Outworld/The Wyrdwood

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A Dark Dream

Author: Vermillion

In the depths of the Wyrdwood, there stands a castle of bone and black marble.

In the highest tower of the castle, there stands a four-poster bed, adorned with golden skulls and hung with drapes of blazing crimson and midnight black.

In the bed a woman lies sleeping, red hair bright against her pillows, eyes twitching as she dreams.

Around the bed, an elaborate pattern of sigils and symbols shows this is no normal sleep; candles stand flickering, halted mid-flame, drops of wax paused halfway through rolling down their sides.

Vermilion sleeps, and dreams, and Shapes her realm. She is too young to remember Valtaria as it was in the beginning, before the games of light and shadow; but every child born to Valtaria knows the legends, brings them to life in their imagination. Vermilion sleeps, and dreams, and the world of her childhood fantasies takes shape once more within her mind, and flows out into the portion of reality that is hers to Shape.

Her dream-self walks the forests, hunts with the wolves; soars above the fields, hearing the cries of the birds that wheel about her; stands high upon the mountains, ruler of all she surveys, with the sound of great wings beating behind her. All is as it should be; wild and untamed, a land fit for heroes to rise in and stride through and prove themselves against, a land fit for villains to reign over briefly and gloriously, and be cast down from the high places of to nurture the woods with their blood…

Around the bed, a soft glow rises; drawn to the exercise of power, the Wyrdwood’s newest denizens gather, a clutter of ghostly spiders spinning ethereal webs between the bedposts. It is their nature to appear where there is danger, as a herald and a warning; and the Carrion-Queen is, after all, by far the most dangerous creature in her realm.

She stirs in her slumber, and looks up at the spiders, her Partner’s gift to her realm. A smile forms on her lips as she falls back into her dreams; eyes already closed, she whispers words that shiver through the air with power borrowed from the ongoing working.

“I will reshape the world in your image…”

One trailing hand reaches out and drowsily grasps a strand of spider-silk, drawing it back with her into the dream.

A shiver runs through the air, a flash of power rolling out from the Wyrdwood through the Crucible of Legends.

And where it passes, the forests of legend become haunted by spiders.


Comrade Wings

Author: Vermilion

Liberator Wings banks and turns over the Wyrdwood, angling himself for the light of the sunset to catch his golden scales just so for maximum inspiration. He sails majestically towards the red-and-golden banner of the Combine, dipping one wing in a reflexive salute, and draws a deep breath to echo its message.

“GLORY TO THE COMBINE!”

The proudly defiant roar echoes across the forest; below him the small figures of the locals pause in their own journeys, or in some cases scurry into cover. Ah well. They will learn. He has time.

The familiar glide beneath the banner; its own light catching his scales beautifully. He’s sure the sight will make a wonderful inspirational poster, once the RevCorps make it this far.

And then, something unfamiliar; a sudden flash of crimson light to his right, then to his left. Witchfire. An attack? No – the globes hang there, at a safe distance, glowing brightly. As he glides on, further pairs rise and illuminate in front of him, clearly marking out a trail. Landing lights, albeit of an unfamiliar nature; charting a path down to a clearing in the woods whose edges are marked out in the same crimson fire.

Well, then. If someone in this lair of villainy wants to speak with him, he is not about to miss a chance to spread his message.

He lands, flares his wings to reflect the sunset briefly, and looks around to get his bearings as he furls them. A simple clearing; one large rock set like a table and piled high with food; a second rock beside it; one seated human-

-no, one Shaper. And from the red tint of her hair and the skulls she wears proudly, he knows exactly which.

“YOU!”

The Carrion-Queen smiles. “Good evening, Comrade Wings.”

“CAN ANY EVENING BE DESCRIBED AS GOOD WHILE TYRANNY ENDURES?” He paws the earth in frustrated agitation. If she is at all disturbed at being this close to an angry dragon, it does not show.

“Well, that’s a matter of perspective. Would you care to discuss it over dinner?” She gestures towards the waiting food. It does, he has to admit, smell delicious. Still-

“I WILL NOT ABET YOUR EXPLOITATION OF THE PROLETARIAT.”

She glares at him, clearly insulted. “Cornucopia food, produce of my own magic. You people are all about sharing the fruits of your labours, right?”

He eyes her suspiciously, and decides to let ‘you people’ slide for the moment. “IS THIS SOME KIND OF TRAP?”

“If it was, would you expect me to admit it?”

“FROM WHAT I’VE HEARD ABOUT MONARCHS-IN-SHADOW...”

“Alright, point taken.” Her lips quirk upwards in amusement. “Full disclosure, then; the food is enchanted.” She raises a hand to forestall his response. “Nothing harmful – a little wanderlust, an urge for adventure. Given you’re a Combine creature operating solo in Crucible lands, I don’t imagine that’s at all alien to your nature – honestly, I’d be surprised if there’s a noticeable effect. But, since you had the sense to ask...” A shrug. A smile. She reaches for the food herself, bites deep into a leg of meat with no apparent hesitation.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT, TYRANT?” He shoots her a baleful glare. She smiles, and shrugs again.

“To talk to you. Is that so hard to believe?”

“FRANKLY, YES.”

“Well, maybe not so much ‘talk to’ as ‘argue with’. Debate, that’s the word. I want to debate philosophy with you.”

He tilts his head to one side. “ARE YOU CONSIDERING ACCEPTING THE INEVITABLE LIBERATION OF THE COMBINE?” It seems unlikely, but he has to ask.

The Carrion-Queen almost chokes with laughter. “Hardly, dear boy. Are you likely to abandon this Combine nonsense and try being a proper noble dragon any time soon?”

“DON’T BE RIDICULOUS. AND IT IS NOT NONSENSE.”

“Good.” He blinks in surprise. She flashes an impish grin. “Wouldn’t want it to be too easy.”

“DO YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?”

“Of course it’s a game! Which doesn’t mean it’s just a game, of course...” She smiles again. It’s rapidly becoming annoying. “You people take these things far too seriously, you know that?”

“THE LIBERATION OF THE OPPRESSED IS SOMETHING I TAKE EXTREMELY SERIOUSLY, YES. I WOULDN’T EXPECT YOU TO UNDERSTAND.”

“Pure and noble heroism, believe me, I understand quite well. Conquest by fire and the sword, forcing compliance to your own ideals by violence and bloodshed and brainwashing, I understand that too. The way your lot conflate the two, however-”

“ENOUGH!” He rises, roaring, flames flickering about his jaw.

“Oh, we’re just getting started.” She rises also, crimson witchfire whirling about her in an obvious shield. “You do realise my people are more afraid of you than me?”

He stares at her, looking for signs of obvious deceit. Nothing. She appears to genuinely believe what she is saying.

“WHAT? BUT WHY WOULD THEY-”

“Firstly – dragon. They’re a little concerned that you might eat them. Some dragons do, you know.”

“I WOULD NEVER! I WANT TO SAVE THEM, NOT-”

“I didn’t say I thought it likely, but you take the point. Secondly – Combine. Fire and the sword, like I said – some of yours think liberation through death is preferable to allowing those who won’t convert to live.” A moment’s hesitation. “Well, some of yours on Homeworld did, at least, and this place was shaped in part from my memories, so... Admittedly, those this side of the breach haven’t even tried to kill me yet.”

“NO-ONE IS IRREDEEMABLE. EVEN YOU COULD YET BE SAVED IN TIME.”

“...an argument for another time, perhaps. And lastly...” She sighs, shield flickering away into nothingness as his own fire dies away. “I’d taken care of it before you came, but your people put something in my territory that was whispering in their heads, trying to force them to conversion. They’re afraid you’ll do the same. They’ll get over it once they get to know you, I expect.”

“THE CLARION CALL OF FREEDOM MUST BE HEARD.”

“Ah, but is it truly freedom if one never has a choice about accepting it?”

“TO REFUSE THAT CALL IS UNTHINKABLE. ALL SOULS CRY OUT FOR LIBERATION.”

“Unthinkable to you, perhaps.” A softer, sadder smile as she retakes her seat. “Perhaps in time, you might come to understand why it is not so for us. Freedom means different things to different people, you see.”

“BUT ONLY ONE OF THOSE DEFINITIONS IS CORRECT.” His stomach growls. Somewhat against his better judgement, he investigates the food, which tastes as good as it smells.

“Where Shapers are involved, dear boy? We can disagree on what colour the sky is, and both sides of the argument will simultaneously be correct. And that, after all, is the root of the problem. Of many problems.”

“THEN WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS CONVERSATION?”

“Well.” She shrugs elegantly. “We won’t be Shapers forever. And who knows what shape the world will have by then? So – I want to understand the other side of the argument. If there’s one thing spending time in the Nexus has taught me, it’s that one should never be afraid to learn, even from one’s enemies. Or to teach.”

“I HAVE NO DESIRE TO LEARN THE WAYS OF TYRANNY.”

“Understanding does not imply endorsement. The siege engineer and the castle architect have great understanding of each other’s thinking – it doesn’t mean they are not enemies.”

“HMPH.”

“And if you persist in thinking of our ways as nothing more than tyranny, you’ll really be missing the point. Let me tell you about my people. About how they’ve reacted to your people’s assault. I am proud of them – not because they are cowed into obedience to me, far from it! It is their fighting spirit that I prize...”


Time passes. The last rays of the sun fade away; the moon’s light and the ever glowing banner shine down, and the denizens of the Wyrdwood watch from afar in fear and fascination at the occasional flashes of light and flame from the forest when the discussion again grows heated.

By the time dawn breaks, both of them are flagging; retreading the same arguments, round and round in circles. At length, Wings draws himself up and strikes a pose, one leg braced on the table-rock to tower over the Carrion-Queen still further. “YOU HAVE TAKEN UP ENOUGH OF MY TIME, TYRANT,” he declares.

She smiles, unflustered. “Likewise, dear boy. Same time next week?”

His dismissive snort of flame falls a foot short of her feet. And then he stiffens, thinking on it, and meets her eyes defiantly. “NEVER LET IT BE SAID THAT TYRANNY WENT UNOPPOSED UPON MY WATCH.”

And with that, and a great downward thrust of his wings, he is gone, a flash of gold across the dawn sky. Behind him, the Carrion-Queen smiles, and laughs to herself softly, ruefully. “Still can’t believe they gave me a fucking dragon...”

Visiting the Crucible of Legends

Authors: Carrion Queen and Axle

Axle swore. The airship she’d borrowed from Crankshaft wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, and probably wasn’t built to be flown solo. She pressed a couple of buttons and yanked at the lever that was supposed to be controlling the altitude. The ship lurched downwards, it’s hull brushing against the trees of the Wyrdwood, as Axle slammed her hand down on another button in an attempt to stop the ship actually falling into the woods. So much for an impressive arrival. She inexpertly navigated her way towards the palace, landing outside it with a painful screech of metal on stone, causing some alarm to the guards on the door.

The Citadel of Bone was usually silent as the grave; the soft footfalls of servants, the faint cawing of the ravens of the towers, and the recent scurrying of rats seeming to emphasise the eerie quiet rather than detracting from it. The sudden tumult as ravens and rats alike fled in alarm from the disturbance was, therefore immediately obvious; the ghost-spiders paused in spinning their webs, and scurried eagerly towards the fresh danger. Vermilion smiled, rising from her throne, and strolled towards the doors of her palace to see what had created such a commotion.

Across the Wyrdwood, Comrade Wings opened a sleepy eye and looked down from the mountainside. He could have sworn he’d heard an airship, but the So Much For Subtlety should be at the other end of the territory on its propaganda run today. Perhaps he’d been dreaming, of the better days to come? Yes, surely that must be- wait, was that the glint of metal in the distance? Yes, sure enough, a little airship, far away, how splendid… except it seemed to be in some distress, lurching toward the ground like that… and there, of all places?

“OH, DEAR.” Shaking off the last of his sleepiness, he drew himself up, stretching out his wings, and leapt into the sky, hoping the situation did not deteriorate too far before he was able to render assistance to his comrades. Keeping his distance from the tyrant did, it appear, have certain drawbacks. “WHEN THE PROCORPS MAKE IT OUT HERE, I NEED TO HAVE A WORD ABOUT AFTERBURNERS.”

Meanwhile, Axle had swung herself out of the ship, and was kicking violently at a panel at the side of the hull, which eventually sprung open to reveal her hoverbike, already humming gently and newly polished for the occasion. She dragged it out, and attempted to lean on it in “Liberator Fashion”, waiting for Vermilion to appear, and trying her best not to look impressed at the imposing building she faced.

The doors swung open unaided, with an ominous creak that appeared, given how smoothly they moved, to be entirely deliberate. The guards abruptly snapped to attention, not needing to look around to recognise the signs of the Carrion-Queen’s approach. Heels clicking on the black marble of the floor, she paused briefly silhouetted in the archway, a blaze of red standing out against the backdrop, before spotting the visitor and smiling in recognition.

“Axle!” Her voice carried a note of genuine delight. “You came!”

Axle frowned slightly. “Yeah, I said I would didn't I?” She straightened herself up, and tried to recall the various pieces of conflicting advice her comrades (and Violet) had given her. “You’re um, looking well?”

“Thank you, my dear.” She smiled, trying for ‘unthreatening’. “Safe journey, I hope?” A brief glance thrown towards the airship, with a slight puzzled frown; on the one hand, it looked more than a little askew. On the other hand, she’d never seen one of these up close before that wasn’t outright crashed; perhaps that was simply how they were meant to look? “Do you need to freshen up before dinner? I’ll get someone to draw you a bath, if you would like, there are guest quarters waiting…”

Axle waved an unconcerned hand at the airship, “That model is always a bit shaky on landing,” she explained, and then continued, trying to pretend the idea of freshening up for a meal wasn’t completely alien to her, “ and I can run a bath myself Vermilion, just show me where to go?”

A noticeable ripple passed across the faces of the guards at the Carrion-Queen being addressed by name instead of title; anxious glances flickered between the two Shapers, waiting to see how their Sovereign would respond. There were, after all, only two things that could mean…

Vermilion herself blinked in surprise, and shrugged elegantly. “Of course, yes, you’re in the East wing… how much luggage do you have?”

Ever so slightly, the guards relaxed. There were only two reasons for a Monarch to accept being addressed by name; and it appeared this was the other one, the one less likely to get them killed. Though the ghost-spiders already spinning their ectoplasmic webs about the scene, and enthusiastically colonising the airship, were something of an indication they should not let their guard down too far.

“I don’t have any…. Oh wait, shit no.” Axle flashed Vermilion a grin, and then rushed back to the airship, brushing aside the webs at the cabin door. There was a moment of awkward silence, some loud crashes and muffled swearing, and then Axle reappeared, looking, if possible, even more shabby, a smear of oil across one cheek, and a long parcel in one hand, wrapped rather messily in brown paper.

“I was told bringing a… gift was the um, thing to do?” She gave a wide grin, “I figured you’d appreciate this, I hope it didn’t get knocked about in transit too much.” She tossed the parcel towards the Carrion Queen.

Vermilion’s fingers twitched slightly, eyes narrowed in concentration; the parcel slowed to a halt in midair, slowly rotating before her. “I wasn’t expecting- you didn’t have to-” She smiled, despite herself, reaching cautiously out towards it, gently unwrapping the paper. Her guards stepped cautiously a half-pace backwards, eyeing it warily; between her surprise and their caution, it was easily obvious that she was little accustomed to receiving gifts which did not have some surprise, some hidden barb, attached.

The brown paper fell off easily, to reveal a simple, but well made bow, the strange, shimmering blue material it was made of indicating a clearly Valtarian origin. Axle’s grin widened as it was revealed, recalling the enjoyment of acquiring it. “You’ve probably got better weapons, but I got this one off the corpse of one of Bethany’s knights…” she shrugged, “figured you might appreciate the gesture.”

“Oh, I do.” Vermilion lifted the weapon in both hands, hefting it thoughtfully; raising it level with her face, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, as if she could still smell the lingering odours of blood and battle on it and found them greatly pleasing. A contented sigh, and she brought the weapon to her lips, planting a soft kiss upon it; her eyes flickered open, fixed on Axle, smouldering with intensity.

“Beloved enemy,” she murmured. “You honour me with the spoils of your kill…” A visible shiver of passion ran through her, before the moment abruptly passed; with a sudden smile, she turned aside and held the bow out to one of the guards. “For display in the Great Hall, I think. Somewhere easily grabbable, it was a hero's’ weapon once, it might yet prove so again… perhaps if the Steadfast ever does come beard me in my lair, she might find it useful to have something familiar close to hand.” A wicked chuckle. “Or infuriating, that would please me greatly too.”

Stepping back, she gestured into the hallway. “Shall we, then?”

Axle, who had been looking almost anywhere but Vermllion, in an attempt to avoid her intense gaze, strode forward, and then stopped almost instantly, unable to hide her awe at the grandeur of the place. “Wow… it’s very…um... Big”

“We dream a new world into being with the powers of Gods,” Vermilion shrugged, smiling happily, clearly pleased her castle was creating a satisfactory impression. “Why dream small?”

Their footsteps echoed through the marble halls; occasional spectres drifted idly by as they passed, giving the Shapers a wide and respectful berth. Pillars of bone hung with banners of red and mounted with flaming torches decorated the hallways they walked through; suits of armour stood waiting in alcoves at the corners, canopied with faintly glowing spiderwebs; here and there a scurrying rat cast a baleful glance at them, perched on armoured shoulders or in one case peeking out from within the helmet’s visor.

“...and if you take the hallway there, second on the left will bring you to the Great Hall. Now, your rooms are through here…” and with a gesture of Vermilion’s hand the doors swung smoothly open, candles within flickering into life as they entered. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to stand on ceremony too much, so this is one of the more modest suites; a sitting room, as you see, the bedroom is just through there, and leading on from that the bathroom.”

The room was warm, a fire blazing in the hearth; the walls hung with tapestries depicting ancient battles and the hunting of beasts. A bearskin rug lay invitingly before the fire, and a range of chairs, couches and tables in rich mahogany filled the room. The panelled door to the bedchamber sat slightly ajar, revealing a glimpse of the four-poster bed within, hung about with drapes of Vermilion’s signature red.

“I’ll leave you to freshen up, shall I? Oh - if you need anything, there’s a bell in each of the rooms to summon a servant.” Vermilion gestured absently towards a cord hanging beside the fireplace. Remembering Axle’s indignation at the thought of someone else running her bath, she hesitated, somewhat awkwardly adding, “-you can always ask them to fetch me, if you’re not comfortable with, well,” the whole idea of the feudal system, apparently, “asking them to do anything else.”

Axle looked around slowly, trying not to look too impressed. “Nice,” she said, finally. “I’d reckon it’s almost ten times the size of my own quarters.” She looked back at Vermilion and smirked, raising her eyebrows. “So do all your petitioners live in such luxury then?”

Vermilion blinked in surprise and confusion. “Why would they? They’re not yet proven.” A shrug. “How would they become strong, if they enjoyed the reward before the struggle?”

Axle tilted her head to one side, holding Vermilion’s gaze. “How can they become strong if they are kept weak?” she paused, “I’ll see you at dinner.” She turned to head into the bedroom.

“At dinner, then.” Vermilion frowned at her retreating back, and turned to leave.

Comrade Wings, meanwhile, circled above the castle, conducting aerial surveillance prior to engagement. The airship, seen closer to, seemed relatively undamaged, although it had clearly not made the cleanest of landings; the hoverbike standing next to it suggested a disembarkment of some kind. No sign of crew; no sign of strife. Disturbing.

Confident in his ability to handle the local colour, he nodded to himself as he came to a decision, and abruptly threw himself into a sharp dive, landing neatly beside the downed ship. His nostrils flared, seeking the scent of blood, of cordite; finding nothing. Peering into a ship woefully undersized for his majestic form, he could see no immediate signs of struggle, no wounded, in fact no crew whatsoever.

Snarling in frustration and worry, he turned back towards the castle, tail irritably lashing, and fixed his eyes on one of the guards, who came to attention in a way that suggested he would very much be anywhere else. “WHERE ARE MY COMRADES?”

Axle, who was in the process of putting her grimy, dirty clothes back on, heard the shouting from her rooms, and with a wide grin on her face, grabbed her jacket, and crashed through the palace, slamming open doors, and clattering down staircases, a whirlwind of noise through the gloomy, silent halls. On reaching the main doors, she paused suddenly. They had no opening mechanism she could see, and she frowned, perplexed, and rather annoyed that she’d left the cannon on the ship. She turned around, and bellowed into the cavernous palace, as loud as she could. “Vermilion? I think there’s a dragon here to see us and I can’t open your bloody doors!”

A few moments later, the Carrion Queen arrived at the doors, moving somewhat faster than normal and a little out of breath. She glared at them for a brief moment, then clapped her hands, and they swung open, with the same ominous groan as before. The guards outside cast anxious glances over their shoulders, seemingly relieved to see both their monarch and her visitor.

Outside, Liberator Wings was in fine form, smoke puffing from his nostrils as he continued arguing with a hapless guard. “GUESTS, IS IT? DO YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? WHAT FOUL DUNGEON HAVE YOU-”

He whirled as the doors opened, tail lashing furiously and claws digging into stone as he sighted Vermilion. “YOU! TYRANT AND VILLAIN! WHAT HAVE YOU-” and then, at the sight of Axle, standing in the doorway, undeniably, unmistakably Combine, alive and unhurt and unchained, his voice broke off abruptly in surprise and relief.

“Comrade.” Axle’s voice nearly broke as she stood, perfectly still in the doorway and stared up at her creation, a rarely seen look of pure joy on her face, and, to Vermilion’s surprise, tears in her eyes. “Um… Hello.”

Vermilion blinked in surprise at the look on Axle’s face, the tears in her eyes; so very different to the fierceness she was used to seeing there. “He is magnificent, isn’t he?” she murmured softly, before stepping forwards. “Liberator Wings, permit me to introduce Volunteer Axle - that’s her ship you’re… admiring. Axle, this is Liberator Wings.” She found herself smiling as their eyes met; cultures aside, some things are universal, and this… certainly felt like the beginnings of a legend of some kind.

“WELL MET, COMRADE,” Wings’ voice boomed. He stepped closer, inspecting her for signs of injury, coercion, distress; seeing none, lowered his head to nuzzle at her jacket, the familiar scent of oil and gunpowder imbued in her clothing reassuring beyond words. “IT HAS… BEEN TOO LONG SINCE I SAW A FRIENDLY FACE.”

Vermilion frowned at him. “Now, Wings, I’ve been perfectly hospitable-”

“FOR A TYRANT.” He snorted, puffing smoke in her general direction without much rancour. “AND YOU KNOW PERFECTLY WELL WHAT I MEANT.” He turned back to Axle, pointedly ignoring the Carrion-Queen. “ARE YOU… ALONE HERE, COMRADE?”

Axle frowned slightly, as she automatically reached out to stroke the dragon, gently scratching behind his ear the way she would one of her rats. “Yes I am…” she spoke softly, “I'm sorry, it was thoughtless of me to shape you without… friends. I promise, I will rectify that as soon as possible.” She smiled at him fondly. “It's so wonderful to see you.”

Behind her, Vermilion found herself caught between frowning and smiling. There was no way she could not be touched by the scene, and yet the prospect of having more Combine creatures in her domain… ugh. Still, she’d thought more ties between the realms sounded like a good idea, hadn’t she? And at least Wings wouldn’t be lonely.

“I AM GLAD TO SEE YOU TOO, COMRADE.” Wings leant into Axle’s touch. “I HAVE BEEN DOING WHAT I CAN TO BRING THE GLORY OF THE COMBINE TO THIS BACKWARDS PLACE AND ITS INFURIATING TYRANT, BUT THE WORK GOES SLOWLY.” A contented hum, almost like the purr of a very large cat or the noise of a cheerful engine, rose from his throat as he visibly relaxed. “I WOULD BE GLAD OF… REINFORCEMENTS.”

Axle grinned. “I can assure you your hard work is appreciated. We may even need to get RevCorp down here for a photoshoot soon, the rest of the Combine are dying to see you in all your glory.” She leant towards him, and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper clearly purposefully loud enough for Vermilon to hear. “And she is infuriating, isn't she, but don't worry, she'll be your comrade eventually.”

Vermilion harrumphed in irritation. “Such optimism…”

“OPTIMISM? HAH! WE SPEAK OF THE INEVITABLE.” Wings swished his tail, drawing himself up as he turned to look at her, still not moving away from Axle in the slightest. “EVEN YOU WILL FIND YOUR PLACE AMONGST US IN TIME.” An amused snort, smoke swirling around her as he continued. “ADMITTEDLY, IN YOUR CASE, QUITE SOME TIME INDEED.” He tilted his head slightly, giving Axle a conspiratorial nudge, and let a note of dry humour creep into his voice as he continued. “AND JUST THINK, AT THAT POINT I MIGHT EVEN TAKE YOU FLYING.”

Vermilion reddened ever so slightly and looked away, feigning nonchalant indifference. Badly.

Axle grinned, and felt both a deep pride in her creation, and the slightest twinge of sadness for Vermilion. Imagine having a dragon in your realm who wouldn't even let you fly on him. She looked at Wings. “So, I should probably go and eat some food, but once I have… maybe you can help me get a lay of the land?”

“GLADLY, COMRADE.” Slightly reluctantly, Wings stepped back; then turned to glare at Vermilion. “YOU WILL TAKE GOOD CARE OF MY COMRADE, OR YOU WILL ANSWER TO ME.” The Carrion-Queen held her hands up placatingly, sighing. “She’s here as my guest, Wings, I’ve no intention of harming her. Believe it or not, I like her.”

“AND SINCE WHEN DID THAT STOP YOU HURTING PEOPLE? I KNOW YOUR STORIES, TYRANT.”

“...point taken, but those were Valtarians, they knew the game and chose to play... You have my word, she’s safe with me.” She folded her arms and stared him down. “And if you know my stories, you’ll know I’ve never been shy about declaring my intentions when I meant someone harm. Correct?”

Wings gave a grudging nod, with a sullen puff of smoke from his nostrils, before pointedly turning away from her again. “TILL LATER THEN, COMRADE.”

“Till later. And don't worry about me. I may be small, but I can pack a mean punch when I want to.” Axle turned to her host. “You said something about dinner?”

“Yes, right this way…” Leaving the great doors open, since shutting them in Wings’ face would feel more than a trifle rude, Vermilion led her guest back indoors and to the Great Hall, where the tables had been set for dining beneath the dais that held her throne.

It proved to be an… unusual dining arrangement. The grand table in the centre of the room was almost entirely taken up by the great Cornucopia; food of many kinds flowing from it in bountiful quantities. Beside it stood stacks of gilt-edged plates and bowls, and gilded cutlery; the queue of servants waiting to help themselves scattered out of the way as they approached, reforming behind them, but the Carrion-Queen serving herself from the enchanted horn seemed to occasion no surprise; nor did she comment on their helping themselves to its bounty, or on those of them filling trays and platters to carry from the hall.

“I presume you remember from the tables what the enchantments on the food are?” Her eyes sparkled with a hint of challenge as she turned to Axle. “Not that wanderlust and an adventuresome spirit should be an issue for you - I mean, you’re here already…” Axle paused briefly, then decided it would probably be ok, and made a mental note to mention it to Valve at her next Psych Evaluation, just incase there were any ideologically problematic side effects. Vermilion grinned, and turned to lead the way to the high table, where a central throne-like chair engraved with skulls was placed to afford her a commanding view of the room. Along the table either side sat chairs only slightly less ornate than her own; she motioned Axle to the one at her right hand.

Axle put a plate piled high with food down, and then dragged the chair slightly to make it closer to Vermillion, creating a painful screeching noise as she did so, causing curious glances from the servants. She sat herself down, still grinning from seeing Wings, and started eating enthusiastically, before gesturing to the servants, and just about remembering to swallow her food before she spoke. “See this? This is very Combine, except for this throne buisness. That would have to go.”

“Not how we used to do things.” Vermilion nodded in reluctant agreement. “But the cornucopia wouldn’t fit in the kitchen, and once you’re looking at feeding everyone from the same source… well, it was only practical.” A slight embarrassed smile. “Besides, it was rather empty in here with just me.” She looked away, back to the cornucopia, not that she was avoiding Axle’s gaze at all. “Between that and the forests, I think I’ve at least managed to ensure no-one will starve in my lands. Trying to set them up so they’re not too dependant on me in the long run, you see. The place needs to keep running once the Grand Cycles end and I stop being… well, me.”

She made herself look back to her guest, tilted her head in curiosity. “How are you feeding your territory? Most of us beyond your borders are only familiar with the Combine’s armies - presumably you have farmers of some kind as well?”

Axle, who had been staring at the Valtarian in fascination as she spoke, gave a wry smile. “Not in my territory no. It’s not really… got a lot of space. We have a couple of factories that produce protein bars, and the rats provide us biscuits, and we’ve got underwater tanks to collect rain water, although I think we need to re-distribute those since the last industrioclast insurgence… other than that? Dynamics sometimes sends fresh fruit and vegetables for distribution, but we’re Volunteers, by and large, so the focus is on sustenance, fresh food is an unnecessary waste of resources.”

“That sounds… terribly depressing, frankly.” Vermilion frowned, puzzled. “You’re as much a Shaper as I am, but that sounds like you’re just scraping by. And… insurgents?” She looked confused. “I don’t remember seeing anyone Shaping an attack like that…”

A look of pain flickered across Axle's face, and she looked at Vermilion, wondering how much to say. “I'm…. The other territories in the Combine don't have the same problems, but I'm… I'm not a very good shaper, not really. Things I want to shape don't always come out the way I want. And my territory… I didn't mean for it to be like it is. I'm, not a particularly stable Volunteer, and it's been sort of, reflected a bit. The people are happy though…” she drifted off uncomfortably, and picked at her food, wishing she hadn't said anything at all.

“Well, that’s something…” Vermilion’s frown did not lessen. “Are you happy, Axle?”

Axle smiled. “Of course I am. We'll fix the problems with my territory. My comrades have my back. It's just a slow process, that's all.” She gave Vermilion a cheeky grin, “just like convincing you to join the Combine. Slow, but sure.”

“Oh, I doubt it. There again, I daresay I wouldn’t like you if you were the type to give up easy.” Vermilion raised her glass towards Axle, smiling despite herself. “So, then… tell me more about the endgame. This ‘Society that Must Be’, when all your enemies have been conquered or converted. What kind of a world do you intend to build then?” The look she shot Axle was challenging. “Because from the outside, it looks as if everything feeds back into the war effort. What will you be when all your wars are done?”

This was easier conversational ground. A light glittered in Axle's eyes as she spoke. “The Society that Must Be, will be Utopia. The efforts of our ProCorps will be diverted to medical, and agricultural advances, our RevCorps will focus on social cohesion, on expanding our Culture, on music, and theatre, and our LibCorp, once they've had a well earned rest, will do what they've always done, carrying out the designs of the ProCorp and inspiring their comrades. No one will live in fear, or pain or,” she looked at Vermilion, softness in her eyes, and her voice lost some of its intensity, “loneliness.”

Vermilion shot her a skeptical look. So many questions… but she could not resist the obvious one. “You don’t mention the Volunteers, Axle. What role do you see for yourself, in that world?”

Axle looked thoughtful, and paused for a moment. “Truthfully, when we were back on homeworld, I assumed I would never make it to the Society that Must Be, that I would die helping to create it. Now that we’re here… I don’t really know. But to answer your question more generally - there will be no Volunteers in the society that must be. Those who survive will slowly be vulcanised- that is, fully re-integrated into the Combine.”

Vermilion was not able to hide the flash of recognition that flashed through her eyes. “My ideal world is one that would have no place for me in it,” she murmured, thinking back to some of the conversations she’d had in the Nexus, before shaking herself out of the momentary reverie. “I… was not expecting us to have that much in common.”

She tilted her head, the gaze she directed at Axle somewhere between ‘curious’ and ‘challenging’. “...and, do you think that it will really be that easy? All your warriors will beat their swords into ploughshares, and those looking for hidden ne’erdowells and insurgents will believe there are no more to find, and everyone will live happily ever after?” She smiled, half-sad, half-mockingly. “Valtaria used to think like that, you know. That everything would be paradise, once the last of our monsters were slain and all our victories complete. And then the day came that we had…”

Axle flashed Vermilion a wide smile, “You said it yourself Vermilion, why dream small?” She picked a grape from her plate and ate it with relish, clearly smug at using the Valtarian’s own words against her.

Vermilion raised her glass in acknowledgement of the point, evidently enjoying the debate. “And yet, there are so many of the Combine, even this side of the Breach, who have never known anything but the unceasing war machine. Not just the conflicts in your territory - there are entire realms given over to nothing but producing arms and armaments, aren’t there? If this is the world you want to build for your people, one of science and culture and peace and prosperity - why wait? Why put all your dreams on hold until the war is won? You said you didn’t even want my peas- my people to suffer; why not do what you can for yours now, instead of jam tomorrow and war today?”

Axle smiled, recalling one of Valve’s excellent lectures on the subject. “To live in luxury, whilst others suffer, kept away from the glory and camaraderie of the combine, would be selfish, and disloyal to our future comrades. We are not truly liberated until all of us have been liberated. We cannot afford to waste resources whilst there are still comrades to be sought out, and tyrannous regimes,” here, she lifted her glass to Vermilion in acknowledgment, “to destroy.”

“And yet,” Vermilion countered, frowning, “if this is the world you intend to build in the long term, how can devoting resources to it be a waste? You value inspiration, do you not, would being able to show the shape of your glorious future, some model of the society you wish to create, not have a value in itself?” An appraising look. “How are those unconvinced by the Combine to trust that this will ever come to pass, if they see you take no steps towards it other than wading through the blood of your enemies? Actions speak louder than words. If you want to build a better world, then build one, don’t talk about it. Make it more than some fairytale of a distant future.”

Axle pulled a face that could best be described as sulky. “We don’t entirely neglect culture, you know? We have one world radio, and lots of good music, and art, and creation and stuff. I knit, for instance. Badly, but I do. We are just… focused on the war effort. And you can see the future world we want to build in our friendships, and the way we treat each other. You know, as Equals.”

“And yet, there’s clearly so much more you want to do, if only the war didn’t take priority…” Vermilion shot Axle a thoughtful look. “Why does it, Axle? I mean, you think you can bring me round by persuasion and reasoned debate - the Carrion-Queen, the monarch-in-shadow, the antithesis of what you stand for. Who is there you think is less likely to be persuadable, that fire and the sword become your only option? Or is it simply that conversion by force is more… efficient?” Her smile turned dark. “Which is to say - are people dying just to save you time?”

Axle’s face grew serious. “I don’t think I can bring you round, Vermilion, I know I can, because I am right. And it is always our aim to minimise civilian casualty, believe me.” Her eyes sparkled with anger, “There are those who… are not even willing to listen. And even those we try to save. I have,” she paused, taking a breath to calm herself as she felt the anger rising. “I have nearly died trying to save those would see me dead, more times than I can count.”

“...you would have made an excellent Valtarian Monarch, you know.” Vermilion’s lips twitched slightly as she spoke; not that she didn’t mean it, her eyes were entirely serious, but somehow she wasn’t expecting this to go down well. “A culture that rejects the idea of heroes rising up above the herd, and you still manage to have a hero’s heart.”

Axle frowned. “We don't reject heroism. But I am not a hero,” a dark shadow passed across her face, before she continued, quiet and serious, “and I would ask, out of any respect you may bear me, that you don't make such an implication again.” She paused, and took a drink. “I am merely one of those people the combine did manage to save, when many might argue I should have died, and I will pay that kindness forward where I can.”

“If risking your life to save even your enemies doesn’t meet your definition of heroism, you have high standards indeed.” Vermilion frowned at her in confusion. “So what do you think of as heroic, if you don’t qualify yourself?” She looked somewhat unconvinced, but thought better of arguing the point; the discussion was proving interesting enough not to force that particular issue while there was still other ground to cover.

“The Liberators are the real Heros. They choose to go into danger, to take risks, to fight for the good of the combine. Volunteers… we do those things because we need to. We aren't looking for glory, or victory, or the chance to be a hero...most of us are just looking for redemption.” Axle smiled as she spoke, the thought of redemption was a comforting one.

“You make it sound as if you don’t have a choice. But if you’re all equals, no-one can make you, can they?” Vermilion looked a little lost. “Is seeking redemption any less noble a goal than seeking glory? It sounds one entirely in line with your philosophy, certainly. If you’re doing the same things, taking the same risks, serving the same cause, and you’re all equal in the Combine - what makes them heroes, and you not?” Her tone was not so much argumentative as simply baffled.

Axle shook her head, smiling at Vermilion. “I guess it’s hard for an outsider to understand. To be honest, a lot of the Liberators themselves don’t understand, but then, they’re hardly the brains of the operation…” She picked at the last of her food, trying to explain herself in a way that might make sense to the Carrion Queen. “We certainly do have a choice, but, at least for me, fighting, redemption, pushing forward, its… it’s a need, like you need to eat food, or sleep. I don’t know who I would be without it. And I am equal to a Liberator, but I am not the same… a RevCorp would probably be able to explain it better than I can.” She frowned, thoughtfully. “You should ask Valve. He does words much better than I do.” She downed the last of her drink, and wiped her mouth inelegantly on the back of her jacket. “So, you coming to see Wings with me then? I’ve come up with a rather good idea…”

Vermilion looked surprised. “If you’re sure you wouldn’t rather have some time alone together? I mean, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want, there’ll be time for that too, but on your first evening…”

A mischievous look came into Axle’s eyes. “Ah, but my fantastic idea won’t be half as fun without you, Comrade.”

Vermilion winced slightly, shooting her a pained look. “Must you, Axle? You haven’t converted me yet…” Nonetheless, she pushed her plate away. “Oh, very well then,if you insist.” Her tone was notably less reluctant than her words; despite herself, she found that she was smiling.

“You said yet!” Axle grinned at Vermilion, and walked towards the door, a bounce in her step.

Outside the door, the airship was standing at a slightly less crooked angle than it had been, and Comrade Wings was curled up beside it waiting. At the sound of approaching footsteps he looked up, getting back to his feet and joyously unfurling his wings. “COMRADE!” A suspicious glance towards Vermilion, and he looked back towards Axle, again visibly checking for any signs of mistreatment at the Carrion-Queen’s hands. Finding none, he leaned in again to nuzzle at her happily.

Axle stroked his neck, grinning uncontrollably. “Comrade, I have an important question. How… fast can you fly?”

“UNFORTUNATELY I HAVE NO SPEEDOMETER.” He sounded somewhat embarrassed, then brightened. “YOU SEE THAT MOUNTAIN?” One wing extended, tip pointing towards a distinctive peak across the valley. “THAT IS WHERE I WAS WHEN I SAW YOUR AIRSHIP CR- LANDING. I THINK YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED MY ARRIVAL?”

One of the guards, with a slightly nervous glance at Vermilion and another at the dragon, leaned in towards Axle and provided some sotto voce estimates of time and distance.

“Thank you Comrade.” Axle muttered absentmindedly, as she did some quick maths in her head. She turned back to Wings, unable to hide her excited grin. “We could find out more accurately, if you want…. Do you want to race my hoverbike?”

“A RACE?” Wings grinned, tail lashing excitedly. “A CAPITAL IDEA, COMRADE! WHERE ARE WE RACING TO?” He shot a curious look at the bike. “HOW HIGH DOES IT GO?” A sudden thought striking him, he grinned again, and shot an amused glance towards Vermilion as he continued. “...DID YOU SEE THE BANNER ON YOUR WAY IN? IT MAKES A USEFUL LANDMARK FOR AERIAL NAVIGATION.”

Axle had her assault ground face on, a wild grin, and wilder eyes. “I’ve absolutely no idea how high it goes. I’m hoping above tree level, but I’ve never had to find out before. And I didn’t see the banner but…” she looked at Vermilion, challenge in her eyes, “I was planning on having on board navigation…”

Vermilion looked from Axle, to the bike, back to Axle. “...it flies?” A sudden grin, and she stepped closer, challenge evidently accepted. “It flies! Ah - how does one ride this thing?” A sudden embarrassed look down at her dress. “Not side-saddle, I’m presuming… knife?” She held her hand out without looking; one of the guards silently passed her a dagger, and she began modifying her outfit to suit.

Axle raised her eyebrows slightly, visibly impressed at Vermilion’s willingness to join the adventure. She took off her jacket, revealing her leather vest, and scar covered arms, and hung it off a protrusion on her ship, deciding that the guards would probably make sure it wasn’t stolen. She mounted the bike, and pulled down her ever present goggles, then patted the battered leather seat behind her. “Hop on then, your Majesty,” she said, the title dripping with gentle mockery, to which Vermilion appeared to currently be entirely oblivious.

Somewhat awkwardly, she swung up behind Axle, trying not to be too clumsy around the unfamiliar steed, freshly split skirts fluttering in the evening breeze as she tossed the dagger hilt-first back to its owner. “The banner,” she broke off to shoot a slightly pained look at an entirely unrepentant Wings, “is that way.”

Wings spread his wings eagerly. “SHALL WE, COMRADE?”

Axle held up a single finger, still grinning. “Safety first my friend.” She grabbed a pair of goggles that were hanging on one handlebar, and tossed them to Vermillion, and then craned her head around to speak. “It’s safest, and easiest, if you put your arms around my waist for stability, but if you’re uncomfortable with that, you can hold on by the sides of your seat. Please lean in the direction I lean, even if it feels unintuitive.”

Vermilion fumbled the unfamiliar goggles on over her own eyeglasses, shooting the guards a look that clearly conveyed this was never to be mentioned to anyone. Oddly hesitantly, she scooted forwards on the bike, tentatively reaching to put her arms around Axle. “Like so?”

Axle flicked a switch on the handlebars, and the hum that the engine had been making suddenly became more like a low roar. “You might want to hold on a bit tighter!” She shouted over the din, and then turned to face Wings, who was poised and ready next to her. “Three… Two” The noise of the finished countdown was lost beneath the roar of the accelerating engine, and the flapping wings of the dragon, as the two raced towards the skies.

Vermilion’s grip tightened instinctively as the bike left the ground, accelerating upwards and towards the forest at breakneck pace. “Look out for that-” the bike jinked left, close enough to a branch that a section of her trailing skirts ripped loose, then right, both of them ducking as the next came rather too close to their heads for comfort, “-TREE!” Bracing herself, she tore one hand free from Axle’s waist and hurled a blast of raw sorcery ahead of them, clearing their path through a sudden cloud of whirling leaves and wooden splinters as the one swinging into position to impale them abruptly disintegrated. And then, equally abruptly, they cleared the treeline, boots skimming through the topmost leaves; arm dropping back to clasp Axle’s waist, she found herself laughing breathlessly.

“Shit! That was fucking Awesome!” Axle turned around to grin at Vermilion, accidentally letting the bike veer leftwards as she did so. “Thanks!” She turned back around, and realised that she had gone off course. She jerked the bike sharply right, and saw Wings gliding elegantly ahead. “Oh, for Unity’s sake. Ok, where the fuck are the boosters?” Axle twisted something on the bike, and suddenly it shot forward, jets of fire scorching the leaves as they closed the gap between themselves and Comrade Wings.

Vermilion’s startled squeak as the bike leapt forward turned into a whoop of joy, wild laughter echoing across the night sky. “Oh, this is wonderful…” She broke off, frowning. “We should be able to see the banner by n- oh, there’s an airship in the way…” Ahead of them, Wings beat his wings harder, gaining height, passing above the So Much For Subtlety; from the straining of the bike, it seemed that was not a course they would be able to follow.. “Under or round, do you think?” As they approached, it became obvious that the ship was, as per usual, raining propaganda down into the forest beneath.

“Round would be the sensible option!” Axle shouted, and pointed the bike towards the trees. It zoomed downwards, assisted by gravity, and they were soon being battered on every side by pamphlets. Axle laughed as the familiar figure of Dynamics was slapped across her face, and then swore, as a previously hidden hull came lurching towards her. “Vermillion!” she shouted. “Change of plan, left hand on the seat, right hand on my waist!” As she felt a hand disappear from her midsection, she sharply turned the bike on it’s side and to her relief, missed the hull by inches. Still battling paper, they passed the hull, and Axle brought the bike upwards again, turning to check that her passenger was still all in one piece.

Vermilion’s face was somewhat pale, but she was still grinning; although by this point looking decidedly dishevelled, pieces of tree and scraps of paper clinging to her dress, and a pamphlet hanging lopsidedly from one of the points of her crown. “We’re gaining!” Even the sight of the banner up ahead, blazing its impudent message across her realm’s sky, was not enough to dampen her mood.

Axle smiled to herself, as she turned around and pushed the engine to it’s limit, deciding that now probably wasn’t the time to tell Vermilion how fantastically Combine she looked. Not with her hands so close to Axle’s ribcage, anyway. Her smile widened as they got ever closer to the banner, almost neck and neck with Wings now, who had spotted them, and was visibly straining every muscle in his magnificent wings in an effort to maintain his lead.

A shout of exultation rose up from three throats as dragon and hoverbike crossed the banner neck and neck. Vermilion lifted one hand from Axle’s waist briefly to wave to Wings, who dipped a wingtip in the direction of the bike by way of a salute.

“...AFTERBURNERS, I DEFINITELY NEED AFTERBURNERS.” It was a cheerful muttering, and being the muttering of a dragon, clearly audible. “SHALL WE LAND, COMRADE?”

“Good plan!” Axle made a mental note to talk to Crankshaft about dragon afterburners, and gently lowered the hoverbike into a nearby clearing that could just about fit both bike and dragon. She dismounted, and then offered out a hand to Vermillion. “Need any help?”

Vermilion took the offered hand, legs trembling slightly on the dismount as the adrenalin of the flight wore off. “That was fun!” She was still grinning, regal dignity entirely forgotten. Absently, she plucked the errant leaflet from her crown; glanced at it, chuckled dryly, and dropped it on the seat of the bike. On the paper, Axle’s face gleamed in the full moon’s light; the pamphlet proudly proclaiming no-one beyond the reach of the Combine. She smiled wryly, catching Axle’s eye and shrugging. “Fortune has a sense of humour, it would seem…”

Axle raised her eyebrows in amusement, partly at Vermilion’s dishevelment, partly at the seeing her own face on the propaganda. She looked towards the pamphlet, and grinned. “It’s not wrong, you know?” She said softly, giving the Carrion-Queen’s hand a gentle squeeze, and then she let go, pushing her goggles up, and turning to face the dragon that had just landed beside them. “That was brilliant!”

Vermilion flushed slightly, hastily removing the goggles she’d almost entirely forgotten she was wearing. “Exhilarating,” she concurred, smile fading only slightly at the knowingly amused look Wings shot her.

“A MOST ENJOYABLE EXERCISE.” Wings grinned, stretching his wings out, gold glimmering in the moonlight, practically glowing. “WE SHOULD DEFINITELY DO THAT AGAIN.” He leaned in to nuzzle at Axle again, relishing the nearness and the scent of someone who felt like home. “SOON?” He sounded hopeful.

Axle felt like her heart might burst as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “How does tomorrow sound? I can't stay for too long here, I have my own people to take care of, but I can spare a few days?”

Wings’ tail lashed happily across the clearing. “I WOULD LIKE THAT, COMRADE. VERY MUCH.”

Vermilion reached out, a little awkwardly, to lay a hand on Axle’s shoulder. “You’re… welcome to visit again, you know. Any time you’re free.” A slight wince, as she looked at the clearly lonely dragon. “Hells, if you were serious about bringing the RevCorp down for a photoshoot, a race like that would be a pretty fine thing to have on film, no?” Damnit Vermilion, what are you saying?

“I’ll talk to Fluidity, see what she thinks.” She turned to grin at Vermilion, mischievously, “and it'll be so much easier to arrange once you've joined the Combine…” She almost sauntered back to the bike, brushing the pamphlet away as she mounted it. “Shall I take you back to your palace, Comrade?” Vermilion winced, following her back to the bike with a chagrined expression. “I’d appreciate the lift, yes - bit of a long walk otherwise. Must you keep calling me that, though? I’m not your comrade-” and this time she caught herself with that ‘yet’ on the tip of her tongue, and bit it back with a rueful shake of the head as she pulled on the goggles, trying not to make eye contact with either of them.

“Just… trying to get you used to the idea” Axle grinned, and started revving the engine, unnecessarily. “Shall we take it a bit slower this time, your royal tyrantship?”

“That would,” Vermilion said dryly, “be the sensible option.” Even without looking at her, the grin was evident in her voice as she put her arms round Axle’s waist again.

Axle did, however, take things a little more gently. Without the pressure of winning a race, she slowly took the bike up vertically, and then, once they had exceeded the tree line, and gotten as far as the bike could take them, she took it into what was for Axle, a fairly elegant, if stomach lurching dive. When they reached the tree line she pulled the bike straight, and slowed down, looking around. The moonlight was casting silvery patterns on the forest roof, making it almost look like a strange, alien sea. She let out a soft whistle. “It looks pretty good from up here, I'll give you that.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Vermilion sounded almost shyly proud of her realm, seeing it like this. “You know, it’s kind of funny - if you’d asked me before I stepped through the Breach what my lands would look like, I’d have described something a lot more like the Dead Heart’s, all fire and skulls. But now that I’ve seen my Wyrdwood - well, from the first moment I stepped into it from the Nexus, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else feeling this much like home. It.... reflects a part of me I never used to know I had.”

The hoverbike had almost slowed to a stop. “Shaping is… funny like that, isn't it? But I think this is much better than fire and skulls. I'd seen the description, on the tables, but it's… not what I expected.” She paused, staring out into the silence. “And certainly very different to what I'm used to.”

“It.... has more of a future, than the fire and skulls, I think.” Vermilion frowns down at the forest. “I wouldn’t like to try and live in that realm once the world stops changing. The Wyrdwood… I like to think it has potential. That once my people step out from under my shadow, they’ll really be able to make something of their lives here, make something of themselves…”

Axle shuffled round in her seat, so she could face her passenger, which proved only slightly tricky. She looked at her with curious concern, the moonlight glinting strangely off goggles that she pushed up out of her eyes. “I don't understand. You.. you care for your people, that much is clear, but you keep them in your shadow, oppressed. Why?”

“Freedom can’t be given as an act of charity, or it means nothing. It needs to be taken. Earned. Seized. If I gave them everything, it would only make them more dependant on me. When they rise up to overthrow me, as they inevitably will… I will be so proud of them. Because they will have reached the point where they don’t need me anymore.” Vermilion smiled, looking off into the distance. “For heroes to rise… sometimes they need a villain to rise against. That’s what I do; who I am. Why I am. The whole reason the Monarchs-in-Shadow exist.”

Axle found herself fighting a strange urge to comfort Vermilion, but instead, she pushed a finger to her brow in concentration. “There is a volunteer, in my territory. Can't shoot for shit, breaks every engine he touches. But he has a wonderful voice. You listen to him sing, the whole world melts away. He'd never be able to overthrow you, if all your people were like him you'd never get your wish. But you can't argue that he doesn't deserve freedom. Someone's worth is not based purely on how well they can fight or plan. Everyone has an inherent worth. Even tyrants with weird ideas…” Axle smiled ruefully at the Valtarian, sadness and confusion in her eyes.

“There are more ways to overthrow someone than fighting,” Vermilion smiled back, sadness touching her own eyes. “What do you think you’re trying to do, for instance? I’d hardly be the first Monarch-in-Shadow brought to their knees by some bright young hero who found a form of beauty that could touch a jaded soul… heroism’s not always about fighting, not in the straightforward swords-and-armour sense or the hurling of fireballs. It’s about having the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Whatever you believe in. However you stand up. The method’s not the part of that which matters.”

An impish smile, suddenly cheerful again; “Who knows, perhaps by the time this is all over, all it will take is one of them walking up to me and asking nicely… point is, it has to come from them. They have to decide that they don’t need me anymore, that they’re better off without me. Does that make any more sense?” She shrugged, frowning a little. “This was so much easier in the old world, though not necessarily better. There, stepping up to be a hero meant they’d become a Shaper. How to make it work when there aren’t going to be any more of us, that’s a challenge. But the world will still need heroes. Legends.” She met Axle’s eyes with a wry smile. “Inspiration.”

“But then what?” Axle countered, “When your people have risen up and overthrown you? They end up with a Monarch Victor,” Axle pulled a disgusted face, “And end up in exactly the same situation, with an oppressor who hides behind smiles and sweetness.” She shook her head, and then suddenly an idea came to her, and she reached to clutch Vermilions arm in enthusiasm. “Come and visit my realm Vermillion,” she said, intensity in her eyes. “Come and see what a population can do when they have been given freedom without having to fight for it.” The intensity dropped off, slightly, “And for the record, I am not trying to overthrow you, I am trying to peacefully integrate you into the Combine, no kneeling involved.”

Vermilion smiled. “That’s how it would have worked in the old world, yes. The Carrion Queen would recede into the shadows, and the Enchantress-Supreme would step into the light, and some bold young hero would take a crown and title and begin a legend of their own. But in this world? With no more Shapers? When I fall, there will be none to replace me but the human heroes who brought me down. Mere men and women - but living with the knowledge they defeated a Shaper, a god, and if they could do that, they can do anything. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine what they might do next.”

She paused, considering the invitation. “I… would be intrigued to see your people. To meet those of the Combine in situations other than battle, or the structured contests of the Nexus. Don’t get your hopes up too highly - but even if I never convert outright, I am at least willing to learn.” She smiled wryly. “It’s amusing on some levels how many decisions of the Crucible have been made by discussion and agreement recently, for instance.”

A slight frown. “But, Axle - you would be overthrowing me, don’t you see that? I could not join the Combine and remain myself - it would undo everything I am, overwrite everything that I was Shaped to be. It would be the unmaking of me. I know you think you’re trying to save me, but you could only do so by destroying so much of what I am that… I’m not sure there would be much of me left.”

Axle shook her head. “You’re not just the Villain of someone else’s story. How can you think that? The person who was racing Wings with me tonight wasn’t… wasn’t a Monarch in Shadow, they were a normal, happy person. Joining the combine wouldn’t change who you are, just who you think you are.” She frowned, silently wondering how far she could push this, and came to a decision, moving her hand from Vermilion’s arm to rest gently on one of her hands. “And you wouldn’t be lonely any more, I can promise you that.”

“Axle…” Vermilion looked away. “I’ve been… groomed for this life, whether as a villain in my own right or a sidekick, since I was eight years old. It’s all I am. All I know. I don’t even remember what my name was, before the Tyrant Sorcerer claimed me for his own and remade me into Vermilion. This is who I am, this is what my story is, and if I step outside it I am nothing.”

Axle frowned at the familiar story, her hand tightening around Vermilion’s without her noticing, and tears coming unbidden to her eyes. She looked at Vermilion for a long time before she spoke, her voice cracking slightly. “Stepping outside of this story would not make you nothing, Vermilion. You asked earlier, what I would consider heroic, and that, that is the most heroic thing a person could do. To have the strength to do what I could not, and walk freely away from a path of hatefulness, into the light. And whatever name you choose, because that would be your choice, you would be my Comrade.”

“I…” Vermilion trembled, a single tear rolling down one cheek. “I almost wish I could believe it possible.” She found herself clinging to Axle’s hand, cursing herself for her weakness, but unable to make herself let go. “But… it isn’t, I can’t… be what you want of me. I have duties, responsibilities, I... “ Reluctantly releasing her grip, she straightened up, suddenly regal in the moonlight. “The Carrion Queen still has a role to play.” Axle gave her a sad smile, and began to turn herself back around. “Best get the Carrion Queen back to her palace then, hadn’t I. Hold tight, your Majesty.”

Vermilion smiled faintly in relief, glared at her hands till they stopped trembling, and took hold. It was a quiet, and smooth ride back to the palace, Axle for once actually focusing on where she was going, trying to keep things gentle for her troubled passenger. She knew that if someone had done a similar thing to her, poking into her past like that, she'd have probably had an incident by now, and so she wanted to get Vermilion onto familiar ground as soon as possible. Before long, she was carefully steering the hoverbike to sit next to her airship. She dismounted, and silently offered Vermilion her hand.

Vermilion took it, and stepped away from the bike, managing a smile as she pulled off the goggles. “That was an enjoyable way to spend an evening. And an… interesting conversation. Thank you.”

The guards’ eyebrows rose at the state their liege was in - torn and tattered dress, covered in scraps of charred paper and bits of twig, crown ever so slightly askew - but she carried herself with regal dignity despite her condition, and the look she gave them dared them to say anything. They elected, prudently, to keep their silence. Axle grabbed her jacket, still hanging off the ship where she had left it, and brushed the surprising number of webs from it. Anyone observing closely would have noticed a hand darting to one particular pocket, checking something was still there, before she casually threw it on, and walked towards the doors, giving the guards a friendly nod. “Evening Comrades.”

Vermilion twitched sharply at the word, shooting a pained look at her back, but said nothing. She turned to look out at the Wyrdwood for a moment, savouring the forest’s scent on the night breeze, listening to the howling of wolves in the distance; then turned to follow her inside, nodding to the guards as she passed. “Time to bar the doors for the night, Captain.”

Looking somewhat relieved, the guards followed the two Shapers inside the castle; the doors swung shut under their own power, or perhaps Vermilion’s will, but nonetheless they manoeuvred heavy, frankly unnecessary-looking, bars into position across them. Axle looked at this display with mild scepticism, wondering briefly what Vermilion was defending herself against. She watched the guards leave, then turned to Vermilion, awkwardly. “I um… I didn't mean to upset you, tonight. I'm…. I'm sorry.” She finished flatly, looking at Vermilion with an unreadable expression on her face.

Vermilion looked absolutely confused by the apology. “Hey, we managed to discuss philosophy without getting into any blazing arguments or hurling fireballs at each other. We’re doing fine, right?”

Axle grinned at that. “Yeah, that’s true I guess, but still. I meant what I said in my letter. I have no interest in being your enemy, and it wasn’t my intention to…” she flailed her hands awkwardly, unsure of herself. “... to make you sad.” She pressed her lips together, as though trying to stop herself from speaking, and then continued. “I know how… disorienting it can be, to have a past you don’t remember.” What are you doing, Axle? You really think Valve would have approved of that?

“You… do?” Vermilion stared at her, expressions whirling across her face; relief that someone understood; fear at having shown a weakness to an opponent with the eyes to see it for one; sympathy at a shared pain too-well-known; and at last, curiosity, rising like a shark through the waters of her mind. She found herself reaching out towards Axle, automatically, one hand stretching towards the other woman’s face, fingers stopping just short of touching her. “What… happened?” Her voice came out oddly gentle.

Axle shrugged calmly, “It was part of my re-education process,” she said, matter-of-factly. “It’s very common for Volunteers. All I know about who I was is that I was someone who did terrible things, and couldn’t see how wonderful being in the Combine is, and frankly, I’d rather not know anything else. But it can be confusing, on occasion, as I’m sure you know.”

“They remade you in their own image, and you love them for it.” Vermilion’s voice was soft in the echoing hallway. Again, a range of expressions played across her face; something like horror, and something like kinship, and something like respect.... Her eyes were distant, remembering.

The Tyrant-Sorcerer's fingers pressing into her forehead, red flame and pain as her world fell away. The way her heart leapt when he smiled at her.

Lending her tabard and collar to Vector for the montage, the Combine creating a legend to stand for a past, and heavens help her, she’d helped, given enough to the effort that his face in that image was already weaving itself into her memories.

Axle, at the first Grand Cycle, sitting in the courtyard, face utterly lost. Valve standing over her, talking softly, voice gentle and yet unyieldingly firm. Names, spellings. Something to hold on to. She’d kept her distance, shivers running down her spine.

Conversations at the second Grand Cycle, sitting with the Steadfast and a rotating cast of Penitents. “I think I need to take the crown off for this one…” Not knowing who she was, or was becoming, or wanted to. Focussing on the world that they were Shaping, far more idea what she was doing there, what she wanted there.

When her eyes came back into focus, she found herself leaning against the wall, breathing heavily as if she’d just been running. Her eyes, staring at Axle, were wide. “Is that… what would, what would happen to me, if…” There could be no mistaking the look in her eyes, as her voice trailed off, for anything but terror.

Axle’s face was a picture of concern. She knew the signs of Vermilion’s distress all too well. How do you even deal with a non-volunteer incident? She walked towards her, calmly, and slowly, and put her hands on Vermilion’s shoulders, looking firmly into her eyes. “It’s ok, Vermilion. It’s Ok. I need you to take some deep breaths, and focus on my voice. You are not like I was, Vermilion. You listen, you learn. If you were to join the Combine, you would be doing so willingly, and you would not need re-education. I promise, I won’t let anyone do that to you again.” And what if Valve says she needs re-education? What then? Axle smiled gently at Vermilion, and stroked her arm in what she hoped was a comforting manner. She could hear Valve’s voice in her head. Sometimes it’s ok to lie, if it’s for the good of the combine.

Vermilion closed her eyes briefly, focussed on her breathing; found herself absently running through the meditation exercise she’d learned from Soar. In the eyes of the infinite, the finite is nothing… Her hands rose, clutching at Axle’s instinctively, almost without her willing it.

When her eyes reopened, her face was almost calm, though there was still a hint of something fragile about the eyes. “Can we… get out of the corridors?” The only thing worse than showing this weakness to an enemy would, she reflected, be showing it to her people. They still needed her; they still needed her to be strong for them.

Axle gave a slight chuckle at that. “Yeah, probably sensible. Let’s um… find you somewhere to sit down, eh?” She removed her hands from Vermilion’s shoulders, but, after a slight pause, took her hand firmly in her own, and gave it a squeeze.

The corridors remained mercifully empty as they made their way back to Axle’s chambers; Vermilion half-collapsed into one of the armchairs with a sigh of relief as the door clicked shut behind them. Looking up at Axle, she managed a weak smile, and a soft murmur of thanks, still holding on to her hand. Axle smiled back gently, then released her hand, and started wandering around the room, looking mildly confused.

“Do you do, um, tea, in Valtaria? Or spirits?” How does someone have guest quarters that don’t contain a way of making tea? “Oh”, she groaned. “We’d have to call someone up for that, wouldn't’ we…” she pulled a face.

“For tea, yes. Spirits we can do, the globe in the corner there opens…” she gestured vaguely. Axle wandered over to the globe, and flipped it open, eyes widening with curiosity and delight at the unfamiliar bottles within. “Ooooh, better than Engine Room’s Finest….” She selected a bottle of deep red liquid, and made her way back to the armchair, taking a swig as she went, and nodding appreciatively. She offered it to Vermilion. “This is good stuff, consider me mildly impressed.”

Vermilion gave a weak smile, that almost covered the slight flinch as she mastered her horror at drinking from the bottle and followed suit. “...damn, I’d forgotten how strong that was. I almost never drink these days.” Another swig, a little less hesitant, before she passed the bottle back. “Damn if it’s not a night for it, though.”

Axle made a quiet mental note to keep an eye on how much Vermilion had, as she dragged an armchair across the floor to sit next to her, and took another swig. “How are you feeling?”

“Fell off a wyvern once, up on the Shattered Front. Fifty foot drop in freefall before I mustered the magic for a controlled descent, tumbling base-over-apex, while reality flickered in and out of focus and shifted all around me. That’s how I’m feeling.”

“...Fuck”, Axle sounded a little impressed, as she passed the bottle back to Vermilion. “Last proper incident I had… bout a month ago? I thought my lungs were gonna catch fire. If it wasn’t for our intercom system… dunno what would have happened.”

“This… happens to you often?” Vermilion shot her a concerned look. “I haven’t been this bad since before I was a Shaper - oh, every so often someone would hit a nerve in battle, but answering it with violence is so much easier…” She shuddered. “Damn, I hope I’m not going to start making a habit of this. I remember the early days being… rough.” A wry, pained smile and a distant look. “The parts I do remember, anyway. I was just a child, and, well… There’s a lot of that time I’ve managed to block out all by myself.”

Axle smiled, thinking of her personal record, 56 days without incident. “You’ll be fine. I’m a fairly young Volunteer, and I understand I was not...very easy to re-educate. And if you do have problems again, I can really recommend talking to Valve.” She held up her hands, staving off the response she assumed was coming, “no re-education required, he’s just… got a lot of good advice for minimising this sort of thing. Right now, however, honestly you probably just need a good night's sleep.”

Vermilion shot her a skeptical look, conveying clearly that Valve was not going to be on the list of people she wanted to talk to about this anytime soon. “Doubt I could sleep yet…” She reached for the bottle, took another swig. “I’d only wind up dreaming, and I remember what the dreams were like back then.” Lullabies sung in an achingly familiar voice, the half-glimpsed face she was sure must be her mother, the way the details never stayed with her on waking and the loss became a guilty knot of aching wistfulness.

“Axle, I’m confused.” She shot the other woman a worried look. “You said earlier that you were seeking redemption, but if you don’t remember what you’re trying to atone for… how will you ever know you’ve done enough?”

Axle looked down, memories of her own dreams, flickering through her mind. The screaming faces, youthful, innocent, surrounded by flames. The judgement in their eyes. The smoke in her lungs… When she looked up again, gently taking the bottle from Vermilion as she did, she almost looked helpless. “I… I know enough to know that I won’t ever have done enough. But if I didn’t try… that would be worse.”

Vermilion flinched at the look in her eyes. “So much hope for others, and you save none for yourself…” She reached out, laying a gentle hand on Axle’s wrist. “I’ve hurt you, I-” she hadn’t intentionally said I’m sorry since forcing herself to her feet and into a Shaper’s power with the words I shall repent of nothing bursting from her lips to echo through her master’s halls. “I… didn’t mean to.” The words were clearly, woefully, inadequate. “I… don’t want to make you sad.”

Axle brushed the sadness off with a quick shake of the head. “Hey, don’t worry about it. You didn’t mean to.” She looked at Vermillion and sighed. None of the advice she had been given was of any use now. Dynamics had said “shower her with compliments.” Violet had recommended painfully obtuse flirting, and Fluidity had told her to remain alluring and distant. No one had said what to do with a Monarch who was sad, and possibly a little tipsy. Then she had a thought, and brightened. “Hey, do you want me to show you how to ride the bike tomorrow? If you have another dress you can afford to ruin, that is…”

“You really think I could?” Vermilion looked intrigued by the prospect. “I mean, I’ve probably got a hunting outfit somewhere. Or is ruining my dresses half the fun?” Despite herself, she grinned on the last.

Axle took another swig of drink, to hide the fact she’d gone slightly pink, and then grinned widely. “Well, if you run out of Monarch-in-Shadow clothes, I guess you can’t be a Monarch-in-Shadow anymore, can you?”

Vermilion giggled tipsily. “Oh, I assure you, I can be a perfectly terrible tyrant stark naked.” Her head tilted to one side, remembering. “Have been a time or two, as I recall.”

“Aaannd that’s enough alcohol for the both of us, I think.” Axle took the bottle back to the globe, and closed it firmly, hoping that she’d turned away fast enough that Vermilion hadn’t seen exactly how red she had gone.

Vermilion’s knowing smile as she turned back suggested quite strongly that she did see, and indeed appreciated it immensely. Having done enough damage for one night, however, she restrained herself to the teasing accusation of “-though I think you mostly just want to see me in the goggles again, don’t you?”

Axle, still a little pink, shrugged, and grinned, a little mischief in her eyes. “Goggles suit you.” She returned to the chair, and tilted her head to one side, looking at Vermilion, “you should wear them all the time.”

Vermilion snorted. “No bloody fear. They can’t look much less ridiculous on me than they did on Her Exalted Beneficience Serennia when she took to parading around in them for Fluidity. Besides, they’re a little awkward with the glasses.” Another laugh, a wry smile. “Still, if I’m going to embarrass myself falling off your bike, looking a little more ridiculous won’t hurt, I suppose.”

“Honestly, no word of a lie, they look good on you! Certainly they suit you more than they suit… whatever her name is now. You ought to get used to them anyway, for when you join us.” Axle’s eyes sparkled with mischief.

Vermilion laughed again, though she was blushing herself by now. “Optimism, still. You, my dear Axle, are an incorrigible optimist.” She shook her head in amusement. “But I think we’re both too drunk and tired to resume that argument tonight, yes?”

Axle smiled, and nodded, “Probably yes.” She looked at the tipsy monarch with an amused expression. “... Am I going to have to help you back to your rooms Vermilion?”

“No, I-” Vermilion hauled herself out of the chair, took two steps towards the door and nearly tripped over her own feet. “Um, maybe?”

Axle tried very, very hard to keep the grin off her face as she stood up and gently looped an arm around Vermilions waist, supporting her weight as the two of them moved towards the door. “Come on, your majesty, which way are we going?”

“Onwards and upwards,” she waved vaguely down the corridor towards a broad staircase. “Tallest of the towers. I’d say it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was already here when I arrived and fairly obviously mine, clearly my subconscious has a lot to answer for…”

“Typical…” Axle shook her head, and started towards the stairs. As they rose, she frowned to herself. “Vermilion, I don't want you to get the wrong idea but… you mentioned bad dreams... back on the RATA, when Volunteers had nightmares, we always used to make sure someone was with them, in the night. Not for romance, or sex,” she added hurriedly, “but just, to be comforting.” She paused, and scrunched up her face, really hoping Vermilion understood. “If you wanted, I would…do that for you.” she trailed off awkwardly.

“You… would?” Vermilion stumbled to a halt, looking at her. “We… were never allowed to do that kind of thing, back when… He didn’t like us showing weakness. We’d help each other where we could, only way we could survive, but we could never be that… blatant about it. To not be alone when-” her voice trembled. “I, I’d like that. Thank you.” And suddenly she pulled Axle into an awkward hug; equally suddenly released it, looking anywhere else, cheeks flushed scarlet.

Axle smiled to herself, and restarted the climb, wondering if anyone in the Combine would believe her about this. Or if she was going to tell them. Eventually they got to yet another door without handles, and Axle looked expectantly at the Carrion Queen.

Vermilion drew herself up and frowned at it in concentration, waving a hand in its general direction. The door flew open, moving rather faster than expected, and bounced back from the wall with a loud thunk before the creak of its opening had faded. “...oops.”

The room revealed was a two-storey library, arcane tomes and scrolls lining the walls, a ritual circle inlaid in gold in the centre of the marble floor. Magelights kindled in the hands of the statues around the room as they entered, and sprung into twinkling life across a hanging chandelier sculpted to resemble twisting branches. Vermilion smiled, looking around fondly. “Welcome to my parlour.” She gestured at an archway across the room, where another staircase continued upwards. “Living quarters are above, there’s one hell of a view from the balcony.”

“As good as the view from the hoverbike? That I've got to see” Axle gently moved Vermilion towards, and up the stairs, looking around at the library as she did so, wondering what Valve would do to get his hands on all this data.

Vermilion paid enough attention to ensure they went around the circle rather than through it, smiling absently. “We’re pretty high up here, you can see most of the Wyrdwood on a clear day. And it catches the moonlight wonderfully.”

They reached the balcony, and Axle stopped, and drew a breath as she saw the view. “Damn that's beautiful. I wonder what my territory looks like from this height… maybe I'll take the airship over it on my way back- find out.”

“Maybe when I come visit you can show me.” Vermilion took a moment to lean on the railing, breathing in the night air. “I like to come out here, take in the view, remind myself that somehow I managed to make something beautiful.” She smiled, then made herself turn away. “We should probably go inside…” The door swung open at her approach, the same sinister creaking in spite of a smooth movement.

Inside, there could be no doubting to whom the room belonged. A fire blazed in a fireplace whose mantle bore a frieze of marching skeletons, inlaid in ivory with their armour picked out in gold; the room was dominated by a four-poster bed almost large enough to be a room in itself; heavy red draperies swinging about it, ruby-eyed gold skulls surmounting the posts, a matching chaise longue at its foot. Vermilion flopped onto it, too tired for dignity, sighing with relief.

Trying not to laugh at Vermilion, Axle pulled off her boots and jacket, and leather waistcoat, revealing a worn black tank top, and even more unsightly scars. She joined the Monarch on the bed and gently wound an arm around her waist, pulling her into a slightly awkward hug. “Is this Ok?” She asked, her voice soft.

Vermilion flushed slightly, stiffening despite herself, clearly unused to being hugged. Slowly, slowly, she relaxed into the contact, a soft smile forming on her lips. “...yes.” Her voice came out as a whisper, tinged with amazement. Gently she rested her hand over Axle’s, holding her close. “Very much yes.”

Axle shuffled herself closer, feeling her own tiredness kick in, and rested her head on Vermilions shoulder. “Earlier,” she began, sleepily, “you said you wished you could believe that… changing was possible.” A smile flickered across her face as her eyes closed. “Why dream small, Comrade?”

Vermilion chuckled sleepily. “Never give up, do you?” Her own smile, as her eyes drifted closed, was tinged with sadness.

You want to save others, and don’t believe you’ll ever find the redemption that you’re seeking.

I Shaped an entire realm about the process of alchemical transformation, and don’t believe that I can change myself.

I didn’t think we’d have this much in common...

Principles of Offensive Architecture

Authors: Carrion-Queen Vermilion and “Ten Count” Markowitz

“BE FREE OR BE FREED!”

When he’d first heard the monstrous song of the famed Comrade Wings, “Ten Count” Markowitz had found it really rather amusing. Propaganda was a completely legitimate weapon of warfare and one the People’s Combine had worked hard to make their own, so he could respect the efforts to Shape something that would spread the quote-unquote good word of the Liberators of the Combine. Why exactly they’d chosen to place that burden on a gigantic golden dragon - something so undeniably cool that Ten Count had already started considering how to make one for himself - was a secret already lost to the ages.

By the twentieth time Wings had soared overhead and bellowed out another convenient soundbite, the novelty had long since fizzled out and died. It was no more than a wild stab in the dark - time being the mutable and mostly-irrelevant concept it had evolved into - but Ten Count guessed he’d been hauling the extremely heavy cases through the Wyrdwood for at least a solid hour and this was all feeling far, far too much like hard work for his liking.

He’d set off from Opportunity accompanied by two of his trainees, figuring that while neither Loomis nor Dager had shown themselves to be especially capable, they were convenient muscle and looked up to Ten Count with enough reverence that they’d obey orders unquestioningly. It seemed like a perfect plan - they carried the munitions, they saw a little more of the world outside Opportunity and if anything looked to be going south, he could use them as meat shields. Sensible, considered and with absolutely no consideration for anybody but himself; if that wasn’t the Margin Driver brief in a nutshell, he didn’t know what was.

And then the little shits had gone.

One moment, they’d been dragging the metal case through the cloying mist at the edge of the forest; the next, gone. Disappeared, vanished, evaporated into thin air and abandoning thousands upon thousands of credits worth of valuable tools where they stood. A normal mortal or some of the weaker-willed Shapers may have retreated, taking it as a sign there were eldritch forces at work that clearly had no time for intrusions, but in the immortal words of the mythical Jimmy “Two Fists” Morris - fuck that, there’s money to be made.

And so it was that a sweaty and aching Ten Count dragged his payload over yet another gnarled tree root and into a blessed clearing, letting the case fall to the floor and sitting down on it. High above the treetops, Comrade Wings breathed a white-hot stream of flame and roared wordlessly. “Fuck off, you tacky lizard,” muttered the extremely grumpy Shaper, patting his many pockets. “Gold was so three seasons ago.”

“Are you in need of assistance, traveller?” boomed a voice that already sounded far too pleased for the distraction for his liking. Ten Count had registered the clearing and the ugly stone walls already but, in his head, there were more pressing matters to attend to than working out where they were. Rummaging through his vest, he emerged with a single, electric blue pill, the last of his recent efforts to distil Vitamin Glee down to something a little easier to carry.

The voice attached itself to the figure who’d detached themselves from the shadows inside the castle gates and only then, as he necked the pill dry, did the gears in Ten Count’s mind start clunking together. “The only assistance I want you are not biologically capable of giving me, sunshine. This Vermilion’s place?”

“Indeed.” In time-honoured tradition, the pair sauntering in his direction mixed the unwarranted confidence in their abilities only the truly incompetent have with the genial boredom of career guards. “You have the honour of standing in the Wyrdwood, dominion and demesne of the Chimerical Reagant, Her Inesteemable Majesty the Carrion-Queen Vermilion, the Unrepentant Fury of Nature…” the taller of the guards trailed off, looking uncertainly towards his counterpart, “...have I missed any?”

“The Lady Incarmine?” the other asked with a shrug. “Broodmother? Queen of Flame and Darkness? I don’t know, I can’t keep track for you.”

The taller one would have spoken up again had Ten Count not intervened, pain adding extra fuel to his fire. That was the problem with the Glee pills, you sacrificed speed of impact for ease of transport. “Pardon me muchly, I thought I was coming to visit the Monarch of the Kingdoms, not watching a fucking atrocious double act. Do I look like a fucking Valtarian to you?” This time, it was the stout one’s turn to be rudely interrupted, with Ten Count warming to his theme. “Look closely, look really closely, note how I’m not wearing armour with sculpted abs on it, see how nothing has any brocade or lace or fancy fucking silver cloth on it, take a close look at how painfully non fucking Valtarian I seem and go tell Mumsy that there’s a nice man at the door who wants to do business with her.” Cracking his neck sickeningly, both for effect and because it was genuinely cramping to hell, the deeply aggravated Shaper produced a cigarette from somewhere. “I’ll wait.”

It has been said that people who spend a larger-than-average amount of time in one another’s company develop a sixth sense for what their partner is thinking, feeling or about to do. These two guards, sadly, had yet to reach that level, which is why the taller one wasn’t quite able to restrain his stouter colleague before he could make one of the worse mistakes of his thus-far uneventful life: putting his finger into Ten Count’s face. “Do not think you ca-aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH,” was as far through the threat as he managed before the increasingly furious Shaper bent his finger back on itself and effortlessly broke it.

“If you don’t mind me quoting for a moment,” said Ten Count, suddenly much calmer now he’d found somebody to be violent towards, “in the words of Delilah DeLuxe, come again?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

The quiet whimpering of the guard reduced to three working fingers couldn’t disguise the uncomfortable pause. “You don-ah, for fuck’s sake. Of COURSE you don’t fucking know, what WOULD you people know about NBTV?” Purely out of frustration’s sake, Ten Count grabbed a second finger and snapped that as well. “Delilah DeLuxe, used to be an adult entertainer, now has a huge line of marital aids. It’s a pun, or play on words. You’re fucking clueless, aren’t you? Go tell Vermilion that ‘Ten Count’ Markowitz wants to bend her ear a little bit and I won’t keep breaking this one.”

The sound of hurried footsteps in the corridor was merely the latest in the series of irritations that was comprising the Carrion-Queen’s day. She was entirely out of outstanding correspondence, the rats had gotten into her library, which of course she couldn’t deal with in her usual preferred manner due to the obvious issues of ‘fireballs’ and ‘library’, and she was evidently more out of practice with the old throwing knives than she’d thought. She was, therefore, restless, irritable, and dangerously bored.

The hapless guard entering her quarters, however, clearly had no idea of the mood his monarch was in. Otherwise, the knife that narrowly missed his nose would have come as far less of a surprise.

“Damn and blast it, you fouled my shot!” She glared at the interloper, the knife (quivering slightly in the doorframe) and the rat (eyeing her defiantly from just inside the hole in the wall beside the door which it had prudently retreated to) with equal degrees of frustrated malice.

“I, uh… sorry, ma’am? I mean, uh, Majesty?” He shuffled awkwardly, clearly flustered in a manner that went somewhat beyond a near-miss with a knife. She frowned at him in puzzlement.

“You don’t appear to be the Royal Ratcatcher,” she observed. The obvious thought of 'we have one of those?' drifted clearly across his face; her lips twitched ever so slightly, knowing full well that in point of fact she didn’t, and somewhere in the castle her seneschal was scrambling to rectify the omission. “I presume therefore you have an excellent reason to be disturbing me.”

“I, uh, well…” Belatedly realising the danger of an irritated Monarch fidgeting with her last throwing knife, he jerked abruptly into some semblance of attention. “Intruder at the gate, Majesty. Or, uh, possibly a visitor. It’s a bit… confusing.”

Vermilion’s eyebrows rose. “Confusing.”

“Yes, Majesty.” He nodded desperately. “He said he’s not Valtarian, but apparently he’s a Count? Marked of a witch? But I’ve never heard tell of any Count with colours like that in their heraldry, and, well… he’s very…”

“Confusing.” Vermilion’s voice was dry. “I see.” She shrugged, shot one last baleful glance at the rat, and tucked her knife away. “Well, this should be… diverting, at the least. Do let us see who this Count is...” She stared at the Guard until he got the hint, an instant later than was prudent, and backed out of the doorway, turning to escort his Queen to meet her guest.

A short while later, she paused in the gateway of the Citadel of Bone, looked from her visitor to the guard at her side and back again, and sighed. Turning to the guard, she raised her eyebrows. “Tell me, lad. What is your name?”

“...Agravaine, Majesty.” He eyed her nervously; she was not, after all, known for taking an interest.

“Hmm. You see, Gawain, the thing is-”

“Uh, it’s Ag-”

Her knife was suddenly in her hand and laid across his lips. “Interrupt me again, Gawain, and you’ll be answering to worse. You see, Gawain, the thing is, names have power. The names of Shapers more than most. For instance. Our visitor here is not ‘a count’.” Enjoying the scene intensely, Ten Count tucked his cigarette neatly behind his ear and flashed both palms at the recently-renamed Gawain. “When someone tells you their name, Gawain, you should, therefore, damn well pay attention.”

Calming herself somewhat, she stepped backwards, knife vanishing into her clothing again. “So. Consider this a learning experience. Once your shift ends, you will seek out my Seneschal for a full list of Shapers currently active in the Outworld. You will memorise that list, complete with notes on faction, aesthetic of attire you should be expecting to see should they arrive here, and what if any you believe my current relationship with them is. In a week’s time, you will present yourself to me for examination. If I am suitably impressed with your performance, I might even be persuaded to give you your name back. Possibly.”

She smiled, bright and cold as snow. “Of course, if you prove… disappointing… Well, my former liege had some very complete theories on the uses of pain as both memory aid and motivational tool. And, unsurprisingly, I remember them remarkably well.” As Gawain paled and took a step back, she turned away, clearly already having dismissed him from her consciousness. Her smile widened, taking on at least a hint of genuine warmth.

“Ten Count. This is an unexpected pleasure. Please, do come in.”

“Your Majesty,” Ten Count sketched a bow, for once not intending to be insulting with the gesture. “I do enjoy it when I meet somebody who has an appreciation for a spot of tutelary dentistry. Oi, you,” he added, leaning past the Carrion-Queen for a moment and acknowledging Gawain’s existence again, “be a sweetheart and if you bring my shit, I’ll give you a couple of answers. In the meantime…” for reasons even he wasn’t quite aware of, Ten Count offered her his arm to take, “I believe we have much to discuss.”

Eyeing him with some skepticism, Vermilion’s desire for a decent distraction overrode her fairly reasonable misgivings and she threaded her arm through his. “Such as?” Absently guiding their steps towards the Great Hall, she ran a thoughtful glance over her visitor’s attire, taking in the full depth of the difference from how he’d dressed last time she saw him. “...Interesting new look, by the way. Very… bold.”

“You’re too kind, too kind.” Ten Count adjusted his collar, today lurid and disgracefully pink. “I’m a big believer in cultural cross-pollination, see, and Opportunity’s ripe for that. Protean Dynamics are taking pointers from us on stakeholder engagement, Joy Effect are stealing their lingo and being the only Margin Driver this side of the breach, I thought I’d try to bring some colour in all of our lives.”

“You succeeded. Avoid that flagstone,” Vermilion gently guided Ten Count to the left. “I understand dismemberment often offends. So, the new heraldry has nothing whatsoever to do with you being repeatedly mistaken for a member of the Penitent Order.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you could possibly be referring to, your Majesty,” the words oozing sarcasm. “I like the Order well enough, some of them seem to have their heads screwed on straight, but you can only threaten to pistol-whip another Shaper so many times before it gets tiresome.”

“So, is the colour scheme an exercise in fashion, or psychological warfare?” Her tone was light. “I mean, you clash with the decor, with my outfit… in places that outfit even manages to clash with itself. All in all, it’s an exquisite exercise in subtle torture of the senses. I thoroughly approve.” Another subtle side-step. Behind them, Gawain steered an equally well-practiced, if less precise, waving course along the corridor.

“My understanding is that it works in the opposite way to camouflage. With practise, you can craft a colour palette so appallingly garish that the eye just slides off it for its own protection. Besides, I thought Valtarians rather enjoyed a bit of excess in their attire. Not,” Ten Count hastened to add, “that you don’t look rather striking, that is.”

“Thank you; I try.” She smiled and nodded. “With us, of course, the colours tend to owe a lot to the old rules of heraldry; all about what the average peasant can clearly recognise on a shield across the battlefield. Requires a degree of simplicity, though as you say, we do rather enjoy taking those basic colours and symbols and seeing just how far we can take them…”

As if on cue, the doors of the Great Hall came into view; carved from bone, inlaid with gilded skulls, with blazing red banners hanging to either side. She raised one hand, and the doors swing open at their approach with a satisfyingly ominous groan.

Within, the same theme to the decor continued; red drapes, pillars clad in bone and walls of black marble; and a truly ostentatious golden throne, ruby-eyed skulls glaring balefully out across the room. One great table was almost entirely taken up by the great Cornucopia, and the steaming food brought forth from it. And on a less ornate (but considerably more comfortable-looking) chair to one side of the great throne, a harassed looking woman, currently glaring at a younger girl who looked if anything even more stressed than she did.

“Look, I don’t care if we’ve never had a Royal Ratcatcher before, her majesty says we do, so we do. Get some damn livery on, would you?” Belatedly registering the sound of the doors, she looked up, rose hastily, and bowed, trying not to look like a woman wondering how much of that her queen had heard.

“Oh good, you found them. Good work, Seneschal. You - the blasted creatures have gotten into my library, get to work before they eat any more of the books. Vivienne - we have a guest, have one of the suites made ready, and de-activate the security measures in the public areas.” Looking relieved for an excuse to be elsewhere, the two women hastily made themselves scarce.”

“Deactivate? Shame. I was looking forward to seeing what this place had to offer.” Ten Count sauntered around the table, looking curiously at the gigantic horn of plenty and swiping an orange. “Full credit to you, Valtaria does do a great line in opulence. This is fucking class,” he said, sitting down in one chair and resting his feet on the arms of the second. “Don’t mind me, my fucking feet are agony.”

Vermilion laughed. “If you’re that curious, I can open up some of the other sections. Forgive me for not wanting all my front-line intruder defences giving away their secrets on a first visit…” She settled into the throne, tossing her own legs over one of the armrests. “Now, then… not that it isn’t good to see you, but what brings you to my Wyrdwood?”

Behind them, the sweating Gawain finally yanked Ten Count’s cases through the door. “Perfect timing, boyo, down here,” he said, snapping his fingers at the unfortunate guardsman. “I know we had a chat last time the Nexus was open but like I said, I’m a big believer in cultural exchange. Diversification is a fucking cornerstone of sensible risk management and I want to ensure that Opportunity never has the chance to get stagnant. You need a wide portfolio to be sure you can weather any market shocks that come along, and Axle’s bunch of morons are a flying supply shock.”

Vermilion shot him a sharp glance at the mention of Axle’s name - most people would have said Maximum’s, or Valve’s if they were paying attention, what does he know - before recalling her focus to the discussion at hand. “If you keep talking like Glimmers, I’m going to need to work up a translation spell,” she muttered. “A flying what now?”

Ten Count waved a hand in dismissal. “Technical term. In this case, used to refer to the grinning imbeciles who thought it’d be funny to have an affront over the Apparitions and might have seriously fucked the world engines, but that’s another story for another day. Point is, you deal with people who have godlike powers and often don’t have the common sense or self-control to use them properly, and what I’m eager to do is establish better links both on the macro and micro levels.” Catching Vermilion’s blank look, he added, “Between both nations as a whole and individual Shapers, what with us all being sovereign nations unto ourselves.”

“Oh, so that would be how the Affront Apparition acquired his stylish new face?” She shrugged absently, before swinging her legs back round and leaning forwards, suddenly intently interested. “I’ve been having… similar thoughts myself. The Concord were planning on building this place solo, after all. And instead, we’ve wound up with multiple factions building our realms in, well, pretty different directions. I have this uneasy feeling running down the back of my spine. Like, maybe there’s a risk of the whole thing coming apart at the seams when the scaffolding comes off, if we don’t take precautions to avoid it…”

She smiled blithely, apparently completely at ease with discussing the possible disintegration of the world they were standing on. “I’ve been working with the Walkers already, of course - the Crucible and the Chromatic Expanse could probably merge into each other fairly well at this point, and if all goes to plan we should have a while to refine it further. Trying to get the rest of the pieces of the puzzle to fit together, that’s going to be more of a challenge. The Combine especially; they’re… not exactly big on compromise. Still, one step at a time.” She tilted her head to one side, looking at him curiously. “I take it you have something specific in mind?”

“I do, I do,” replied Ten Count, filing that all away for future use. “Quite aside from the obvious ideological differences, the Combine being so dogmatic is deeply worrying and I have good reason to believe it’s going to lead to open warfare at some point. I’m not the only one who’s concerned about the Nexus’ structural integrity. And that leads right to my doorstep.” A combination of the mist in the forest and being jolted around had made the latches on his cases a pain to get undone, and he took a knee while he futzed with them. “You tend to gravitate towards fire as your offensive weapon of choice, yes?”

“Outside the Affronts, yes.” Vermilion grinned sharply. “Funny thing, those. I’ve spent pretty much my entire career trying to avoid getting into that kind of fight. Close quarters, two dimensions only, even numbers?” She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, it’s entertaining enough, but it’s not warfare, is it now?”

Ten Count groaned, mostly for theatrics. “Don’t talk to me about the Affronts. Last time out, Opportunity decided I was going to be their fire support for the realm-on-realm fights. It made sense on paper, there’s nobody who could hold a candle to me for marksmanship, but then Chain Dog and Trojan Force decided the best tactics were to leave me completely undefended and let that big lug Abanox run in unopposed and batter me. Don’t know why I wasn’t charging them for my time. A-ha!” The final latch gave way and he triumphantly flipped upon the case. “What’s your Affinity again, Bastion?”

She shot him an odd look. “You’re not confusing me with the Steadfast, are you?...Used to be Tempest. Refocussing to Edge for the next time. If I’m going to have to get up close and personal, I may as well enjoy it.”

Ten Count stopped shifting kit for a moment to fire a look at the Carrion-Queen. “Bethany? You don’t have a Penitent draped over you and I haven’t had to threaten to scalp you yet.” The cornucopia shook as he clunked six feet of heavy ordnance on the tabletop. “I’ve got something for Edges, give me a minute,” he said, tossing a brutally oversized revolver up to join it.

“‘Yet?’” Vermilion sounded amused. “Well, I shall file that under ‘things to look forward to’, then…”

“Try not to get excited, it’s not good for you.” His voice was muffled, as well one would expect from somebody whose head was jammed inside a crate full of foam and metal. “I just want to ensure that she does right by Soar and comports herself like the hero he thinks she can be, and if the best way to accomplish that is with three barrels in the solar plexus then so be it.” He emerged briefly to dump one of the aforementioned triple-barrelled shotguns next to the growing pile. “That’s how your Monarchs-in-Shadow like to do things, ain’t it?”

“Prove yourself worthy or face the consequences? Sounds about right, yes.” She shrugged absently, watching the pile of weaponry grow with abstract curiosity. “Not often things escalate into lethal violence, well, lethal for anyone who matters, at least… Scalping, though? There’s been at least one Monarch-in-Shadow who collected them. And as threats go, it’s nicely colourful. Always helps to focus the mind.”

Ten Count wrenched a rogue sub-machine gun from a deep recess and looked at it curiously. “How did you get in there?” Hurling it carelessly over his shoulder - where it landed with a squishy noise in a pile of ripe fruit - he shouted in triumph. “Fucking knew it! If I ever actually have to scalp her with all the principles, this is what I’d use.”

Considering how nasty and full of malign promise everything else appeared to have, the blade Ten Count unsheathed was almost disappointing; the edge on the blade looked suitably sharp, but the dull, flat blue colour and the strange hilt, a pistol grip with knuckleduster-style holes to thread one’s fingers through, just paled in comparison to some of the monstrous weapons Vermilion had seen and fought against.

Vermilion shot the knife a skeptical look. “Really? With that? For something you’d count worthy of tasting Shaper’s blood, it seems a little, well… modest.”

“You’d think that.” First things first; Ten Count emptied the tiny bag of revoltingly green powder into his mouth and pointed at the chair he’d been resting his feet on. “Are you particularly attached to that?”

She laughed lightly. “Hardly.”

“Excellent.” The sudden violence shouldn’t have been shocking but, even with the strength and power the Shaper’s gift granted, there was no way the blade should have cleaved through it nearly that easily...and it definitely should not have ignited the bisected chair as it did so. With a casual flick, Ten Count ran his fingers along the flat of the blade. “This thing will go through bone like butter. Torgue presents the Provocative Stance.” With a smirk made uglier by the growing flames, he laid the knife back down. “Isn’t technology wonderful?”

“Oh, my.” With a delighted smile, Vermilion rose from her throne and came to inspect the damage. “Now that’s quite something.” Not that she hadn’t seen enchanted weapons do similar - the Soulchainer tended to be carrying that flaming sword of his around, for a start - but most of them tended to provide rather more in the way of advanced warning. Which had a value all its own, but one didn’t survive too long as a Monarch-in-Shadow without learning to appreciate the value of a well-timed unpleasant surprise.

“...of course, while I’m passing fond of both her and indeed Soar, I’m now almost hoping the Steadfast does give you reason,” she muttered thoughtfully. “I rather imagine that would prove quite the show.”

It took him a few moments to find something suitable in the mass of food. “Ah, but I’m very definitively not Edge-aligned. I did try to convince Chain Dog to give it a try, but all he had to say was ‘the Chain Dawg’s got merchandise to move, awooooo’. The Asset Stripper next, I think.” Hefting the revolver in one hand, he offered a watermelon in the other. “Would you mind throwing this in the air? There may be splatter.”

Vermilion hesitated briefly, mindful of her dignity, before shrugging, clearly deciding she was sufficiently intrigued to go along with it. Stepping back, she bounced the watermelon experimentally in her hand a few times, getting a feel for the weight, before launching it towards the ceiling. The pistol blurred as Ten Count swept his hand up and fired, perforating the melon neatly in the centre. There was just enough time for Vermilion to raise an eyebrow and wonder what there was to be impressed about before the fruit erupted, a localised explosion that blasted it to hundreds of tiny, soggy pieces.

Twirling the pistol around his finger, the smug Shaper laid it beside the blade. “Nice throw. Torgue’s Asset Stripper: for when you need to paint the walls with brain matter.”

“And fruit,” said Vermilion acidly, wiping juice from her forehead, the faintest hint of an amused smile visible despite her clear annoyance. “Was that entirely necessary?”

“I did say there would be splatter,” replied Ten Count, trying to shrug carelessly and filing away the mental image of the occasionally high but extremely mighty Carrion-Queen spattered with bright red watermelon juice. “Now, what else...what’s your policy on explosions?” He patted the rocket launcher with the closest thing to affection he could manage sober. “I’ve never tried to kill something that’s been Shaped into being, but I’m pretty sure this beauty could bring that fucking dragon down a few pegs…”

“You leave Wings alone!” Vermilion glared at him, hands on hips, the suggestion clearly enough to distract her both from the watermelon (rapidly disappearing into her clothing’s enchantments, designed for blood but coping well enough) and from the rather more welcome prospect of explosions. “He might be a misguided idiot of a dragon, but he’s my idiot of a dragon.” A deep breath, visibly trying to restore her equilibrium. “Besides, if I’m going to try nailing the world together through geomancy in the long run, I’m going to need to keep something Combine-flavoured around. And I’d far rather keep the dragon than the propaganda machine.”

“Shame,” Ten Count said, still affectionately stroking the missile launcher. “Well, if you ever need something reduced to its component atoms, you know where to come.”

“I’d hardly object to your taking potshots at the airship. Or the banner.” Mollified, she relaxed her stance, smile returning to her face. “Still can’t believe they gave me a dragon, head full of daft ideas or not.”

Hefting it up onto his shoulder, Ten Count smiled back. “I’m jealous. All I got was a computer virus from the Walkers. So, think we can make a deal? A little technology for you, a little magic for us and everybody goes home feeling a little bit friendlier.”

“I’m listening.” A fleeting frown passed over her face as she briefly wondered why the Walkers were fucking with him, and how one of these ‘computer’ things her seneschal had tried to explain to her could get sick. Filing both questions away for later, she shrugged. “I suspect for that kind of cultural exchange to be anything more than a minor novelty we’d be looking at pointing geomancy at the problem to integrate the additions into the local paradigm, yes? What exactly did you have in mind?”

Integrate the additions into the local paradigm, fuck me. That is a good sentence. “I have always wanted to add arms dealing to my list of achievements, the old CV hasn’t changed much lately. I’m thinking...gargoyles whose eyes fire lasers, to make sure any intruders have decent reaction times? Fragmentation mines rigged for sound or movement, so to encourage stealth and caution? If you like that jumped-up lizard up there, how would you like a couple of statues that spit liquid fire? Really, your Majesty, the world is your oyster. If it falls under munitions, I can craft it.”

Vermilion’s smile broadened; her voice was practically a purr. “Oh, you are definitely talking my language. I like all of those ideas.” Curiously, she tilted her head to one side, looking at him levelly. “And what magics would you be looking for in exchange?”

It was a fair question that he had absolutely no intention of giving a fair answer. “Well, you know me, you know my vices, you must know what I do and you know your magic much better than I. What do you think is worth offering?”

She raised skeptical eyebrows. “I think you overestimate my knowledge of your vices, Ten Count... “ A brief pause, thinking, and then she smiled. “On the other hand, you walked to my gate carrying your own luggage? I know what you need - undead minions. Reliable, obedient, thoroughly deleterious to enemy morale, being slaughtered only slows them down till they can pull themselves together. And not being people, you can take them travelling much easier under the current state of play - you should have seen the faces of the first few Combine who saw me riding in with a pair of skeletal horses.” She shrugged, still smiling. “Probably a rather predictable answer, coming from the Carrion-Queen - there again, there’s something to be said for playing to your strengths. Your people would call it ‘branding’, yes?”

“I think I’ve fallen in love.” Ten Count let the barrels of the rocket launcher dip to the ground in only half-mocking awe. “I have always wondered what the manpower in Opportunity’s like for those working on infrastructure, if you can form us up a service industry of the undead then hallelujah and praise the Unrepentant, more time for everybody else to enjoy themselves.”

“There are limitations to what they’re capable of, of course.” She smiled, shrugging. “They have a certain brute cunning for warfare, but outside of that they’re a bit limited for intelligence - need a bit of supervision to get useful results, or you get the classic old tales where they keep digging out the cellar till they hit a river... In general, though - the more boring a job is for actual people, the better suited undead are for the task at hand. Hazardous working conditions no object, obviously. We can figure out the details later - type of undead for the task at hand, that kind of thing… but this sounds like we can come to an arrangement?”

“I’ll have a contract drawn up, a straightforward quid-pro-quo agreement to be executed at the geomancy tables. Now,” he said, enjoying the feeling of a job well done and gesturing to the door, “shall we see if we can bring down that eyesore of an airship?”

“By all means.” Vermilion grinned a predatory grin. “Probably won’t work, of course, geomancy being what it is; but no reason we can’t have ourselves some fun trying…”

Wings and Wisdom

Between Grand Cycles 2 & 3 Authors: Carrion-Queen Vermilion, By My Crooked Teeth

Anyone who’s ever had nightmares of being pursued through a primal forest would recognise the Wyrdwood in a heartbeat.

The sounds of it; leaves crunching underfoot. The howling of wolves in the distance. The sudden snap of a branch, somewhere unknown but all too close.

The smell of it; leaf-mulch and recent rain, animal musk and old blood, and just a hint of distant smoke.

The way the paths shift and change. The way the trees move and sway in the absence of wind. The way the undergrowth clutches at one’s clothing with habitual malice.

And yet, for all its sinister mien, there is life here, in abundance. Birds sing amongst the treetops, and deer run through the woods. The trees hang heavy with fruit, and berries swell, rich and red and tempting, in every patch of bramble. And here and there, cobwebs hang, half-real and gleaming ethereal in the sunlight; a friendly warning, for those with eyes to see, that danger lies ahead.

The Emissary tried very hard to follow the path, it twisted and turned and tried to trick him. His hand was holding onto the hilt of his rapier as he walked. He turned to the sudden sound of a chorus of wolves howling in the false night. He adjusted the bag on his back concealed by his cloak. Occasionally he quickened his step and sometimes his sense got the better of him. Running in this forest never goes well for those who do. The Emissary was looking for a clearing, or anything. He was not enjoying the idea of being lost in these woods. A giant flap of wings caught his attention, he looked up to see a resplendent golden scaled dragon flying over head.

“THROW OFF YOUR SHACKLES COMRADES. THE COMBINE IS HERE FOR YOU.”

The Emissary was shocked, then he was surprised and then amazed it had been a while since he had seen anything close to that magnificent. He followed its flight as it would likely be preaching to population centers. After Gods know how long he found himself stumbling clear of the woods and the palace of the Carrion Queen was in sight in the distance.

The Citadel of Bone lived up to its name; gleaming white in the sunlight, red banners fluttering in the wind. As he drew closer, the black marble underneath the bone came into view, a brooding shadow at the heart of the wood. The great gates stood open, a pair of armoured guards on duty outside; alert to movement in the woods, and yet clearly expecting little danger. And everywhere, despite its being the clearest sign of civilisation yet seen, those warning ectoplasmic cobwebs.

The Emissary brushed himself down and straightened his scarf and running his fingers through his hair before walking up towards the gate. “Hail and well met. I seek audience with the Carrion Queen Vermillion the Unrepentant.”

The two guards exchanged a wary glance, and looked him up and down. “Hail and greetings, traveller. And who art thou?”

“Sir Geap by way of Dentes Rest. An emissary of the Penitent Order, as my honour decrees.” The Emissary stood a little taller his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. The handle of a wand tucked into his belt. The man looked to be in his mid twenties, with near black hair and brown eyes. He wore the black and white of the order but in the style of a Valtarian. Laced up trousers, a fine waistcoat and a sleeveless black doublet. Upon it there was the heraldry of a single silver key pinned to it. “I have a letter of introduction if that is needed?”

The older guard glanced to the younger. “Ag- Gawain?”

“Colours are right for a Penitent, Sarge, and I’m sure keys fit in there somewhere…” he gave a slightly helpless look. The older man winced.

“Go send word to her Majesty, would you?” He shook his head as the younger one scurried off. “Poor lad… Might take a while, Sir Geap, I believe her Majesty’s at the spellbooks this morning. If you’d care to step into the gatehouse, I can brew you up a cup of tea while you wait?”

“That would be ideal, thank you.” Sir Geap followed the gate guard to the place that he had been directed to.


Some time later, and several stories above, Gawain knocked nervously at the door of the Carrion-Queen’s library. The sounds from within were… less than reassuring; the crackle of flame mingled with the faint snarl at the edge of hearing that meant magic at work.

The door swung open, dutifully creaking as it did so. Remembering the near-miss with the knife last time he’d entered, he took a deep breath, steeled himself, and stepped in, coming to attention in the doorway with a sufficiently loud clang he could at least be reasonably sure she wouldn’t be targeting him by accident.

The ritual circle inlaid into the floor was ablaze with crimson fire. Within it, the Carrion-Queen was frowning at one of her books. He fidgeted nervously, unsure if he dared risk trying to attract her attention; just as he was on the verge of clearing his throat, she finally deigned to look up.

“Ah. Gawain, isn’t it?” Her lips twitched in dark amusement. “And what news do you bring me this time?”

“Another visitor, Majesty.” He couldn’t quite hide the wince, remembering last time. Her smile broadened. “An… emissary, from the Penitent order.”

“An- now how did they manage that?” She frowned in confusion. “Well, I suppose if anyone knows how, it’ll be them.” Her eyes narrowed. “From which of the Penitents, Gawain?”

He shuffled awkwardly. “Ah… he wears heraldry of a key, Majesty?”

Her eyes widened slightly, and for a brief moment, her smile lost its edge. A brief moment, before regaining it full force. “Which means, Gawain?”

He reddened, failing to meet her eyes. She chuckled darkly. “Three days to go, lad. Learn faster. And do bring my guest up.”

“And that’s when I said ‘I’m sorry my lady I believe I’m in the wrong castle’” Sir Geap and the gate guard burst out laughing. “It’s true, it’s true. I was so mortified and all she could say was, ‘well you’re here now.’” they continued laughing when Gawain entered.

“Erm, her Majesty will see you now.”

“Thank you Gawain.” said Sir Geap as he got up and adjusted his sword and followed the guard. Through winding corridors they went until they reached a set of double doors, Gawain steeled himself for a moment and knocked before entering. Then he pushed open the door and announced his Queen’s guest.

“Your Majesty might I present, Sir Geap by way of Dentes Rest. Emissary of the Penitent Order. Sir Geap might I present Carrion Queen Vermillion, the Unrepentant.”

Sir Geap went into a deep bow flicking his cape out, “It is an honour your Majesty.”

Vermilion smiled - so nice to finally have a visitor who understood the courtesies - and gave a half-bow in response. “I bid thee welcome to my humble abode.” Her lips twisted into a sardonic smile on the last. “How have you found my Wyrdwood, good sir?”

“It has been most hospitable. A testiment to your skills as a Shaper.” He rose from his bow, “I bring greetings from my master the Archivist.”

“I take it my letter got through, then?” She smiled truly for once, no hint of edge to it this time. “Sending across the barriers between Realms is always… well, it always leaves me wondering.”

“He did receive your letter. He has theories about the nature of the sending of letters.” He smiled. “He was very pleased to hear from you.”

“He was?” For a moment, the Carrion-Queen sounded younger; girlish, almost. And then, almost visibly, her dignity reasserted itself. “How splendid. Ah, Gawain - do notify the Seneschal to send refreshments up, would you?” She turned back to her guest as the relieved young guard departed. “Please, take a seat.” A couple of gilded chairs hastily rearranged themselves at her gesture into comfortable positions by the fireplace; with a quick backward glance as she moved away, she extinguished the last of the flickering flames of her ritual circle.

Stepping away briefly to set down the book she’d been working on, she cast a thoughtful glance at her visitor. There was something naggingly familiar about the man; she’d never been to Horizon, of course, but the way some Shapers’ creations reflected the past that shaped them, that meant very little. It wasn’t often a mortal stuck in her memory, though. And how in all the worlds had he been sent here? She’d had enough trouble with the undead horses she’d taken to Axle’s lands, and they didn’t exactly have minds.

“Thank you, your majesty.” Geap unhooked his cloak and took the bag off of his back and set it down by the seat. He looked towards the ritual circle. “That is a beautiful ritual circle. Where is your source? It reminds me of the thaumaturgic workings of Corwin Stormtamer, but there are some elements of Cassandra Memoryweaver. If I am not mistaken. Of course I am not an expert as yourself.” he pushed up his glasses up his nose as he looked around.

“If my analysis is correct - one of the joys of a land shaped by one’s subconscious is trying to reverse-engineer things to the point where the conscious mind keeps up - that metal’s not just an inlay. It goes all the way down, right through the castle, to the bedrock beneath. Natural ley-line conjunction, tapped full-force.” She smiled approvingly, happy to have someone around who might actually understand what she was talking about; evidently that ‘master’ was as in ‘master-and-apprentice’, not ‘master-and-servant’, which made rather more sense. “And of course, channeled to receive blood for the more… intimate workings.” Absently, she pricked her thumb with a blade and tossed it across the room to land on the circle. “Can’t beat Shaper’s blood for raw power, while it lasts.”

“From what I understand it is rather potent. Or at least I would expect it to be.” He gestured to the simple wooden wand on his hip, “May I? The Gallery is somewhat limited when it comes to proper ritual workings. I fear I am rusty”

“By all means.” She leant back in her chair, watching with interest. “So far none of my people have displayed much of an aptitude. For the best, perhaps, but still…”

Geap got up and pulled the wand. With his other hand he unslung the baldric for his rapier, his doublet pulled back for a moment and visible was a large forward curved knife tucked in the belt. He flicked the wand a few times, the smell of smoke came from it in wisps. He closed his eyes and turned it in little circles the smoke becoming more visible. It danced in the air and started to form images. A ball with finely dressed dancers, a castle, a dragon flying over a mountain, a fortress falling into the water, a mountain falling down to rubble. He clenched his hand and put it to his mouth and blew, sparks fluttered from them and put shading into the shapes in the smoke. There was a woman in the smoke her back was turned to Geap. He slashed his wand across and the images vanished. “Thank you, your majesty. My craft is not fit for your halls, but it was good to make use of it again.”

“There’s always a place for beauty in the world,” she said absently, eyes still distantly focussed on the space his images had been. “Who was she?”

“A close friend from long ago. A stray memory. It can happen when you pull dreams from smoke. I only knew a few tricks, a little illusion, a little evocation. I was a better scholar than practitioner you see. I expect that is why The Archivist took me in.”

“Long ago…” She shot him a sharp frown. “And how far back would ‘long ago’ be for you, Sir Geap? The tales I’ve heard that spoke of Dentes Rest were old indeed…”

“Well the title is inherited you see.” he said a little too quickly. His hand absently touching a necklace around his neck. “Passed from eldest child to eldest child. We haven’t held lands in a long time. Since there is no Dentes Rest in Outworld I keep the name to honour them. If that makes sense.”

“We’re all rooted in the past, I suppose.” She shrugged. “Makes at least as much sense as the Commander-Vindicate reproducing Gravin’s Fury stone by bloody st-” Abruptly, her voice cut off as her mind caught up; she shot him a look equal parts suspicion and fascination.

“...you know,” she said, tone light and conversational, “I tried to explain the distinction between Homeworld and Outworld to my Seneschal, once. Poor woman almost had a nervous breakdown, and she’s the most unflappable of all of them - had to be, I suspect, my subconscious dreamt her up knowing she would have to cope with, well, me. This is the only Valtaria they’ve ever known…”

“You, though… you remember a legacy of Homeworld, and yet you know it isn’t here. Is there an original of you, then, inheritor of legends, back there on the far side of the breach, a man on Homeworld whose memory you were recreated from? Does that prospect not disturb you?” She was running on instinct now, she realised; not sure how much of this sprung from that nagging sense of familiarity, the uneasy certainty that she was missing something, and how much was simply the old reflex of a Monarch-in-Shadow: when you meet someone interesting, push them, and see what happens.

Geap paused like he was thinking, “Well in the Gallery there is the Floating Window which shows us views from Outworld and Homeworld. I suppose because the Archivist was fully aware of the difference between Outworld and Homeworld. I expect I am some memory of someone the Archivist knew. But this is my life, I can live it my own way. I guess the Archivist made us rather open-minded.” “Fascinating,” she murmured. “You have a remarkably clear understanding of the situation - of the sheer difference in nature between the Shapers of this world and our creations - and yet,” she leant forward, gaze intent and challenging, “you have no fear of me at all, do you?”

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was aware her thoughts were churning like a cauldron, stray thoughts and suspicions swirling round each other, coming to a boil; stepping aside with her conscious mind to let it brew, her intuition always having been stronger than her rational understanding, she focussed on her guest and awaited his response with interest.

“No, your Majesty. Should I?” Geap said with a slightly confused look. “I mean the Valtarian Laws of hospitality still stand don’t they? And I am here as a representative of the Order. Wouldn’t it be a poor political move to harm someone like that when you will likely need their help? At least the help of the Archivist. Unless you think that the Archivist wouldn’t kick up a fuss over the death or torture of one mortal. Am I wrong, your Majesty?”

“I named my Realm and took my title from the processes of alchemical transformation, and you yet trust to the old ways to protect you?” Her voice was puzzled. “This is a time and place of change; what of the old endures and what is adapted to purpose is very much a matter for debate. I certainly haven’t been enforcing the exile of Opportunity from Valtarian lands, for instance…’’

“As for the rest,” she shrugged elegantly. “I remember when messengers sent to the courts of the Monarchs-in-Shadow were chosen for expendability; when we carved out our reputations in bloody jests and sent them home forever scarred. Politically ill-advised, perhaps; but winning is not always the point of the game, is it now? He would be disappointed in me, I daresay. Vexed, perhaps. But would he really be surprised?”

“Do you intend to kill me your Majesty?” Geap said simply. He faced her bravely like the knights of old and with a slight twinkle of dare she say amused curiosity.

“Now where would the fun be in that?” She shook her head in amusement, eyes dancing. “You’re far too interesting to simply kill, Sir Geap.” And far too much of an unsolved mystery; that nagging sense of familiarity, like an itch inside her head she couldn’t quite scratch, was only growing with the signs of his apparent amusement.

It had, she reflected, clearly been far too long since one of the Monarchs-Errant came to beard her in her lair. The faintest spark of defiance, and here she was fencing with the man, flirting with him even, if she were honest with herself, as though he were an equal…

...and there it was again, that same nagging sense of a thought half-formed and only just beyond her reach.

“I am pleased to hear that your Majesty. I have been having such a pleasant day. I would hate to have it spoiled by something as simple as being killed. If one is to go into the arms of gods at least one should do so having honestly said they have lived an interesting life. To look at all the lies the world throws at you and seek out that single nugget of truth.” he paused. “Speaking of. Why did you write to the Archivist? What could he do to help you that your tutor could not? If I might be so bold as to ask your majesty.”

“One could hardly accuse you of a lack of boldness, sir knight.” Her voice was drily amused. Briefly, she paused, considering the question; if there was one thing her correspondence with her tutor had taught her, it was the value of considering things from a different starting point than she first thought, questioning the underlying assumptions. It had seemed, very clearly, like the right decision; but the why of it… “‘The Archivist’,” she asked instead, waiting till she had some semblance of an answer straight in her own mind before deciding how much of it to voice. “Why do you call him that? Why not his name?”

“It’s respectful. Archivist is his position. I don’t know him well enough to use his name.” There was a smile fighting to surface while he was talking, he subconsciously scratched one of his black sideburns and pushed up his black and white glasses. “Besides The Archivist barely talks to the citizens of the Gallery to begin with. Some of them do not know his name. It never occurred to me as unusual.” Geap tilted his head, “You avoided the question. Your Majesty.”

“Evidently not,” she said drily. “And you only leave me with more questions. You don’t know him well enough to use his name, yet well enough to discuss his correspondence? His people come into existence as philosophers, and he doesn’t talk to them? Creations not knowing the name of their creator?” She shook her head absently, thoughts whirling. “I suppose I shouldn’t be entirely surprised by contradictions. Paradox is a lock, they used to say when I was learning magic, Paradox is a lock, and the mind of the sorcerer is the key; holding two contradictory truths in the mind at once is the root of all magic…”

Somewhere in her mind, a cauldron of ideas started to overflow.

Two contradictory truths… ‘I only knew a few tricks, a little illusion’... a mortal emissary crossing the boundaries only Shapers should be able to cross… the way he spoke to her as an equal, the way she instinctively responded the same way… that nagging sense of familiarity about him…

“Of course,” she said, thoughtfully, “the other thing they used to say, back in the day, was ‘names have power’. And if By My Crooked Teeth wants to know why I am writing to him… perhaps he should try asking himself?” Tilting her head inquisitively, she gave her guest a rueful smile.

Geap laughed, “Names have a power indeed. Carrion Queen. Even when one is hiding it.” Geap pulled his necklace off of his neck and there standing in front of her was By My Crooked Teeth. It’s strange how the deception held as long as it did. He barely changed his appearence. His hair was the same, his clothes were only mildly changed, he was still wearing the doublet but that was the only alteration to his usual attire he was even still wearing his glasses. He opened his arms like a mountebank finishing an illusion and smiled. “Hello your Majesty.”

“Hello indeed.” She shook her head, somewhere between amusement and irritation. “Interesting trick… how much longer were you planning on letting me continue making a fool of myself? And was there a point to the game besides that?”

“Of course there was a point.” he sat back down. “You know as well as any other the importance of a role. When we are at the Nexus everyone has to keep up a show of strength or any other show they want to present. You wanted to expand your knowledge, so did I. I wanted to learn what you were like when you were not certain that the person you were talking to was a shaper or not. Personally I don’t think that you made a fool of yourself. You seemed to be enjoying meeting Geap. I have not had chance to use him in a long time. But I wanted to get you to question what you have seen.” he paused. “To answer your first question. I was going see how long it would be before you realised that I was a lie.” His eyes practically twinkled, “Well done. Most people don’t realise I am pretending at all.”

“You’ve been playing havoc with my instincts since you walked in, you know.” She subsided, somewhat grouchily, into her chair. “You’re lucky I’ve calmed down somewhat since coming through the Breach, you know. It wasn’t that long ago my instinctive response to confusion involved fireballs.” She smiled ruefully. “And yes, I did rather like him.” She ran her eyes absently over his outfit. “Valtaria suits you, it would seem.”

“He was a good man, a just and loyal knight. In the Order we are taught generally speaking to blend in. My Opportunity is particularly good if I say so myself. I am glad that you didn’t just throw a fireball at me. But then I would know that your request was simply words and not intent or actions.”

“Ah.” She nodded thoughtfully. “So much of what is going to need to be done requires trust, doesn’t it? And so often between people with little reason or predisposition to trust each other.” A deep breath. “Which brings us back to your question. What you can do for me that my tutor can’t. The shortest version of which is simply: I don’t trust him.”

She let that hang there for a beat before continuing. “Don’t get me wrong; I like Adversity, I genuinely do. We have a lot in common - which is, when you get right down to it, exactly why I don’t trust him. Our ways of thinking run in similar patterns. Hells, if I were only the Carrion Queen, he’d be a perfect tutor. But, as the Chimerical Reagent… I have concerns. He and I are operating from some radically different underlying assumptions, and that means that unless something happens to convince one of us our starting premises are incorrect, sooner or later our paths are going to divulge. Probably spectacularly.”

She shrugged. “In the short term, he and I can work together perfectly well - we might be playing different games on the same board, but the opening moves are similar enough. But I’m trying to think in the longer term. And for that, I need to be talking to someone else.” She met his eyes, with the briefest flicker of uncertainty at showing vulnerability. “Someone I think I can trust - and can trust to know what they’re talking about, besides.” She managed a smile and a light tone on the last, trying to recapture the easy moments earlier.

Crooked shooked his head, “You would have liked Frey. He was Valtarian, if you believe his stories, one of the first Valtarian Monarchs. One of the first to answer the call when the Beast threatened the lands. He believed in the dream of Valtaria. Of course for all I know he is dead now. Or at least he would likely kill me on sight.” He exhaled, “That won’t help you. I cannot formally be your tutor. Dawn is my student for as long as she needs me. But I can help. I want this world to work. It has to. Adversity is someone I knew briefly, I do not know the game he plays. I trust him to be him, I do not know otherwise. There is so much of me that does not think you should trust me. But it means a lot that you do.”

He reached for the bag he carried in and untied the sides, it opened up and he showed a collection of books. Some ancient and others seemed to be hand written journals. The subjects seemed to vary from farming, to architecture, to philosophy and folk tale. “I have spent the better part of seven centuries getting ready to be here in the Nexus. To make Outworld for future generations. I have done a lot to acquire this knowledge. The first lesson I can present you is this. Never settle for the obvious answer. There is a truth to be found by everyone if you are persistent enough. There is more to the world than what is outside your door. I was born in the Combine, I was raised Combine and shaped to be Combine. By rights it should be all that I know and all that I am. But when I was taken, no matter how painful that was it opened my eyes to the world. I have lived as a peasant in the fields of Valtaria, I have told tales around oil drum fires with walkers, I have sat in boardrooms and begged on the streets of Opportunity. I have lived a hundred different lives so that I could understand. The world is never going to be perfect but it can be made better. There are elements of every culture that are beautiful and should be salvaged and there are parts that need to be changed. We need to be willing to change. To put it in relatable terms we are the components of a vast incantation. One ingredient out of balance and the whole spell collapses or blows up in our face. I do not expect to be trusted. Rust I expect I will be punished for my sins sooner or later but I do not want anyone to think that I am not wanting what is best for the world. Does that make sense?”

“Trusting someone to be themselves… yes, that’s a good way to put it. Heavens know there’ve been enough times where I’ve applauded my own betrayal, down the years. What’s one more, when his next pawn is ready?” She laughed lightly. “More seriously, though - that is exactly why I trust you. Because you believe in Outworld, that much is obvious. As a world, as a future, in and of itself, not as an echo of the past or for the benefit of the world we left behind. And that’s where my loyalty lies.” She reined herself in, slightly breathless and trying not to blush; the first time she’d spoken those words aloud, and she hadn’t been expecting quite how deeply true they rang.

“Thank you.” Crooked said, “Thank you for saying that. You have no idea how much that means to me. We are unimportant in the grand scheme but Outworld is the purpose and the objective. Homeworld should not be forgotten, but never repeated. We have a fresh chance to make something new. I am not doing this for my masters long since dead. They had their chance and failed. I am doing this not just for the people that died fighting them, I am doing this for the people I killed in the name of progress. I am doing this for the people that are yet to be born that will have a chance, to have a choice for their own future.”

There was a brief pause, as some of the castle’s servants bustled in with a tray of tea and pastries; Vermilion waited for them to set the refreshments out and withdraw, gazing after them for a long moment to be sure they were gone, before removing her crown and setting it aside.

“I think we’re well past the point where I’m talking as the Carrion-Queen,” she said by way of explanation, reaching for the teapot. “So, then. Four more turnings of the wheel to come; seems the briefest of eyeblinks, and yet all the time in the world… where do we start?” She tilted her head to one side and looked at him curiously. “I set out my thinking for you, if I recall - am I even close?”

He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, “Honestly I don’t have all the answers. But I think you are right about the defenses, since everything we are doing makes the world become fluid. You need a secure foundation for the magnitude of our shaping. I mean to begin with I believe that the Concord were planning on building the world on their own for the benefit of all. That didn’t happen obviously. They kept a lot of secrets, rust, I mean I didn’t even know the names of every member of my own Order. I expect that the borders between the realms is important to stop all of us from killing each other.”

“For the moment, yes, but that feels like something of a stopgap.” She frowned. “What happens when the wheels stop turning? Do the walls come down, or do we end up with, in essence, five separate worlds?” She shrugged anxiously, frown deepening. “I mean - they were planning on constructing this place solo, weren’t they? A monoculture? How much of the current workings of the Outworld are actually the original design, and how much of it is the place trying to keep up with what it’s dealing with instead?”

A wry smile. “You can see why I felt I needed help thinking my way through this, I suspect - I appear to be getting myself completely muddled up in untestable hypotheses…”

“I believe that the borders will drop, that we will be one land with a collection of different geographies. That the Crucible of Legends will be a place that can be travelled to by all, not just Shapers. It would have to be since it is dangerous for mortals at the moment. Since our mortality is fast approaching it would be a distinct problem to create a world where only an extinct collection of people are even capable of transport. This would mean that the cultures would stagnate as their resources would be limited. And the fractured nature of these cultures will become more apparent. It would be five different worlds if it worked like that. I don’t think it will be. It would be too harmful to making a world. I expect gradually getting the means of travel between realms to be a little easier might be a thing to do eventually. But I believe it will be a land of five cultures and countries living on the same landmass. I expect there will be some people who migrate and travel, some will have only heard of the other lands. They would want to see them. I want to minimise any potential conflict as much as we can. The last thing we want is for the world to be made and then suddenly it looks like it needs ‘Liberating’ the continuous wars of the past need to end. I mean when I was a boy the Valtarian kingdoms were a tyrannous force that needed to be defeated. That is generations and generations of children born on all sides of the conflicts that have never known a time of peace. Have never known the lash of suppression or the forced means to be a weapon of war. There seems to be few signs of that stopping. Homeworld is terrified and tearing itself apart from what I gathered from the Envoys. Not that I really got a chance to talk to any of them properly. The Order were generally made exempt from listening fully.” He shrugged there was a mild hint of annoyance in his voice.

“If we can stop the conflict, if we can change, we might have a chance. If not? I fear we may be damned from the start. And this time there is no promise of a new world to build. This is all we have. This is our last chance. This needs to work or else all the centuries of blood and horror have been for nothing. I do not know the entirety of the design. I do not know what became of the plan. They kept their secrets. Maybe we were always meant to be guides and allow the other cultures to contribute their ideals. Maybe they would have built the world and let everyone in after they were finished. Maybe they just captured all the shapers and made them work their will. I will never know. They burned. Everyone did.” There was a look of sadness to Crooked and also a slight relief like he had released something bottled up. “Sorry I tend to ramble. A by-product of centuries alone.” Crooked stood up and walked over to the window. He looked over the Wyrdwood his lips seemed to move a little like he was running through thoughts in his head.

Vermilion nodded absently. “The Envoys, yes… that whole incident was very strange. In many ways it’s the best indication I’ve seen yet of our being able to work together in the long run, though, the way we all came together to compare notes on the tales…” She sighed. “Which, to be quite frank, is most of the reason I cared. Our Envoy… she was quite something, I think we’d all have liked to keep her with us if we could. Such a waste, to send a woman like that back from the lifeboat onto the burning ship. But she chose. And if they have any chance of saving themselves, back there… they’ll need her, and more like her.” She shook her head. “Not that I think they do, but for her sake if nothing else, I hope I’m wrong.”

She moved to join him at the window, staring out across her lands herself, thinking back. “As I understand it… the problem, the escalation, began with Valtaria.” A bitter laugh. “Because of course it would… ironic, though, that it would be a change away from the old ways that precipitated the disaster. I mean, the message we wound up sending back amounted to, ‘if you’re going to fuck rule by committee up that badly, just fucking don’t.’ Which, given the way we’ve been making decisions this side of the Breach, feels… pretty hypocritical.” She shook her head in frustration. “But somehow, here, we’re making it work. Issues of scale, perhaps. And we’re not limiting it to the Monarchs-Victor, which sounds as if it was half the problem there…”

“You know I almost offered to go back with them?” Crooked said still looking out of the window watching the swaying of the forest. “I thought that maybe rather than shaping random stuff and advice sending a literal shaper back might be the answer. But in the end I didn’t know how. And I felt like I was failing in my mission. I suppose that was cowardly. But the best way to save them I expect is to finish the work. Ruling by committee works perfectly fine in small groups. A collection where everyone is able to voice their opinions. The smaller the better honestly. But whole nations? You cannot get everyone’s opinion, which means that there has to be a parliament of a sort, but then how do you nominate who speaks for everyone? There are a lot of questions and avenues to work on.” A flash of gold caught his eye and he saw Comrade Wings of the Wyrdwood, flying around over the forest, he practically shone from light reflecting off of his scales from campfires, witch lights and the shining from the moon. Crooked smiled. “He’s beautiful. I can barely remember the last time I saw a dragon. I was a lad, maybe a hundred or so. I remember that it was a large green one, the colour of emeralds. It had found a horde by the Inner sea. Many people want to gain wisdom from dragons, for they were ancient and held great secrets. I wanted to learn from it, from her. Athralain was her name. She knew poetry, and songs. Her voice could charm the stags to leap into her mouth. We lost two guides to that before we realised. I spent forteen days trying to talk and trick my way into learning her secrets. In the end I just asked. ‘Why won’t you teach me?’ and she said ‘Because you are not willing to listen.’ I told her that I was and she reminded me that I was still talking. So I listened. I did for three more days. I didn’t say a word I just heard her stories. It was wonderful.” Crooked smiled at the memory.

“The true dragons were already rare by the time I came to power." Her voice was wistful. “Plenty of wyverns, of course, but they’re a different creature entirely, no matter how similar they look - housecats to tigers, really. You can tame wyverns. The true ones - I saw a couple around Court, from time to time, but never to talk to.” She shook her head in amusement. “First dragon I actually have a conversation with, and he’s a combine propagandist… magnificent creature though, I must admit, and a spirited debating partner too. The fact that they - well, that Axle - managed to Shape something like him, is - well, it gives me hope.”

She sighed, still watching Wings. “I worry about them, you know. Everywhere else I look, I see people talking about change - Valtarians contemplating how to reconstruct a society formed around the Shaper’s gift to endure in a world without it, Walkers embracing transformation, Opportunists discussing cultural cross-pollination and brand diversification - but not them. They seem convinced that they’ve already found perfection.” She shook her head. “It’s a fine dream they have, the way Axle tells it, I’ll give them that. Problem is as far as I can tell, the plan for getting there is somewhere along the lines of ‘Step 1: bloodily conquer the world. Step 2: series of question marks. Step 3: enjoy utopia.’ Another shake of the head. “I’m probably doing them a disservice, but… there needs to be a plan, for transitioning from constant war to constructive peace. Or they’re going to end up in the same position we were in, when Valtaria was freed of monsters; creating their own enemies, because a world without conflict is unthinkable.”

“Speaking as a former Combine propagandist, I understand exactly what you mean. They have changed from my youth. In little ways be enough that I wouldn’t fit in anymore. There is no plan. There wasn’t in my day. There was still work to be done, still people to help. It was just starting out then, helping people rebel, helping people find their feet after they freed themselves. Rust, a lot of the time we didn’t even induct people. We helped them and then they moved on with their lives. It started to change in my time too though. It started to be the dream was all, liberty was the only way. The others could not see it so we would show them. And I believed it. I guess I still do in a way. But I don’t think there is much of a plan. They have the dream, the perfect world. I can understand that. I dreamed the same thing. But perfection is impossible. There will always be conflict. There will not be any lasting peace, we are old enough to know that much. The wheel of history crushes everyone. But we can slow it for a while. We can give them the best chance. I want everyone to be together in this. I want them to change. We all need to, the Order is not exempt from this….” His words trailed off for a moment or two. As his mind caught up with him. “How fast can you read? Do you know if you learn best from reading or are you more of a visual learner or an auditory learner? I just thought do you learn better from conversations or sitting and reading. I tend to present knowledge in the best language for people to learn.”

She tilted her head to one side, clearly having to think about the answer. “It… varies. Once I’ve got the gist of a subject that interests me, point me at a library and I’ll come back out three or four days later having read my way through a stack of books as tall as I am, and only remembered to eat because the servants waved food under my nose. But for new things... “ She shrugged. “I’m a creature of instinct. I figure my way through things through guesswork and experiment, seeing, talking… Axle taught me how to fly her bike, while she was here. I still don’t understand how some of the motions work, but after doing it a few times it started to feel right. Almost like flying a wyvern. Except the wyverns are much easier to land.” She found herself blushing slightly. “If I’d tried to puzzle that out from a book, I suspect Wings would have wound up retrieving the bike from the river more than just the once…”

“Yes, Grav-bikes are tricky. I remember when they first brought them out as prototypes. The medics were busy those few months. But still that is nice of Axle to share a bit of her culture with you. Though I guess being Combine sharing culture is all they do in one form or another. But if you enjoyed it that is the important thing. You should get her trying to fly a wyvern. If you are wanting ideas for future encounters.” Crooked smiled. “I am a writer, I write books, and speeches but above all else I am a storyteller. I prefer teaching through stories and finding the best way to get through to someone is using their culture. Something they would understand you see.”

“Oh, I think Wings would get rather jealous if I tried to get Axle on a wyvern.” Vermilion grinned suddenly. “I’m surprised he didn’t get her to go up with him last time, given how often he’s tried to use the lure of it to convince me to sign up with the Combine… I mean, in fairness to him, there are definitely worse sales pitches.” She chuckled absently. “Oh, Axle’s definitely all about sharing culture. So far we’ve covered hoverbikes, musical theatre, and hostage situations with Industrioclasts. Not that the last was intentional on her part, but certainly educational.”

“Ah, the pillars of Combine society. I was a dab hand at musical theatre in my day. Well I was a better actor than singer. My ‘Cruel king Malafact the Tyrannous’ was particularly entertaining apparently. Not high theatre in the long run, all their culture is propaganda to be honest.” He laughed.

“Oh, analysing it from that perspective was rather entertaining too.” She grinned sharply. “The villains had the best songs, frankly, but also the most technically challenging - nothing the audience were likely to wander home singing under their breath. And the willing convert’s little ditty was stuck in my head for weeks. Really quite masterful.” A rueful smile. “I’d actually like to see how they show our lot on the stage, to be honest - though I suspect they might be a little more nervous at having me in the audience for that…”

“I can lend you my necklace if you like, the effect is handy.”

“It must be.” She nodded. “That’s… a very tempting offer, actually. How does it work?” She flashed him a rueful grin. “The longer I spend in Outworld, the more I think, once the wheel stops turning and the responsibilities of it all are done, I’d like to spend some time just… wandering the world. Seeing all there is to see of it. Figuring out where I might fit in, once I’m not a Shaper any more…”

“Oh, There was a shaped item that I saw a teacher had which allowed a person to disguise their voice. I thought about enhancing that and expanding that. There was also some robes that made someone unnoticed. I thought about combining the two. I had occasions where I had to enter the same society several times. It helped me several times. It makes you unrecognised to people that would recognise you. Essentially. I made a couple. They had a couple of quirks.” he holds up his necklace which he pulled from his pocket, “This one was Valtarian made. It is made out of a piece of a troubadour mask, the threads from a discarded cloak of a monarch-in-shadow who was defeated and returned to the light. There is also some illusion and smoke magic in it. Mostly concealment stuff. The quirk is that you have to keep in character. If I dropped character it stops working for a little while. Like a night give or take. Saying my actual name breaks the illusion right away. Hence the whole Archivist stuff. I mean I was Geap for a little while. I was just watching my role play out on the stage. If that makes sense.”

“That… sounds like the times my sister-self is out and about.” Vermilion’s voice was hesitant. “It’s not like that for every Monarch, I think, but… I’ve always thought of Viridian as a mask upon a mask, she has a personality after a fashion, but she comes out to serve a purpose and then she goes away again. I watch events play out behind her eyes, remember them afterwards… she doesn’t connect to my memories in quite the same way as I do hers.” She frowned.

Crooked pushed up his glasses. “It is a little controlled. In its most basic function is a means of making people accept you as a part of a society. It makes you blend in. If you work out a character before hand it works better. The necklace kind of takes up some of the slack, prompts you to use certain phrases and stop you from saying something that would give you away. Like I say Rust as a curse which is very un-Valtarian so it stops me from saying it.” He paused “You know what. You like intuition. Try it.” He threw her the necklace. “I used it for today and outed myself. It will work for you. It is a mask, a second skin, an augment to a costume. Walk as someone else for a while. It worked for me. Of course in my case I rarely enjoy walking back to myself so such escapes are easy.” Crooked shrugged but there was a slight look of pain visible for a moment. “Call it a gift as an apology for lying to you with my appearance.” “You hardly need to apologise for keeping life interesting.” She glanced from him to the necklace. “But thank you.” She closed her eyes briefly. “Now, where did I start when I first reached for Viridian… it’s not the same, but similar at least…” One of the cabinets in the library swung its door open, revealing a full length mirror. In the reflection, a green-clad, green-haired woman in a witches’ hat and mask stared back at her. “No, sister, not today…” the image blurred back to her own.

There was, of course, one obvious starting point. Ignoring the blush that crept up her cheeks, she conjured the image of the poster Axle had modified to look like her into the mirror, and tilted her head to look at it critically. “Utterly ridiculous,” she muttered. “If I can’t take myself seriously in the outfit, this will never work. The hat will have to go, for a start…” A few moments of muttered grumbling and adjusted imagery later, she tilted her head to one side and eyed up her amended reflection. “Workable. Possibly.”

Crooked smiled behind her. “What corp are you planning on pretending to be? Volunteer might not work, you stand a little too straight, there is a little bit too much pride. No offence. A liberator might work, the problem is that liberators tend to be known.” He looked her up and down doing measurements, “Tall riding boots, red brocade coat, red scarf, white shirt, brown trousers, put some brown hair with a flick of red. Oh and goggles.” Crooked pulled his wand and pointed it at the image. Her reflection changing to look like how he was describing. “Red is your colour. How is that?” the old RevCorp dropping into an old pattern of speech.

“I think I can work with that… I was thinking Liberator, yes. I don’t understand the technology well enough to pass for ProCorp, and either RevCorp or VolCorp would be a terrible idea - too much old baggage around having my head messed with.” She winced slightly. “Besides, Wings is a Liberator, and I’ve spent more time with him than any of them…”

“I expect that is a tie with VolCorp. But that isn’t my place to discuss.” He said casually. “You Liberators are better for you. RevCorp is a bit awkward to pretend to be unless you are one. Believe me I know.” He paused, “What is your prefered firearm or blade?”

“Oh, he was around for most of her visit here, and I think our weekly dinner-and-an-argument sessions still total more than the return visit to hers. Won’t be long until the balance tips at this rate, admittedly.” She shot him an amused look. “‘Not your place’? It’s not often I choose to trust someone, Crooked, but when I do I don’t do it by halves. Nothing’s off the table for discussion.” She eyed her reflection thoughtfully. “You know, liberators tending to be known might actually play in favour, to a certain extent. Means anyone with that niggling whisper of ‘where do I know this person from’ in their heads I had with Sir Geap has a built-in explanation.”

“Weapons, right-” she frowned. “Firearms are probably not a good idea. I didn’t get on too badly when Soar lent me his gun, but that works on rather different principles, I think… No, I’d need too much practice for a gun to feel remotely natural, and I’m trying to focus on melee training for the affronts right now. I seem to do better with a weapon in each hand - would paired short-swords work, or a sword and an off-hand dagger?”

“Short swords are good, the risk of sword and dagger is that you might fall into a more Valtarian fighting style. Maybe carry a gun if only for show. And you would likely need a name to go by.” he paused and laughed, “Liberator Combustion.”

“Or ‘Velocity’, perhaps? Makes it less conspicuous if I twitch towards a ‘V’ sound.” She smiled ruefully, flicking her fingers at her reflection to adjust it for weaponry. “...If Axle ever finds out about this, she’s going to be insufferable.” Her tone was one of fond amusement. “What did I say when she was trying to get me thinking of what Corps I’d wind up in if she succeeded in converting me - ‘like picking out shoes for an outfit you’re not planning to wear’? And look at me now…” She gestured to her reflection, laughing slightly, ruefully, despite herself.

“I once as an aspirant was dropped in the centre of Opportunity with nothing but the clothes on my back, my harmonica and a blanket. I was told to survive a year. It is enlightening to live the life of other nations. One doesn’t understand the Monarchs until you live and work in the field under them. I mean if she finds out she will be sorting out a bunk for you, and try to find you a ship to call your own. I mean if you did it would be your choice. Which is the important part.” Crooked shrugged.

“Used to be I’d have called that impossible. I’ve downgraded that to ‘highly unlikely’.” She shrugged herself. “Easier to imagine myself as a Walker, perhaps. But the Combine are the ones I most need to work on understanding.”

“I always had a problem posing as a Walker. Not sure why. Opportunity was easy, I was thrown into the deep end and had to pass for it. Valtaria was difficult to begin with. A lot of the culture was a bit alien to me. The courting was very strange to me. That took me a while to understand that one, or at least pretend I understood. But the Walkers are people who I get along with but I more often than not I am just me interacting with them, rather than some elaborate ruse to pass as one of them.”

“Courting was-” she gave a startled blink, and then laughed. “Oh, actually, I can see that… I read that little book of Combine love stories that was floating about at the last nexus. Very peculiar in places. Seemed to be that romance was more intimate, or more taboo, than actual sex?”

“Well, yeah. They don’t have romance, or marriage or anything like that. Everyone is equal, everyone can be with anyone else. You are part of a crew, you are so close together, living in tight confines and living in near continuous danger. People have urges generally speaking, there are exceptions of course. So sex is encouraged as a means of relieving the pressure. If you have an offspring from it, that is fine, the Combine needs new recruits. It’s what happened with me. Generally romance is a distraction, kind of. Love is the same for the Combine, they are all connected in the bonds of Comradeship. If you love someone more than the others that isn’t fair or right. So yes love is not a fostered Combine, so romance is more taboo. It’s hard to explain i suppose. Parents is also a little strange. It is a life of adventure but sometimes I expect that there is a lack of poetry as seen by the others.” Crooked frowned like he was trying to work out how to articulate it. “I have read the Combine contraband and others like it before. You have to as RevCorp to see what is ideologically sound and what is not. Anything that is not you keep away from the general populous.”

She shook her head in confusion. “For people who value freedom so much, they do seem to put a lot of limits on themselves. And I have no idea how anyone manages to live up to that. The heart does what it will, in my experience.” She frowned again, thinking back. “You said understanding the Monarchs required spending time in the fields. Does that imply most of us don’t understand ourselves, as you see it?”

“No, not exactly. A monarch is as a monarch does. But I tend to believe that you can learn a lot from the lower classes of a culture. You understand yourselves perfectly fine. But from an outside perspective if I wanted to understand who a monarch is, I would live with their subjects. I make a living from being on the outside looking in, to hear what people say when they are not being watched by their monarch. I meant no offence. It helps but it is not essential.” Crooked flicked up his hands in a brief gesture of apology.

“I wasn’t offended, Crooked, I was…” her voice trailed off, glancing back to her amended reflection, “...stalling,” she finished, with a sigh. “I never enjoy this part; still…” She stepped closer. “Paradox is the lock, and the mind is the key; to hold two contradictory truths in the mind at once is the root of magic.” She smiled absently, for a moment an apprentice again, showing her working. “This is me…” Her hand rested over her heart a moment. “And this is me…” Locking eyes with her reflection,,she reached out to touch the surface of the mirror. A deep breath, as she committed to the working; the surface shimmered beneath her fingers. Closing her eyes (always a bad plan to make eye contact during the instant of transition, she’d gotten caught halfway between Vermilion and Viridian for a week once) she stepped forwards, into the mirror, with the familiar shiver like stepping into a waterfall.

And the reflected, amended image of her stepped out, simultaneously, the two of them passing through each other. For a moment, behind her, the image of the Carrion-Queen’s robes lingered in the glass, before fading back into a more normal reflection. Eyes still closed, she leant back against the mirror, sheathed blades clinking against the glass, breathing heavily.

Crooked took a step forward to catch her if she needed it. “Are you alright?” he asked curious about the situation. He had not seen magic like for a while. He didn’t know how much of it was just ‘set dressing’ and how much was a new persona he was meeting. He knew not to use a name yet. “Do you need anything?”

“Well, I have a pounding headache, but apart from that…” She shrugged cheerfully, moved to rub her temple, glanced in apparent confusion at the necklace still in her hand and dropped it unceremoniously round her neck. “Reckon there’s a liquor cabinet around here we can liberate? If I’m going to have a hangover this bad, I feel like I should earn it.”

Crooked shrugged, “I expect so, I don’t tend to pay attention to the placement of liquor, I haven’t drunk anything alcoholic in centuries. I never liked the taste. Also it made me short sighted. But then again I have been called an enabler in the past.” he paused, “Hi, By My Crooked Teeth, you can call me Crooked for operational purposes.” He offered his hand to meet the persona of the person before him.

“Velocity.” She reached past the hand to clasp his wrist briefly, before moving off to rummage through the cabinets, a whirl of nervous energy. “A-ha!” Triumphantly, she emerged brandishing a bottle. “Not exactly Engine Room’s Finest, but you could probably start a fire with this if you needed to…” Absently she unscrewed it and swigged from the bottle.

Crooked smirked to himself. “This is going to be interesting.” A roar caught his attention. “Velocity? Shall we have a conversation with a dragon?”

“A dragon?” She perked up, wandering back across the room with the bottle absently swinging from her hand. “That sounds like an advent-”

Suddenly she twitched, and ~flickered~ eyes widening in surprise. With a flash of red light, the figure shifted, Vermilion hitting the floor on one knee with a grunt of effort.

“No,” she said softly, pushing herself back to her feet and smoothing down her robes. “No, that’s - he’s so lonely out here, desperately lonely. I’m not pretending, not with him, that’s too cruel. It isn’t worth it, not for- practice.” She shot an apologetic look towards Crooked, hoping he would understand.

Crooked nodded, “It’s ok. It was just an idea. A good sign actually if you think about it. A Monarch-in-shadow concerned about cruelty.” He smiled a warm smile. “It’s a good sign….” He paused like his mind caught up with him, “Could-? Oh. Oh, obviously. I’m getting old. I would have thought of that sooner.” Crooked laughed. “I’ve had an idea. A later idea, an idea I would need to research. But I have an idea.” He moved over and slung his baldric over his shoulder still laughing to himself.

“Cruelty isn’t an end in itself. Not if you’re doing it right. It’s a means to an end, nothing more.” She shrugged. “And if you want to meet him, I’d be happy to introduce you. He very seldom turns down an invitation to debate.”

Crooked stopped and a on his face was a slightly childlike glee for a moment, he looked like the young man he appeared. “I would love to meet Wings formally. He is something new and extraordinary.” The Carrion Queen could likely see the gears turning in his head, he was talking and thinking about three different things at once. “Then would I be alright to borrow your library? I need to work though this idea before it runs from me. Though it can wait for a dragon.”

“Of course.” She hesitated, and gave a somewhat apologetic smile. “Don’t worry too much about the rats, the ones in the library have moved on from eating the books to apologising for having eaten the books, it’s getting a little surreal. Apparently shaped creatures eating magical texts has some interesting side-effects… anyway, that’s a matter for later. Shall we then?”

A short while later, her usual clearing in the woods sparkled brightly with crimson witchfire. She settled back onto her familiar rock to wait for Wings to land, and grinned at Crooked. “He usually doesn’t take long to arrive.”

“I suppose not. Any chance to convert the Tyrant-in-Chief.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe they made you a fucking dragon.” he shook his head.

“Neither can I.” She grinned, and looked up at the sound of approaching wings. “Ah - I should probably warn you, he’s likely to be a little unhappy with me at the moment-”

The fireball hit the earth about a foot and a half away from her, evidently a warning shot. The roar which followed was deafening. She smirked slightly, looking up at Wings unflustered as he landed and glared at her. “Good even-”

“NO, IT IS NOT.” Wings snorted flame in her general direction. “THERE ARE DENTS IN MY AIRSHIP, TYRANT. WOULD YOU CARE TO EXPLAIN YOURSELF?”

“Well, technically very few of them are my handiwork personally. Apparently I’m a terrible shot with a rocket launcher.” She shrugged unconcernedly. “It’s still flying, isn’t it? And I’m assured it’s completely unmanned.” The mutter of “and I didn’t let him shoot it at you, did I?” was probably more audible to Crooked than the dragon.

“Anyway. You can shout at me later - it’s not as if there seems to be a way of stopping you.” Her voice was rather more affectionate than the words. “In case you haven’t noticed, dear boy, we have a visitor. Not, I hasten to add, the one with the rocket launcher.”

Crooked was staring wide eyed, “Hello Comrade Wings. My name is By My Crooked Teeth. I truly never dreamed that I would see something like you again. You are beautiful.”

“I AM GLORIOUS.” Wings puffed up his chest.

Crooked looked like he was in pain for a second like a memory struck him. “Yes,” he said quietly, “Yes you are.”

“ARE YOU A TYRANT, BY MY CROOKED TEETH?”

He shook his head “No, Comrade. Never in all my days. I was born in the Combine. I was a Hegemonic Engineer once upon a time.”

Wings looked pleased, “AH, GOOD. THEN YOU CAN HELP LIBERATE THIS PLACE.”

“Sadly Comrade I have another mission but I came to this place to see you. As I said it has been such a long time since I have seen anything like you in a long time.”

“THERE IS NOTHING LIKE ME, COMRADE.”

Vermilion chuckled in rueful acknowledgement of the truth of that. Settling back, she watched with interest as the two of them continued speaking; content for an evening to be no more than audience for such a meeting.

Advanced Predatorial Psychology

Authors: Vermilion, the Unrepentant and 'Ten Count' Markowitz

Night fell upon the Wyrdwood.


The ethereal spiders retreated to their favourite webs. The slavering wolves found a place to curl up and sleep. The venomous snakes guarded their eggs. The three dragons who fought over the skies broke off their unceasing battle for another day - Wisdom on Swift Wings banked away, smugly assuring the Combine’s contribution that she would return on the morning; Propeller and Wings eyed one another with suspicion before silently agreeing to keep their front united. And one by one, the lights in the Citadel of Bone were snuffed out...bar one.


The squire once known as Agravaine had failed the Carrion-Queen’s test once already; whether it was mercy, pity or sheer amusement that had prompted Vermilion to give him another shot, only she and maybe two of the Nexus’ other Shapers could say for sure. To the now-christened Gawain, it was irrelevant - he’d been granted a stay of execution and he’d been in her service for long enough to know that no force in Outworld would save him if he couldn’t perform up to expectations the next morning.


It was a small mercy that he’d been allowed to dispense with guard duty for the purpose of studying, although Gawain could have done without Sagramore’s explanation for why: “See, if you can’t do it and she murders you, it means we’re already used to working a man down, so no big loss.” The captain of the guards had very little faith in Gawain to pull it off and, as the latest in a long line of candles burned to a stump, the guardsman was privately beginning to agree. He pulled a scroll closer to him and squinted, struggling to make proper sense of his scribbled notes.


“Next picture, please?” Gawain asked, directing his question at one of the smarter rats and feeling a little bad he couldn’t even remember their names properly. “That’s…” The helmet was familiar, old metal and not dissimilar to his own, but that mess of colours and fabrics was not Valtarian. “Blue and red…” Gawain scrabbled for another sheet of parchment; blue and red that prominently had to be Walker, surely, and yet there was nothing on his notes for this one. “Blue hair, could that be Opportunity?”


“Ash.”


Gawain’s nerves were already wound tauter than springs; the single word from the window was enough for his entire body to react, flinging himself back and kicking over the desk, sending parchment and candle flying. The rat squeaked and fled to the safety of the nearest bookcase, leaving “Ten Count” Markowitz alone to snatch the candle out of the air. It took the terrified squire a few moments to gain proper control of his vocal chords, much less his entire mouth: “The test isn’t until tomorrow!”


“I know, I know, calm yourself,” said Ten Count, sitting on the window ledge without an apparent care in the world. “I’m here to help. Mumsy doesn’t know I’m here yet, it’s alright.” Lighting the nearest torch with the last remnants of the candle stub, he picked up the last picture. “Ash. Not Opportunity, but I certainly wouldn’t mind converting her. A beautiful psychopath, concerned with almost nothing besides carnage and chaos. She’s a Margin Driver and doesn’t know it yet.” Ten Count shot Gawain about forty percent of his best smile before pocketing the picture. “Red and blue for a Walker of the Red and Blue paths. If I had to guess, the Carrion-Queen wouldn’t have much of an opinion on her yet. Anything she’d have heard would probably have been filtered through Orb-Weaver and he’s too busy starting fights he’s got no shot of winning.”


Touching his neck, Gawain wished his heart would stop beating quite so quickly. The predators of the Wyrdwood were unlikely to find a way to spirit somebody from within the Citadel, but those ghost-spiders…”T-t-t-thank you?”


With a wave of his hand, Ten Count stepped down from the window and hefted the table back onto its feet. “No need for thanks, sunshine. I did say I’d give you a few answers for lugging my weaponry around, this is repayment. Now,” he yanked Gawain back to a standing base, claws only tearing a rent in the squire’s tunic and no more, “a Shaper comes knocking at the door. A young lady, pale skin, red hair.” Gawain took an unsteady breath, reaching down for his notes; Ten Count’s fist smashing into the table stopped him dead. “No notes, boyo. Vermilion won’t let you do this open book tomorrow, will she?”


“N-no. No. No,” Gawain replied, eyeing the clawed fist with no little trepidation; it made thinking difficult when one’s forebrain was riffling through the myriad ways that fist could end your life. “W-w-w-what’s she w-wearing?”


“Good answer, good answer.” Ten Count pulled a chair up, wood scratching on stone, and sat down. “White shirt. Glasses, some sort of corset thing, fuck only knows what it’s called. Big, ugly shield across her back and one beautiful motherfucker of a gun on her hip. Who am I talking about?”


“Not Flare, Flare doesn’t fight with a shield,” the squire mumbled, staring through Ten Count as he tried to marshal his thoughts against the assault of terror both immediate and promised. “Serennia’s in armour. Scarlet Crave doesn’t fight at a-oh, oh, I know! The betrayer from the Combine!”


Considering he’d already seen Ten Count snap three of Tegyr’s fingers the last time the Margin Driver had dropped in on the Wyrdwood, one would have expected Gawain to be better at recognising Shaper-related danger by now. One would have been mistaken - the squire had nowhere near the reactions to stop Ten Count grabbing him by the throat and dragging him down to eye level. “The betrayer from the Combine. Could I invite you to reconsider that description?”


Even a sleep-deprived Gawain could pick up the signs that he was inches away from death, no matter how placid and neutral the tone. “The new Penitent! The new Penitent!”


“Named?”


“Dawn! Dusk!” squawked Gawain, dark spots appearing in his vision. “From Dusk Until Dawn!”


Ten Count cranked his smile up another few percent and let the squire go. “At Dawn and At Dusk. Fuck me, we’ve got some work to do. Sit down…”




The Carrion-Queen woke bright and early, curled in the nest of blankets she’d taken down to the hatchery. The first of the hatchlings were already making eager little hungry noises; she smiled happily and retrieved the bucket of raw-meat scraps, settling down to hand-feed each vicious little mouth. ‘Broodmother’, they’d taken to calling her; she’d hated it, at first, felt it didn’t fit, she wasn’t maternal in the slightest. She’d assumed it was to do with the spiders. But looking at her little darlings now, she could see the point of the name. Who needed children, when there were eager little monsters happy to lick blood from her fingers?


Their breakfast attended to, she headed back to the castle to see to her own, last drops of blood fading into her enchantments as she walked. The gate guards shivered away as she passed; she cocked her head to one side absently, trying to remember what she’d done to frighten them this time, and then smiled, realising it was more a case of what she was going to do. Assuming young Gawain hadn’t managed to get himself together; she’d entirely prefer him to rise to the challenge, that was rather the point of setting it, but failure should always have its consequence; such was the nature of things.


A leisurely breakfast later - pointedly not rushing, it was also the nature of things that a Monarch was never late, and it would doubtless do the boy good to savour the anticipation - she retired at last to her library, where the scrying-bowl already stood waiting in the centre of a charged and sparkling ritual circle. A quick test that the enchantments held, that it could summon up the images required, and she was satisfied that she was ready; on Gawain’s own head be it if he were not.


From the speed with which her servant appeared on her sounding the bell, news of the impending test had spread; she recognised the expression on their face as they dashed off to deliver the summons, that familiar look of there-but-for-the-grace-of-gods-go-I. She hadn’t even done that much to earn it, this side of the Breach; perhaps, she reflected, she should. Perhaps pushing them a little harder might encourage them to find the spirit she desired. She’d have to see how this game with Gawain played out.


Footsteps in the corridor approaching. She straightened, smiling darkly; a gesture of her hand, and the circle came alive with crimson fire, witchlights illuminating around the room. Her familiar gave a disapproving squeak and curled up on a bookshelf to nap, having clearly decided he was having no part of this.


Another gesture, and the library doors swung open an instant before the approaching footsteps would have reached them, their usual creaking replaced - entirely deliberately, why not start as she meant to go on by putting the lad off balance - with an equally ominous hush.


“Good morning, your Majesty!”


Gawain wasn’t alone.


“Ten Count!” Vermilion beamed in surprise and delight, stepping through the circle’s fires towards him unscathed and apparently without even noticing. “You made it!” And no-one, apparently, had thought to tell her. Behind Gawain, Vivienne the seneschal shot her a look of mingled apology and dread. She was, however, entirely too cheerful to spoil the mood by dwelling on that now. “And - oh, my, look at you, my dragon, you’re glorious…”


She ran her eyes over him appreciatively; the outfit was less garish than his last visit, but that was hardly important. Scales definitely suited him; she’d known he’d make a fine predator the instant she laid eyes on him post-soulforge, and he’d definitely grown into the role. Claws as well? And was that a hint of fang at the edge of his smile? The fates were spoiling her.


Her hand rose, almost unconsciously, towards his scales. “Are they still-” remembering they were not alone, she cut herself off and corrected course, his pain not her weakness to reveal, “-coming through?” Her fingers lingered in the air over them. “May I-?”


“Far be it from me to refuse my Queen anything in her domain,” replied Ten Count smoothly, wondering a moment later where in the hells he picked this language up from. It had to be NBTV doing it. “The process is not the most comfortable but, when one chooses to tinker with one’s soul…”


“Every magic has its price,” she murmured, fingers gently brushing over his scales. “Worth it, though?”


Clapping Gawain on the shoulder, Ten Count deflected the question: “I’d say that was something you and I should discuss more privately, your Majesty, I promise the answer’s worth the wait. In the meantime, your young servant here thinks he’s ready.” Gawain’s pasty face told the truth, but this part of the story was far beyond his power to alter.


“Well, if you’re arguing for delayed gratification, I’m not about to argue,” Vermilion said lightly. “Now, then…” she stepped back into the flaming ritual circle, with as little concern for the flames as she’d shown before. “Gawain, Vivienne - join me.” There was no mistaking the slight wince that ran through both of them; nor the naked relief on the faces of the accompanying guards at not being so summoned. The seneschal moved smoothly past Gawain, the very briefest hesitation on the border of the circle, before stepping over it in a shower of sparks with a noticeable wince of pain, though she seemed entirely unharmed. Gawain himself moved through it far more slowly and reluctantly, and could not quite mask his yelp as the flames greeted him also. Vermilion’s lips twitched in dark amusement.


Turning to Ten Count, she grinned impishly and beckoned him forwards. “Care to join us, my dragon?”


“All four of us in such a small circle?” With a grin that should have been arrested for grand larceny and a wink directed at the seneschal, the Margin Driver took a step forward. “I suppose we’ll have to get to know one another more intimately.” Trailing one clawed hand through the scarlet flames, Ten Count’s eyes twinkled. “Ouch.”


“Well, if this one doesn’t improve on his last performance, we’ll be getting to know him very intimately indeed.” Vermilion smiled and patted Gawain lightly on the shoulder. “Inside and out, so to speak… now then, I seem to recall you were particularly bad on the Penitents last time, hmm? Let’s see if you’ve gotten any better…” One finger stirred the surface of the scrying bowl, which shimmered into life, flickering through a series of images before settling on one in particular.


“That means you’re probably going to get the Penitents first,” Ten Count interjected, stage whispering for half the creatures in the forest to hear. “They’re the ones in black and white. And grey.”


“I’ll be very disappointed if you don’t get this one,” Vermilion added, gesturing to the face in the waters, lips twitching in amusement.


“Um. Uh. Sir Geap - what was his real name? Him with all the keys. Ah-” Gawain’s look of relief as he finally remembered was obvious. “By My Crooked Teeth. Good relations? Was he the Shaper who created Wisdom on Swift Wings?”


“You’ve been paying some attention, then. Good. That’s one. Vivienne, give the boy a name.”


The Seneschal closed her eyes for a brief moment, thinking. “Patient Guardian.”


Gawain opened his mouth to speak and would have probably landed himself in a mess had Ten Count not clamped his hand over it first. “Think before you speak, my lad. You aren’t going to get another shot at this.” Catching Vermilion’s eye, the Margin Driver bowed his head. “My apologies, your Majesty. I’ve been trying out being a tutor in case I get the chance to forge a Tether next time. It’s fun having power over somebody, isn’t it?”


She chuckled. “Absolutely. Though do let the boy speak…”


Gawain swallowed hard, marshalling his thoughts and voice. “Patient Guardian. Um. Shield. Good fighter. Custodian? Facial markings. Was a Walker? Um. Closer to the Steadfast than to you, Majesty… Loosely allied?”


“He’s actually learning!” crowed Ten Count, massaging the squire’s shoulders for no readily apparent reason. “I’d object to ‘good fighter’, but that’s accurate enough for a point, I’m sure.”


“Tends to do well against us, at least.” Vermilion shrugged, reaching past Gawain to stir the waters in the bowl again. “Let’s try…”


“One of my mob, perhaps?”


Vermilion paused, nodded, smiled. The waters swirled and stilled, revealing a new figure; a cheery grin above a distinctly personalised shield, and a small animal in a human-sized necktie at his side.


Gawain cringed slightly. “He’s one of the new ones, isn’t he?” He frowned down at the image. “Margin Driver… damnit… he doesn’t actually refer to himself as a slave, does he? I can’t be remembering that right…” A sudden swell of desperate hope, and he stabbed a finger down towards the beast in the image. “His familiar’s called Steve, though. Codex likes him. Steve, I mean.” It was a last-ditch, desperate attempt at salvaging something, and from the paling of his face he knew it.


The Shapers shared an amused look. “I’d give him the credit. Everybody knows Steve’s the brains of that operation. ‘Wage’ Slayv,” Ten Count added, bending down close to Gawain’s ear, “and Steve from upper management. If I can give this thing a go, my Queen?” The seneschal, aided with Vermilion’s gentle hand in her back, stepped forward and offered up the bowl for him to swirl. “Who’s this?”


The squire took an ill-advised breath in relief and smiled; an easy one at last. “Oh, that’s Abanox! The Soulchainer, your sworn enemy Majesty!” Ten Count closed his eyes, looking pained; after he’d hammered home thinking before you spoke all through the previous night, he’d set Gawain the most basic trap and the squire had lunged forward into it.


Vermilion smiled - perhaps more accurately, more of her teeth were visible. “My sworn enemy. Tell me, Gawain, you’ve been in my service long enough to have seen the Soulchainer in person, yes?”


“Skull mask!” coughed Ten Count, trying and failing to drop a hint large enough for the hapless squire to pick up upon; the Carrion-Queen flicked a glance at him.


“Ten Count, my dear,” she said, cold smile directed at her seeker for the first time. “Within this circle, no mage or marksman in Outworld could hope to defy my powers. Be thou silent.” Privately enjoying that she’d been able to do what nobody else seemed capable of and keep the Margin Driver quiet, Vermilion turned her full frost onto Gawain. “His Incandescent Malevolence Abanox gave up the Shadow. This Monarch, who stands in the light, is Archon Kerebos, and you should be aware of that, boy. Vivienne, would you care to tell the lad what else he got wrong?”


The seneschal coughed nervously, voice coming out soft and worried. “That tether was severed. Her Majesty is currently lacking a sworn enemy.”


“Very good, Vivienne. Give the boy one more. A difficult one.”


“Falcon-”


“I said difficult.”


There was a brief pause as the woman closed her eyes, looking slightly pained; then visibly steeled herself, and opened them to stare the lad down, a smile almost like Vermilion’s twisting her lips and entirely failing to reach her eyes.


“Lanuaria.”


Gawain’s blank face spoke volumes. Silently he mouthed the name to himself a few times; on the third repetition, his fingers started twitching behind his back. “Uh… that’s five syllables, right? Penitent?” There was a note of desperate hope to his voice; not even a full hopeful symphony was going to save him now. Ten Count put a heavy hand around the squire’s shoulders, silently commiserating the unspecified yet awful fate that was about to befall him.


Vermilion let the silence draw out, icy gaze fixed on the trembling young man. Beside her, the seneschal winced, eyes fluttering shut in sympathy before she forced them back open.


“Oh dear,” she said at last, “How… disappointing.” One fingernail ran gently down the young man’s cheek. “And I believe I’ve made it clear how little I enjoy being disappointed. However are you going to restore my mood?”


Waving his hands impatiently, Ten Count pointed to his muted mouth; ignoring the capricious part of her that wanted to keep him silenced for her own amusement, Vermilion performed a short gesture and tore the spell away. “Enforced silence? That you really have to teach me, your Majesty, I can think of plenty of applications for something that cruel…”


“I’ll put it back if you don’t make it worth my while,” Vermilion batted back, enough warmth in her smile to make the Margin Driver about eighty percent sure that was meant teasingly. Flirting was difficult enough in Opportunity, much less adding Valtarian customs in as well.


“Behave. As I recall, you were one of the ones encouraging me to let this predatorial instinct hunt, no?” Trailing his hand across Gawain’s tensed shoulder, Ten Count stepped into his field of view. “I believe I’ve found some prey.”


She chuckled darkly, moving behind Gawain as he stepped in front, the two of them circling the nervous young man as he fought not to twitch. “I did promise you fine hunting in my Wyrdwood, did I not…? And heavens know I wouldn’t want to be inhospitable…”


“I doubt anybody would ever accuse you of such, your Majesty.” Gawain endeavoured to go a shade paler as the true horror of what the Shapers were talking out dawned upon him. “When you were studying, did you ever hear how I got my nickname, my boy? I used to find a simple execution boring, so I’d make sure to give my marks a count of ten to start running. It made for a fantastic sales gimmick, let me assure you.”


Whispering into her squire’s ear, Vermilion felt almost beside herself with glee. “So, my boy, your challenge is set. Escape the Wyrdwood and you get to keep your life. You even get a head start.” His fear of the eldritch flames forgotten, Gawain’s resolve broke entirely and he would have sprinted for the doors had Vermilion not froze him in place with another word. “No, no, no. Not now, Gawain, it would be impolite to not give our guest time to prepare. We hunt at nightfall tonight.”


A swift nod to the waiting guards, and Gawain was escorted away, presumably to a nice safe cell where he could cool his heels till his designated release time. The seneschal gladly left with them, murmuring something about preparing guest quarters and barely waiting for her monarch’s nod of permission; her hands were visibly trembling as she left.


“Well, this should be entertaining,” Vermilion said mildly, smile widening. “Are you actually going to kill the lad? Or have you not decided yet?” Her tone was one of mildly amused curiosity, Gawain’s fate apparently being a matter of very little concern. “And do you want company, or do you hunt better alone? I can always watch, after all…” her fingers absently trailed over the waters of the scrying bowl. For a moment Gawain’s face became visible, wide-eyed with alarm, before fading back into the pool.


“Vermilion, my dear,” drawled Ten Count, rolling his shoulders back and forth as he left the circle, heading vaguely the way of the seneschal. “If Wings decided he wanted to go on the hunt, do you think anything he set his sights on would survive? But by all means, if you think you can keep up...”


Vermilion laughed again, and decided not to comment on the likelihood of Wings being dissuaded from the kill by anyone smart enough to declare their intention to defect to the Combine. “Perhaps not on foot, but… the dead travel fast…” For an instant, the temperature of the room dropped, and the neighing of a horse echoed through the air as a half-glimpsed spectral form brushed past her. “Such a pity, though. When he showed enough spirit to ask to try again, I really hoped he might live up to expectations. Ah well.”




Night fell upon the Wyrdwood.


The ethereal spiders hid. The slavering wolves hid. The venomous snakes hid. The dragon triad, sensing danger in the air, departed early from their endless debate. The predators of the forest found places to conceal themselves and stay safe - for the first time, none of them were on the top of their food chains.


To his credit, Gawain had managed to stop shaking and stood as resolute as he could, facing the deep blackness of the wood itself. Sagramore stood to one side, unnecessarily ensuring that Gawain didn’t try to break loose ahead of ceremony; the seneschal Vivienne flanked him on the other, clutching the guardsman’s hand tightly.


The Carrion-Queen sat side-saddle on a horse most easily seen out of the corner of one’s eye; its flickering, half-real shape should clearly not have been able to bear weight, and yet just as clearly was having no issue in doing so. Her face was flushed slightly with excitement, and she carried a gilded hunting horn in one hand. Leaning against the horse’s flanks, such as they were, Ten Count took a casual puff on a filthy roll-up he’d confiscated from a guardsman who thought he was being stealthy. It was hard to say which of the pair looked the scarier.


“One way or another,” Vermilion said cheerfully, “this will be a night that tales are told of. A grand hunt beneath the trees and the full moon; the eternal dance of predator and prey resumes once more. All that it lacks is an ending. Is this to be a tale of daring escape, triumph against the odds? Or of blood in the moonlight and death in the dark?” Her rich, dark laugh rolled out across the clearing. “I look forward to finding out… “


Guiding her horse across to the prey of the hunt, she reached down to lay a hand against his cheek. “Gawain. No - Agravaine. For names have power, and you my boy are going to need all the help you can get… Agravaine, then. On the first horn, you may begin. Run fast and hide well; you know this forest well enough, do you not? Do try and give my guest some fair sport at the least… and remember, run as though your life depended on it. For it does.”


Guiding the horse back, she smiled, and glanced between the hunter and the hunted. “On the second horn, the chase begins in earnest. Are we all ready? Anyone have any last words before the game begins?”


Ten Count tossed his suit jacket at one of the guardsmen. In deference to the occasion, he’d tried to make his wardrobe a little less repulsive, crimson shirt and scarlet waistcoat; unfortunately, the acid yellow and orange of his scales and claws made the pursuit of ‘taste’ a fruitless one. “Make it a good chase and I won’t eat your heart.”


Agravaine flinched slightly, but managed to straighten up and give a shaky nod of acknowledgement. Leaning in to Vivienne, he whispered briefly in her ear, before brushing his lips across her knuckles and lightly pushing her away; Sagramore caught her by the shoulder and gently pulled her to one side, out of the eyeline of their queen, as she began silently weeping.


Vermilion let the silence hang there a moment longer, savouring the anticipation, before bringing the horn to her lips and sounding a sharp blast to signal the start of the evening’s entertainment.


With one last desperate glance back towards Vivienne, Agravaine ran, soon vanishing into the shadows of the forest.


Vermilion’s steed whinnied and pawed the ground, clearly eager for the chase; she patted its neck (fingers only passing through it the once) and gently coaxed it back from the forest’s edge. “Remind me, my dragon,” she purred, “how long a head start did we settle on giving the lad, in the end?”


“You have to ask, my Queen?” Ten Count rolled his neck in preparation. “Ten…”


“Ah, but of course…” She smiled in delight, raising the horn to her lips and waiting for the count to conclude.


A second brazen blast, and the hunt was on…




Amongst the trees, Agravaine flinched as the noise reached his ears. He’d been hoping he’d have longer; been hoping that he’d have covered enough ground the sound would have been a little quieter, more distant. Some trick of the forest, perhaps. The trees were treacherous.


At least he’d found the stream, though. That should help. He wasn’t entirely sure if his queen’s guest could track him by scent, but no point taking chances. He could follow it downstream for a while, no sense fighting the current when ‘downstream’ was more likely to lead outwards from the heart of the forest anyway. Try and hide his tracks when he left it. It might help. Maybe, just maybe, he might even have a chance.


Cold water seeping into his boots, he hurried onwards.




At fucking last.


For months, months, he’d been straining against the bit, starving for some fucking sensation and getting shut down every single fucking time. No matter what temptations his place paraded in front of him, every time he said “No”, over and over and over it was “No”. His own base urges, his deepest and most visceral desires, and he was refusing them. What the fuck was the point? What was wrong with the man? Who takes on such impossible power and won’t fucking use it?


After so long, this was paradise, meat to a starving man, the bringer of actual purpose. Fangs out, claws bared, the predator stalking its prey, this is what he was made for. Poor boy didn’t stand a chance.




The dead travel fast; but the Carrion-Queen was in no rush.


If she’d actively wanted to catch the boy, of course, it would have been quite another matter; a little divination magic and a swift chase down. But where would the sport have been in that? And this wasn’t truly even her hunt, after all. Her running the boy down would only ruin her guest’s fun.


The great advantage of her steed, of course, was mobility. She thought she had some sense of the boy’s course; so if she swung out wide, took advantage of the easier trail through the forest, perhaps the distant sound of the horn might give him hope, encourage his spirit a little; and perhaps, less kindly, it might incline him to shift his course ever so slightly, back towards her dragon’s path...




Agravaine slumped against a sturdy tree, hanging onto a low branch and fighting to catch his breath. Most people would probably have ran straight ahead, desperate to get out of the Wyrdwood and wanting to take the shortest route possible; he was hoping that moving mostly at random and erring west was unexpected enough to buy him more time. If she already thought him slow, maybe it’d be a plan good enough to keep him safe for a while longer.


“You have no idea,” came the evil voice, every word a death sentence to him, “how long I’ve wanted to say this in the right context.” Ten Count sat a few branches higher, squatting on his haunches and watching the exhausted Agravaine. “Evening, squire.”


“Good evening, Shaper.” The dead man knows no fear. “Have I provided entertainment enough for you?”


“You’d have to ask the Carrion-Queen that. She’s the one doing this for the spectacle.” Ten Count dropped to the ground, keeping a close eye on the boy. “I’m just around for dramatic purposes, so what’s with you and the seneschal?”


The incongruity of the question mixed confusion with a sudden flash of anger. “Vivie-she’s not for you. She’s not yours to take!”


Ten Count rolled his eyes, gently pushing Agravaine back against the tree trunk. “Settle down and keep quiet, you fucking idiot,” he breathed, listening close for the sound of hooves. “If I wanted her, you wouldn’t stand a fucking chance because you’d be bleeding your last right now. Do you love her?”


“L-love?” stuttered Agravaine, struggling to keep his verbal footing. “We never really t-talked about it…”


“Fate’s sake, is this what it’s been like listening to me lately?” muttered Ten Count, trying to resist the urge to slap the squire back to sense. “Face it, we all saw her crying, she loves you and if you don’t love her back you’re a fucking idiot. It’s the only reason your internal organs are still internal right now.” From somewhere too close, Vermilion’s hunting horn sounded a sharp blast and both men flinched. “Shit.”


“Why are you doing this?”


Looking around warily, it took the Margin Driver a few precious seconds to answer. “Because I know what it’s like to love and I think I’ve judged Vermilion enough that she’ll appreciate the theatre. Give me your arm and try not to scream.”


“What?”


This time, Ten Count did slap him, one quick blow and then grabbing Agravaine by the chin. “I’m going to take your left hand as a trophy and proof that you’re dead. You’re going to leave with your life. You’re going to keep your fucking head down, train until you’re a master warrior and you’re going to return to face the Carrion-Queen to claim the heart of the one you love. Hell, I’ll send as many of Opportunity’s melee fighters as I can to help you out. Consider this a favour, from one romantic fuck-up to another. Now give me your fucking arm.”


The dead man knows no fear; the man granted a reprieve, less so, and it took every ounce of strength in his body for Agravaine to offer up his hand. Even more to speak: “Thank you.”


Ten Count took aim.


“Good luck, Agravaine.”

Headcanon

Authors: Axle, Switchgear, Vermilion

“Switch? Switchgear?”

Axle had woken up on the floor of the airship, her head spinning and her eyes wild. She looked around in desperation, already feeling the pit of dread growing in her stomach, fearful of what the other-her might have done this time.

“No, not Switchgear,” sighed Engineer Alloy, bending down to check Axle was okay, “Alloy, remember?”  She folded a piece of paper and tucked it neatly back into her pocket as she looked in Axle’s eyes checking all appeared well.

Axle sat up slowly, her eyes trained on the floor. “Oh,” she said, in a small voice, and then took a long, shakey breath. “Ok. What did I- What did she do, and does Switch know this happened?”

“She, let me see, met up with ‘an Industrioclast infiltrator with red hair’ to ‘bring down the ship and everyone on it’ using an ‘incendiary device another infiltrator had told you would work’,” she paused and gave a little smile, “She’s been working on this plan for days, and each time seems to forget who calls out the codes to her - Switch’s idea,” she stood up and offered Axle a hand.

“Ok…” Axle got to her feet, ignoring Alloy’s hand, “That seem… sensible? But um, am I allowed to go see Switch now?”

“She should be on her way,” Alloy explained, trying not to look hurt at the rejected hand, “she tends to try to avoid Leverage so as not to blow her cover when dealing with her.  Leverage seems to think Dynamics is still in charge here, and that’s a belief we’re happy to let her keep.”

Axle wrapped her arms around herself and looked towards the door anxiously, chewing on her lip, trying to push away the horrible sensation of her brain being overcrowded, the idea that Leverage could somehow be watching her.  Alloy looked around somewhat awkwardly, as if looking for something on the walls to start a conversation about while they waited, the sounds of airship engines vibrating and echoing through the room.

“So… did you see the Ziggy Love show last night?”

Axle was spared from answering by the door swinging open, and a familiar Liberator on the other side.  “Hey.” Axle moved towards the door, a little uncertain of herself.

“Sorry about this” Axle said, her voice small.

Switch smiled and took Axle’s hand, “As I’ve said every time before, you don’t need to apologise.  It’s not your fault.”

Axle squeezed Switch’s hand, and then let go, in order to wrap her arms tightly around the Liberator instead. “Still, I hate being so bloody difficult,” she mumbled, “There’s got to be a better way of dealing with this.”

“I have thoughts,” Switch said, “quite a few, but they’re all going to require…” she trailed off, “Anyway, are you feeling okay?”

“Headache, a bit bleary, the usual. Require what?”

“The usual: mana, Shapers, timing… Violet…”

Axle pulled a face. “Sounds complicated. Right now though, I’d settle for a cup of tea….”

~

Later that afternoon, Switch sat at her desk, pouring over a spreadsheet, whilst Axle, perched on the desk mildly unhelpfully, cleaned her gun. The two of them worked in companionable silence for a while, until suddenly, Axle spoke.

“You know what I said earlier? About a better way to deal with my incidents? …. I’ve had an idea. I… suspect you’re not going to like it.”

Switch looked up, with an apprehensive look, “Oh?”

Axle bit her lip. “Well, if Valve was…. If Valve was here we could ask him what to do, but…  he isn’t the only person we know with knowledge of re-education techniques and shapers…” Axle trailed off, her face worried.

“You’re thinking Fluidity?” Switch asked, her eyebrow furrowing, “I’m not sure she’s… I mean, she would, but, I’m not sure…”

“Um… no. I was thinking of Vermillion.” Axle looked at Switch nervously.

The pen dropped from Switch’s hand.  “Vermilion.”

Axle almost regretted saying it, but a defensive look came over her, and she continued. “She has experience in the relevant field, and she cares about my well being, she’s literally the ideal person to go and talk to about it.”

“She has experience in Valtarian mind control, Ax, not… not Combine,” Switch’s voice started to raise a little with the thought of what Valtarian mind control even involved, “It’s as dangerous a plan as going to a Walker, or Twist, or Crooked – gears, Crooked’s probably safer than whatever they do there.” There was an unusually bitter look in Axle’s eyes. “I dunno Switch, from what she’s said it sounds… similarly painful. It certainly seems to produce similar effects. And I trust her way, way more than I’d trust Crooked.” Axle looked defiant, “Look, why don’t we just go talk to her. At the very least she might have some ideas.”

Because I can’t bear the idea of visiting a tyrant’s territory to talk, Switch thought, but sighed, “I’m not convinced it’s a good idea - why not… why not Pivot?  We could ask Pivot about her, you know, and she was Valtarian so she might know or…”

Axle raised her eyebrows. “Sure, let’s ask the Volunteer who's not had a proper  hegemonic engineer for years how to fix me. No. I want to talk to Vermillion about this. And you can come with me, and make sure nothing bad happens on the way, or whilst I’m there, or I can go alone, and just hope Leverage doesn’t show up.”

Switch drummed her fingers on the desk, “Why can’t she come here?  At least here I can keep an eye on her and she can’t, you know, do something.  And,” she kept going, the idea coming to her, “you can show Comrade Warning Light the attraction of the Combine.”

Because then I’d have to write to her and she might think this is a stupid idea. “Because I don’t want to wait around writing letters, and also I want to see the new Dragon, and visit Wings.” Axle said, standing up from the desk and going to retrieve her jacket from where she’d left it, crumpled on the floor.

The Liberator’s mouth opened and closed a few times as she worked out what to say.  Her eyes flicked to one of the copies she’d made of Valve’s book, but she’d scoured it for information enough times that she knew it wouldn’t be of any use.  “I can’t walk into the Wyrdwood and not liberate the people, Axle,” she said, clutching for straws, “think of how that’ll look after all the propaganda we dropped!”

Axle, now with her jacket on, a new “medical engineer” armband with a droplet on it affixed to one arm, walked back towards the desk, and put a hand on the back of Switchgears chair, swinging the liberator around to face her, and looking into her eyes. “Switch, none of that propaganda has your face on it. And liberation via convincing Vermillion to join the combine is better for everyone, you know that. Please… come with me?” She offered Switch a hand, her eyes wide.

“Oh no, no, you can’t just give me that face and expect me to come,” Switch said, leaning back in her chair, attempting to avoid Axle’s eyes, “no way, I’ve got principles!  I can’t go to the Wyrdwood, and that’s just that.”


Axle and Switch stepped out into the Wyrdwood. The journey had been relatively uneventful, between the two of them, they had even managed a relatively smooth descent, landing almost gracefully next to Vermillion’s enormous castle (“I’ve seen bigger”). Taking Switch’s hand, Axle walked confidently up to the guards standing to attention next to the doors. “Kay! How’s your arm? Recovered from the wolf incident yet? And Mary, hows things? Can you let Vermillion know I’m here?”

“Recovering nicely, ma’am, uh, Comrade, thank you.” Kay smiled, even as he came crisply to attention. Mary shot him a disapproving look, muttering about how he’d best not let her Majesty hear him calling people that, but gave Axle a friendly enough nod as she vanished into the castle. “Here to visit Wings again? He drops by every so often hoping you’re here. And the new one’s not met you yet, have they?”

Axle smiled, and gave Switch’s hand a squeeze. “Actually I am here to see Vermillion this time, although I'd love to see Wings and Propeller if they are around. This is Switch,” she nudged the Liberator forward, “Switch, this is Kay, one of Vermillion’s guards*.

“Honour to meet you, ma’am,” he saluted reflexively, armoured fist clashing against his breastplate; he fidgeted a little nervously, still not entirely used to this idea of Shapers taking an interest in people and it not ending badly. “And I’m sure her Majesty will be delighted to see you both. She likes having visitors. Keeps her from getting bored.” From the faint shudder on the last word, he rather appreciated his queen being kept from boredom too.

Switch’s eyes were fast, “Did you just…” she wheeled to Axle and pointed, eyes ignited, “Did you see that?  He’s afraid of her, Axle.  Afraid.  Comrade Kay, we will defeat this tyrant, I pr-”

Axle cut Switch off. “Kay, don’t panic, we’re not here to cause chaos.” She frowned, looking from Switch to Kay. “She is… getting better though, right? Less…. Explosive?”

“Um. Mostly. Um. Other than-” he hesitated, glancing between Axle and Switch nervously. “Mostly.”

The Liberator’s ungloved hand twitched toward the sword on her belt, but she restrained herself, instead asking Axle through gritted teeth, “Are you sure you trust her?”

Axle frowned, struggling to find the right words to explain the dual nature of the monarch-in-shadow. Eventually, she gave up, and simply said “Yes. I do. Certainly with this.”

“Axle!” Vermilion appeared in the doorway, grinning cheerfully. “Good to see you again. And - Switchgear?” She blinked in surprise. “Welcome to the Wyrdwood.”

Axle, who’d either forgotten, or purposely pretended to forget, that they were in front of Vermillion’s guards, rushed forwards and enveloped the Monarch in a massive hug. Drawing back a little, she grinned, “Surprised to see us?” she asked.

Vermilion froze up briefly, still plainly unused to hugs being a thing, before slowly relaxing into it, smile reaching her lips as she tried not to blush. “Well, I figured you’d stop by to see the dragons at some point, but not so soon - with everything else you’ve got going on back home right now, I rather imagined social calls would drop down the priority list a bit.” She shot a curious look over to Switchgear. “And Wings and Propeller aside, I don’t exactly expect many visitors from the Liberated Skies as a general rule. Not that you’re unwelcome,” she added hastily, eyes flicking back to Axle, “just… unexpected.”

“Believe me I have many places I would rather be,” Switch began, glancing back at Kay before looking back at the monarch, jaw set, “I thought you were supposed to be being good to your people.”

Axle winced, removing herself from Vermilion’s arms and taking Switches hand, giving her a pleading look. “Can we discuss that later please Switch, we've just arrived and the journey was long, and I'm hungry.” Her face brightened. “And I think Vermilon’s super combine mess hall will cheer you up a bit!”

Behind Switch, Kay visibly cringed, staring in fear. “Majesty, I - I swear I didn’t say anything bad-”

Vermilion waved him away absently, frowning at Axle as he sagged in relief unnoticed. “It’s not a-” she broke off and sighed. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be inhospitable; come on in.” A slight hesitation; leaning back into the castle, she tossed a throwing knife down the hallway at a specific flagstone, seemingly no different to its neighbours. Absolutely nothing happened. “Oh good, Vivienne’s disarmed them already, that makes things easier.”

Switch looked warily around, her eyes flicking over every detail of the castle entrance looking for more traps, more weapons, trapdoors, false stones, invisible walls, but eventually looked back to Vermilion and stepped forward, “If you try anything, I swear…”

Beyond the obvious channels for the portcullis and murder-holes above, a close look shows seams in the bone-and-marble walls that aren’t quite as ornamental as they are meant to look; once the number and location of those are identified, spotting which flagstones are the triggers becomes a little easier, though they’re fairly well concealed.

Vermilion smirked in amusement and strolled blithely down the corridor, retrieving her dagger on the way. Veiled threats and suspicion? That, she’s used to. Far less confusing than hugs and friendship.  Axle followed, equally unconcerned by the potential traps and triggers in the wall, dragging Switch along behind her, until they reached a large, open hall, the centre of which was taken up with a giant cornucopia, spilling a vast array of food onto the floor around it. A queue of petitioners curled around it, some clearly here for weekly supplies- carrying sacks to fill, and others just stopping by for a quick meal. The air was abuzz with quiet chatter, which gently abated as the three of them walked in. Axle grabbed a plate from a nearby stand, and marched confidently over to the back of the queue, then turned to look at her companions, waiting for them to join her.

Switch looked at Vermilion, her expression unchanged from the one of serious distrust she’d worn since arrival, and gave a small sharp jerk of her head intended to read “go on then,” while standing resolutely at the entrance, her eyes scanning the hall, the faces, the people, trying to work out what the tyrant’s game was here.

Vermilion retrieved her own plate, turning to look at Axle with an expression that quite clearly asked ‘are you serious’? Across the room, her petitioners were suddenly clearly paying very close attention, waiting to see which way she moved and whether they needed to abruptly be out of her way.

Axle smirked, and gestured to the empty space next to her at the back of the queue, shrugging, inwardly hoping that Vermilion’s wish to accommodate her guests would overrule her wish not to queue.

There was a long, reluctant pause, before Vermilion finally moved to the back of the queue, shaking her head in apparent disbelief. “I thought you were hungry? Do you actually enjoy waiting in a line?”

“No one enjoys queuing I just don’t see why I should get food before these people who've been here for longer than me, doesn’t seem fair.” She smiled, and then looked over at Switch and gestured for her to come join them. “Aren’t you hungry Switch?” she called.

“Nope,” she replied, arms folded, leaning against the wall.

“It’s magical enchanted food?” Said Axle, hopefully.

“Even more no.  You know how many Comrades I’ve lost from ‘magical enchanted food’ that then killed them?  Or, worse, had them try to kill their friends?” she said loudly, heads turning and a few denizens looking hesitantly at their own food, “yeah, no, not gonna happen.”

Axle’s face fell. “Sorry,” she said to Vermillion in a low voice, as they moved to the front of the queue and began to collect food, “Switch… really doesn’t want to be here… I was hoping to show her your good side but…” she trailed off miserably as she finished piling carrots onto her plate.

“I don’t think I could actually stack harmful enchantments on this stuff if I tried,” Vermilion said absently, at least a part of her mind trying to figure out if it would be possible and how, “it’s a quality on the tables after all, there are limits to how much chicanery is possible with those…” (otherwise Wings might be a proper Valtarian dragon by now, she thought slightly sulkily; but that would hardly be fair game, would it now?)

“If she doesn’t want to be here, then why…” her voice trailed off. “She doesn’t trust me with you? Did you have… problems… after last time?” She frowned.

“Oh, unity no, nothing like that. No, it’s me she doesn’t trust with me, or rather, Leverage. Be a bit of a disaster if I was piloting an airship between the realms and suddenly she showed up with no one to stop her.” Axle looked around, suddenly unsure of herself. She couldn’t go sit at the throne, where they’d sat last time, Switch would hate that. The Liberator herself was standing close to the door, so sitting on the floor there would be a disturbance…. Eventually she settled on walking over to the stairs to the dais, and sat herself down there, desperately hoping at least one of her friends would join her.

Vermilion raised her eyebrows. “If you’re trying to teach me humility, it isn’t going to work.” Regardless, she sat herself down on the floor of the dais a short distance away, propping her back against her throne’s seat rather than sitting on it. Narrowing her eyes, she glared at her plate briefly; wobbling only slightly, it rose to hover at a comfortable height. “So. Your… Leverage.” She stops herself from saying ‘sister-self’ barely in time, not thinking Axle would appreciate the idea of it. “She’s enough of a problem you need an armed guard to visit friends?” She frowned absently. “What… changed… to bring her out like that?” A worried glance at Axle, hoping the question itself wasn’t too much.

Axle looked over at Switch, she did kind of look like an armed guard, leaning against the wall like that. Axle gave her a little half-smile and a wave, before turning back to Vermillion. “Switch isn’t an armed guard. It’s just….” she sighed, “Leverage is a problem, she’s unpredictable and hateful and just wants to hurt people… and Switch can get me back.” Axle busied herself with eating, to avoid answering the second half of Vermillion's questions, eyes darting to Switch occasionally, wishing she would join them, but she continued to lean against the wall, watching the scene suspiciously. As Axle ate, her sadness slowly turned to confusion, and frustration, and once her plate was clean, she stood up, and turned to Vermillion. “I’ll be back in a sec, I just need a word with Switchgear.”

She marched over to the Liberator, and took her arm, dragging her quite forcefully from the room. In the hall outside, there was a stone bench, which Axle pulled them towards. Once they were both sat down, she looked at Switch, confusion in her eyes, and began to talk.

“Switch, what the fuck is going on? You’re the one who told me to charm her. You know as well as I do that we can’t kill her without killing her people too, that the only way to liberate these people is to convince her to join us, and yet all you’ve done since we’ve got here is insulted her.” She looked into Switchgears eyes, searching for something, “Where’s Liberator Switchgear, the master strategist, because I think I might have left her in the Liberated Skies.”

“You said she was changing,” Switch said, glaring, “yet her castle is still a place of fear and oppression - you saw that guard, he was terrified of her!” She gestured back toward the entrance, “she’s a monster, and you want her rooting around inside of your head?!”

“Of course he’s terrified of her! These people are used to her being a monarch in shadow. If she’s nice to them they’re going to be even more terrified because they’ll think it’s a trap! This is going to take time, and it’s going to be difficult, and you coming in here and implying she’s going to poison everyone is. Not. Helping.” Axle realised her voice was becoming raised, and bit her lip. “Please Switch, I know you can be diplomatic, and charming. Can you please just try? If you won’t do it for me, do it for her petitioners?” She reached out to squeeze Switchgears arm, her face desperate.

Switch’s crossed arms tightened and her foot tapped the floor as she bit her lip, before making a snap decision, “Fine,” she said, and returned to the hall, climbing onto a table before loudly shouting, “Alright, Wyrdwoodians!  I bring good news – your Monarch is eating the food she’s presented you,” she gestured to Vermilion, mid-mouthful, “which means it’s probably not poisoned, isn’t that right, Comrade Carrion-Queen?”

Vermilion closed her eyes and very slowly counted to ten. ~I must not start dosing the food with hallucinogenics just to spite her. Axle would be upset.~

“I assure you, it’s not poisoned,” she said through gritted teeth. “Not my style.” She bit into an apple, occupying her mouth before she could go into a full-blown rant about how if it were, there were all manner of ways of ensuring she could still eat the same food safely and honestly, she’d had plenty of opportunities already.

Axle, who had followed Switch into the room at a run, gave her a look halfway between amusement and exasperation, and went to fill a plate with all of Switch’s favourite foods from the cornucopia. She brought it to the table, held out almost as a peace offering, and said “care to join us, comrade?” with a little, relieved smile on her face.

Switch nodded, and pointed to an end of a table near some of the less presentable of Vermilion’s ‘subjects’, “Better there than sitting on the floor?”

“Sure!” Axle gave Switchgear a wide grin, delighted that she had decided to relax, and gestured for Vermillion to join them as she walked over to the petitioner’s table..

“As you wish.” Vermilion rose, plate bobbing gently in the air beside her, and moved to join them. She wasn’t entirely sure if this was intended as some form of challenge; surely it should be obvious there was nowhere in her realm she would not be at home, from the highest peaks to the deepest dungeons?

Axle smiled good naturedly as Vermilion joined them. “So,” she said, trying to hit on a conversation topic that wouldn't cause problems. “How are the dragons?”

“Magnificent. Beautiful. Argumentative. Infuriating.” She smiled fondly. “Wings and Propeller are getting on well – the occasional argument they refused to admit to in front of anyone else in the first few days, I’m not sure they realise how loud they are at times, but they’ve settled into a solid partnership by now. And Swift is… well, she’s either one hell of a philosopher or a consummate provocateur, probably both. I wind up leaving conversations with her with more questions than I started with, and I swear Wings is as likely to throw fireballs in her general direction as mine these days…”

Axle nodded, and turned to Switch, determined to have a pleasant conversation. “Are you looking forward to meeting them Switch?”

“We’re meeting them?” Switch blinked, before catching herself, “I mean, surely they’re busy?”

“I’m honestly surprised that Wings isn’t already here at the door, demanding to see us, although, that’s probably just as well seeing as we’re technically here for serious things.” Axle leant over to grab a grape from Switch’s plate, having finished her own food earlier.

There was a somewhat smug squeak as Codex the rat scrambled from Vermilion’s pocket onto the table, stealing cheese from her plate on the way. She looked at him with a pained expression. “Really?” Another, firmer squeak, and a definite nod. Looking up at the others, she sighed. “Apparently the Educational Rodents have asked him to be a guest lecturer, and they’re down in the south of the forest today. Doubtless he’ll be along tomorrow as soon as he spots the airship.”

She cocked her head to one side curiously. “They’re not why you’re here, then?”

“No,” Switch glanced at Axle, taking a look from her as reason to continue, “We’re here to give you a chance to prove yourself,” she avoided checking with Axle for what she was saying, “to ask if you’re able to help with people who have had their minds…” she thought for a more eloquent word before finishing, “have had their minds fucked with.  Axle thought you could help.”

Axle bit her lip, looking around at the surrounding citizens. “Um… you know I think it's better if we discuss this… privately?” She gave Switch a pleading look, and put a hand gently over hers.

“I think it’s important that the people hear whether their Queen is willing to help people with that,” Switch said, giving a smile as she turned to Vermilion, “Don’t you think it’s an admirable cause, Carrion-Queen?”

“Yes.” The response was plainly automatic; Vermilion looked briefly surprised herself at hearing it on her lips. Recovering swiftly, she added, “I haven’t… worked… on anyone’s mind but my own since I stopped being answerable to anyone.” Even evil has standards. “But I… remember, how much trouble I had, trying to deprogramme some of the conditioning out of here…” one finger tapped against her forehead. “It’s not… the kind of challenge I consider… worthy. Or useful. No-one deserves to fight that kind of battle alone.”

Switch’s gaze didn’t move but the right end of her lips curled upward into a smile, as she glanced at Axle briefly, “Now that’s what I was hoping you might say.”

Axle looked relieved, her shoulders deflating as she released the breath she'd been holding. “Thank you. I'd appreciate being able to discuss the details privately mind it's… yeah” she finished lamely, her hand tightening around Switch's.

“Of course.” Vermilion nodded. “After dinner, then?” Not that she had much appetite left, with the past rising up like that; but deuced if she’d be showing weakness, and of course they’d both had a headstart on Switchgear. Stubbornly, she stabbed a fork into her dinner and continued eating.

On the table, Codex threw her a disapproving look and a worried squeak, before scampering over, tiny cloak billowing behind him, to reintroduce himself to Axle. Despite herself, Vermilion smiled. Axle, who was speeding up the meal by liberating various morsels from Switch's plate, stole a piece of cheese from Switch's plate, and fed, and fussed over Codex.

Some time later, Vermilion led them up to her library; the inlaid ritual circle in the floor sparkled under the witchfire lights, the bookshelves were, while less full than they had been, neatly organised (complete with little rat-sized doorways in a couple of places), and a group of comfortable chairs waited by a blazing fire.

“I take it,” she said carefully, eyeing Axle as if she were concerned she might explode, “this relates to your issues with Leverage.”

Axle wandered in the direction of the chairs but seemed to change her mind and turned back around to face Vermilion. “Look, I know at the Nexus I talked about… you using your knowledge, and skills as a member of the combine, but… I don't, I don't want you thinking that us coming here is some kind of ploy to get you to join us.” She bit her lip, frowning. “That is… if you wanted to obviously that's great but… “ she flashed a worried look at Switchgear, “you've read my letter, you know I am waiting for you to make that choice for yourself…” she looked at Vermillion nervously, hoping she'd understand.

Vermilion shot a confused and worried look between Axle and Switchgear, clearly unsure where that had come from. “Hey, easy there. I trust you.”

“You can also trust,” Switch said, “that if this were a ploy, it would be a significantly better thought out one than this.”

Axle grinned at that, looking a little embarrassed, “hah, yeah, I'm sorry I just… I don't think either of us really… enjoy discussing this stuff, and I didn't want you to think I was…. Using it to get to you.” Axle sat on one of the chairs, massaging her head. “You're right. It's Leverage. And I don't want your expertise on getting rid of conditioning… I want you to do the stuff you did before that. The stuff he made you do…” She looked down, avoiding the gaze of both of her friends.

“...oh.” Vermilion’s voice was suddenly very soft and small. She shivered, moving closer to the fire. “...oh. You want…” She looked up at Axle. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“What do you…” Switch looked warily at Vermilion, “What does she mean ‘stuff he made you do’?  Who made you do what?”

“My lieg- my former liege lord. Tyrant-Sorceror Carmine, Lord of Blood and Flame.” Vermilion’s eyes were distant, staring into the fireplace; her voice strained. “I… wasn’t born Vermilion. He… Shaped me, into who and what I am. One of his specialities.” Her lips twisted into a harsh smile. “And then he trained me to assist him, in doing the same to others. First as a mortal mage, and then when I became a Shaper, while I was still his vassal. I was, if I say so myself, quite good at it, if not the,” her voice grew harsh and bitter, “the artist he was. Disappointing him was, after all, generally ill-advised. And I was ever so obedient. Ten years a Shaper before I managed to unwrite that compulsion.”

During Vermilion's reminiscing, Axle had stood up, and joined her by the fire. She took her hand, gently, and looked up at her a worried expression on her face. “He's gone. He can't… hurt anyone anymore. But maybe you can use what he taught you to… help someone. Sounds like he'd hate that, so…” she gave a wry grin, “that's got to be a good thing, right?”

“He can’t hurt me any more. He’s still… out there, back on Homeworld. Probably part of Imperatrix Nicasta’s army-in-shadow.” Vermilion shook her head. “Still waiting for one of his Companions to break the conditioning and rebel against him, the way I never did until I’d been a Shaper for a while. One of us turning Shaper while still loyal… that was never the plan. I’m his most successful failure.”

“He conditioned you so that you’d rebel against him?!” Switch’s face wrinkled with disgust, “That’s… that’s…” her hand clenched into a fist, as she wanted to shout ‘barbaric’, but instead she told herself to unclench it and instead finished with a far calmer “that’s awful.” Axle turned towards Switch, gently turning Vermillion as well, and gave the Liberator a sad, grateful smile.

“Of course it’s awful, that’s the point,” Vermilion sounded surprised. “That’s what we’re for, the Monarchs-in-Shadow. To push people until they push back. We’re the anvil and the flame and the hammer that forges them into something stronger than they were. It isn’t pleasant. Not for them, and not always for us either. But the point has never been to leave them cowed. It’s to fire them up with rage to the point where they pick the impossible fight and win it anyway.”

As Vermilion spoke, Switch’s lips had become thinner as rage began again, this time not catching herself she growled, “You torture thousands of people until a few of them strike back.  Thousands of lives ruined for the sake of a few.  And all you have to say is ‘it’s not pleasant’?!” the Liberator’s hands were clenched into fists, her sword arm twitching toward her belt again before one look at Axle told her to calm down and she closed her eyes to breathe, “We can talk about that another time…”

“Switch… we’re hardly innocent of torturing people until we… until they’re changed…” There were tears in Axle’s eyes. “But we’ve changed, we’ve come together and decided that we can do better than that… give her a chance to do the same?”  

“Dy and I never stood for it,” she said, not particularly under her breath,  “But yes, okay, fine,” she opened her eyes again, “New chapter for the Combine, new chapter for the Carrion-Queen,” she looked back at Vermilion, with a kind of reserved patience, “Where would you start?”

And then Axle was no longer by Vermilion's side, and had instead run to Switch and wrapped her arms tightly around her, causing Switch to almost lose her balance. A muffled voice from somewhere around the Liberator’s middle said “She can start by fixing my stupid brain.”

“Things are going to have to change this side of the Breach anyway,” Vermilion sighed, flopping into a chair suddenly lightheaded from the release of tension. “Even if half of bloody Valtaria is still flapping about trying to hold on to the Shaper’s gift, it isn’t going to happen. What we become afterwards, that’s the question.”

Looking back up at Axle, she fought to muster a smile. “Still. One problem at a time. What exactly do you want me to do to you?”

Axle untangled herself from Switchgear, and came to join Vermilion around the fire, almost getting lost as she dropped into a large, pillowy chair and briefly looking unimpressed before composing herself. “Um… I’m not sure actually. But we don’t have a hegemonic engineer who knows about dealing with shapers anymore… We know how to get Leverage out when she shows up, but we don’t know how to stop her showing up in the first place, and it’s bloody annoying. I was hoping you could do something to… put her back in her box or something?”

Vermilion steepled her fingers thoughtfully. “I can try… She’s already been walled off once and broken the wall down, so there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to rebuild it back to what it was. But I might be able to make her less of a problem, at least.” She glanced over to Switchgear. “Axle said you can, well, deal with Leverage. Are you game to come along for the ride? Might make things go a little smoother…” And means you won’t be standing over us with a sword and very little trust in me while neither of us are capable of communicating.

“Ride?  Can’t we do it here?”

Vermilion shot her an odd look, before deciding she probably wasn’t joking. “Physically we won’t be leaving the room. We’re going inside, not away…” That probably wasn’t the most helpful of explanations, but she was struggling for the right words. “This is magic we’re talking about. Do you want to be a part of the ritual?”

“Wait, we’re going inside my head? With Switch? Will…. Um…” Axle went very red. “What will you guys be able to see?”

“Inside your head is where she lives.” Vermilion shrugged. “It’s… a bit hard to predict. Especially where Shapers are involved. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps metaphors and symbols. Perhaps the odd few memories, here and there. The points where the self-that-is-her connects with the self-that-is-you…” She spread her hands. “It’s your head. I’m not going to go in there without permission, and if you tell me to leave I will.”

“Do I need to go in?  Is it safer if I don’t?”  Are you more likely to try to kill me if I’m in Axle’s head or if I’m outside it?  

Vermilion’s eyebrows rose. “Safer… for you, or for her?”

“Yes.”

“Safer for you is to stay out of it, where I can’t touch you and any backlash won’t hit. Safer for her is to have someone in there who can deal with the specifics of the problem if Leverage starts making herself known.” Vermilion shrugged again. “Your call.”

Switch turned to Axle, “Your call.”

“I don’t want you putting yourself in danger for me Switch.”

“And I don’t want you putting yourself in danger for my sake either,” Switch bit the inside of her lip before turning to Vermilion again, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Physically, magical backlash… well, that normally results in a small explosion. Nothing I wouldn’t expect any of us to be able to walk away from, maybe a little singed…” She sighed. “Mentally? Disturbing the status quo carries the obvious risk that Leverage could win. Unlikely, but you asked for worst-case.” She chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Also… I’ve never tried this with someone who’s been through the Combine, um, re-education process.” She couldn’t quite keep the distaste from her voice. “It’s possible your hegemonic engineers might have… some kind of safeguards in place against… outside interference. I’ve very little idea what that might entail.”

A wry smile, and her voice is almost cheerful as she adds, “and of course, with multiple Shapers in the mix, we might just get ourselves tangled up in a knot of dissonance and never be seen again. Shouldn’t happen with something consensual, but… the mind doesn’t like being messed with.”

Axle had grown a little pale, but she had a resolute look on her face. She hadn’t come all the way here to go back empty handed.

“So long as we’re all clear on what we’re trying to do, Dissonance shouldn’t be an issue,” Switch said, mulling over the odds in her head, “of course, if Leverage shows up then it becomes more of a problem since she will disagree on what we’re trying to do.  And Leverage is more likely to show up if I’m not in there,” she bit her lip again, “well, there’s no point consigning you both to Dissonance – I’ll do it.”

Axle pulled a face, but knew damn well she’d lose that argument. Instead, she looked at them both incredibly defensively and said. “Ok, we are doing this on one condition. If either of you sees anything embarrassing in there, once this is over, we pretend you never saw it. Ok?”

Vermilion blinked, looking slightly nonplussed, but managed to regain her equilibrium enough to hold up her hand and say “Word of honour, Axle.” Axle nodded and turned to look at Switchgear who looked confused.

“What could you possibly have in there that’s…” she read Axle’s face again, “Oh.  Ohhhh…” Switch went a little pink, “Okay yeah, I won’t bring it up.”

Axle gave her a sheepish grin. “Thanks,” she turned to Vermilion, “Ok Comrade, what do we need to do?”

Vermilion shot her a pained look at ‘comrade’, but decided they all had more important things on their minds than revisiting that particular argument. “Right…” She moved to one of the cabinets and pressed a concealed button on the side; a hidden drawer sprung out. She took a deep breath and reached in, withdrawing a vial of red liquid and a necklace of clear gems.

“Here,” she handed the necklace to Axle. “This is… having people inside your head is painful, and it will be better if you stay lucid. This will… bleed off most of the pain, enough to leave you functional. It might still hurt a little, but it’s the best solution I’ve come up with so far.” She glanced between Axle and Switch, holding up the potion. “This is for all of us, I’ve got some shot glasses around here somewhere. Nothing harmful, well, not inherently… it lowers the mind’s instinctive resistance, drops the walls a bit. Smooths the path, makes it easier for us to work together like this.” She found the glasses, and poured out three shots. “Stings a little on the way down, but no worse than strong liquor.”

Axle stood up, took the necklace and put it on apprehensively, with a nervous glance at Switch. It looked odd against her rough leathers, and she fidgeted with it, uncomfortable with its weight. Then she took one of the shot glasses, and gave the others a bright, fake smile. “Well, here’s goes nothing!” she said, and downed it in one.

Vermilion gave her best attempt at an encouraging smile, and downed her own. The burn like liquor, she was almost used to that by now; the odd fizz of raw magic as it met her aura on the way down was something she had never become accustomed to. Around her, the room began to glow, magic becoming visible in the air without her needing to concentrate to see it; her smile broadened, in her element now. “Probably safer if we do this sitting down,” she murmured, slipping back into her chair. “Once everyone’s ready, the next step is to link hands in a circle, and then we can begin…”

Switch downed the liquid and grimaced, shutting her eyes tight and thrusting her hands out in the directions of Vermilion and Axle without opening them, “Let’s just do it,” she said through gritted teeth.

Axle, who was feeling a little giddy from the weird magical drink, giggled at Switch, and gently took both her hands, saying “It’s me, Axle, just going to sit you down,” leading her to a chair, and pushing her gently into it, before sitting in one herself, and reaching for Vermilion’s hand. “Um… sorry about the mess, I guess?” she said, grinning, before squeezing her own eyes shut.

“Onwards and inwards…” Vermilion’s voice was soft and serious. A deep breath, and she reached for the magic; another, and the working caught hold.

It felt almost like falling; the room dissolving around them, the sensation of wind whipping at their hair. Their hands on each others’ the only solid point of contact, until even that dissolved…

and they were elsewhere.

But not, to Vermilion’s irritation, together. “Not the best of starts…” she muttered, looking around at the mindscape she stood in. Crimson gouts of flame, evidently a metaphor for the raw magic at work here; swirling mists, the echo of distant voices; cracked and twisted mirrors standing all around, at odd angles. Frowning, she approached the nearest, fingers rising instinctively towards the glass…

~

“Vermilion, you disappoint me.” The Tyrant-Sorceror frowned down at her sadly, knife in hand. “You know how I hate disappointment…” The knife slid gently down her cheek. She fought not to whimper; that would only disappoint him further…

~

“Fuck!” She stepped back sharply, hand dropping to her side, trying to pretend it wasn’t shaking. “Fuck, fuck fuck.” She looked around, eyes widening, trying to ignore the faint trickle of blood down her cheek. “This isn’t just her mind…”


“Switch? Vermillion?” Axle shouted, hoping beyond hope that they were perhaps, behind one of the mirrors, somewhere just out of sight, but there was no response. She tried to control her breathing, tried not to think about the idea of being stuck here, in her own mind. They had to be here somewhere. She walked cautiously forward, one hand on the little golden medal, until she reached one of the mirrors. There was… something in there? Perhaps it was Switch, or Vermilion?  She leant in closer.

~

“On your left!” Dynamics was shouting at her, joy evident in his face, as she swung her sword around and plunged it into the heart of a Valtarian. Adrenaline pumping, she ducked, and rolled, a well practised manoeuvrer, coming to a stop, just as he sprang forward and  used her shoulder to catapult himself over the crumbling walls. He turned, and gave her a dazzling smile, “Come on Switchgear, let’s get them!”

~ Axle reeled back, the face of Dynamics staring at her out of the mirror. Shit. Shit. That wasn’t her memory. Did they go into the wrong mind? She ran forwards, trying not to look into any of the other mirrors, shouting for her friends, her eyes wide with fear.

“Hello!” The voice came from Axle’s left; somehow familiar, yet… not. Turning, she saw a young girl, looking to be around eight years old, dressed as a Valtarian peasant, with an unruly mop of scarlet hair and a cheerful grin. She appeared to be peeling vegetables, though the table and chopping board dissolved behind her as soon as she hopped down from the upturned bucket she was standing on to walk towards Axle. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”

Axle looked at the hair, and the clothes, and realised why the voice sounded familiar. She pressed her lips together for a moment, and then spoke, “Yes, I suppose I am. What is your name, comrade?”

“...don’t have one.” The girl looked away and scuffed her feet awkwardly. “Someone stole it.” She looked up again. “An’ I’m not a ‘comrade’, I’mma Valtarian.”

Axle found herself grinning, despite everything. When the girl looked at her, confused at the sudden smile, Axle tried to explain. “Sorry you just… you remind me of someone, that’s all. Well, if someone stole your name, can I give you one to replace it? Maybe… Ember? Ember’s a nice name, isn’t it?”

“That’s someone else.” The girl shrugged, and tilted her head to one side, looking up at Axle curiously. “Ember’s around here somewhere. Is that who you’re looking for?”

“Oh.” Axle frowned, she was way out of her depth here. “Um, no, I don’t think so. I am looking for Switchgear, and Vermillion, do you, um, know where they are? And is there a name you’d prefer, I can’t just not call you anything…”

“Why not?” She looked confused, then shrugged, evidently not worried about it. “I don’t know about Switchgear, but Vermilion should be easy enough to find. She don’t do subtle.” She pointed to one of the mirrors suddenly. “Thataway!” And suddenly dashed forwards, hitting the glass like running through a doorway. The image rippled as she vanished into it.


Well this is just great, isn’t it?  Switchgear looked around the hellscape that was presented to her and kicked the ground in irritation, of course Vermilion would use this as an excuse to lock her in some sort of shattered plane while she spoke to Axle privately.  The tyrant had just been looking for a way to get her out of the way since the moment she arrived. Why had she been so stupid as to fall for it?!

Work out where you are, a voice in the back of Switch’s head said, survey the area, make a plan and survive.

She didn’t need telling twice.  She picked a piece of glass, and moved to carefully run her hand over it to see if there was any way she could apply pressure to it.

~

“Right, Comrade, just sit tight and Sealant will be along in a minute,” the aged Engineer said to her, her arms strapped to a chair and a bright light hanging overhead, “nothing to worry about this is all perfectly normal.  You just fell asleep is all.”

“Like fuck I did,” she growled, straining against the cuffs, “let me go or I swear…”

The lights flickered, and the Engineer briefly gave a wary look at them before reaching for something out of sight and sighing, “looks like we’re going to need a stronger dose… oh do stay still.”

~

Switch let go of the edge of the glass, her hand bleeding but that was the least of her worries.  No, no that… that can’t be, that’s not what was meant to…

“Hey. Switchgear.” Switch turned. That was Axle’s voice. “You’re looking in the wrong mirror. Try the one on your right.”

The Liberator turned for it but then paused.  Don’t believe without proof, the voice said, don’t take anything at face value.  Be smarter. Be smart or be dead.

She turned away from that mirror and walked firmly in the other direction.

“Well that’s fucking rude, isn’t it.” Said the voice. “Aren’t you the least bit curious to know what’s in my head? It’s not like my memories are gonna do you any harm and actually… that’s kind of a nice one.”

Curious?  Switch’s lips twitched into a smirk, Game over, evil spooky voice, there’s no way Axle would try and lure me in in order to check out her embarrassing memories.  Valtarians are so easy.  She continued to walk away from the source of the voice, scanning the environment for somewhere she could get a tactical advantage without touching the glass.

“Oh come on. Bribery then. Can I tempt you with bribery? Look, I don’t have much…. Knowledge of the details of everything around here, can’t get out of my own little area, but I have a sort of sense of it. Although there's a bunch of extra stuff now, which is a bit fucked up. Anyway, if you look in that mirror, I might, might, be so inclined to tell you which direction your friends are in. Ugh. Negotiating. This is what boredom does to me.”

Not going to leave me alone, are you?  She sighed, and spoke aloud, “I’m doing perfectly fine on my own, so you can best help by, you know, fucking off.”

“Actually, you’ve just walked in a big circle. Minds are funny like that.” True enough, Switch was now walking towards the first mirror she’d touched, again.

I am not negotiating, Switch thought, and reached out with her hand, willing in the same way she would shape something for the voice to present itself, preferably with its neck in her hand.

Very briefly, there was an almost ghostlike presence in Switch’s hand, a figure that looked very similar to Axle, and then it was gone. Laughter echoed around the landscape. “Oh, clever, but although I might not have any power anywhere else any more, this is my. Tiny. Little. Space in the world and I sure as hell have power here. This isn’t your mind. You don’t win here. Go and look in my mirror like an obedient little sheep.” The voice had grown cold now.

“Ah,” Switch said, her smile now more reserved, “Hello Leverage.”


Vermilion sat crosslegged, glaring at the mirror in front of her as if she expected it to break from the force of her gaze alone. “Well, this is irritating,” she muttered.

“Exceedingly,” came a voice from behind her.

She groaned, closing her eyes. “Go away.”

“Believe me, sister mine, nothing would delight me more. Especially since you seem determined to insist on cluttering the place up with smoke-stained peasants.”

Hey!” The other voice was rather less expected. Reluctantly, Vermilion turned.

Behind her, Enchantress-Supreme Viridian stood, one foot tapping impatiently, green pointed hat standing on her head at a jaunty angle, face obscured with a green-leather half-mask and a drapery of cobwebs. Her green-gloved hand was firmly grasping the other figure by the scruff of the neck; upon realising she had her sister-self’s attention, she shoved them harshly forwards.

“Explain yourself, sister. What the fuck is this?”

Vermilion looked at the other woman and winced. Red brocade coat, brown hair with a flick of red, twin short swords…

“This is what I get for listening to Penitents,” she muttered, massaging one temple. “Comrade Velocity, I presume.”

“Let her go!” The voice from behind Viridian came as a surprise to all three of them. Vermilion leant to one side, looking past her sister-self, and groaned. Her face, her hair, the stupid shirt with the airships on the- she should really have thought that garment through before shaping it - the even more silly gold-chain epaulettes…

“And Ember. Wonderful. How on Outworld did you manifest a gun inside my mind?”

“Found it in a mirror.” The other woman shrugged. “Now back off!”

In a – oh, of course.” Vermilion laughed. “I’ve been overthinking it, clearly. Well, if you ladies will excuse me, I believe I’ll leave you to it-”

Picking a mirror at random, avoiding the one she’d touched earlier, she took a deep breath, waved a cheery goodbye to Viridian’s outraged shriek of “get back here-” and threw herself headlong through the glass.

~

She was standing in a crowd of people, hat pulled low over her eyes, watching the scene in front of her with grim satisfaction. Screams and smoke and the smell of burning flesh, were all coming from the hollowed out shell of a combine academy, fire blazing from its windows, glass still shattering in angry explosion. They were still trying to get people out. A teenage girl staggered out of the door, burns across her face, hacking painfully. She'll be dead soon, Vermillion thought, that's not ordinary fire after all. The thought brought an ugly smile to her face. It was a shame, really, that they'd had to cancel the operation, but someone had betrayed them. And now everyone would burn for that tiny mistake. Vermilion turned around, and walked back into the crowd.

~ -and stepped out of the mirror, blinking in confusion. The scent of smoke lingered in her nostrils. It took a few moments to separate that memory from her memories from her now. “At least that probably means I’m heading in the right direction,” she whispered into the swirling mists.


Seconds later, the small child dragged Axle through yet another mirror, and they landed in the memory Vermilion had been in seconds before. “Huh, I was sure she was here!” Said the child.

She was standing in a crowd of people, hat pulled low over her eyes. Axle frowned, confused. Screams and smoke and the smell of burning flesh. And then she realised where she was, her head pounding as she felt Leverages thoughts running through it. Using all her strength, she turned to look at the small girl standing next to her. “We have to get out of here. Now.”

“Easiest way is through a door” said the girl, who was somehow able to travel through the memories unaffected. “That one is probably good” she pointed towards the door of the academy, and Axle felt her face go pale.

“No, I can't…..” Leverages anger, her satisfaction, was growing stronger, the pounding in her head near uncontrollable.

“it's the quickest way out!”

“Fine!” Axle ran towards the door, closer to the screams and the smoke that had haunted her dreams for as long as she could and burst through it, coming back into the hellscape crying and coughing and shaking, falling to the floor in relief.


“Oh that's interesting” said Leverages voice, as Switchgear sat in front of the mirror determinedly not touching it.

“You do realise you’re not going to be able to goad me into touching it, right?” Switch asked, with tired perseverance, “you can pretend to have found some fascinating part of Axle’s psyche, or pretend to be flicking through my own memories, but I know for a fact you’ve got nothing.  So unless you want to come down here and talk, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

“No, no nothing like that. It’s just Axle just stumbled into one of my memories. Ohhhh… she really won’t have enjoyed that.”

“Mhm,” Switch said, closing her eyes, “you know, I do find it fascinating that you consider yourself and Axle as different people.”

“Oh we really are. Say what you like about Valve and believe me, I do regularly, but he was damn good at what he did.” The voice sounded disgusted. “I wonder what happens if she has a breakdown whilst inside her own head. I can’t decide if that would be really good for me, or really bad for me. Hence why I’m telling you, of course. If I thought her getting in trouble here would definitely benefit me, you’d still be walking in circles…”

“If an airship gains a puncture at one end of the main balloon, does the other end still sink?” Switch said, reciting something from long ago, “if an engine also powers the lights, how long after the engine fails before you’re left in the dark?”

“So we agree, to an extent, that because neither of us understand the Valtarian bullshit that got you here, we probably shouldn’t let Axle go completely off the rails inside her own brain?” In a mirror to Switch’s right, there appeared an image of Axle, lying on the ground, coughing and shaking, a strange girl watching her nervously. The image faded as quickly as it had appeared. “So, you go through my mirror, and then I’ll send you on your way and you can… give her a pat on the head and promise her it will all be ok or something. Seem reasonable?”

“No,” Switch said, firmly and clearly, “it’s your head: you go and protect it.  Or would you rather end up as the same wreck they had to make you to bring you in in the first place?”

“I can’t. Axle hates me, and she loves you. Which one of us is going to calm her down better, do you think?” There was a weary sigh, “This is why I hate dealing with the bloody Combine… so damn stubborn.”

“Then if you’re so much better, why aren’t you already gone?  Or are you more like us than you think, General?”

There was a growl of frustration. “Because I need you. Is that not obvious? I need you to go look after your sodding girlfriend, who is getting worse by the minute I might add, anyone would think you didn’t give a damn, and I need you to understand the thing that is behind that mirror. Fucking hell.”

“Closer, General,” Switch’s lips twitched upward ever so briefly, “but I want you to say it: you want me to look after you.  Not Axle, not my friend, you,” her eyes glinted as she looked up in the direction of the voice, “Say it.”

“I want you to look after me. Happy now?”

“Very,” Switch said, bouncing to her feet with a grin before pushing against the mirror.

~

She was standing on the prow of an airship, wind tugging at her hair, a cityscape below her. She turned to face the woman next to her, and felt her heart jump into her throat. She was beautiful. A mess of long blond hair, just asking for a hand to be run through it, a smile which was always almost a laugh, and brilliant, sparkling eyes. Tonight, they were reflecting the starlight, and the glow of the city below. Switchgear gazed at her in admiration.

“You know… I think it’s very brave… what you do,” the woman said, lowering her eyes.

“It’s dangerous, that’s why… that’s why I keep to myself.” Switch found herself saying.

The woman drew closer, and Switch could feel her heart pumping in her chest. “I’ve already thrown my hat in with the industrioclasts Lev, I know the risks,” She reached for Switch’s hand, her cold skin sending electricity through the Liberator as they touched. “And I don’t care.”

Switch looked into her eyes and knew that this would be her biggest mistake, and the beautiful women wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and drew Switch’s lips towards her own.

~

“Her name was Screwdriver” Leverage said quietly. Switchgear was back in the hellscape, and now Leverage was standing in front of her, in the same outfit she had worn at the Nexus.

“I can guess what happens next,” Switch said, eyes down but briefly flicking to Leverage’s face, “because the exact same happens for the other side.  In every war, in every conflict, it happens for both sides,” she finally brought herself to lock eyes with Leverage, “don’t you want it to stop?”

“I want to know what happened to her. She disappeared. I presume Valve took her, but I was never able to find out what he did. For all I know, she could still be alive, like me, trapped in someone else’s head.” Leverage’s eyes didn’t move from Switch’s, her voice quiet, and calm. “If there is any information about her, Valve, or whoever he is now, will have it. I know, at the very least, you know what it feels like to feel like that about someone. If you find me that information… well. It would be a start. Then again,” Leverages mouth curled upwards into a cruel smile. “I am also a great believer in suitable revenge. I had the person I cared most about ripped from me… never doubt for a second I wouldn’t do the same to you. Your girlfriend’s through that mirror to the right. Tell her I said hello.”

Switch moved for the mirror before pausing, putting together everything and lowering her hand, “I want to show you something too,” her voice wavered a little as she said it, but her eyes were already scanning mirrors for the infamous sky of Advantage Valley…

“First, go rescue Axle. Seriously. She’s in a bad way.” Leverage shook her head despairingly, “Then sure, whatever, I’ll go see whatever it is you want me to see. Probably. Now bugger off, you’re getting Combine all over my brain.”


“So much for heading in the right direction,” Vermilion muttered, letting her hand fall away from another mirror. “Bloody Shattered Front. Again.” The dissonance was starting to give her a headache; memories of the Front tended to be confusing enough without factoring in multiple people’s memories. She was fairly sure there was at least one pair of neighbouring mirrors that were literally playing out the same battle from opposing sides, and as much as part of her wanted to try poking them both at once to see what happened, none of this was helping her find the others. At least her other selves didn’t seem to have followed her…

She glanced back towards the mirror she’d come through, and froze. Viridian and her adversaries might not have followed her, but there was another figure, lying on the floor before it. Her senses snapped back into focus; those soft sounds of distress she’d taken for another trick of wind and memory were nothing of the kind…

“Axle?” She rushed back towards her, glancing around to check for any sign of other movement. “Axle? Please be really you, there’s enough figments running around in here…”

Axle, was curled into a ball, her arms wrapped around her legs, her cheeks streaked with tears. She looked up blearily, from Vermilion, to the child she took to be Vermilion’s younger self, and nodded, her lungs still too full of smoke for words.  

Vermilion frowned in worry as Axle’s eyes moved away from her, glancing in that direction briefly to make sure no-one else was sneaking up on them. Satisfied the two of them were alone, she turned back. “This… really isn’t going according to plan.”

“You think?” The girl glared up at her and rolled her eyes. “Why did I grow up to be such a-”

Apparently oblivious to her younger self’s irritation, Vermilion knelt at Axle’s side; one hand tentatively reaching out to rest gently on her shoulder. “I… I-”

Rolling her eyes again, the girl stomped round Axle to glare at her. “Oh, give me strength… The words you’re looking for are ‘I’m sorry’.” She reached out to poke Vermilion in the ribs, to the complete absence of any reaction whatsoever. “It isn’t that hard to say it. I’m. Sorry.”

Vermilion’s eyes briefly drifted out of focus. “I… I’m sorry.” The words clearly came as an effort; she winced, a single tear rolling down her cheek. “I… I don’t do regrets, generally. Unrepentant. Bound that concept to my name and nature, long ago. But this...” She hung her head. “I wanted to help you. But instead I’ve caused you pain. I’m sorry.” The phrase came easier to her lips the second time.

Beside her, the girl sat herself down cross-legged, nodding in satisfaction, and reached out for Axle’s hand. She began to hum a tune; a simple little lullaby, a wordless attempt at comfort.

A few lines into it, Vermilion’s eyes slipped out of focus again. Gently stroking Axle’s hair, still tentative, clearly expecting to be pushed away at any minute, she began humming the same tune; not in unison with the girl, but as an echo, almost singing it as a round. Even the girl’s occasional stumble over the notes was echoed in her repetition, perfectly. Axle did not push them away, barely registering their attempts at comfort, still reliving Leverage’s memory in her mind.

The lullaby was broken by a loud thud as the heavy boots of the Liberator landed with Switchgear tumbling out of a mirror.  Briefly she paused at the sight of the unfamiliar child, before rushing over to crouch beside the ball of Volunteer on the ground, “Hey,” she said, “hey, Axle?”

Axle looked up, her eyes focusing on Switchgear, before bursting into a fresh set of tears. “I…” her voice sounded hoarse, and she gave another hacking cough before continuing. “The fire… the academy… I was there.”

Switch knelt and pulled Axle onto her lap, wrapping her in her arms, barely registering Vermilion’s hand trailing out of her hair, “Hey, it’s okay, you’re not there any more, you’re here,” she held her tight, “you’re safe and you’re here and I’m here and it will be okay.”

“You shouldn’t…” Another cough, her voice quieter now, “You shouldn’t care about me…. I’m… I’m a monster. I watched… I enjoyed it...”

“It wasn’t you, Axle, it wasn’t you,” she squeezed Axle, “it wasn’t you, you’re not a monster.”

“This isn’t what a monster looks like,” Vermilion agreed, reaching out to brush her fingers gently over the tears on Axle’s cheek. “Believe me, I know monsters. You’re not one of us. When monsters look back, we don’t weep for our victims.” She looked away briefly, then steeled herself to look back. “And even if you were, which you’re definitely not… you don’t seem to think that’s a good enough reason not to care about me, so don’t go trying to argue people out of caring about you, okay?” A faint, forced smile, and a nervous glance between Axle and Switchgear. “Fairly sure we’re both too stubborn to pay any heed to that nonsense.”

Switch smiled and stroked Axle’s hair, “You’re about as far from that monster as you could get,” she said, gently, “and if you need proof of that, there are about a hundred mirrors here that could show you.”

Axle looked up at Switch, with watery eyes and gave her a sad, but grateful smile, turned the same smile on Vermillion, then turned to look at the child. “You um, you seem to actually know where things are here… I don’t want to end up in her memories again.”

Vermilion looked confused, glancing about before looking back to Axle. “Who are you talking to?”

Axle frowned, then looked at Switch in confusion. “Ok, please tell me you can see that child?”

“Yes…” Switch glanced at Vermilion and cocked her head slightly to the side, “yet you can’t?”

“Child? Where?” Vermilion looked around again, staring through the girl blankly.

“I keep trying to make her notice me, but it don’t work very well,” the girl said sadly. “She can almost hear me sometimes, now. Almost.” A sudden bright smile. “An’ I can, well, nudge her a bit ev’ry so often. If I’m careful not to push too hard. Like jus’ now. Never used to be able to do that. The walls are crumbling a bit, but they’re still there.”

“Oh…” Axle’s voice was soft. She sat up, wiping her eyes, but still wrapped in Switchgears arms, and reached out to take Vermilion’s hand. Dealing with other people’s problems was far easier than trying to cope with her own. “Vermilion, um, I think that when he erased your memories, he well… he didn’t, he did what re-education did for me, he hid them. And in… wherever we are now, those memories have um… ok I don’t know how to explain it, but, um, there is a little girl standing behind you and I’m pretty sure she is you from the past. Please don’t freak out.”

“...oh.” Vermilion looked pale, and had the stunned expression of someone who’d just been hit with a polearm; her voice came out weak. “Well. Fuck.”

“Um,” Switch glanced around as if looking for a child Axle or a child her, “you guys can’t see anyone else floating around that looks like me or, um…” she trailed off, “Never mind.”

“Wait, does that mean Leverage might be wandering around?” Axle suddenly looked panicked, her hand tightening on Vermilion’s.

“Almost certainly.” Vermilion shivered. “I already ran into three others of mine, ones I already knew existed…” She frowned, and hastily tried to soften it. “I mean, hopefully she’s not, like, loose. You said in your letter there were things you remembered that she wouldn’t, so in theory she shouldn’t have the run of the place, same way Viridian and the others don’t seem to have been able to follow me away from where I found them…” She frowned again, remembering Ember, who’d found a gun in a mirror; but of the three of them, Ember was the one who wasn’t locked out of her memories, the one who hadn’t been intended to be a separate self at all…

“Ok,” said Axle, looking nervous, “So um… what do we do now? Also we’re not just in my head, are we? Also why does my head look like a weird Valtarian hellscape?”

“My magic, my metaphor, I think…” Vermilion looked slightly embarrassed, glancing around at the place. “Sorry about that. It is a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?” She looked about to stop talking, having answered the easiest of the three questions; the girl frowned and elbowed her sharply in the side. Her eyes briefly unfocused, and reluctantly she continued. “And no, there’s definitely a lot of my memories floating around in here. And, uh-” she shot an embarrassed glance at Switchgear, “I think some of the Shattered Front stuff around here might be yours maybe?” She sighed and spread her hands. “This isn’t how I was expecting this to work. At all.”

“The entire place reminds me of the Shattered Front,” Switch grumbled, “though the same rules seem to apply: don’t trust your senses, don’t listen to strange voices in your head, don’t be stupid.”

“Right.” Axle said, attempting to sound matter-of-fact, and nearly managing it. “We are here, technically, to deal with Leverage. I can’t do that right now because my brain is all foggy and sad. But Switch mentioned nice memories? That might help. So. If someone can point me in the direction of something nice… and meanwhile…” She looked up at the child. “Hey kid, this floor is sandy. Draw a line in it.”

“Okay….” She reached down to trail a finger across the floor. It was a very wiggly line.

“Vermillion. Can you see that line?” Axle asked, pointing at the line in the sand.

“No, I-” she bent over, peering closer, and frowned. A few blinks and a puzzled expression later, “-um, yes?”

Axle grinned, delighted. “Ha! Fantastic. So if Switch asks, um, the kid, where we need to go, you two can actually communicate with other whilst we are away! Um, if you want to that is?” Axle looked between the two Valtarians curiously.

“Um. I learned to write after-” Vermilion looked embarrassed, before breaking off and staring down at the floor.

I LEARNT TOO was scrawled in the sand. Crouching over it, the girl stuck her tongue out at Vermilion, and shrugged at Axle. “Happy memories? I think I can help. An’ thank you. I’ve been trying to talk to her f’r ever and ever.”

Switch beckoned the child, “If we’re looking for happy memories, can you help me find…” she whispered something in her ear, “I think she’ll enjoy it.”

She grinned. “Okay!” Closing her eyes she frowned in concentration, tip of her tongue sticking out of her mouth as she thought. “Okay… that isn’t near to here right now. But we can fix that!” Grinning again, she scampered over to one of the flame jets. “This is my playground. An’ this isn’t really fire. Promise.” Sticking her hand into it, she twisted something.

There was an audible ‘twang’ as the landscape shifted, and suddenly there was another mirror in front of the girl where the gout of flame had been. “Ta-daaa!” She stepped back and bowed dramatically.

Axle grinned, and turned to Vermilion, “You’ll be pleased to know that being overdramatic isn’t something he made you…” She clambered out of Switch’s lap, and offered her a hand, “Can we both go into the memory? How does that work?”

Switch took Axle’s hand and pulled her toward the mirror with a smile, “Let’s find out!”

~

Axgear hit the floor, hard, clambering to their feet, sword in hand.

“Not fast enough,” she said, and levelled the gleaming cannon at her and fired.

They hit the floor again, rushing to get back up, pushing themselves up, looking up at her, smiling at the smile on her face.

“Better, but not fast enough,” she fired.  They hit the ground. They got to their feet.  She was smiling, and though the sky was overcast she seemed to be lit up.

“Again,” Axgear said, and Axle fired.  They hit the ground and got up faster. “Again!”  Ground. Up. Faster. “Again!”

They were both smiling, Axle was holding back a laugh, and something Axgear hadn’t felt for a long time was starting to…

~

“So, um…” Vermilion looked around helplessly. “You can hear me, then?”

A few seconds later, she spotted the word OBVIOUSLY scrawled in the sand. She blinked, and stared hopefully into the space above it, still seeing nothing. “Um. okay. Hello?”

I’M OVER HERE appeared in the sand, accompanied by a pointing arrow. A few moments later, it was joined by a cartoon of a smiling face and a waving hand.

“This is weird,” Vermilion muttered, smiling despite herself.

YOU’RE WEIRD

“Point taken.” She laughed, shaking her head ruefully. “So… you’ve been here all along, then?”

ALWAYS

“Do you see, well,” she hesitated, caught between embarrassment and horror. “Everything?”

YES.

Vermilion looked away, shuddering. “I’m… sorry. That can’t be… pleasant.”

NO SHIT. BETTER LATELY THO.

“Language, young lady!” The words slipped out automatically, as she flailed somewhere between guilt and hope.

I’M OLDER THAN YOU ARE.

“Axle said you were a child…”

YES. AND NO.

“Ah, we’re back to contradictory truths at the heart of magic again, aren’t we?” Vermilion relaxed slightly. “I suppose that’s better than making an actual eight-year-old watch-”

YOU’RE STALLING. I CAN TELL.

“I suppose I am. I have so many questions…” She sighed. “Do you remember…” her voice trailed off.

OUR NAME? NO. BUT YOUR CONSORT THINKS HE KNOWS, RIGHT?

“I think he might argue with ‘consort’.” Vermilion blushed, and decided not to argue about definitions of the term. “Will you- will I-” she gave up and shrugged helplessly. “How do we know if it’s real?”

WE’LL KNOW.

The words disappeared after an instant, and were replaced by: NAMES HAVE POWER.

“And if it is? What happens next?”

YOU SCARED?

“No.” Vermilion folded her arms and glared at the empty air crossly.

LIAR.

She glared at the word for a long instant. “Fine. Yes, I’m maybe a little scared. So the f- fudge what? It isn’t going to stop me.”

GOOD.

Vermilion looked away again. Looked back, still seeing nothing no matter how hard she strained her eyes. “Do you…” her voice broke off, and when she spoke again it came out as a whisper. “do you remember our mother?”

YES

“Can you-”

NO

THOSE MIRRORS DON’T MOVE. I ONLY JUST FIT IN THAT PLACE. I CAN’T TAKE YOU WITH ME.

Vermilion looked away, cursing the treacherous tears trickling down her face. “Worth a try,” she muttered.

It was a long time before she managed to clear her eyes enough to read the next words.

I’M SORRY. I MISS HER TOO.

~

They were moving from mirror to mirror rapidly, Switch pulling Axle by the hand through fragments of memory.

~

They were watching her firing into an army of Valtarian upstarts, laughing before swinging their own sword to catch one behind her.

They were handing her a golden piece of metal, her face beaming with an expression of pride they hadn’t seen before

They were talking in a corner of the Combine Nexus, whispering the words ‘Do you want to be ideologically unsound?’

They were in a darkened room, the sound of a large vault door closing behind her, their heart beating faster, their lips on hers and…

~

Back.  Back out of the last mirror.

Axle felt dizzy, her head swimming, and her heart pumping, unable to choose between crying and laughing. She looked up at Switchgear like she was the only thing that existed in the entire hellscape. “Since… since the first Nexus?” she asked, awestruck.  Switch, breathless, nodded, smiling. Axle went pink, and then closed her eyes, seeing whether she could raise the ground beneath her feet. It’s my brain after all, I must be able to shape in here. Sure enough, she rose until her head was level with Switchgear’s, and then pulled her into a long, lingering kiss.

“Eeeeeee!” The girl jumped up and down in excitement, clapping her hands and grinning fit to split her face. Behind her, Vermilion blushed and looked away, hastily wiping the last remnant of tears from her face.

On hearing the childish squeak, Axle reluctantly broke off the kiss and turned to look, red-faced and grinning. Switch, who had her arms around Axle, also gave a sly smile, “Didn’t realise we had an audience,” she said. Axle jumped down from the little hill she had created, and slid an arm around Switchgear’s waist as she walked to join the Valtarians.

“So, um I’m…. feeling a lot better,” she blushed, “How did things go for you guys? Convinced each other to join the combine yet?”

“Optimist.” The two of them said the word in unison, both grinning, though only one of them stuck out her tongue.

Axle shrugged. “Realist.” she said, and stuck her tongue out at the child. “Right, so. Dealing with my unwanted brain squatter. Vermilion, this is your area… any ideas, comrade?”

“Well, we appear to have established the methodology I’m familiar with isn’t as effective as I’d thought,” Vermilion observed, glancing off to one side (not quite in the right direction for where her younger self was standing). “Which means this is going to be a bit… improvisational.” She frowned. “What changed to wake her up? Or was it more of a process of erosion over time?”

The smile fell from Axle’s face, and the arm she had around Switch stiffened. “I um… I think the more… ideologically confused my life became, the more incidents I was having, and then at the nexus… at the nexus I got really really upset about…. Something, and that’s when she broke through. And now she can get in much easier.” Axle looked down, avoiding Switch’s gaze in particular.

“Sounds like Valve did a good job of making a solid door but didn’t have a failsafe for what happened when the door opened?” Switch said, biting her lip, “I see why they had such difficulty with Shapers though, if you’ve got this much control.”

“Valve might have had a failsafe, some way of closing the door again, but um, we can’t ask what that was.” Axle reminded Switch, “so we’re stuck right now.”

“We could try what Dy and I did but… well, I don’t know whether that would work now - it probably would have before she, er, got out, but now she’s… we wouldn’t necessarily get the one we want.”

Axle’s voice hardened slightly. “No. I really don’t want any unconditioning. I happen to like that particular safety blanket.”

“Right. So. Given the current state of play, I don’t think we can gamble on your life getting any less ideologically confusing any time soon. Which means sticking the djinn back in the bottle is unlikely to work any better a second time around.” Vermilion frowned thoughtfully, and tried not to think about ‘failsafes’ and what they were more likely to entail than the closing of doors after horses had bolted. “So. What we’re probably looking at is finding a way to stabilise the situation in a way you can live with, then. Shoring up the memory partitioning, looking at the transition stages, seeing if we can build in an emergency override to allow you to regain control of the body if she starts crossing lines…”

“Like you handle things with Viridian,” the girl said helpfully.

Vermilion frowned deeper, with that brief unfocusing of the eyes again. “Best parallel I’ve got for that’s Viridian, but that’s not an exact match given I created her from whole cloth…”

“Oh, we have an override already,” said Axle helpfully, “It’s just that’s all we have, and it’s not… a pleasant experience…”

“We tried to create an override for when Leverage is setting in, but it… didn’t work,” Switch said, remembering the Focus they’d attempted to use at the Nexus, “I can think of some other things we could shape that might help, but there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t meet the same problem.”

“So yeah… do your magic on me or something!” Axle waved her arms about in a vague imitation of magic, clearly more cheerful now that they were not focusing on why Leverage had broken free.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s more going to need to be a case of doing magic on her,” Vermilion said grimly. “And I doubt she’s going to like the idea. If we can even find her.”

“You know,” said a new voice, and they all turned to look at the small mound Axle had created moments before. Leverage was sitting there, examining her fingers with mild interest. Axle let go of Switch’s waist and went to grab her hand, her face pale.

“... You'd think, three of you having just come out of one of my,” she paused to relish the thought, “favourite memories, that you'd realise you are, in fact, in my section of this mind. And that therefore, you should talk less quietly when discussing plans to 'do magic on me’. But there you go. Now.” She looked up at Vermilion, “Who the fuck are you, and what sad excuse for a Monarch in shadow helps the combine. And you.” She turned to Switch and Axle, “I hope you're happy, I did not enjoy watching myself making out with a liberator. Ugh.”

“I’m not helping ‘the combine’. I’m helping her.” Vermilion nodded towards Axle, folding her arms and glowering at Leverage on general principle. “Significant difference. Also, at least three of the memories in this row are mine, so it’s not as clear-cut as you appear to think.” Her mind whirled. Axle had seemed to recognise the memory; was this a connection point? One of the places where Leverage had started bleeding through and causing her to have incidents?

“None of her memories in this bit though, are there? And what's so bloody special about her that you'd prefer her to someone who could bring down the combine?” Leverage looked at Axle with disgust. “She's just another one of Valve's puppets, isn't she?”

The familiar sight of Switch’s hand clenching into a fist before unclenching again would have met Vermilion or Axle if they were looking before the Liberator spoke, “She’s hardly a puppet if the puppet master is gone, Leverage,” the effort to keep herself from shouting was evident in the artificial steadiness in her voice, “so what does that make her now?  What does that make her to you?”

Leverage gave a dry laugh. “He may be gone,” she made lazy quote marks in the air around the word gone “but she’s still his puppet. Still a colour-by-numbers person drawn badly on a half empty canvas. Do you think she actually has feelings for you? Or were they programmed into her? A personality trait of easily falling in love with show-off liberators is something I’d certainly program into my drones…”

“I wasn’t a Liberator,” Switch pointed out, side-stepping the question she’d been asked just as Leverage did, “you didn’t answer me though: what is Axle now to you?  She’s here, she’s part of your mind and she always will be, so what is she to you?”

“And you didn’t answer me – meaning that you are worried that she only loves you cause Valve thought it would be a good idea. Interesting. To answer your question bluntly, she is an inconvenience, and I have no intention of her always being with me.” Leverage shrugged. “Speaking of not answering questions,” she turned to Vermilion, “What is so special about the puppet Valve built?”

Vermilion glared at her. “She’s not a puppet, any more than I am.” A dangerous truth, but truth nonetheless; a part of her wondered what Leverage would make of it. “And if her feelings were engineered, I somehow doubt she’d ever have wound up trusting a Monarch-in-Shadow enough to let me in here.” She frowned, tilting her head. “Why would Valve have programmed ‘falling in love’ into her, anyway? I thought romance was considered, what’s the phrase, ‘ideologically unsound’?” She glanced over to the actual Combine, looking confused.  

“You know, I’m getting real bored of not having my questions answered…” Leverage clicked a finger, and a battered filing cabinet appeared next to her. “It’s kinda rude, you know?” She flicked through the files, picked one seemingly at random and threw it down. A flickering hologram of Axle, or possibly Leverage flashed into view above the file. She was tied to a chair, leather straps holding her arms in place, and cruel metal hooks holding her eyelids open. Strange, holographic tears, glistened on her face as a voice rang out deafeningly loud.

“Liberty. Unity. Purpose. Compliance.”

Silently, the red-haired girl slipped over to Axle and reached up to take her hand.

As the woman in the hologram began to scream, so did Axle, falling to the floor, releasing the child's hand in order to cover her ears as the voice continued and the holographic woman watched something none of them could see. The girl followed her down, reaching out to throw her arms around her, glaring over her form at Leverage with an expression of pure rage.

“It’s up to two questions now,” said Leverage, still watching Vermillion. “Why her, and what are you planning to do to me?”

Switch answered by launching herself from the floor, hands not even reaching for a sword at her belt, gloved and ungloved hands both clenched into fists that swung fast toward the Industrioclast’s face. Leverage laughed, and vanished, re-appearing next to Vermillion.

“Liberators,” She smiled jovially at the Monarch-in-shadow, voice raised above the droning voice of the hologram, “So predictable…”

“Most people are,” Vermilion said calmly, glad for the distraction that had allowed her to maintain some semblance of composure. “You wanted to know why her? She managed not to be. I had ideas of how things were, how they were going to play out, what the next chapter of my story was. And then she happened to me. And suddenly there’s a host of unknown factors coming into play that I hadn’t expected at all.” Wings. Ember. Whoever the girl is… “She tells me it’s called friendship. I wouldn’t know much about that. But I know magic, and whatever the hell else it is she’s doing… it is definitely magic, of a kind.”

Leverage looked distinctly unimpressed and unmoved by this, simply raising her eyebrows as though she’d been told a mildly interesting fact. “And the second question?”

Vermilion chuckled drily. “I haven’t decided yet.” She ran an appraising look over Leverage. “Not that I didn’t have plans, but you’re clearly not the ghost I was expecting…”

“Of course not,” the girl muttered, still glaring at Leverage over Axle’s screaming form. “It never worked like that.”

“See, was actually answering me really so hard?” Leverage turned from Vermillion and walked back towards the file. As soon she picked it up, the hologram and the booming voice faded into nothing, the sudden silence almost deafening.

“What’s the rush? We have all the time in the world.” Vermilion shrugged lightly, and tried to make the worried glance in Axle’s direction look casual. Axle was unharmed but shaken, her arms wrapped around what appeared to Vermillion to simply be thin air.

“So what exactly are you planning to do now?” Leverage asked, not directing the question at anyone in particular. “The plan you had for doing magic on me isn't going to work for reasons I can't be bothered to make you explain to me so… What now?”

“We could sit and glare at each other until the spell wears off,” Switch said, still poised to fight, “or perhaps we could actually talk.”

“Oh, it isn’t that kind of a spell,” Vermilion said, incongruously cheerfully. “And given it isn’t working as expected, well, we may as well do something to pass the time while I figure out how to actually get us back out of here…”

“Umm so we're trapped in here? With her?” Axle's voice was small, and worried as she looked up at Switch and Vermillion.

“Ugh, no, thankfully not.” It was Leverage who answered her, addressing Axle for the first time. “If you find the bits of this place that have your memories well… I can't get there. Like how you normally can't get in here.”

The girl, still hugging Axle, looked up at her and grinned. “I know how the exit works,” she whispered. “Better if she figures it out for herself, but if she takes too long I can start dropping hints.”

“Right.” Vermilion frowned thoughtfully and rubbed her hands together. “If we’re going to get the two of you into any form of sustainable equilibrium, I think we need to find you some neutral ground…” She raised her arms. Two of the gouts of flame curved inwards, spiralling around her; she smiled, taking hold of the flame, and thrust her arms forwards, fire rushing forth and curling into a shape…

Once again, there was a ‘twang’ as the landscape shifted, and they stood before what were unmistakably the doors of the Citadel of Bone. Vermilion’s smile broadened, with something like relief, and she stepped forwards, doors swinging open as she approached. “Shall we adjourn to my place?”

Beyond the doors, visible as they opened, the landscape continued almost unchanged; twisted mirrors and blazing flame. Some of the frames were, perhaps, a little more ostentatiously gilded; and some of the glass crackled with crimson lightning.

Axle stood up, curiosity overtaking fear, drowning out the still ringing voice in her head telling her to comply. She walked forward, touching the doorframe gently. “So this is your mind then, this bit? But I thought the minds were all mixed up, except mine and hers, or did you magic-fix it?”

“Yes and no,” Vermilion frowned, struggling to articulate the situation. “There’s a lot of… this… that’s all jumbled up and blurred together. But I think there’s a, well, a home base somewhere in here for each of us. This is mine. Sort of, well…” She clapped her hands and an image appeared in the air in front of her; clouds of glowing colour, swirling and blurring. A cool blue and a violent orange, almost-but-not-quite touching in the centre, a few tentative strands reaching towards each other; and overlaying them from either side a cloud of red and another of purple, swirling through the blue and the orange and each other. “Like that.”

“Oohhhh” said Axle, with a surprising amount of realisation, “It’s like when ProCorp tried to develop a “three meal” ration bar, and the first third tasted like bacon, and eggs, and the middle bit tasted like roast chicken, and the last bit tasted like chocolate cake. But in between each one you had a bit that tasted of both and it was really gross, especially the chicken/chocolate section. Makes sense.” Leverage rolled her eyes at this, looking distinctly unimpressed at the entire situation.

Switch’s brow furrowed for a moment before her expression changed to one of being distinctly unimpressed, “Sorry what?  You’re telling me we now need to go on a quest in Axle’s head to find more things?” she turned fully on Vermilion, “You’re the reason this all went to shit in the first place!”

“Switch,” Axle voice was one of exasperation, “Come on, she’s trying to help. At least let her tell us what her plan is before getting cross.”

Leverage snorted, “Ahhh the unity of the combine.” She idly picked up a small pebble and threw it at the doorframe, which flickered slightly.

“You’re buying into this Valtarian bullshit then, General?”

“Fuck no, but this is mildly more interesting than sitting in my corner of my mind and pushing at her weak points all day, so… whatever.”

“If you needed confirmation that this is a stupid-ass idea, Axle,” Switch gestured to the Industrioclast, “there it is.”

Axle ignored them both, and turned to Vermilion, anger flickering in her eyes. “Vermilion, I am going to follow you into your bit of this weird place, because I trust you. And Switch is going to follow me because she doesn’t trust you, and Leverage is going to follow us because she’s bored. So shall we?” And with that, she marched through the doorway.

The air in front of her shimmered, resolving into a green-clad figure in a half-mask and pointed hat, who ran a disdainful glance over her before turning to glare at Vermilion. “Sister, we need to talk about your choice in… associates.” She shook her head in irritation. “And what’s this about you trying to help people? Are you even surprised it’s all going wrong? You don’t help people. You can’t. That’s why you need me, remember?”

“Oh good, you’re here already.” Vermilion sounded less than enthusiastic. “Ladies, allow me to introduce Enchantress-Supreme Viridian, the Balm of Sorrow. My… sister-self, secondary aspect-”

Secondary? Hah!”

“-and proof positive you don’t need to like each other to make sharing a body work.”

“Silly squirrel. Of course you like me, I’m exactly what you wanted. I don’t know why you’re so stubborn about admitting it.” Vermilion closed her eyes briefly and fought the urge to facepalm, as Viridian turned her cloyingly sweet smile towards the others. “Insanity, perhaps. It would explain so much about this situation.”

“Ok,” Axle turned to Viridian with a matter-of-fact expression. “You’re very annoying, I hate you, no one wants you to exist and Vermilion doesn’t need you. She’s helped me loads already without you butting in, so fuck off already. Come on everyone, let's go do whatever we are doing here.”

“Wait,” Switch moved past Vermilion, “you’re the good one?  Like, the one that doesn’t torture people for fun?” She turned to Axle with a small amount of a hopeful smile, and despite Vermilion and Viridian standing right beside them said, “Axle we might actually be able to get somewhere with this one!”

Axle looked sad and, with some effort, pulled Switch down to her height to whisper in her ear. “Viridian isn’t real Switch, she’s like… she’s like a part in a play, Vermilion told me before, she’s not like a volunteer, a complete personality. She’s just a mask.”

“Vermilion ‘told you’,” she muttered, “but I think we’ve established we can’t trust a word she says.”

“Switch!” Axle said, still talking in a hushed voice, but struggling to keep herself quiet. “She didn’t lie, the magic went wrong. Please. Viridian is the one we can’t trust, she’s… she’s like Leverage, she’ll say anything to get out, and that wouldn’t be a good thing.” She looked at Switch desperately.

“And the monster will say anything to keep the good one trapped,” Switch said with urgency, her voice getting louder, “you can’t trust either of them to tell a word of truth about the other, but you can at least reason with the ones who are at least pretending to be good.”

“See, silly squirrel?” Viridian laughed mockingly, glancing between Switchgear and Vermilion. “Even when you try, you’re still a monster. If the darkness in you’s waning… if your villainy is being twisted into sympathy for the enemy… then it’s time I took control.” One gloved hand reached out towards Vermilion’s cheek. Around them, the lighting shifted, the gouts of flame across the landscape flickering from crimson to emerald and back again…

“NO!” Axle shouted, and ran towards Viridian, before anyone could stop her, tackling her to the ground. “Stay away from her!”

“COMRADE!” Switch shouted, grabbing her by the shoulder to pull her off the Monarch, “we’re meant to be liberating the good ones from torturers and tyrants, not the other way around!”

Axle continued lunging for Viridian, Switch’s grip only just stopping her from making contact. “We are meant to be liberating everyone! Especially from letting them get even more twisted up inside by their insisting that they can’t be good! That!” she pointed at Viridian, “Is just the voice inside her head telling her she isn’t good enough!”

'“You don’t know that!” Switch shouted, and could have sworn she heard thunder in the distance as she did, “You’ve no way to know that that’s the Leverage and Vermilion’s the Axle - what if Vermilion is the Leverage in control and holding back Axle?  Valtarians lie to get what they want, that’s what they’re best at and you’re…”

“I do know! Because look at her!” Axle pointed to the child with the bright red hair, “Vermillion can’t see her, we know that, and she is so clearly Vermilion and not the other one, and she is good. And I don’t know much about children, having never been one, but I’m pretty sure I’d know if one was lying.” Axle’s eyes were filled with tears.

You don’t know that she’s real,” Switch pressed the point, “Everything here could be just what Vermilion wants you to see to convince you she’s good, to bring you into her web.  Unity, Axle, you and I most of all people know what a Shaper can do to pretend to be someone they’re not - we can’t just believe something about someone just because it looks that way.  You don’t even know how this magic thing works, you can’t pretend to know anything here is real!”  The thunder in the distance was getting louder, “Valtarians who weren’t even Shapers did that to the Front – doing the same thing to their own territory is child’s play.”

“Fine! I will just prove to you that Vermilion is good.” She turned to the Monarch in shadow, eyes blazing. “Vermilion I need you to help me deal with Leverage, please. I know the plan didn’t work the way you wanted but you’re really clever, you must have some idea of what to do? And Leverage would be a massive asset to the Valtarians, way more use than having me as a friend so if you help me, maybe Switchgear…” she trailed off, looking at Switch for a moment, “Maybe she’ll start to trust me on this.”

Leverage rolled her eyes. “Ugh, Valve made me so pathetic. This is literally painful to watch. And also if everyone could stop comparing me to that… two dimensional caricature on the floor over there,” she gestured to Viridian, “I’d really appreciate it. It’s kind of insulting.”  

“Layers upon layers…” Vermilion sighed. “No, you’re more equivalent to this child I can’t see, the me-who-I-was…”

The girl nodded slightly. “Now we’re getting somewhere…”

“You say you can’t see,” Switch muttered the correction.

“Child? Sister, what in all the worlds are you talking about?” Viridian, pulling herself upright and dusting her skirts off, glared at the lot of them with affronted dignity.

“Oh, do hush.” Vermilion suddenly sounded very tired. “Axle – you managed to interrupt a transition there. Stop her taking control of our body. If you can remember how that instant felt… that might prove useful. In the meantime…” the mirrors around them swirl and shift… “I need to show you how this works for me.” She glances at Viridian. “For us.”

The mirror that slid into position at her side was tripartite, frame old wood engraved with an ouroboros serpent. Vermilion frowned at it in slight confusion. “Three?”

“Well, of course,” the girl said in exasperation. “You’d think she’d have figured it out by now, she thinks in threes for a reason, look at the qualities she makes…”

“Sister,” Viridan said in a tone of dark suspicion, “that feels like one of mine.”

“Well, yes.” Vermilion smiled impishly. “And no.” And with that she stepped into the mirror, blurring into triplicate, not looking back to see who followed.

“Yeah, No.” Leverage, who had been leaning on the doorframe, picked herself up and began to walk towards Axle. “This has been pretty fun, and fairly illuminating, but did you actually think I would let you find a way to defeat me? You’re not going through that mirror, puppet.” As Leverage walked closer, Axle tried to back away, to get to the mirror, but with panic in her eyes, she found that she could not.

Qualities she makes… Switch had been running over in her mind, running through her memorised lists of qualities in territories for anything that matched before she remembered: a tripartite mirror, in the territory of Abanox the Soulchainer… who was now…  Axle didn’t need to go in, Leverage did.

“Switch…. Help…” Axle was stammering, as Leverage walked closer and closer to her, hand reaching out in a mirror of Viridian’s earlier gesture. Switch, however, wasn’t where Axle’s eyes turned to.  She was, in fact, on the other end of the boot that suddenly struck Leverage from behind in a surprise kick that sent her straight toward the mirror. “She doesn’t need to go through, General.” Leverage was on the edge of the mirror, losing her balance slightly, but before she fell she grabbed at Switchgears arm, a look of triumph in her eyes, and they both fell into the mirror together.

“Oh.” Axle looked around, the landscape, eyes falling on the child, and said “Well, I think four people in one memory is probably a bad plan so I’ll just… um… wait here. With you.”

The girl grinned up at her. “One memory? Well, sort of. And sort of… three memories.” She turned to face the mirror and clapped her hands together, images of elsewhere, elsewhen, appearing on its surface.. “Shall we watch?”

~

One green gloved hand strokes down a young man’s handsome face, ignoring the way he flinches away from the touch. “Silly squirrel,” she scolds him. “I’m here to help…” Green fire trickles from her fingers, burning his wounds shut. He shudders, cries out. “Stop that,” she tells him, pouting. “It’s for your own good, you know. That which does not kill you…”

“Who are you?” His voice is harsh, mistrustful. She cocks her head to one side, considering. Who is she?

“The balm of sorrow,” she tells him, at last, smiling sweetly.

“Then why does it hurt so much?”

“Because you let it. Just like you let her hurt you, chain you… have you no pride?”

He growls at her. She laughs, and walks away. “Ungrateful wretch. You’ll be begging for my help before my sister’s through with you.”

~

She watches from behind her sister’s eyes as her other self, newly created for this purpose, plays out the role. It hurts to let the other-her touch him, offer the aid that she cannot. But she has pushed him too hard, and he isn’t ready to escape her yet. He needs this…even if he doesn’t want it. And her creation isn’t quite what she expected, but there again, good doesn’t have to be nice. Nice is a weakness...

~

'She watches herself watch herself, with an increasing sense of frustration. She’d been so sure that this would make her turn inwards, breach the walls within, but no, she couldn’t do anything the easy way, and now they were three….

~

She stares at her reflection in the mirror, red hair overlaid on the green, and smirks smugly. “You let me out, sister-self. I’m not ready to go back to sleep-”

The image blurs, mirror rippling. “No!”

~

She reaches through the mirror, forcing herself back into the flesh, and sees her sister’s furious eyes glare back at her from the glass. “I created you,” she whispers, “you’re just a mask…” and as the image fades, she even almost believes it.

~

She watches them struggle for dominance, and whispers, nudges, guides. They can’t hear her, can’t see her, but sometimes one at least almost can, and sometimes almost is enough. The walls are weakening. And yet, they hold. She stares out through their eyes, through their mirrors, more real than either of them, and yet more trapped…

~

The three of them tumbled out to find Axle and the child sitting in front of them, Axle’s arm wrapped protectively around her. Axle looked from Vermilion to Switchgear, to Leverage, but she seemed somewhat at a loss for what to say.

Vermilion locked eyes with the child. Colour draining from her face, she dropped to her knees, staring in utter shock at her now-visible younger self. “It worked!” the child exulted. “Well, that bit did at least…”

Axle gave a small half smile, and gave the child a little nudge. “Hey, looks like she could use a hug. From you.”

An instant later, the girl was wrapped around Vermilion, the happy whisper of “youcanseemeyoucanseeme” barely audible to the others. Vermilion stared over her head at Axle, looking something between shocked and terrified, and finally managed to lift one trembling hand to gently pat the girl’s shoulder.

Axle smiled, and went to help Switchgear up from having tumbled from the mirror. She looked up at the Liberator, eyes wide. “So um… how was it? In her head?”

“Like all the other mirrors but in triplicate,” Switch said, wincing at the memory, “Like trying to remember anything from the Front.”

Axle gave her a hug. “Sorry you fell in, but… thanks for stopping Leverage from… well… taking over.”

“Well all I learnt from that experience was that you,” Leverage said, as she gestured at Vermilion, “are insane. What a bloody waste of everyone’s time.”

Axle stopped hugging Switch, and instead, reached out to hold her hand, a slight increase in pressure the only sign that Axle might have been nervous.

“It wasn’t a waste of time, Leverage, because I learnt something. I learnt some stuff about my brain, and Vermilion’s brain, and what things will, and won’t work to keep you out. But I learnt something else as well. You’re like Viridian, you think you’re better than me. And maybe you are smarter, and you broke through Valve’s walls so I guess you’re pretty strong, and you have things I don’t like… memories of a childhood and stuff, but it doesn’t matter.” The hand that wasn’t gripping Switchgear’s like a vice went to Vermilion’s shoulder. “Because I have a friend who was willing to go to the most painful parts of her past just to help me, and another friend who… who sees me as though I glow like hot metal, and those are just the two people who are here with me now. I have friends Leverage. I have a whole society full of people I know have my back, because that’s what being in the People’s Combine is about. Those people think I’m better than you Leverage, and that’s what makes it true. Who the fuck have you got on your side?”

Vermilion and Switch could feel Axle’s heart pumping through her skin. Leverage looked at her with disdain, but she seemed less certain now, less confident than before. “Just because I don’t parade my friends around doesn’t mean I don’t have them.” She retorted, not bothering to hide her disgust.  

“Told you it was magic,” Vermilion grinned cheerfully at Leverage. “She’s found her power now. She isn’t afraid of you any more. Face it, lady – you already lost.” Still clinging to her, the girl nodded agreement and stuck her tongue out.

“You see, Leverage,” Switchgear’s lips had curled into a smirk during Axle’s speech, “this is what I find so attractive about her,” she looked the General up and down, “it’s odd you manage to make the same body so pathetic.”

“What, that she's deluded? Makes sense.” Leverage looked at Axle attempting to look amused, but clearly rattled. “Well, at least now I know where your weaknesses are, I'm sure that will come in handy.”

“Go back to your little corner of my brain Leverage. No one here has anything more to say to you.” Axle gripped switch’s hand tighter as she spoke.

Leverage shrugged, and began to fade, but before she disappeared completely, she turned to look at Switchgear. “Remember what I showed you. Maybe it will explain why I don't think like her” She gestured at Axle, before disappearing completely.

Axle crumpled slightly when she left, as though someone had let the air out of her. She looked up at switch with a puzzled expression. “What she showed you?”

Switch shrugged, “No idea – she insisted I watch a memory but it was just burning airships.  Maybe it was a threat?”

“Time for us to get back to our bodies, do you think?” Despite the words, Vermilion was still holding onto her younger self. “Before any other… complications… arise.” She glanced over to where Viridian had been standing when she went into the memory; Ember grinned back at her briefly, before vanishing into another mirror, dragging a blur of infuriated green.

Axle crouched down. “It’s probably a good idea… if you’re ready?” She looked from Vermilion to the child.

“Go on.” The girl reluctantly drew back. “I’ll be here. Always have been. An’ now you know I’m in here.”

“Knowing’s half the battle,” Vermilion agreed, seemingly equally reluctant to let go.

“‘Sides, you’ve been in here a while by now. That necklace is probably near full-”

And with a worried glance at Axle, Vermilion was suddenly on her feet. “Right, time to go.”

Axle ignored her for a moment, and instead, still crouching, turned to the child, and gave her a warm hug. “Thanks for everything, comrade.”

“I’m still not-” the rest of the halfhearted protest was muffled as she buried her face in Axle’s shoulder.

“Come on, you,” Switch said after a few seconds, pulling Axle away from the child, “let the poor kid breathe or who knows what’ll happen to Comrade Vermil- er, her,” she gestured to the Carrion-Queen, avoiding meeting a gaze.

Axle’s head turned sharply to look at Switch as she stood up, a look of delight in her eyes. She looked like she was about to say something, but instead, bit her lip, and turned, trying to hide her smug grin, to Vermilion. “Ok, so how do we get out of here?”

“The fires here… they’re not real fires.” Vermilion frowned at the closest gout. “Everything’s metaphor, in here… fire is how I see my magic, and my magic is what brought us in here. So we need to follow my magic back out. Go into the fire…”

“The first paradox,” the girl adds, “the first lesson you learnt as a sorceress. The fire is hot, and yet it does not burn…”

“Together, I think. As we arrived.”

“Well, obviously. Togetherness is her power.” The girl gestured to Axle. “An’ you need both to work this, after all.”

“So-” Vermilion frowned, stepping around to the far side of the gout of flame and holding out her hands to them. “If we form the circle again, and step into the flame together, that should bring us… out.” Behind her, the girl rolled her eyes and nodded, looking a lot more sure of it than Vermilion herself.

Axle followed, finding her place not-quite-opposite Vermilion and reaching out her hand, but her face was pale, the memory of the burning academy still fresh in her mind, and she instinctively turned to look at Switchgear, her lips pressed together with unspoken fear.

“Let’s do it then,” Switch said, taking Axle’s hand and thrusting her other toward Vermilion, “is that all?  Are we ready?” Bolstered by Switch’s confidence, Axle nodded.

“On three, then?” Vermilion mustered a smile. “One, two…”

The fire is hot, the old paradox ran through her mind, and yet it does not burn

Warmth, light, the familiar fizz and tingle of magic running over her skin and through her veins. Onwards, upwards, like swimming through the heart of a ruby, the hands clasped in hers the only thing true, the touchstone of the world outside the mind to which they were returning.

And then the sudden, disconcerting flare of true light, as her eyelids finally opened, and she gasped with the shock of the return to the physical; glancing around at the others, hands still clasped, to make sure they were safely returned to themselves. The necklace around Axle’s neck was faintly glowing, almost every once-clear gem now ablaze with crimson fire banked in its heart; Vermilion shivered at the sight of it, realising how long they must have been inside the mindscape.

Axle sank into her chair, heaving a soft sigh of relief. “Well that was intense!” She gave Switchgear a sideways look of curiosity, and then turned to Vermilion, hoping she was less socially oblivious than the average Liberator. “I reckon we could all use a drink..  I don't suppose you would be able to go and find something suitable?” she asked.

Vermilion opened her mouth to say something about sending for servants (in her mind’s eye, a small child folded her arms and glared) and closed it again. Hesitated briefly, wondering about the necklace; but the enchantments should hold, now it was no longer being strained with further inflow, it should be safe enough…

“I think I’ve got another bottle of that red liquor upstairs,” she said instead, pulling herself out of the chair and – somewhat slower than normal, stubbornly refusing to let her footsteps wobble – heading for the door. “Call me if you need me?”

Axle watched her leave, and then turned to Switchgear. “You called her comrade.” It was half statement, half question, a tiny, hopeful smile on Axle's lips.

“I call everyone Comrade,” Switch said defensively, glancing round the Valtarian surroundings, “and you didn’t say we had to stay for drinks…”

Axle raised her eyebrows slightly, giving Switch an admonishing look. “You’ve never called her comrade before. And you walked into that fire without even questioning whether it was a trap…”

“She wouldn’t hurt you, that much is clearly apparent.  It’s still probably part of some sort of plot, but she clearly cares about you enough to expose her deepest flaws in front of me, so…” Switch didn’t bother to finish, “Anyway, I’ve called her Comrade before – plenty of times.”

Axle smiled at her, deciding not to push it any further just yet. “Sure. And yes we are staying for drinks, be rude not to. And anyway, we’re gonna have to stay overnight if you want to see the dragons…” Axle smiled at Switch but her mind was elsewhere, she hadn’t really considered sleeping arrangements, what if Vermilion needed her tonight? She’d be too proud to say so in front of Switch but the thought of leaving her alone after what she had seen today… Sweetie, it’s all about making them think they’re doing something for themselves, not for you. Violet’s sugar-sweet voice popped into Axle’s head, and she considered it. What if I just… switch that around…

“The Dragons,” Switch paused for thought, “actually I should probably go and have a debrief with Wings.  You know, given he’s been on duty for the last 5 years without a proper Liberator briefing. Doesn’t have to be morning for that,” she turned for the door, “but you can have my drink, right?”

“You really want to go wake a sleeping dragon?” Axle said, also standing up, gently, but firmly, placing herself between Switchgear and the door. “It can wait. Vermilion’s alcohol supply is delicious, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on it.”

Switch put her hand on Axle’s arm, catching her eyes properly for the first time since they’d left the magic trip, “Please,” she said, quietly, hearing Vermilion’s steps approaching, “it’s one thing to trust her with the magic, but I can’t have drinks with… Dynamics… it’s all a bit…” she took a deep breath, “it feels like betraying him.  Let me duck out of this one? Please?”

Axle pressed her lips together, but took Switch’s hand, gently. “I know I didn’t know him, but I know how much he cared about Liberating people, and, if we convince her to join, all her petitioners will be liberated. I think… I think he’d be proud of you, if you liberated all those people, with no need for violence or re-education…” She gave the liberator a little half smile. “I’d be proud of you too, for what it’s worth?”  

“The Inner Assembly wasn’t built overnight, Ax,” Switch said, with a grim smile, “but I appreciate what you’re saying: just… let me sort myself out for a bit?  I’ll be back by morning, promise.”

Axle reached up and kissed her cheek. “Ok. Tell Wings I say hello if you see him.” She squeezed Switchgear’s hand before letting go. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said, with a smile, and slipped out the door just before Vermilion returned.

“Found it!” Vermilion smiled brightly, waving a bottle; her smile dimmed only slightly at the sight of the door closing behind Switchgear. “...should I be worried? We’re not going to be interrupted by a torch-waving mob in the next half an hour, are we?” She sounded remarkably unconcerned by the prospect.

Axle smiled, “Nah, she just… needs a bit of time to get her head around everything that happened. I think she’s a bit confused by the fact she doesn’t hate you to be honest…” Axle sat back down and gestured for Vermilion to do the same.

Vermilion smiled, taking her seat. “Confusing day all round, then. That… did not go at all as I expected. Are you alright?” She held out the bottle, smile deepening into the faintest hint of a smirk. “You know… you look good in gemstones. Might want to take that necklace off at some point, though; magic that’s served its purpose can get a little… interesting… if its allowed to hang around.” A thoughtful head-tilt. “Besides, it’s rather more my colour now than yours. I think you’d suit something… a little softer in hue. A warm amber, perhaps?”

“Oh shit, I forgot I was wearing that…” Axle fumbled with the clasp, then dropped the necklace unceremoniously onto a small side table. “And no. Gems are definitely not my thing. I’d break them or something. Anyway…” She took the bottle from Vermilion’s hand and opened it. “How did it feel, using your powers for good?” She gave a smug grin, before taking a large drink from the bottle.

“Weird?” Vermilion shrugged, and almost managed to make pocketing the necklace look casual. “I don’t appear to be terribly good at it, all things considered. That came entirely too close to being an absolute disaster.” She shivered, worried eyes darting over Axle’s form, reassuring herself the other woman was fine. “I should have realised she’d be stubborn…” after all, you are.

Hey. You were great! I got to actually tell her to fuck off… I needed to do that, I think. To be face to face with her and confront her. And no one but you could have made that happen.” She passed Vermilion the bottle, her eyes sparkling happily. “Does that feel good, knowing you helped, or just weird?”

“If I’ve actually managed to help you… then yes, I’m glad of that.” She looked away, trying to ignore the slight flushing of her cheeks as she swigged from the bottle. “Though I think you did as much to help me, during that…”

“I think you helped you.” Axle said resolutely. “You know… there are a lot of folk in my territory who could use that kind of experience. Facing their fears in a… contained environment, with someone to guide them… you could do a lot of good…” She reached for the drink, giving Vermilion an encouraging smile.

“Hmm.” Vermilion looked somewhat dubious. “I wonder if there’s a way to set up a Quality for that sort of thing? What we just did… well, it’s a little… intimate... for rolling out territory-wide. Facing their fears to emerge the stronger for it, though…” She smiled suddenly. “I think that’s a principle I can work with. As ways of helping people go, it’s very Monarch-in-Shadow, isn’t it now? Challenge. Growth. Reward...”

Axle grinned, eyes glittering with excitement. “Ohhhh, we could have a centre, like the stress relief centre. We could combine our tech with your magic to build some sort of machines where people can experience custom built scenarios to deal with their problems. Still probably need you to help with ideas for the sort of things people need, and like, difficult cases and stuff. Ooooo like a special branch of MedCorp. How does… Dreamscape Engineer sound?”

“It’s a good name.” Vermilion nodded thoughtfully, and tried to find the right words. Trying to not hurt people wasn’t something she had much practice at, and trying to find the balance between not hurting Axle now by pushing back too hard on the recruitment effort and not hurting her later by getting her hopes up unduly was something of an effort. “You’re probably going to need quite a few if the issues are widespread. Possible new career path for some of the Hegemonic Engineers, maybe?”

“Yeah, possibly.” Axle frowned, sensing Vermilion wasn’t quite as excited as she was, and suddenly realising why. “I’m not… you know you don’t have to join the combine in order to help its citizens right? If you came to do this… you’d just be a Valtarian who happens to have taken an interest in helping people with their brains. I really meant it, about not pushing you.” She reached for the other woman's hand, squeezing it gently. “I do think you’d be happier in the combine, but it’s your choice to make, and I’m going to wait for you.”

Vermilion flushed slightly in embarrassment, ducking her head away from Axle’s gaze even as she reflexively returned the hand-squeeze. “Happiness isn’t always the point,” she muttered, shaking her head lightly. “But… yes, if you want me to help – as me, not as Viridian or even Ember – then yes, I’ll help.” Her smile, as she looked back up, was fragile.

Axle smile back at her with confidence, and took a rather large swig from the bottle. “Maybe happiness should be the point. At least some of the time.” She stood up abruptly and looked around the library. “So, I’ve no idea how I’m gonna cope tonight after all that. So I’m going to want company, and familiar surroundings. Hmmm.” She walked purposefully over to a corner of the room, and stuck her tongue out in concentration. If looked at sideways on, it still looked like a library, but then, with a turn of the head, bookshelves turned into metal plates, lamps turned into copper pipework, and the comfortable chairs were battered mattresses covered in lumpy sheets and pillows. Axle nodded in satisfaction, and turned to Vermilion. “Care to join me in a traditional combine snuggle pile?”

Vermilion blinked in confusion, turning her head back and forth a few times to see the room shift in her vision, before catching up to the question. “If… you think it will help?” She smiled despite herself, rising from the chair and coming to join Axle. Across the room, there was a sudden enthusiastic squeak, and Codex the rat scampered past her to cheerfully toss himself into the pile of bedding, emerging onto a pillow with another happy squeak and a glance back to see what was keeping them. Axle grinned at the rat, and clambered onto one of the mattresses, testing it’s springs and re-arranging pillows, sheets and rags with a practised expertise until it looked a little more like a nest than it had done. She patted the pile of pillows next to her.

“Come on comrade, it’s comfier than it looks.”

Vermilion shook her head at ‘comrade’, in equal parts amusement and exasperation, but didn’t stop smiling as she somewhat awkwardly climbed onto the heap of bedding.

“You know really, comrade is just another word for friend, right?” Axle said as she snuggled up to Vermilion and wrapped her arms around her.

Vermilion laughed ruefully, slowly relaxing into Axle’s arms. “I think it’s a little more complicated than that…”

“I think maybe it is in your head.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Vermilion sighed softly. “I’m not exactly an expert on friendship, after all…” Gently, tentatively, she reached up to stroke Axle’s hair. “Sleep well… comrade.” The word felt alien on her tongue, and was followed by a self-deprecating chuckle, as she continued to hold Axle close.

~

A few days later, Axle decided, once again, to see if she could shape away the scars on her face. Scrabbling around in the drawers by her bed, she found a battered old mirror she’d shaped from a ration tin. She looked into it, and a familiar face looked back.

“Hello Puppet.” Said Leverage.

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Said Axle.