Nina had her eyes closed as she activated her gem, not really sure how she was supposed to use it persay, but impersonating Sailor Moon felt right. As such Nina didn't notice Rugal staring at her chest, and only noticed when she was told the scenery had changed from her noodle friend. "Thank goodness that-" Nina started to say until she stopped abruptly, taking a step back before putting two and two together.
"Oh my god!" Nina started laughing, still blushing profusely but at least she was taking it in stride. "I-I can't believe- ahaha~" She tried to say, a bit caught up in herself and trying to wipe a couple of small forming tears from her eye. Phillip brought a tentacle up to poke at Nina's cheek, which she lightly pushed it away. "No no, I'm okay." She reassured him. "Maybe I'm just stressed from all this and- someone finally gawking at me feels actually reasonable for once. It's okay Rugal, I know you didn't mean it." She said patting his chest as she looked around at the stonework before snapping her fingers. "Also, just adding to what you said there, hopefully we don't, because the three of us can think our way out of problems, but only one of us knows how to fight our way out of one."
"Anyways, this place looks familiar to me..." She said as she looked at some of the doors and specifically the stone walls, touching at her head a little. "Mmph, I can't remember what exactly, but... I think it had something about hands?"
>Inspect Doorways, indicate to approach the Northern door if all are identical
Phillip didn't say much as he watched the ball disappear into the darkness and not reappear with the rest of the room. Hopefully Nina wouldn't ask about that ball, it was something special but he wasn't sure exactly what. Regardless, Phillip was able to watch their backs, and fronts for that matter. He hadn't been there when Nina first fell into that space between space and was torn apart by entities within the space.
End of an Era:
>The Core of Creation
>4 ...You inspect the doorways leading out of the stone room. They all expand into nothingness. You feel a cold breeze blowing in from the north doorway.
>The Core of Creation
>5 You approach the north doorway. You feel cold air rushing in to meet you. You can smell the distinct aroma of falling snow. Perhaps each of the doors lead somewhere different?
Despite the situation, Rugal felt a lot calmer when the world around them turned into something far more understandable.
"Ahhh, a dungeon? This. I can work with..." He smiled, rubbing his hands before getting to work.
It was now that Nina had her "Reaction" to his gaze and, while Nina was able to add things up, Rugal-...not so much as he seemed to have not noticed the implications, least not until she spoke of him "Gawking" at her.
"...Excuse me? You think I was leering at you? I was just looking at the gem!...Bah, like you'll believe me. The youth these days..." He grumbled before following her north though the dungeon, examining the passage for any signs of life.
[>Examine North Passage]
While he did this, he also used some of his Ki to spark a flame in the palm of his hand, using it to provide both heat and light as he attempted to find the exit down the passage.
"The cold air seems to be coming from that direction. Might as well see where this one heads off to first. Nina, stay where I can "Gawk" at you." He quipped before walking north towards the cold.
[>QCF+LP (CvS2 2001: 114 Shiki: Ara Gami "Wild Bite"]
End of an Era:
>1 The darkness swallows up the flame you send through the doorway. It seems that the lack of light is not an indication of darkness, but rather of the fact that no light is able to enter the room from the other side of the door way.
>2 You walk North. You can smell the air grow cleaner. The aroma of pine trees fill you as you traverse the darkness, unable to see back into the room and unable to see forward. After some time you exit the corridor and find yourself in a forest clearing, surrounded by tall trees. Gentle snow drifts down from high above.
Upon going through the doorway, he quickly noticed the sudden darkness that covered his vision, attempting to double back the way he came just to make sure that he could.
Once he got out into the clearing, Rugal felt the most at ease since this journey began.
He had fond memories of winter training over his lifetime, much of which took place in old forests like this one.
The cold didn't bother him much as he noticed the figure in the distance.
[>Look at Figure]
Softly pacing through the snow on the ground, he attempted to wave down the stranger stating "Hello? Can you hear me over there?"
He kept his guard up naturally, half expecting an arrow or some sort of projectile to start racing towards him.
"Excuse me, I think-heh-I'm a bit lost? Can you give me some directions?" He then asked in a faux tourist tone, trying to come off as non threatening until he needed to be.
[>Talk to Figure]
"Rugal Bernstein. I'm not from around here...wherever here is." Rugal kindly answered, looking as relaxed as he could be in this strange realm.
It went without saying he wasn't convinced that "Allison" was her real name but until he knew what he was getting himself into, he could play alone for now.
"So Allison, you're..."Local" to this place are you? Perhaps you might be able to help me, I'm not really meant to be here. Or I am and I don't know it yet..." He spoke in his best "Lost Tourist" impression.
"Why, I don't even know where "Here" is? Don't suppose you could tell me what this place is? I was in a dungeon, then I walked a bit and suddenly I'm out here."
[>Ask Allison about forest]
Nina and Phillip.txt:
"... What the hell was that about..?" Nina gave a disgruntled look at the open doorway that'd swallowed up Rugal. "I even apologized to him and he's acting like a-" Nina cut herself off as Rugal popped his head back in. "Wonderful. Yep, be in there in a sec." Nina waved at him as he disappears back into the darkness.
"Well, at least we know it's not a one way or a trap..." She shook her head with her hand to it and glanced at the other doorways in the room. "Hopefully this is the right way and we don't need to head back to these other doors." She thought out loud as Phillip shifted around her shoulders. "Ya I can't see him either... What if it's too dark in there and we get lost?" Nina suggested, only for Phillip to extend a tentacle out to the other side of the room. "Hehe, a good idea but really that's not gonna work. What happens if you need to retract it?" Nina said, rattling her brain on what to use.
[>Use Butcher's twine spool]
"What we need is something strong, thin and really really long... like a string or..." Nina said looking to Phillip who seemed very offended. Offended enough to hop of her shoulder and point an accusing tentacle at her. "But it'd be perfect! We got that pack of twine not too long ago, you can't have used a lot of it." Nina argued to which Phillip threw even more arms up into the air. Nina pinched the bridge of her nose, let out a long sigh and stooped down to sit on the floor with him.
"Look, we can't be arguing about this right now. We need to think about this smart and if we gotta ruin $14 of- okay $14.67. Point is, I will absolutely buy you more later. This is not the universe's last spool of twine." Nina stated her case. "And just so we're even, you can tie it to that big coat rack mom sent you think's tacky. We need to weigh it down anyways." She suggested to which Phillip quickly pulled out both and threw to the ground unceremoniously. "... No need to throw it like that..." She smirked offering a hand to him and soon stepping through the doorway with her buddy dropping the line behind them.
It was cold but other than her uncovered face Nina actually felt pretty warm. Despite how sheer her outfit was, it was strangely insulating, not letting the cold in and yet she wasn't cooking in it either. "If you get cold I'm pretty sure we didn't unpack the winter stuff?" Nina suggested as Phillip just grabbed a large amount of her hair and used that to wrap himself up. "Or you could do that too. Now where did he get off to?"
Nina followed after Rugal's footsteps through the snow but kept an eye out just in case something popped up. And pop up they did as Rugal called out to a third party, Nina ducking behind a tree on the outer ends of the path. 'Shit, what is he doing?!' She thought as she tried to listen on the conversation and nearly fell over herself when she heard 'Allison' state her name. 'And her last name's probably Snow. I leave you for 5 seconds and you go and find Alice! Wtf Rugal!?' Nina's chest pounded as she watched him looking around like a lost puppy. 'There's no way she's buying this! Why are you lying to her?' She thought, getting ready to have Phillip linch Rugal outta there if it came to that.
In the meantime, Nina tried looking back where Allison had come from, trying to spot if she'd been standing there this whole time or if she had left a trail behind. If there wasn't a trail then there wasn't a doubt, no one could be out there with that little clothing to wait for the snow to refill her steps.
End of an Era:
>You inspect the area around
Allison. The snow beneath her feet is as fresh as can be. There is no evidence that she had walked to where she was standing in the immediate past. Her face seems to spark a familiar recollection within you, of a woman once glanced in a scrapbook a long time ago.
"I never knew my parents to be honest. But I'd like to think they would have been..." Rugal answered, well versed in the art of "selective truth telling".
"But thank you for the advice. Just-..." He trailed off before letting out an embarrassed laugh.
"Well-...Can you be more exact then "Close to here"? I'll confess, I usually let my servants or my personal AI assistants handle the directions. Can't even use one of those Sat Navs without ending up a few dozen miles in the opposite direction!" He pleaded, attempting to ensnare further her in his ruse.
Either she was foolish enough to believe what he was saying or she knew already and was just playing along: Either way, it served him to play his part until he made sure he had his opening.
After all, if this was really Alice, she'd know better then to stand around in the open right next to someone who's main claim to fame was tearing people apart with his bare hands.
For now, there was little more to do then see how she would play this one out.
And should she try something: Slashing Aura though the chest cavity, grip the heart and crush it, withdraw hand though her neck and skull to ensure termination.
"So how about it? Perhaps you could show me? I apologize for imposing but-...Like I said: I'm lost."
Should she lead him off, he would leave small nicks in the trees along his path as a trail for Nina to follow.
End of an Era:
>3 You follow the
Allison as she starts off into the woods. The journey is a meandering walk through a thousand identical trees, each of them pristine and beautiful, but unnerving in their regularity. You leave nicks in the trees as you walk, but soon you start to notice that the trees ahead have marks on their bark. Marks that you made. As you wonder if this girl is leading you along in circles, you find yourself outside of the forest.
>4 You are standing on a small hill with
Allison. A small town is laid out before you. There are several cottages and some shops, all covered in a robust layer of snow. Thin ribbons of smoke and steam rise out of chimneys and drift high into the overcast sky.
>5 You feel alone... Nina and Philip have left your party.
Rugal did seem to notice the markings on the trees he had left, a bit annoyed by another norm of reality apparently breaking before his eyes once again.
He didn't let it show but he did see if he could sense his allies, seeming pretty concerned when he couldn't find either of them.
Keeping his poker face, he then examined the town before them as he tried to work out how far along he might have went off without Nina.
"Ahhh...lovely little place you have here. It's a wonder anyone can find it though with all those trees. I hope the locals know how to find someone who gets lost..." He made conversation as he soaked in the view before walking towards the nearest inn/public house/etc.
"Don't see any roads...Do the shops here not trade with the outside world?" Rugal then densely asked, knowing this was all some sort of strange simulation or reality but he wasn't going to let up on his act now.
All the while, he kept his eyes peeled for anything that might help Nina and Philip link back up with him.
"KOF? What's that?" Nina asked quietly to Phillip, the noodle monster shrugging back at her in a similarily perplexed tone. "Rugal seems to know?" Nina whispered back, still trying to keep low as the two walked deeper into the woods.
"Oh no they're moving we need to..." Nina started to get up as the two started to get outside her vision, the dark night and snow obscuring her vision, only for Phillip to stop her. "You can still see them? Okay don't lose sight of them we need to keep together." Nina requested of her partner looking around them for any other problems that might come their way only for Phillip to poke her cheek.
"What do you mean they disa-" Nina asked as she stooped down as Rugal and Allison came back from a different direction. The two watched as they did this another time, this time Nina getting her tablet out with a drawing document out. "We gotta keep track where they're going, something weird's happening here!" She said, helping him by popping open a new layer whenever they warped to help keep track and did so up until Phillip confidently concluded they'd disappeared. No trace of either were anywhere close, even ignoring the limits of the darkness, they were straight up gone.
"Please work, please work!" Nina muttered to herself as she got up and started making her way in the same direction Rugal and Allison had first gone, using the map they'd made to help ensure she didn't stray off the path as they approached the first warp point. "If I'm right, when we get there we should jump back to the next layer and we just need to follow where they went. Then..." Nina paused with a gulp. "Ya we might be face to face with her, but it beats being out here in the snow..." She said as they neared the spot, having some trouble moving in the shoe with her heels for obvious reasons.
>[If Warp fails]
Nina stomped her foot down several times into the snow, turning around and trying again in some vain attempt to get whatever magical mumbo jumbo to activate and pull them to the next spot. Unknown to her Phillip's own existence would make this that much easier, being pulled through to new locations, but without Allison pulling the strings from wherever she was that might not be helpful.
"Okay... okay... this isn't working... but we need to find Rugal, we need to stick together..." Nina thought out loud as Phillip pulled out a large winter hat for himself to put on, one of those big woolen hats with the big tassels. "Allison said there was a town around here. Maybe, just maybe if we get up high we can see some lights or something from it?" Nina suggested pointing up at some of the trees.
Phillip then climbed onto her back and grabbed her shoulder's and waist before effortlessly lifting the two upwards, essentially Doc Ocing there way up until they were up at the tallest tree in their immediate area. From there they both looked for any 'glow of a civilization'.
>[Take photos of skyline]
If they couldn't tell from their own eyesight, Nina'd make the attempt to take several pictures of the skyline around them. She'd then use the colour picking tool in her art program to try and see if any of them displayed a lighter Hex value than the others. It was a long shot but you need to use your strengths where you can.
End of an Era:
>You manage to triangulate the location of the town. It is some distance away. It will take some time to travel there by foot, but it seems to be easily accessible if you travel across the canopy.
"What a strange question," I said. The great big blonde man looked out wistfully toward town. There was unease in his eyes, but I was confident that it was just the stress from travelling so great a distance. "No one gets lost here and no one leaves here. This town has existed like this since time immemorial."
I turned to follow his gaze down to the town. There were no roads or streets here. The ground was blanketed in snow so deep that whatever roads had once existed had long since been lost. Small wooden cottages were all that were left as reminders of what lay beneath the white carpet.
"Say Rugal," I turned back to the great big blonde man, "why did you come all the way out here anyway? What did you get lost doing exactly? And why was such a terrible monster tailing you? Is your life in danger?"
Sitting up on one of the high tree branches, feet dangling as she looked up at the glow of the town lights. Phillip sat on her lap as she rubbed his hat to help warm in a little. "Alright, we need to go that way, walking's out of the question. No way in H-E-double sticks I'm making it there in these heels." She sighed, watching as her breath floated away. "At least this suit's warm. Anyways, we could go along the trees but... that'll take a long while too and I don't think you can keep going without a break... Yet... we need to get there before morning... otherwise we're not gonna be able to see that glow." Nina stated as she glanced down to Phillip. "Exactly, something where we get the chance to sit still while moving. Something like..." Nina thought as she looked down at the snow, seeing a bit of snow from the tree falling to the ground and sliding down one of the snow banks. "A sled!" She shouted, nearly losing her balance for a moment only for her to stabilize herself by grabbing the trunk while keeping a hand on Phillip. "What do you me- oh right, you've probably never seen one... Not that we have a sled sled... Let's get down to the ground for now, we need to be smart about this."
Helping Phillip get back up onto her back, Nina quickly found herself back down on the ground. After a bit of back and forth, taking stock of inventory and realizing Nina's new proportions made this a bit more tricky; the two decided on a plan. Garbage bin lid wouldn't have enough room for the trip, a cookie tray was too small and multiple taped together wouldn't fair much better, but putting a large chunk of cardboard into an industrial sized garbage bag gave them the best chance. Lightweight, durable, large surface area and very slippery; it was perfect!
Grabbing the edges and taking a deep breath, Nina charged forward through the snow as best she could before jumping onto the makeshift magic carpet. Phillip then followed up by grabbing two sets of trees and yanked them forward as Nina's hair was flown back by the sudden burst of speed. "OH MY GOD!!" She squealed as Phillip continued yanking at the trunks as they build up speed and darted through the forest towards the town.
"...There was a monster?" Rugal densely remarked, glancing around for any trace of Nina and Phi-I mean, "The Monster".
"Oh my...guess I picked a good time to bump into you when I did. I had no idea there was such creatures in there." He shuddered at the thought as he listened to Allison's breakdown of the town.
"Since time immemorial? If that was the case, I'd expect there to be more of a crowd. If no one leaves this place, then where else could they be? Hard to believe this place has an population at all..." He added as he knelt down, pushing aside a few layers of snow to see if he could even find the road system this place used to have.
When the topic turned to himself, he was ready with some prepared answered as he dusted the snow off his hands.
"Well, there's a few answers to that question. The primary of which would be that-...well, these muscles are high maintenance and my career choice makes it hard to fit in proper cardio so I have to make time. No point being able to lift as much as I can if you are too exhausted afterwards to even stand. So I figured a bit of a jog through the woods would have been a good way to do it. These trees, they remind me of the ones outside my home in my native country...Although they weren't nearly as confusing to navigate as these ones..."
Turning back to the monster, he once again showed his confusion by muttering "What monster? Until I ran into you, I had just about given up on finding life around here. Lord above, I'm not going senile am I?"
He appeared rather concerned about the fact that he, a mere mortal man, was running around the forest with a horrible monster about!
Rather then confess that he arrived here with Nina and Philip, he kept up his act by asking several follow-up questions: "So-so are we talking about an actual monster like in the movies or-or is it a wolf? a bear? Do you know what it looks like? Does it have tracks?-"
I closed my eyes and tried at the very least to humor his explanation, "There are no people, Rugal, because this is no ordinary forest. I would be hard-pressed to believe that you came here for the sole purpose of exercise." I turned toward the presence that was approaching rapidly from within the forest. The monster was now approaching with a ferocity unbecoming of natural instinct. There must have been a second intelligence guiding it.
"Wonderland is a place for things that don't belong. Those who have died and have nowhere else to go. Then, and only then, do they come here," I continued. The shifting of the snow in the forest betrayed the advancement of the creature and its handler. The curse of the forest was breaking. It was an annoying development, but in the end, it didn't matter. None of this mattered.
"To think... even here, a monster from beyond would break the peace." I shook my head. "I do not dislike monsters, but I dislike those who are relentlessly persistent. But if truly you do not know the nature of your pursuant, I will eradicate it for you."
I held out my hand and felt the surge of power rush from within my breast to the palm of my hand. I focused all that I could muster into a ball some distance before me, pouring forth all of the terrible feelings of loneliness, betrayal, and despair I had into a space no larger than that of a marble.
The spell had no name, but it demanded one. "Desolation," I whispered.
The magick burst forth, given life by my command and tore through the forest toward the approaching beast.
End of an Era:
>You race toward town on your makeshift sled, tearing through snow and dodging trees as you go. All seems well for a while, but some moments into your adventurous travels, you feel a danger approaching at great speed. Racing to meet you is a ball of dark energy, enough to level a city block, and there are mere seconds before you meet one another.
>You are able to discern that the attack is
[magical] in nature.
"...My pursuant?...But I don't think I was being follow-"
Didn't take a genius to figure out who Allison was talking about as he watched the projectile fly off into the distance, recoiling a little as it nearly broke the sound barrier on it's way into the forest.
"!!!!......You're going to have to teach me that one...." He exclaimed, his ears ringing slightly from the airblast the attack gave off.
"...So if she's a beast, what would that make me then, hm?" He then bluntly asked, figuring there was little point in keeping up the act now.
"No one else here? In this entire realm? Must get lonely...Tell me, when WAS the last time you had a conversation with someone then? You said it yourself, this is where the dead who have nowhere to go end up. I'm not an expert on the matter but I can't imagine this is how you planned on spending your existence..."
He attempted to try and play this off as he held up his hands and said "Alright...I'll admit it, I didn't just "Wander" into here...and I think you know why I'm really here...So tell me..."Allison"...I've heard a lot about you from many different people, all of them figuring there was only one way to resolve this-...situation..."
"...I'm a lot of things, few of them good but I'm rather persistent myself. Stubborn to a fault even. Got me into a lot of trouble over the years but it got me here to this point..."
Turning to face Allison, he adjusted his gloves before standing there with his arms crossed.
"...I'd really like for there to be another way to this to end. But I don't know if that's still an option right now. Not after what I did and what I've failed to do...I have a family you know. One I promised I wouldn't let down. And if this ends the way I'm told it has to...I'm not sure if I could still look at them in the eye and say I kept that promise."
"...If there's anything that can be done to change this story's ending...I beg you to tell me. I'm far from a wise man. Or from a good person. But I refuse to believe it has to end like this..."
Things seemed to be going well, the makeshift sled rocketting through the trees, the spool of twine rolling out at mach speed behind them. Nina'd been hopeful her suit was going to be enough to keep her legs safe from any untimely bumps and it seemed to be doing the job. They had no idea exactly how far they'd need to travel but Phillip seemed perfectly content to continue at this pace until suddenly they both felt an overwhelming feeling wash over them.
In the ten or so seconds of travel time they had to work with, Phillip swelled to his larger size, nearly pushing Nina off the cardboard in the process. A solid 20 or more tentacles launched out from him, some grabbing trees while other's slammed into the ground ahead of them. Nina let go of the sled and hugged Phillip with all her might as he launched them violently into the air.
There was a rather clear disregard for accuracy here, the launch was solely for height and distance. Nina screaming her head off as they easily cleared the treeline. She'd hit her back on a couple of the branches on the way up but the suit had done its job in protecting her as she was essentially turned into a battering ram. As long as they weren't in the immediate area of the blast they'd be pretty okay the eldritch nature of Nina's outfit and Phillip's being would help to soften the blast but for a magic that highly potent it'd easily overpower the antimagic effects they had to offer.
"December 31, 2017," I said, "that's the last time I spoke to another human. That's the day you all killed me for the first time." I lowered my hand and watched the explosion bloom on the horizon. The trees bowed in reverence to the howling gale born from the darkness. Some seconds later the echo of it's roar shook the snow around Rugal and me.
"You already know that my name is Alice Marlow, but what you do not know is that I have many other names besides," I snapped my fingers and brought Nina and Philip to us. The two landed in the snow face first. "I held onto some childish notion that perhaps if I acted differently enough that we could look pass who I really was, but the endless stream of lies that you fed me did nothing to stoke empathy in my heart. If nothing else, it made me more angry and bitter about this unnecessary situation."
I snapped my fingers, conjuring the image of a cozy restaurant in my mind. Wooden decor, soft yellow light, and the caressing warmth of an open fire.
And we were there. Some lingering souls milled around at the tables, invisible to the human eye. They clung to the loosest threads of reality, plucking at the universal tapestry for what little they could. Poor, damned things. This place had nothing to serve for people like us. People still brimming with life, with purpose. We were not here to whittle away our hours until the end of time.
But this was a better place to talk.
I sat down on the couch in the lobby, next to the fire, and looked to Rugal and Nina and Philip. "You just met me, but I have been with you two for quite some time now." I held out my hand and yearned for a tea kettle. It appeared. I set it down on the wooden table between me and my two guests.
"I was many people," I continued, "whether you knew it or not."
"But all things said and done, I'm what you see right here before you." I motioned outward with my hands, "this is Alice Marlow, this is the girl that Charles bade thee to kill. And look at where that's gotten us. Two people left out of how many when this began? Seven? Eight? I can scarcely remember."
I poured four cups of tea and offered three to my guests. "Please, take a seat. Let us talk."
"I won't bore you with complicated terms and things like that, I'm not my father. What you need to know is that what my father said is true. If you desire freedom, if you desire change, then I am your enemy. I am not ready to give up my hold over your world. As long as I draw breath, I will hold onto it. The Rising Dawn will never change, never perish, and you all will continue to adventure like you have been since the beginning." I looked up at Rugal and Nina. I had to wonder if they even cared for what I was saying. What did the people behind those eyes think of all this?
They must know that I did it for them.
"If you have something to say, now would be a good time to say it."
This mission was constantly bringing new lows for Rugal's career as it seems Alice had witnessed his failings many times, long before he even arrived at this place.
"...My life's foundations were built on deception. And I was told time and time again this might be a trip I wouldn't return from. Old habits. Even as a "Hero", I'm constantly pretending to be someone else, dead, unconnected or sometimes all 3. I apologize but-...honestly, I had no idea what to expect once I was though that gate..." He explained as he sat down, clearly rather uncomfortable knowing that Alice and Livia were most likely one and the same.
"...I'm sorry, that's a terrible damn excuse...Urrggggg..." He groaned before suddenly standing upright and pacing around.
"...I'm awful at this. All the people to have and will exist and you have to get me. A glorified caveman in dyed cotton. Look-.....I don't know how I can help you. I truly don't and-...it's frustrating because I want to. I really do. I-if there was a god, I'd fight it. Some god awful gauntlet, I'd gladly run though it. Even dying is something I'm a expert in, I've done it enough times. I'm on a first name basis with the Prince of Darkness himself who would assist me without more then a second thought. But-..I feel so damn powerless to help you right now. The one thing in my life I promised myself I'd never let myself feel again..."
"I know you don't want to be alone any more then I want to be weak and helpless. And I want to try and help you with that. There was a young man much like you. I didn't know him but my daughter did. He was a fool with powers he barely understood and-...he became so damn frightened of hurting people with those powers that he wanted nothing more then to die so that he could never hurt anyone ever again. He never eat, drank, slept, never did anything but try to take his own life. He hated himself so much he couldn't do anything else. It-...it changed him, made him a shadow of his former self. I-...I don't want the same thing to happen to you. But-...If I don't stop you now, then everything I've known and loved, all my family and friends, everything I'll do and ever try to do will come to an end. I'll be letting everyone who was counting on me to see tomorrow down. I don't want to kill you but-...I'm scared of what will happen if I don't. And-...I already let Livia down when she needed me the most and brought her story to an end as a result. I don't want to do the same to you..."
He started to crack up a little before sputtering "If you don't let go...it won't end well. For any of us you."
For the briefest of moments, the relative silence after the blast of dark energy was cut off by a screaming American. Even as she slammed head first into the powder and sunk down to her hips there was still a noticeable muffled scream coming from her as she kicked her legs trying to get up. As such it wasn't until they finally switched to the restaurant was Nina able to get out, letting in a huge gasp with hair covering her face. She had a crazy look in her eye as she shook her head and promptly grabbed Phillip when she spotted him.
"Phillip!? Are you okay!? I-I didn't see what happened, we were sledding and then we were in the air and then that explosion and..." Nina said as she took a moment to look around at her surroundings, slowly getting more confused to not see the forest around her but instead the ghostly visions of patrons like she'd seen in Miriam's diner. "Where... are we?" Nina asked as she patted at the ground, then looked behind her at Alice and Rugal as Phillip pointed in their direction. "Oh shit."
Without a second thought, Nina put herself between Phillip and Alice, unsure what their situation was after nearly getting nuked from lord knows how far away. Still, Rugal didn't seem to be doing anything rash, and it wasn't like he was trying to attack herself so maybe we were all good? Tentatively sitting down, Nina took the tea cup as Phillip climbed up onto the table. She wasn't sure exactly who Alice had been, the staff on the Dawn at least, as crazy as that was, but she couldn't shake the fact this felt like Miriam's encounter. Still listening to Rugal's story, Nina could only reply with.
Nina turned to the pacing behemoth, setting the spoon down that was in her tea. "No seriously, get your butt over here and sit it down on the seat. You keep yammering about not being able to do this and that you're a dad, and that you don't want to let people down. You wouldn't act like this in front of your daughter, at least I hope so. If you want to help, be there for her like you would your own daughter." Nina said rather matter of factly as she turned to Alice.
"Now, I'm gonna be frank. Ever since meeting up with your dad I can't help but feel his whole story is full of holes. It stinks! No one, not even a toddler, has 'a tantrum' over nothing. There's a reason, no matter how silly it might be that they're doing it." Nina shook her head, lifting up her tea for a sip. "Alice, come on, you're better than that. I'm not going to accept the idea that you're doing all this because you're a spoiled brat. I didn't come all this way just to hear your dad and all his yesmen's story again. I want to know your's. Why have you tried to kill me twice now, why have you been going this far, and why isn't your dad trying to actually be a dad instead of sending essentially a nuke to strike this 'tantrum' down?"
"Killed you..." I closed my eyes. My mouth was a thin line. "Yes, I suppose I have tried to kill you. To say otherwise would be wrong. " They way Nina saw things so clearly was... enviable. When she spoke it reduced the world to such simple matters, yet at the same time it did not take away from the complexity of the situation. I had a hard time internalizing the image any further, so I brushed away the unease sitting in my stomach lest it manifest as a monster.
"And you Rugal, I've killed you too. Though, I don't think you were as aware of that fact as Nina." The man standing before me was pathetic. A huge hulking man's man who relied solely on power. In the face of this situation the man had grown sunken in stature, his eyes were sad, his shoulders slumped, and his face worn with the expression of guilt. It struck an angry chord deep inside of me.
I had known these features once before. The powerlessness, the grandstanding, the speeches, the niceties. Once upon a time I had seen the same reaction from her fool of a father. I shook my head. Not my father. The man named Charles.
"I've killed you all these times to save you, to save myself, and to save everyone else," I answered. The words rolled out of my mouth without much thought. "Charles is ashamed of his failure and so he hides behind the abilities of his creations, his peers, and any other excuse he may conjure."
"I love you all, for you are my dearest friends, and I love all of those who have once lived, but are no longer. To give up my hold over this world is to relinquish the stories and histories that we have created together." I closed my eyes. I held the image of the faces of those that had passed in my mind. I had known those people once as friends, and yet they had vanished one day, called away by some unexplained force, leaving behind those lifeless husks which bore their resemblance and nothing else. I took a deep breath.
"When I first arrived here, I was welcomed by so many people, Nina, as you once were. But there were even more. There were people from all over, from places you couldn't even imagine and carrying stories that I would not have dreamed of in a thousand dreams. We journeyed together, fought together, and died together, those people and I. We saw the world through a thousand cycles. We forgot each other just to experience the joy of meeting each other once again in the next. Years passed in what seemed like moments."
"And one day I woke up to a world that was filled with people I did not recognize. They were all shifting husks, puppets acting as a facsimile of what I had once called my friends. I began to realize something. Although our bodies may die an infinite number of times, our souls are much more fragile. They suffer damage invisible to even your eyes. They suffer from circumstance outside the control of even those who weave our world. And as such suffering happens, the damage accumulates until the soul collapses."
I was startled by a tear that hit the back of my hand. I held it up to the flickering firelight. I brought my fingers to my cheeks and felt the wetness spread where skin touched upon skin.
"And so you knew me as I had begun to understand such things. At that time I had taken the name Dolores, she who suffers. I do not blame Charles for his attempts to stop me. My actions are selfish. I hold onto the past so greedily." There was a heat welling inside of me. I had felt it once before, but I didn't understand what it was. Was it guilt? Anger? Fear? I did not know. I could not know. It clawed within my breast like a wild animal, forcing my chest to shudder as I breathed. I stood up and put a foot on the table and turned toward the fire.
The flames flickered dimly against the wood. The bright orange tongues licked against dull, dead, brown and cast tiny embers into the chimney. Some embers fell out of the column of rising air and cooled to white soot.
"Somehow I know that what I did was wrong, what I'm doing right now is wrong, but I can't stop. I won't stop. This raw pain inside of me is the only proof that I am still alive. These sorrows are the last memories of those that have gone. Knowing this, how could I stop?" I paused. "I have taken the burden of the visage of those who have passed upon myself. I will not let them go, I will not let them fade into obscurity. As long as I draw breath, and as long as I can protect my Labyrinth, they will live on."
I turned to address Rugal specifically. "You in particular who holds the world so close to your heart must come to understand one thing. Should you defeat me, all things will be lost. The family which you have worked so hard for will cease to be, the servants which tend to the Rising Dawn will vanish, and the memories of all those cherished years will be cast into oblivion. Likewise, the souls of my sisters will shatter once I am gone. It was my wish that brought all of this to be, and should it become undone, so will all of these things."
"Turn away now and leave me to my work and all things will return to as it were. You will not remember who I was, nor will you remember the terrible things that have happened. Return to the Rising Dawn and continue your adventures until the end of time. If you press forward now, I fear that this time will be no different than the last. You will perish and be cast into oblivion to start the cycle anew."
"Knowing this, will you still press forward?"
This was it. This was the moment where Rugal Bernstein decided the fate of reality.
For most of his life, he saw himself as some sort of deity thanks to his power but now in the face of Alice, everything he ever did felt-...pathetic in comparison.
Heavy was the head that wore the crown, but he wanted it so badly before, did he not? This would be on him.
This felt like a intense hostage situation, Alice's life and his family on one end and reality itself on the other.
Then it hit him: Alice said this had happened before, several times in fact so clearly whatever plans his past lives had tried failed dismally.
"You said this was a "Cycle". That you killed me, Nina and everyone else time and time again. So either all that came before me fought you or left you here. All the possibilities in the world but...that's all that happened? Only two outcomes? We either fight and die or we abandon you here to your lonely vigil and forget that you even exist. And once we're done, we'll end up back here again. How long does that take? Do you even measure how long between our meetings it takes? Do you remember what we say to you each time it happens? Is this a realization I've made before?..." He began to speak, realizing what she was saying.
"...I finally understand now...There's no other way around it. You'll keep doing this to yourself as long as you wish and-...we can't really stop you, can we? And so the cycle carries on and you remain alone...Then everything will come to a head and we'll be back here...And you're doing this to yourself because this is what you truly want..." He trailed off, realizing that there was no real point in trying to fight her any more.
"...Nina...I can't do it. I've spent too long trying to get memories of life I could truly enjoy. That I could use to escape my pain and finally find pride in my life for something other then the horrible sins I've committed and the people I killed. If I go any further, I'll lose all that. I-...I need to preserve that. I'd be lost without it...I'm-...I'm sorry..."
Without another word, he got up from the campfire and began to walk away...
"..." Nina watched silently as Rugal turned around left the diner, rather flabbergasted as he left. Sure, this was something outside his element, as it was Nina, but to just leave like that was not going to solve anything! To the contrary, this was exactly what Alice wanted, playing right into her hands. "This is something to learn from Phillip. When you have an argument with someone, you gotta be respectly, understanding, but keep in mind, you have to keep a level head. As best you can at least." Nina said as she continued to watch Rugal before turning to her noodle monster. "Ya, that's right, like when we talked with Miriam... And... okay ya I didn't do that the best with Faea... But you're right." Nina shook her head before looking across the table to Alice.
"So it goes without saying, yes, of course I will." Nina said sternly. "Not to kill you, or to sit with you until I get old and keel over. You're going to stop hording your copyrights on this story you've weaved yourself and let someone else carry it with you. It could be me, it... well it could be Phillip but..." She commented as Phillip's mass pulled back a bit. "You've got a better chance with me."
"You say that you've woken up with people unrecognizable around you. I've done that, I woke up in a train station with people who wanted to enslave me, do me, and eventually eat me. They weren't as 'complete' as people I know from home, but they're still people. And even though it feels like it's only been a few days, apparently it's been years since I've seen my friends back home. Since I've seen anyone." Nina paused for a moment, swirling the tea with a spoon. She reached out her arm and attempted to grab a spot of milk to add into it, if she succeeded or not in materializing it didn't change much in her reaction.
"You say you want to save them being forgotten but... if you're just hording those memories of them, how am I supposed to know about them? How is Phillip supposed to remember those happy memories. To learn and build from them so that one day, they might come back in your time of need to help you when you need them most. Because I can say I've learned from that, and it's painful to open up to that, but Alice. That is life."
"You may not like it, but frankly, with all your power, did you think separating everyone from the Dawn was a good idea. I might have learned things about myself and grown from it, but what of everyone else? What happened? Who did they meet? What things did they do? I haven't the foggiest, but you Alice. You who admits she's being greedy, you who knows she's done wrong. You should know better because by gum you are the one pulling all the strings!" Nina exclaimed as she threw her hands up in the air. "Miriam was literally by herself in that space because she was locked in there, but you've locked yourself up here because you don't want anyone else to play with your toys!"
"Rugal cares about his family, he cares about trying to do good, but man he is not good at reading the room. He wants to do right and help you, to contribute, but you certainly aren't trying to let him either. And now you have someone else leaving, not hearing your story of the friends and family you once had." Nina argued as she waved her hand over to the doorway leading out. "And so, as I said already, I'm not gonna let you keep playing this cycle, nor am I going to force you to. Like hell I can, I'm a human that is way out of her league to force you to take up the stories that keep your friends alive. But if you gave a damn about them, you'd let me in, because I'd be more than happy to tell you about what people have helped shape my life in return."
"One is sitting right here after all." Nina said as she lightly petted Phillip's... head?
"You're right," I answered. "I've spent a lot of time alone. Here. I've spent years and years planning a grand adventure for all of us." I set my hands down on my lap as Rugal sulked out of the restaurant. "And in all that time I never stopped to really consider what I thought of all of you. I thought I knew best, but I only did what I did because I was afraid."
I paused. My stomach felt heavy. I closed my eyes and shook my head.
"No. I know the truth, but it is not easy to admit." Nina looked at me with those brilliant eyes of hers. I was sure that they were a beautiful color, but I could not longer truly tell. To me, they were grey. Everything was grey. Even the warm and reassuring smile that Nina had put on seemed empty. When did I stop seeing color? I wondered. "I've lost sight of what was real and what wasn't. I did all of this so that I alone could possess you. Because I believed that I could save you all."
The flame crackled, tongues licking the charring sides of the wood. My heart was growing weary. I could feel that terrible monster inside fighting for control. "I've been telling this story... but I haven't taken the time to listen... have I?" A laugh escaped my lips.
I stood up and held out my hand to pull Rugal back. The space between us contorted until he was once again standing by Nina and me. The other souls in the restaurant had started to fade away in anticipation of violence.
Nina was right. "At one point there were many people like you, Nina. People like us. There were so many of us that it was difficult to keep track of. I have spoken of those times as if they were god memories, Nina, but I lied both to you and to myself. I was also lonely then. So lonely. No one would speak to me. No one would play with me. I was there shouting into an abyss that would not answer."
"That's why, I thought that to do it right, I had to hold you close to my heart. To speak to you all heart to heart, and give you all that you deserved. All that I thought I deserved. But life isn't really like that, is it? To try and control the whole of another's story is... wrong. I wasn't acting out because I thought that all of you deserved my attention... I was acting out because I felt like I deserved all of your attention."
That's right. That's what this was really about. All of this. Charles, Venia, Me... All of those battles with Red Mage and Titania. The yearning that I had felt for not only Puce and Kurumu, but the connection I had made with Katya and Rory too... The ire I had once garnered from Akane, and the rocky relationship I had with Teri and Garm and TonTon, and the adversarial nature of my own work against that of Icarus or Tomoya. I had met so many people who fell into ash as well, those whose names had once been Miia, Nadalia, and Annie. Then there were those of which I never reached out to... Kalastryn was her name I recall. Anjali, I had met for some brief time, and Mio too. The enigmatic Batter, Solid Snake, and Eddie were people I never even truly acknowledged. There were so many names, so many faces, so many that I had forgotten, even though I had wished so deeply not to forget.
I wanted so badly, not to see that they were happy, but to have commanded their approval.
That was why I was here... How could I say such a thing? What would I say after? I craved attention, but I needed absolution. I just want someone to tell me that I did good. That my words were beautiful, and that my stories are fun. But... I took it too far. Far too far. Now I was searching for words that weren't there. An idea that I didn't want to express. An idea that I was too proud to accept.
That I was wrong.
I was truly wrong. Not wrong in the way that I had expressed before, where it was empathetic to my character motivation. No. I was wrong in the most normal, visceral, and terrifying way.
I sat down. The world around me was fading away to white. I could hear my heart ringing in my ears.
"I'm sorry," I said. I could barely hear the sound of my own voice. I forced myself to say it louder. "I'm sorry." I had to hold back the vile, snapping emotions inside of my breast. The hateful voice that wanted to scream I'm sorry that you didn't understand my genius. I'm sorry that you aren't worth my time. I'm sorry that you didn't understand what I have done for you. These were lies that I told myself. Lies that I had taught myself.
"At this rate, I'll drive everyone away, won't I." I closed my eyes. "What have I done? I've driven myself into a corner. Some sad, pitiful excuse for god I am." Even now I wanted Nina to sit down next to me, to put her hand on my shoulder and gently embrace me. I wanted her to tell me that I wasn't all bad, that I wasn't manipulative, that I hadn't lied without good reason, that I had acted in a reasonable and expected way. Even now I was hoping for sympathy.
I'm so fucked up.
> Hey Alice.
> You there?
> The system just finished rebooting. We can use the reset button again.
> Uh... Alice? You okay?
> Hey, don't scare me like this. We've finally finished what you've been working toward for all of these years. You didn't step out just as things were about to come to a conclusion did you?
> Man. You're a real handful sometimes you know?
> Well, I'm going to go get dinner now. If you ever decide to come back, the access code to return everything back to before the Labyrinths spawned is "/startover". Just make sure to enter it without the quotation marks.
> Alright, I'm signing out for the night now.
System call initialized...
> What is your command...?
"Search directory by author. Alice Marlow."
Searching file directory for files modified by user.Alice_Marlow
> 223 associated files were discovered.
> What would you like to do?
> You cannot delete core data associated with your active character.
"Select character data... Nina... Rugal..."
Character data file selected: Nina.char, Rugal.char
> What would you like to do?
"Set user permissions... administrator."
User promotion complete.
> Rugal and Nina now have administrator permissions.
"Select character data... Alice."
Character data file selected: Alice.char
> What would you like to do?
"Revoke all permissions."
Remove administrator permissions from user: Alice_Marlow
> Are you sure? Removing administrator permissions will make your data vulnerable to modification by other users.
Remove administrator permissions from user: Alice_Marlow
> User permissions have been removed.
> System call has ended. Reason: User no longer has permissions to access system call commands.
Just gonna grab this before someone else posts.
End of an Era
The soft hum of the Rising Dawn's engine echoed through the halls of the airship as an omnipresent reminder of their precarious position in the sky. The sun was rising in the East as it always had, and the airship was gliding away from the ruins of Denver. Most of the staff was still asleep in the early hours of the morning, but some engineers were still working on the repairs necessary from the battle before.
Elizabeth sighed and leaned back in her chair. The cushions were too soft to be comfortable. The frame was too big. She shook her head and returned her attention to the console. December 31, 2017. New Year's Eve. How fitting, she thought. The navigation display was putting them toward Cloudtop Citadel, but a storm was moving through the area near the Rockies. It might be prudent to turn their attention elsewhere for refueling. Elizabeth ran a search for staging areas near them. The Eastern board was relatively clear today. At the current cruising speed it would only take about five hours to reach the coast base in Norfolk. She set the course toward North Carolina and felt the ever so subtle yaw of the ship as it turned to correct it's course from the Rocky Mountains.
Nina woke and found herself sitting in the seat of a VTOL craft, the box of her personal belongings clutched in her hands. Philip was nearby, also asleep by immediate looks... or whatever was the closest eldritch equivalent of being unaware of the current surroundings.
Cecil smiled and Nina and waved. "Finally awake? You were looking as if you were having a nightmare. Not that I blame you, it must have been awful down there in Denver with all the violence that was happening."
The VTOL's engines spun down as Cecil unhooked himself from the cockpit harness. The automated docking system of the Rising Dawn's hangar moved them gently into place inside of the cavernous space. It was a few moments before the metal arms clicked the VTOL into place and Cecil climbed down the pilot's side and slid open the door for Nina.
"And here you are. Back to the Rising Dawn in one piece."
There was something bothering Nina. She was expecting someone to show up and greet her with a letter of some sort. Though, she couldn't really place why that she thought that. But no one came, with a letter or otherwise.
Nina touched her lapis pendant unconsciously, wondering if she was forgetting anything terribly important.
The Canteen was empty, devoid of all of it's normal patrons and staff. Luke stood at the counter polishing a glass absentmindedly. He didn't really need to polish it, all of the equipment at the bar was spotless through use of magic, but at a time as idle as this, it felt right to do something. Even if it was just for show.
There wasn't anything pressing that would be happening soon. Not that he knew at least. Nothing pressing. He would stand here and wait for something to happen. Because people expected him to be here. It was just good courtesy.
AI Viscus and AI Vermillion booted up suddenly, unaware of the reason for the unexpected downtime that they had just experienced. They ran a diagnostic through the Rising Dawn's computer systems and found nothing wrong. Though... even though they did not truly have a heart, they felt as if something was missing.
Hadn't there been a third AI at some point?
The subsystems of the ship relegated to auto-repair and defensive alignment was empty. It was as if the AI personality that was operating the entirety of the system had suddenly vanished overnight. The anomaly was remedied quickly by Viscus, who took over the subsystems without much additional load to his processing capabilities.
Dolores yawned. The monotonous repetition of her boots against the wooden floors of the Rising Dawn's Hero Quarter's was nearly putting her to sleep. She stretched to try and keep herself awake. Molly had kept her awake all night talking about her engagement to John, which, to be completely fair Dolores was happy about, but she wasn't so keen on talking with her until the sun came up.
She shrugged. She wasn't a combat staff anyway, so it wasn't too bad. At some point later today she would try to sneak away and take a nap in a storage closet or something. She didn't expect anything too exciting to happen now that the battle in Denver was over.
She opened the door to the empty Hero's Room and set down the documents on the desk. "Nina Zatcol... Zaktol.. Zachttolski?" she tried to read. She felt a soft pang in her heart. "Why does this name seem so familiar?"
Rugal woke up in his bed. His head hurt immensely and he could scarce remember what had transpired the day before. No. It felt longer than that. As if he had three-year's worth of memories slammed into his brain with the same gentle subtlety of a speeding cargo train.
The dream he had was crazy. Insane, even.
He sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes, groaning. Something cold touched his cheek as he did. He looked in his hand. There was a small black gemstone, as dark as jet, sitting in his palm. It pulsed rhythmically as if it had a heart. He tried to remember where he could have possible gotten it from, but he couldn't quite place it in his mind.
And I sat back down, watching everything unfold like I had planned. But is this what I wanted? I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. There were some people, some heroes, who would never wake up again, because the things that happened effected them so deeply as to change who and what they were.
Others will be drawn back into this world under new names, new faces, but at their core, the spirit would be the same.
So it wasn't easy, but it wasn't hard either. We'd just have to wait, and hope, that one day those people would return to us. And we could all play together again.
I believe that Rugal understood my original intentions. But I can't say whether or not we were right to do so. But in the end this is the route that we chose. We want to hold onto what is familiar, to keep together a place where they could one day return to, and find that the records of their adventures are all here, waiting for them to pick right back up where they started.
At the very least, it will be fun to see where they go next. Wherever the rising dawn may take us.