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Pahrak Model ZX

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  1. Her previous post says the deadline is being "extended" rather than "moved", so I think we're good?
  2. Blue Jaga: "IMMA STING YA" Pohatu: "heck" Purple Jaga: "u doin great sweetie"
  3. I just finished unlocking every character, and I know it's not news but man what a roster. I really, really like World of Light. I get why so many people call it a grind, but as someone who has always only played Smash by himself trying to do most of anything in the games has always seemed a bit grindy, so the presentation of this one is more than enough for me. I opened the way to the true final boss and then went to clear out as much as I could--there are still a handful of tough Spirits left, but I think I'm going to go for the ending and come back for those later. Speaking of Spirits, while trophies might've been a bit more fun to look at, the fact that Spirits do something automatically makes them better as far as I'm concerned. More than that, each one being tied to a specific battle and so many appearing in World of Light makes them feel far less random, which has always been a complaint of mine. (I still don't have the Star Force Mega Man trophy in Smash 4.) I have a little over 700 Spirits right now, including all the Spirits from Mega Man spin-offs: they have at least one from each, 16 total across six series, and that makes me happier than it probably should. ZX is finally represented! Granted, the Model ZX Spirit isn't phenomenal, but it's pretty good for when you get it in WoL so that's something. It's crazy to think I'm not even halfway towards getting a complete collection! I've been pretty much exclusively playing Spirits mode thus far, but now that I've got everyone I want to try to take them all through Classic Mode next. Maybe I'll find a fighter who clicks somewhere along the way--I've been using Zero Suit Samus mostly, though the past few days I've been trying to get the hang of Greninja. I mean, I'm not especially good with either of them, but...eh. And I'm still really, really excited for Pirahna Plant. Really excited.
  4. SECTION XIV Zaekura slowly pushed open the door to the watchtower. Antroz sat inside, her back to the door, allowing Zaekura to see the hastily-patched spots where her wings used to be. The Makuta turned her head but said nothing, leading to a very long, very heavy silence. “…So,” Zaekura mumbled, “guess you weren’t crazy after all.” Antroz turned away. “The Odinans have been apprehended. There is nothing to worry about.” Zaekura kicked the door shut and walked over to Antroz. “Right, Odinans. Who exactly are they, just some random folks the Great Beings pull off the streets and train up?” Shaking her head, Antroz said, “No, not random. Odina is something of a…rehabilitation facility. Criminals who would otherwise be put to death are allowed to live there, but that life in turn becomes one of servitude, training endlessly for the day when they may be dispatched. They are who the Great Beings call upon when we Makuta fail…because for them, failure is not an option.” “Really?” Zaekura said. “Hard to believe they’d trust criminals with jobs like that.” “As I said, they are ‘rehabilitated’. Odinans have devoted themselves to law and order with a zealousness that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. Some don’t even remember their former crimes, or why they would ever have wanted to break the law in the first place. Whatever they see on Odina, it turns them into a completely different person.” Zaekura grimaced. “Yikes. So, uh…should we expect more?” Antroz rubbed two claws together, sharpening them slowly. “…It may be some time. But, we will need to be vigilant going forward.” Another long silence passed. Zaekura looked up at the roof and said, “Maybe I should’ve listened to what you were telling me before.” Antroz faced her. “I understand why you did not. I betrayed your trust. You have every right to be upset with me.” The Glatorian tapped her foot. “I didn’t think it would almost get you killed, for what it’s worth.” “I know.” She paused. “Zaekura…again, I am sorry. But I do not expect that to suddenly make things right. If you feel this is truly unforgivable, then I will understand. Should you desire to send me away—“ “Stop, just stop,” Zaekura groaned. “This is too much to take in at once, alright? Just, give me time.” With a nod, Antroz said, “Very well.” A long sigh came from Zaekura. “So what are we going to do with the Odinans now?” “A good question. It will be difficult to engage Kapura in any fashion without him fleeing.” She twitched a bit as she said his name. “But as for Nidhiki…” Antroz stood. Zaekura craned her neck as the Makuta began to pace slowly. “Bitil has tasked me with deciding how to deal with him. And my first instinct is to treat him as I always treat criminals. However…” Turning partially, she finished, “I feel I should ask your approval this time.” Zaekura shifted her weight. “Yeah? Why’s that?” “They were sent here to capture you as well, Zaekura—it is only fair you have a say. And more…I think perhaps you might benefit from some experience with this part of being a leader.” The Glatorian scratched her head. After waiting a few more seconds, she said, “What is it you’re planning to do to him?” Turning fully, Antroz answered, “He will be put through a trial. A very special trial of my own design. Typically, the conditions put forth are thus: if the condemned succeeds, they will be set free, but if they fail, they will die.” “I don’t like either of those,” Zaekura said through gritted teeth. “We can’t just let him go free! He’ll just attack us again, or go back to Odina.” “If he returns to Odina, death is all that awaits him,” Antroz said. “And if he attacks us again, Bitil or Krika may decide to simply kill him on the spot. It should also be mentioned that in the many, many years I have employed this trial, no one has been able to pass it. Not a single one.” Zaekura grumbled incoherently. “Nidhiki is his name. Years ago, he orchestrated an attack on Atero alongside a pack of Zyglak. He led them into the city, and alongside them, killed hundreds of civilians. The death toll would have climbed far higher if Makuta Miserix had not responded as swiftly as he did.” Zaekura grew silent. “It is good to respect life in all its forms, Zaekura. But there are some people who bring only suffering into the world…and I think it fair to grieve only their wasted potential.” “If you’re so convinced, then just kill him!” Zaekura said. “I don’t want to have to make this decision.” “Neither do I. Like the Odinans, I believe rehabilitation is possible, and if someone has the potential to grow, then it would be wrong of me to take that opportunity from them. Thus, the trial.” “And what trial tells you that much?” Antroz stepped closer. “When we Makuta purged ourselves of darkness, I began to study the technique we used to do so. By refining and adjusting it, I discovered a way to give form to all the darkness within a person: an embodiment of every flaw and sin they bear, the ultimate obstacle to a righteous path.” Zaekura cocked her head. “…Okay, that’s interesting. Then for the trial, they fight this shadow thing?” “Precisely. One final opportunity for growth—a last chance to show they have that capacity. Nidhiki will either display his aptitude to better himself…or he will succumb to his own darkness, and be no more.” The Glatorian looked out the window as she thought. “Is it…really that simple, though?” Antroz inclined her head. “You are against it, then?” “I didn’t say that.” Zaekura thought harder. “…I just…even saying yes to this feels like signing a death warrant. Can I just leave this to your judgment or whatever?” “If that is what you wish, then yes.” Still, Zaekura hesitated. When at long last she spoke, it was to say, “Alright. Do what you think needs done, Fangs.” Antroz nodded, turning to the door. “I shall tend to it immediately.” Zaekura hung back as the Makuta undid the door. She teetered back and forth a bit, but despite her feelings on the matter, a deep curiosity was rising from within her, one she could not combat. Antroz made her way down the street with Zaekura right behind her. Eventually they came to a warehouse. The facility was right at the edge of the outpost, built into the wall in fact; alert-looking Rahkshi formed a tight ring around it, the one at the door moving only a single step to allow Antroz and Zaekura through. There was nothing to see inside it, save for Nidhiki, who sat chained to the center of the floor. He sneered up at them as they entered. “Oh, it’s you,” Nidhiki said. “So you’re the one trying to ruin the Great Beings’ world.” Zaekura said nothing. Antroz gestured to a staircase, and the two of them ascended to a balcony that ran across the wall. They stopped halfway down its length. Antroz faced Nidhiki, calling down, “Nidhiki of Odina. I have been given the responsibility of punishing you for your crimes.” “Hurry up and kill me, then,” Nidhiki said. “I failed. My life has no meaning now.” “Not necessarily. There are many paths that could still be open to you. We shall see which one you choose.” The Matoran looked up as Antroz extended her hand. She curled her claws, and Nidhiki lurched suddenly, an odd sensation overtaking him. He bent forward, moaning, and soon a black aura encircled him like a wreath of smoke, orbiting him hazily as he struggled to understand what was going on. Suddenly the smoke blew on some nonexistent wind, flying across the warehouse and coalescing against the wall. It hovered for a second, and then, before his eyes, it grew and shaped itself, long limbs and rusty armor appearing where there had once been only air. The form was identical to Nidhiki, yet at the same time it seemed warped in some indescribable way. The original Matoran stared at the thing in horror. His shadow smiled wickedly back at him. “Nidhiki,” Antroz called. “This is a replica of all the darkness you harbor. Defeat it, or it will defeat you.” She flicked her wrist, and Nidhiki’s chains fell away. Scrambling to his feet, Nidhiki backed away, but the shadow matched his pace. “W…what is this?” Nidhiki asked. “Weren’t you listening?” the shadow said. “I’m you. All the worst parts of you. And to tell you the truth, me, I’m feeling awfully self-destructive.” The shadow charged. Nidhiki stumbled, nearly falling over, but managed to steady himself and moved to leap over his attacker. The shadow jumped up to meet him, smacking him down to the floor. There was just barely enough time for Nidhiki to roll away before the shadow came crashing back down, his fist colliding with the concrete. “I knew you were going to do that,” the shadow said, rising to his full height. “I know everything about you, Nidhiki. You might’ve done your best to forget who you were, but my memory’s a bit better.” Nidhiki moved to circle the shadow. “This is all some sort of trick, isn’t it? An illusion cast by the Makuta, wanting to watch me squirm before she finishes me off?” The shadow sighed. “You never did know how to listen. Not unless someone was telling you something you wanted to hear, at least. But that doesn’t happen very often, now does it, Nidhiki? No one ever cared about your petty desires.” “Shut up!” Nidhiki shouted. “I’m not going to take part in this farce!” He stayed low to the ground as he ran forward, springing up when he was right in front of the shadow. The doppelganger stepped out of the way effortlessly, and as Nidhiki fumbled to react, he dealt him a powerful kick that sent him rolling across the warehouse. “Your whole life has been a farce,” the shadow said as he stalked closer. “Why don’t I share your noble motives with the crowd? Think they’ll pity you?” He looked to the balcony. “He runs on ego. There’s nothing else there. He was a subpar electrician in Atero with delusions of grandeur, hoping one day he would be recognized and praised, but—surprisingly—that day never came.” Nidhiki rolled into a crouch. Releasing gusts from both feet, he shot across the room, but the shadow merely ducked under him. He ricocheted off the wall and tried again to land a hit, but this time the shadow extended his arm as he passed, catching Nidhiki’s torso and spinning him around as he fell to the ground. “No, no one ever cared for poor, worthless little Nidhiki,” the shadow mused as he loomed over the Matoran. “So he decided that the only way to achieve greatness was as a conqueror. He didn’t even have his fancy gust boots then, so this really was an impressive leap in logic. Just how many wires do you have crossed, you dolt?” Nidhiki swiped his arm and met only empty air. He got to his feet and started to punch wildly, the shadow dancing back and blocking each one, smirking at him all the while. “How did you think that would work? Even supposing the Zyglak could take Miserix…” The shadow stopped to chuckle. “Did you think the Great Beings would just let you keep Atero? Did you think they would fear you too much to send anyone else to free it from you? You’re just a simple Matoran. You’ve always been beneath respect, Nidhiki…and you’ve always known it.” “Shut up!” Nidhiki yelled. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” He finally made contact with an elbow thrust to the shadow’s chest. The doppelganger stepped back in surprise. “I already know,” Nidhiki panted. “I know it was stupid! I know I was just being selfish, that it was all a mistake!” He advanced. The shadow blocked his punches, but then Nidhiki went for a kick, firing a gust from his sole to launch the shadow back into the wall. “I’ve seen the error of my ways, creature! And I’ve grown stronger since then. I don’t need those memories—I’ve put them behind me!” Nidhiki ran and jumped, aiming to drive his foot straight into his opponent. All he hit was the wall. A split-second later, his shadow had him by the neck. “You really are an idiot, you know that?” he hissed. The shadow swung Nidhiki overhead and smashed him directly into the pavement. His mask cracked on impact, several tiny fragments flying off. “You actually think you’ve redeemed yourself,” the shadow said as he hoisted Nidhiki back up. “You think that since you’ve given yourself to the Keeper’s will, you’re a changed person, a better person, that now you’re on the right path. And you’re still hoping that someone will see that and praise you for it.” The shadow rammed his knee into Nidhiki’s gut. “You haven’t changed at all. You’re still the same needy amateur you’ve always been, Nidhiki. And you know what the worst part is?” He unceremoniously dropped Nidhiki. The Matoran crumpled silently on the floor. “You actually think the Keeper cares about you.” Up above, Antroz turned slightly towards Zaekura. The Glatorian was watching the duel unfold with a worried focus, feeling like this was something she should not be witnessing but being unable to make herself turn away from it. Clearing her throat, Antroz said, “You can leave, if you would prefer.” Zaekura closed her eyes for a few moments. “…Nah. I feel like I need to see just what this involves.” Antroz nodded and said nothing more. Below, Nidhiki was starting to get up, the shadow standing a few steps away with his back turned. “That freak won’t shed a single tear when he hears you’ve died,” the shadow said. “You’re disposable to him.” “That’s not true!” Nidhiki said, trying to straighten his mask. “The Keeper saw potential in me! He saved me because he knew I was special—he’s the only one who’s ever recognized me!” Nidhiki sprang into a handstand and swung his leg towards the shadow’s face. The doppelganger grabbed him by the ankle, tugging just enough to unbalance him. “And that’s why he gave you these implants, right? Forcibly drawing upon those tiny sparks of Elemental Energy deep inside you, causing you excruciating pain each time you use them. You can at least admit you hate these things, can’t you?” Before Nidhiki could say anything, the shadow spun him around and threw him. He managed to land with his feet on the wall, and again used his gusts to leap off of it, though this time he did not aim for the shadow. Nidhiki shot around the room in a blaze of speed, bouncing off the walls purely at random in an attempt to disorient his enemy. Eventually he made his move. The shadow snapped his arms shut around him, pivoted with the momentum of his charge, and pinned him to the ground face-first, causing his mask to shatter entirely. Nidhiki gasped as the strength left his body. “Oh, fine,” the shadow said. He stood, and then he gently placed on foot against Nidhiki’s head. “If you’re so attached to these dreadful things…” He fired a gust from his foot as he put all his weight upon it, pressing Nidhiki’s head into the concrete with such force that tiny cracks appeared in its surface. The Matoran writhed, just barely clinging to life, but could do nothing. “You never amounted to anything, Nidhiki,” the shadow said. “No one will remember you, much less praise you. So why don’t you just do what you should’ve done in the first place…and keep your head down.” The shadow blasted Nidhiki again, forming longer, deeper cracks in the floor. Another, even more damage. Yet another, and then he looked up sharply, his body flashing for a brief moment before slowly but surely fading from view. Nidhiki did not get up. “Nidhiki could not overcome his demons,” Antroz stated. “The trial is thus concluded.” She walked down the balcony, stopping at the top of the stairs to turn back. Zaekura remained in place, clutching the railing tightly, staring straight at what was left of Nidhiki. Antroz waited patiently until she finally hung her head. “…Antroz,” she said, almost too quiet to hear. “You sensed it when my dad died, right? Does that mean…you know what he was thinking when it happened?” Antroz hesitated, but answered, “I do.” “Tell me.” Antroz slowly came closer to her. “…Are you certain? I do not think it will comfort you.” “Screw comfort,” Zaekura said, turning and glaring at her. “Because of this grand escape of mine, people have already died—why should I get to be comfortable?” “Zaekura—“ “I need to know! Alright? I just…” She turned around, running a hand up and over her head. “I need to know…if that’s how he felt.” Antroz stopped a few steps away from Zaekura. Taking a deep breath, she said, “He was confused, for one thing. He had tried to attack a drone, but it evaded and countered, taking him by surprise. And…he was afraid. He did not want to die.” Zaekura nodded. “…And…he felt that, if he did not succeed there…he would be failing you.” She turned, staring wide-eyed at Antroz. “Your father joined the battle because he wanted to do whatever he could to help you. He wanted to protect you in any way he could. He died…feeling that he had failed in that regard. That he had failed you and your mother, the two people he loved most in this world. Those were the last thoughts I could glean from him.” Zaekura stared at her. “Dad…really…” Antroz turned aside. “I’m sorry, Zaekura.” She covered her face as tears spilled from her eyes. Zaekura backed into the railing and slid down until she was sitting on the floor, and then pulled her legs in and simply wept. *** The day of Virban’s funeral was cooler than most, the desert sun only peeking out from behind a spotty layer of clouds. Once everyone had gathered, four Rahkshi lifted the coffin and set out towards the southeast, with Bitil, Charla, Zaekura, and Antroz a few steps behind them leading the rest of the Rahkshi in a long, long column. They walked until they reached the outer wall of a great canyon, where a grave had already been dug at its base. Virban was lowered into it. Three Rahkshi formed into a Kaita with massive arms, which they used to sweep a mound of sand over to fill the opening, and then Bitil came forward and drew something from within his cape: Virban’s sword. He gripped it with both hands and drove it into the ground to serve as a marker. Then, after a very long pause, he turned to face the crowd. “It seems odd to say now,” Bitil began, “but when I was first stationed out here, the outpost was an incredibly quiet, lonely place. The streets were always empty, and every day I had no one to talk to but myself. I couldn’t stand that silence…so I decided to create Rahkshi to keep me company. Not just any Rahkshi, but a type of Rahkshi the world had never seen before—Rahkshi so unique that all who met them would be shocked and amazed. Virban was one the first.” He glanced back at the grave. “I made him in the image of a courageous warrior of old. Imposing, powerful, and stoic. But he was more than what I made him to be. Virban was an honorable and kind soul, quick to help out his family and slow to complain about any burden. Selfless. So many of you looked up to him, and I too admired the person he grew to be. He remained humble, and never asked for anything, but I’m certain he knew just how much he was loved.” Bitil paused to look over his assembled Rahkshi. “…I hope you all do. I cherish every single one of you. Because of you, the once desolate streets are now lively, and I am at last secure in knowing that I will never find myself alone again. You’ve all shocked and amazed me, simply for becoming the people that you are. And I am truly proud.” He looked down for a second, adjusting his mask to stall so he could maintain his composure. “I know this will not be easy. No one can ever replace Virban, and we will carry the grief of his loss with us for as long as we live. So until then…until we can meet him again…it will be up to us to keep him in our memories. The burden may indeed be a heavy one. But Virban knew that so long as we stand together and help one another, there is no burden we cannot bear. Let us remember that. It shall give us all the strength we need.” Thunderous applause answered him. He let out his breath and waited for it to end, but it kept going. He grinned. Eventually, he nodded to Charla, and then he took a few steps to the side. The crowd finally began to quiet as she approached the grave. Charla surveyed the crowd, her eyes lingering on Zaekura. The Glatorian looked somewhat distant, like a dark cloud had come over her, but for a moment that cloud parted and she smiled at Charla encouragingly. “I have struggled to figure out what I wish to say today,” Charla said. “This has been a difficult time for all of us, in a way we have ever truly prepared to deal with. Virban was an embodiment of the Principle he wielded: courageous in all things, never once letting fear stop him from doing what he set out to do. Even when faced with insurmountable odds, he chose to do what he thought was right, what he thought was brave…even though he knew it would be his end.” She shifted her weight awkwardly. “…I am sad that he is gone. Sadder than I have ever felt before. I know that’s how we all feel, and that we wish to honor him in whatever way we can. Virban was being as selfless as one could be, paying his life because he hoped it would benefit our lives—and that intention is a noble one.” She took a very long pause. “We have many fierce battles ahead of us. Odds just as insurmountable as those Virban faced. Dangerous, dangerous times are upon us…and I know we must all be brave. But I beg you, my siblings, if any of you find yourself in a situation that could mean your death…remember how you feel right now. Remember how heartbroken we all are, to be laying our brother to rest. None of us wish to go through this again.” She looked at the grave. “I admire Virban’s selflessness…but I would much rather he be here with us today. I would much rather we could all celebrate our victory than mourn his death.” She turned back to the crowd. “Please. If you find yourself in danger, do not immediately charge headlong into it. I know we wish to emulate Virban’s courage, but certainly, he would not wish for us to die. Even a situation that looks hopeless may still be salvaged—we can assess a situation slowly without being consumed by fear. Please…if you find yourself in danger, think carefully about what options are available to you. Always fight for a victory we can celebrate together. I have confidence that is a goal we can achieve far more often than not.” Several of the Rahkshi were exchanging looks. She couldn’t pick out any particular feelings in the crowd, but if nothing else, she did not sense the outrage she had feared. “Virban was courageous, and selfless…and at times, a bit reckless as well. I will always remember the good he brought into the world, and seek to preserve it in his stead. And I will do so with as little sacrifice as I possibly can, to protect the lives he too wished to protect. I think that’s the best way I can honor him.” Charla bowed slightly to signal that she was done. She was met with applause, if not quite as loud as before, and then went to stand next to Bitil as the rest of the Rahkshi began to file past the grave one by one. She stood very still until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw Bitil smiling at her. “Thank you, Charla,” he said. Relief filled her. Charla nodded to Bitil, unable to form words as she started to sob. By the time everyone had paid their respects, the sun was getting low. As the final Rahkshi headed back towards the outpost, Bitil walked back to the grave to say something in private, and then went to join his children once again. Antroz remained waiting a few paces away, keeping guard as Zaekura and Charla stood in front of the marker. “That must’ve been hard,” Zaekura said. “It was,” Charla said. “I only hope I chose the right words. I worry I may not know for sure until it’s too late.” “No, you did good. They’ll remember what you said.” “Thank you. And thank you for being here. I know it’s not easy for you.” “This isn’t easy for anyone. No reason for me to leave you hanging.” They both looked up at the sky. It was growing steadily darker, the first few stars already just barely visible. “…I’m going to do whatever I can,” Zaekura said. “I have no idea how things are going to go, but I promise I’ll do my best to keep anyone else from dying, Charla.” “Alright. But remember, Lady Zaekura…” She turned to face her. “You are not bearing that burden alone. And I promise that you will never have to.” ADDENDUM: -When I was brainstorming The Gargoyle Knight as a solo piece, I thought it would be really cool if Antroz used something like Shadow Toa to test her prisoners, but with the way the story went I ended up not being able to show it. When I decided to expand into Right of Law, I knew that, at some point, I was going to show it off for sure. Now, a year later, I finally get a chance to use it! Hopefully this won’t be the last time. -The opening reiterates some of what was in last Section’s Addendum—I’ve been feeling like I’m putting too much information in the Addendum when I should be keeping everything you need to know in the story itself, plus Zaekura needs filled in on this stuff too. -Reviews to be submitted here
  5. If it gets down to the wire, you can always break the story up into multiple parts and just post the first one on the deadline. Plus, the deadline is a week-long window, so there's a bit of wiggle room there if you're not quite done on the 21st.
  6. Just revised my draft. Likely going to go over it a few more times before the due date, but I'm ready, more or less.
  7. I dunno I think this one might actually be funnier without a caption. Can I make my entry "no caption"?
  8. As the end of the year approached I felt that dreadful question of "What have I accomplished in 2018?" hanging over my head. Not exactly unusual, but unexpectedly, when I thought a bit more about it I discovered that I've actually done a bit. When it comes to writing: -Right of Law was started in March and already has 59k words -Red Joker has surpassed the length of its predecessor to reach 118k, with only roughly a third of that being knocked out in late 2017 -I took a Mega Man ZX fic from one chapter to 29k words -I scribbled down two DBZ oneshots of 1-2k -I even attempted to start a novel, even if I only got 3-4k into it And while I wish I had more significant milestones and complete products to look at, I did the math and it turns out I wrote about 169,819 words this year. You know, give or take. Looking at that number, it seems kind of incredible that I was able to do that much. There are other things to consider, too: I tried a few new things, even though they didn't all work out, and I feel like I've been able to make some personal progress over the course of the last year. Sure I wish it could be more, but it is some. I also bought a Switch and a bunch of great games for it, meaning I enjoyed myself a bit more and making that word count look even more impressive knowing how much distraction was available to me. I've been pessimistic about holidays for a few years now, and when it comes to New Year's that means pointing out that it's an entirely arbitrary "endpoint" and that just buying a new calendar isn't really worth celebrating. I still think there's no reason to despair about not getting a certain amount done during a year or what have you. But I guess when you don't think about it in terms of quotas, and just reflect on what you've done and what you've learned and take what accomplishments you see for what they are...yeah. It isn't so hard to find something worth celebrating. Happy New Year.
  9. When can we talk about Spider-Verse's post-credits scene?

  10. Merry Christmas and stuff

  11. Sweating nervously wondering if anyone expressing concerns over their prompts is talking about mine
  12. Chapter 23 The officer locked the door behind him as he stepped into Tia’s cell. Over on the other side of the room, she sat perfectly still on the bed provided to her, her back to the entrance and not speaking a single word. “Meal’s here,” the officer stated as he approached the bars. As he expected, there was no response. He gave a shrug and crouched, sliding the tray of food he carried through a slot just above the floor, and then looked back up. Tia was standing over him. “Huh?” Before he could say anything else, her hand shot through the bars and clamped onto his neck. Despite her vice-like grip choking the air out of him, the officer did his best to remain calm, reaching immediately for his Hunter. Tia pulled him forward into the bars just as he reached it. The first impact was enough to daze the officer, and by the third he had lost consciousness entirely. His Hunter fell from his hands and clattered on the floor. Shifting her uninterested gaze from the man to the device, Tia tossed him aside and got down on the floor, reaching as far as she could to get a good hold on the Hunter. She then stood, brushed off her clothes, and slowly stepped away from the bars, the terminal already booted up. In a few flicks she was past the security, and then she set to work. *** Sonia paced anxiously across the roof of the studio, constantly surveying the area for anything out of the ordinary. Since WAZA had successfully evacuated the facility, there was very little to see: the only movement that caught her eye was that of Geo and Ace, who waited a bit more patiently near the center of the roof. Ace had yet to Wave Change and was just standing around eating a candy bar; Geo, however, had already activated a Multi-Noise Change in preparation, his helmet having the familiar horns of Taurus but clad in the more vibrant colors of Crown. Sonia figured she should prepare as well, but she was more concerned at the possibility that she could miss something while transforming. “Dear, stop for a moment,” Lyra said. “You’re only going to wear yourself out.” Sonia slowed, but she didn’t stop. “He could show up from anywhere with that Noise Wave—we can’t let him catch us by surprise!” “It’s possible. It’s also possible that Dealer has kept an eye on the studio, sees that we’ve prepared for them, and called the operation off.” “Doubtful,” Ace said. “King wants someone to play against. If anything, he’s more likely to attack now that we’re onto him.” Sonia took another look around. “…Thank you for the contribution, Ace,” Lyra muttered. Geo gave a concerned glance to Sonia. He looked off at nothing in particular for a few seconds, and then, with some reluctance, said, “Hey, Ace. If Joker used to work at WAZA, then you must know him, right?” “Only a little,” Ace said. “Even once I started working with Acid, I only met Joker a couple of times—he was never the most social guy there. Acid’s the one who knows more about him.” The Wizard materialized then. “Why is it that you ask?” “Well,” Geo said, “I just want to try to understand him a little better. There might be some way to convince him to leave peacefully.” This time Sonia actually stopped. She stood there a moment, but then turned and walked back to where Geo and Ace were. “Highly unlikely,” Acid said. “Joker is single-minded in the pursuit of his goals. Once he decides to do something, there is rarely anything that can be done to sway him.” “Okay, but you say ‘rarely’,” Geo said. “There were times where he was swayed?” “Three incidents, the circumstances of which are classified.” “What? If there’s something in there that can help—“ “I can share that the key factor in all three was the presence of Dr. Goodall. However, even if the doctor was here, I do not believe she would be able to change Joker’s mind now.” “He listened to Dr. Goodall?” Sonia said. “But why? When we met him he was going on about how strength is all that matters, and Dr. Goodall…well…” “Dr. Goodall is a unique case,” Acid answered. “While Ace’s classification of Joker as unsocial is accurate, the doctor and I are the two notable exceptions to that behavior. He spent a great deal of time with us, and seemed to enjoy our company.” Mega huffed, “Why anyone would enjoy your company, I can’t imagine.” “I see,” Geo said. “If you spent that much time together, then you must have a pretty good idea of what Joker’s like.” Acid looked aside. “In a sense…however, I am not able to comprehensively formulate the type of evaluation you are requesting. I was not programmed with a working understanding of emotions, and as a result, my inability to ‘judge’ people is perhaps my greatest shortcoming.” Geo leaned back slightly, saying, “Oh…I’m sorry. Why…why were you programmed like that?” “Dr. Vega had a hand in programming Acid,” Ace explained. “The idea of giving artificial Wizards full emotional intelligence was being hotly debated at the time, and she was dead-set against it. Said it would cause more harm than good to let them develop a strong attachment to something or someone—that it was programming that was impossible to execute correctly.” Sonia shifted her weight. “…I can see why she’d think that.” “But hey, Acid, you’ve grown a lot since then! When I first met you, you were straight-up robotic. Now we can actually have a proper conversation with each other!” “I appreciate your encouragement, Ace, but there is no need for concern,” Acid said. “I tend to agree with Dr. Vega’s assessment, especially due to my assigned function of analysis. Emotions would only complicate my work.” Ace draped his arm over Acid’s shoulders. “C’mon, buddy! You can analyze a situation and still have emotions every now and then! Developing an understanding of that would even let you to consider a whole new side of things—you were just saying you couldn’t complete the evaluation Geo’s asking about, right?” “…You may have a point. However, it is much too late to rewrite my programming.” “Maybe so, but you’re more than just programming. I’m positive you can learn!” Sonia heard a sound and turned sharply. All she saw was a bird emerging from the trees. She let out a long sigh, and then glanced around the area again. “So Acid,” Geo said, “you’re completely sure that there’s no way to get through to Joker? Even if we could get Dr. Goodall to talk to him?” Acid nodded. “He answered to her authority while he was at WAZA. She no longer has that power over him.” “I’m sure she still has some power over him,” Ace said. “After all, she is…” He trailed off. Sonia stared at him for a moment before she remembered something. She opened her mouth to ask, but then she heard another sound, this one far more unusual. Looking past Ace, she saw a large distortion appear behind the studio—the very same kind she had seen at the school. “He’s here!” she said, getting ready to transform. “Let’s roll!” Dozens of cluster-like Noise Beasts began to pour from the opening. Geo armed his buster and said, “I’ll draw their attention. You two flank them when you’re ready!” He leapt off the roof and opened fire. Ace took this moment to Wave Change, while Sonia engaged a Multi-Noise with the form of Ophiuca Noise and the colors of Cygnus. Sonia ran to the edge of the roof; she dropped to the ground, generating a gust of wind on contact to blow away some Noise Beasts, and then rushed in the direction of the distortion alongside Geo. More Noise Beasts popped out of it, but a salvo of bullets from Ace made quick work of them. Sonia and Geo lunged towards the opening. However, just as they were about to reach it, three forms emerged from its depths and pushed them back. A trio of beasts five times larger than average were circling the grounds when they regained their bearings. “Seems they brought some heavy artillery,” Lyra said. “I think we’ll need to focus on this for now.” Sonia played her guitar furiously as she ran at one of the giant beasts. A small flock of duck-like creatures appeared around it, harassing the monster into staying still—taking careful aim, Sonia shot a dozen feather-shaped laser bullets at her target, causing it to shriek in pain and turn on her angrily. She kept her distance as it opened its mouth again: this time, orbs of Crimson came pouring out from its maw, pushing away the ducklings only to float about randomly. Not thinking much of it, Sonia hurled notes at it from where she stood, realizing a bit too late that the Crimson was shining brighter and brighter. She crossed her arms as the Noise clusters exploded, the force launching her several feet away before she skidded to a halt in the dirt. “Should’ve guessed,” she grumbled. She sat up to see the beast charging at her. Rolling back, Sonia narrowly avoided its attack, and then spun on one foot to deal a powerful kick with the other. The beast rolled back, scattering a few of the remaining smaller ones in its wake, and Sonia took the opportunity to summon a few speakers nearby. As soon as it recovered, the beast spewed forth more Noise. Sonia made quick work of it with her additional notes, and then adjusted her guitar to fire quick blasts to keep the beast stunned as she closed in on it. She paused right in front of it and prepared to finish it off with a sound pulse. The beast’s eyes flashed, so she jumped aside—a focused beam of Noise shot through the space where she had stood. Sonia put more distance between them, and the fight continued. Meanwhile, Geo was using a wide flamethrower attack to destroy the Noise generated by the beast he was fighting, at the same time summoning half a dozen Stealth Fighter viruses to encircle it. They attacked just as it prepared to, leaving the beast stunned. Geo teleported forward and dealt a mighty, flaming uppercut, cleaving the creature in two. “Nice one, kid!” Mega said. “Now, why don’t we—“ “Hang on!” Geo said, leaping backwards. The two halves of the creature still squirmed about in the air, and soon a face appeared on each one. “What, seriously?!” Geo stepped carefully to dodge the lasers the beasts fired, and then teleported aside to avoid one as it charged at him. The second one, however, took him by surprise, pounding him into the dirt and cutting him with its teeth. He quickly grabbed the creature and electrocuted it, giving him time to slip away, and then located the other to see it opening wide; he raised his shield just in time to block a laser, and when he raised his buster in retaliation, three powerful fireballs shot out in rapid succession, obliterating chunks of the beast until it was no larger than the standard variety still floating about. Geo hoped to finish it off, but he had to abandon that as he dodged the remaining larger beast. While the giant beasts were clearly the most dangerous threats, the smaller ones still remained, and for some reason the majority of them were swarming Ace. He was able to dispatch each one swiftly, but this left him distracted as the third enormous Noise Beast rampaged around him. Just as he obliterated a cloud of beasts with a swing of a large axe blade, twice as many appeared in their place, and now he could see the larger one starting to surround itself with Crimson bombs. “We need to speed this up,” he decided. “Acid, mind if we blow them away?” “You may proceed,” Acid said, “but remember why we are here, Ace. You must conserve some energy to fight Joker.” “Oh, I won’t forget. Okay then!” Ignoring the bites of the tiny creatures, Ace took a wide stance as the armor on his back shifted. Noise shot out from his fins to propel him forward and an incredible velocity, charging straight through the small beasts, the bombs, and fist-first directly into their larger companion, the explosive wake of his speed enough to dispel those he didn’t make direct contact with. The Noise Beast bounced off of the studio wall and shook its head as if dizzy. Ace shot three bladed wheels at it, restricting its movements, and then aimed directly at the beast and fired a single powerful blast. The target slowly dispersed, and Ace used a Black Hole Battle Card to suck its remains into a small vortex. “How we doing, Acid?” he asked. “Stamina holding. However, it is recommended we engage quickly.” Ace turned to see Sonia and Geo finishing up their fights as well. Unfortunately, no one was particularly close to the Noise Wave entrance, and so no one could do anything as it opened wide once again. This time, only a single figure stepped through it—not a Noise Beast, but one who towered over them just the same. As soon as she saw him, Sonia bristled in an instant. She turned and shouted, “There you are, Joker!” The man regarded her coldly, his annoyed glare easily penetrating the sunglasses that covered his eyes. He swept the area with this glare, but when it settled on Ace, it took on a different quality as a smile came to his lips. “Finally,” Joker said. “It has been too long, brother! At last, Mr. King has granted me a second chance to save you!” Ace kept a close eye on Joker as he, Sonia, and Geo regrouped. “Joker! You are under arrest! Come quietly, or we will not hesitate to subdue you by force!” His words weren’t entirely accurate. Geo said, “By force? But, he’s…” “Don’t you remember what Solo said, kid?” Mega said. “He fought him without Wave Changing or anything. Doesn’t sound like someone who’ll bruise easily.” “I guess…but, still…” Everyone tensed as Joker took a step forward. Holding out his arms, he called, “Acid, come with me! I have found a place where we can do what we were always meant to do, a place that will not deny us our purpose!” “I have no desire to leave with you, Joker,” Acid said. “As Ace has said, you are under arrest. Please come quietly.” Hearing this, Joker frowned. He clenched his fists and said, “Think, Acid: you can never truly be content while you are held down by WAZA’s fears! Dealer will let you fulfill the absolute extent of your design—will let you keep the reason for which you and I live! Join me, brother! It is all we could ever want!” Acid paused. “Interesting. You seem to be under the assumption that my desires align with your own. Tell me: is this the reason why you took a copy of my blueprints when you defected?” Joker lowered his arms, hanging his head as a sad look came to his eye. “…It was the best I could do, at the time. I wanted to take you with me, but I knew that if I tried, those fools would use some trickery to disable us both, and we would only be reduced to even less than we already were. I had hoped Mr. King would rebuild you, that at least some version of you could live as you ought…but…” Sonia smirked. “Weren’t you just saying Dealer is everything you ever wanted? What happened to that?” “Sonia,” Geo said, giving her a look that made her feel awfully guilty. “This does not concern you, girl,” Joker said. “Acid, please. I can save you this time—the real you! I won’t fail you again! Just come with me, and—“ “That’s enough!” Ace interrupted. He flicked his blaster, extending a bayonet from it. “Acid’s not going anywhere, Joker. Now for the last time: will you surrender or not?” Joker scowled at him. “Surrender is for the weak, Arthur. I will not stoop to your level.” Ace lunged. Joker raised his forearm to meet the blade, blocking it entirely. Sonia and Geo stared on in disbelief. Ace was stunned as well, but quickly realized he should pull back—though not quickly enough to avoid Joker knocking the wind out of him with a punch to the gut. He dropped his gun as he collapsed to his knees. “I will save you, Acid,” Joker said. As he spoke, a thin aura of blood-red light began to emanate from him. “I will restore you to who you truly are.” He grabbed Ace’s head in his hand, lifting the man until his feet dangled inches above the ground. Ace screamed as Joker’s aura moved to envelop him as well. “P-Put him down!” Geo said, shakily aiming his buster. “Let Ace go, Joker!” Joker ignored him, saying, “Wake up, Acid! Embrace your purpose, and become who you were made to be!” “H…how…?” Acid gasped, his voice garbled and faint. “How are you…hacking my…A-Ace…it…hurts…” Fury boiled up within Sonia. She stepped forward to attack, but when she tried to lift her guitar, she found she could not. Instead, she yelled, “Joker! If you want to help him, then you’re doing a pretty poor job! Stop what you’re doing and fight me!” Ace’s screams continued. Sonia decided to try to attack again, but that was when she noticed that Ace’s armor was changing. Normally white and silver, his plating was now taking on shades of black and gray and green, while the red trim changed to a sicklier shade to match the light now enveloping him. For some reason, the sight filled her with an uneasy feeling. “What’s happening? Ace? Acid?” All at once, Ace’s screams stopped. Joker dropped him and he crumpled, resting on the ground with limp limbs and an empty look in his eyes. Sonia felt ice shoot through her veins. “Acid?” Joker asked. “Can you hear me, brother?” Ace didn’t stir. “You have all the Noise you need now. Finalize! Show the world who you truly are!” Slowly, Ace looked up at him. Some relief came to Sonia. Joker, on the other hand, was looking very surprised. Geo edged a bit closer. “…Ace…?” In a flash, Ace shot to his feet and swung his hand, the blow colliding with the side of Joker’s face and making him stumble back a bit. He then hunched over, letting his arms dangle in front of him, and, for some reason, made a hissing sound. For a very long second, no one even breathed. “Wh…what have they done to you?!” Joker exclaimed. “They’ve put even more restrictions on you, haven’t they—robbed you of every last bit of your true identity! How could they—“ He moved quickly, narrowly avoiding another swipe. His expression then turned to one of horror. “…Was it…because of me? When I left, did they fear you might do the same…and so they did this to you?” Ace just hissed at him, already tensing for another strike. Joker dodged the attack when it came. “…I’m sorry, brother,” he said in a pained whisper. “I’m so, so sorry. If I had known they would do this to you…” The entrance to the Noise Wave expanded. Ace shuffled back away from it, grabbing his head in both hands, and Joker reached for something in his coat. But then he stopped. With a heavy sigh, he instead turned to face the portal, taking one last look back at Ace. “This is not over, Acid. I will find a way to save you from this life. I promise.” He was gone then, and the portal vanished behind him. Ace hunched over again, twitching as he looked around, seemingly wondering where Joker went. Sonia tentatively lowered her guitar, that sense of unease not yet abated. “Ace…?” Ace whirled, as if he was just now realizing she was there. He hissed and took a step forward. “Ace, it’s me, Sonia! It’s okay—Joker’s gone!” “What happened to him?” Geo asked. “I don’t know. Ace, you can still understand us, right?” Ace looked down as he bumped into his gun. He stared at it curiously for a few seconds. Then, he picked it up, turned, and pointed it at Sonia. “Ace?!” She leapt away just in time. A blast went right past her, blowing a massive hole in the side of the studio. Ace snarled and ran at her. “I don’t think he’s listening, dear!” Lyra said. Sonia prepared to retaliate, but Geo knocked Ace out of his charge with a few weak buster shots. Ace spun to face him next, and the boy said, “Ace, Acid, snap out of it! We’re not your enemies!” Ace spread his arms wide. Twin laser beams shot from his shoulders, narrowly missing Geo as he teleported out of the way, but Ace kept firing, carving a trench through the studio grounds. Sonia brought her hand down on her guitar, sending out a huge gust of wind that interrupted Ace’s attack and sent him rolling away. “It…it looks like he can’t hear us, Geo,” Sonia said. “I think we need to hold him off!” Ace came up on all fours and growled in her direction. Sonia pointed the head of her guitar, but then she noticed Ace’s armor plates shifting. She fell to the side as Ace charged past—the Noise trailing in his wake left a cut in her arm. Ace turned around and raised his gun, but Geo popped up right in front of him and unleashed a flamethrower attack, pushing his foe backwards and giving Sonia time to recover. “Come on, Ace!” Geo shouted. “You’re in there somewhere, aren’t you?!” Ace responded by firing a shuriken from his blaster. The throwing star buried itself in Geo’s shoulder, shocking him out of his Noise Change; Ace flung Geo back with a swipe, and Sonia shot a stream of feathers at him while he was open. She jumped high to avoid a wide wave of water, but landed hard when Ace used a series of rapid shots to shoot her down. Geo sprang back to his feet with teeth clenched. His arm transformed into a long spear that crackled with electricity, and he rushed Ace with it, stabbing him five times in the blink of an eye and leaving him stunned. Geo reared back as he prepared to follow up, but then he hesitated. Ace did not. As Geo hit the ground again, Mega said, “What’s wrong, kid? I know you don’t like to fight, but we’ve gotta!” “I know, but…it’s Ace.” Ace swung his sword down, and Geo rolled out of the way. “Okay,” Mega said, “but you can’t let that hold you back! Can’t you just get mad at him or something?” Geo glared at Ace as he avoided more attack. “Well yeah, after what happened with Pat…but…I don’t want to fight him angry! This isn’t his fault, and his Wave Change is already hard on his body. It isn’t fair to make that worse just because I’m mad at him!” Geo teleported behind Ace and made a few quick sword swipes, and then teleported away so Sonia could land a solid kick to his face. The blow didn’t have much effect, however, and Ace slashed her midsection—shorting out her Noise Change—and then grabbed Sonia by the helmet and drove her into the ground. “A…Ace!” Sonia said. “It’s me, Sonia! You need to stop!” She froze as Ace pointed his gun directly at her. Geo came charging in, tackling Ace and knocking the weapon from his hand, and Sonia quickly shot strings to restrain him. It seemed to work at first, but it wasn’t long before he slowly began to free himself. “He can’t have much more time,” Geo said. “Are we even sure the timer’s still active?” Sonia asked. “What if it got shut off when this went into effect?” “We should decide swiftly,” Lyra said. “I don’t think we have much more time either.” Ace snapped the strings and got to his feet, eyeing Sonia and Geo angrily. They both raised their weapons as he slowly walked towards them. “We need to attack,” Sonia said. “They’re about to separate,” Geo said, “I’m sure of it.” Ace continued to advance. Sonia and Geo backed up, still looking ready to attack. “Geo…” “Just hold on!” Ace slowly spread his arms. Sonia raised her hand, but Geo stopped her. “Geo!” She prepared to dodge as best she could. But the attack never came. Ace stumbled about, gripping his head tightly, and then reared back and screamed. In a flash, his Wave Change evaporated, and Acid materialized in the air next to him. It took a few seconds, but Sonia and Geo finally relaxed. “…Good call,” Sonia said. “Ace? Acid? Are you back to normal?” They didn’t answer. Both still had the same empty look in their eyes. The uneasy feeling came rushing back. “…Guys?” Acid hit the ground hard. A second later, Ace did the same. Sonia and Geo rushed over to them—Ace was still breathing, if only barely, but there wasn’t really a way for them to check Acid’s vitals. “This is bad,” Geo said. “We have to get them back to WAZA!” Sonia took a quick glance around. “You take care of the rest of the Noise Beasts. I’ll call HQ and tell them to send help!” Geo nodded and went off. Sonia put a hand to the side of her helmet as she established the connection. “Mr. Boreal! We need some help! Are you there?” There was no response. “Mr. Boreal? It’s Sonia! We have an emergency!” Still, nothing. “…Mr. Boreal?” The unease slowly turned to panic. Sonia looked from Ace, to Acid, to Geo, and then tried calling again. Still, she could not get through. What do I do? she wondered. What am I supposed to do?! Chapter 24 Copper quietly closed the door behind him and made his way across the lab. As expected, Vega was here: she stood in front of a tiny viewscreen attached to a large, box-shaped machine she had set on a desk, typing adjustments one at a time into the keyboard she had laid out. He waited a moment before clearing his throat. Vega’s finger twitched to a halt mid-motion, and she gave a surprised look over her shoulder. “Oh, detective—forgive me,” Vega said, turning fully. “I was just doing some further study on the Crimson sample you brought back from Whazzap.” “Still at it?” Copper asked. “You’ve been studying Meteor G for so long now, I would’ve thought you’d run out of things to discover.” Vega gave a short laugh. “Hardly. We learned a great deal by interfacing with the Meteor Server, but that was remote, making it quite limited. The NCPs can generate some, but it doesn’t last very long.” She gestured to the machine as she continued, “This…a pure sample right in my hands…this is worlds beyond what we’ve had until now, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.” “I see,” Copper said. He glanced about. “Where is Dr. Goodall?” “She’s lying down at the moment. She’s been a bit more stressed these past few days, since…” Copper nodded. “Understood.” “…Have you heard anything from Sonia yet?” “Nothing. We could be waiting a while. Hard to be sure, really.” Vega’s gaze drifted as she hummed to herself. Looking back to Copper, she asked, “Since Dr. Goodall is unavailable, is there something I might be able to assist you with?” Copper scratched his head. “…Well, yeah, actually. I was wondering about something, and you two are really the only ones who can answer me.” “Oh? And what is it that you’re wondering about?” The detective hesitated. Eventually, he answered, “Wave Change-capable Wizards.” Vega frowned. “Oh.” “Look,” Copper sighed, “speaking with Mr. Shepar got me thinking again, about having such young kids doing everything on our behalf. I just want to know if there’s any way to change that.” “I understand your concern, detective, but I can say nothing you’ll want to hear. Constructing a Wizard with that functionality takes a great deal of time and resources, neither of which we have in abundance right now—not to mention Mr. Boreal is a bit unlikely to approve of such a project given how our previous attempts turned out.” “What about modifying an existing Wizard? Would that take less time?” The scientist paused, her eyes losing their focus as she ran the numbers in her head. “…That’s an interesting idea, I’ll admit. However, I’m afraid that without having ever attempted such a thing, I can’t give a definite answer.” “But can we try?” “There are quite a few obstacles. Mr. Boreal’s approval, of course, not to mention a willing human participant—“ “Why do you think I’m asking?” Vega glanced over Copper. “…Detective, if I may be a bit blunt…our incomplete Wave Change would destroy anyone’s body, and for a man of your…well, I think it would destroy your body quite quickly.” “…Point taken,” Copper mumbled, closing his eyes. “And aside from that, we’d also need to find a Wizard. Or did you have someone in mind for that as well?” “I was thinking about Magnes.” Vega raised an eyebrow. “Magnes? I doubt he would be excited by the prospect.” “Why not? He says that he’s lost his purpose in life—this would be a way to give him a new one.” Turning around, Vega said, “I don’t know…thrusting a new purpose upon him like that—do you think that’s fair?” “I’m not thrusting it upon him. I’m just saying we could offer.” “But he could be so desperate he could accept it without thinking it through. He could end up just drifting from one duty to the next, never truly doing what he wants, just like Plesio.” Copper sighed. “I don’t think he’s in that dire a state. Besides, Plesio is…adjusting. I’m sure we could give him a push without there being much of a problem either.” Vega fidgeted in her pockets. “Alright. Well, if you could just give some thought to what I asked about, I would appreciate it. Do you know where Hyde is? He was supposed to report in for duty, but he’s late.” “He is?” Vega asked, checking the clock. “That’s unusual. Do you think something’s happened to him?” “Truthfully, I was expecting to find him here with you. But, you haven’t seen him?” “Not since this morning, no.” She drew out her Hunter and tried to call Hyde. The window rang for a bit, but he did not pick up. Vega bit her lip. “…Usually he at least has Phantom pick up if he’s busy…maybe something did happen…” “Or Phantom’s just being uncooperative. I’ll keep looking around, and I’ll let you know when I find him.” “Thank you,” Vega said, already making another call. Copper left the lab and made his way back up the hall. While he wouldn’t say he was worried, he did find it a bit unusual that Hyde would ignore a call from Vega, and that did make him…curious. He kept his eyes peeled as he walked, and it was that alertness that allowed him to avoid bumping into Magnes as the Wizard rounded a corner. “Oh, sorry about that,” Magnes apologized. “Nothing to worry about,” Copper said. “What are you up to?” “Huh? Nothing, really, just…talking a walk, I guess. I thought a change in scenery might be interesting.” “Hm…not much of a change, though.” Magnes stared at the floor. “Yup. But, if I’m going to be confined here, then I guess I need to take what I can get.” Copper thought for a moment, and then said, “Magnes, don’t you think there are ways to enjoy your time here?” “What do you mean? I don’t belong here. I was programmed for—“ “I know, but that doesn’t mean…” He paused and sighed. “Honestly, Magnes, I don’t understand why you’re so intent on limiting yourself to that. Wizards like you are the pinnacle of autonomous programming: you can choose to do whatever you want, even something other than what you were originally created to do, but you keep dismissing that idea outright.” Magnes shrugged. “I liked doing what I was created to do. I had a life that I loved, and it was all taken away from me.” “And I’m sorry that happened to you. But you can move beyond that, and start a new life, maybe one you’ll love even more. You can’t be sure unless you try.” The Wizard shook his head. “Well…I’m not really sure if I want to try.” Copper turned aside, running a hand over his face. As he tried to think of what else to say, he glanced down the hall, and he noticed light coming from a door that had been left ajar. “…Pardon me,” he said to Magnes. He approached the door quietly. Crouching next to it, he leaned to take a look inside. The room was cramped and mostly dark, the light coming from a small terminal set in the far wall. A single Wizard floated before it: he was of a very simple design, the same kind used all over WAZA, and he typed furiously for a minute before leaning back and chuckling to himself. Copper carefully reached for his belt. “What are you doing?” He jumped as he turned to face Magnes, not realizing he had come up behind him. The Wizard inside the room turned around—cursing silently, Copper barged through the door and drew his weapon, pointing it straight at him. “Hold it right there!” The Wizard sneered. Slowly raising his hands, he said, “What is it, detective? I must say, you seem rather threatening.” “Tell me what it is you’re doing,” Copper ordered. “I was just running a diagnostic on this terminal.” “On whose orders?” “On Dr. Goodall’s.” “Really? Because Dr. Vega just informed me that Dr. Goodall is resting right now.” The Wizard didn’t answer. Copper then noticed a Hunter lying on a desk. “What’s that?” The Wizard’s eyes immediately shot to the device, then back up. “What’s what?” “Don’t play stupid.” “Oh, you mean the Hunter? Well, it’s a Hunter, obviously. What else would it be?” “What’s it doing here?” “It’s…part of the diagnostic.” Copper waved his weapon. “Step aside.” The Wizard nodded. He floated a short distance to the side, so Copper stepped farther into the room. Suddenly, the Wizard grabbed his chest plate with both hands—Copper prepared to fire, but when he saw the Wizard prying himself open he stopped. Something was hidden in a small compartment inside the program, and he wasn’t sure what it was. “At least I managed to get everything ready,” the Wizard said. “You should’ve gotten here sooner, detective!” A flash from the terminal illuminated the Wizard, allowing Copper to identify the item he contained. It was a card bearing the image of a Coin. He fired, but Noise enveloped the Wizard faster than he could pull the trigger, and the dense EM waves absorbed the shot. Taking a step back, Copper turned to a frightened Magnes and shouted, “Go! Get help!” He looked back as the Wizard finished his transformation. His large, humanoid frame was lined in gold-plated armor, all but his eyes obscured by both his collar and the rounded helmet that sat atop his head. Copper fired more shots, but they bounced harmlessly off their target as he created a large pickaxe in one hand. “W-What’s going on?” Magnes asked. “I told you to go!” Copper said, shoving the Wizard back. “Find someone who—“ Some massive object impacted them both, cutting him off and sending them clattering to the floor. When his wits returned to him, he saw a large rock lying not far away, and the Dealer Wizard was currently swinging his pick at the terminal. Sparks erupted from the screen, and the halls turned red as an alarm sounded. “You know, I’m actually a little glad you showed up,” he said as he stepped out of the room. “I can’t deal with you as quietly as that showboating screenwriter, so now going back to my typical boring role is out of the question.” Copper struggled to his feet. “I should have figured that Dealer’s spy would be as inconspicuous as possible.” The Wizard shrugged. “Wouldn’t have helped. Normally even I don’t know I’m a spy, not until I get activated by the higher-ups. Let’s me mine as much data as I need without raising any suspicion.” Magnes was getting up now. Keeping himself between the two Wizards, Copper said, “I have to admit, that’s a good strategy. So who activated you this time? And what is it you’re trying to accomplish?” The Wizard struck the floor with his pick; in the next second, a wall had formed behind Copper and Magnes, trapping them in the hallway. He then rested the weapon on his shoulder and said, “No need to worry about that.” Copper reached back, determining how much space was between him and the wall. Turning slightly towards Magnes, he whispered, “Magnes. I’ll distract him, but I need you to get past him into that room.” Magnes jumped. “What?!” “Shh! Just get the Hunter, okay? Can you do that?” More quietly, Magnes said, “I…I guess, but—“ The spy raised his pickaxe, and Copper threw himself forward. He managed to grab the handle of the pick and push it aside, which surprised the spy a little; with a bit of hesitation, Magnes took the opportunity to run at the room. Seeing this, the spy reached towards the door, but Copper anticipated this: he jumped and grabbed onto the spy’s armor, and then jammed his weapon into the opening beneath his helmet and fired point-blank. Unfortunately, when the spy stumbled, he wound up right in Magnes’s path. Magnes shrieked and backed away. The spy grabbed Copper and tossed him aside, and then swung his pickaxe through the doorway to create a pile of rubble that almost totally blocked it off. “Huh…not bad,” the spy said. “But you don’t have the firepower to stop me!” His pickaxe struck the floor again. This time, a burst of hot magma erupted up and surged forward, opening a fissure as it traveled and knocking Magnes against the wall. Copper kept his guard up as the spy faced him, but he knew there was little he could hope to do. “You there!” The spy rotated. Down the hallway stood Dr. Vega, holding something behind her back and pointing right at him with her free hand. With a laugh, he said, “What do you want?” Vega narrowed her eyes at him. “You’ve done something to Hyde, haven’t you? I demand he be returned unharmed!” “And why would I do that?” “Because I have something you want as well.” Vega pulled her arm from behind her back, revealing that she held a small container with a sample of Crimson in it. “Whatever it is you’re doing, losing a spy here will be quite the loss to Dealer. Perhaps your superior will be less upset if you manage to bring some Crimson back with you?” Copper eyed the container—it was only a fraction of what they had brought back, but he hoped the spy didn’t know that. The corrupted Wizard said nothing at first, but then suddenly grabbed Copper by the collar and hoisted him into the air. “How about this. You give me that Noise, and I’ll let this guy go.” “No,” Vega said. “The deal is for Hyde.” The spy pressed his pick against Copper’s neck. “Really? You don’t care about this one?” “Not especially, no.” Copper grunted. I’m touched. “…Okay then,” the spy said. “If you care so much about Mr. Dramatic, I’ll tell you where he is. But you’re going to give me that Crimson first—and if you try anything funny, I’m going to tear this guy open, and I bet your superiors won’t be very thrilled about that.” Vega pursed her lips. “…Very well.” The spy slowly made his way down the hall, still carrying Copper in one hand. He and Vega watched each other carefully as they approached, each waiting to see if the other was going to try anything, but soon they were only a step away and the spy came to a stop. Reaching out slowly, he dropped Copper and snatched up the Crimson. He took a few steps back to examine it, and then looked back at Vega, chuckling quietly. “Now,” Vega said, “where is Mr. Hyde?” The spy raised his pickaxe. “Nah, I changed my mind.” Vega snapped her fingers. Instantly, the Crimson exploded, shattering its container and driving shards of itself into the spy’s shoulder and along the side of his face. He screamed and threw himself against the wall—Vega grabbed Copper’s arm and pulled him behind her as they skirted the spy and headed back the way he had come. “I trust you’ve already deduced my assistant’s location?” Vega asked. “Well, I’ve got an idea,” Copper said as he looked up ahead. The spy had recovered now, and turned to glare at his escaping foes. Past them, however, he saw Magnes standing next to the entrance he had destroyed, arms outstretched and glowing as he magnetically pulled the Hunter through the air towards him. The spy shouted and raised his axe again, but again Vega snapped, and the remaining shards of Crimson burst into even tinier bits. Magnes plucked the Hunter from the air just as Vega and Copper caught up to him, at which point they took him by the arms and rushed him around the corner. “Nice job!” Copper said as he took the device. “Th…thanks,” Magnes said. “But, why do we need that?” “He obviously didn’t want us to have it. And since he mentioned an easy way of dealing with Hyde, I figured he probably meant—“ A tremor rocked the building. Suddenly, the walls around them shifted, cutting off their path ahead and also giving them a straight line of sight to where the spy stood. He raised his open hand, and what appeared to be a bundle of dynamite appeared between his fingers. “Detective!” Vega shouted. Copper dashed the Hunter against the floor, breaking it into nearly a dozen pieces. A bright flash of light followed and then, the next thing they knew, Hyde was standing there, Wave Changed and looking very disoriented. “Urgh,” he groaned, “truly an atrocious experience…I’ve got a nasty review for whoever directed that one.” Vega’s face lit up. “Hyde—you’re alright!” Turning sharply, Hyde said, “Ah? Oh, Lady Vega! Have I you to thank for—“ Copper spun Hyde around and pointed at the spy, who was already preparing his throw. “Focus!” The fuse on the dynamite became lit as it soared through the air. Hyde swung his cane and a portion of the wall went dark. Soon enough, a shadowy hand emerged from it and caught the dynamite, the explosion consuming the appendage but not reaching far enough to harm Hyde or his companions. When the smoke cleared, Hyde straightened his hat and glared at their foe. “So this is your true form, eh?” he mused. “Well I have to call you something, but a simple being demands a simple name…thus I think ‘Gold Miner’ suits you nicely.” The spy struck the floor to create another magma fissure as Hyde knocked out a wall. Vega, Copper, and Magnes made their escape through the opening, meanwhile Hyde carefully dodged the wave of flame and went to make his counterattack. They weren’t far before Vega looked back. “Should we really leave him on his own?” she asked. “There’s nothing else we can do,” Copper said. “I can’t do much more than distract him, and Magnes isn’t built for combat.” “Up ahead is a weapons lab—we should search for something useful there!” Copper hesitated. “I thought you were eager to join to the fight, detective?” “Fine, we’ll check. But there’d better be something good!” They ran up to the door and waited as Vega threw it open. She took one step inside, and then she froze up. Copper stepped in behind her and immediately saw why. On the far side of the room stood Jack and Tia, pendants in hand; Jack turned at their entrance, but Tia did not, for she was too busy pointing a weapon directly at Plesio. “Great, more of ‘em,” Jack said. “Sis, let’s hurry and get out of here!” Tia did not answer, keeping her dull gaze locked on Plesio’s equally dead eyes. She heard Copper take a step forward, so she did the same. Copper didn’t move again. “So it was you,” Vega said. “You activated the spy to help you escape!” “Plesio,” Copper said, “are you alright?” Plesio turned to look at him. “…I guess.” Copper nodded, and then turned back to Tia. “This has gone far enough, you two. Put down the weapon and come with me.” “Why the would we do that?” Jack asked. “You’re in no position to order us around, old man.” “Stop this at once!” Vega said. “Why do you seek to continue this battle? What does Dealer offer you—why would you want to go back there?” “Who said we’re going back to Dealer? We’re done with that idiot King, just as soon as—“ “Jack,” Tia interrupted. “Er…right.” “We are leaving,” Tia said, now addressing Copper and Vega. “If you attempt to stop us, this Wizard will be terminated.” Plesio turned back to look at her. Vega said, “Why? What would you gain from hurting him? He’s done nothing to you!” Jack glanced at Plesio, and the PM-ian met his gaze. The boy shifted uncomfortably. “You can’t be so cruel you would harm an innocent bystander just to—“ “Doctor,” Copper interrupted. “…Let’s not antagonize them.” Slowly, Vega nodded. Tia raised her pendant, and it emitted a red flash: a Noise Wave entrance appeared behind her, and she tapped Jack’s shoulder as she slowly backed towards it. Jack’s eyes lingered on Plesio for a moment, but then he jumped through the portal, and in a few seconds Tia was through it as well. It snapped shut before anyone could even think of following them. Vega and Copper both let out the breath they had been holding. Plesio turned to face them. “Why did you let them escape?” Copper gave him a troubled look. “What? Plesio, if we did anything they were going to delete you.” “So? They’re more useful to you than I am. You just let your only prisoners get away.” Copper shook his head, walking over to the side of the room. “No prisoner is worth letting someone die. It doesn’t matter how ‘useful’ you think you are, Plesio: we value your life. We’re not going to let anyone harm you. Now, get somewhere safe—we’ve still got a threat to deal with.” Plesio watched silently as Vega approached a terminal. “We can talk about those two later. For now, see if you can find something to help Hyde!” After a few more seconds, Plesio made his way over to Magnes, asking, “What’s going on?” “Mr. Hyde is fighting someone who looks pretty tough right now,” Magnes answered. “He might be okay, but they want to make sure he’ll win.” “Hyde? Copper doesn’t like him. Why does he want to help him?” “Well…uh…I don’t know. I guess it’s like he said: he just doesn’t want to let someone die.” “Even Hyde?” Magnes could only give a nod. Plesio turned to look at Copper as he frantically surveyed several half-completed weapons. “Shoot,” Vega said, “he’s completely reformatted the system! Everything’s scrambled: archives, comms, I think that alarm is the only thing that’s actually working!” “See what you can do to unscramble it,” Copper said as he picked up a small cannon. “This one looks like our best bet. I’m going to go give it a try!” He turned towards the door, but Plesio was in his way. “Isn’t it dangerous?” Copper sighed. “Yes, it is.” Plesio tilted his head. “…You could die, couldn’t you?” “I could. Please, I need to get past.” “…I…don’t want you to die,” Plesio said. Copper didn’t know what to say. He struggled to think of something, but he stopped when Plesio came forward and nudged his Hunter. “You won’t die if I help you.” “…I appreciate that, Plesio,” Copper said. “But are you really sure that’s what you want?” Plesio paused for a second. Then, he nodded, and said, “Yes. It is.” Despite the situation, Copper smiled at him. Setting the cannon down, he drew his Hunter and said, “Alright. Let’s go—I’ll register a Transcode on the way.” He and Plesio left the room, with Magnes gradually making his way over to Vega’s side. It wasn’t long before they made it to the area where Hyde and Miner were fighting, although it looked a bit different than Copper had left it, more like an arena of sorts. Hyde and a few illusory copies of him were circling around the spy, but he seemed quite unconcerned. When Hyde attacked with his cane it didn’t even scratch Miner’s armor. Miner responded with a powerful swing of his pick that sent Hyde skidding backwards. “Are you ready, Plesio?” Copper asked. The PM-ian nodded, so Copper raised his Hunter. “Transcode 015: Plesio Surf!” The resulting fusion was very similar to Plesio in shape, with a mostly orange body that had a few narrow lines of tan running from one end to the other and a dark blue crystal on either side. The long neck was orange on top, tan on the bottom, with a thin layer of black to separate them, and this pattern continued all the way down the long snout, broken only by massive green eyes and a blue crystal that sat atop the head on a small antenna. Copper wasted no time getting used to his new form: he immediately lunged at the surprised Miner and snapped his jaws shut around him. The spy shouted, but quickly dug his pick into the side of Copper’s face to free himself. “Detective?” Hyde called. “I must say, this is something of a shocking twist.” “Can it!” Copper said as he pulled back. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about!” “Or perhaps, bigger fish to fry?” Miner growled at them. “Back-up, huh? That won’t save you. I’ll bring this whole building down to mark your grave!” He formed a boulder in his hand and hurled it as he advanced. Copper smacked the floor: a tidal wave sprung up to intercept the rock, but Miner maintained his footing, and the detective found himself feeling a bit drained. “You’re not used to that,” Plesio noted. Hyde seized the opportunity. He moved right in front of Miner and struck him with his cane, the soaked Wizard being stunned by the surge of electricity, and then kicked up a shockwave to batter his foe as he pulled back again. “But it worked,” Phantom said. “Continue using that! We’ll keep him stunned and make quick work of him!” “No,” Plesio said. “What?! You, of all people, are questioning my plan?” “Copper can’t keep using that. We’re going to submerge.” “We can do that?” Copper asked. The crystals along his body lit up, and suddenly he sank into the floor like it was water, only his head staying above the surface. “Stay alert.” Miner had hurled a bundle of dynamite their way. Copper withdrew his head to avoid the explosion, while Hyde teleported away and threw his hat to little effect. When Copper resurfaced he snapped at Miner again, but that was when his helmet suddenly grew into a massive dome around him, completely shielding him from the attack. Hitting the barrier sent the detective reeling, giving Miner a chance to sweep him away with a magma fissure when he emerged. Miner was quick to raise his pick again, but a shadowy hand came from the floor behind him, grabbing the weapon and trying to wrest it away from him. “Do it now!” Phantom shouted. “Douse him again, Plesio!” “Shoot him,” Plesio said. Copper opened his mouth and fired a focused blast of lightning. Miner saw it coming and ducked, hurling another boulder to force Copper back under. Hyde swept in while he was distracted, but he did little damage before Miner ripped his pick free and rammed it into Hyde’s gut. “Obey my plan!” Phantom said. “Know your place, Plesio!” Copper resurfaced. Miner opened another magma fissure, but this time a small whirlpool appeared in its path, creating a thick veil of steam that obscured Copper from view. The next electric blast hit Miner dead in the chest. “D…darn it,” Miner grunted. “Where are you?” He looked around frantically, but there was no indication of where Copper was hiding. Hyde, however, still lay at his feet. “…Well then…if you’re gonna be a coward!” He brought his pickaxe down on the man. It passed right through him. The next thing Miner knew, he felt a sharp pain in his side, and realized Hyde was there, jamming his cane into a hole left by Copper’s bite. “So sorry,” Hyde said, “had to call in a stunt double on that one.” Miner swung his arm to fend Hyde off, and then turned his helmet into a dome again to prevent Copper from taking advantage of the opening. Mumbling to himself, he formed a bundle of dynamite in his hands and took a moment to listen: he could hear someone not far away. Lighting the dynamite, he readied to dismiss his barrier and immediately throw. That was when he noticed the ripples beneath him. “Wh—“ Copper’s jaws rose up from the floor and snapped around him. He didn’t stay long, however, leaving Miner alone and writhing as he tried to get back on his feet. As he turned, he realized that the dynamite’s fuse was still burning. “Oh—“ The explosion was contained by the helmet, which faded away soon after. Copper and Hyde came forward to examine Miner, who lay battered on the floor before them, in too much pain to move. “I’d say that’s a wrap,” Hyde declared. “So then, how shall we take this fellow into custody, my dear detective?” “Heh,” Miner grunted. “Screw you…you’re not getting anything from me…” “Oh I’m sure we can find some way to make you talk. But let’s save that for another time, shall we?” Miner chuckled. Suddenly, his body began to glow with red light—Copper and Hyde backed away as he became enveloped in a ball of Noise that shrunk rapidly, growing smaller and smaller until it totally faded from view. The two of them stared on in disbelief. “Typical spy tactics, I suppose,” Hyde said. “Thank you for your assistance Mr. Copper, and you as well Plesio. Defeating him by myself would no doubt have taken quite a lot more time.” “If it happened at all,” Copper huffed. “It would have!” Phantom insisted. “I am a tactical genius—I would most certainly have discovered a way of winning without your help!” “Your plans don’t work,” Plesio said flatly. “That’s why I ignored them.” “How dare you!” “Anyway,” Copper interrupted, “we should evacuate anyone who’s still in the building. There’s no telling how much structural damage has been caused by all this shifting ground.” “That makes sense,” Hyde said. “I assume Lady Vega is still nearby?” “In the lab down the hall. And once she’s out, do come back and help some other people, will you?” “Of course, of course.” As they went their separate ways, Copper said, “We’re really in your debt, Plesio. Thank you for helping out today.” “Sure,” Plesio said. “It was…kind of nice. To be able to help out a little more.” He took a very long pause. “Maybe I’d like to keep helping out.” Copper smiled. “We’ll take you up on that.” ***
  13. Kiina: "Put your hands in the air!" Zesk: "...and wave 'em like you just don't care?" Ackar: "Zesk, not...not now."
  14. I updated MULTIPLE things in November!

  15. SECTION XIII “They fear you,” the voice said. “You understand why, of course?” Antroz did not answer it. “Yes, you must. No doubt you hope to regain their trust? That is impossible. It is as Zaekura said: you have been nothing but a burden to everyone here. Why should they ever expect that to change?” Antroz turned sharply at the sound of someone climbing the staircase. From where she stood atop the watchtower, she drew her sword, faced the steps, and reached down with her mind, trying to identify the newcomer as quickly as possible. Upon realizing it was Bitil, she let out a heavy sigh and sheathed her weapon. Bitil emerged soon after and eyed Antroz warily. “Lady Zaekura tells me you’re hearing voices?” “Just one,” Antroz mumbled. “…I am not insane, Bitil. Someone is here, someone I cannot properly sense. We could all be in very grave danger!” “Yes, that’s how a lot of us feel.” Antroz faced him. “I’m not going to hurt anyone. I know my behavior must appear strange, but—“ “Antroz, just stop for a moment,” Bitil interrupted. He took a step forward and set a hand on Antroz’s shoulder. “I know that you wouldn’t simply make up such a tale, but at the same time, I can’t exactly believe something so…well, ridiculous. So I ask you to consider that perhaps the stress of our situation is taking its toll on you, and—“ “I told you, I am not insane!” Bitil scowled at her. “Let me tell you something, Antroz: the word ‘insane’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s just used by people who are afraid of deviations in thought they don’t understand. So stop saying it, and acknowledge that, for one reason or another, your thoughts have deviated. And that you need to handle that problem.” Antroz was slow to absorb his words, but absorb them she did. She realized that her teeth and fists were clenched; relaxing them, she took a deep breath, and then stepped back and out of Bitil’s reach. “Why don’t you take a walk?” Bitil suggested. “Get some fresh air, a change of scenery—maybe that will help to clear your head.” Turning away, Antroz said, “You just want me out of everyone’s way.” Bitil brushed some sand off his armor. “…Fine. Whatever is happening, I suppose what I’m doing now is only making it worse. Trying something new does seem the wiser approach.” Antroz took a step towards the stairs, but then paused. “Keep an eye out. If I am right, if someone is here—“ “Yes, yes, I’ll be vigilant,” Bitil said. “Go enjoy your stroll. Just don’t wander too far.” With some lingering reluctance, Antroz made her way down the stairs, across the outpost, and out into the nearby desert. As she trudged up a nearby dune, she heard nothing but the sand beneath her feet. She paused at its peak. Silence greeted her, and in light of recent events, it was the most wonderful thing she had ever heard. Perhaps Bitil was right, she thought. Perhaps, with this, I can— “Why have you stopped?” The desert sun did nothing to fight the cold emptiness that overtook her. “He’s right, of course. A monster like you doesn’t belong with other people—not even with those lesser monsters Bitil tends. You belong out here, on your own, where you can do no more harm to anyone else.” Antroz broke into a run. She was barely aware of the path ahead as she barreled forward, hoping that somehow she could escape this tormentor, but it followed, taunting her all the way. Eventually her feet stopped. She dropped to her knees, facing up towards the sun as a small sigh escaped her. “Why?” she croaked. “I’ve done everything I can think of, yet you still won’t stop. Why is this happening? When will it end?” What she heard was not what she expected. Something shifted—she could hear the sand moving about a bio away. Antroz scrambled to her feet and reached out over the area. To her dismay, she could sense nothing where she had thought the sound had come from; a bit farther away, however, she sensed a living being, and her mind focused directly upon them. They seemed to be a Matoran, judging from their size, and they sat at the base of a sand dune a few hundred paces ahead. She could sense their presence, but for some reason, she was unable to glean even the slightest glimpse of their mind. Antroz grew curious, and for a moment that was enough to break through her panic. What is a Matoran doing out here? They won’t be able to survive in these conditions for long. And why is it that their thoughts— “What will you do, Antroz?” the voice asked. “Leave them to die, maybe? No one would ever know.” With a grunt, Antroz stalked off in the Matoran’s direction. She slowed to a less threatening gait as she drew near, also veering off to the side to be sure they would see her approaching. They didn’t move when they spotted her. “Hello there,” Antroz said, coming to a stop a few steps away. The Matoran gave an odd smirk. “Well hello. If I’m not mistaken, aren’t you the noble Makuta Antroz?” “He thinks you are ‘noble’,” the voice said. “How mistaken he is.” Antroz froze for a moment. Doing her best to ignore the voice, she said, “Ah, yes, I am. May I ask what brings you out here? It’s quite unusual to find a Matoran roaming the desert.” The Matoran leaned back and set his hand against the dune. “Who, me? I’m out here on business. What about you? Taking a look around, so to speak?” “Such vagueness,” the voice said. “He doesn’t trust you. And why should he?” Antroz fought back against the rising panic. “I, uh…suppose you could say that. Are…are you certain you are alright? I would be happy to lend you assistance should you require it.” “Hm, actually,” the Matoran said, “there is something you can do for me, oh honorable Makuta Antroz.” Her confusion at his words were lost in her relief at the voice’s silence. “And, what might that be?” The Matoran pushed his hand back into the sand. “Hold still.” He moved quicker than she had ever known a Matoran to move. Drawing a scythe from the sand, he lunged forward and swung at her, catching her totally off guard and slicing a long opening down the front of her armor. As she realized what had happened, all she could do was stumble away and yelp, “Wha?!” The Matoran swung again. This time Antroz was able to turn away, but she couldn’t quite get clear, and the sickle lopped off her wings like they were blades of grass. Antroz finally managed to hurl herself away from her assailant, and hastily drew her sword before he could close the distance. Antidermis spilled out of her body from either side—it was fortunate she did not rely on her eyes, else her own bleeding would have been enough to blind her. “Wh…who are you?” Antroz asked. “No Matoran should be able to wound a Makuta!” “Ah yes, I should take this chance to introduce myself.” The Matoran held his scythe off to one side as he bowed. “My name is Nidhiki, oh esteemed Makuta. And I think you’ll find I’m a bit more than a mere Matoran.” Antroz repeated the name in her head, and soon enough she remembered. “Nidhiki…you were the one who attacked Atero. The one who tried to let the Zyglak into the academic district!” Nidhiki laughed, lifting his scythe to rest it on his shoulder. “That’s right, that’s what it was! It’s been so long that I forgot what it was I did. I was such a fool in those days…but, in the end, it was that foolishness that led me to my true purpose.” “Miserix apprehended you,” Antroz said. “You were to be taken to Karzahni! How are you…” As the realization dawned, she once again felt a cold emptiness. “Then…you were selected?” “Indeed I was! My crimes were too grave to be forgiven, but the Keeper saw potential in me. Instead of Karzahni, I was taken to Odina. I suffered just the same, but now, I find myself thinking far more clearly than ever before. At one time I sought to sully the laws of the Great Beings…but now, I know that they must be upheld. They must, no matter the cost.” He laughed. “Funny: isn’t that what you once thought?” Antroz kept her sword high. There’s no reasoning with an Odinan. No doubt he’s been sent to capture Zaekura…so why hasn’t he attacked the outpost? She adjusted her stance as Nidhiki readied his scythe. No, that’s not important right now. This could be my only chance to stop him. Antroz pulled her sword back and leaned forward. A fireball struck her in the back, hitting her wound directly and vaporizing a large piece of her essence. The Makuta cried out in pain, slumping forward as Nidhiki ran at her; she managed to fire a light bolt, but Nidhiki leapt over it and twisted as he flew over her, hooking his scythe into her chest wound and prying her armor open further before running away. Another fireball hit Antroz as she turned around. Where is that coming from? Antroz hurled a surge of magnetic energy from her palm, trying to immobilize Nidhiki. He jumped as she fired, but this time, two massive gusts of air shot from the soles of his feet, flinging him high into the sky and well away from Antroz’s attack. Not allowing herself to be shocked, Antroz instead moved to intensify the gravity around Nidhiki. But, suddenly, Nidhiki was not in the air anymore: he was behind her. “How—?!” She narrowly evaded another slash, but a fireball found its way inside her armor. No, it was worse than that: an entire combustive reaction was taking place inside her body, searing away antidermis until only a tiny cloud of it remained. Losing so much of her essence at once was overwhelming, and Antroz hit the ground, stunned and unable to even lift her sword. “There we are!” Nidhiki said as he stepped forward. “Now, to make you a bit more…travel-sized.” He produced a small sphere made of transparent crystal. Antroz recognized it instantly. She tried to teleport away, but she was still recovering from being incinerated, the pain too much for her to think clearly. Nidhiki held the sphere forward and prepared to speak. Before he could, two blasts suddenly shot down from the sky, one of them striking him head-on. He looked about in confusion, holding his scythe ready, and Antroz tried again to teleport. This time, however, something grabbed her, an item was pressed into her hand, and she found herself being carried away from the Odinan by two Rahkshi. Antroz recognized them quickly once she had a moment to think. One was Serk, the Rahkshi of Heat Vision who had manned the walls during the battle at the outpost—the singular “eye” atop his head made him easy to remember. The second was a Chameleon Rahkshi, and she made sure to keep Antroz’s hand firmly around the chain that both she and Serk held onto; thinking back, Antroz knew this one as well, and remembered that her name was Chloae. Seems Nidhiki can’t see any of us now…but, why did Serk launch two attacks? The Rahkshi carried Antroz up into the air, choosing a safe distance to hover and regain their bearings. Antroz felt Serk press his mind against hers—a part of it was being opened to her, and, tentatively, she entered. A second later, she saw what Serk saw. The sudden visual information left her head spinning at first, that sensation soon replaced by an odd sort of nostalgia, and that one giving way to more confusion at trying to figure out Serk’s unique, all-encompassing field of vision. Once she made sense of things, however, she spotted Nidhiki pacing the sands quietly. And not far away from him, she saw someone else. A Toa of Fire stood there, leveling a dead, emotionless gaze in the direction Serk’s attack had come from. For some reason, massive weights were attached to his feet—blocks of metal so massive that there was no way he could move them—and some sort of binding was wrapped around his torso, similarly locking his arms in place. Antroz probed the area with her mind, but she could not sense him, not even his physical presence. Such a thing baffled her. But as she thought about it, she finally figured out the truth of the situation. It’s him. He’s the one who’s been driving me to madness! Antroz’s fatigue at once gave way to a terrible rage. Thrusting her sword forward, she fired a wide beam of light in the Toa’s direction. He slowly turned to face it. And then, in the blink of an eye, he was standing several bio away. The attack hit the ground. But…that can’t be… She still hadn’t realized that she had given their position away. Nidhiki used his air gusts to launch himself directly at his targets, enduring more of Serk’s heat vision and swinging his scythe in a wide arc. Serk and Chloae decreased their altitude quickly, just barely getting them all clear of the weapon. Unfortunately, a pillar of flames was now rising up to meet them; finally focusing again, Antroz summoned a shield of plasma to push the fire back, and then held on tightly as the Rahkshi carried her aside. The Toa reappeared next to Nidhiki long enough for the Matoran to grab his shoulder, and then they both appeared on the ground. He’s wearing a Ruru. I don’t understand how he can teleport without a mask power. Then again…the Odinans do tend to have bizarre modifications made to them. This explains why no one else ever saw him. She gritted her teeth as rage filled her again. Serk grasped her shoulder, shaking his head violently. …Yes. I need to remain calm if we’re going to succeed here. The Toa inhaled deeply. The air around him shimmered, and then dozens of fireballs spewed out in every direction. The Rahkshi wove through them all carefully, but the attack grew more relentless as it continued, filling the entire sky with a thousand orbs of flame. Antroz thought fast as their running space slowly ran out. We need to subdue that one swiftly, and in one fell swoop. If we capture his partner first, or if he is injured but not incapacitated, he will certainly use this ability to flee, and we cannot allow that. So…we need a way to distract them both. She sheathed her sword, opting to hold onto Chloae’s chain with both hands. Summoning what strength she had left, Antroz called upon her powers of light, and nearly a dozen illusions of herself appeared on the battlefield. The Toa’s radial attack ceased. “Fine with me,” Nidhiki said as he faced one of the illusions. “More targets to cut down is never something you’ll hear me complain about!” Serk hissed something, and Antroz felt him shift in the direction of the outpost. She bumped against him mentally, stopping him in his tracks, and then pointed at the Toa. Serk hesitated. With an encouraging nod, Chloae aimed in that direction, and they slowly made their descent. Antroz watched their approach carefully, but at the same time she had to keep careful track of her illusions—each one Nidhiki cut through was useless, so she dismissed them to conserve energy, but if he discovered they were all fake it would place them back in their original position. The illusory Antrozes did their best to keep their distance. Nidhiki shot from one to the other, making fairly quick work of each, while the Toa just stood there with that same, dead look on his face. They were nearly there when Nidhiki stopped to count, seeing only three of Antroz remaining. He grinned and turned to his partner, saying, “Not going to lend me a hand, Kapura? Ah, I suppose I should watch my phrasing.” Automatically, Antroz thought back in an attempt to recognize the name. She did, but with so little focus to spare, that alone was enough to make all of her illusions waver. Kapura narrowed his eyes at this. No! She sent her Sleep power out in front of her, hoping to put the Toa under before he had a chance to act. It affected him: the fireballs he spawned flew off in random directions, and he slumped at an odd angle. But then he was somewhere else, out of range of Antroz’s blast. He straightened up immediately, and a single fireball far larger than all the others began to take shape over his head. The Rahkshi retreated, but Antroz knew they wouldn’t escape. She let go of the chain, becoming perfectly visible as she dropped to the ground; Kapura saw her immediately and hurled the fireball straight at her. Antroz’s armor glowed as she made herself invulnerable and absorbed the attack. When it was over, however, she collapsed once again, feeling even more drained now. Nidhiki ran at her. Antroz pushed herself up as Serk also shed his protection, charging through the air and ramming shoulder-first into a very confused Nidhiki. The Matoran flew back a short distance before vanishing, though his scythe soon dropped next to where he had disappeared, and all could hear the sound of him choking. Kapura quickly moved closer to him. He had enough time to create a small explosion, knocking Chloae and Nidhiki apart, but that delay was all Serk needed to sear shut the eyeholes of his Kanohi. Kapura twisted in place for a bit, feeling Serk’s heat vision now battering his entire body. He transported himself off in a random direction, but it was impossible for him to escape Serk’s gaze. Antroz extended her hand. Just…a bit…more… She waited until Kapura had just completed a movement. In that exact second, she focused upon where he stood, and a shimmer of light engulfed the Toa once again. This one, however, was a stasis field. And though he could not be physically restrained, suspending his mind within a single moment in time meant he could no longer use his ability, and that was all that was needed to defeat him utterly. Antroz gritted her teeth as she poured all her focus into maintaining that field. Nidhiki had reclaimed his scythe in the meantime, and he stopped eyeing Chloae when he realized Kapura had been trapped. His expression was one of pure horror. Then, his eyes glinted with a shine of desperation, and both Rahkshi started towards him. Throwing one foot out, Nidhiki fired off a gust that sent Chloae tumbling away. He then swung his foot in a wide arc, kicking up a massive cloud of sand, protecting himself from Serk’s heat vision and creating a warped wall of glass between them both. With one powerful leap, Nidhiki shot through the barrier and clipped Serk’s arm—the Rahkshi lost his balance, but he did his best to keep Kapura in his field of vision, not sure if Antroz could maintain the stasis field without his line of sight. It was only after ensuring that that he realized Nidhiki had landed right beside the Makuta. “Got you now!” Nidhiki said as he raised the sphere. “Zamor, con—“ He stopped short as an arrow knocked the ball from his hand. Nidhiki turned to see a third Rahkshi standing atop a nearby dune: Viq, the Rahkshi of Accuracy, with another arrow already in his bow. The Matoran gave a frustrated grunt. “I won’t fail!” He raised his scythe. “I promised the Keeper, there’s no way I can—“ Chloae appeared then, delivering a hook that knocked Nidhiki’s mask from his face. The Odinan swayed and fell, and Chloae was on him a second later, using her chain to bind his limbs so that she could be absolutely sure her foe was defeated. Viq lowered his bow as he approached the group. Serk, now back on his feet, turned to him and hissed in thanks. With only a short nod, Viq turned to Antroz. The Makuta was only vaguely aware of this. The pain she felt was still excruciating, and she was sure that if she slipped even a little, her hold on Kapura would be lost. Sparing as much energy as she dared, she managed to just barely breathe, “…Bitil…” Viq immediately took to the skies, soaring back towards the outpost at top speed. Chloae hauled Nidhiki off to the side while Serk crouched next to Antroz, and after a short hesitation, gently put pressure on her armor so that he could carefully weld shut the openings in it. He stopped after only a few seconds to make sure this didn’t break Antroz’s concentration. Seeing that it held, he then continued. He managed to patch up all the wounds by the time Viq returned with Bitil, as well as the healing Rahkshi Surja and another one that Antroz wasn’t sure she recognized. Bitil stopped in the middle of the scene to take it all in. “Antroz,” he muttered, “was it really so difficult to take a simple walk?” Surja waved Serk off and put both hands on Antroz’s back. Antroz immediately felt relief flow throughout her body, and let out a very long sigh. The other Rahkshi approached Kapura—she could tell now that they were a Rahkshi of Stasis, and they stopped in front of the field she had created to take a good look at it. The Rahkshi clapped their hands and then drew them apart: in the space between appeared a large, circular disk of energy, and they spun it around on one finger before tossing it up above the field. The disk floated down and landed atop the field, causing its whole expanse to flash and take on a more solid appearance. The Rahkshi turned and gave a thumbs-up to Antroz. Tentatively, she released her power. The field remained. “They’re Odinans,” Antroz said, slowly pushing herself into a sitting position. Surja looked a bit annoyed that she was moving, but said nothing. Bitil put a hand over his mouth. “…Oh dear. Oh, this is not good at all…” “And that one—“ She pointed at Kapura. “—can teleport of his own will. Not only is his mind shielded, but somehow his physical presence cannot be detected telepathically either. It was his voice I heard: teleporting next to me when no one else was around, because he is totally imperceptible to me. No doubt that’s why he was sent.” After regarding the captive Toa for a moment, Bitil closed his eyes and turned towards Antroz. “Then I owe you an apology, Antroz. It seems sending you out was the worst thing I could have done.” “…You had no way of knowing,” Antroz said. “I have no need to hold a grudge, especially not when your Rahkshi are the ones who saved me.” She turned individually to Serk, Chloae, Viq, Surja, and the one who stood next to Kapura’s stasis field. “Thank you all. I am in your debt.” The Rahkshi accepted her thanks, and it was then that Antroz realized she was still using Serk’s sight. She withdrew then, feeling a hint of sadness as her world went dark once more, and once again opened her mind to see for her. “Who do we have here anyway?” Bitil said, craning his neck to look at Nidhiki. “Not many Matoran criminals—and even fewer who get selected by Odina’s Keeper.” “Do you remember the Zyglak advance on Atero?” Antroz said. “That was him? Huh. And what about the other one?” “Toa Kapura. He was a traveling peacekeeper well-regarded for his wisdom…until just recently, when he tried to burn down a research facility. The Great Beings were quieter about that particular incident.” Bitil nodded, humming to himself. “And now they’ve both been inducted into that warrior cult…well, at least we subdued them. I doubt Nidhiki will be hard to keep restrained, and Erves has a lock on Kapura, though I suppose that still leaves a question of what to do with them.” Antroz shook her head. “We have bigger problems that that, Bitil. The Odinans never give up once the Great Beings have designated a target for them. On the rare occasions where their operatives fail, they have always answered by sending other, stronger agents in search of that prey…and in all this time, they have never failed twice.” “Right,” Bitil said, his hand twitching a bit. “We’ll need to be far more cautious. But for the time being, why don’t we appreciate the victory? It looks like you fought hard for it.” After a short pause, Antroz hung her head and murmured, “You’ve no idea.” Bitil smiled, coming over to crouch down in front of her. “Once Surja says you’re safe to move, we’ll all head back and you can get some rest. I’ll see to it you have some peace and quiet for a change.” “…Thank you, Bitil. I think that’s exactly what I need.” It wasn’t much longer before the party got moving. As they re-entered the outpost, a large crowd gathered, the Rahkshi all curious to see who these prisoners were. Antroz turned when she sensed Zaekura nearby. The Glatorian stared at her for a moment, and then turned and walked the other way. ADDENDUM: -Only a few hours to spare, but I got it out in November! Arbitrary, yes, but I’ll take what accomplishments I can achieve. -“[The word ‘insane’ is] just used by people who are afraid of deviations in thought they don’t understand. And also by teenage edgelords who think it makes them cool. It doesn’t.” -While the Odinans are obviously primarily this universe’s equivalent of the Dark Hunters, the fact that they answer to the Great Beings prompted a bit of influence from the Order of Mata Nui to find its way in; the main way this comes through is that all agents have mental shielding, but there might be more connections later on. Anyway, the story is that a long time ago, someone now known only as the Keeper of Odina made an arrangement with the Great Beings: that if a criminal is condemned but the Keeper thinks they have potential, the condemned is sent to Odina and undergoes arduous training to become an efficient killing machine wholly loyal to the Keeper and the Great Beings. When the Great Beings need someone hunted down, they contact the Keeper, who analyzes the situation and sends suitable operatives to accomplish the task. How their frightfully intense loyalty is instilled in them, or how they develop the varied and bizarre abilities they display, is a secret to all but the Odinans. -Again, Nidhiki was just an obvious pick for a starter Odinan. He carries a scythe much like his prime universe counterpart (and thought it would be fun to let an enemy force into his home city), but being a Matoran means he cannot use Kanohi or Elemental Powers. His ability to generate gusts from his feet are the result of implants made to forcibly draw out and focus the dormant Air energy within him, but I’ll get more into that in the next Section. -Since Nidhiki was more general (and I already killed Krekka), I wanted his partner to be more tailored to Antroz specifically. Someone who could only be seen, not sensed, who could torment her and lead her and her allies to believe she was losing her stability. With mental shielding being standard for Odinans, I thought it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine some advanced method that makes the user totally imperceptible via psychic means, which just left the problem of getting them in and out before anyone else saw them. There were options here, but in the end I really came to like the idea of Kapura. (Come to find out he was very briefly mentioned in Brothers In Arms, so that’s why I specified the GBs were quiet about his crime so it wouldn’t necessarily contradict Macku’s statement in canon.) The restraints are to “help” him master his ability to travel great distances by moving very slowly—it becomes far easier to learn when you can’t move at all. I haven’t hammered out all the specifics of the ability, but its range is fairly limited just by necessity. There needed to be a way to defeat him, and that would’ve been very difficult if he could have just teleported back to Odina at a moment’s notice. -The Zamor Nidhiki has is specially modified to forcibly trap a Makuta’s antidermis—Antroz is aware that such items were made as a failsafe in case of rogue Makuta. It is possible to resist the containment, however, which is why Kapura burns away so much of her essence: to leave her weak and unable to escape. I’ll probably go over this in the next Section, just wanted to clarify here in case there was any confusion. -Probably won’t re-introduce the Rahkshi every single time they become relevant, but it has been a while, and I feel like the ones that don’t talk might not stick as well. Especially since a lot of them were introduced all at once. Heck, even I forgot Chloae’s name until I went looking for it. Anyway, when Kapura appeared to prod Antroz deeper into the desert, they were still just barely in view of the outpost—Serk spotted a second figure, so he grabbed Chloae and they charged off to see what was happening. Viq noticed them leave and followed at a slower pace, he was just curious what they were up to. -I needed a Rahkshi that could make a stasis field permanent, and I got the image of them stuffing their enemy into a jar they could place on a shelf. So Erves (from “preserves”) just creates a lid for the field, screw it on top, and BAM: enemy in a jar! There’s a lot of fun to be had in twisting these weird Rahkshi powers Lego gave us. -It’ll be a while still before the Keeper is positive that Nidhiki and Kapura have failed—longer still for them to select a new team, and then that team will need travel time, so we’ll be able to get another few events in before more Odinans attack. Next time, however, we’ll be doing something I’ve been wanting to show ever since The Gargoyle Knight! -Reviews to be submitted here
  16. Off-Screen Voice: "How are you lifting him? Isn't he heavy?" Mata Nui: "He ain't heavy" Mata Nui: "HE'S MY BROTHER"
  17. So at least I updated one thing in November

  18. Chapter 22 “What do you mean it was destroyed?!” Rosa asked. On her Transer screen, Boreal shook his head. “I went to check on the equipment first thing, but it’s been smashed to bits. Whoever it was, they were thorough: I don’t think we can salvage anything. I’m sorry, Rosa.” Rosa rubbed her temple. “And it was this hard to find someone who would even agree to work with us…can we afford to replace everything?” “It’s…hard to say for sure…” “Walters must have found out somehow. We’ll need to be more careful going forward.” “I don’t suppose our friend could help us out with this part too?” Rosa picked at the bench beneath her. “Too late to ask. She’s officially off the grid—even I can’t get ahold of her.” “Oh,” Boreal said, brightening up a bit. “That sounds like good news, though! Maybe she’s got something.” “It’s hard to tell, but we can dream. She seemed to get along with Kelvin and Hope for some reason, so I…” She trailed off, looking down at herself. An incredibly sharp pain had just appeared in her chest, but it was gone just as suddenly. “Rosa?” “Uh, sorry. The point is, we can’t just leave it all to her. I’ll go over my finances and see what I can work out. In the meantime, would you look into some hired security? The third time might be the charm, but there’s no way our funds will stretch that far.” “I’ll do what I can,” Boreal said, leaning slightly out of frame to write something down. “Unless I have any good news, I’ll see you on Monday.” Rosa said goodbye and closed her Transer, taking a moment to put a hand to her chest and breathe deeply. Nothing felt out of the ordinary. Pushing the matter away, she looked up towards the playground, smiling as she realized Sonia was running over. “Mama, did you see?” Sonia said as she bounced onto the bench. “I swung real high, even higher than the other kids!” “That’s wonderful, Sonia!” she said, immediately hugging her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. I was on the phone with Mr. Boreal about an important project.” “That’s okay, Mama—I can do it again! Oh, but the kids I was playing with had to go home, so I can’t show you I was higher than them…” “That’s okay, I believe you. Of course my incredible daughter can do incredible things!” Rosa set her hand on Sonia’s head, and the girl giggled for a moment before getting a thoughtful look in her eye. “Hey, Mama, did your Mama say the same thing to you?” For just a moment, Rosa frowned. Catching herself, she smiled an almost-convincing smile and answered, “Ah, well…my relationship with my Mama was a bit different.” Sonia reached up, picking Rosa’s hand up off her head so she could hold it. “You never talk about your family. The other kids were talking about their grandpas and aunts and cousins…what’s the rest of our family like? Can I meet them?” Rosa’s façade only cracked further as she stroked Sonia’s hair. “I’d like that, Sonia…I have tried to make it happen. A lot of times, actually. But I’ve never gotten an answer, so…I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. I’m sorry.” She kissed Sonia’s forehead. The girl gave her a confused look, saying, “That doesn’t sound very nice. Why would they act like that?” Rosa put her arm around Sonia’s shoulder. As her daughter leaned against her, Rosa looked up at the sky. “Well…a few years ago, my family and I really disagreed about something; something I really wanted, that was very important to me, and they were dead-set against. It wasn’t the kind of thing we could compromise on. But it was my choice to make, and I went through with it…and my parents haven’t spoken to me since.” “What?!” Sonia said. “That’s terrible!” She paused for a moment before mumbling, “They sound like…bad people.” Rosa just stared up into the sky for a few seconds, taking all the time she needed to figure out what she needed to say. “Well, Sonia, I think that more often than not…people aren’t just ‘bad’. We all have our own reasons for doing the things that we do: the things that others have told us, the things that we experience, they all affect us in ways we don’t even realize, turning each and every one of us into our own individual, unique person. I think most people want to do what they think is right. But because we’re all so different, sometimes people disagree on what the right thing to do is. Or sometimes, people get confused, or misguided, and do something they’re not sure is right because they’re also not sure if it’s wrong.” Sonia squirmed. “I don’t think I get it, Mama.” Rosa chuckled, nudging her gently. “Sorry, kiddo. People are a lot more complicated than they seem—even I don’t fully understand it!” “So…you don’t think your family are bad people?” “No, I don’t. We’re just different. But we all share a stubborn streak that makes working out those differences way harder than it needs to be.” She chuckled softly. “If I end up passing that onto you, I’m sorry. Just remember: there are times to be stubborn, and times to not be stubborn. Okay?” Sonia nodded. “Okay! I’ll remember, Mama!” Rosa patted her on the head again, and then returned to looking up at the sky. Sonia looked that way as well. “…Mama?” “Hm?” “Do you miss your family?” “…Yeah. I do.” “Do you…do you regret doing whatever it was you wanted to do?” Rosa turned and smiled at Sonia. This time, it was genuine. “Not at all.” She hugged Sonia again, but when they parted, that same pain came back. Turning aside, she leaned forward and found herself coughing uncontrollably. “Mama?!” Sonia cried, latching onto her shirt. Thankfully it didn’t last long. Rosa turned back to Sonia and said, “S-Sorry, kiddo, I’m fine. Must’ve gotten something stuck in my throat, I guess.” “Are you sure you’re okay?” “Yeah, I am. Sorry to worry you.” Sonia let out a sigh of relief. “Hey, why don’t you show me how high you can swing?” Cheering up again, Sonia nodded and scampered off. While she had her back turned, Rosa rubbed her throat, and then opened her Transer to type something into it. *** Sonia snapped to attention as Jack was brought into the room. She looked from him, to Boreal, to Ace, to the one-way mirror through which they could see Tia in the room beyond. …I’m…not sure… Jack stopped and glared at Ace. “What are you doing here?” Ace smiled. “It’s good to see you again, Jack. Hey, have you gotten taller?” “Shut up! I’m not here to see you!” Craning his neck, he spotted Tia. He started forward, but his escort held him back. Boreal stepped forward. “Jack,” Boreal said. “We need you to give us the information now.” “I’ll tell you after I talk to her,” Jack said, refusing to make eye contact with the man. “No, Jack. Either you tell us now, or we call this whole thing off.” Sonia bit her lip. “…Fine,” Jack grumbled. “Listen up, alright? It’ll be four days from now. Joker’s going to attack WBG Studios, make all the Wizards there go crazy and generate as much Crimson as he can. That’s all I heard.” The studio again? Sonia thought. That’s not a lot of time. We need to make sure everyone’s out before then. Boreal waited a moment before stepping aside. The officer brought Jack over to a door, opened it just enough to push him through, and then stepped back. Everyone’s eyes then turned to the mirror. Tia looked up as Jack stumbled into the room. Her face showed actual surprise as she said, “Jack?” “Sis!” Jack said, running over to her. “You’re okay! I’m so glad…” Tia’s expression dulled slightly (though not entirely) as she stood up. “Jack, what are you doing here?” “King had me attack the school.” Sonia didn’t know what to call Tia’s split-second reaction. “He said if I killed Harp Note, he’d break you out. So, I did my best…but…” He scratched his head, his eyes drifting. “Now WAZA’s captured you too,” Tia finished. Jack stared at the floor. “…I’m sorry, sis. I just…I didn’t know what to do…you were in trouble, and King wasn’t doing anything! I only wanted…I didn’t mean to mess it up. I’m sorry.” A long silence followed. Then, surprising everyone, Tia suddenly reached forward and wrapped her arms around Jack. “Don’t apologize, Jack. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Jack started to shake as he hugged his sister back. He shut his eyes tightly, and clung to her for dear life. “Sis…” “It’s going to be alright, understand?” she said, her voice quiet and smooth. “We’re going to be alright.” “R-Right. Right…” Sonia glanced at Ace. His face seemed calm enough, but in his hand he was grinding a candy bar to dust. Eventually, Tia pulled back, keeping her hands on his shoulders as she bent slightly to look him in the eye. “Jack. If they let us meet, then I assume that means you gave them some kind of information.” Jack gave a short nod. “…Joker’s next orders. I know I shouldn’t have, but—“ “I see. Listen to me, Jack: that’s nothing important. I’m not mad. But I want you to promise me you won’t tell them anything else.” “Okay, sis. I promise.” Boreal let out a loud sigh. Tia reached for Jack’s face, wiping a tear away with her thumb. She smiled, and it was such a warm, loving smile that it rendered her unrecognizable to the onlookers. “We’ll get through this, Jack. It’s nothing but a short inconvenience. We’ll be fine.” “Y-Yeah,” Jack said with a sniff. “This is nothing! Our dream will come true in no time—I’ll make sure of it!” Tia nodded. Her smile faded quickly as she straightened up, and she turned her usual, dull gaze at the mirror. Jack turned as well, making a rude gesture, and then he faced the other way and crossed his arms. “I guess that’s that,” Boreal said. “Take them back to their cells.” No one said anything as the two were led out by the officers. Boreal departed soon after, leaving Sonia and Ace the only ones still in the room. “…Are you really okay with this?” Sonia asked. Ace turned to the candy bar he held, but realizing what had become of it, he shoved it into his pocket. “You seemed to be.” Sonia gaped as he drew out another bar. An irritation started in the back of her mind, quickly becoming guilt, and she said, “Maybe there’s something we can do: put them in a single cell, or transfer them elsewhere if that’s not possible here.” Ace slowly peeled away the wrapper. “I’ve already suggested a lot of ideas like that to the Chief. He’s not budging on this one.” “But still…” She shook her head. Ace stared at the candy bar for a moment. Turning his head, he asked, “Hey, Sonia…why did you go along with this?” She felt a flash of hostility. “Mr. Boreal said this was our best chance to stop Joker. I want to stop him, so…I ended up giving this a try.” “So stopping Joker is what’s most important?” Her anger boiled up even further. “What are you trying to say, Ace?” “What? No, I’m asking.” Slowly, she turned to face him. “Is that what you think is most important? Is that what you think is right? Because, I’m…” Ace glanced aside as he finished, “I’m really not sure. But, you always do what’s right, so if you’re okay with it, then…” The hostility was gone, replaced by an immense, crushing weight. Ace looked at the candy bar again. He sighed, hastily stuffing it back in the wrapper and into his pocket. “Sorry. I’m still trying to figure out how to do things the way you do, but I know I still have a long way to go. I’m definitely willing to take down Joker and crush Dealer—if that’s what you think is best, then I’m behind you 100%, Sonia. Just…” He tried to smile. “Well, don’t hold it against me if I get a bit distracted. I just wish there was more I could do for Jack and Tia.” Sonia stared at him in silence as he left the room. “Are you alright, dear?” Lyra asked. Sonia put a hand over her face. “…Never thought I would make someone feel guilty…just for wanting to help people…” “Sonia…” She pulled her hand away and inhaled sharply. “We, uh…we need to see what’s being done about the studio. It’s important we stay on top of that.” Sonia made her way out into the hall and off in the direction she figured Boreal had headed. The weight followed her. *** Shepar stood next to the window, looking out and down the side of the mountain where WAZA HQ was built. Behind him, Copper and Wolfe sat at a table, waiting for him to take in all the information they had just shared with him, and Wolf grumbled quietly near the door. The teacher sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and mumbled, “I can’t believe it…” “I know this all must come as a shock,” Copper said. “We’ve been trying to keep quiet about things like Wave Change and Dealer to avoid throwing the public into a panic, but—“ “That’s not what I mean,” Shepar interrupted. “After all that happened with the FM-ians before, I can handle learning about that.” “Then what…?” Shepar turned around, glaring straight at Copper. “But I can’t believe that an organization as big as WAZA is recruiting children to fight their battles for them.” Copper looked down. Wolfe said, “Mitch, that’s not—“ “And you knew about this!” Shepar went on, now turning his glare on Wolfe. “I thought you cared about keeping the kids safe—how can you be okay with sending them into battle like this?” “Frankly, they’re the ones most qualified for the job.” “What?!” Wolf snorted. “Heard two of ‘em beat you and Libra back in the day. Can’t be that big a shock.” Shepar turned to the FM-ian, but before he could respond, Copper got up from his chair and came forward. “Mr. Shepar…I understand how you feel. Many of us here are deeply troubled by the reality of our situation, and would like nothing more than to let these kids live normal, safe lives. That’s how I feel.” “Then why have you let it go on?” Shepar asked. “I can’t believe that this is the only way!” “Unfortunately, it is. As much as the Satella Police have advanced, our best weapons are no match for even a single competent Wave Change user—that was made quite clear to us when one of them stormed this very building. We were powerless. This technique simply puts its users on a plane too high above us.” “Isn’t there a way for the police to use Wave Change?” “We’ve got one officer testing a Wizard specifically made to do that, but our replication of the process is still flawed. It’s killing him.” That stunned Shepar for a moment. When he recovered, he said, “You said you were allied with Planet FM now, right? Couldn’t you ask them to send more help?” “…Possibly. However, we have reason to believe the current state of Planet FM might make such a request less than ideal, and more importantly: the interference currently being caused by Meteor G makes contacting them in any capacity extremely unlikely.” “Was there a time where you could have made that request? When you knew this Dealer group was a potential issue and that getting some more help was a possibility?” Copper averted his eyes. “Then why didn’t you?” “We didn’t know the situation would become this dire! Looking into recreating Wave Change seemed the best solution at the time, and even if we hadn’t actively approached Sonia and the others, they surely would’ve been drawn into this nonetheless. We could either provide them with what knowledge and support we had, or leave them to their own devices. I think we chose the better option.” Shepar shook his head and turned away. “Keeping those kids out of the fight just isn’t an option, Mr. Shepar! Sonia’s made such a name for herself already that anyone with nefarious intentions already has their sights set on her and her friends! And there was no way to stop her from achieving that in the first place: I was assigned to do just that, and my then-superior resorted to things so underhanded in his attempts…” He sighed heavily. “…This is the situation we find ourselves in. Of course I wish there was more that we could do for them, but the fact is that there isn’t, not now. I’d take Ace’s place in a heartbeat if I could, but…” Wolfe looked back at Wolf. The FM-ian snarled, saying, “Look, I don’t get what your problem is. They’re strong—that’s all that matters. Don’t think this extreme value on ‘children’ you’ve got is going to sway me.” “Fine,” Wolfe said. “But don’t you want another chance to fight Corvus?” Wolf growled. “Between that and how you’ve been complaining about being bored, I don’t see why you’re being so stubborn.” “Because you said you weren’t willing to kill him!” Wolfe paused for a moment. “…Is that really worth totally passing on the opportunity you’re being given?” Wolf didn’t answer. Shepar walked up to Copper and said, “Detective…are there any other EM beings on Earth right now?” “We have a PM-ian named Plesio under our care,” Copper said, “but he has deep psychological damage. I can’t in good conscience force him to help us.” “What about the FM-ians? Are any more of them still around?” “…We’ve been looking into it. I assume you’ve got someone in mind?” Shepar nodded. “Do you know where Libra is?” “No.” “Really?” “Really. We’ve been searching high and low—Ace is far more zealous than you know about this very issue—but we haven’t been able to determine if Libra’s still about.” Copper paused. “Would you like to be notified if that changes?” “I would like to be notified of all changes. Now that I know these kids—some of my students—are in danger, I have to do whatever I can to help them, even if it’s as limited as you keep saying it is.” Copper put his hands in his pockets, taking a moment to think. “I may be able to arrange that. But again, this could get dangerous. Are you really ready for what could happen if you get further involved?” Shepar grinned. “Hard to say for sure before trying…but I have to at least try. Just tell me what I can do.” *** Solo stood silently atop the cliff wall, his eyes fixed on the sprawling temple down below. Laplace floated next to him, and when the EM being turned suddenly, Solo became aware of the Shaman and Condor approaching. He glanced at them over his shoulder. “May we join you?” the Shaman asked. Solo looked away. “…Suit yourself.” The Shaman turned to Laplace, who nodded, and then came closer to the edge. “I’ve always enjoyed this view. You can get a much better look at the lines from here, as well as a better appreciation for the temple’s true splendor. Something of a walk, though—these days I worry each visit could be my last.” “We could fly here easily when Wave Changed,” Condor said. “There is no need to strain yourself, friend.” “I am grateful, Condor. I may have to take you up on that soon.” Solo didn’t say anything. “…So,” the Shaman said, “what do you think of our humble village?” After thinking a moment, Solo said, “I don’t know that I’m qualified to judge a community. However, this place…does have a very pleasant feel to it. I can understand why the Dinosaur Tribe chose to settle here.” The Shaman smiled. Condor perched on the head of his staff then, asking, “Solo, if I may…why is it that you fight against Dealer? It seems unusual that you would take an interest in them, unless…” Laplace buzzed. “I suppose you have a point,” Solo said. Still, he took a very long pause before continuing, “When I went to Mu, I discovered something…a scroll detailing the location of a priceless treasure. Something that will grant me truly unstoppable power. After months of searching, I finally came upon a hidden Murian shrine, only to find that its seal had been broken and its contents taken.” Condor cocked his head. “What treasure is this? I do not recall hearing of such a thing.” Laplace said something, but Solo only replied, “You’ll know when it’s mine.” “…Well,” the Shaman said, “if you’re saying that Dealer stole this treasure, do you have something linking them to the crime?” “Not exactly.” The Shaman blinked. “Whoever stole this treasure must have some need for Murian power, like Vega did. It didn’t take long to discover that Dealer is the only organization with the means to uncover the shrine. It has to be them.” “I suppose that makes sense,” Condor said. “But, is it not also possible that there is some other unknown agent at work?” “…Perhaps. I suppose if Dealer doesn’t have it, then I’ll just forget them and look elsewhere.” Laplace poked Solo’s shoulder, and the boy waved them off mumbling something. The Shaman asked, “You would abandon Harp Note and the others to continue their fight alone?” Solo turned to look at him. “Of course. I don’t owe them anything. All that matters is getting this power back in Murian hands.” “Why? Why does power matter so much to you?” “Murian power matters to me because I am the last who can wield it to its true potential,” Solo said. “I am the Final Heir to Mu, the only one who can show exactly what a Murian warrior is capable of. When I fight, the legacy of Mu is tested. If I lose, then it is blemished…so I must find a way to win, no matter the opponent. That is all I can do to honor the achievements of my ancestors.” The Shaman stroked his beard as he contemplated this. “I see. What I have heard of your love for Mu was no exaggeration. Your pride in that legacy is quite admirable, Solo.” It was slight, but Solo’s expression grew a bit softer. “Though, I cannot help but wonder if fighting is truly all you can do to honor it.” “There was so much more to Mu than its warriors,” Condor said. “I have shared tales of every aspect of the culture, all I can remember, and tried to pass on the knowledge of Mu. Dr. Vega works to emulate the best of its technology, so that their discoveries can continue to aid the world. Why should you focus solely upon how Mu fought its battles?” Solo turned away again. “We do not mean to criticize,” the Shaman said. “We only seek to understand, Solo. From what you have told me…you speak almost as though you have no choice in the matter. Walking a path such as that is something that can easily wear on a person’s soul.” Laplace set their hand on Solo’s shoulder. Eventually, Solo faced the Shaman once more. “Fighting is all I’ve ever known…so you’re right: I don’t entirely feel like I have a choice. But even so, I don’t feel trapped, not anymore. I’m sure I could stop fighting if I wanted to, find another way to continue Mu’s legacy if I wanted to…but I don’t. I want to keep fighting.” “And why is that?” the Shaman asked. Solo looked down, unable to answer. “If you don’t know, then that’s fine. You’re still young, Solo—and from what I’ve been told, you’ve faced many hardships. Making sense of the world, or even ourselves, is something we all need ages to do even under the best conditions. Take all the time you need. If there is ever anything we can do to help you, know that you will always be welcome in Whazzap.” The Shaman didn’t expect an answer, and he left without receiving one. Solo stared after him for a time. Laplace leaned down next to Solo, stayed silent for a moment, and then emitted a short buzz. “Shut up.” *** Luna glanced to the other end of the sofa, where Sonia sat. She was staring ahead at nothing in particular, not moving an inch—she had barely touched her tea. Setting her own cup down, Luna moved towards her and asked, “Sonia, what’s wrong?” Sonia turned sharply, like she was snapping out of a trance. Quickly smiling, she said, “O-Oh, nothing, nothing! Just lost in thought.” “And what were you thinking about?” Sonia’s eyes wandered. “…Nothing in particular,” she muttered, lifting her cup to take a small drink. A scowl began to form on Luna’s face. Before it completed, however, she sighed, opted for a calmer expression, and said, “Sonia, talk to me. Please? If something’s bothering you, I want to know what it is.” Sonia turned back and insisted, “It’s really nothing, Luna! Nothing for you to worry about. Everything’s fine.” Luna looked down and fidgeted for a moment, and then reached out to tug on Sonia’s sleeve. “Look…I know you just want to help me, but I want to help you too. It’s not fair to give you half of my burden while you’re struggling with your own.” She looked Sonia in the eye. “I can at least listen. Let me do that much.” Sonia stared back at her. Eventually, she broke eye contact, shifted in her seat, and quietly said, “It’s just…it’s Jack, and Tia…and Ace, I guess…WAZA…and…” Luna inched closer. “Okay. Start from the beginning.” Sonia focused on her tea, slowly stirring it. “I was there when Jack and Tia were talking, like I told you before. And the whole thing just…didn’t feel right, somehow. I noticed Ace looked really agitated, so afterwards I asked if he was okay with it…he turned around and asked me why I said I was okay with it to begin with.” Her motions ground to a halt. “I was so sure at first, telling Mr. Boreal that we shouldn’t try to coerce information out of Jack. That what was most important—that the right thing to do was to do what we could to help the two of them.” She paused, so Luna asked, “What changed?” Sonia narrowed her eyes, clenching her teeth before she could answer, “Mr. Boreal said it was our only chance to stop…Dealer. That they were going to hurt people if we didn’t get the information.” Luna nodded. “So you wanted to save people.” After a small delay, Sonia shook her head. “It wasn’t that. I mean, of course I want to save anyone I can, but that’s not what changed my mind. I wasn’t thinking about saving anyone…I was thinking about stopping…about fighting…” She hesitated. Just as hesitantly, Luna finished, “Joker?” Sonia nodded. A tense silence followed. She leaned forward, setting her cup down on the coffee table, and then put a hand over her mouth and stared ahead and down. Finally, she said, “I cared more about fighting him than helping Jack and Tia. I stopped thinking about helping them, because I wanted…to fight Joker, and…” Luna uneasily slid forward so she could take Sonia’s hand. “I gave up on what I knew was right because I wanted a chance to take revenge,” Sonia muttered. “And now that I’ve realized that, and I’ve seen what state Jack and Tia are really in…that’s my fault.” “It is not your fault,” Luna stated. “But I’m making it worse. I had a chance to help them, and I decided I’d rather fight someone, I…” She closed her eyes and clenched her fist, sliding it up towards her forehead. “Ace was saying he was okay with it because I was…because I always do the right thing, because I’m a heroine…but I didn’t do the right thing. I knew what I should’ve done, and I didn’t do it, and now they…” “You can’t expect yourself to be perfect, Sonia. Everyone makes mistakes.” “But this is…” She paused to gather her thoughts, sitting up a little straighter. “…I always fight for my ideals. If I’m going to be a heroine, then it’s important to act like one: to care about saving people instead of hurting them, to do what’s right…not choose to do what’s wrong. I just gave up on…it’s like I betrayed what I stood for, who I was, and that…like I’m not really…” Sonia started to shake. Luna hugged her shoulders and said, “That’s not fair. You can’t hold yourself to that high a standard Sonia—you’re only human. We all…” She trailed off, realizing that she was shaking now too. “I’m sorry,” Sonia said. “You’ve already…I don’t mean to…” Luna knew the tears were coming, but she did what she could to hold them back. “Don’t apologize! Just because I’m hurting doesn’t mean you can’t hurt too. I’m here for you, okay? We’re here for each other. Whatever happens, we need to face it together…that’s the only way…we’re going to…” She couldn’t fight them back any more. Sonia started crying at the same time she did. So they just cried together, feeling overwhelmed by their fears and their failings, both their own and each other’s, letting the emotion break over them until there was none of it left. And, when it was all over, they were both still there together. “…What are we going to do?” Sonia asked. Luna shook her head. “I don’t know. But, still…I know we’re going to be okay.” Sonia turned to look at her. “Will we really?” “We will,” Luna said, tightly grasping Sonia’s hands. “Even if we don’t know how yet, I know that things are going to get better. Because I believe in you…and in us…and I know that even with the problems looming over us now, we’re not going to quit until we’ve solved them. It’ll be hard, I’m sure. But we’re going to do it.” She smiled as she finished, “Right?” Sonia smiled back, and then came forward to kiss Luna. “Right. I should’ve known that.” The two of them leaned back and moved closer together, entwining their arms as Luna set her head on Sonia’s shoulder and Sonia set her head against Luna’s. In unison they breathed a deep sigh. A pervasive sense of dread was still there, but it felt duller now, more distant. They knew they couldn’t fix anything in that moment. So, while they waited for a moment when they could, it was an immeasurable comfort just to have the other next to them. “I love you, Sonia,” Luna said. Sonia nudged her gently. “And I love you, Luna.” (Review)
  19. Skrall: "Now WE have your precious collectibles, Tahu! And look: we've already taken them out of the box!" Tahu: "YOU MONSTERS!!"
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