Outworld/The Porcelain Garden
It was easy to see that The Garden had once been beautiful. Every inch of the floating island was covered in some form of life, each flower hinting at the once-vibrant colours that had patterned the ground and walls, drawing the eye to the city at its very core and the stark white building that was held within. The denizens had been diligent in their care, enough that patches of rich red still remained within the rose fields, clear blues shone in the pools and ponds, and the crisp trees still stood proud against the grey sky. But not even their attentive tending could fill cracks in a breaking heart and each day that passed took a fraction more colour with it.
She sat where she often did, at the Wailing Ridge, overlooking the endless sunset of the Liberated Skies. A heavy cloak trimmed with midnight furs and icy white buckles did little to protect her from the bitter wind that gave her sanctuary its name (for no matter which way it blew in the endless sunset, it howled like a wolf to the moon). Nonetheless, she pulled it tighter around her shoulders. In the far distance, she could just about make out the islands bathed in the golden warmth of endless dusk.
“Raise up for freedom, The Infinite Dawn…” The tune tasted acrid on her lips. “Trust them to forget the name of our very mission.” A simple sad smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Below her the air stretched for miles. All it would have taken was a shift forward and she’d be lost to the skies forever, tumbling down through cloud and wind for eternity as far as her eyes could tell. No ground below to catch her. The danger of it all felt almost like home.
She flinched as her thoughts were shattered by the chilling whine of a siren, its continuous shifting note haunting and hollow. Impossible to ignore. Gingerly she eased herself up off the ledge and turned her back to the view.
The sight of a waiting messenger very nearly put her care to waste.
Her footing slipped. The horizon jerked. She shut her eyes and felt the wind swell around her.
His hands found hers with impressive speed and a single sharp tug was enough to carry her forward to firm ground.
“Apologies for starling you comrade-- ”
“I told you to stop calling me that,” She interrupted, snatching her hands out of the elder’s steading grip and causing an awkward pause to linger. Even on death's doorstep, the old rank still made her twitch.
“Apologies, Gatling, but you seemed deep in thought. I did not wish to disturb.” The tired looking ex-libcorp waved a dismissive hand, still failing to look the other in the eye as she passed him by. She couldn’t remember when she last looked at anyone directly, just that the gaze had been swimming in disappointment. She heard the other - a rugged looking man, with sharp, perpetually furrowed eyebrows - jog to catch up to her. She tried desperately to ignore how easily the two of them fell into marching step, side-by- side. Somethings, she guessed, would take more than just time to forget.
Her eyes started to scan the horizon, the siren growing louder as they made their way towards the center gardens. It took her a long moment to catch sight of the ship cresting over the skyline behind the palace but when she did her breath caught and her heart stopped. Was this it? Was today the day? Was it finally over?
“Com-- ” He managed to catch the word just as her sharp brown eyes pinned him sideways, annoyance breaking through the questions that the encroaching arrival conjured in her mind.
Which one of them, she wondered, had they sent to do it? Axel would have the most benefit, she supposed, but Barrage would probably demand it was someone else. Her heart shuddered again, pit of her stomach sinking. What if it was one of the Persistence?
“Jet sent for you.” Back at the Inner Assembly that would have been enough. Someone wanted to see you? You went. No questions asked, no hesitation allowed. Now Gatling waited for more information, matching closer to the town at the heart of her world. To whatever awaited her when the ship docked at the trading post. Eventually, the man continued. “She, she said something arrived for you. A letter?”
All at once everything seemed to slow down. The siren didn’t matter anymore, no longer cracking through her mind's eye, ship casting a shadow over everything. Even the cutting wind seemed to stop.
Isolation is a funny thing. It can bring about complete serenity, mind spread open and accepting, leaving every inch of you free to explore the infinite possibilities of the world and everything in it. Or it can nore at the mind instead, forcing you to focus on one event, over and over until it defines you and you forget that anything else ever existed.
That the rest of the outworld ever existed.
“You’re Welcome!” The messenger shouted with a roll of his eyes and a wry smile, watching the shaper running towards the center of the island. The smile faltered, however, as his eyes flicked to the ship slipping out of sight and into the docks.
The pages might have well have been gold dust, the way her fingers barely grazed them as her eyes drank in every word. The script was so familiar - despite her only ever having seen it maybe 3 times in her life - and the key in her hand cold and solid, grounding her.
Reminding her why she did what she did.
“Jet, you are in charge for a bit. I have a journey to start.”
The docks were the hive of business and commerce, the west wind ushering in the busiest hours of the day. Now Gatling used the hood to shield her face from view rather than the winds bitter bite. She wasn’t stupid. She knew what the rev corps did to instil their ideology when biscuits were no longer enough, and the docks? They were Valve's, through and through.
She closed her fingers around the key at her neck and tugged the hood further over her face.
Of course, in all the rush of excitement, she had completely forgotten about the siren and the incoming ship. His face was so familiar - even if it felt like a lifetime since she had last seen it - and his words carried effortlessly through the noise of the crowd.
The journey would have to wait just a little longer, it seemed.
Blue-White Collar Integration
Authors: At Dawn and At Dusk and "Ten Count" Markowitz
Perhaps it was because, up until now, At Dawn and at Dusk’s day had been so abhorrently normal and the universe felt that she needed some excitement in her life. Perhaps it was Karma rearing it’s ugly head, having decided now was the appropriate time to call in one of the dozen or so debts she owed. Perhaps it was simple random chance. It didn’t especially matter to the newly-graduated Penitent - what did matter was that the sun was setting rapidly and yet she could still hear voices somewhere in her Garden.
The Garden was by no means meant to be forbidden or out of bounds, so voices in and of themselves wouldn’t ring any warning bells, but Dawn’s petitioners had proven very good about respecting her wishes for occasional privacy. It was understood that the dawn and the dusk were her times to be alone and until right now, that line had not been crossed.
“…the wonderful thing about being part of the organization, you really gain an appreciation for excess.” There was an unpleasant snorting noise and a deep sigh as Dawn took a careful step onto the wet grass, not entirely sure why she was sneaking around her own home. “Now you try.”
“Is it safe?”
“Safer than anything I’d do to myself,” said the steadily-becoming- less-of- a-mystery man with a laugh. “If it’s too much for you, I promise I’ll Shape you back to health. Same goes for the rest of you, my lovelies, the Margin Drivers never let a quality asset expire.” Dawn stepped around the blackberry bushes screening the hot spring and sighed, because of course it was him, surrounded by her people like he was starting a harem. Shapers came and went in Outworld as they pleased, but who else would turn up and start a sales pitch?
Backlit by the setting sun and a theatrical breeze, a tiny part of Dawn wondered how it would look in the propaganda shots; that instinct was getting quieter by the day, even if it might never completely die. “Markowitz.”
“Dawn!” cried Ten Count, smile stretching wider than ever. “I was beginning to think I’d have to stop having fun and go find you myself, how’ve you been?”
“I always thought you Opportunists had an odd idea of fun. I’d personally call it more of a death wish, turning up unannounced to a former Combine Liberator’s territory, attempting to sell danger to said shaper’s petitioners.” She raised an eyebrow at him, face plastered with skepticism. Still, the corner of her mouth tugged upwards as much as she tried to hide it behind a glare. Behind them both, the mob of monochrome and maroon clad onlookers looked between their god and the would-be salesman. Dawn held out her hand. “Come on, hand it over.”
Sealing the plastic baggie back up, Ten Count tossed it lightly over, Dawn catching it effortlessly in one hand. “I would like to have it on the record that I feel hurt and offended by these accusations,” he said, pointing at the vivid orange dust. “I gave your wonderful people my word - on my honour as a Margin Driver and don’t you dare laugh - that I would take total care of them. Besides, that stuff’s barely narcotic, it’s designed for people who’ve never indulged before.” Spreading his hands wide, he added an extra half-inch to his grin. “See? Completely safe.”
“Are you asking me to trust you?” Her tone carried her smirk as she turned the baggie over in her hand. “Nothing this shade of orange can be considered safe, Markowitz.” With a measured twist of her arm, the baggie was sailing back through the air towards the Opportunist.
“Rude,” Ten Count replied without rancour, snatching it back and putting it to his chest. “See? It’s the same colour as my shirt, and that’s entirely safe.” One or two of Dawn’s smarter people were taking the opportunity to sidle away, just in case the scene went sour. “I don’t understand why you and your mob have such an aversion to chromatology.”
“Shirts are only as safe as the people wearing them,” Dawn rallied, “and need I remind you the one letter I have received from you was covered in blood.” She turned to smile at her people, gently encouraging the dispersal. “What is there not to be averse to? It's… it's chroma- chromo-- they’re bad!” “Yes, but it wasn’t my blood.” Ten Count gently squeezed the shoulder of the woman who’d been at his right hand earlier as she passed. “Come find me at the Nexus if you’re still feeling adventurous. I’ll introduce you to the genius who actually makes this stuff.”
Dawn could only shake her head in despair. “Did you really come here just to flirt with my people? Or is there an actual reason for...whatever this is?”
“What can I say? I’m always on the outlook for attractive people who might be open to a little more sensation in their lives, it’s what I do.” Stowing away his latest vice in the ubiquitous tactical vest, the Margin Driver walked past Dawn and plucked a leaf off the blackberry bush. “I’m a natural bad influence. Do I get a tour, or…?” He left the sentence hanging and popped the leaf into his mouth.
Dawn’s exasperate sigh was only a little softened by the begrudging smile as she twitched her cloak closed. “Well, since you asked so nicely,” she muttered, mostly lost to the winds. A mischevious look broke through the surface for a second and she added, “I wouldn’t eat those, if I were you.” “Why not? Tastes nice,” mumbled the Margin Driver, picking a second leaf for the road.
“Yes,” Dawn said, almost as an afterthought as she strode off. “Most poisons do.” Ten Count spat the leaf out, too quick to hear her teasing laughter and register she was teasing.
“...and this is the Wailing Ridge.” A good hour and varying levels of small talk later, Dawn stood at the edge of her little world, hands on her hips and looking out at the ocean. The winds of Horizon paled in comparison to those she’d endured in the Liberated Skies, but if one listened closely it was possible to still hear the cries of it rushing in and out of the caves deep below.
“Cheerful place,” said Ten Count, sitting down on the edge of the cliff and letting his aching feet dangle free. “Really captures the spirit of the Order.” Dawn snorted.
“Quite, I've nearly fallen off this cliff more than once.” She carefully tucked her skirt up under he knees and sat herself on the ledge as well. “It’s a shame we missed the sunset, the view is something quite spectacular, but if I’m right...any second now…” As her words trailed, the stars began to blink gently into life, first a handful of bright pinpricks in the dark velvet sky that grew into a twisting band of colours that danced and twined around themselves. Quietly - so quietly it seemed ethereal, the music you heard in your head and couldn’t say for sure whether it was real or not - the wordless song of the exodus rose up. Dawn couldn’t help but look on in pride. “Best light show this side of the breach.”
The silence sat for a few moments before Dawn realised she wasn’t imagining the whistling noise; Ten Count was gazing out, transfixed by the dance of the aurora, and whistling a strange tune. Whether he felt it she couldn’t say, but the change in tone over the last hour made for an awkward air. “Where we’re from,” he murmured, maybe not even for her to hear, “the lights paint their pretty songs. And there’s always music in the air.” Unwanted or not, the Margin Driver was still a guest in her home and it felt rude to Dawn for her to interrupt his reverie; nevertheless, she was glad to see him snap himself out of the strange little trance. “Sorry about that. I was miles away.”
“It is breathtaking,” Dawn said, offering a convenient excuse. “I’ve lost hours before staring at the bridge. You can see the whole town from here as well,” she added, pointing back the way they’d came. “Those are the old air docks, the apple tree was where a gun emplacement used to be and...I’m going to put Soar’s lake just there.”
“Soar made you a lake?”
“Yes, at the last Nexus. I didn't have the chance to place it due to-- well, you know how it is.” She shrugged, kicking the heels of her boots back against the chalk and watching the flecs get caught up in the wind “But he said he wanted to tweak it anyway, so I guess it works out.”
“You were lucky. All he did with me was break in and adjust my desk chair.” She chuckled while Ten Count took another pinch of the sickening orange dust and sniffed heavily. “Are you sure I can’t offer you some? It’s relatively mild.”
Dawn’s eyes narrowed at the sand like substance, nose wrinkling ever so slightly. “Relative to what exactly?” In spite of her expression, the words held no contempt, no disdain, just the tiniest note of curiosity.
“Relative to the gear I normally deal in,” Ten Count replied, dodging the question adroitly and grinning cheekily. “This is Vitamin Glee, the tutorial version, designed for people who want to make the world sparkle but aren’t anywhere near as desensitised as I am. But, if you’re scared by it...”
“No!” Dawn cut in, surprising herself with how quick off the mark she was. “No, that’s no...that’s not what I said, what I meant.” She bit her lip for a moment, worrying the flesh to a sharp red before speaking up.
“Do you have to...y’know…” she sniffed loudly, doing her best to mimic Ten Count a few moments before.
“It doesn’t really seem like...well, like it’s very pleasant.”
Ten Count waved a hand airily. “Is that all you’re concerned about? That’s the beauty of Vitamin Glee, it’s completely indiscriminate. Snort it, swallow it, smoke it, syringe it, it all does the same thing. Tell you what,” he added, tossing the bag back once again, “keep it, we’ll call this a trial run. You did always look like you needed cheering up.” Dawn caught it once more with ease, saying nothing as she held his stare - his smile didn’t touch his eyes.
“Thanks, I guess.” She said quietly.
“You’re most welcome.” Ten Count turned back to the cliff edge, breaking eye contact first, and coughed.
“I’ve been here for hours and you still haven’t asked why.”
“You mean you aren’t here to get me hooked on narcotics?” She bumped her shoulder against his, her tone light and teasing as she tried to clear the air. His smile had left a rock in her stomach. Dawn looked back out across the ocean. “I figured you’d tell me when you needed to.”
“Are you happy, Dawn?” Ten Count felt the Penitent freeze beside him and gave her a sideways look, his smile gone. “When your people leave you, when the sun goes down and you’re all alone, are you happy?”
“I have happy moments. I was happy when I graduated into the Order. I have laughed with my people and I’ve… I..”
Ten Count smiled sadly. “I didn’t think so. You broke out of the Combine’s bonds, walked into the loving arms of the Penitent Order and neither of them have actually done a damn thing for whoever it is in there.” He gently put a finger to Dawn’s forehead. “Not At Dawn and at Dusk and not Liberator Gatling.”
“Maybe so. But have you ever considered that maybe it’s not about us? But about them?” She turned to look over her shoulder and back to the town. By now the lamps were lit and the townsfolk were slowly starting to disappear into their homes, the streets reflecting the colours above. “I feel like I am in the right place to help them now. Even if it means only having moments.”
“A laudable attitude. Thing is, who’s going to help your kind and sweet townsfolk when you’re a burned- out wreck of a human? You’ll govern this wonderful utopia, this city of peace and harmony where nobody goes hungry and everybody is happy, and you’ll sit there, in your salt palace, and…well.” Ten Count put two fingers under his chin. “Boom. You can’t pour from an empty glass, Dawn, and you are emptying out.” Dawn’s eyes traced the silhouette of the salt palace in the darkness, its shape melting a little more each day and shook her head. “So what would you have me do? Get high? Smile with the same emptiness you have behind your eyes? When was the last time you were truly happy, Ten Count?”
“I have my moments.” He was throwing her words back in her face. “But truthfully, I’m pretty happy even when I’m off the Glee. I’m a simple man, I have simple pleasures and like I told you before, I’ve learned how not to give a single shit about what anybody else thinks of me.” Ten Count paused, then verbally backspaced. “Almost anybody, that should be. You’re trying to save the world, I’m just here to have a good time.”
There was a pause - not an awkward one, this time, more akin to the lull in a firefight when both sides need to reload, neither sure which one of them would break the silence first.
“Why do you care whether I’m happy or not?” The whisper was only just loud enough to be picked up over the ayra from below, but Dawn knew he would hear it.
“I’ve already told you once.” Ten Count said, short without being curt, and looked quickly at his wrist. “And much as I’d like to, I don’t have the time to go back into it. Take this,” he added, pressing a small package into her unresisting hand.
Dawn stared at it, curiously and with more than a little confusion. “What is…” she started to ask, before realising Ten Count was gone, coat flapping in the crosswind as he strode off. He had every appearance of a man who enjoyed verbal sparring; Dawn was at a loss to explain the sudden change in mood. Still gripping the tiny pouch of Glee, she awkwardly picked apart the paper until she uncovered a not unreasonably sized, unassuming black box with two small silver hinges. Prying it open, the ever shifting lights of the bridge caught and glinted on the silver with in. Dawn found a silver necklace laying innocently on the crushed velvet cushioning - a twisted silver loop surrounding what looked to be a flaming circle.
Resting just above it was a note.
The fires of dawn burn strong. Remember that, will you? - 10C
With only the wind left to keep her company, the Penitent stared at the unexpected gift with wide eyes, fingers gently rubbing the cool metal as if not quite believing it real. Questions flooded into Dawn’s head - questions that now, infuriatingly, were going to be without answers for some time. Why had he given her something like this? What did it mean? Was it expensive?! Optimistically, more out of hope than legitimate expectation, she cast a look over her shoulder but Ten Count was long gone. Besides, even if she asked she doubted he’d tell her.
It was… pretty. Tasteful. Less gaudy than she would have expected from a man who seemed to have decided to dip himself in paint since their last encounter. Her lip caught between her teeth once more and her fingers found a small brass key where it currently hung, low around her neck. All it took was a short, sharp tug for the chain to come loose and she pulled it away. With a little deft work, she fixed the cool silver in it’s place. “I’ll sort you later,” she muttered, wrapping the key and chain around her wrist and tying it into place. Just one last thing…
The little bit of orange still lay in the grass, standing out almost malignantly among the natural colours; stooping, Dawn plucked it from the ground and let it dangle from two fingers, regarding it in the light of the moon and the dancing stars.
“Are you happy, Dawn?”
The power didn’t feel rough between her fingers like she had expected it too, but instead soft and somehow smooth. It tasted like fire on her tongue. Smiling to herself, Dawn closed the baggie once more and headed back towards the town.
Prophet held in Thought
Authors By My Crooked Teeth and At Dusk And At Dawn
The Garden was beautiful. Crooked had never seen it in daylight before, the sun was shining, the plants in bloom. It was radiant, it was….hopeful. Yes, that was the right word no matter how alien it sounded in his head. ‘I said I would be your hope old man.’ the words rattled in his head, he smiled and shook his head despite himself. The smile faded when he remembered why he was there. He had made a mistake in a moment of weakness and now he wanted to atone. He had sent a letter, but he decided that a more concrete gesture was required.
He made his way towards the tree, the apple tree constantly in bloom. It looked just like the one that appeared in the Gallery whenever Dawn would visit. Here was as good a place as any he thought. He reached inside his satchel and pulled out a metal and wooden box. It was old, worn and had a suspicious burn on its side. He reached up and slotted it into the branches.
“Good luck.” Crooked said before he turned around and left. He did not know if he was wanted here, but hopefully it would not be the last time that he saw this Garden.
Dawn frowned up at the box, sitting in the apple tree as comfortably as if it had bloomed from the very branches holding it aloft. The soft pink light of the early morning dawn splintered off the polished silver, sparking in her eye as she tried to get a better look at it. It most certainly hadn’t been there the dawn before, which meant that whoever had left it had to have come and gone without her noticing. With a soft sigh, she plucked it from the tree and carefully placed it in her basket along with the apples from the day's harvest.
“Sorry Soar, Fall,” She muttered as she head back to her house. “Looks like my meditation is on hold for today.”
The sun was high in the sky and streaming through the window into the small, cluttered, yet homely kitchen, when the box hit hard wooden table with a rather dull thunk. Stepping down off the chair Dawn eyed it carefully for a moment before letting out a long, heavy sigh.
“It was worth a try.”
Over the past two hours, the youngest Penitent had discovered 4 things about the box: Firstly, the box had no seams to it. No hinges or holes, no locks either. It was, as far as she could physically tell, a solid cube.
Secondly, despite this, the box was impossibly worn. Aside for the burn scarring one corner, the surface was soft and smoothed from what must have been years of handling. The box was old.
Thirdly, the only seemingly purposeful marking on the box was a small, intricate symbol of a sunrise in raised silver, which she had either missed or had not been there in the first hour of her investigation.
Lastly, the box was stunning.
With exasperation, Dawn plopped back into the wooden seat, plucking an apple from the basket by her feet and biting into it with a fresh crack. As she chewed in though, her eye carefully scrutinized the silver symbol. The raised edges glinted in the sun invitingly and almost on instinct she reached out with her free hand to trail her fingers along the almost sharp edges. With a soft click a square of wood surrounding the symbol popped free and a piece of paper tumbled onto the table top.
Setting the apple aside, Dawn carefully unfolded the letter in an all too familiar script. She found herself smiling as she read.
I offer you a lesson if you will accept it. The box before you is a remnant of the Summit. It is referred to as a Prophet held in thought. Or a Prophet Box among others. Inside there is something that is yours. The box will present you with a puzzle or a question and for each challenge you solve a lock will open. There are seven locks. The idea was to meditate on the knowledge you have learned with the incentive of wisdom inside. This was mine a long long time ago. Now it is yours. Something that I believe you might find interesting. If you accept the challenge then close the slot that this note came in and place your hands either side of the box and press. Then it will start. Good luck my student.
“I should have guessed it was you, old man.” She shook her head, folding the small note back up and slotting it back in its place with another soft click. Picking the apple back up, she took another bite and leaned back, regarding the box further while toying with the key around her neck. It hung now off a stip of black close to her neck, its original home now taken by a larger statement necklace. “Should have just come and said hi... “ She smiled softly glancing out the window and finishing off the crispy fruit in just a few more bites. Tossing the core into the bin, her hands clasped the sides of the Prophet Box and pressed firmly by softly. With a sharp click and a whirring sound the box grew pleasantly warm against her palms, almost as if a small light had ignited inside it at her touch. The top slowly seemed to shape and twist like iron filings being moved by a magnet. They danced in front of her eyes forming impossibly intricate patterns and pictures until they shuddered into place forming a puzzle - a confusing collection of shapes and lines. Beneath this was a simple phrase, etched into the wood in silver.
‘Where all have climbed save one.’
Dawn arched an eyebrow. “Really Crooks? That’s easy,” She muttered, leaning back once more, box still in her hands. “It’s the Summit, where all bar one of the Penitent Order conducted their studies under the watchful eyes of the Sublime Concord.”
The wood morphed in front of her eyes once more moving back to one of the previous pictures. It was a beautiful, vast mountain range with hundreds of tiny detailed buildings lining its sides at the top a hooded figure with arms out stretched. The etchings rewrote themselves:
‘Not all climb with hands and feet, some climb through thought and deed, we all still climb.’
“There is always something to learn.” Dawn agreed to the empty room as the box clicked and the first lock disengaged. With a blink the puzzle is gone, the representation of the summit crumbled to show the mountain in ruins before it too vanished completely. In it’s place was a single line of text, dark and bold in comparison to the fluid silver text from before.
‘If you give me food I will live, if you give me drink I will die, what am I?’ Even as she watched, the box’s surface morphed again, providing a small strip of white parchment under the riddle. Placing it back on the table, Dawn stood, walking to her old saddle bag on the side and pulling out her pen as she turned the words over in her mind.
“Food to live, drink to die. Food to live, drink to die…” She muttered the words over as she paced. “You can drink poisons and that would kill you, but you can also eat them.” A small chuckle caught in the corner of her lips as she recalled a recent visitor, spitting out food she had teased was poisonous. Absent mindedly, her fingers traced over the lines of the flames which mottled over the silver circle of her newer necklace. “Flames… Of course! Needs fuel to survive, but is extinguished by water.” A bounce in her step, she returned to the table and in smooth looped writing filled the blank parchment space with the word ‘Fire’.
“Though you know Crooks,” she mused as the box clicked for a second time, “if you gave a a fire a fair drink of engine’s vodka, it would hardly be complaining.” The second lock apparently undone, despite the ex-liberators comment, the prophet box unbiasedly ((whoo hoo)) produced its silver last silver comment on the matter - ‘What we lose in the fire, we find in the ashes.’ - before that too vanish and a question appeared to replace the riddle.
‘Which is more valuable, the past, the present or the future?’
The ink with which she had supplied her previous answer faded into the parchment, which in turn grew to accommodate a larger answer. Dawn whistled. “Now we’re getting deep.” By this point the sun was high enough in the sky that the Garden was sleepily coming to life. Outside her window dawn could see the town in the distance, petitioners small as ants starting to populate the streets as they began the day’s work. Some on their way to the old air docks, preparing the sell and trade goods - the monetization of products still something Dawn was uncertain she was okay with but letting her people deal with alone. Others were heading out into the Gardens themselves - ready to tend to the fields and flower beds and promote growth for the coming harvest.
Dawns lips curved into a soft sad smile and leaned forward to write.
‘The future is valuable to the opportunity seekers, those who wish to make a change. It is a moldable state not yet fixed. The present is valuable to those who have impulse - who do not care for plans or thought. It is a constant. The past is valuable to those who would learn, the people looking for answers. It is a teacher. Value is in the eye of the beholder and the circumstances there in.’
With a small nod, Dawn sat back, watching as the ink dried and for a second she wondered if she had got it wrong but as if the box had just been considering her answer a moment later the ink faded on parchment and the answering line appeared, written in the familiar swirling hand she knew so well ‘The Future becomes the Present, The Present becomes the Past. The Past informs the Present and the Present informs the Future. The flow of time is a circle, seen as a straight line. All are found along the road. All stand equal.’ Rewarded with a third click, the student watches as her tutors writing fades, absorbed like the rest into the box. Once more the curiosity comes to life, the sand like material moving in a drift, showing a moving scene. A battle, fierce and thick with four soldiers raised from the rest. As before, soft silver words are written below.
‘A war is declared. Four friends agree to fight, the first for blind loyalty towards their country. The Second for the joy of battle and the ending of life. The third for the belief in the cause the army stands for. And the fourth to protect the first three. Who is fighting for the right reasons?’
If there had been anyone around to witness they would have seen At Dawn and At Dusk become still as stone and about the same shade. Her hand hovered half way towards pushing the damned thing as far away as she could, torn between sheer impulse and something still so frustratingly unfamiliar to her. Taking a long shaking breath, her eyes slid closed and her hand lowered to rest on the table.
Her lips twitched, shadowing a smile for a flicker of a moment. “Meditate on the knowledge, huh.” She breathed, too many minutes later. Her eyes opened and calmly she reached out and with the flat of her palm pushed each of the soldiers down at once. “So long as it is your choice to fight, no one has the right to judge your reasons.”
To her surprise, the fourth lock clicked open inside the box allowing the box to shift ever onwards. She ran her fingers over her palm, still feeling the outlines where the hard edges of the figures had pressed against her palm.
Shaking herself from the daze, Dawn looked towards the new question.
“If you break me, I do not stop working. If you touch me I may be snared. If you lose me nothing will matter. What am I?”
This brought a chuckle passed the woman’s lips, an eyebrow arching as if to challenge the box itself. “Something you claim not to have, old man.” She drew her pen across the
supplied parchment, four little letters writing as she spoke. “Hope, Crooks. You’ve got to have hope.”
The fifth lock clicked loose at the answer, her expression decidedly smug as the sixth question appeared.
‘What have you learned?’
“Bit vague that one…” She retorted, having now established some sort of rapport with the thing. “Not to take strange boxes out of trees?” The air filled with soft tapping as nails drummed against the table in thought. “It’s been 15 damn years... you couldn’t have narrowed it down a bit could you.”
“What have you learned from the Prophet Box?” The box replied in Crooked’s hand writing. Dawn blinked.
“Better.” She said simply, trying to push down a small smile and maintain her mild annoyance. She was failing. Letting out, yet another, deep sigh she leaned on the table and thought hard. The minutes ticked by, pen denoting each group of seconds with a tap to replace the drumming of fingers. Her lip caught between her teeth. Her eyes gazed out down at the town.
“You are never done learning.”
The words seeped into the provided parchment and faded as they were absorbed. The Sixth lock clicked in reply happy with the answer.
Dawn stretched, mentally counting the riddles and questions faced and grinning when she noted she was on the last one. The box was no different though, the surface rippling and dancing as it reformed and shaped to present the final question.
‘In many hallways you would stand, If not for this in your hand. What am I?’ It took all of the young woman’s strength not to roll her eyes as she laughed. “This would be harder if you didn’t have such strong ‘branding’, By My Crooked Teeth.” Simply, she wrote the word ‘Key’ in the ever present space and placed the pen’s cap back into place.
However, instead of the usual click she had become so accustomed to, the Prophet Box emitted the soft sliding sound of wood on wood. Taking a closer look, noticed the seam now appearing around the sides broken only now by a small keyhole. With quick fingers and broad smile, Dawn untied the ribbon at her neck and slid her key into place and turned. Inside the box there were three things.
The first was a picture, one she recognised immediately and brought the smile wide across her face. It was from the Nexus, a collection of Order members at Dawn’s graduation. On the back there was names of each Penitent and the note in a familiar hand.
‘To remember what you have achieved. A new Dawn.’
Her fingers traced along the writing before she set it aside to continue inspecting the contents.
The second was a folded note.
I trust that was informative, and likely irritating in places. Lucky the box is self repairing so if the box is broken no harm done. I am sorry for the words I said. I hope you can forgive an old man his foolishness. Know that I will always be proud of you for what you have achieved, and all you will. I know we will have much to discuss and much to mend. But what is one more thing to redeem for? I promised you something that is yours. I made it not long after the last Nexus. I thought of your Garden, that it brought life and sustenance to all who walk among it. I thought of the flower you wore and the meaning of flowers. If you grow a vegetable you can sustain life. You can keep the functions of the body operating. If you grow herbs you can season food and grow medicines. But what of Flowers? They are beautiful but you cannot eat it. Not all of them can bring you health some are dangerous to your health. But there is a reason for them I think. Flowers bring beauty, they inspire, they feed the mind and the soul. I wonder if I am correct in my thinking. You being the Gardener I expect you can teach me. At the last Nexus you wore a flower red as your old life. I give you one that bares the colour of the path you chose.
The last thing in the box was a broach, oval and framed in silver. In the centre was a single white rose against a black background. Dawn picked it up carefully, smiling softly. “We have so much to talk about…” Her hand pressed the box shut and moved it to her window sill, sitting it next to a pair of battered goggles.
“I’ll see you at the Nexus, Crooked.”
Practical Relationship Management
Author: At Dawn and At Dusk and Ten Count Markowitz
Even in the soft golden light of the midday sun, the Porcelain Garden looked creepy. Where once rolling green hills had bordered the north, blanket white fields of porcelain grass now threatened to crack underfoot. The vast and extensive flower patches of the town center now housed sickly sweet pastel petals, reflecting the light with unnerving brightness. A few patches seemed to have escaped the soulforge’s touch - the ever blossoming apple tree still stood proud in the market square and a number of working fields still yielded the food they always had - but walking through the streets the only faces that one met, were those of the painted dolls that lived in and worked the land.
He doubted she was going to agree, but Ten Count couldn’t help but feel a tiny stab of relief. He’d known - they’d all known - that the soulforge was going to do something drastic to your homeland and while he’d never have said it to her or anybody, he’d been genuinely concerned about what Dawn’s decision might have done to her Garden.
On the whole, it really did seem like it could have been much worse, it could have mutated into some hideous clockwork monstrosity that stood as a mockery of the verdant land it once was. Yes, the painted dolls were a little unnerving. They walked and worked and blinked like normal mortals, they watched as he walked on by, and that all just added to the alien sensation. They looked so lifelike without having any of the life he’d encountered the last time he’d visited.
And yet...Ten Count stopped underneath the apple tree, the specks of golden fire orbiting the upper branches as ever they had and ever they would. “At least you haven’t changed,” he murmured, patting the treetrunk gently. “You stop blossoming and I’ll shatter you with my bare hands.”
“Shaper?” One of the porcelain dolls had stopped, and even that was unnerving. When the dolls stopped moving, they stopped; seeing its mouth move and the rest of it remain absolutely stock still was bizarre. “Are you lost?”
“I’m many things, kid, but not lost. This is exactly where I need to be,” Ten Count said, immediately regretting the answer when the doll’s head tilted to one side and suppressing a shudder. “I’m here for Dawn. Could you let her know that Ten Count’s here, please?”
The doll smiled, such as it could be called a smile; its mouth certainly opened wider. “Aha. Mr. Markowitz, of course I shall inform her. I will return shortly.”
Turning it over as the doll left and sitting down on a pale stone bench, Ten Count re-considered. The dolls weren’t what you immediately would call ‘natural’ or ‘welcoming’, but if this was how Dawn’s subconscious had reacted to what her soul had been put through it seemed unlikely there was anything malign about them. Besides which, how on earth would Dawn feel had she seen the Cross? It was a pit of sin and sinners even before he’d made his choice, and now...well, now, it was all that but so much worse.
“Ten Count?” The voice, soft and inquisitive, snapped the Margin Driver out of his thoughts; all ten of his eyes looked up. Dawn stood awkwardly next to her petitioner, her skin just as pale and smooth but somehow with more life behind it. Her lips twitched into a tentative smile. “I wasn’t expecting you…” The Penitent turned to the doll beside her - tell tale signs of discomfort filtering over her face as they exchanged quiet words and the doll turned to take her leave. Dawn turned back to her fellow shaper and the discomfort washed away. “Is there… I mean to say what can I…” She paused and started again. “Hello.”
“Thank the fates, you still look like you’ve got life in your eyes,” was the sentence that hurtled towards Ten Count’s mouth with wild abandon before he crushed it down. No, you fucking lunatic, you’re going to try thinking about what you say first, he chided himself, restraining himself to an equal “Hello.” He may not have said it but the sentiment was still there - Dawn hadn’t changed enough to strip away everything he’d first…
The silence stretched out for a long moment as the two considered one another, her flawless and still, him with an unconscious and growing smile. Quite how long had passed for her since the closing of the Nexus but for him, it had been a difficult couple of months. Every time he put his head down, he’d found sleep harder and harder to come by; sometimes, it seemed every time he managed to collapse he’d woken up with a new addition to his body. Well, she’s shown you hers, came the unbidden voice, time for you to reciprocate.
“Self-image is a bastard, so you tell me,” he said, breaking the quiet and reaching up to remove his sunglasses. “How do I look?”
If Dawn was surprised, she did not show it, her eyes holding Ten Count’s for a lingering moment before they darted about, taking in each of the new details - from the beady spider eyes and the hint of scales at his suit cuffs, to the claws that curled at the end of one hand. Slowly, but with a considered purpose to her steps, she closed the gap between them and placed a cold hand on his arm and smiled softly.
“You look like you… I believe… ‘fashion disaster’ is the correct terminology?” There was a sparkle to her eye as she teased and gave his arm a gentle squeeze. Certainly the changes were something that would take some getting used to but Dawn felt comfort in that each one seemed to fit everything she knew of the man before her.
“How dare you, Miss Dawn. I went and got myself an actual suit, and I’m still getting ‘fashion disaster’.” It took more effort than he’d expected, but Ten Count touched her hand; her china skin was hard, unyielding and cold...yet comforting in a manner he couldn’t properly articulate. “I mean, sure, the waistcoat doesn’t match the tie or the shirt, but you have to admit I’ve smartened up at least a little.” Her laugh pulled at the corners of her lips and lit up her eyes, though where before laughter lines had folded, her skin stayed eerily fixed.
“You are talking to someone who went from wearing all red and gold to wearing all blacks, whites and greys. I wouldn’t take my judgment too seriously.” Her eyes darted to where their hands were touching and then to the ground as her cheeks tinted with a soft pink sheen. “It’s good to see you, Ten Count.”
Ten Count took his hand away - if not now, there was no guarantee he ever would. “The pleasure is absolutely mine, Miss Dawn, and I’m afraid I have to ask you for a favour on top of that.”
“You know you can call me Dawn, right?” She tilted her head quizzically, looking at him with bemusement. “No need to be so formal. What is it you need… Mr Markowitz?”
“It’s a little unusual, but...well, best just to say it and deal with the consequences, there’s a certain Shaper I’m...shall we say, I’m keen to pursue.” The moment the words left his mouth, Ten Count regretted it; this was an awful plan, it was an appalling plan, why was lying always his first reaction? “And I understand you’re rather good at baking, so I was rather hoping that you’d be able to give me a few tips on the matter.”
“Oh…” Dawn blinked, processing the words and letting them sink in. “I see.” Had her words not been clear at the last grand cycle? Or perhaps held a different meaning for the shaper in front of her. Pushing the the thoughts to the back of her mind she fixed a smile on her face. “Of course, always happy to be of assistance. What was it you had in mind? What are their likes, their tastes?”
Internally screaming at himself, Ten Count didn’t have much of a choice but to carry on down this terrible path and hope against the odds that it worked out. “So, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with them as I’d have liked, we both had rather a lot going on, but I did speak to those who knew h-the Shapers who knew them quite well. They’re rather fond of a few things, but I don’t feel like it’d be quite right to try to bond over a love of guns or drag an engine block across half of Outworld. I thought, maybe, cooking might be a nice way to do it?” There was a tiny tinge of heat pricking his cheeks now. Fates alive, you’re blushing like a fucking teenager, get a hold of yourself. “But I’m not very good at all this, what do you think?”
There was an echo in the back of Dawn’s mind - the words sparking a memory tucked at the back of her mind after the hectic haste of the Nexus. “We spent months talking about guns and cooking and engines...”. She took in how Ten Count had reddened, the way he was holding himself, just as nervous as she was, worried about how she would react to his new appearance as she has been about him reacting to hers. Her own blush deepened just slightly.
“You thought cooking with me, would get you closer to… the shaper in question?” She tilted her head to the side. “I can certainly try and help, but I think your approach may be a bit roundabout. I thought Margin Drivers were supposed to be blunt?” Before she could over think it, the Penitent took a step closer to him; for a brief moment, her eyes locked with Ten Count’s before there came a soft snap and she stepped away again, holding a perfectly red apple in hand from where she had pulled it from the tree. “How about I teach you how to make the apple turnover I gave you? It’s one of my favourites, which is why I wanted to share it with you. I find most people like it so I’m sure your shaper will too.”
“The Margin Drivers are often stereotyped as blunt instruments, it’s true,” he admitted, taking the apple and turning it over. “But you can’t hammer every problem into submission and I thought this was a situation that required a more delicate approach.” Self-consciously, he put his shades back on. “The turnover was delicious, that...I think that would work.”
“Good. I have all the ingredients in my kitchen too, so no need for shaping. Hand cooked stuff always tastes better in my opinion.” She smiled and turned to walk back the way she had come, looking over her shoulder to check he was following. “Oh, and Ten Count? Whoever it is isn’t a china doll - don’t be so scared of breaking them.”