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Thread: The Lost Branch

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    The Lost Branch

    There is a space beyond space where Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg often retreats to think in peace.

    It has no intrinsic properties save those which he gave it. Gravity pointing in a single direction. A breathable atmosphere and temperature sufficient to keep it that way. A light source, or rather, several, hidden from view. Crystalline walls that refract and reflect and, most importantly, separate the space from the small room he has carved out inside it to preserve the lives and sanity of those within.

    And a nice desk, mahogany, with a stuffy chair and a rotary phone in case Zelretch decides to call someone from his shortlist of friends or long list of reluctant acquaintances. This is his space, between space, below space, and betwixt space. This is his small corner of the Kaleidoscope.

    Today, Zelretch sits in his chair and stares at the walls. To the infrequent guests of his space, they are opaque, irregularly-angled crystals. To him they are transparent mirrors showing reflections – of himself, his space, and all the places he isn’t in, but could be. Reflections of entire worlds, universes, that the aberrant knowledge within his soul enables him to comprehend. He stares, and through the Second, sorts, mentally grouping together similar world lines. Some are safe, already realized, and simple to categorize. Others at the edge of his vision are risky and should not be observed unless necessary, for to do so would be to solidify them as certain. And finally there are those who are doomed, due for pruning, branches in the midst of their wilting. They are safe as well. Nothing he does at this point can change their fate; that certainty of outcome is the very reason they will be discarded.

    On some days, Zelretch can almost grasp some greater form within the mess of worlds. They stretch on endlessly, but his perception of them doesn’t. Those that can be seen, and those that cannot, if they are arranged by proximity (a proximity which has nothing to do with physical space), form something close to… a shape. A familiar shape, somewhat resembling...

    “Hey, old man!”

    It’s not often that the private musings of Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg are interrupted. On the rare occasions they are, it is due to the ringing of his phone. It has never been due to… this.

    “Gimme a sign or something, gramps! Let me in or fry me to a crisp!”

    The voice, brash and youthful, vibrates at the just the right frequency to strain both the crystal walls and Zelretch’s head. He rubs his wrinkled temples and sighs.

    “C’mon, you’re too old for the silent treatment! I know you’re in there! If you weren’t, this ward wouldn’t be fighting so hard!”

    Briefly, Zelretch wonders if he should take up the suggestion. It’s not too late to activate one of the rougher wards, leaving the would-be intruder spread across a dozen universes as twelve equal-mass chunks of flesh. Or he could take a more playful stance and merely send away the loudmouth’s consciousness to some random world…

    The old man sighs and shakes his head, even as the walls shudder. No, no. He’ll do nothing. It’s been centuries since he was irresponsible enough to play around like that. He’s too old now for such silliness. Or rather, he was always too old, but not quite aged enough to be embarrassed.

    “Cease, pupil.”

    With a snap of his fingers, the room expands. What was once a rough square floor doubles in length to a rectangle in the blink of an eye. Splayed across the flat black-glass floor of the new area is a prone pupil, stuck between man and boy, with unkempt brown hair and the beginnings of a beard marking him as a neophyte more than his ill-fitting robes ever could. The student wastes no time clambering to his feet, shivering and stammering and pointing at Zelretch whilst sporting a mad grin.

    “I-I knew it! You were hiding here after all! I did it! I broke through-!”

    “Yes, yes.” Zelretch waves him off, pinching his nose with his other hand, hoping he’s merely imagining the headache building. “If you shut up, I will congratulate you. Otherwise you’ll face the punishment first.”

    The boy’s mouth flaps silently, but he nods and allows himself to fall, sitting haphazardly on the floor as the Wizard Marshall rises from his seat and materializes a cane with a snap of his fingers. The cane is not to support Zelretch’s weight; it’s for him to point with, which he does, flipping it in his hands and thrusting it forward, leaving the young man staring at a deep red orb that reflects his shivering eyes.

    “Of my pupils, though you are among the most disrespectful and juvenile, you have become the first to reach this place mostly unaided. In that, Mr. Zoston, you may take some measure of pride.”

    The cane spins. Zelretch places his hand on the orb and steps forward.

    Clack. Clack. Every other step Zelretch takes towards Zoston is accompanied by the clack of cane on crystal. The Wizard Marshall’s piercing glare keeps the student in place; it has not softened one bit.

    “However… I’ll be frank, pupil. You’re an eyesore. If you devote yourself to the craft, I may appear before one of your descendants. You, however, will never see me again. Begone.”

    As Zelretch raises his cane, Charles Zoston knows he has less than one line’s worth of time to wrest back control of his future. With neither time nor experience on his side, he chooses to make his last words the most important ones: “Why don’t you help them?”

    Zelretch pauses halfway through the chant. His brows, already furrowed, draw closer together. “Explain the question,” he commands.

    Zoston nods, then shakes his head, searching for the words. “Why… why do you just let everything happen?” he asks. “When you’re using the Second, you know, don’t you? You know which worlds will live, and which will be culled. Worlds where – where utopias aren’t wishful thinking. Where we colonize the stars. Where wars and disease are eradicated. Worlds where we win. You know their fate; you taught me their fate. You’ve seen it through the Kaleidoscope, haven’t you? So why don’t you change it? Why don’t you save them? Why – why don’t you try?”

    Zelretch regards his unfortunate pupil as a researcher might a botched dissection. Charles Zoston is a magus of little renown. Discarded by his family for being a second son, he is self-taught but determined, having clawed his way into the Clock Tower without support and won Zelretch’s favour with that same drive. Zelretch still recalls his pupil’s tale of the disdain on his brother’s face as they met once in the halls, the revulsion and very clear desire to eradicate the mistake walking and talking and breathing before him. Most unbearable of all, the boy had said, was the single ounce of pity he’d seen in his brother’s eyes. Pity for someone that should not, could not exist, and would be forever damned for it.

    In Zelretch’s eyes, doubtless Zoston sees now something far worse.

    “How someone as naive as you made it this far,” speaks the old man. “Is a mystery I care not for.”

    Zelretch turns, taps the cane three times, each ringing louder than the last. A second chair appears by his desk, across from the first. “In fact,” he mutters. “It’s no mystery at all. Sit. You will have your answer, foolish pupil. It will also be your punishment.”

    Zoston has not been to this place before, but he has heard of it, from a former pupil of Zelretch’s, after plying the woman with enough alcohol and a gift of jewels. Here, the Kaleidoscope’s power is at its greatest. One can peer into countless possibilities and, what’s more, those possibilities can be shown to others as well. So when he sits on the edge of the seat and leans forward, expecting an immense display of magical potency, he is initially disappointed.

    Zelretch reaches into something Zoston cannot quite perceive and extracts a pebble-sized black crystal, which he deposits onto the surface of the desk. “Here,” he says. “The fruits of your dream.”

    Charles Zoston, naive but not incompetent, understands. He affixes his eyes on the crystal, and in response to his unwavering stare it rises and positions itself at eye level. It is not quite black, on further inspection. Rather it is smoky, as if coated in fumes from a volcanic eruption, still roiling and churning and not yet cooled. But, if he focuses, he can make out something within: a blueish green marble, slowly turning.

    Zoston squints, and finally Zoston sees.

    - - - - -

    It was a beautiful world. Or at least, it could have been.”

    Early in the middle ages, a certain warlord died a sudden and accidental death. Due to this, he did not survive to pillage a certain town, and a certain person, who would have otherwise died during infancy, was able to grow up and introduce a certain creed into society through his words and deeds. It grew and spread to enough people to hold influence over a sizable portion of the world’s populace, a belief without borders to rival even religions. From there, following that belief system, those people forced countries closer together, halted wars, dismantled non-functional power structures, and… well, it’s not really important. There are many ways to reach world peace. The conclusion humanity had been set towards would have been beautiful. Certain, but beautiful. Beautiful enough to catch my eye.

    It was not permitted. I knew that, even then. I knew it before I ever took hold of the Second. The world would be culled precisely for that very reason. Uncertainty is what Alaya prizes. But I was young then, as you are now, and seeing that world made my heart ache.

    I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear the thought of standing aside. The Second could not overturn the laws of the universe, but surely it could do something. My understanding then was more naive. I had yet to reach the limits of the Kaleidoscope. In many ways that made me more dangerous; I was willing to throw myself at a problem without worrying about whether it could be solved. That youthful idiocy, after searching through the reflections for months on end, led me to an answer.

    There are others, besides ours. Bundles. Trees. Whatever you might call them. All spring from the well of creation, but the way in which each grows and conserves itself is different between them. Our universe culls unceremoniously those worlds which diverge too far from the trunk. It prioritizes possibilities over all else, and despises a certain end. But there is another.

    This other tree was different. It was nothing but branches, a scattered hedge of world lines that crossed over each other, sprouting, ending abruptly, and twisting into every direction. There were worlds there that hardly resembled our Earth with how far they had diverged. The laws of that universe did not cull the divergent; they treasured it. No two worlds I could see were alike.

    In that discovery I found a sense of intoxicating triumph that drove me to go further. I had reached the answer, and if I wished I might even be able to visit it myself, but in my hubris I refrained. I would not arrive alone, I swore to myself. With me would come an entire world. I would rescue this doomed branch by grafting it onto another tree entirely.

    That’s… that’s insane. You’re crazy, old man,” Zoston mutters. “You flung an entire world through the Kaleidoscope? But then… don’t tell me it didn’t work? Did you fail? Was that world culled anyway?”

    No, my idiotic plan proceeded without a hitch. I may have been young, but I was not entirely inept. The ritual took a few years to prepare, as did gathering the necessary materials. I covered my trail thoroughly. Some seers caught wind of the scheme and tried to stop me, ranting and raving about how the future would be shattered into a million fragments. They were easily silenced, as were the others that attempted to interfere. I won’t bore you with the details; it will suffice to say that while the whole process involved a great deal of trouble, several sanity-stressing days in the void, and a minor breakdown in reality, the end result went unnoticed by all except myself.

    Yes, I had done exactly what you begged me to do. I saved the world.

    And I shall never be so foolish as to do so again.

    The first sunrise was like any other. As was the next, and the one after that. I monitored the branch through the Kaleidoscope, hoping, waiting, dreading the moment it would be rejected, wiped from existence. But nothing happened, no silent apocalypse came, and for a time I truly believed that I’d gotten away with it.

    Reality, even a different one, was not so kind.

    We were in London when it happened. Not the London you are used to; this was thousands of years ago. I was still human, and traces of the Age of Gods still hung in the air. The Clock Tower was not yet called that, and the Mages’ Association did not even headquarter in London. In fact, the professors and students of the prototype Clock Tower had chosen this inconsequential city as their temporary base by chance; following the exodus from Alexandria only a few years earlier, the exiles had voted between Cyprus and Londinium, with the latter winning out due to Britannia being better defended at the time. The vote had been close, however, and as a result the magi of the Clock Tower did – and still do – bicker among themselves like a gathering of fools.

    It was on one such evening, a gathering of Lords – though they were not yet referred to as such, nor was there anything resembling the political and familial structures you are used to – that something changed.

    The room was small and stuffy, thick with smoke and dust and yells. Magi were more brazen then, less desperate, and so the room overlooked the Thames, though the curtains had been drawn shut to prevent wandering eyes. Altogether there were close to a dozen crammed into the room, each an accomplished magus or magic user that merited their position. The Director at the time – I don’t recall his name, only that he was gaunt and loud – was arguing with the department heads about abnormalities in global thaumaturgical foundations, pressing me for an explanation I had no intention of giving.

    Just as I was about to deflect his accusations and make an excuse to leave, a breathless student burst through the door and begged us to halt and take a look outside.

    Normally the boy wouldn’t have lived a second longer for the transgression, but his supporting evidence was remarkable. The ground shook beneath us, a sudden quake that knocked over several magi and nearly unseated me. Papers and parchment went flying, the oil lamp spilled over, coating the oaken table, and a great groaning, creaking, screaming noise washed over us from outside.

    The youngest among us recovered first.

    The Director keyed into the Clock Tower wards, the head of Zoology closed his eyes and transferred his consciousness into one of his dozen familiars, and the young head of Astrology stood up, walked across the room, and flung open the curtains.

    The meeting had been a long one, starting in the evening and continuing overnight. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, painting the morning scenery a cloudy orange. It would’ve been a dreadfully chilly day, I’d wager. But it was not; before us, Londinium burned.

    It was not war, and it was not the London you are used to, but it was still a well-defended city, with fortifications and armed soldiers present throughout. They had been useless to stop the fire. In the distance, at the opposite end of the city from us, a great black smoke stack filled the sky. It wavered and lurched forward like a tornado over warehouses, homes, and trees. Screams started up, at first distant, then growing closer in proportion to the smoke’s advance. The smell reached us next. The Director started coughing. It must have served to dislodge the phlegm from his brain, for he immediately ordered us to find out what was going on.

    “It’s moving closer,” said the head of Zoology, tears running from his still shut eyes.

    “It?” repeated the Director. “What it? Explain! Now!”

    “My birds will not approach. The smoke is obscuring its form, but… it’s massive, taller than the mightiest towers and wider across. Pitch black, like the smoke, and...” He furrowed his brows and clutched his temples. “No arms… just… legs… eight… maybe more…”

    The Heads’ murmuring rose to a raucous chorus.

    “Are you daft?” said a wide, mustached general, head of… well, I don’t recall the exact faculty. At the time their number tended to vary by the decade. “Some giant black spider is lighting up the town? Is this your idea of a joke? Did one of your experiments escape and start terrorizing the city again!?”

    “Consult with your own familiars if you doubt me,” Zoology snapped. “Or insult further and I’ll have mine take your liver. You’ve no right to speak to me in such a manner.”

    While the argument started up again in full, I rose from my seat and approached the window to get a view of my own. The head of Astrology, a pale ghost-like woman whose goal had been much the same, silently stepped aside.

    Something from within the black cloud spit a stream of hissing red that hung in the air for a moment and then landed atop a row of houses in the distance, causing another swell of smoke and screams. What followed was low groaning and crunching as stone and wood collapsed under its approach. I thought I caught a glimpse of something solid moving at the edge of the cloud as it rolled closer.

    “That’s no arachnid,” Astrology said. Her eyes, wider than I’d ever seen them, sparkled with an iridescent light. “Yet it takes the form of one. Those legs… and atop its head, six stars…”

    “Zelretch!” The Director called out to me from within the argument. “Don’t just stand there; say something! That thing is clearly advancing towards us!”

    Indeed, that seemed to be the trajectory. I caught flashes of thin matte-black limbs emerging from the dark, stabbing through buildings as they found purchase and dragged forward a body still hidden within the smoke. One step would have been enough to turn the whole room into a pulped mess of wood and bone and flesh.

    I did not immediately speak out, then. I must have know that it was my fault, somehow. This thing, this creature, this force of destruction from which I sensed no magical reaction, was here because of my actions. It had not appeared once across all the reflections of the Kaleidoscope, until now. I did not confess. I did not reveal the truth. I was ashamed to. Ashamed and afraid.

    When humans are overcome with shame or guilt, their way of thinking changes. I may have been a magus, but I was not above my own instincts, not yet anyway. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, and with a wave of a hand blasted away not only the window but the entire wall from the esteemed meeting room of the Mages’ Association. Morning light and cold air streamed in, blowing away the stink of magecraft and tobacco. All too swiftly though, the smell of ash replaced it.

    In that moment, making right my wrong was more important than survival. Driven by self-hate, I prepared to do battle.

    “You’ll fail,” said Astrology. She leveled her stare at me. “But it may buy us time.”

    “That’s not what I meant!” the Director said. “It’s morning! We’ve not enough hands to wipe away the public’s memory of this!”

    “They will remember no matter what you do,” I said. “This is beyond our control. So let it be a hopeful dream instead of a nightmare.”

    I threw my circuits into action, wove my strengthening spells, called up my jeweled sword, and…

    Hm.

    And!?” Zoston is on the edge of his seat.

    Well, I fought it. And I lost. I awoke hours later, in an unfamiliar bed.

    That’s it!? Come on!”

    This isn’t some bedtime story, whelp. If you want to be entertained, ask your grandfather. It will be enough for you to know that I stood as much of a chance against that being as mosquito against man.

    But….

    Let’s see now.

    I woke up quite abruptly and painfully, in an unfamiliar bed in a small stone room. Above me hung an assortment of metallic tools, all points and edges and angles. Light danced unsteadily between them, thrown my way by a single flickering candle. Every inch of my body that I could see was wrapped in bandages, some off-white, a few red, but most a dark, splotchy brown.

    With consciousness came pain, and with pain came awareness of my state. My circuits were screaming, my skin – what little of it could be seen – was red and raw, tightness in my limbs and chest pointed to broken bones, and I would later find that I’d lost all the hair on my head and face. Yes, I had been bested thoroughly.

    At my bedside was the head of Astrology. I did not know her well, save by reputation and what she had said before disaster had struck. A former alchemist, she had been exiled from Atlas and turned to magecraft, rising up the ranks in the fledgling Association on the back of her uncanny predictions. Her story was not unique, so I had not bothered to look further.

    She raised the candle higher, bringing the light close enough to illuminate her pale face.

    “I know it was you,” was the first thing she said to me. “I didn’t interfere because I supported your decision,” she added, before desperation forced open my tired circuits. “We would have been doomed otherwise. It was a bold plan, Wizard Marshall. But it has cost us.”

    Astrology’s condition was no better than mine. Her left eye was caked shut, and the cloth tightly tied around her waist had long-since gone from white to red to brown. Her hair had been singed and melted and roughly cut. She did not seem perturbed in the least.

    “Ask, and I will answer,” she said.

    My first attempt at a question turned into a hacking cough that spread through my body. The resulting wave of pain nearly stole away my consciousness. The inside of my mouth was as charred as the outside.

    Astrology lifted a cup of dark liquid to my parched lips. It burned all the way down, but when it reached my stomach the warmth spread outwards, returning a semblance of strength to my stiff limbs.

    “The heads?” The second attempt at a question was successful, but I couldn’t manage to sit up. Worst among the aches was a searing line of heat starting just below my throat and ending at the pit of my stomach. With each movement it felt like my chest would split open, disgorging a pile of battered organs.

    Ew… no need to be so gross. Or detailed.

    Bah, students these days! Have you even dissected a cadaver, boy? What sort of magus are you to be so squeamish? I’ll retell what I recall, which in that moment was mostly agony and despair. Bear it or leave.

    Now, as I was saying… no, I wasn’t saying anything; it was Astrology’s turn to speak.

    “The heads? Half are dead,” she said. “The others are only probably dead. Harves was crushed alongside Archebald. Chimeragenos was – ah, yes, you don’t know them by name. Zoology died, but may persist through his Crest. Regardless, I cannot contact him. As for the rest, the heads and that student who warned us, I do not know. We were divided when Arachne pierced through the room’s protections. This is one of Geology’s underground Workshops. He sent us down and stayed behind to head the defense. The wards failed shortly after our arrival, so he must be dead as well.”

    In my confusion, I latched onto one of the unfamiliar names: “Arachne?”

    Astrology may have smiled. It may also have been the dim light of the cave playing tricks on me. “Not the goddess, though I imagine she’d be flattered. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the… thing. It seems appropriate, given its shape. And with no one here to argue against it, the vote has passed unanimously with one for and zero against.”

    As I regained my bearings, I took greater stock of the situation. The room was as wide as a hole in the ground can be, with solidified earthen walls molded into tables and seats along each side, and a smooth stone floor. The bed upon which I lay was in fact an operating table. More bandages and bloodied tools swam in a bucket of reddish water nearby. The rest was hidden in shadows. The whole room smelled of soil and blood and fire.

    Astrology – she had been slumped forward on a wooden stool – straightened, stood, and offered me her hand. I took it, pushed past the tearing in my chest, and managed to stand. The world spun and whirled around me. Astrology’s small hand was the only thing I could cling to.

    “I have... much to apologize for,” I managed to say.

    “No one in the world will accept your regrets,” she replied. “Only your best.”

    I nodded. “Where is that – Arachne? We need to be aware of its location. If a direct assault is ineffective, I can call in a few favors for another approach.” Already I was thinking of names and debts.

    “I don’t know,” Astrology said. “We are severed from the foundation upon which most predictions are made. This world’s future – and much of its thaumaturgy – died the moment you worked your Magic. It has merely taken time for its corpse to begin decomposing.” She blinked slowly, as if realizing her own morbid words, and shrugged. “Thus, there is no ‘trunk’ to reference. All I can offer now are guesses.”

    “I’ll gladly take them.” I would be in no condition to do battle for some time. The better part of a day at least, and even then, at a fraction of my full strength. I could have recovered with more time, but…

    Wait. Hold on a moment. Guesses from an ex-alchemist? That’s nonsense. Even I could predict-.”

    Laplace and his demon would not be born for another few centuries, boy. At this time, magecraft’s decline was still gradual and half of the foundations of modern alchemy did not yet exist. It was an imprecise craft, more akin to mysticism and exploitation of ancient physical laws than the precise calculations you know of, hence astrology being a department in the first place. Now would you like a story, or a lecture?

    I’ll… be quiet. Sorry.”

    I thought as much. Pity; the topic is fascinating.

    Astrology did not mince words. “I expect it is somewhere in the Sahara. Chimeragenos – Zoology – allowed me a glimpse through his network of familiars before he died. After depopulating Londinium, Arachne set off in a South-Easterly direction, towards the ocean. It seemed to not be taking terrain into account.”

    “It’s searching for the Titan’s Pit?” Atlasia’s treasure trove of weapons had been my first thought. Against a world-ending threat, there would be little better than another world-ending threat. Supposedly among their number were a bow that would inflict death upon the deathless and a sword that could banish with one swing all which was foreign to our planet.

    Astrology closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. “No. It’ll be looking for the Wandering Sea by now; the Institute fell shortly before your awakening. Atlas, like us, is likely no more.”

    The thought of the Atlas Institute being crushed by some giant spider was too ridiculous to believe. But, after my reflexive laugh became a hacking, bloody cough, the measured expression on Astrology’s face forced me to take it seriously.

    I cursed, winced, and swore again. She stepped back, crossed her hands over her stomach, and waited as I swept across the room, past bottled reagents and rare earth metals arranged on a shelf, past the shadowy exit in one side, stopping at the glittering arrangements of gems and wire hanging over a rough map of the world.

    I seized the contraption in my hands and roared until it felt like my chest and eardrums would burst.

    I’ll not lie to you, boy; it was one of the lowest moments of my life. Every magus will one day be tested and fail, and every magus will have to come to terms with their limits. It is those times that show the true mettle of a man. It’ll happen to you, too. Quite soon, I reckon.

    A single glimmer of silver among the jewels brought peace to my thoughts. My hands, which had been about to wrench it apart, loosened their hold.

    “You tracked it?” I asked, and Astrology nodded.

    “It was only a shard, but after you cracked its leg, a piece of its carapace embedded itself in your left hand. Geology’s workshop provided the rest.” A pale sliver hung from the contraption, standing out among the other gems. It swung of its own volition, settling over the Sahara desert and minutely adjusting its position by the second. “It moved in a straight line, and then it stopped… and now it is circling, as if unsure where to go next.”

    I was as sure as it was unsure.

    “The Sea of Estray.” Had to be, if it went right for Atlas after crushing the Clock Tower. The third and final pillar of the Mages’ Association was all that remained, if Astrology’s claims of Atlas’ fate were to be trusted. “But why… and how?” As I leaned over the map and pondered, a drop of blood fell from my chest onto the desert, splattering it red. “Blood. It wants blood.”

    Astrology did not respond immediately. When she did, her voice was shaky. “A targeted assault against the Mages’ Association could be carried out by a number of factions or individuals we are aware of. The Holy Church is capable of it, as are Brunestud and his apostles. But it does not fit their modus operandi, nor their strength,” she murmured, almost too quietly for me to hear.

    “An Ultimate One, then?” The worst case scenario crossed my mind. But that wasn’t likely; the wards in the sky that would have alerted us. Arachne must have appeared on Earth. Besides… “Its logic is too concrete. Too of this world. If it were foreign, it would not distinguish humans from magi. I need to know more.”

    “...go, then,” whispered Astrology as she sat on a bench and leaned back into the curve of the wall. “To Atlas. There will be survivors, or at least traces of evidence. We are more stubborn than we look.”

    Another laugh, another bloody spasm as my body protested. I turned to the woman whose name I’d never bothered to ask for. “Asking a man on the precipice of death to travel across the world in an instant? Gimme a break...”

    Her eyes closed, and her arms tightened around her stomach. Thin rivulets of blood began to run from between her fingers. “You can, and you must,” Astrology said. “This is your fault, Zelretch. So fix it.”

    “Hold on.” It was only then that I, too caught up in self-derision, noticed her state. “Are you-?”

    She shook her head slowly. “These wounds are not lethal. I will live. If you can find a way to stop that thing, that is. If not… I am not sure. There may yet be answers… but my divinations show nothing.”

    “Then sit tight and rest. I’ll see if any survived. Atlas has too many safeguards in place to have fallen that easily. Those stubborn old fools will talk, even if I have to blast open what’s left of their hiding place.”

    That… doesn’t really sounds like you.”

    What would you know, boy? In my youth I was every bit as reckless as yourself, and twice as sentimental. Even now this undead heart has found itself moved by the silliest of causes. I ought to be able to laugh at bright-eyed fools by now, but… bah, it matters not.

    In any case, there was no more conversation to be had. Astrology – I never did get her name – lapsed out of consciousness soon after. I laid her out on the table and left, hoping she had been truthful about her condition. The next destination was Atlas.

    There was a small path leading out of Geology’s workshop. It took me through a claustrophobic web of rooms and tunnels resembling an ant’s nest, carefully carved from solid stone and dirt. Better organized than when I was Head of Minerology long ago, but also much less pleasing to the eye. He had evidently not been one for decorum; where I would have placed crystalline formations, he instead layered ore veins atop each other… ah, where was I?

    You were critiquing a dead man’s interior decorating.”

    Yes, yes. The ore veins were to pulse and glow as indicators of the situation above-ground. Here, they were all dim. The wards had been disabled in haste, so I encountered no resistance, nor signs of life. Eventually I managed to find a tunnel that led straight up.

    The surface, of course, was caved in, but at that point I had recovered enough of my mettle to simply blast open a hole. What greeted me through the resulting cloud of smoke and rubble was destruction, death, and dust. London had been devastated. Buildings had either been leveled completely, or smoldered in the sunset. There were many bodies and few survivors, who stumbled about drunkenly like zombies, their state not far from mine.

    Would you like to hear more, pupil? Should I tell you of the suffering of the common man? Of the small tragedies and heroics that occurred in the midst of mass despair? Or would you prefer I spare your sensitive ears from further grisly description, and instead skip right to the ‘interesting bits’?

    ...it’s your story, sir.”

    Hmph. That it is. And fortunately for you, I’ve no desire to recall more of those minutes than I must.

    Traveling across the world is easy for most magi. You simply book a flight to your destination of choice, and maybe rent a vehicle to take you the rest of the way. I had neither the luxury of being in the correct century, nor the time to sleep on a plane. Fortunately, my destination was the Atlas Institute. So frequently did I visit it in my youth, that eventually I had left behind a mark in its foundation which would allow me to… ah. Were you not supposed to know that?

    Know what? That you have a backdoor into the most heavily guarded vault of potentially world-ending weapons there is?”

    Not exactly. If you count the treasury of Babylon, it would only be a close second. Besides, there is no force capable of breaching the Titan’s Vault, whose walls are tied to the very principles of the world. Or rather, there is no force which can leave it. Anyone can enter, but only those bearing one of the seven contract-keys can exit with their treasure in tow. So no, I couldn’t get in. But I could get close.

    Now, there is plenty of magecraft that allows quick travel, most of which I was terrible at. So the shortcut it was. I merely dipped into the other side of the fabric of reality, much like you did to get here. How was the trip, by the way?

    Terrifying. Cold, and yet, alive, gnawing at my flesh...”

    Consider, now, that you were merely following the well-lit path I laid out for you. This journey was much more arduous, though owing to my mastery of the Kaleidoscope I was more than able to deal with the dangers. It would best be described as a stroll along the outer edge of a snow globe, outside of the world in an empty space where I would be able to truly think alone, in silence.

    Which I did, for a short time, musing, forming and discarding theories, and taking stock of my poor condition. Then, minutes later, just as Atlas was drawing near…

    Curious. What a strange place you’ve ventured into.”

    When I turned towards the nasal, artificial voice, (though concepts like up and down did not properly exist outside reality) I beheld something so strange that I was not immediately sure whether to call it creature or doll. There, in the blackness of non-space, was a small, floating figure scarcely larger than a doll, with no limbs and a face consisting of thin lines and dots, bulging strangely in places, giving it a bell-like shape. A single white horn jutted upwards from the center of its ‘forehead’.

    Its living porcelain eyes met mine. When it spoke it vibrated, bobbing gently up and down like a reed poking through the surface of a pond.

    There is no rule about escaping your own Earth, I suppose. But if too many of you do so, we may have to establish one.”

    I raised my jeweled sword and swung hard enough to nearly dislocate my own shoulder. Enough magical energy to bring down a castle exploded in the thing’s direction. The wall of the snow globe cracked.

    Ah, please, do hold on. You won’t be penalized, so let’s dispense with the needless aggression.”

    It came from behind.

    Again my blade sang. I swung in the direction of the voice and replaced it with a crystalline scream. The tip of the jeweled sword poked just slightly into the fabric of reality and ripped it open, letting the stuffing out. My head was pounding; my bones and lungs aching. A poor battle.

    You don’t call that fighting well?”

    Not well enough.

    Should I go? If you have no interest in speaking, I’ll find someone else to talk to.”

    My brain had caught up at that point. I stayed my hand, turned ninety degrees, and beheld the same being, lightly rotating about its horizontal axis a few metres off, illuminated by swirling light from the hole I’d torn open behind it. It did have a body, I realized; it was tiny, vestigial, a pair of rubber arms and legs dangling from its massive head.

    Whatever the thing was, it had twice evaded me, in a space where movement as we know it was not even possible.

    “Speak.” I forced the words though clenched teeth.

    Wonderful! Now then, sir, do you want to save the world?”

    “What?”

    What?”

    What indeed. But I’ll let that foul thing speak for itself.

    It tittered and twirled, evidently glad I’d not blasted it again.

    Ah, yes, order, right, right… I’ve neglected to begin properly. It’s no wonder you would be cranky.Ahem: Hello, dear sir! My name is-.” It froze, for less than a moment. “Scarab. In a few short hours – ah, that is, as of a few short hours ago, your world was beset upon by an enemy. To stand up to that enemy you will require a weapon. Or perhaps a steed? Whatever you choose to call it, I may grant it you, should you have the courage to place your life on the line. If you cannot defeat that enemy within… ah, seven hours, your world will perish. The stakes are rather dramatic!So what say you, sir? Would you like to become a hero?”

    Scarab was momentarily still after finishing its speech. Lights of every colour played across its toy-like features as we stared silently at each other.

    Are you kidding me?”

    Not in the least, boy. Now settle down; you’ll like this next bit.

    The next time my jeweled sword cleaved air, it also cleaved reality asunder. Even as rage flooded my mind, my overworked magic circuits sprang to life, moving my limbs faster than my muscles could on their own.

    Something exploded behind my right eye. The distance between us became nothing in an instant. Scarab fluttered away, tiny body swinging to and fro as it accelerated from zero to a hundred instantly… before going from a hundred to zero just as quickly, crashing into the invisible crystalline wall I’d conjured to surround us, bouncing off like a stone skipping across water.

    The grinning creature turned to face me just as I slammed my hand into and through its face, feeling it crack beneath my fingertips, and, even as it began to shrilly protest its treatment, turned and lobbed it through the crack in the Kaleidoscope I’d opened earlier like a live grenade. Then, with another swing of the sword, I sewed shut the fabric of reality, trapping it there.

    But wait, couldn’t it just-.”

    Not if it couldn’t find me. I immediately wrenched open another gate and fell towards it. The barrier between this side and our side can be as thin as a soap bubble if you know where to press. I punched through and dove back into the world before the thing could reappear.

    What followed was a brief, dizzying fall into a sand dune.

    Oh, so you made it to the Institute after all… but wait, what was that thing? And what did it mean about, well, everything? This doesn’t make sense at all.

    Do you think it made any more sense to me at the time? You shall discover as I did or not at all. Now where was I… right, the other side of the glass. After I fell through, I did not have time to immediately ponder the bizarre. There were more pressing matters to attend to.

    Like?”

    Like the rumbling. And the shaking. And the great metallic creaking that had haunted my short dreams.

    When I pulled myself to the surface and shook the coarse sand from the remnants of my beard, what greeted me was not the desert sky; it was a silver spear the size of a sequoia falling towards me.

    I scrambled to roll aside, found little purchase in the sand, and had to resort to blasting myself away by deliberately bungling a spell. This gave me just enough space to narrowly dodge the point of Arachne’s spear-like limb, which sank into sand. I stumbled to my feet, sucking in breaths of hot, stuffy air, ready to dodge another…

    Only for the next thrust to never arrive. I was being ignored.

    Arachne stood before me, as tall and terrible as ever. Save for a few cracks running across its legs it was unharmed, yet it stumbled about somewhat drunkenly, either unaware or uncaring of my existence as it shook the ground with each wobbling step.

    We were both surrounded by the vast desert, and evidently it was taking the sun’s heat far worse than I.

    Thud. Thud. Its legs found weak purchase in sand dunes, which stretched in every direction. Arachne advanced past me, slowly, creaking and groaning the whole way.

    It was damaged? Woozy? So you’d done something after all!”

    No, I’m certain that I barely scratched it. It must have either fallen afoul of some of Atlas’ wards, suffered a death curse from one of the heads, or been confused by the countermeasures the Wandering Sea has traditionally prepared to befuddle would-be trackers. Whatever the cause was, Arachne’s impaired state saved my life, for I could not have faced it once more if it had thought to summon more of its corrosive mist.

    I was able to at least observe as I gathered my strength. Arachne’s smoke cover was gone, revealing the alien make of its form. Joints and limbs that were spindly – too spindly to support its weight – folded around each other, widening as they met and thinning out mid-limb. Its legs had seven articulations each, and joined far above me to support a thickly-armored puck-like body, with several resembling eyes at the ‘front’. Of the gaps in its mask, some glowed with yellow light and others did not.

    It made animal noise and drew no breath as it stumbled about, like a gap in reality in the shape of a massive machine of war that would make the colossus of Rhodes seem like a model figure. Whatever this thing was, it was not living.

    From whence it had come, a thin trail of smoke linked heaven and earth, at the end of a series of pits in the sand created by its piercing steps. It was as good an indication as any of what I had missed.

    Though the fire in my veins and the blood pumping in my ears screamed at me to strike that thing, that enemy with all my meagre strength, rationality won out. I covered myself in a hasty cloak and trudged towards the smoke, leaving Arachne behind.

    It made no attempt to stop me. I almost wished it had. At least then I’d know I was a fly still worth swatting.

    I crossed dune after dune. One, twelve, at least three dozen. The creaking faded behind me as Arachne did the same. As I walked the sun beat down upon me. The thick air choked me. The sand rubbed at raw wounds as it found its way between bandages. I dared not bleed for fear of dying of dehydration.

    When I crested the last dune, nearly delirious, I beheld the desolation Arachne had left in its wake: A massive sand-filled crater. A series of dark holes and scattered stones where a mountain had been. Sand slowly poured into wounds in the earth, burying bodies and workshops alike.

    Have you ever visited the Atlas Institute, Zoston?

    No. My brother went, once. He described it as unimpressive. An empty museum above and endless hallways below. His tour ended quickly, but according to him, not quickly enough.

    Of course a fool would think so. He must have failed to curry favour with any of the alchemists, then; the first line of defense Atlas has is its construction. Its workshops and facilities are all underground, and they are organized in such a way as to keep them separated by maze-like halls, confusing would-be invaders while allowing those who call it home to travel as they please. Its interior is so large as to resemble a city, though back then it was closer to a small town, small enough for me to have roughly memorized its layout.

    With most of Atlas underground, the worst of the damage would not be visible. I picked the hole closest to the entrance and made for it, shuffling down past dark, charred limbs jutting from the golden red sands.

    The sinkhole nearly swallowed me as I descended, depositing me in a tall stone hall large and wide enough to bring a caravan through. It was cooler in the shadows, but just as dry. My glimmering sword shed light, revealing that it was indeed the partially-collapsed entryway to the rest of the compound. Fortunately the path forward was clear.

    Bodies, bodies, and more bodies. The halls were remarkably whole, save for the occasional passage blocked by sand and rubble or open to the sky. There must have been an attempt to mount a defense, for I’ve never seen so many bodies in Atlas at once. They were all burnt, or rather, melted, with hair and clothes reduced to liquid that had hardened and fused with flesh. The smell was unbearable. I remember that best. I had dealt with death before, but never with the choking scent of so much of it in one poorly aerated tomb.

    I had two places to check. The first was a hideaway in the deepest parts of the compound, meant to protect those within from anything short of the Earth splitting apart. If there were any survivors to be found, the bunker was the place to find them.

    And the second place?”

    The second would be worthless without the first.

    Deeper down there were fewer bodies and more of Atlas’ automated defense systems. Golems mostly, standing at attention along the corners and animated from a variety of exotic elements to repel would-be intruders. There were also several decidedly old-school traps thrown in for good measure. Had I not been of high rank within the Association and on good terms with many of the alchemists, I might have found an ignoble end there, crushed by a lead golem, speared by stalagmites in a spiked pit, or cut open and electrocuted by wall-mounted blades. Instead my trek was dull and uneventful, a walk through a cold mausoleum where the only source of conversation was a miserable wind whistling around corners and under doors, bringing with it the sour scent of death.

    When I found the unassuming stone door, recessed into a wall and sealed shut from the outside by a dozen spells of protection, I dug my sword into it and sliced it open. The light bobbing at my side revealed about two dozen shivering men and women, clutching each other for comfort and warmth.

    “W-who?” one man croaked.

    “Zelretch.”

    He stared at me, wide-eyed. “The Wizard Marshall? But isn’t he supposed to have-”

    “Hair, yes. And also this.” The glimmer of my jeweled sword illuminated the small, cramped shelter’s corners. The colours of the Kaleidoscope played across the survivors’ tired faces.

    The stuttering man began to profusely apologize, before I cut him off.

    “The danger has passed. Mourn your dead and dry your tears. There is still a world to defend. And you, follow me.”

    I didn’t stay to watch the scramble. The pit was further below. The man who’d spoken ran after me, still shaking, a far-off look in his eyes. He was thin and bald, with a complex proto-numerological formula tattooed across his left arm. One of the so-called progressives.

    “What happened?” I asked.

    “We had forewarning. We knew. We were watching it.” the man mumbled, eyes glued to the floor. “We had resolved to rely on our conceptual defenses first. If they were breached we would draw lots, send someone into the vault, and use the Black Barrel. The director said that if it were fired from within Atlas, it would not technically have left… and we did just that. We must have pierced its carapace a dozen times, but… nothing. It just wouldn’t fall.”

    “The attack. How did it kill these people?”

    “Ah, yes, that. It – ah – marched over to where we were. Right across the desert, under the burning sun, past the tomb of the sun god. It did not seek out the obvious entrance as we had predicted. Instead it targeted… I... I think it sought the greatest concentrations of people, in the residential section… its legs went right through our seventeen layer laminate plating. No weapon on Earth should have been able to. And then, these little – holes, like pores, opened up in its carapace, and it started, it released this – ah...”

    He moaned, as if still feeling the pain. His mind must have been addled from the trauma. “This red gas, that moved and buzzed like a swarm of bees, and just – if you were close enough to see it, you were already dead. You would just begin to burn, and wouldn’t stop, no matter what. They tried removing oxygen, or putting barriers up, blowing it away, and it just wouldn’t stop! We shot it with the Black Barrel, raised walls of stone to block its path, and still, it did not stop!”

    I placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, halting him in place. He turned, finally, to look at me, terror and tears welling up in his eyes.

    “You did well to survive,” I said.

    He laughed as he cried, a mad bark that started and ended in the same breath. “I, I used the oldest trick in the book,” he said. “Just – guessed that it wasn’t gas, but something solid, small, so I, transmuted it into a heaver material. It dropped like sand… gone now, though. Must’ve been short-lived...”

    I didn’t really know how to respond. I myself was preoccupied, turning over variables and expectations and possibilities in my head. But telling his story must have served to center the alchemist, for he looked at me a few moments later and shook his head.

    “I-I know what you’re thinking,” he stammered as we passed by his burnt and broken colleagues. “Everyone was thinking it, too. But the answer is still no. The vault stays closed. The director said, even if she should die, the rule is never to be broken. Especially not for some would-be hero. She took the key to the vault’s cipher to her grave.”

    “I figured as much. Guess that’s off the table.”

    “B-but you have one of the contracts, right? That’s why you’re here?”

    I shook my head. “I do not.”

    You don’t?”

    Of course not. What, did you figure I’d collected one from a doomed world at some point? The Institute isn’t so foolish as to fall for such a ruse.

    “Th-then why, Wizard Marshall? We don’t – we don’t have any masters anymore. Anyone with talent stayed to fight. We – I – those left are the ones that couldn’t do anything to help.”

    “You can at least activate HERMES, can’t you?”

    The alchemist nearly tripped over his own feet at the mention of the name. “How did you – Wizard Marshall, I – we – that is-.”

    I stopped, not because of the man’s indecision, but because we’d come to my second objective: a massive stone wall, inhumanly smooth, with the outline of a sealed door marked out in light. This was deep, deeper than Arachne would be able to pierce, I’d hoped. “It’s incomplete, isn’t it? But even in that state, it should be recording everything that happens on the surface of the earth. There is something I need to know.”

    “I – there is no protocol for this...”

    “Meaning it’s up to your discretion. What’s your name?”

    “Atul...”

    “Atul,” I repeated. “I have little time, little patience, and little strength. You’ll have to make this choice yourself. Decide here and now.”

    It didn’t take long at all. He stumbled past me, placed his hand on the door, and muttered the incantation. Glowing lines sprang from where his palm had made contact, running across the stone surface, splitting apart and crisscrossing, forming artificial circuits. After several moment, quiet save for the thrumming of vast magical engines deep beneath us, the door swung open smoothly. I stepped through into a dizzying spherical chamber whose size put the Colosseum to shame. Black walls, illuminated by pale, irregular lines crisscrossing their surface at sharp angles, stretched out in all directions. The peak above was so distant that clouds had formed beneath it. The walls glowed with soft blue light that occasionally pulsed purple and red in time with my heartbeat.

    Proto-HERMES was a single stone obelisk, floating in the center of that massive room under its own power. A narrow stone bridge jutting out under us was the only way to reach it, with any misstep punished by a long and fatal fall. Atul led the way and I followed, cursing my new limp and wishing for a cane. It took several minutes just to reach the middle of the room. As we walked the temperature steadily rose. By the time we reached the center I was sweating harder than I had under the desert sun. It all came from the obelisk, which had reached such a high temperature that the air warped around it, blurring its shape and making indistinct the numerous patterns etched onto its surface.

    “The room must be this large,” explained Atul. “It is all constructed to vent the excess heat. We were, ah, working on miniaturizing it… you should stand back.”

    Atul stretched out his hand and murmured a few words under his breath. The tattoos ringing his bicep curved and shifted as their ink flowed apart and together, forming a ritual circle for the acceleration of kinetic energy via diffusion. As the air around his hand cooled he hesitated, grit his teeth, and placed his palm upon the obelisk. Immediately he winced as his skin began to crackle. It sounded like cooking bacon and smelled like a cremation. Yellow circuits appeared upon contact, marring the smooth black stone, and dug into Atul’s fingers, drawing blood that was swiftly boiled and vaporized. “W-what do you wish to see?” he asked.

    “Arachne. The creature that attacked you.”

    Atul closed his eyes and concentrated. Proto-HERMES hummed. A wave of hot air washed over us. Above, the cloud grew and descended towards us, drops of moisture gathering into mist, in which formed, like a mirage, a hazy image of Arachne marching slowly through the desert. Its stride seemed more purposeful, as if it had finally locked onto its target. Judging by the time of day and position of the sun…

    “The ocean. So it knows where to go… does HERMES have records of the past?”

    “Y-yes.”

    “Then show me Arachne when it first arrived. Should be less than a day ago.”

    He obliged. The next image took longer to form, as the room grew hotter and the skin on his hand began to turn black and flake away: a beach at night, waves lapping at smooth stones and the nearby cliff side. A bit inland was a grassy field. The moon just barely peeked out from behind thick cloud cover. I would guess the shores were those of Britannia.

    And then, in the blink of an eye, it was there. Arachne appeared, with a visible pop that disturbed the air and water beneath it. Gravity took hold immediately. It fell, sank into the water, stumbled, then righted itself with its legs half-submerged near the shore. It straightened, and… froze. It did not move. After a minute of silence, I asked: “How long did it stay like this?”

    “Ah, a f-few minutes. But there was m-movement around it.”

    “Show me.”

    The image blurred, then zoomed into the smooth top of Arachne’s disk-like body and head. Just as it had appeared, so too did…

    “Scarab…?”

    “Huh? Where? Is it on me-!?” The image shook.

    “No, no. There’s nothing. Just keep it steady.”

    Following the sudden appearance of the doll-like thing, which, now that I looked closely, only vaguely resembled my obnoxious stalker (same species probably), six humans standing in a circle also appeared atop Arachne, blinking into existence between moments of time.

    “Ah… I have seen that being before,” Atul said, as the recording paused, frozen as thousands of tiny droplets in the cloud.

    “Where?” I asked. “Did it say anything to you?”

    “N-no. It appeared suddenly, before the attack, and spoke to several of our members. I could not make out its words, but it apparently it was making an offer… and found no one willing to take it. They would not elaborate. We were going to investigate it, before… well. You know.”

    “That crafty little devil… keep going.”

    They looked fairly ordinary, except for their clothing, which followed no recognizable fashion or design of the time. I would learn what that omen meant some hundreds of years later. One of them, a young woman with hair done up in a ponytail, wearing what the world would over a millennium later call a t-shirt, crossed her arms and said something to the floating not-Scarab, which bobbed up and down and seemed to give a response that angered her. She swore silently, sighed, surveyed the landscape, and said something quietly. One of the others, a young man with shaggy hair and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, placed his hand on her shoulder, but she brushed it off and barked at the doll, which nodded once more.

    They were dressed like…”

    Yes. Exactly what you think.

    The group stood there for a few more seconds, staring down at the picturesque view only marred by the moon shadow of Arachne creeping across sea and sand. The next moment, they had vanished… and six holes in Arachne’s visor lit up.

    “You can’t get sound?”

    “Ah, no… we’re w-working on that next. We had lip-readers to transcribe conversations, but…” Atul’s voice was becoming more strained. As was mine. It felt like we were standing in the middle of an oven.

    “No need to wake the dead. I’ve gotten enough to put most of the picture together. Can you do one more?”

    Atul groaned. I spared him a glance. He’d seen better days. His left hand was charred, the tattoo nearly indistinguishable from burnt flesh. But he squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. “G-go ahead, Wizard Marshall.”

    “...never mind. Shut it down. You’ve done enough.”

    I put my hand on Atul’s shoulder and stepped away from HERMES, pulling him back with me. With a thrum the magical circuits coating the obelisk dimmed as it returned to inactivity, still radiating immense amounts of heat.

    Atul nearly collapsed into my arms. “I am s-sorry, Wizard Marshall,” he gasped. “I cannot anymore. And even if we bring in someone else, our reserves have been damaged. Activating HERMES for any longer is…”

    “That’s fine. I have what I need.”

    He looked up, staring at me as if I were some figure of legend. I suppose I am. It still feels strange sometimes. “What will you do, Wizard Marshall?”

    “Zelretch is fine. I’m going ahead. The Sea of Estray hasn’t been sunk yet.”

    “Ah… I would locate it with HERMES, but...”

    “Don’t worry about it. I have my ways. All you need to do now, Atul, is rebuild.”

    Some spark returned to his eyes. “Ah, yes... Of course, Zelretch! We will be ready!”

    “Mm. Good. We’ll need your help in the future.”

    Atul managed to stand on his own. He extricated himself from my grip and turned to face me head-on, his back finally straight. It hadn’t been apparent earlier, but he was actually taller than me. His left arm hung limp at his side, but he raised his right, palm flat and fingers together. The heat haze at his back was pushed away by fresh, cool air. “Peace be upon you, sir,” he said. “And if you see one of the men of Prague, tell them that Atlas will outlive them yet!”

    I could only nod and hope his faith in me hadn’t been misplaced.

    Now… that’s about that for Atlas. A ruin, but not one that couldn’t be rebuilt, so long as those who remained had the will to pile on stones for the next generation.

    Next stop, the Wandering Sea.

    Same trick as last time to get there?”

    Similar. It’s tougher to reach something that’s always moving, but I had associates who would leave the door open to so speak – actually, before we continue: how much do you know about the Wandering Sea?

    Ah, well… as much as the next magus, I suppose. A loose association of minor organizations that bands together, headquartering in some underground base? I’ve heard the island is good at staying hidden because those in charge of it are a bunch of shut-ins, but Father’s visited Sponheim Abbey a few times and he says they’re nothing special.”

    Close enough. The Wandering Sea is a creation of necessity, not convenience. They are the conservatives to the Clock Tower’s’ progressives, and either despise modern magecraft, or want to retain independence without being dragged into the asinine political posturing of the Tower. Back then the divide was not so clear, and so the Wandering Sea’s defenses were not as absolute. It did not hide in its own Texture mimicking the Age of Gods; it merely existed as a floating island ringed by smaller isles, connected through a deep sea bedrock platform, an imitation of lost Atlantis that cloaked itself in numerous misdirecting enchantments and curses. Upon that island and within its numerous undersea workshops, the magi quietly studied.

    Sounds more like the island of Moreau. Or Circe’s cursed resort.”

    Not a poor comparison. It’s more like a series of playrooms than a real place of study. Even now they refuse to let go of their childhood toys, wallowing in nostalgia... but back then the magi of the Wandering Sea had still a semblance of pride.

    Unfortunately, besides its semi-mobile nature and numerous wards, there were no significant defenses to speak of. And, being conservative to a fault, the mages of the Wandering Sea would sooner stick their heads in the sand and study until their last breath than put up any more than a token resistance.

    Which meant I had my work cut out for me.

    Once more I stepped into the Kaleidoscope, leaving Atlas behind.

    Once more I walked along the side of the snowglobe.

    Once more Scarab appeared before me, floating some distance away. Except this time it brought friends.

    At first there was one, similarly shaped, like an alien had twisted a children’s toy into something unrecognizable. Then another appeared by its side, its form unique as well. And another. And another.

    Soon I was striding past hundreds of floating porcelain beings. They watched my advance silently, and I paid them no mind.

    This journey would be a quick one, but I had wasted much time. The time limit that had been given to me was…

    Four hours,” said Scarab, buzzing cheerfully, following along my travel. “If you don’t destroy your enemy in four hours, this world will be culled.”

    I grunted.

    Have you reconsidered our offer, dimensional traveler?”

    “No. And you won’t find any magus on this earth or below it who’d buy what you’re peddling.”

    It buzzed and bobbed.

    You are strange beings. Hoarding all of the potential in this world, yet using it solely for your own ends. It’s making my job much more difficult.”

    “Then quit. Begone. Take your friends with you. We don’t need your weapon to fight your monster.”

    Its tittering sounded almost like a laugh. “Rushing headlong into a death is not a unique answer, sir. We’ve seen it happen plenty of times. Just know that it’s not only yourselves you will be culling by refusing to fight.”

    And then it was gone, along with the others, and I was alone.

    Moments later I walked out of a stone wall and into a meeting room crowded by yells, smoke, and familiar faces. Whatever they had been arguing about was evidently not nearly as interesting as me, because everyone fell silent. Among them was the Director, his face a mess held together by bandages. A few other department heads were there as well, alongside several significant figures of the Wandering Sea. The poor student who’d originally warned us of Arachne’s arrival had somehow made it as well.

    For all their arguing, both factions of the Association had the same taste in meeting rooms. And cigars. Except this one, instead of a window to Londinium, had a porthole into the black of the abyss.

    I sniffed. “If we’re underwater, where does the smoke go?”

    “We’ve a spell to vent it,” drawled a tall, pale man wrapped up in an inky black long coat. “But the spell to vent this waste of humanity has been vetoed.”

    “Nice to see you too, Rowan.”

    He turned up his nose at my appearance. “You stink, Schweinorg. You smell enough of death that I might open a vote to throw you into the deep ocean.”

    Around this time the befuddled Director found his lost wits. “Zelretch! Where were you!? How did you get here? I don’t care! Explain yourself! This is your fault, isn’t it?!”

    “Good grief...”

    Well, he was right, so I explained myself.

    What, you told him?”

    Yes. Everything. The whole room. Everything I had done to save this world, and everything that had come about as a result. Everything I had tried and everything that had failed. I had them all vow never to share that information with anyone outside, first. It was a secret that the most knowledgeable magi of the age would take to their graves. The end result of my explanation, besides more smoke, was a room of rather unsatisfied men and women.

    “So,” I said. “If anyone wants to kill me, now is the time.”

    Silence. Of course.

    “Good. It’s time for our last stand. Arachne is heading this way, yes?”

    “It is,” said Rowan. “Our wards had it confused for a few hours. Most, it ignored, but the ones to shuffle sense of direction got through. But it’s recovered by now. My familiars will be warning of its appearance on the horizon soon.”

    “Can we count on the Wandering Sea’s assistance?”

    He shrugged. “As an organization? Yes, we are at the Director’s disposal. Practically? We can’t force anyone to help. We are in chaos, and not the desirable sort. You’ll get no more than two dozen volunteers at best. The rest would rather study magecraft until reality crushes them to dust.”

    “Cowards, the lot of them,” grumbled the Director. “If only my brigade were here… but they’re either dead or scattered. And we only had time to transport half of the meeting room here, at the expense of the Head of Spiritual Evocation’s life. It’s a shame you were in the other half, Schweinorg… boy!” The young student from before perked up, panicked. “Make yourself useful and fetch me some water! These bandages ache!”

    Stammering, the student nodded and began making his way around the cramped, windowless room. He wasn’t really a boy, but he did have a young face.

    “The Church?” I asked.

    “Hah!” the Director said. “They’ll be dancing on our gravestones before they raise a finger! We cannot count on them without extensive negotiation beforehand. That would take days. We have hours.”

    “The Ancestors, then?”

    He nearly choked on… well, I’m not sure what he had that he could’ve choked on. His own tongue, perhaps?

    “Absolutely not!” the Director eventually croaked. “Those soulless monstrosities have no love for humanity. They’re more likely to aid that thing-!”

    “Arachne.”

    “-to aid Arachne than fight it!”

    “So it’s just us, then. And whoever decides to aid us from the Wandering Sea.”

    Rowan nodded. The Director scowled. The rest looked on, breath bated. Eventually, however, the Director sighed, and I glimpsed clearly the despair hidden behind his indignation. “I know it isn’t enough, Zelretch,” he said. “But it is all we can muster. Atlas is gone. The Tower and its students are scattered. We are scholars, not warriors. We cannot muster any greater force than this. We can’t even beseech the planet for aid; it has fallen silent. What else are we to do?”

    “Fight.” I said. “Director, I’ll take command, if you’re amenable to it.”

    “I’d normally protest, but… you’ve seen more of that thing up close than anyone here. We are all at your service. Please lead us to victory.”

    “And the rest of you?”

    Silence. Looks were exchanged. But, eventually…

    “Um. I can’t do much. But I’ll do my best, sir. I have family. My parents, and my daughter. I'd like them to see tomorrow.” The nameless student, having quietly entered bearing a stack of bandages and a bucket of water, was the first to speak up. Following him, Rowan gave a sharp nod, followed by the remaining heads. There were murmurs of assent.

    “I’ll ask for volunteers,” he said.

    And like that, they dispersed. I was left in that stuffy room to organize the last defense of… well, it was just the a group of shut-in magi, but it felt like all of humanity was behind me.

    Why? Why even bother? Sorry if this is dumb, but I just… don’t really get it. What was going on? What about that Scarab thing? And those people talking in HERMES’ observation? Why was it so important that you defend the Wandering Sea?”

    You have everything you need to know. I was beginning to put the pieces together by now, but it hadn’t crystallized yet. And I was too busy putting together a plan to think on it further.

    Consider though, though, as we all did: Why was Arachne targeting the Mages’ Association? Why had it not thoroughly destroyed Atlas, and left Astrology and I alive in London? Why was it going next for the Wandering Sea? And why did we, according to Scarab, only have an arbitrary amount of time remaining before certain demise?

    I’m… not sure. Because Arachne was an enemy of the Association?”

    Because it was an enemy of magi. Or rather, because they were its targets. And, in order, the Clock Tower, Atlas, and the Wandering Sea were the largest concentration of magi in the world. No sane person would attack the Wandering Sea; it’s barely involved in modern politics and practices non-interference. If there’s a magical equivalent of Switzerland, it would be the them. So, only someone that doesn’t know that obvious fact would bother. Meaning…

    I still don’t get it. Why magi?”

    Because magi, or rather those with magical potential, by definition, qualify.

    Qualify for what?”

    To be heroes that slay the dragon. That defeat the enemy.

    Now… I’m skipping several hours of boring busywork. We had time before Arachne closed in on our location, and in that time I put my title to the test. Most of the magi of the Wandering Sea refused to help, as expected, but some were convinced to leave their hide-holes for a few minutes.

    We anchored the Wandering Sea above a crack in the bedrock in the middle of the Atlantic. I chose a small, uninhabited volcanic isle in the middle of the Atlantic as the battlefield. Its only feature was a steep mountain with a well-defined crater that looked over the ocean. We placed it between the Wandering Sea’s entrance and Arachne’s path, betting that it would sooner walk over than around, and had the mineralogists band together to stoke the humours of the fire beneath it.

    When a magus has time, there is only one thing to do: prepare a grand ritual or two.

    When time came, we were ready. And time came fast.

    I stood atop the mountain, leaning on a cane pilfered from the Director’s collection as payment for serviced rendered. My body still ached, and my strength was still faded, but I had at least rediscovered my will to fight. So, when the ground shuddered beneath me, and the seas quaked and parted, and the massive silver death dragged itself up from the ocean floor with its multi-jointed legs, my heart and mind were perfectly calm.

    Water, sea creatures, algae, nothing found purchase on its smooth shell, but judging by the way its six glowing eyes seemed to focus in on me even as it advanced, our meeting had stuck. It hissed, producing that red smoke to hide its form. Like a cloud of malice it began to creep up the mountain, legs twisting and moving and biting, dragging its swollen mass closer, closer, closer.

    Through it all I watched, waiting. It could move very quickly at close range, quickly enough to catch me off guard easily, so I would only have one chance, before it got too close.

    I raised my cane, gathered magical energy, and…

    Hah… boy, would you mind if I…?

    Again?”

    Yes. It was awful. I’m not going to attempt a visceral description with an end result that drab.

    "Come on..."

    Bah, fine. You can have the abridged version.

    We’d planned it out. The island was an active volcano. We had set up a ritual to sink Arachne in it, burying the thing in lava using myself as bait. Half the magi at our disposal would stoke and guide Vulcan’s wrath. The other half would flood the vents beneath the island with freezing water, courtesy of another ritual. Thermal expansion, or at the very least, freezing it in solid volcanic rock.

    To make a long story shorter, It didn’t work. It fell for the trick, of course, but I suspect it had allowed itself to be caught out of sheer apathy to our attempts. Lava could not melt it. The heat diffused from its carapace. Then, after we had frozen it solid, rock could not hold it. Whatever substance it was made of defied nearly all known laws of physics.

    In my desperation, I reached through the Kaleidoscope and flung open a link to seventeen different worlds. Undiluted ether washed over Arachne with enough force to blast a comet out of the sky.

    Nothing. It did nothing.

    I remember, at the end, hanging onto my cane, standing in a small boat in the middle of the ocean, watching Arachne pull itself free, one leg at a time. It was mocking me. I could tell as much. Whatever that thing was, the will moving it was human.

    It descended the other side of the ruined volcano one step at a time. One step, and then another. It did not need to fear us, nor me.

    It walked forward, descending into the ocean again. Each movement sent waves through my wooden dinghy, nearly capsizing it. But I held on, through spite if nothing else. Even as I found myself meeting Arachne’s six glowing eyes, screaming expletives, cursing its name, it only stared. Behind me was the Wandering Sea, its goal, but its eyes were for me.

    I hurled spells, too. Explosions, lasers, enough magical energy from the jeweled blade to melt through the side of a mountain. I don’t think I left much more than a scratch. Were I sane, I might have been more clever, perhaps slipped its limbs through portals or misdirected it somehow, but at that point I was little more than rage and despair, held together by spite and pride.

    “Why!?” I recall crying. “Why us? Was I wrong, wanting them to live?”

    As if to confirm that thought, it raised one massive limb out of the water, rearing back to blot out my life.

    And then, from behind me, a great flash of heat and light engulfed everything. I was thrown from my perch and into the water, which became a boiling whirlpool that sucked me down, left, right, up, and every direction at once. A great distance away, distorted by the churning water, a great battle was taking place. Black and white carved at each other, locked limbs, and grappled, screaming and roaring, while I fought my own battle below the waves for a single gulp of air. Each time they clashed the water changed sides, throwing me to and fro. I feared I would die there, useless to the end, drowning under the weight of my sins.

    Of course, I did not die. Not then. No, you know well enough the story of my death and rebirth, so really, there is little point to this gravitas.

    I lived. After an eternity the battle above me ended, and I was allowed to surface. I broke through the surface and took a great big gulp of water and air, and after a bit of flailing managed to find a plank of shattered wood and throw myself over top of it. Only then did I open my eyes and see.

    Arachne had been shattered. Its corpse lay along the side of the volcano, which was similarly fractured. Several limbs were missing or cut short, revealing wires and pistons and gears. Its head, too, had been torn open, spilling not blood, not guts, but six human beings, whose forms were already familiar to me. They were splayed out atop Arachne’s head, surrounded by flowing magma. The ponytailed girl was the only one among then that stood, and she stared defiantly upwards… at a second Arachne.

    Well, it was not the same. It had four limbs. Humanoid ones, and a proper torso. It was a deep black rather than silver. But the construction of the limbs and the glowing light at the front of its ‘face’ were undeniably the same. It stood, half-submerged, one arm pointed at the group of six. Its fingers were sharp talons, and between them was a tiny hole.

    The woman screamed something. I couldn’t hear her; my ears registered only ringing. But I understood. I knew, then, that the monster had not been mocking me. No, my feelings and hers had been exactly the same.

    Brightly, quietly, in an instant, six beams of light erupted from the palm of the black Arachne, vaporizing the humans below. The mechanical monster then turned to me reached, out, and… scooped me out of the water. I was raised to its head, the light in its visor dimming as I neared.

    Someone appeared next to me. The student from before. He shook my shoulder and said something. I could not respond, only cough and moan. He pulled me up to a sitting position, patting my back as I tried to collect myself. The student gave a sad smile, said something quietly that seemed to begin with “Zelretch,” and… stopped.

    Staring into the distance, he slowly lost his balance and tumbled lifelessly from the black Arachne’s hand as the light in its visor went dark.

    Scarab was there, again, hovering beside me. It might have said something. I couldn’t make it out.

    I blinked, and was lying in a featureless white room. Ahead of me was a plain wooden chair.

    I blinked again. I was lying on the beach. The waves lapped at my feet.

    I blinked, and with that, the black Arachne vanished.

    It was over.

    The world was safe.

    No thanks to me.

    - - - - -

    Zoston looks up from the sphere, and stares at the lines on Zelretch’s face. He has never quite seen the Wizard Marshall as old. Aged, yes, and rather wrinkly, but never old, never spent, never reaching the end of his life. Now, Zelretch truly seems old. He is smaller, somehow, than the larger-than-life figure Zoston is used to.

    “Do you understand?” Zelretch’s soft question interrupts the boy’s musings.

    “Sort of,” admits Zoston. “So… the attack was being carried out by humans, using a ‘weapon’ provided by that Scarab thing. And you were saved by another human, using a new ‘weapon’. And the whole thing was some sort of test to judge if the world was worth preserving?”

    “Generally, yes,” says Zelretch. “The humans we fought, ‘Arachne’, were from another world. Another timeline, you could say. Their world, after they lost our bout, was culled.”

    A terrible chill takes hold of Zoston’s heart.

    “This place I had brought that doomed branch, the tree I had grafted it onto, also practiced culling. It had to, of course. The well of creation is not endless. It's impossible to sustain every possibility. It is inevitable that some would be cast aside. Except that universe was both more fair and infinitely more cruel than the one I’d left behind. It does not kill worlds with a snap of the finger. Instead, it turns the whole thing into some kind of twisted game. It pits worlds against each other and makes them pull the trigger on humanity. It cares not for possibility or promise, good or evil. Only who wins.”

    There is silence for a long moment, which Zelretch takes as a sign to continue.

    “Arachne’s strategy had been to target potential wielders of weapons, because no opponent had appeared on time. Supposedly, those with powerful life force are capable of powering them. To that end, it sought out concentrations of such humans that appeared on its sensors. It knew not what magecraft was. Apparently, none of the other worlds in this ‘tree’ have figured it out.”

    Zoston stares at the globe, at the record of a dying world. It was not the world Zelretch had spoken of, he realized; it was the world Zelretch had indirectly destroyed.

    “To power a weapon, one needs only their own life. That is the fuel that moves it. At the end of a battle, which never lasts longer than a day or so, the wielder – the pilot’s life is spent, and they die. That’s why any pilot must sign a contract with one of those abominations.”

    Zoston looks at his hands. “So… that student…”

    “Each magus refused the offer, until him. Scarab explained everything and he decided to fight.”

    “Didn’t he have-?”

    “A family? Yes. He was clever. More than I or anyone gave him credit for. He made that aptitude for piloting into his own Sorcery Trait and passed it on to his daughter through the contract. In this world, now, the only eligible pilots are those of his bloodline. Normally, you see, a pilot and backups must be chosen before a battle begins. My welding had kickstarted this battle early. But now, rather than every few weeks or months as intended, our world must battle for the right to exist only once per generation.”

    “Wait, wait. Our world?”

    Zelretch looks at Zoston. There is sadness and shame in his eyes. But also a stubborn fire.

    “Boy, your ancestor was the bravest man on this planet. And his daughter was even braver, and hers braver than that. But that bravery should never lead to death,” Zelretch says, his voice growing more and more powerful. “I’ll never forget that debt. And I’ll never take it for granted. I have been fighting this system since that day, and I will never give up until it is dismantled.”

    “My ancestor? My…? But, wait, this is all moving too fast.” The world is beginning to spin around Zoston. He cannot understand, and he is going to fall, and then-!

    And then, Zelretch’s hand is on his shoulder.

    “You asked me why I don’t try. Why I just let it happen. I misled you then. Called you naive. That was a lie, boy. I have not stopped trying, and I never will, until the day I die.”

    Zelretch stands, straight and tall.

    “You did well coming here. This place is my sanctuary for a reason: it is one of the few places they cannot reach. I expect you will be seeing Scarab soon. He will not know that you know. He will try to get you to sign away your life for a just cause. But you will be wiser than him, and cleverer, and you will not die to fix this worthless old man’s mistake like your grandmother and great grandfather and all your ancestors before you did. Do you understand, boy? Cruelty must be acknowledged, but it must never, ever be accepted. Now...”

    Zelretch tightens his fingers around Zoston’s shoulder, then lets go and steps back.

    “What kind of world do you want to live in, pupil?”

    Charles Zoston takes a deep breath, and answers:

    “One where we win, sir!”

  2. #2
    All praise from the contest applies with none of the caveats. Feel proud for having written the world's only good "Zelretch is bored" fic.

  3. #3
    Drunk Anime Is The True Path. Mattias's Avatar
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    Another great one Bloble.

    It's always nice to see an all powerful character up against something they just can't punch to death. A first I was expecting it to be an Extra prequel, with the dimension hop explaining why magic was dying out so much faster than normal, instead it's more like the 'Time Runs Out' event in Marvel a few years back.

    My only real question was if the tomb of the sun god line in Atlas was a callback?

    Gundam-a-thon Status: 0079 Zeta ZZ Char's Counterattck War In the Pocket F91 Stardust Memories Victory G Gundam Wing Endless Waltz 8th MS After War X Turn A SEED 00 Unicorn AGE Reconguista The Orgin Thunderbolt IBO

    DONE!!!!!! 4 years, 1 week.

    Bonus Rounds: Gundam-san Escalflowne Build/Try/Divers

  4. #4
    el bolb Bloble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mattias View Post
    Another great one Bloble.

    It's always nice to see an all powerful character up against something they just can't punch to death. A first I was expecting it to be an Extra prequel, with the dimension hop explaining why magic was dying out so much faster than normal, instead it's more like the 'Time Runs Out' event in Marvel a few years back.

    My only real question was if the tomb of the sun god line in Atlas was a callback?
    I may have dropped a few references here or there.

    Since I didn't put it in the OP post, I'll leave this here: the crossover is with Bokurano, a very good manga that I recommend as reading to anyone who likes mecha and/or stories about how ordinary humans deal with life dealing them a bad hand.

  5. #5
    Drunk Anime Is The True Path. Mattias's Avatar
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    Never heard of it but it's on the list now. The summery sounds very Ender's Game.

    Gundam-a-thon Status: 0079 Zeta ZZ Char's Counterattck War In the Pocket F91 Stardust Memories Victory G Gundam Wing Endless Waltz 8th MS After War X Turn A SEED 00 Unicorn AGE Reconguista The Orgin Thunderbolt IBO

    DONE!!!!!! 4 years, 1 week.

    Bonus Rounds: Gundam-san Escalflowne Build/Try/Divers

  6. #6
    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six SpoonyViking's Avatar
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    Yeah, this was very good, Bloble! Not just in terms of writing; it's that good but oh-so-rare type of crossover fic in which you don't even need to know anything about the other franchise to enjoy it.
    My fanfics:
    The Gift (F/SN): The last duel between Cú Chulainn and Scáthach.
    Passion Acknowledged (F/SN): Shinji X Shirou lemon
    He Was a Good King (F/SN): Was Beowulf a good king?
    A Fairy Tale of Love and Death (F/SN): A meeting between Scáthach and King Hassan.
    Palingenetic Descension (Tsukihime): The origin of the Tohno family's hybrid nature.

  7. #7
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    My memory's fucked to hell and back, so I don't really know what's revised or not, but I can tell you that I enjoyed this as much as I did the first time around.

    Which is, to say, much. Me reiterating my previous review of this in the fanfiction contest because it still applies to my thoughts re: the current draft. GG, you Blobular fellow.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
    My Fanfics. Read 'em. Or not.



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