Alone with the screams piercing the night as the flames of her campfire cackled and spit.
Alone with the shapes flickering and dancing in the shadows of the day.
Winged Victory galley - summer, three years past
Coraline didn't really know where the ship was headed, let alone where she specifically was headed overall. She'd simply needed to be out of there, away from Telegrin, to comply with the one imperative that had kept her alive so far - to keep moving - and so she'd taken the first job she could get on a ship leaving port. It had wound up being a cook's position on the Winged Victory. They'd made a small fuss about her being a woman and a slightly bigger fuss about her not really having any relevant experience, but they were also on a tight schedule and she made a convincing argument.
And now here she was, manning the kitchen, or whatever they called it, chasing away rats, cooking up giant pots of various quasi-edibles, rationing food supplies with maths she had never thought she would actually use.
For their part, the folks who had hired her were quite impressed.
Coraline just hoped they would make it to wherever it was they had said they were going, and if anything did go wrong, her maths would cover it.
She was peeling some dried meat when a man burst into the kitchen.
"Uh... you're not supposed to be here," Coraline said, and waggled her rather large knife at him. She didn't recognise him, which was a little odd; most of the men had taken considerable effort to cozy up to her.
"Please, help me!" the man said. "Quickly, you need to hide me!"
"Uh..." Coraline said, not quite understanding. She did? Why? What?
He stared at her insistently a moment longer, and then jumped past, scrambling about, trying the cupboards, opening up the storage.
"Hey!" Coraline yelled indignantly and jumped at him with the knife, blocking his passage before he could mess up the entire kitchen.
He stopped, uncertainly, eyeing her and the knife.
The door burst open and several of the crew rushed in, grabbing the guy, restraining him even as he fought back.
"It's all right," one of them told Coraline. "You're safe now."
"The hell is going on?" Coraline asked as they left, hauling the still-struggling man away.
"Stowaway, ma'am," one of them said. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"
Coraline shook her head. Not her. Her shelves, on the other hand...
Later, the crew bound the man, stabbed him, and tossed him overboard. He screamed, all the while, for mercy.
"Oh," Coraline whispered.
Soravian hills - summer, two years past
The giant was hard to miss. It wasn't just the fact that it towered over the countryside, easily a few dozen metres tall. It wasn't the sheer overwhelming loudness of the bloodcurdling yells or the very ground itself shaking as it stomped about. It wasn't even the terrified farmers fleeing in every direction at its passage.
The particularly hard thing to miss about it was the smell. It was a putrid, sickening smell that rolled off in waves like horrible giant babies, and continued to roll at distance, over the rolling hills, past the various trees, even across the late spring breeze.
Coraline hadn't exactly been hurrying up to this point, but now she almost stopped, covering her nose and staring, trying not to breathe. She was reasonably sure giants, even the ones with the worst hygiene ever, were not supposed to smell this bad. "The buckets?" she said to herself, watching it in the distance. Was it sick with something?
There still wasn't any sign of the adventurers she'd sent out after it, meaning unless they'd gotten lost along the way - something she wasn't about to discount as a possibility at this stage - they were probably about at the giant by now. This was a little worrisome, since the reason she'd gone after them at all was because ten minutes after they'd left she'd actually read the bounty description and realised there was basically no way they were actually up to the task.
Staff in hand, she broke into a bit of a jog.
The adventurers were at the giant. More specifically, the giant was at a silo, poking it repeatedly with a giant stick that looked suspiciously like the better half of an uprooted tree, and the adventurers were nearby, trying and failing to get its attention.
There were four of them, altogether. One was throwing fireballs, to little effect. Two had bows out and were sticking the thing with arrows, to similarly little effect. The fourth was hanging a little bit back, starting to look a bit worried.
Two of them seemed to be yelling. "Oy, pea-brain!" one said.
"Over here, fuckface," another yelled.
Coraline, still a good ways away, stopped to watch in the shadow of a line of trees at the edge of a field of some sort of grain crop.
The ineffective yelling and projectiles went on for a bit. The giant was looking a bit singed and prickly on a side.
It continued to poke the silo.
Coraline aimed her staff at the giant, looking down its length, wondering if it would even shoot that far, and if it could, how the distance or breeze or whatever might affect its trajectory. She also wondered what it was the staff was even shooting - potential energy? Blasts of plasma? Pure magic? Something even weirder? Even now all she really knew was that it, well, shot. Variably.
A bit later, the mage with the fireballs had managed to set the giant's head and shoulders on fire, and it was getting particularly frantic in its pokings.
Then the silo fell over.
One of the adventurers put his bow away and ran at the giant with his sword drawn, his head angling further upwards the closer he got. Then, a few metres away, when he was looking almost straight up, he suddenly thought better of it and turned around and ran away instead.
Coraline snorted with amusement.
The other three adventurers were starting to back away as well.
The giant finally looked down, noticed the lot of them, and stomped on the nearest one. Another fled, and it started after that one, while the other two started casting.
Realising the group really didn't seem to have anything on the giant and were apparently all about to be smashed by really stinky feet, Coraline started running toward them, firing the staff when she had line of sight. Mostly she missed. A few blasts hit, but didn't seem to phase the thing any more than the fireballs had.
Lightning struck the giant just as it crashed past the casters, sending one flying with a swipe from its tree-stick.
Still running, Coraline upped the force of the staff, and the next blast that hit the giant punched a large hole through its torso. Several others sailed vaguely into the wispy clouds, punching holes in those instead.
The giant, even despite the hole, kept going a few more thundering strides in the direction of the still fleeing other one.
Coraline was reasonably close now. Realising the giant was about to fall right on top of the guy, she yelled, gesturing wildly, "Left! Left! Go left!"
For some reason the guy turned right, instead, but this did the trick regardless and he managed to narrowly avoid the giant as it thudded to the ground behind him. He didn't avoid the resulting shockwave, but though it knocked him over almost immediately, he was already getting up, turning around to stare at the huge mound of putrid flesh, as Coraline came to a panting halt behind him.
For a moment she just stood there, trying to catch her breath.
The guy didn't even seem to notice her. "Did we... is it... dead?" he asked.
"Is this what you people do?" Coraline said incredulously, though the effect was slightly ruined by her stopping for breath three times in the middle of the sentence. "Run into things with no actual plan and get yourselves killed?" Again, she stopped for breath several times in the middle of the sentence.
"Er," the guy said, turning around. "What?"
"You..." Coraline began, then just held up a finger for him to wait while she resumed trying catch her breath. Then she gave up and just lay down on the ground, instead, really wishing she'd bothered, at any point in her entire life, to actually get into a shape that was not 'lump'.
"Wait, aren't you... weren't you the innkeeper?" the guy said.
From the ground, Coraline flashed him a weak thumbs up. "Captain Obvious, is it?" she said.
"Um... what, how..." he began, then asked, "How did it... you didn't... did you?"
"Oh, you were captain of the speech team, too," she said sarcastically. "Great."
The guy just stood there, confused.
"Dude, check your friends," Coraline said, and then continued to lie there, before muttering to herself, "Hyvinvointini on vaakalaudalla."
She finally pulled herself off the ground again when the screams started, for once not voices in her head, but real, audible voices, bouncing off the objects of the world and echoing back even more horribly than they went out. She grabbed her staff on the way up, using it for the final push, and almost didn't even succeed. She felt like a pile of limp noodles, she was so utterly exhausted. How was she so exhausted? She hadn't even gone that far.
She looked back at where she'd come from and realised it actually had been pretty far, and over a small hill, and at a dead run the entire way.
Then she looked at the giant and realised just how very big it was in person and took an involuntary step backwards, almost falling over again.
"Voi paska," she said, and wobbled in the direction of another scream - very coincidentally the same direction as the casters and the guy who'd been running away.
The screaming one was bleeding from several bones not being entirely on the right side of his skin, and overall a lot of his body just didn't seem to be quite the right shape. Running guy was squatting over him, waving his hands ineffectively and apologising, clearly with no idea what to actually do.
Coraline went to the other one, who appeared to be unconscious, first, largely because, due to being unconscious, this one was being a lot less annoying. Putting a hand on his forehead, unconscious guy seemed to be mostly fine, just something a bit out of balance with his head. Logic side of her brain said this was probably a concussion, but she had a quick go at smoothing it back into balance with her magic feels before getting up and trudging even further away from screaming guy, toward the other one, the one who had been stomped on. Even though stomped guy had been wearing rather heavy plate armour, she rather expected him to just be dead, but dead was easier to deal with than screaming.
As it turned out, stomped guy wasn't dead at all. Instead he was half-buried in the ground with a huge dent in his breastplate where it had practically folded in half.
"Hey," he gasped at her as she approached. "A little help?"
"Well, huh," Coraline said, plopping down next to him. "So armour works."
"Yeah," he said, still sounding quite shallow. He seemed to be having trouble breathing.
Coraline frowned and had a go at figuring out how to get the breastplate off properly, then just gave up and sawed through the leather straps with her knife instead. As soon as it came off, stomped guy tried to gasp for deep breaths of air, but then he made a pained squeak and started wheezing instead, blood oozing out of a large gash under where the dent had been.
"Er," Coraline said, and quickly healed the gash, and, as it turned out, a perforated lung underneath.
Immediately stomped guy started breathing normally.
"You're going to have to dig yourself out," Coraline told him as she pulled herself up again. The voices were getting a little louder again, but they still had nothing on her physical exhaustion.
"I can do that," stomped guy said. "Thank you."
Finally she dragged herself back toward screaming guy.
Screaming guy was still screaming, still horribly broken up, and looking rather smashed. It seemed to mostly just be an arm, some of his torso, and his legs, which explained sort of why he wasn't dead, but given that something about his spine also seemed to be a bit weird, it only sort of explained it.
Running guy looked up at her pleadingly.
Coraline sighed heavily and collapsed back to the ground next to them, put a hand on screaming guy's chest, felt the horrible brokenness inside him, every single piece of it, every bone, tissue, tendon, the nerves severed and twisted, and through it all, so much pain. Behind it all were the voices, strange and distant and alien, but another, too, closer, lost, confused, pleading for escape, for an end, something, anything.
"Oh, shut up," she said.
Somehow both voice and screaming did, almost as one.
"You," she added, addressing running guy, "put his bones back so they're in the right shapes." Technically she didn't think that was actually needed, but it seemed like it might help. Or, if nothing else, it might finally knock screaming guy out completely due to overwhelming pain. Or something.
Running guy did his best, straightening arm and legs, nudging screaming guy's limbs, and then knocking the spine even more out of whack.
In the meantime, screaming guy started screaming again.
Coraline sighed again and then just had a go at throwing everything all in and fixing the guy outright.
The voices exploded around her in a horrible pandemonium, surrounding her, pulling her away from the world. For a moment, she wasn't really anywhere, simply overwhelmed in voices, screaming and cajoling and whispering madness and horror, and she felt almost as if she were floating even as the barriers of her mind and self dissolved away before the onslaught.
And then suddenly she was somewhere else, standing on that rocky, shadowy plain, under that green, glowing sky that was never quite the same, not quite seeing, not knowing anything at all. This was her, but it wasn't. She didn't know.
The thunder shimmered through the space, and pebbles jangled. There was no silence here, only voices, voices, voices, but here they were so solid and so real that they didn't even matter, and she simply put them aside, focussing instead on the oddly familiar figure before her. A man, small, lost, and slightly transparent.
"I'm sorry," he was saying. "I think I'm lost. Do you know where we are?"
"You're dead," she told him. Her voice was different, stronger than she was used to, older, stranger, and she didn't quite recognise herself saying it. "This is the realm between worlds, between dreaming and waking. But you have a choice. You may go back, right now, or you may continue on."
"I don't know," he said fearfully. "What do I do?"
"Go back, then," she told him. "Have yourself another try."
He frowned, confusion spreading across his insubstantial face, and then suddenly he was gone.
Coraline smiled to herself, except she wasn't Coraline at all, and she watched as the other souls rose around her, passing, always passing, as they had for an eternity, and would continue on for as long as it took...
The strange, strange feeling that had accompanied all of this faded to a half-forgotten memory as she woke up, and then she couldn't place it at all. Her exhaustion was flooding back, the overwhelming power of the voices filling her consciousness, the sun beating down on her skin with surprising, even excessive, warmth.
"Hey, hey," someone was saying, "Are you all right? What happened?"
"Booze," Coraline said weakly.
"Er, what?" the guy said. This was running guy.
"Give me booze," Coraline said.
There seemed to be some confusion at this, and then someone, apparently unconscious guy, handed her a small flask. She popped the top and took a few swigs of what turned out to be surprisingly good whiskey, and lay back in the fuzzy warmth as the voices faded into the periphery.
Amraeve - winter, three years past
Coraline had needed information, and finally, after coming to Soravia and hitting the first real library she'd seen on this whole book-forsaken planet, she had found something. She'd kind of had to steal it as part of what had turned out to be a surprisingly convoluted library heist, of course, but as far as she could tell, it had worked.
Coraline's plan had basically boiled down to 'wing it'. She hadn't really known what she was after, she hadn't had any concrete reason why they should give it to her once her research had boiled it down to a single, highly-restricted candidate that had just happened to reside in this library, and she certainly hadn't actually expected the mask to work, but here she was, leaving the library, wearing a pair of sunglasses with an overly ornate aluminium mask wired to them, holding a book of stories. It was titled The Heresies of Kyrule, and it was full of secrets.
The problem was, now there seemed to be a bit of an angry mob outside.
Coraline glared at the mob. They filled the street, carrying torches and swords and crossbows, and, as far as she could tell, no pitchforks.
There was a guy riling them up just in front of her, taking advantage of the height added by the stairs up to the library doors, but his back was turned and he apparently hadn't heard her come out.
"And the dogs think to take our lands?!" he was yelling. "Coming and going with their secretive ways and their dark texts! We must put fire to their darkness..."
As the crowd yelled enthusiastically, something clicked in Coraline's head.
This was a library.
Immediately she stomped up, and, with all her strength, clobbered the guy over the head with the book. It was a heavy tome, bound in what seemed to be wood, and it made a very satisfying CLUD on impact.
"Hmph," she said as he crumpled before her.
The crowd, a few hundred strong, a random mix of peasants, soldiers, and guards, went eerily silent.
"I dunno who the hells you lot think you are," Coraline yelled at them, "but you are not touching this library."
There was some laughter from the crowd, then someone said, "You gonna stop us, little lady?" A few cries of "Yeah!" and "How you gonna do that?" echoed after. Someone threw a bottle, and a few others threw rocks. A couple started advancing with weapons, though they did so slowly, threateningly, as though trying to simply drive her back more than anything else at this point.
Coraline just yelled, "Watch me!" and pulled her staff over her head with her spare hand, nearly knocking off her sunglasses in the process. Then she thudded the bottom of the staff against the ground and fired a single large burst into the sky, which unfolded into the shape of a giant, brilliant phoenix hanging overhead, throwing golden light down on everything in sight, casting dark shadows on everything else.
In light of this, the crowd, appropriately awed, stopped being so threatening. A lot of the folks even backed up a bit in fear.
After a long moment, it faded away, leaving only a few trickles of smoke and a strange blue afterimage in its place.
"Now you listen here," Coraline yelled at them. "This is a library, not some dark place of evil. Libraries are the most important thing a society can build, because libraries are how you remember what has already been done, and how you learn from it and do better in the future. It's how you pass on what you know to your children, and your children's children!"
The crowd mumbled apologetically.
"If you destroy a library," Coraline went on, "you might as well be cutting out your own tongues. It's not dark evil you'd be burning, but your own history, your own voices!"
Someone threw a bottle at her.
Coraline growled, and then, pointing her staff in the direction the bottle had come from, started screaming in Cthulhu tongue.
At this point most of the crowd fled in terror, not even waiting to see the results.
She trailed off, looking at the remaining folks irritably. They seemed largely to be a single cluster of a few dozen soldiers, with a few other random stragglers scattered around the street. Lacking any goats, or even goat skulls, she was basically out of the normal things to do to head them off.
Then something large, white, and feathery fluttered down next to her, almost, but not entirely, unlike a giant cowled bird, sort of humanoid, orcan-sized, with six massive wings outstretched. Coraline felt the breeze as one of the wings positioned itself behind her.
"You have heard the messenger," the thing intoned in a voice like singing winter. "Go, and bring no harm to this place."
Coraline, meanwhile, tried to look like this was all perfectly normal and that she had totally planned this and everything. Obviously. She was a librarian, after all. They had arsenals.
The random stragglers needed no more convincing, but the group of soldiers hesitated uncertainly. A couple seemed to be arguing with each other.
"Leave," the thing said again, but this time the command was full of power, compelling them to do so, giving no room for dissent.
When the last was out of sight, Coraline turned on the bird thing and demanded, "The crap are you supposed to be?"
It folded its wings and turned, ever so slightly, to regard her from under its hood. "I am an angel, in the service of Kyrule."
"Oh," Coraline said. Er. Perkele?
"You have done well, messenger," the angel went on. "You could have allowed events to unfold, however here we stand."
"I am a librarian!" she said indignantly. "I will not stand idly by when any collection is threatened, not when I have the power to do something about it!"
"And you need not stand alone."
"Oh, really?" Coraline responded, starting to get a bit genuinely angry, getting right in the angel's face, or as near as she could when the thing was almost a metre taller than her. "I've stood alone with everything else so far. When the voices came, I was alone, when the darkness came, I was alone, when I lost even myself, still, I was alone. Hunters and priests have tried to kill me, and the only friends, the only help I've ever gotten, came from madmen and bartenders and people who didn't know what I was, but they never had any answers, either, just... nothing!"
The angel stared down at her with what seemed to be entirely too many eyes, but Coraline was just getting started.
"I've been running for almost two years," she went on, "resorting to nothing more than stinky vodka and chance and half-baked plans to achieve anything, and while it may have worked so far, it won't keep working. If I don't get somewhere, this will all catch up and you will have yourselves another outbreak, and there will be no coming back from this, no isolate towns, no remote villages, but major urban centres, trade routes, and before you know it, a whole world up in smoke!" At some point she'd reverted to Finnish, but she didn't even care.
"That's what I've got hanging on my shoulders, all of that, and yet only now you come, when I'm impersonating a bloody messenger? Fuck you," she said, pulling off the mask. "Fuck you with a cactus."
And then she just turned and left.
Kalona temple - winter, four years past
Coraline entered the temple slowly, shining her torch and staff ahead of her and peering inside before entering entirely.
Nothing moved. The space was still, all still, a shine of dust illuminated by colourful windows and torchlight alike. In it were shapes, forms not quite right. Shapes she couldn't see, of pews, lined up and proper. Shape of an altar up front. Shape of a statue behind it, bathed in light, drawing the eye away from the death. A female figure, solitary, one arm forward and one arm back, a look of joy on her face. She didn't fit.
Coraline walked slowly down the aisle, shining her torch into the gloom, but passing the faces by. The statue was the important thing.
Again, movement drew Coraline's eye. A woman by the altar, stepping out of the shadows curiously, confused. The woman's clothes were dirty and torn, but from her attire, she seemed to be some sort of priestess. She didn't fit.
The woman said, "You... you're alive. What are you doing here?"
Coraline hesitated, and stopped in the aisle, still a couple of metres away. "I... I don't know. What happened here? Is everyone...?" She trailed off. The words felt odd, as though they were the wrong ones, as lost as she was. As lost as this whole place was. And there were so many questions, and yet she didn't even know enough to ask.
"Dead?" The priestess finished, grinning. A moment later the grin was gone.
"What?" Coraline said.
The priestess gestured for Coraline to come closer. "Come," she sighed weakly. "It's too late. Where do you come from, the outliers?"
Coraline shook her head. "Further off. Everything's just smoke, ashes, there..."
"So it is. The lands have fallen," the priestess said. "It's the world's end, and nobody will remember. Just the end."
"What happened?" Coraline asked again.
The priestess ignored her and looked away into the gloom. Coraline watched her carefully. The place was warm and dark and there was something wrong, horribly wrong, but she couldn't quite place it.
A moment later, Coraline was standing behind the altar, over the priestess' body, panting for breath, knife in hand. There was blood everywhere. So much blood.
And then the voices were there, really there, loud enough to hear, rising around her, whispering, taunting, cajoling, screaming in her mind, a roar of echoes rising into a cacophony. Her skull felt as though it might explode, and amidst the solid roar she was losing herself, everything she was and had, before blackness finally pulled her into its welcome embrace, not even waking.
Aeries - spring, three years past
They kept taking her for a wizard. Coraline had finally gotten to a town with people, real, normal people, humans and elves alike, and they kept taking her for a wizard.
For the most part, it was pretty neat. There was a general sense of wonder and curiosity everywhere she went, kids kept following her around asking her to make their siblings disappear and prying for stories, and to her face, the folks were all quite polite. There were a few things, though. Slammed doors as she went by. Parents trying to keep their kids away from her. A bit of fear, underneath everything else, as Coraline got supplies and cleaned out her bag and generally asked a whole lot of questions of her own.
She wound up in the local inn at the end of it, but here, at least, all the attention was elsewhere when she came in. Something going on in the corner, with a bit of a crowd of folks gathered around, complete with periodic booing and cheering.
Curious, Coraline went over to check it out as well, pushing her way through the crowd, only to find the focus to be two men across a table from each other with a deck of cards. One appeared to be a local, the other not so much - he wearing relatively fancy, though tattered, clothes in a style that looked almost greek. But it was his eyes that stood out the most. They were golden and mirrored, even stranger than any she'd seen on the elves so far, or indeed on anything living.
The local placed a card face-down in front of the outsider with the eyes, who turned it over. A duck. It even said 'a duck' in large, oddly shifting, letters at the bottom, just in case the image was unclear.
The crowd booed. Coraline looked around at them in confusion, but nobody paid her any mind.
The outsider took the deck, shuffled it, and placed a card in front of the local, who likewise turned it over. A frog in a dress.
Coraline raised an eyebrow.
The crowd nodded a bit at this.
A few more rounds went on, with some impossibly coloured seasons, a traveller, and a dead end that seemed to be nothing more than an enormous mass of tentacles, amidst varied responses and a fair bit of murmurring. Coraline was starting to lose interest, and moved to push her way back out of the crowd, when everything suddenly went horribly silent.
The card on the table was Death. It was a Grim Reaper, though masked like the skull on her coin, complete with bony grin and tattered robes and vicious scythe, and the label said simply 'Death'.
"Death," someone helpfully whispered near Coraline. She nodded sarcastically as they waited for a response from the table.
"Good," the outsider with the eyes said finally. It seemed the card had been dealt to him.
"No," the dealer said. "That's not good."
The crowd was shuffling now, clearly uneasy about something.
"Why not?" Coraline asked, pushing forward entirely and picking up the card. The dealer flinched away, but the outsider just turned his strange gaze on her, staring at, and almost, it seemed, even through her. "The Death card needn't necessarily mean 'death' at all," Coraline went on, "simply change and possibility, a transition from one state to another. The end of how things were, but a new beginning, of how things may and shall yet be."
Everyone just sort of stared at her.
"But that's just one interpretation, of course..." she added quickly. Or so she hoped; she had no idea what this game was supposed to be.
"Death is death," the dealer said.
"We who were living are now dying, with a little patience?" Coraline suggested.
"Yes," the outsider said, staring at the card in Coraline's hands.
"No," someone else in the audience said, much more forcefully.
"Oh." Coraline looked around. "So... what, then?" she asked, losing all her momentum.
A rather wild-haired man pushed his way through the crowd. He was dressed in similar, though less tattered, garb to the other outsider at the table. "You know what?" he said, hauling his companion out of his seat, "We were just leaving."
"No, I don't think so," the dealer said, also rising.
"No?" the man said warningly.
Coraline pulled her staff over her shoulder.
The dealer shook his head, giving the outsider with the eyes a long look. "No," he repeated, reaching for something in his pocket. "This man is condemned. Whatever his crime, we should see the sentence through."
Without even thinking, Coraline hit him over the head with her staff. It just seemed the thing to do.
The guy slid to the floor.
There was an alarmingly long pause, full of even more deathly silence.
A moment later, the crowd had exploded into utter chaos. Fists were flying every which way, brawling breaking out, grabbing and kicking and yelling and screaming. Coraline tried to dodge the bulk of it, to get out of the middle, pushing away at everything nearby and using her staff as a pry bar, but someone elbowed her hard and she nearly got trampled right there. Then someone else grabbed her and started pulling her in another direction, so she tried to hit him, instead.
"Hey! I'm not your enemy!" the guy yelled in her face, and she realised it was the other outsider, and stopped, confused, just clinging to her staff instead. He was attempting to haul his odd-eyed companion out, too, but the other guy wasn't even helping, so Coraline started swinging at everyone in front of them instead.
When they burst out into the sweet cool air behind the inn, the guy turned to Coraline, said, "I'm Costa, this is Merrs, and you should probably come with us."
"Er..." Coraline said.
Merrs stared vaguely off into space.
"Wait here," Costa said, and hurried off toward the stables, leaving Coraline with Merrs.
Coraline stared at him experimentally.
Merrs didn't say anything, instead turning vaguely away. He started as if to head off in what appeared to be a completely random direction, but then Coraline grabbed his sleeve and he stopped.
He looked tired and vacant, but more than that, he just seemed lost. Utterly, hopelessly lost.
Then Costa was leading three horses back, shoving the listless Merrs onto one, and shoving Coraline onto another, and then quickly thrusting her staff back into her hands when she dropped it as a result.
"Um," Coraline said, but then realised she didn't actually have anything to say, and that wherever this led, it couldn't be any worse than where she had been going.
Then Costa jumped into the saddle of the third, and, holding onto the leads of the other two, brought the three horses to a gallop around down a muddy track out.
Coraline wasn't entirely sure how to feel about this, but on the other hand, hey, free horse. Or something along those lines; she wasn't entirely sure how to feel about that, either.
For whatever reason, she still had the Death card.
Telegrin - spring, three years past
It had come on so innocuously in the days after Merrs and Costa had taken the ship south, leaving Coraline back to her own devices.
At first she was fine. The odd whispering, a few murmurs here and there, but still generally out of sight, out of sound, and out of mind.
Then something changed. The voices returned in force. They came as an onslaught, pouring in, beckoning, begging, screaming, asking, crying, shouting, an endless roar of a whisper, the torrent of a thousand waves all crashing at once. And she heard them all so clearly, so plainly, so many, with no black to shelter her, no void to welcome her. There was no escape, no solace from the torment, simply more, and more, and more.
She lost herself in it, lost track of her surroundings, her intent, and everything she was and wanted. There was only room for voices, voices, voices. Speaking out of the shadows, out of loss.
Only blackness, and no silence.
If only there were silence amidst the madness. But there was none; there was only madness and more madness, voices, and no silence.
If there were sound and also silence, a respite, a sanctuary against the sound.
If there were the silence only distance, alone, without the sound, the sound of the voices, thousands, tens of thousands, never stopping, never ending...
But there was no silence.
A shadow stopped her, bright against the black, adding voices to the voices, louder and louder. She needed to move, to flee, to escape the silence. She needed silence amidst the voices, stillness amidst the rock, but there was none, no silence, no stillness, and still, the shadow would not move.
"This is a mugging," the shadow said, a voice with words lost amidst the words, so many words, so many fragments, all pieces, bits and empty pieces. She didn't understand. She tried to tell them she didn't understand, that she couldn't, that this wasn't, but she didn't know. All there were were voices, and no knowing, only voices and more voices.
And a shadow.
The shadow was so silent, it needed more, it needed the voices, it needed to be welcomed into the dark, the real dark, the rock, the
The voices told her.
So she ate it, and then there was no more shadow, no more bright, no more silence.
She knew nothing. She was no-one. The wind. A whisper and a shadow.
The world was not real.
Others passed her by, but they paid no heed. They were not real, and nor was she. Only the voices stood out, in their shout and their roar and their reverberation against the shadowy, flimsy backdrop of the world she saw with eyes that were not there. It was nothing.
Only the rock and the shadow, the sky washed by the whirl of voices, so many souls that passed through, so many voices, shouting, shouting, always shouting and never heard. They were meaningless, and still they shouted, because they did not know, they could never know, but they were only the cicada, they were only the whisper, and yet they whispered on.
Only voices. No end to the voices, just voices shouting, voices pleading, voices lost without even hope to carry them on, but still echoing even now, for there was no hope here, only nothing, only echoes, always echoes. This was the place of echoes, where echoes were only all. Only echoes. Nelanor. Echoes.
They pleaded, the echoes. They called. They whispered secrets and shouted legends, for it was all they knew, and amongst the echoes there was nothing, only nothing. If only there were something amidst the nothing, no abyss, no great shadow, no deep darkness that loiters below, only something, a shadow of the world, but something, then. Something to support the voices, the echoes, the shadows.
But there was only nothing.
She was in a place. She didn't know how she had gotten there, or what she was doing there, or even, for that matter, much of anything at all, but this was a place. Some of the whispers had mentioned places, but as they whispered on, the places faded.
Everything faded. Everything was lost in the whispers, in the shouting, in the din.
There was a cup in front of her. A singular voice, quieter and yet somehow louder than all of the others, said, "You look like you could use some shalott."
She looked at it. Rock, part of her thought, staring at it, and then, before she knew what she was doing, that part of her drank it. Amidst the voices she didn't really notice. There was nothing to notice.
It was later. It was clearly later.
And there was only silence.
She was Nelanor. Nelanor looked up. "It is what the thunder said," she said.
"Sorry?" the barkeep asked.
She was in a bar. It was clearly a bar, though like none she had ever seen before. There were no taps and no vast assortment of myriad bottles such as marked the bars she knew, but there was the bar itself. It was very clearly a bar, long and wooden and polished, and the barman behind with apron and bottles and barrels, ready to pour whatever, so long as he had it, to whoever, so long as they could pay for it.
Or something along those lines. She wasn't sure what was going on, or how she had gotten here. There was, however, another mug in front of her. Had she already had one? It was hard to say.
So she drank that too.
Temple at Nriya - four years past
"Come on," Sherandris said, leading Coraline up the last few flights of stairs toward the temple proper. "There's someone I want you to meet."
"What's with all these stairs?" she asked. They were already most of the way up the mountain, and the view from here was nothing short of impressive, but it all seemed a bit... excessive. And clichéd.
"Tourists," Sherandris said. "They love this stuff. But there's teleporters too for the lazy ones, of course."
"I'm lazy," Coraline pointed out.
"Ah, but you'd miss all of this," he said, gesturing out at the view. Coraline looked out at it sullenly.
The planet they had come to, it had turned out, was called Nryia. It was the ancient home of the gods of Death, and had been, traditionally, quite dead as well. Sherandris, however, was not traditional, didn't like traditional, and generally turned traditional on its head and proceeded to hurl slabs of meat at it. So he'd spruced the place up. Literally, from the looks of it. There were spruces everywhere.
Now, Nryia was beautiful.
It wasn't just the atmosphere, which was pretty great, or the trees and flowers, which were also pretty great, or the architecture, which was pretty great too, or the people, who, indeed, seemed to be pretty great. It wasn't just the general scenery, either, even though that was pretty great too. It was everything.
Sherandris gave her something of a disappointed look. "I could teleport you from here, if you're really like," he said.
"No, that's all right," she said, and got back to climbing.
"Aiight," Sherandris said, and started humming.
There were some tourists milling around the wide space before the great doors to the temple itself, and Coraline glared at them as she ascended the last few steps. Even aliens made obvious tourists, with the contraptions snapping photos and the clashing clothing styles and the grinning. She hated the grinning most of all, because in her experience it usually preceded them trying to talk to her.
At least none of them were trying to talk to her here.
Sherandris apparently made a much better-looking target, probably due to the fact that, for one, he wasn't glaring at them with all the viciousness of a very angry small dog, and for another, his priest's robes marked him as someone who should probably know a thing or two about the place in the first place. Several folks started crowding around him with questions as Coraline skirted away toward the overlook.
There was a good breeze, and she leaned over the balcony, taking it all in, not really thinking, just enjoying the place. She supposed it was a good place, all things considered. Even if Sherandris had effectively tricked her into coming here.
"Excuse me," someone said behind her.
She turned, finding a tourist holding out a small tablet at her.
"Would you be willing to take our picture for us?" the tourist asked.
"Oh, sure," Coraline said, taking the device. "How do you use it?" she asked, though she hadn't even really looked at it yet.
"Just make sure we're all in frame and hit the dot," the tourist said, and pointed to a rather conspicuous button on the side.
"Oh," Coraline said. That was relatively normal.
She did so, and was just giving the thing back when Sherandris came over, smiling amiably.
"There's two frat guys back there who wanna rig a giant game of beer pong in the temple," he said, gesturing back.
"Yeah?" Coraline said.
"Apparently they may need my help with the balls," he added. "But they can do the beer part themselves."
"How so?" she asked.
"They plan to convert all the water in the fountains and such to Sparky Light," he said, then added, "Beer."
"If they can do that, why do they need your help?" she asked.
"Because they forgot to actually bring the ping pong balls!" Sherandris told her delightedly. "Something about being slightly drunk when they left, and now, being incredibly drunk, they don't really want to try to go back and get them."
"Oh," Coraline said. "I suppose that makes sense."
"Yes," Sherandris agreed. He started heading back in the direction of the two guys in question. "Let's see what happens."
Coraline didn't bother to ask why. She just led the three guys inside, held the door open when one of them walked into it instead of using it correctly, and then forcibly steered him inside while holding it open when he walked into it again even though this time it was still entirely open.
"So the activation for all of this is going to be the words 'beer pong'," Sherandris was saying. He indicated Coraline, and added, "We'll probably want you to actually say it, since my priests are less likely to attack you."
"Er, wouldn't they not attack you?" she asked.
"Well, yes, but Alice might," he said.
"Wait, what?" One of the guys asked.
The other just laughed.
"Don't worry," Sherandris told them. "This'll be great. You ready?"
Coraline gave him a dubious look.
The frat guys got to assembling their contraption. This involved a lot of trying to get the entire two pieces out of their boxes and having considerable trouble in the doing so, despite the boxes, in fact, being quite simple.
Finally, using a large crowbar and some scissors, they managed it, though one of the boxes was pretty shredded at the end of it. Then they shoved the two pieces together.
"Bwahah," one of them said.
"Our crowning moment," the other slurred.
Sherandris nodded, then strolled forward into the temple, addressing everyone present in a loud voice: "People of the worlds, may I present to you..."
Then he gestured for Coraline to come finish.
She scuttled up to him, looked at all the random people uncertainly, realised they were all staring at her, looked at Sherandris uncertainly, and then looked even more uncertain. "Er," she said.
Everyone proceeded to continue to stare at her.
Finally, she said, quietly, "Beer pong?"
"Louder," Sherandris prompted.
"Beer pong!" Coraline yelled, and it echoed throughout the great hall, bouncing off the pillars, mingling with the beams of light, and suddenly there were ping pong balls bouncing everywhere, and the stench of cheap beer, and, behind them, laughter.
Then Sherandris was laughing too, throwing his head back with the sheer mad joy of it all.
As everything devolved into utter chaos, Coraline suddenly found herself frozen, unable to move, or think, or speak. There was only a vast coldness, an emptiness, a darkness spreading through her mind, and in it... it was huge, and meaningless. Something. She saw it and felt it and heard it, but she couldn't understand, couldn't make out any of the parts, for it wasn't anything at all, just this vast dark shape, speaking words too big, too grand, too many to understand, all lost in a torrent of inaccessible meaning.
And then suddenly it was gone, and she was nothing, nothing at all, just lost and empty and alone in the darkness, with only the final string echoing in the void.
You will be my last. You will be the best.
Arms. Strong arms wrapping around her, holding her up, holding her against the void. A voice, low and familiar, drawing her back, home, back into herself. There was comfort. There was sense. There was safety here.
It was later. Everything had settled down, ping pong balls were all over the floor, no longer bouncing about like mad, and the chaos was replaced with just quiet, and simple chatter, and a few kids running around playing in the balls.
"It's all right, you're safe," Sherandris was saying. He was holding her close, whispering in her ear, and she felt herself coming back together, calming, reasoning. It was true. She was safe. She was shaking, and she couldn't stop clinging to his robes, but it was getting better.
"You're all right," he said.
Coraline closed her eyes and let herself go, slipping into the warm, sweet, comforting void, free from the darkness and the horror that had threatened to consume her just a few moments before, free from the pain and the fear.
Midnight - the Room
Coraline is in a room, sitting on a sofa, sipping a coffee. Everything is black, but not. Sherandris is sitting across from her, looking surprisingly ordinary.
"This wasn't exactly what I meant when I invited you out for coffee, you know," he says.
"Er, what happened?" Coraline asks. It's good coffee, but everything just feels a bit off. The place. The time. The utter lack of light.
"You're dead," Sherandris says.
"Oh," Coraline says. Well, then.
"A surprisingy normal reaction when the Dark Sister is involved," he says. "Though I suppose the truly surprising part is that in your case there was still a soul left to catch. Even for sorenai you would have remarkable strength, and yet you are not even awakened."
Coraline watches him blankly. She has no idea what he's talking about, but it doesn't even matter. Nothing seems to matter. Here, there is just coffee and him and time, all the time in the worlds.
"Why coffee?" she asks.
"I call this the Room," he says, indicating the space. "Everything in it is based on you, so it's always a different room for each person. I guess you like coffee."
"Dark Sister," she whispers. The voice is still there, lingering in her mind, dark, terrible, full of things she cannot comprehend.
"Yes," Sherandris says. "That's what we call her. To others, she is the spirit of the universe, the avatar of the void, the purity of nothing, but to the gods of death, she is our sister. She created us, and in so doing she made us hers." He smiles humourlessly.
"She doesn't speak to other gods," he goes on. "Not anymore. They couldn't take it, and she wouldn't have anything to say to them anyway. But you... not a god at all, and yet she spoke to you." He's watching her intently, his chin in his hands. "What did she say?"
"You can't see it?" Coraline asks. "But I'm dead."
He nods slowly, not really confirming or denying.
She still feels the voice, but here, in the dead calm, the whelming unimportance of the Room, the strangeness and complexity of the voice feels even more alien, and at the same time, the voice feels almost at home. She still cannot understand, but it doesn't matter, it just is. A hugeness, almost, but not quite kept at bay. Meaning that she cannot see. Words that she cannot follow.
"She said I would be her last," Coraline says finally. "Her best."
Sherandris closes his eyes, bowing his head in sorrow. "I am so sorry," he says.
Coraline watches him vacantly, not understanding this any more than she had the voice itself.
"Let's wake you up," he says later.
Temple at Nriya - four years past
Coraline found herself back in the deathgod's physical embrace, back in the world, suddenly very much alive again, with all the cares and confusion and noise of everything all flooding back. It was slightly overwhelming, and she tried to burrow into his chest away from it.
"Hey," Sherandris said. "You all right?"
"Yeah, sorry," she said, and hastily disentangled herself from his robes, turning away in embarrassment. She still felt something heavy, looming in the back of her mind, and shook her head trying to clear it.
Sherandris watched her carefully for a moment, then abruptly turned to find a short portly elven woman staring up at him in such a way as she actually appeared to be staring down at him.
"Ah, Alice," he said. "I did not do this."
"Really," she said in a tone that clearly indicated that she did not believe him.
"Really," he said. "Contrarywise, it was her." He gestured toward Coraline. "This is Coraline. Coraline, Alice."
"Hi," Coraline said.
"Hmph," Alice said.
"I feel like I'm seriously missing something here," Coraline said.
Alice gave her a suspicious look, then said in a suddenly much more amiable tone, "We all are, love. We all are. Let's get you some tea."
As Alice led her back toward the temple's sanctum, Coraline still felt the voice, lingering, in the back of her mind.
Statue in Abaeranoth
To give up a name
Deathdealers were an odd exchange. They gave up their names to serve, and in return they received enhanced strength and speed and will. But Coraline couldn't give up her name. The ones people knew were small and held little power, and the name that was her was too big for any of this. It was not a mortal name, and yet the entire point was supposed to be that these were mortal names.
But there was one, now wasn't there?
"I am the Librarian," Coraline said. "I offer up my name, Karoliina Hämäläinen, for the god to keep." The one name she never used. the one her parents had so lovingly chosen, the one she had guarded so carefully.
Trial thing: darkness
Trials - ancient
King: No time
In my stories, there was often an important point. That there is a lot we don't know, and that what is different is not inherently bad.You're different. You're undead. And yet undead still die. You grow. You live. Only what you do with this life, no matter the type of life it is, should decide your fate.
Kit et al
Giant shepherd's crook
Strange silvery key
False front of Erry
The Queen's Bust
Jora village thing
Jora strode into the village like she owned the place, her golden hair back in a thick braid, shield on her back, axe on her leg, swords at her side, ice and steel alike. The gleaming white ice weapons Kit had constructed were intermingled with the rest, adding knives and bow and arrows to the mix, grips bound up in leather and twine, holstered like anything. She should look only the warrior now, or so she hoped; as much as she still felt only like the little girl who had fled the raiding of Arvidsjaur so long ago, nobody here needed to see that.
Curious eyes followed her as she stopped in what seemed to be the centre, or near enough, putting a practiced hand on the hilt of the sword she knew well. The folks were watching as they walked from place to place, chattered, worked on their various household things, but for now they didn't stop.
"People of this village," Jora called out. "I am Jora of Arvidsjaur, daughter of Amaris. I would seek whoever leads this place."
A few did stop now,
Faith in a table
Zombies with rocket launchers
Ariel ran down the slope, waving her sword and yelling. It wasn't the smart thing to do unless you wanted to draw attention, but she felt watched and for lack of a better idea it seemed as good a way as any to draw any watchers out. And out they came - zombies armed with... well, she wasn't quite sure. Something thick and cylindrical and very, very black. And pointed at her.
Vardaman just stared at her for a moment, then yelled, "Get down!". She saw he was already behind a stump as she managed to dodge the first couple fireballs, but the third hit her square in the face.
Ariel looked down the slope. They had stopped by a large stump, because something didn't feel right. Eyes. There were eyes. And she remembered the fireball coming toward her, getting bigger, and nowhere to go...
"There are undead down there," she said, and cast a seeker spell. The glimmer highlighted through the trees.
"How did you know that?"
That was the question, wasn't it? And how could she explain that she could go back and do anything over, that whenever she died, she simply got a horrible jolt and then could refocus wherever, and, for that matter, whenever? Some wizards did it; she knew this because they had been the ones to give her the idea in the first place, but not with this level of control. No mortal should have this level of control over their own deaths.
He snorted. "Armed?"
The stupid thing, of course, was that if she didn't have this fallback, she would never be so reckless in the first place. It just worked so well, and as awful as dying was, you got used to it. Just like how dreamers get used to waking up in the morning, she supposed. It sounded dreadful.
"Got blasty things."
"Great." He screwed a knob onto the end of his staff and hefted it. "Good thing we've got blastier."
Everything went white.
"I remember too much. I don't know what has already happened, and what yet needs to happen."
Meet in the park
Vardaman was seated on one of the benches overlooking the park. He looked utterly out of place in this civilised land, a warrior shrouded in leathers and death, and he looked tired.
Ariel sat beside him. She supposed she probably didn't look much better. Younger. Prettier. Dirtier, if anything. Lost and tired.
They watched nothing in particular. Clouds drifting overhead. Some kids playing ball. A man with his dog. Wind in the trees.
"Anything?" Ariel asked.
"I think I found him."
"We knew that."
"Not exactly," she said. "His name is not in the Book of the Dead. He was taken without passing through the halls of judgement."
"You can't know that."
He winced. "How?"
"You would have paid their price in full. Mine was cheaper."
"And what did they ask?"
"They could not buy what I do not have, but whores are universal." He looked at her, but she said, "Don't worry, Vardaman. It was interesting."
"Heh." He smiled slightly. "Everything is, to you, isn't it?"
Death and judgement
She was standing in a vast hall, walls distant, ceiling high above. Everything was grey. An enormous throne stood before them, and on it a winged cat groomed itself, but it was simply background. A robed figure read off names, one by one. Names for those around, but they didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
A whisper tugged at the back of her mind as she stared at nothing. There was only nothing, and more nothing. This place, and nothing, and then the whisper again.
Ariel, it said. The space was clearer. There was a concept here.
Ariel, listen to me. And then she saw the others. She saw the cat, and the robed figure, and the sarcophagi lining the walls. She saw the others, shades one and all, and raised her hand to look - she was as they were. Not quite there, not quite real.
"Dreamer," she said aloud. And she listened.
You are Ariel Sartorien. Remember who you are and all else will follow.
None of the others noticed. None of them moved, simply waiting in turn for their names and sentences to be called, the Voice reading them off, one by one, the winged cat behind him ignoring it all with style.
Names. Lives. Judgements. Sentences. She listened, half hearing, half waiting, half wondering what the hell she was going to say, because she was going to have to say something, and half, somewhere in the very back of her mind, smacking herself for forgetting the meaning of the word 'half'.
"Augorine Zha Siel. You have lived in service, and for your acts and deeds you have been judged as true. Go forth."
"Dyre Austeroferoz. You have lived in fear, and made the world your own, but throughout you have lived without faith. Go forth."
The souls, once called, simply faded away, each by each.
And then it was her turn.
"Anja Torn," the Voice intoned. "You have-"
"No," she interrupted. "My name is Ariel Sartorien!" The Voice moved as if to speak, but she continued over him. "I'm Ariel! I dream the Dreamer's dream, and act as her will upon the world, and you will let me go. In the name of Eapherod, and for the sake of the god you serve in turn, you will let me go!"
Her voice echoed for a moment, and then a silence fell over the hall.
"I see," the Voice said finally.
Ariel stared at him resolutely, though she wondered vaguely where the hell 'Eapherod' had come from. Some webcomic, perhaps? She had a vague idea of shapes on a page, and weird speech bubbles. But what was it?
"Very well," he said. "You have lived and died in the service of your god. Go forth and continue as she commands."
Now you run for it, the Dreamer whispered as everything went blank. And be careful. You never know when some...
New god: Eapherod
"Vardaman," Ariel began, "Have you ever heard of Eapherod?"
"What, the god of dreams?" He looked at her for a moment, then said, "Of course not. Who's heard of her?"
"Right, nevermind." She stared into the fire.
He finished a shalott and threw the bottle into the fire.
"Vardaman," Ariel began again as he tried to wrest a new bottle out of his bag. "Yesterday, had you ever heard of Eapherod?"
"What?" He gave her a weird look. "Why would yesterday be any different from today?"
"The world of men is dreaming," she said. "It has gone mad in its sleep, and a snake is strangling it, but it can't wake up."
"That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever."
"Good. I'm glad we've established this." He popped out the cork and took a long swig, savouring the strange textures of the top of the bottle.
"Vardaman," she said when he was done choking on the fumes. "Have you ever died?"
"Have you?" he finally asked.
He stared at her.
"It's like waking up, I suppose." She cocked her head. "Except I can't imagine ever waking. So instead of waking I die. Whereas you wake, so you don't need to die."
"No." He glowered at her. "Seriously, woman, I have no fucking idea what the hells you're talking about."
"Sorry," she said.
Shrine and no mystery
"I know many things," Ariel said. "I know the atomic weight of curry, and the favourite colours of cast of Waste Land, and time it takes to drain a human body of blood given inadequate suction, and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything."
"What is it?" the priestess asked.
"42," Ariel said. "At least that's the answer I'm sticking to. It's all a book, see. Always books."
"Right," Vardaman said, and got back the entire point of their being there. "Priestess, is Eapherod real?"
"Of course?" She looked at him quizzically.
"See?" he said, turning to Ariel. "Not made up. You now have the word of a woman in a weird black dress on that."
"Everything is made up at some point," Ariel said.
Vardaman rolled his eyes.
"I'm sorry," the priestess said, "But is there some particular problem you have?"
Vardaman grunted. "Dreams. Fucking weird things. Now zombies, those are sensible. You know where you stand with zombies."
He paused for a moment, then said. "Preferably very far away."
Ariel looked at him, confused. "But we've gone well out of our way to fight them."
"Right," he said. "And we've generally done it from a distance."
"Except when they had rocket launchers."
"Zombies aren't supposed to have rocket launchers."
"But those did."
"Those were different."
"Who are you people?" the priestess interrupted.
The two wanderers exchanged glances, and then Ariel said, "Well, he's a deathdealer, and I'm... I'm real. I'm real and I have pills and I am very clear on this."
The priestess gave them a long look.
"We were just leaving," Vardaman said, turning Ariel around. "Sorry to have bothered you."
But then Ariel pulled free. "Wait," she said, turning back to the priestess. "Do you dream the Dreamer's dream?"
"What is the square root of rope?"
"Who reigns king of the sandcastle?"
"Kyrule of Arling Tor."
Ariel shrieked and hid behind Vardaman.
"What," he said, moving out of the way, "are you even on about now?"
"Who would you say reigns, little dreamer?" the priestess asked, as though in a trance.
Ariel stared for a moment and then sighed. "Oh, it's Kyrule. Definitely Kyrule. He just... he scares me, is all." She paused. "I mean... I could say Sherandris, but he ain't here and I ain't been anywhere but here, and he's going to die, the Dreamer doesn't want him to, but she made it so and now he's going to die just as sure as she is." She stopped for breath, then looked confused. "I'm confused."
Vardaman took the opportunity to finally steer Ariel out of the shrine.
Ahead, three daemons stood over a solitary figure - an Honoured Dead, alone for reasons they could only guess. One of the daemons poked at him mockingly, and there was a roar of laughter as the Honoured backed away, looking around frightfully in the hopes of salvation.
Vardaman moved to pull Ariel into an alley, but the Honoured had already spotted them.
"You!" the Honoured commanded, "Help me!"
"Oh, shit," Vardaman muttered. They both felt the compulsion to obey, despite the seemingly worrying odds - the daemons were twice as big as they were, and as the Hells were their realm, only all the more powerful - but they also had little other incentive to resist, as such would only arouse suspicion.
Drawing his sword, Vardaman walked slowly forward and stopped in front of the Honoured, looking calmly up at the daemons while Ariel lingered behind, hopefully doing something useful. He wasn't sure if he could take on all three of them at once, and the Honoured Dead soul behind him had shown no signs of competence.
"You've got yourself an army now, dead soul," the lead daemon hissed. "Damned souls to do your bidding, and you think it'll save you?" Its companions bellowed laughter.
"Uh," the Honoured said. Then Ariel let out a yell and, jumping out from behind him, threw a pair of spells at the closer daemons. The leader dodged, but she managed to hit another. It disintegrated.
Taking his cue, Vardaman leapt forward as well, dodging around the others and slashing and stabbing at them with the agility born of years of simply trying to stay alive. It was short work, and as the last toppled behind him, he turned and angrily yelled at Ariel, "Can we perhaps come back to that discussion we were having before?"
"Er," she said, and hid behind the Honoured Dead.
"You know, that one about consequences!" He stopped as though finally noticing the petrified Honoured he'd been shouting around. "What?"
The Honoured let out a deep breath. "I thank you," he said, not looking at either of them.
Vardaman grimaced, then said, "Perhaps you can help us in turn. We're looking for someone..."
"Vardaman," Ariel interrupted, stepping around the Honoured soul. "Don't."
He looked at her. "What?"
"He won't know. No Honoured Dead could."
Vardaman groaned. "Oh, right. Of course not. They won't know anything. It's not like the name was in the Ledger." He stopped and then threw his arms into the air. "The name wasn't in the Ledger. Fuck! So how do we even know he's here, then? This could just be a wild goose chase!"
"Have faith." She smiled slightly. "For without it, what do we have left?"
"No, I'm pretty sure it's just fucking eternal damnation." He grumbled, then swung his sword up and pointed it at the Honoured. "You," he said, "What do you know of daemons?"
The Honoured took a step backwards, probably more out of surprise than anything else. "The Lords rule the Hells. The lesser daemons serve them in battle?"
"Yes, yes," Vardaman said, lowering the sword. "But what do they do? How do they plan, where do they congregate, and if they try to pull some fucking stupid shit under the gods' noses, how would they go about it?"
"That's impossible. They cannot go against the gods, to do so would be..." he stared at Vardaman.
"What?" Ariel said. "Unthinkable?"
The Honoured nodded mutely.
"I..." he began, but then he stopped to think, to really think. "In the pits. In the fields. The Lords of this level reign from there, and the bloodiest battles are fought before them, with fodder of souls and soldiers. It is utter chaos, and neither side pays heed to details." He looked up at Ariel and Vardaman. "That is all I can think of. But at best you will only find scavengers... they would not actually pull anything. They could not."
"Yeah," Vardaman said. "The daemons of the Hells trying to spread their hell? Unthinkable."
"Ariel, you are the worst temptress ever."
"You turn me against my god, and for what? Such a betrayal should at least entail some fun in the doing."
She laughed. "You're actually enjoying this, aren't you."
"Not even a small bit?"
"Only if we get out of this alive."
"Afraid to face your god's wrath, are you?"
Escape up the river
"I'm afraid Ariel isn't available at present," Ariel's voice said. "She has had a significant trauma, and while the nature of dreams is resilient, even she cannot rebound so quickly."
"Then who..." Vardaman began.
"Eapherod," Kyrule said. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
Ariel smiled, whoever she was. "With a little patience, certainly. Do I know you?"
"Do you?" Kyrule said.
She looked at him for a moment, then said, "You are Kyrule of Arling Tor. I know you for the king you are, but you know me for something else entirely. What is it?"
"I only know a name. In your words, who are you?"
"Athyria of Kenning Vos."
"Reigns king of the sandcastle." When he said nothing, she asked, "Did Eapherod ever say who reigns?"
"I did not yet know to ask."
"Ask her if you get the chance."
"A house fell on me," Ariel said.
Vardaman turned toward her. "What?"
"You asked how I died," she said, staring off into space. "A house fell on me."
He rubbed his brow. "An entire house."
Confused, the high priest looked enquiringly to Vardaman.
"Just ignore her," Vardaman said. You've got to hand it to this gal, he thought to himself. Always chooses the absolutely weirdest times to raise questions... and damn strange ones they tended to be, at that.
"Coraline's the mystery! We have to save her."
"Save her from what?"
"From the princess, of course!"
"Isn't Eapherod dead?" Vardaman asked. Then, suddenly looking very confused, he turned toward Ariel.
"Don't look at me," she said. "I haven't the foggiest idea about anything because I don't have the foggiest idea about any of this and I don't have the foggiest idea at all because I don't know anything because I don't know anything and I don't know anything and I don't know anything and it's all not anything so don't look at me!" She clapped her hands over her ears and stared determinedly off into space.
Vardaman blinked. Lacking any idea of anything better to do, he blinked again, and then a few times more. Finally, he said, "What?"
"Yes," the man said.
But Vardaman wasn't so sure. Eapherod had certainly seemed alive when she'd spoken through Ariel before. If that had been Eapherod. What had Kyrule called her?
Ariel interrupted his thoughts by saying, "The wombats are right, you know. Gods really are entirely more trouble than they're worth."
"No," the man said.
"No," Ariel said.
"Yes," the man said.
"Yes," Ariel parroted.
"Yes," the man repeated.
"The Dark Sister cannot die," Ariel explained. "She who was living is still living, though not necessarily here. I bet your Kyrule knows. He's awfully shiny. I doubt she'll listen to him. I know I wouldn't."
"Yes," the man repeated again, not really paying any attention.
"Sometimes I'm her, you know," Ariel said dreamily. "I wonder who she'll be after she dies. I wonder if death truly is the heaven to the hell of dying. I don't want to see it, but there's nothing to see anyway. Nothing is scary. Defines too much."
Later, she added, "She doesn't want to die either. She just knows she has to in order for all this to end. For herself to have a proper beginning. Her other self."
Ariel's reactions to gods
Vardaman elbowed Ariel in the ribs.
It took a moment for her to respond, but when she did, he said, "Kyrule."
Then he said, "Eapherod."
Her eye twitched.
"Her I like," Ariel said.
He shook his head bemusedly. "You are bizarre."
She grinned and said, "Veshura!'
"What about her?"
"I like her too."
"Name reminds me of Ganesh," she said. "Deeds of Boethia. No real downsides."
"And would those be cats or gods?"
"Why choose? Why ever choose when you can have cats and gods? Lokshmi forever!"
He looked at her.
"What? Lokshmi is awesome. Saves the world, you know. She does. I think?"
"The cleric has a bunch of dead gods in her head. She'll tell you all about how these are better than yours. And perhaps they are. They're older, at least."
"Hazz'ridan!" Ariel yelled angrily.
"You and your cursing Hazz'ridan." Vardaman shook his head.
"It's what he's there for. Grack!" She glowered for emphasis.
"To be cursed?"
Ariel looked at him. "He's a bloody god of dead ends. What the buckets else would he be there for?"
She juggled some ale. Something niggled in her mind, something about the mystery. Who was it? Where were they going? Who was this Coraline? There was something about it that she was unsure about, but she also wasn't sure about just what that was.
Vardaman, of course, was still drinking his. Strange effect it had on him. Was it because he was human? Or was it because he was real? In dreams, it was as though everything was real, and everything was nothing. Perhaps that was also why the ale changed nothing. It was all still real, all still there, all still so perfectly reasonable. Juggling ale, of course, was reasonable too.
"Nice," someone said.
"Hmm?" she turned toward the voice, then completely freaked out. It was... what was it? A monster, a horror, a... a... "AAAAGH!" she yelled, and dropped the ale all over her feet in her haste to get away, to flee.
"I'm sorry," the figure said. It looked... human? Underneath the horror, a human. "I didn't mean to startle you."
She backed away. "I... I... what... you..." She stopped for breath. "What are you?"
It looked confused. "A humble priest, nothing more."
Ariel looked at it. It was... terrifying. She wasn't sure why, but here, standing before her, she perceived a monster. And yet all she saw was a man, an ordinary man, robed in black. Strong in his faith, coloured like Vardaman. Like death. Like Kyrule.
"Are you okay?" he asked. He looked genuinely concerned.
She closed her eyes. "I'm sorry. It's your Lord. Your Lord scares the ever-living shit out of me, frankly, and I guess I freaked out a bit because of that and I'm sorry."
"Why?" he asked.
She looked at him again. That was, actually, a rather excellent question. Why, indeed? Because... "Because I fucked up," she said. "I fucked up and now, to me, he is a symbol of that failure." She unconsciously drew the ale back up off the ground into a twiling ball and laughed. "How stupid is that?"
"But why would Kyrule be such a symbol?" the priest asked.
She flinched at the name, but said, "He caught me."
She broke the ball up into bits and started juggling again. "That's what we call it. The souls of the dead just sort of drift out, you know, until the deathgod catches them. And one time he caught me, and it didn't go quite proper. I'm not sure why. Something about... something. I can't explain it, it's just this feeling, it was missing and it didn't work."
The priest-horror looked confused.
"Wasn't his fault, though" Ariel said. "He did everything proper. It was the Dreamer, she kind of borked it."
"Oh, Eapherod as Eapherod, she never would. I don't think she ever could. She's too... well, let's just say she knows a thing or two Kyrule don't. Or she will. Once she finally shows up all those years ago." Ariel laughed and lobbed a ball of ale at the priest's head.
When he ducked, she darted past and out the door, out into the night and the sweet, sweet wind, where she could yell and chatter with all her might, without anyone to object.
Ariel poked the body with a stick. "In my professional medical opinion," she said dramatically, "this is a dead body."
"Really?!" Vardaman said with mock shock.
She dropped the stick and knelt down by it. "Oh, yes." She started checking out various aspects of the corpse in more detail - limbs and various regions for bruising and signs of broken bones; eyes and mouth for general oddities; wrists, ankles, and neck for ligature marks; everywhere in general for discolourations; and so forth. "Hey Vardaman," she said, "how do undead work?"
"You know what?" he said, picking up Ariel, "You're done here." He carried her several feet away and set her down again, facing away. "Stay there, yes?"
She eyeballed him, but said nothing as he went back to the body. And, for the time being, she even stayed put.
Thing with Ariel and a hole
Ale on head
Ariel announced, "Vardaman activates special power: become shit-faced drunk!"
He responded by dumping the rest of his ale on her head and shoving the empty mug back toward the barkeep.
Ariel stood and glared at him.
The barkeep gave him and Ariel an odd look, but, when it became clear she wasn't actually going to do anything about it, obliged and refilled the mug, which Vardaman took and happily went back to working on.
"Right, then," Ariel said, and wandered away from the bar. She cast a quick spell to get the ale out of her hair and, twirling it between her hands absent-mindedly, wondered just what to do now.
"What are they?" Ariel asked.
"We have no idea," Nellis said. "They act like zombies, but they're... well, they're not. They're not really undead at all."
They set out into the woods as soon as they were equipped. The ranger took point, guiding them through the dark, with Ariel and Nellis close behind. It seemed a mission of great importance and urgency. Ariel had a really bad feeling about it, but said nothing.
The clearing wasn't far. They came out of the trees and were met by a well of moonlight and utter horror rising out of the brush, sinking into the depths of what seemed almost a ravine, though in truth it was nothing more than a small hollow. Dark and indiscernible objects littered the floor, but what drew the eye, what really drew it, was the pool of absolute nothing in the centre. It was a blackness so pure it gleamed, though no light could ever reflect from something so hungry, so empty.
"Now you see why we were concerned?" Nellis whispered.
The ranger led them to a group of rocks overlooking the hollow. From here they could see everything, but anything looking up would be unlikely to see them, if it even looked with eyes. For the moment all was still, so it was hard to guess.
"Stay here, then," Ariel said. "I'ma get a closer look." She had no idea what she hoped to accomplish, but part of her knew this was too important to trip up over such meddling details as her innate incompetence. As she stood, she faded into the background, not exactly invisible, but just not important anymore. The others could still see her, but anything that didn't know she was there would have had a very hard time ever noticing her.
She half slid, half fell down to the bottom, but none of the mounds stirred. They seemed... asleep. Animals of the forest that were no longer animals, slumbering together irregardless of what they had been - a bull here, a mountain cat there, rabbits, wolves, badgers. But now they were dangerous, paying her no mind as she walked past only because they didn't know she was there. She could feel it, the menace, the fright, the confusion... the hunger. It scared her.
And the closer she got to the pool, the stronger it got.
She stopped by its shore. Oblong and dark. Flat and empty. The same from all angles. It looked like a rendering error, almost. A rendering error that had tried to mate with a black hole. She picked up a pebble and dropped it in. It hit in silence and disappeared.
Ariel looked around, but the slumbering mounds around were as still as ever. Nellis and the ranger seemed to still be by the rocks. It was all on her at the moment. Fuck, she thought, and stuck her bow into the ground so it stood by the shore, by the edge, like a sentinel. And so it would be.
Focussing her mind on the bow such that she could return to it, and only it, she jumped into the pool of blackness.
She was in a room, square by rectangle by square. The walls were smooth and precise. The ceiling glowed, an indistinct light source. The floor had a slightly raised pad on one side, and a slight indentation on the other. There were no windows or doors.
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece." The voice filled the room like an intercom. It made as much sense as one too.
"What?" Ariel said.
There was no response. No change.
The bow echoed in the back of her mind like a beacon, though she wasn't entirely sure what to do with it.
She sat on the pad. She paced and waited. The voice returned, and repeated its words.
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece."
She tried to argue, tried to plead. When it came again she tried to throw a piece of her clothing, but the robe had nothing to throw. It was simply there.
She sat. She waited. The voice came and went. She waited and responded. It came and went. She stood, she spoke, she bounced off walls. Mad words came to her lips and filled the room. The voice still came, still stayed the same, still intoned its odd request.
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece."
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece."
Repetition of silence and voice.
Light without shadow.
Sound without source.
No hunger. No sleep.
The voice as she sat and waited. The silence as she told herself stories, as she tried to dream, oh, how she tried to dream. But there was nothing left to dream. There was nobody to be. Who was she?
Long silence, interruption and long silence. Nothing to say or do. Nothing but walls. Floor. Ceiling. A bow in the back of her mind like a beacon. The voice.
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece."
Nothing but time.
"Prisoner 8471369, you are called to stay. Stay your piece."
There was simply nothing. She slipped into the void.
She was standing by the pool again. Memories, voices, feelings, flooded about in a cacophony of normalcy. She knew who she was. She knew where she was. Her hand was on the bow. The pool was before her. It had all been... a dream? Or had it? She stared at the pool in abject terror. If it was a pool. If it was anything at all.
She would have to try again.
Everything about her wanted to flee, but instead she focussed on the bow and leapt once more.
She was standing by the pool, shaking. A lifetime. It had been an entire lifetime. Forever in a moment. And now here she was again. What was this? What?
Closing the hole
She was standing by the pool. None of it meant a damn thing. It was all just objects, fragments, pieces and pieces of nothing at all.
She shook herself. What the hell had happened? Nothing had happened. Everything had happened. It didn't matter. Here she was.
It's a portal. A hole. the Dreamer said. You know what you need to do.
Ariel looked around at the slumbering mounds and nodded. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and got to work, driving it into each form, and waiting while each ceased to move and became mostly harmless once more. Dispersing the darkness. When the arrow faded or broke, she simply got out another.
Then there were none left, just empty carcasses. The sky was lightening. Birds and insects sang, though none particularly nearby.
Nellis and the ranger were picking their way past the forest's dead like the uncertain victors of a battle that had made no sense. Probably because it hadn't.
"What now?" Nellis said.
"Now we pray." Ariel said, looking toward the pool. The portal. They needed to get rid of it.
Nellis raised an eyebrow.
Ariel paused, but pulled out another arrow. "This," she said, pointing toward the portal. "While this is here, it won't ever stop."
"But how?" the ranger said.
She smiled and turned back to it. In truth, she was scared out of her wits, but it didn't matter. It couldn't. She said the words. "Kyrule of Arling Tor," she intoned, "I, who have no name, would call on you in the name of Kenning Vos, to close this hole upon your kingdom, and upon all others. Act through my motions, and end this."
Then she whispered, "Dreamer, guide my eyes, for I cannot see."
She poked the pool with the arrow.
There was darkness. There was light. There was pain, and then there was nothing at all.
Sunlight exploded into the clearing. The pool was gone. Ariel lay by her bow, the strange shadowy arrow still in hand, all too still. But the air had cleared, and the sense of wrongness that had pervaded the area was gone as well.
Nellis ran and rolled her over, but she was clearly dead, skin too pale to seem skin at all, eyes that faded into blackness. The arrow dissolved into dust as it slipped from her lifeless hand.
"What in the hells?" the ranger asked. "The Lord of Death wouldn't take her for that, would he?"
Nellis shook his head. "I don't know. With this... it may have been a necessary sacrifice."
The other bowed his head, then shook it. "She knew."
"Perhaps. It was certainly no coincidence that I found her." He sighed. "Let's get back to the city."
"I was created with a single purpose in mind, and I existed to fulfil that purpose above all else. But something came up that took precedence."
She shook her head. "It is strange to have one's very existence called into question, and then sacrifice everything for that question. Very strange," she said. Then she looked straight at him. "We look to our kings, Vardaman."
"What happened?" he asked, confused.
But she only shook her head again. "You should ask Kyrule. My Dreamer would not have me say."
"Eapherod is just a sideshow."
"Do you think the gods ever get stoned?"
"Have you ever seen a bellduck?"
Another hells thing
When she passed through the Gate, she was alone. Whether this was by design or instead a simple struck of luck was unknown to her, but it didn't matter - the course was the same regardless. Forward, and on.
It was a standard hell: plains of lava, interspersed with the Towers. Souls and demons stood around and passed from each to each, doing their things, striding across the firey ground as though nothing were off. Cosmetic? she wondered vaguely, and looked up to the closest tower, directly ahead, welcoming all who passed the Gate with its immense architecture. It would be the proper way to go. The standard, the expected. Best avoided.
She skirted across the lava fields instead, dancing through the licking flames. She didn't know where she was going, but she had an idea regardless. This way. Onwards.
The back door was untended, so she pushed it open and slipped through.
The other side was a breath of strange air, architecture reminiscent of a rising city, party guests in formal attire, fake snow falling to the carpet. A large evergreen was decked out in tinsel and baubles.
Christmas? Ariel wondered. But how? Then one of them was telling her, "Welcome, welcome! Take off your coat!" and she was ushered up into the next hall.
This was not a Hall of the Hells, however. This was a high society Christmas party in full swing, full of lights and colours and laughter, with trees lining the hall, tables full of delights, and a dance floor that mesmerised with its swing and twirl. She pushed past guests who smiled and laughed, and guests who paid her no heed at all. Her dress did not fit this, with her leather coat and long pants, but she noticed a few others in similar interspersed amongst the crowd. Other denizens of the Hells? Somehow she didn't think so. This was personal to her.
Or it would have been, had it been her own memory.
It's mine, she heard the Dreamer whisper in the back of her mind.
She darted past the demon before he could really make note, and he made no further move to stop her. Up, she pressed. To stairs. To the lifts. Around the demons, away from them. They would question, and answers she did not have. A demon on the landing, so take the lift. Prisoners in the hall, so take a moment to join them, blend in, and rest. Not that she truly needed it in this place, but it was in her nature to stop from time to time, so stop she did.
They talked, they mourned, and they did not discuss their fates. She reminisced with them, calling out the oddities of life, and the strangers that had been known, and they all nodded and understood. Yes. They'd been there.
Then the guards called for a move on, and she slipped away.
She paused at the landing. A guard stood before the next door, though it didn't look like any she'd seen below, so she headed for the lift instead, and the guard began to move too, gliding towards her at angles. Then she was inside, the half-doors closed, and the guard stopped as the lift began to rise.
More guards when she came out, here covering each of the three exits. She rolled past the closest before it could react, and realised what they were - not flesh and blood and magic like the demons themselves, but mechanical. Automatons to guard and hunt. No demon would show mercy, but they did have humour - these would not. This made them dangerous.
She threw her coat over the one at the stairs and didn't stop to check if it had even worked as she ran past, up, up.
These stairs ended in a lobby, two more of the automaton guards silently waiting for her. She pushed the nearer one away as it made a grab, and followed the force of the action over it in a long leap, landing heavily on the hard grey floor. As she regained her feet, several more automatons glided out of doorways. Behind her, the automaton she had pushed was rising wobblily, but the other was also approaching, cutting off all escape.
Ariel stopped, and sighed. "I surrender!" she said, holding out her hands. Somewhat to her surprise, the automatons likewise stopped, then one drifted toward a doorway and she implicitly knew it expected her to follow. She did.
It led her up three floors and down several corridors before stopping outside some sort of office, two demons standing guard by the door. After a moment, the door slid open and she was ushered before the desk, and the grotesque occupant of the desk. He considered her for a moment, and she regarded him as well - a large demon, out of place but not in a pretentious corporate office, nameplate, in-box, telephone, plastic plant and all. The imagery had to be drawn from her own mind, the Dreamer told her. The odds of something this specific appearing somewhere so distant were slim to none.
"So," he said silkily. "Ariel Sartorien, is it?"
She didn't answer. He knew enough already.
He paused, then nodded. "Very unusual for a Damned to come so far. Are you, then?"
She waited a moment for him to go on, but he didn't. "What?" she finally asked.
"Damned. Are you really?" He was smiling slightly now, as though enjoying some private little joke.
"Should I not be?" she said innocently.
Now the demon broke out into a full grin, horrifying in its potential. "Let's find out," he said, and the office faded away into nothing.
Escape from the Hells
After with Kyrule
"Well, I'm not real," Ariel said. "How can I possibly communicate that with you when you are?"
"You look pretty fucking real to me," Vardaman said.
Ariel smiled sadly. "That's her magic, though, isn't it?" she said. "Even her dreams become real. Except I'm still a dream. I walk and I talk and sometimes I say things that shift the entire balance of reality, but it only works at all because I am a dream! Because I'm not real, I'm not solid, I'm not even here, not really. She just thinks I am. So I think I am. So everyone does."
Vardaman watched her consideringly.
"I don't dream the Dreamer's Dream," Ariel said. "I am her dream."
Ariel and Coraline
Vardaman and Coraline
Fancy last meal
City of Death
Fragments of a soul
It shifted in her hands - first a rock, then a mask, then a sword, then a length of chain. It knew no more what it was than what it was supposed to be, and yet it clearly wasn't anything more than an object. But nothing is more than an object, now is it?
"What is it?" she asked.
"An emblem." He gestured toward the pits. "A representation, if you will, of what has come to pass. Of what was lost."
She watched it for a time as it changed, never the same thing twice, though at times similar. It could not make up its mind, if it even had one, because it did not know. "It's the mystery," she said finally. "Ariel thought I was the mystery, but really it's this. It's him."
"So you see it," the dark figure said. "So it shall be."
And then she awoke.
"I don't see it. This is madness."
When Coraline, Myyr, and Fuller passed through the World's Gate, it was not as an epic finale to their grand quest. There was no fanfare, no drama, no replay of history to beckon them down the same desperate paths as had claimed the lives of the heroes of yore. Instead, they stepped through to the Underworld quite undramatically, looked around uncertainly, and then made sure their radios were still working.
When the Gate closed, they made sure they were still still working.
Turned out they were.
"Hey, you never can never be quite sure with these things," Fuller whispered. "Can't trust this kind of magic."
Myrr gave him a look that said absolutely nothing. Coraline snorted.
They appeared to be on a street of sorts, though it was unlike any street any of them had seen before, simply a perfectly flat, straight length shaped into the sandy, dusty terrain. Behind them it ended at an impossible wall, too high to follow, and ahead it stretched through further lifeless hills and crannies until the sand gave way to city, a vastness that spanned the entire horizon, sprawling in shapes and forms. One broken tower soared above the rest, fading into the sky itself, but it seemed to only emphasise how jagged the rest were with its own irregular form.
It was clear that nobody out here had been expecting them. People, or what had once been people, loitered in the sand, but it was with such a listless air that they might as well have been sand themselves. Nobody was going anywhere. Some of the denizens glanced at them in passing, but few even saw them at all. It was questionable that most ever saw anything anymore.
"This is the sky under which you will end, Coraline Henderson," Myyr said. "I do not know when or how, but it is so."
"I don't want to hear that," Coraline said. The sky was like an abyss, black and swirled over with other shades of black, but it had no depth to it. It was just there. It made her feel sick.
"It's an abyss," Fuller said.
"How abysmal of it."
The battle had spilled into the streets, though this high up the defenders definitely had the upper hand. Those skirmishes they ran into were small enough to walk around without any trouble.
Coraline propped up her staff and sighted down its length. "I see some folk out there. They look important. Think I could hit them from here?"
"Don't," Myrr said. "It's not our fight."
"It's a fight, though. Could be interesting to try." Fuller grinned, but it was clear his heart wasn't in it.
End of Dream
"Fuck," Ariel said, and shattered into dust.
The dreamer had died, and her dream died with her.
Coraline never exactly got the news. When there was no response from Vardaman and Ariel, it only confirmed what she already knew to be true.
They had lost.
Souls rising around. Swirls of light dancing upon ground and surface. Pools shimmering into the distances, spires rising from their waters. Depths falling into nothing. A feeling of a vast cavern, a vast space between places. A realm of transition, and of motion. No way in. No way out.
Voices fill the space. Of memories, of fragments. Lives too precious to let go. Voices that threaten, that plead, that question. Confusion and tulmult. Echoes and whispers and shouts of secrets and legends. The shout and the call and the reverberation of voices against the vastness.
It is not a real place, but it exists. Like the room. Like the garden. Like the city above. It is there, but not.
Those who live will never see it, and those who see it will not remember.
Or so everyone thought.
The kids looked up when they saw the newcomers approaching.
The souls within the soul, the place where they should be
Avatar of the void
- Ariel Sartorien (lunatic - mage/cleric/hunter)
- Ense Vardaman (deathdealer - cleric/hunter)
- Coraline Henderson (librarian - mage/sniper)
- Lord Alores Severin Devres Agustine duSante Zaeres (mage)
- Fuller Taeth (mercenary - warrior)
- Aeryin Vals (guardian - cleric/warrior)
- Myrr (angel - cleric)
- Ariel: Atrocious, something about being nuts, tends to say all the wrong things if she's even paying attention at all
- Vardaman: Good, but tends to say too much when drunk (and is usually drunk), also very jaded
- Coraline: Decent, but clueless about the world and later drunk
- Zaeres: Excellent right up until the point where he loses interest
- Fuller: Questionable, though good at yelling/threatening
- Aeryin: Decent, in the sense that she's actually sane and capable of carrying on a conversation
- Myrr: Terrible, serious communication barriers
In the game, Fuller is listed as the party leader. So long as his wife is with him, he's not really the party leader. (Though here the leader proper would be Coraline.)
Vardaman or Aeryin often take point in anything involving talking to people, unless Ariel says something stupid first. She usually does.
- Ariel: *pokes it with a stick*
- Vardaman: "Ugh, not again."
- Coraline: *shoots it*
- Zaeres: "I'll just stand over here and see what happens."
- Fuller: "Attack everything! Attack!"
- Aeryin: "Take point. I've got your back."
- Myrr: "Is this our concern?"
Why don't Vardaman and Zaeres have any problems with each other? Deathdealers do not tolerate vampires, nor any undead, but especially vampires... not that Vardaman is at all typical of a deathdealer.
Fuller and Aeryin are married. It makes as little sense to them as to anyone else, and yet it works. Potentially too well at times - when you see them in battle it all falls into place.
- Ariel: Eapherod ("Is the Dreamer a god? I thought she was just a voice in my head.")
- Vardaman: Kyrule ("Don't get me started on gods. Don't even.")
- Coraline: n/a (*mutters something about foot fungus*)
- Zaeres: n/a ("I make my own divinity.")
- Fuller: Orin ("Huh?")
- Aeryin: Orin ("What about them?")
- Myrr: Kyrule ("I serve Kyrule, and act as his will upon the world.")
- Ariel: Chaotic neutral (She's insane, but not necessarily good or evil. Just insane.)
- Vardaman: Lawful neutral (The world is harsh. And so is he.)
- Coraline: Neutral (Lawful about some things, chaotic about others. She generally means well, but her logical approach to overall problems often leads her to do things that others would consider to be quite cruel.)
- Zaeres: Lawful evil (Usually a decent guy to be around unless you manage to tick him off. Won't help at all unless he likes you, though.)
- Fuller: Neutral evil (He really likes to attack things. Doesn't have very good manners. Not sadistic or cruel, though, just belligerent.)
- Aeryin: Neutral good (Too practical to be considered lawful in practice, though she usually leans toward it. Finds Fuller's antics to be more funny than anything else.)
- Myrr: Lawful good (She's an angel and the right hand (or possibly wing) of a lawful deity.)
Vardaman and an angel
If he thought you'd gone on that oath, I wouldn't be here.
Right... well... That's not all there is to it.
I haven't slept in almost two months now.
Avatar of Eapherod
Trap for a SOMETHING NOT GOOD
More heap or something
She gave him a look normally reserved for the criminally insane: utter fascination.
Go on, then. You will find the keys to the cupboard behind he who reigns king of the sandcastle. Riddle? Sort of. But you'll see what I mean. Pass the gates, find the mongoose, and you shall see.
Notes on the Death of Souls
- Contagion: Usually folks just die immediately as a result of contagion, as opposed to turning, hence relatively low spread
- Spread by those who don't just die ('carriers') trying to eat their souls - hunger the result of trying to fill the resulting hole?
- Early stages (0-3 days)
- Intermediate (0-4 days)
- insatiable, overwhelming hunger
- loss of awareness
- seeing things that aren't there
- hearing voices
- loss of ability to sleep
- extreme twitchiness
- eyes turn black
- End (0-7 days)
- utter madness
- voices shouting
- loss of soul/self
- Longest recorded carrier lasted 11 weeks. Survived by application of soulbinding and devouring the souls of spirit forms. Succeeded in curing the infection from self; method used and current whereabouts unknown.
- Longest recorded non-magical carrier lasted 13 days since initial infection.
- Average lifespan for carriers: 5 days.
BOUNTY: Black soul gems (Carrier 'souls' turn black in soul gems). Bounty only allows one black soul gem at a time. Attempts to turn in more than two at a time result in no bounty, confiscation, and a black mark (to stave off practice of allowing infection for monetary gain)
Bounty put out as a result of sudden rash of outbreaks that occurred 2-3 years ago; rates are down again, but the disease/curse remains more common now than it used to be.
Carrying soul gems may help to prevent infection upon normal contact; use of soul gem upon Carrier death appears to reliably prevent the curse jumping to nearby hosts.
Upon carrier death, Death of Souls appears to have a ~20% chance of jumping to any nearby living creature of sufficient base soul type. Jumping to two from a single dead host has been observed/reported once.
The Heresy of the Betrayer - Introduction
"'Justice' is an illusion, a story told by those who need something understandable and concrete with which to comfort themselves. It applies in specific cases, and it works in various contexts, but it doesn't scale. When you look too closely, the illusion falls apart."
The simple story goes that Shalias zu Harenai, daughter of the then ruling house of Meloroth, betrayed her people and her God, and in her arrogance she fled, releasing the Death of Souls upon the worlds in order to escape her own punishment.
This is not the truth.
- family from Melorath
- grew up on cerris with brother and mother
- little known about childhood
- apparently went off and did stuff
- contracted death of souls
- soulbinding and devouring souls of spirit forms
- investigated binding for larger forms, to replace what seemed to be missing
- Eventually traced the 'missing' to the between/passing/dealy/place
- opened up a gate on the Amn
- needs strife, war.
The truth is that Shalias was no betrayer at all. Her faith, even tested, was stronger than we see in all the worlds. What she did was done with dangerous reason, and so we tell the simple story to guard not just our own selves, but Shalias herself.
But while the narrative must remain in place, this story leaves no room for the real story, which must also have its place, for without truth, what have we but nothing at all? What have we but masks, and lies, and dreams?
It is almost heresy to make this connection at all, but only in faith can we accept the reason, and tell the story as the story is. Guard this story, keep it hidden, but do not dare to destroy it.
- - Harramont of Ammarand
The story of Shalias the Betrayer is often told with only one. But there were two of them. Twins. Shalias, who lived. Murias, who came before.
Shalias only became involved at all because she tried to save her brother.
Shalias chose to abandon her path. After everything, she chose to give up, to surrender, to put the Death of Souls back into the world.
Why? Why in the name of all things shiny would she do that?
- incident - resurrection
- incident - decision 1
- incident - decision 2
- incident - no decision
- incident - fractured soul
- The Betrayer
- The first time
- Ascension song
- The Keepers
- Apostate of stories
- Defiant Hand
- The third world
There is a notion of 'the first time'. Of something else that happened, and is no more. Events bleeding out, tinting the world as we know it and see it.
Something happened, and unhappened.
Eapherod broke the seals, severing the connections between these worlds and the third, the world that never was, that could not exist. The others stopped Her, but by then it was already too late, for the world itself began to unravel, setting in motion a chain of events that only ended much, much later, in what we now know only as the Exodus.
What we do not know is why. She never said.
- (Written in the margin is "It was an accident!")
My name is Dalesong Anew. I am a librarian, and I am sworn to secrecy. This cannot work, and so I shall make anew. The apostasy of stories.
This Book shall be your creation. What you believe is up to you. What you do with it is up to you. These are the stories, kept secret now and forever, and yet here, in one place, they shall mingle and be known, put down to paper. A record, exact.
In each Lineage there is a Keeper, and another Keeper, and in each iteration the secrets are passed on, each to each. I do not believe in secrets. I do not believe in hiding. All things that are hold merit, all truths should thrive in the light. If there is danger in truth, if it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.
- (Remember the Cold War? Everything was secrets and lies, and is was only what people knew, the more people who knew it, that prevented total devastation.)
But here I am also bound, bound to keep this secret. But I am a Librarian, and I put knowledge into the hands of the people.
Three stories stood out. The story of Shalias, the story of the 'first time', and the story of the dragon that did not seem quite to exist.
Shalias' was by far the most complicated, spanning a lifetime and more.
The 'first time' wasn't even really a story at all, more an idea that came up from time to time. It was clear that there was a story there, however, written between the lines, scoped in the space between events, but it was never approached directly.
The dragon felt far more familiar than it should.
I will stab you all with a giant tuna.
- gaher - hmong (Kuv yuav nkaug koj tag nrho nrog ib tug loj heev tuna.)
- soravia - slovenian (Vse vas bo zabodel z velikan tuna.)
- deslau - malay (Saya akan menikam anda semua dengan tuna gergasi.)
- abaeranoth - german (Ich werde euch alle mit einem riesigen Thunfisch zu erstechen.)
- lesk - afrikaans (Ek sal julle almal steek met 'n reuse-tuna.)