Sunday, November 18, 2018

Battle Vixens! - 41


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Episode 41: The Neutral Move

"You know, I thought the whole point of a hydra was you shouldn't cut the heads off." Petra stood on a small pillar of concrete, waited for a few heads to swipe down at her, then bashed them with her sheath, jumped over them and slashed their necks with the sword. The heads fell off, writhing and snapping at the air like some kind of seizuring snakes. Rowan drew more water from an open sewer main nearby and sent it crashing over them, dissipating them. Petra landed on the ground a bit behind the pillar while it collapsed, continuing her thought: "'Cause, it's supposed to grow more heads. This one just had way too many to begin with."
Rowan sighed, or more just exhaled slightly louder than usual. "Save your breath, please." The towering monster took a couple of steps in their direction, giving an opening to Dawn on the opposite side of it. Several of its heads screamed when she cut them and started getting rid of them. For all they knew, the body was a weak point, but it was impossible to get close. Every head was big enough to swallow Hugo (the tallest of them) whole, and there had seemed to be hundreds when it first appeared. In fact it was hard to tell they were even making progress at first, but by this point it was quite clear this strategy was (slowly) working.

"Heads up!" Zeno, off to the right, put a light-shield up between them and the monster just in time for several of the heads to stun themselves by bashing against it.
"Got it, got it!" Petra lifted her arms, making a big blade of rock to chop the latest heads off. A blast of sound from the right tore through them before they could hit the ground.

Rowan moved around to the left, noting a higher concentration of heads there. Another wave of water from the sewers turned into a mass of spinning blades aimed vaguely in the beast's direction, some of them finding their marks to chop off heads while others just nicked or pierced them. Tora sped over and sliced through all the heads in a single swift motion. "I can't get close enough to that thing!" she complained after rolling back out of the remaining heads' range. She held up her clawgloves, half-glaring at them. "These things're great except when what ya need is reach!"
"Swap with me," said Rowan, pointing in Petra's direction.
"Sure, chief."

Fay came closer. "Seek the sky?"
"Right." In a practiced maneuver, she jumped and held her staff out, and Rowan leapt to meet it at the peak of the jump, pushing off of it to get more height. She landed on top of a neck and began running and jumping around the swarm of biting heads, cutting one after another off with her sword, until she started to feel out of breath and backflipped away again. Fay set off an explosion big enough to destroy most of them, and then hit the stragglers with her staff when they got close enough.
"No gunshots heard," Fay commented, moving just inside the monster's range, setting up an explosion, and hopping back to let the heads that took the bait die to another explosion.
"It doesn't make...any sense," said Rowan, between breaths. "Not unless she's...attacking Light's group,"
"No use worrying." She offered Rowan an open bottle of water, which she chugged in a couple of seconds.

"Hey, I got an idea!" Petra yelled from her side. "Let's tip it over!"
Rowan looked at Fay for a second; her expression was neutral. "Hugo?"
"Sounds great to me!" she yelled over the monster's screams from the other side.
"Point it our way. Knock it with the shield if it's safe to do so. Back up, Dawn. On my signal!"
"Yep yep!" Petra called back.

Rowan and Fay split up, Fay to their right and Rowan toward Dawn's side. She had indeed backed up, and was busy hitting her built-up collection of heads with fire blasts and ice blades. Rowan went in to slash through the rest; Dawn nodded appreciatively, panting slightly. Then: "Do it!"
"RRRRRAAAAAH!" The ground the monster was standing on shifted, tilting more and more. The creature scuttled against the sudden incline unsettlingly, roaring. Then Hugo jumped and bashed it with her tower shield, and Zeno placed a plane of light under its lifted feet so it couldn't easily right itself. Its many voices screamed louder and more urgently than before as it fell over onto its side, the ground audibly rumbling from the impact.

The thing's body was nothing like Rowan had expected behind all those heads. It was just a big torso with dozens and dozens of thin, spidery legs attached to the bottom, all of them twitching and spasming rapidly as it tried to stand back up. "Fay, Zeno, Hugo: Keep the heads off us," Rowan ordered, moving in with Dawn. Hugo ran around to the two of them to block with his shield and throw blasts of sound back at the heads trying to bite them; Zeno and Fay used their powers to keep the heat off of Petra and Tora. Swords, claws, and some fire hit the torso, sending a massive stream of mist out of it. The monster's heads gave a chorus screeching, roaring, and pained screaming from the assault, attacking ever more desperately until some of them started to get around Hugo's efforts, forcing Rowan to switch to drawing more water up to block and pummel the heads with. It didn't seem to be smart enough to use all those heads to lever itself back upright, which was at least a small blessing.

The body went indistinct after a moment and fell apart. But the heads were still perfectly solid, detaching from the fading body to turn and rush the group of vixens already half-exhausted from taking out the thing's torso. Petra gritted her teeth and tilted the ground up, throwing most of them back; Zeno blocked the rest from coming too close and picked as many off with arrows as she could. Hugo threw more impact blasts their way, and after taking a second to catch her breath Rowan threw blades of water at them. Dawn shot fireballs and threw spikes made of ice as the ones thrown back by Petra regained the lost ground, and Tora and Fay took up the front line, hitting, exploding, and slashing as many of them as they could manage.
One by one (apart from Zeno) the others ran out of energy to throw their magic around and jumped into the melee instead—Dawn last of all and wielding the biggest, most solid sword of ice she could conjure. But after an agonizing thirty seconds of frantic melee that felt more like an hour, Rowan struck her sword down through the last of the thing's heads, landing the tip partway in the ground and leaning herself on top of it, panting heavily.

"Is everyone...all right?" She turned her head around, checking that they were all still present and conscious. It took a lot of effort just to do that.
"Well, nobody's got eaten or fainted anyhow," said Tora.
Fay just replied, "Too...many...heads."
"I agree completely," said Petra. "How am I supposed to paint that?" The rest just quietly nodded or looked back at her.

Next, Rowan got a radio from her belt and spoke into it: "Any sign of them?"
"Not a thing. No noise from the facility."
"And..?"
"They didn't show up in the other town, either. No hits on the car. Like she went underground or something."
"Hey, how'd things go over there?" said Petra.
"..Same question," Rowan said after a brief half-glare in her direction.
"Uhh...we're getting reports there was some kinda 'dragon' over there. No details yet. They think everyone's okay but they all disappeared the second it went down, so..."
"Well. Keep an eye out. I don't like this."
"I don't either," said the chief of police from the other end of the line.

Rowan shook her head, putting the radio back in its place for the moment. "Otherwise..." Looking around at everyone, she said, "Good work. We have reasonable certainty this is the only monster for today, so it should be alright to take the rest of the day off. Just be careful."
"Yeah, I'd rather those jerks attack us now than keep us waitin' and wonderin' forever," said Tora, crossing her arms in annoyance.
"Can you even still fight?" Zeno asked.
"Long as there's blood in me."



After a brief discussion, the group agreed to meet in the same lounge that Rory and Clark had carried Light to when they first met her. The puppeteer could be expecting them in either location, but the press would be less likely to barge into the college science building looking for them than wait outside the Quinns' house with a bunch of cameras. Besides that, Amory was waiting on campus for news. The unconscious bodies of Gemma got two of the couches, the Quinns took the third one, and everyone else got chairs. Light left once they were all inside, putting in the effort to remain invisible while going to get Amory and bring him back with her.

Ning watched the unconscious twins with a visibly nervous expression. "..Are you sure they—uh, she's okay?"
"Yep. Checked her with my magic wand a minute ago," said Clark, pointing to the needle currently in her ear. "You feeling alright?"
"Nn, not really. That dragon hit me in the side with its head..."
"Ouch, that might leave a bruise." She got up slowly and moved over, putting the bulb-end up to Ning's head.

"W-wait, are you gonna knock yourself out doing that?" she said. Clark ignored the question, already focused on healing the injury.
"We're pretty sure healing people 'recharges' her," said Rory. "The same way hitting yourself with lightning does you."
Ning let out a brief sigh of relief at the soothing feeling from the healing magic. "Oh? What about you?"
"I've been thinking about it actually, and I may have figured it out," she said. "Seems to me like I'm 'recharged' by the thrill of battle. Hitting things and being hit back." She pounded a fist into her palm to demonstrate. "Fits the whole theme of 'bodily strength and endurance' powers, and it just...I dunno how to explain it. I mean—don't get me wrong, I've never exactly been a totally peaceful person but I've never really felt so excited about violence before, either."

The door opened and closed on its own, and then Light and Amory appeared inside. "We're back," she said tiredly, and then went to the nearest empty chair and slumped over into it. He watched this with a concerned expression, which then turned even moreso as he noticed the bodies on the couch.
"Is she alright?"
"Just had this conversation, yes," Clark repeated, standing up again as she finished fixing Ning's bruises up and making her way back to her wife's side. "Should wake up any minute now, if Light's experience with fainting is anything to go by."
"Hmn. You know, I really wish I'd brought some cookies today," said Rory. She waved toward the remaining empty chair, and Amory took the hint to go sit down in it.

"I saw some of what happened on the news," he said. "Looked...pretty rough."
"Mhm," Light said, nodding. "Stupid dragon took forever to kill."
"I dunno if we could've done it without your help," Rory said with a sly grin. "Really, I think you were right about not losing any time, either."
"Shh." Light waved vaguely at her and pointed toward Plus.
"What? She's still asleep, right? Anyway, who cares if she does find out? I thought we weren't keeping secrets from each other anymore."
"I'm just..worried how she'd take it," Amory said quietly, looking furtively at the nearest sleeping body a bit. "I'll tell her...just—I want to be the one to do it, okay? Give me a little more time."
"Okay, okay."

Defying every literary convention Light knew of, Gemma remained fast asleep for the next few minutes while everyone else just took the time to drink some water and really, fully catch their breath. And when she did wake up, it was with enough of a start to make it quite clear she hadn't been pretending before. "Wuaah!" both bodies jumped to their feet, yelling in chorus. "Dragon!—" "—where?!" They looked around the room frantically for a second or two before getting their bearings.
"The dragon's dead, dear, go back to sleep," Rory said half-joking.
"Oh—" "—uh..." Both of them looked down, blushing brightly in embarrassment. After a moment Plus looked up, looking around the room. "What happened? The last thing I remember I was uh, helping Ning recover her magic...and...?"
"You fainted," Clark said, "from exhaustion more or less. I guess having two bodies doesn't make much of a difference for that if you tire both of them out at once."
"Did any puppets show up?" Minus asked, slowly sitting back down again; Plus moved over to sit on the opposite side of the same couch, leaving hers empty.
"Not one," said Light. Her ears drooped slightly. "I wonder if..?"

Amory's phone started ringing at this point, interrupting her and making her jump slightly. Both of Gemma and Ning also jumped at the noise, the Quinns the only fox-girls present who weren't startled by it.
"Hello..?" He pulled it away a bit to talk to them. "Rowan." And back to his ear. "Yeah, they're fine. Everyone's...here with me, actually. You want speakerphone? Sure it is." He set the phone down on the nearest table, pushed the speakerphone button, and gestured vaguely at Gemma (specifically Plus).
"I heard your monster resembled a dragon," his voice said from the phone. Amory gestured slightly more urgently and she finally caught on to what he meant.
"Oh, right!" Minus half-whispered, while Plus focused on damping the sound from the phone on the edges of the room. It probably wasn't audible past the walls anyway, but a little more security couldn't hurt.

"Yep. We got to be dragonslayers," said Rory. "How are you guys holding up? The puppeteer didn't do a thing here, so.."
"Not here either. And no sign of her at the facility; they've been on high security since yesterday. And the car hasn't shown up on the road yet, either. Not even one matching its description with different plates, which she wouldn't even know to do..."
"It's like someone told her to lay low for today," said Light. "But...she doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd take someone else's orders. And, well, at least there's no way we have a mole over here."
"Well...Word of the car could have gotten out if she has contacts in the police," said Rowan. "But even if that were it, that's no reason not to attack today at all. It would have been to her advantage to do so, with the kind of monsters we were fighting."
"Maybe the plan is to let everyone tire themselves out today and then take advantage of it, fully rested herself, tomorrow?" Clark suggested. "It's still not a great plan, since there's a lot of time to rest between now and the next monster...or if there isn't, there's no way she'd know that."
"Maybe that's it," said Rowan.
"What's it?" said Minus, confused.
"Suppose she does, somehow, know that the attack will come earlier tomorrow. In the morning, for example. Then waiting until then to strike makes sense."

"How would she know when they're gonna attack?" said Amory. "Nobody knows that. The Initiative's been trying to figure it out, right? And you guys have a lot more experts working on it than she ever could..."
"There is one way she might obtain that information," said Rowan. "One person who is more likely than anyone else to know exactly when the monsters will attack. Who has shown the ability to know precisely when they won't?"
"Oh...yeah," said Light. "She hasn't contacted any of us in a while." (Well, not as herself at least, she mentally noted). "You?"
"Not since last time. She...expressed an interest in keeping an 'even footing' between us. Not fair play, exactly, more like giving one side of a fight a handicap so it's closer and more exciting. Maybe us having a way to track her put things too far in our favor and it was time to throw a bone to the other side instead."
"That...sounds just like her to me," said Amory, shaking his head.

"So how far do we run with this assumption?" said Light.
"I think it would be best to turn in early tonight—as early as you can. And be ready for one of them to show up in the morning—no idea how early, but they've never shown up before dawn. Still...maybe it would be best to keep a phone nearby and loud enough to wake you quickly if it does happen. I'll put out the same warning on my end."

"Great! Will do," said Rory. "So enough about that, what did you fight today?"
"...A hydra showed up in the middle of the city," he said, his tone calm with a strong hint of tiredness. "Its heads came off and swarmed us when it died."
"Awesome." Half the room glared at her for the lack of tact. "Come on, that's like the third or fourth most metal thing I've heard all year."
"Please excuse my wife, she gets like this when she's tired," said Clark.
"Hey, I'm not tired!" she protested.
"It's...alright," Rowan said. "At any rate, I need to get the announcement out, so I'll leave you to it." And he hung up.

"Come on, am I wrong? I thought it was cool they won," said Rory, appealing to a generally unsympathetic court. "Nobody got hurt after all..."
"Dear, your filter's off," said Clark, leaning on top of her with a hug. "You know, the one that keeps you from saying things in a way that makes everyone angry with you? This always happens when you overwork yourself or don't sleep well, or try to compensate with a bunch of energy drinks."
"Well, I'm not allowed to be tired yet," she said, returning the hug with one arm. "I still have a class to teach."
Minus gasped. "I still have a class to go to!" Plus realized aloud. "What time is it?" Minus added, jumping to her feet.

"..Are you sure they weren't canceled for the day?" said Light wearily, leaning back with her head toward the ceiling at this point. "After the whole 'tornado siren' thing?"
"Uh..let's see.." Amory picked up his phone to check. "Uh-huh...this email says anyone commuting from off campus should stay off campus today avoid driving near where today's monster is or was. Basically." He looked up to Gemma. "So—you drove into town and then back to your apartment, and got this email saying not to come back. Problem solved."
"I-I guess so..—" "—but I'm right here, I hate lying to people..." Minus muttered more quietly.
"Well, have you checked your email yet?" he said, getting up and coming over to her. "Your car's still in town right now, yeah? I'll drive you, then we go back to the apartment and make it true."
"Okay..." She recombined using Minus, and Amory gently put an arm over her to guide her out. She giggled softly, blushing a bit from the physical contact. Before they got all the way to the door, she halted abruptly, realizing something.

"Wait! W-were there any lingering effects from breathing in that poison stuff? It made me feel dizzy, like the whole world was upside down and sideways, and my arms and legs were going stiff..."
"I didn't see anything," said Clark. "Checked pretty closely, too, since I wasn't sure how hard either of you hit the concrete when you collapsed. If you're really worried you could go have a checkup with a real doctor to be sure."
"R-right...thanks," she said quietly, and then continued out with Amory.

When the door shut, Ning snapped back to sitting up again. "Um.." She looked around the room, having dozed off sometime between the end of the phone call and now. "What time is it, anyway? I gotta get back to my shop, my car, and pick Nadia up soon probably."
"I"ll drive you," Light said, standing up slowly. "Should be able to make it look like just normal-me in the car."
"Aren't you wearing yourself a little thin?" said Clark. "Maybe I could take care of the driving part for you. And you should take a power nap in here before going to that class," she added to her wife, pushing off of her gently to stand up. "Remember the motto the legal team taught you?"
"Yeah yeah, 'don't get the college sued'," Rory said, and shifted back to her usual appearance before standing up, stretching. "I'll be in my office, then. You get the blame if I'm late for class, though."

Clark also returned to human form, leading the way out of the office. The three of them were quiet as they went to Light's car, she produced the keys from a purse that her pockets' contents had traveled to during the transformation, and he drove them out to town, giving the destroyed section of road from the day's fight a wide berth. Light kept Ning invisible until she went into the back door of the shop to turn back into Gerald, and then took a long, deep breath, grateful to have just one less illusion to keep up. Then it was back to campus so Blake could be the one driving to the apartment and Clark wouldn't be stranded over there.

"This superhero business..." Light muttered quietly halfway through the trip. "They never tell you how much gas it costs."
"Hah. Yeah. I can spot you some if you need me to, later," he said.
"No no..just makin' a joke to stay 'wake," she said. "No, no real complaints here."
"...You sure you can make the drive back on your own?"
"I'll be okay," she nodded. "It's using my powers that's so tiring...think I'll feel better when I turn back. Not...great, but enough to drive a couple miles."
"Just be ridiculously careful. Like you would if you knew you were a little drunk."
"I dunno what tha's like. Wait...do you?" He didn't really strike her as the kind of person to do that.
"Gentle reminder that Rory is my wife," Clark said. "Won't say any more than that about it."

Given their respective routes, it was no surprise to find Amory already sitting on the couch when Blake entered the apartment. He walked up and slumped over on the other side of it.

"Stupid monsters."
"I agree."
"Stupid puppeteer."
"Hear, hear."
"Stupid 'Giver' or Beryl or whoever. Dumb powers."
"Stupid price," said Amory back.
Blake next spoke his phrase again, and a Light in bed-clothes (an oversized t-shirt and underwear, again) leaned over onto Amory's lap without saying another word.
"Uh..yeah. Heh." He ran a hand through her hair, spoke his own phrase, and after turning into a girl she gently pulled Light a little closer into her arms, slowly petting her and winding their tails together.
"Mrrn." After a brief half-hearted nuzzle, the exhausted fox-girl fell asleep right there on the couch, the droning noise of the news turned low not bothering her a bit.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Battle Vixens! - 40




Episode 40: Another Monster

The tornado sirens started. There was no tornado.

Announcements on the local TV and radio channels made the situation more clear, but either way the usual practice of getting and staying safely indoors, in a basement if possible, was of more use than simply continuing on as normal, unaware of any danger.

The Vixen Initiative had a way of alerting people, but it was only somewhat widely adopted; some people didn't have phones or didn't have the right kind of phones to use it, and even assuming that everyone was near someone who would receive an alert that way seemed like too great a risk at the moment. Therefore, the tornado sirens were engaged, even though it had been a minute or two since the VI's own alert began.

Ning folded her ears down, looking up at the sky. "Nngh..it's so loud," she complained, aware it was bordering on whining.
"At least you only have two ears," said one of Gemma—Plus, probably, judging by the voice. The other one was pacing around nervously.

Usually, the mist appeared pretty close to the ground. It would coalesce after not very long, and then there would be a monster to fight. Today, in the middle of the afternoon, it had begun to swirl toward a specific point up in the sky..and it hadn't stopped. For three or four minutes it kept gathering, resembling a lone stormcloud in an otherwise clear sky; in fact looking just like one with a peculiar shape to cameras. To people, however, it was immediately obvious this was something else; it possessed some quality that was difficult to put into words. Maybe...it was alive. Or maybe it gave off an oppressive atmosphere, like staring into the eyes of a lion getting ready to pounce right on top of you. The effect was strong enough to send pets and strays fleeing or panicking at the sight of it.

"I hope it just keeps doing...that until the others get here," said Ning.
"I really hope it doesn't," Plus replied. "If it's getting bigger, it's getting stronger," Minus added quietly, explaining what she meant.
Ning couldn't keep staring into the sky like this. One of Gemma was always looking, anyway, so she turned toward the other one. "..Any sign of puppets?" Her fingers were unconsciously running across the hilt of her sword, still in its sheath.
"I've been watching, and 'feeling' for shadows being pulled around or anything like that," said Minus. "So far, nothing.—" "—She must be focusing on the city today. I hope they'll be okay..."

There was a moment of tense silence; Ning occasionally glanced up at the sky and didn't see much change, just a bigger cloud. Then Plus said, "I think it's forming! Get ready..."
"Right, always." She looked up herself and saw the shape of four limbs forming, a gigantic, thick tail, wings...a short muzzle toward the front. Before long, it opened two enormous, bright red eyes, and it moved: The limbs and tail twitched strangely, and then the wings spread out and give one swift, hard flap, sending the remaining bits of mist scattered around it away and showing the monster's full form. It made a distant, screaming roar that could be heard over the noise of the sirens, and then dove straight at the center of town, right where Gemma and Ning were waiting.

It landed a few yards away, hitting the ground hard enough to shatter the road and make deep pits under each foot. Seeing it at a distance before just hadn't done its size justice: Its legs were like black tree trunks; that proportionally short muzzle alone was big enough to easily fit all three of them inside, and it was lipless, row upon row of teeth as long as spears laid bare.

"W-we have to fight that?!—" "—It's as big as my house," Plus squeaked.
"I guess we do." Ning wasn't feeling particularly confident about this herself, but put on a brave face, taking a couple of steps toward the thing. Fighting a literal dragon had never been considered a possibility for her bucket list, but it seemed like it was getting checked off anyway.

The monster drew its head back, and snapped it forward like a snake, spewing a torrent of mist from inside its body. Some of it stuck around like a fog, while the rest congealed into smaller creatures, resembling malformed animals with little glowing eyes and sharp teeth of their own.
"Oh, come on," said Ning.
"Like it's not overpowered enough?!" Plus agreed. The dragon took one slow, earth-shaking step at a time while its creations charged the three fox-girls. Ning caught the first one to arrive with a single swipe of her blade, and it was gone. Gemma threw some knives and other projectiles at some of the others, dispatching each with two or three hits. It only took one bolt of arcing lightning to be rid of the rest, but the dragon was still coming.

Ning tried striking it with lightning two or three times. Some mist poured out from each spot she hit, but the dragon continued forward without so much as a flinch. "It's gotta have some kind of weak point," she said. "Like, that big turtle was soft under the shell.."
"That's normal for turtles, though—" "—do dragons even have weaknesses?!"
Tired of waiting for it to get there, Ning ran forward, hoping to get it in the eye. After all, that was usually sort of a weakness for the ones that had them, right? No sooner had she made the leap over its mouth than its neck snapped toward her and the side of its head rammed straight into her, sending her flying away.

"WAAAAAAH!" Ning managed a clumsy roll at best, and levered herself back to her feet with her sheath. Gemma scattered, Plus coming closer to her while Minus went toward the opposite side of the dragon, trying to lead it to follow her.
"A-are you okay?"
"I'll live." The side it had hit was going to be sore, but there was plenty of adrenaline to help ignore it for now. The dragon took the bait, moving much faster than it had approached earlier and snapping its head down at her; she made a black ball of energy-absorb to stop it cold, and then shot five or six shadow-bullets in its general direction while dancing her way back. Ning took in a small huff of breath before running toward the dragon with its back now mostly turned to her, Plus following a bit behind.

"I'll get its attention on me," she called back. Once she reached its leg she leapt up, drew her sword in a slash-then-stab motion, and kicked her way off of the giant foot, backflipping and landing on the ground just soon enough and far enough away to avoid a reflexive backward kick from the limb. Then she called down some more bolts, bending them into and through the sword, before summoning it back to her hand and taking several steps away from the dragon while it whirled toward her.

Plus had split off, and now began tossing knives with small points of light at their tips toward the dragon's side; Minus drew up some of the crumbled concrete, forming it into small spikes before tossing them at the creature's back. When the knives hit there were small, audible explosions each time. But the dragon was focused on Ning now, taking one step after another toward her and nearly reaching her with every snap of its gigantic jaws. She fired back repeatedly with electricity, but it showed no signs of slowing down as it came dangerously close to backing her up against a building.

It drew its head back to strike, and another small black sphere appeared between her and it; its nose rammed and recoiled, dissipating the sphere while reacting to it like a solid wall. Minus waved her over, and she wasted no time getting out from under the monster in those precious few seconds it took to recover. It turned its head and then its body, drawing back as it had before and breathing more black mist out at the two of them. Ning had an undefinable bad feeling about the fog it produced and made several swift jumps back out of its range, inadvertently leaving the other fox-girl inside of it. Minus began coughing as the smaller monsters appeared around her.

She was shaking her head slowly, like she was confused. It was obviously a time to attack or get away, and she was doing neither. Something was wrong.

Now that she knew it was dangerous, Ning couldn't go into the fog to rescue her: It wouldn't do any good, she'd just get affected the same way herself. But the smaller monsters were getting ready to pounce on her, and then the dragon could..! The only possibility was to fire some lightning that way, but even with the control over it she had now, she couldn't hit all or even most of the animal things without the spread being high enough to also hit the person she was trying to protect. Minus could resist magic, but it was an active thing, and she didn't seem to be in a state to protect herself; and besides all of that, even if all the animals were gone and Minus miraculously unharmed there was no way to get her out of the fog!

Ning's brain spun in a panicked cycle like this for a second or two before tripping over itself as she realized that Minus had just disappeared. "Wha—?" There was no time to figure out what was going on; the dragon started charging her again. She turned and ran, hoping desperately that 'making someone just disappear' wasn't another thing that the fog itself did. After running for a few more seconds, she heard the dragon change course behind her, turning to their mutual left and continuing at a speed that suggested it was still pursuing the same target—or at least, thought it was. When she stopped and turned around, there was a familiar glow there, which formed into a much more familiar person.

"Light!" There was a moderately hard-to-resist urge to jump at her with a hug; Ning carefully reminded herself this probably wasn't the appropriate time for it.
"Sorry I'm late," she said quietly, nodding. Behind her—past where the dragon had been before—were both of Gemma, Minus visibly shaking off the effects of the fog. Of course—she must have changed back to "recombine" and get the affected body away from the dragon.

"The Quinns should be here pretty soon too." Light's voice was noticeably deeper too, like it had been during the turtle fight. "I, uh, see we're fighting a dragon today?"
"Apparently. The puppets haven't shown up yet."
"I'm keeping an eye out myself."
"So, its breath is some kinda poison and makes a bunch of mini-monsters," said Ning.
"Seems so," Light agreed.
"They should probably know that before charging into this fight."
"Oh! Right." She shimmered out of view again, as the dragon began to turn in the direction of Gemma, after successfully biting the illusory Ning and only tasting air.

Her breath properly caught after that break, Ning raised her sword to the sky and hit herself with some lightning to recharge. Then she ran toward the beast, planning to do one better than getting it in the leg this time. It had its sights on the twins by this point, beginning a relentless series of bites, swipes with its forelegs, and continual forward motion. Some strikes Minus would block with those black balls, and others they would both dodge, Plus shifting its targeting off to one side or another to make it easier. While it was busy with that, Ning ran up to one of its hind legs from the outside, carefully keeping clear of its gargantuan whip of a tail, and jumped, stuck her weapon halfway into its leg with the blade horizontal, swung around on the hilt to land her feet on the flat of the blade, and pushed herself off of it for a second leap, making it most of the way up onto the thing's back. She resummoned the blade to her hands and stuck it in there to help climb the rest of the way up before running farther, closer to its center, and plunging the blade in there just as the dragon's body started to shake and buck to throw her off.

One after another, bolts of lightning came from the sky, through the hilt of the blade, splitting equally to Ning and the dragon. She could feel the sword coming steadily loose from the partially indistinct solid mist it was stuck in, which also conveniently provided no handholds itself. By now the beast was bucking too hard for her to readjust her grip or push the sword back down, but she held out as long as she could before finally being thrown off by a violent upward motion, sending her flying what felt like a mile into the sky. She winced in anticipation of a particularly nasty landing, not having any particular control over her motion at this point, only to find herself slowing down on the descent instead of speeding up.

"Uhh..." Ning examined herself and found a faint blue glow surrounding her. Then she looked up to see Clark—or anyway, what looked like a slightly more "mature" verison of Clark's fox-form in a different outfit—floating in her direction, with a much brighter version of the same glow around her.
"Glad I made it in time," she said. "I don't think it takes a physicist to figure out how that was gonna end." They both were placed gently onto the ground.
"Right..thanks. Rory made that look so easy," she said.
"It was also a really bad idea. Anyway, you look super tired to me. Take the rest of the fight off?"
"I can't," she said, waving vaguely in the dragon's direction to emphasize why. It had risen to its hind legs and then crashed back to the ground, making another palpable quake; now it was spewing its black breath where it thought Gemma was—which, thankfully, she wasn't by now. Light was with her on one side of the dragon, and Rory—well, someone Ning assumed to be Rory anyway—was on the other, hitting her palm with her fist like she was about to join in on a bar fight.

"You should at least move to the back row, just hit it with lightning from a distance," Clark suggested, with a visible expression of worry. "It'll make everything worse if you get eaten."
She sighed. "I guess you're right." She summoned her sword, complete with sheath, and offered it over. "For your wife."
"I'm sure she'll just love it," she half-joked, gently taking the weapon before floating up and off in the direction of the recipient.



"So, nothing particularly works so far?" Light said.
"Not really...—" "—...I mean, it loses about as much mist as a normal monster would from lightning and stabs and slashes—" "—but it just has so much. I mean, it can just breathe it out to make that poison fog as an attack."
"I guess our only option is to wear it down, then." A 'hologram' reflection of the surrounding area was being projected into her eyes in a way that didn't quite obscure what was right in front of her; she could see Clark headed for her wife with Ning's weapon, and Ning sitting down a decent distance away to physically rest. The dragon and its recently-breathed minions were just about realizing their present targets were fakes. "I just hate when they make a boss 'harder' by upping its HP a couple orders of magnitude."

Light blinked herself into place to the left of the dragon's head, the same side she'd been on before but now visible to it. She raised a hand and fired her strongest laser right into its eye, which instantly got its attention. Then she made several images of herself all jump out from her present position, some charging into the fog and mini-monsters while the rest ran off to the left; she herself waited for it to begin to turn, blinked next to its neck, and gave a hard downward slash with both "copies" of her blade, then moved to just between its shoulders while it tried to snap at that. She stabbed "both" of the weapon into it, and then superpositioned more copies and stabbed those in, and then more...when the number got up to about ten the oldest ones started "decohering" or whatever, fading out of existence about when new ones appeared. On a hunch, she spoke Ning's phrase, telling her power to call a bolt of lightning down on that sword. The nature of the sword-splitting mixed with the bolt, splitting it into ten bolts each with the same power, each of them hitting their apparent mark.

The dragon scream-roared at a volume comparable to a jet engine, and jerked its head back to throw Light off; she blinked away ahead of the maneuver, leaving the weapons in for the moment, and landed next to Gemma again, taking a second to catch her breath from moving so quickly during that entire last attack. Plus and Minus had been taking turns peppering the thing's side with smaller attacks, which were doing damage, but not all that much.
Rory now had Ning's sword in hand, and she flew under Clark's power to a few yards over the monster before descending blade-first into its back, pulling the blade out and slashing wildly with it before jumping back off just as it started bucking again. Clark stayed up in the air, her needle weaving a massive club with the end of Ning's empty sheath in her hands as the "handle". She slammed it down on the dragon's head when it turned to retaliate against Rory, the strings coming alive when it broke apare and wrapping all around its neck and muzzle, squeezing a deluge of mist from it before dissipating; this drew the second deafening roar from its throat, muffled slightly by a temporary inability to open its mouth.

When it did open, that mouth spewed a thick fog in Rory's general direction. Clark picked her up out of it while Light appeared over the dragon's head, stabbing it through the neck another few times before driving the strongest laser she could manage straight at its nose. Rory came down, grabbing the hilts of two of the blades to drive them farther in. "Bad dragon! No poison breath!" A bolt of lightning from Ning hit the smaller monsters just as they formed, and then a second one struck the middle of the monster's back.

The dragon's enormous wings spread out and flapped, and it raised its head, snapping at Clark in the air; she quickly floated out of range, and the monster flapped again, lifting it off the ground and into an aerial chase of the hovering fox-girl.

"HOW CAN IT FLY?!" She turned tail and zoomed away as quickly as she could, but the dragon was clearly moving quickly enough to catch her at this rate.
"How can you fly?" Rory shot back, still hanging on by the two light-swords she'd grabbed.
"Not a good time for that!" said Light, running up the dragon's head and jabbing a sword into its right eye to try and get its attention off of Clark for just a second. It screamed—even louder from right next to the head—and twisted to get her off, which was just enough distraction to make its real target invisible and send a false one away to its left (just in case that was the only direction it could see now). Light blinked off of its head and began turning to light and back every second in lieu of not being able to actually fly herself. The image was moving faster than the real thing, fast enough to get away, and on seeing this the dragon breathed more poison its way, making a bunch of little winged monstrosities in the process; Light blinked near them, holding her breath while getting rid of them with a series of rapid slashes; then she teleported over next to Clark and accepted her help aura-flying to get a break from the constant light-and-back changing.

The dragon whirled and twisted in the air, turning upside down in a bid to get Rory off of it. The blades she was hanging on by were clearly coming loose, so Clark flew over to help her defy gravity for a bit while Light blinked her way up to the dragon's underside, curious if that had any chance of being a weak point. She brought Ning's blade to her hand to avoid stealing one of Rory's handholds, and plunged it into the monster's belly, calling another bolt of lightning down into it for good measure. There was damage, but nothing particularly special; if this thing had a weak spot here then it was at some very specific point. That experiment done, she blinked away to one side of the flying beast just in time to avoid it twisting its head around to bite at her in midair.

She left an image of herself to get away from it more conventionally, leading the dragon into a convoluted, corkscrewing path while steadily blinking her real self closer and closer to the ground. After a little of this the gigantic monster lost all control over its position in the air and went crashing back to the ground, demonstrating that, thankfully, it obeyed some sort of aerodynamic laws even if they weren't the usual ones. The impact tore another huge rut into the road, and she winced briefly to see so much destruction coming from this particular battle. But it wasn't like they could easily lead it out of town or anything...right? At least she'd managed to prevent it from crash-landing through a building.

Gemma was over with Ning, Minus channeling her version of Clark's power to "recharge" Ning's ability to shoot lightning. They had also gotten well clear of the impact site. Light placed herself near them, while Clark and Rory dove toward the dragon to press the attack. "What I wouldn't give...for a health bar," she said between some rapid breaths.
"Like, some granola?" Ning asked, confused.
"No, I mean—how much is left of that thing? If it just keeps going and going like this, we're gonna wear ourselves out and have nothing left."
"They do sort of go fuzzy when they're close to dying," Plus pointed out. "Not that it's doing that right now," Minus added.

Clark had given the sheath over to Rory, after wrapping it in a few layers of sharp spirit-string. She began bashing the monster's right wing with it, sending string spiraling and wrapping around it, binding it so it couldn't take off. Clark hovered over the middle of the beast's body, weaving new string around her wife's present "weapon" as she hit the old off of it and onto the monster. It screamed in what felt like a frustrated rage in addition to the pain from the several blows.

Light nodded in the direction of the fight, deciding that her breath had been caught enough by now. And she blinked over that way, starting a pattern of stabbing her sword into the thing on the side opposite of wherever Rory was hitting it just then. Ning stood up and raised a hand to the sky, calling down lightning into each sword immediately after it was in. Minus continued recovering her magic while Plus ran to join the fight, throwing arrows and explosion-laced knives at the monster as soon as she was in range.

When the dragon spewed its breath down, Plus was lifted out of it and placed behind its back, and a bolt of lightning got rid of the animals spawning from it. When it turned its gaze skyward and tried to hit Rory, Light stabbed it in its already-damaged right eye, made it target a fake image of her, and then held her breath to make quick work of the winged things it formed into. The dragon was twisting and snapping like a dog chasing its own tail, flapping half-tied wings futilely in an effort to take to the air again, and as the combined onslaught continued it began to scream more often in pain and rage.
It felt like an eternity of just keeping the barrage of attacks going before the thing showed real signs of weakening. First it stopped breathing mist, resorting entirely to swiping with its paws and snapping with its head in an effort to conserve what was left. Then, little by little, it became less distinct, looking more and more like the cloud it had first formed from. Rory landed in the middle of its back, tossing away the sheath and stabbing it repeatedly with a sword borrowed from Light while Clark focused entirely on binding its wings. Light took Ning's blade to the middle of the thing's head and leapt away, firing several heat-lasers all over the thing's body while Ning hit her own weapon with as many bolts of lightning as she could manage. Plus fell back, completely spent, and Minus was leaning her hands on Ning's shoulders to remain standing. But finally, through all of the effort, the gigantic beast gave one more deafening roar while it dissipated, leaving Rory to fall through empty air and land a little roughly on the ground, ending up lying on her back.

Light and Clark floated to the ground next to her, the latter kneeling down to see if she was okay. All three of them were audibly panting. "Whoo! Killed a dragon," Rory said, pumping a fist up into the air.
"I'm..just glad....it's over," Clark said between heaving breaths.
"Wha', you gettin' tired?" said Rory. But despite the bravado, all three of them could feel a distinct sense of defeated tiredness and impending loss of powers.
"Oh..ooh no. We need to get out of here." Light grabbed Rory's hand by the wrist and pulled her to her feet. "I ch...can't keep a lookout for puppets nearly as well with my normal powers, and we're all way too tired to fight if hh, if any of them show up!"

"R-right." Forcing her body to stay itself for a moment longer, Clark picked the three of them up, flew them over to the rest of the fox-girls, and then flew everyone a couple of blocks away before placing them down a little less gently than she would've liked. "Invisible, still?"
"Yeah.."
"Far enough?"
"Th-think so."
"Great!" She finally, visibly let go, relaxing as a white mist poured out of her body. The same happened to Light (though she was keeping her "normal look" illusion on, so it wasn't visible), and then to Rory, who had managed to land standing up and then leaned against a wall.

Once the three of them were back to normal, Light looked at Gemma, expecting her to demand some kind of explanation. Instead...both of her bodies had fainted from exhaustion, and were lying next to each other on the ground. Ning was sitting up beside them, looking over them with concern. "Just, uh...yeah. Overwork your powers and that happens. Happened to me once," said Light. "I think I'm gonna end up sleeping like death tonight anyway..."
"Hey, at least the monster's dead," said Rory, going over and carefully lifting Minus into her arms. "You okay to get the other one?" she asked Ning. "This random alley's great and all, but I'd really prefer someplace on campus or our house as a spot to have a post-dragon-slaying party."
"Hmn..nngf!" Ning picked up the other body with slightly more trouble; not that it felt at all heavy to her, but her muscles just didn't want to obey any orders at all at this point. "I'm in no condition to party, but this much I can do."
"Great. Bit of a walk from here."
"Hey, I did move us in the right direction," said Clark.
"Yeah, yeah."




FINALLY!
Finally.

As it often happens, it took me forever to just start writing this. Once I made that step, the whole thing pretty much flowed out at once. I'm sure taking a break from this was probably good; it feels like I'd been at it almost nonstop until this point. There's quite a bit after this that I have pretty well planned, so maybe I'll be able to pick up momentum again.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The "Best" RPG Ever-60


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While Nora had picked out a variety of reference and fiction books, and Mira some "legal" spellbooks and still more fiction, neither of them had thought to buy anything regarding monsters. Zack and Katherine decided fairly quickly that their errand was going to the library to borrow books of that nature: Something detailing various types of monsters and/or demons along with any useful weaknesses or other helpful information about them. This gave them a destination before they had even reached the first intersection after the alley they started out in.

A few minutes later, the catgirl recognized someone coming toward them from the other direction, and waved. The aged elf came closer and stopped before them. "Well, what a surprise," he said cheerfully.
"I agree," she replied. "Tsaron, this is Zack; Zack, Tsaron."
"Pleasure to meet you, Sir Zack," he said, nodding to the wolf-girl. "I do hope you'd join me for tea some time."
"Uh, sure, I guess."

"..Look, I don't want to beat around the bush too much," said Katherine. "You are a psion, aren't you?"
"If you've drawn that conclusion, then I won't dispute it," he replied. That seemed to be as close to a yes as he was willing to say.
"Have you been, uh, reading my mind?"
"You must not have much experience with your powers if you can't tell the difference," he said calmly.
"Okay—well—you were definitely reading his mind a second ago, right?" she tried, realizing he had immediately referred to Zack as 'sir'.
"I think you both know the answer to that," he said, still wearing a calm grin. This conversation was turning marginally infuriating.
"Rrrrr. I'm just saying, you might see some stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense to you if you keep reading me or my friends' minds. I'm not, really sure how to explain it to you in a way that does make sense, either."
"I've hardly noticed anything out of the ordinary," he said with a small shrug. "Not that you aren't all extraordinary young people in your own right, but I have seen much in my days.

"At any rate, with the cat out of the bag—so to speak—" (he looked pointedly at Katherine while making this expression) "I should probably tell you not to bother trying to read the mind of the Captain of this town's guard. Blanking is an extremely difficult art to learn, but a master of it can not only tell when someone is trying to look at their mind but actively respond to it. It's easier to just tie your mind to another entity that obsessively thinks of only one thing, or just layer centuries of thoughts into such a thick fog that you don't remember half of them yourself, but those come with certain costs of their own and can be navigated around with some effort since they still amount merely to passive defenses."
"I'll..keep that, in mind," she said.
"I'm confident you can," said Tsaron. "At any rate, I have an appointment to make. Please drop by for tea sometime soon, and bring as many of your friends as you like; I'm sure I'll be able to find enough chairs." With that he, gracefully and serenely went around Zack to continue on his way past them.

They waited there for a moment, until the elf's footsteps faded out in the distance behind them. Finally the knight asked, "..What was that about?"
"I get the distinct impression he wants me to know who top dog is—'so to speak'," said Katherine, with a touch of annoyance in her voice. She sighed. "At least I don't think he means us any harm. I mean, if he did he would've probably already done it."
They began walking again. So, does he know we're from Earth and that thing about having seen much means there really are others from Earth here? thought Zack.
I don't know..his wording was so vague. It could mean that he didn't see any of our thoughts about being from Earth, even though you were literally thinking about it as soon as I started to vaguely reference the idea, she said back. He doesn't strike me as the kind of psion who respects privacy a whole lot—I know, I know, even compared to me though—and he's probably really powerful given his age, which together mean the only way he wouldn't see those thoughts from one or both of us is if the..whatever brought us here actually 'blocks those out' from being read. Under the theory that we were brought here by this world's gods, there's no reason I know why they wouldn't be able to just, do that.
..And there's no way to just ask him directly without actually talking about what we don't really want him to know in the first place, Zack said.
Yeah.



Rose paced around the block for maybe the twentieth time, and came back to the guardhouse. The guard standing next to the front door saw her approach and shook his head: The Captain had still not yet returned. She sighed, and crumpled onto a nearby bench to rest her feet for a moment. She could swear she used to be such a patient person..! In..the other world. For that matter, how did she survive such a long time in this one without a great deal of patience?

"Hey there," said Mira's voice from behind her, making her jump to her feet and turn 180 degrees in a rapid motion. "Hahah, sorry if I startled you."
"No no, that's okay..." One of her feet scratched the ground a bit in mild embarrassment.
"You still waiting for the Captain to show up? I'd think she would've been here by now," said the witch.
"Yeah..."
"I suppose that means you still haven't had lunch yet. Aren't you hungry at all?"
The dragon-girl's stomach chose this moment to growl loudly entirely on its own. "Um...yep," she said quietly, blushing a little bit.
"Well, then let's go somewhere so you can eat, silly!"

Rose looked at the guardhouse, and back at Mira. "Come on, they've definitely got the message you want to see her by now, right?" she reasoned in reply. "The Captain knows her way around town, and can probably find you wherever you end up. I'm sure she wouldn't want you to starve yourself waiting for her, either."
"I guess so..." She took some slow steps to go around the bench toward the witch.
"Right, that's settled. So where would you like to go?" she said cheerfully, putting an arm over Rose's shoulder as they arrived next to each other.
"Uhh...I don't really know that many places," she said. "I...like meat," she added with a touch of severe awkwardness.
"Well, I could probably make a couple of recommendations not too far off from here. Let's go!" Mira began leading her off.

It did not take very long for the restaurant they arrived at to seat them and take their order. But everyone was giving them looks. Rose had noticed people staring at her now and then anytime she was in town; some of them scared, most just curious, like they hadn't seen someone like her before, and that was fair. But this was...staring staring. It made her a little nervous, skittishly looking around at them and often seeing them turn away just before her eyes could meet theirs.
"I'm pretty sure they're staring at me," said Mira, noticing her expression. "Witches are not very popular."
"But uh...neither are dragons, right?" said Rose, nearly at a whisper. "I-I mean...the stories are always about a hero slaying the big awful mean dragon. And they usually are awful enough to deserve slaying. But it makes someone like me look bad..."
"It's the same way for me, you know," said the witch, keeping her volume just at the upper edge of conversational, where many of the onlookers could definitely hear her. "All the evil, nasty warlocks and witches of history make being a nice one an uphill battle. I just have to prove myself every step of the way."
"Heheh...I guess I can try to do the same," said Rose, brightening a little bit. However, there was a lingering feeling for a moment there, a faint thought resembling but haven't I already tried that before? She frowned slightly, trying to hold on to a slippery memory, but it was just no good. One of those awful experiences better forgotten, maybe.

"Here's to being the nice ones," Mira said, raising her glass a bit in a mock-toast. Rose took an awkward couple of seconds to register the expression and do the same, clinking them gently against each other before draining her entire cup...that was what you were supposed to do, right? The witch just giggled at her and reached over to pat her head a couple of times, which felt...nice. Rose smiled and blushed slightly from that.
When the food did arrive, Rose tried to at least sort of imitate the 'normal' eating everyone else was doing. As before, she had real difficulty using a fork effectively, like her hand just wouldn't quite obey her with any kind of utensil in it. This was...maybe something she could 'buy' on that "Humanoid Sociability" part of her skills to make this at least a little easier? It was just starting to irritate the part of her mind that remembered being this stuff being automatic without even needing to think about it. Mira hadn't ordered much, of course, having already had lunch, and even offered the dragon-girl a few tastes off her plate.



Nobody actually knew where Ezra lived. As far as the members of the guard were concerned, she lived in her office and was busy working when not present there. Of course this was an intentional ploy to keep her brief times at home actually peaceful. This was the ideal place to host a guest who didn't really want to be publicly known...like a certain psion, who was already waiting on a chair in the living room.

"You know, anyone else I found in my home uninvited wouldn't leave it uninjured."
"You did invite me, though. Didn't you?"
She sighed, taking a nearby seat. "I'd just rather find you at the front door than showing off your skill at picking locks."
"What if you were late? I'd have to stand around outside and direct people unconsciously around me the whole time. After all, you are awfully busy."
Ezra took a moment to roll her eyes. "I really thought after all these years you might have learned to obey a few of society's basic rules."
"Oh, I know how. I'm just delighted I don't have to. You know why."
"I think I have more experience obeying orders than you, and I have been a perfectly well-adjusted member of society ever since," she said.
"Sure, especially since becoming the head honcho of said society," he jabbed back with a moderate smirk.

"..Well, I'll ask you something I can't ask them. How many years has it been?"
"Nearly two decades," he says. "Well—since me. Since you, tack on another I suppose. I could give you a lot more detail mentally."
"You know very well I prefer the slow and steady way," she said. "Any new wars, since yours?"
He shrugged. "Sort of no? No less military presence around the world though. No shortage of nukes about, still."
"One thing I like about this world over ours," she said. "Summon a giant demon and someone will be able to seal it. Cast a spell of mass destruction, it takes forever and people will be ready and waiting to try to stop you. None of this, kill billions of people by pushing a button."
"Hmm," Tsaron nodded. "Maybe we have the gods to thank for rules like that. Not that you can't still hurt a lot of people if you really want to," he said. "It just takes forever, and comes with a tangible price. Then again, we've got monsters to contend with here."
"But you can fight monsters: Put your sword in them or throw magic at them. Even someone who fails and dies at least does so knowing that they were fighting a real threat that was actually there, and had some effect toward stopping it. Not that we don't have political intrigue here, too, but it's never the survival of the entire world at stake."

"...That took a depressing turn, I'm sorry," Ezra said. "Anything else?"
"Oh, sure. You'll love this—technology's marched even farther ahead; even I barely recognize it all," he said. "Everyone carries huge phones around that do more than computers did in your day. And mostly use 'em to waste time. Plus, they've got two or three breeds of devices with mikes in 'em that you install in your home, and then you can ask them questions and buy things through them and so on."
"That's a...darker future than I imagined. Government mandated surveillance?"
"Not at all, you pay for those things," he said. "They're a luxury item. I guess they send the data to the company and not the government, but it's all supposed to be anonymized and.."
"And you can probably think of a thousand ways to abuse the existence of something like that," she said.
"Ohh yes, get the right black hats on it and...! Anyway, on top of that, they like to hook up every kind of normal appliance to the Internet they can. 'Smart' this and 'smart' that...can you imagine wanting a toaster with a screen on it that talks to your phone?" He put a hand on his forehead. "And, I sound like their old people complaining like this about it. Gods."

"Not that our new arrivals actually use many of those things themselves," Tsaron added after a moment. "One or two of them do record themselves for the whole world to see and hear, though. Online performance art, out of playing those, ah, computer games live." He was more familiar with them than she was, and tended to adjust his terms this way even though she would've understood the normal jargon just fine. "I admit I don't personally see the appeal."
"You know more about those games than I do," she said, shrugging.
"But I still never played very many myself. Considering the emotional attachment some of them have to the things, I almost regret it. Doing things over again, I'd love to end up nice and safe where they were instead of diving neck-deep into all that risk just because I thought it was the 'right' thing to do at the time."
"I wonder how their world would handle a reinstated draft," Ezra mused. "Or if that's even a possibility anymore, with how much society changed. But hey, if you were nice and safe you probably wouldn't have wound up here."
"There is that, of course, at least in theory. Given our collective 'failure' I doubt I'm the kind of person the gods would summon over here twice."




"You know, I'm a little surprised the wolf didn't follow us out," said Katherine. "He was right there, after all."
"Now that we have an actual 'den', he's content to stay there, I think," Zack said. "Unless the whole 'pack' is going out somewhere, or I ask him to come along."
"Really," the catgirl shook her head. "I bet I couldn't get a better idea of what he's thinking with a deep mind-scan. Have you noticed he's a little bit of a tsundere?"
"Ughh, that term." Zack shook his head in annoyance.
"What?"
"I'm so sick of seeing characters written into that weird fetish stereotype. Nobody actually acts like that. Nobody."
"Oh yeah, JRPGs. Yep." The catgirl nodded. "I'm sure it's not always that bad, though?"
"I think I can count the number of well-written characters you can reasonably call," (he had a brief verbal hesitation out of disgust) , "'tsundere', on one hand."
"Hahah..yeah, I'd believe it.

"Still though. He's like 'grrr I'm nobody's pet, don't touch me—will you pet me? I'm terrified of the'—what was that mental phrase—'sky noise, hold me!'."
"Hah, yeah, a little bit," said Zack. "He just wants to be respected, I think. But just as much, to be a part of the pack."
Katherine turned, giving him a scrutinizing look. "Did you...laugh there for a second? Like a little 'hah'?"
"Yeeah..what about it?"
"I dunno..I don't remember ever hearing your laugh before. Rayna said she tried to make some jokes but they didn't connect at all."
"I have a sense of humor," Zack said, completely seriously. "I'm just quiet about it. I don't really, giggle or laugh out loud much," he shrugged.
"I guess the word you're looking for is 'dry'," she said. "You don't exactly tell a lot of jokes either, though."
"I haven't had much to joke about lately," Zack countered. "Feels like that should change soon, though."
"Can't wait. Anyway, we've arrived."

She waved at the library doors, pretending to use the force while psionically pushing them open. Zack rolled his eyes, mentally calling her a showoff, but went on ahead through them. She just sent back the concept of "when you've got it, flaunt it" and followed.
The knight started toward the front desk. "Hey, where are you going?"
He stopped in his tracks, turned half around toward her. "...To ask where monster reference books would be," he said flatly.
"That'd take forever. At least compared to me already having found the section we're after," she said, starting off in that direction. Skimming sensory information was very convenient for finding a clearly-labelled row of shelves.

Zack sighed and followed. "Does that 'mental charisma' thing just not work on people who know you?" he said quietly. "Or are you just intentionally being obnoxious?"
"My unshakable confidence is part of my charm," she shot back at the same volume. "Isn't that exactly what you like about me?"
"There's a difference between confident and smug."
"Which is?"
"One of them is annoying."
"You know you love it." Despite the words sounding like an argument, they had a good rhythm going. Katherine could've told he was enjoying it without even reading his mind; his tail was wagging a little bit.

They reached the right place at this point, and the catgirl turned toward the shelves. "Now, which of these looks the most..helpful...?"
"..Something wrong?" said Zack, noticing her sudden distracted state. In the midst of her passive, semi-involuntary run-through of nearby minds she had stumbled across a deeply unfamiliar sensation: One mind in particular was attractive, in very much the same way that she would normally expect a body to register as attractive. In the span of a second or two her supernaturally-powered mind went into a brief moment of confused overdrive, splitting off into two main lines of thought: One of them questioning whether this was actually a normal thing for a psion to feel, and the other one debating whether or not to dig deeper into the mind to know where to find that person later. When Zack asked her whether something was wrong, it interrupted both of them, and she quickly shook herself out of the overloaded state.
"Nope. Now let's see..." She recovered and forced most of her mind to focus on the task at hand, which to Zack looked like her resuming normal behavior, looking through the books. A small part of it at least looked in on what that mind was thinking about, to get an idea of where he was in the library right now and maybe make plans to return, much later, alone.

It was something about magic, specifically chaotic magic...the nature of monsters...she couldn't actually understand some of the technical aspects of the thoughts without risking digging deeper into the concepts, which she couldn't spare the concentration for besides not wanting to risk violating privacy any more than her powers automatically did. And yes...he. A guy. The next logical question was: What was so attractive about this? There was just something very nicely...organized and put together about it. It was hard to quantify into words, but that was no different from finding someone physically attractive, was it? She ducked out of this train of thought to keep her outward behavior normal, once she felt like she'd skimmed enough information to get by.
Obviously they didn't want something detailing the anatomy of one monster, and a seven-volume encyclopedia seemed like a difficult read. After a bit of looking, Zack pulled out a moderately thick book whose title indicated it was a primer on common monster types. That sounded like a good starting point, at least; undoubtedly they had already encountered some rarer monster types, but goblins and dire wolves and wildcats were surely pretty common, for example. Katherine also found a compendium of demons, though this was a lot thinner and seemed to have relatively sketchy descriptions based on bits and pieces of hearsay and legend. This was about the point where she stopped looking at the...cute?...mind and started off toward the front desk to check the books out, keeping them floating in the air next to her on the way to show off a little more.

Still, what to do? Finding an attractive mind—well, finding a mind attractive in the first place had caught her a little off guard. Rushing after him would look strange, and didn't feel right to her in the first place. Thinking carefully about what she'd experienced and...either making some kind of plan or burying the thoughts as deep as they would go in her head seemed like the best course of action. In fact, burying it temporarily for now was a great idea; save it for a time she was on her own in her room or something instead of out here with someone else, needing to split concentration off for walking, talking and so on. For now...they just needed to get the books back to the house.