Snowbound Blood Transcript: Volume 3

Volume 3 - Of Growth, Economic and Agricultural

Another half-remembered dream. You are a sprawling machine, every piece of you grinding with effort, going too long without being maintained.

Your gears scream and spark with a grating noise that, taken all at once, is an atonal melody, brilliant in its simplicity. You sing for the effort and the labor. You turn and turn. Never done.

You wake before sunrise, as always. God, your head. You open your eyes and stare out from the recuperacoon at your room, glowing with the dim pastel light of the stronghold that filters through your blinds.

Your burgeoning headache protests at even that meager intrusion of light, and you let out a gentle hiss in pain.span

You have got to stop trying to match drinks with girls ten sweeps younger than you. Especially when both the girls and the drinks themselves might be actively trying to kill you.

After enjoying the darkness for a few moments more, you drag yourself out of the ’cupe. Relaxing as the slime inside may be, the antiseptic odor is threatening to make you sick.

You grab your eyescreen and set it to scroll through the messages you received overnight, along with your usual automated newsfeeds, looking for any headlines related to the thefts.

"Attempted Convenience Store Robbery Ends In Concussion When Perp Slips On Puddle of Nacho Cheese"

"Ramona Raquel’s Priceless Necklace Stolen at Ball"

"WrestleMania Becomes MurderMania, 12 Dead"

"Howfore art thou, wench? U up? Been 2 loong since we came to blows, donteth thou think? ;) Hmu gurl you know where I be-eth"

Okay, that last one wasn’t a headline. Neither are the next eleven, where her spelling gets even worse. Worse-eth. Good heavens, you hate her for even making you think that.

You button up your shirt and run a comb through your hair, not concerning yourself with the few gray strands. You’ve got a couple more leads to pursue.

BYTCON KRYPTO

Your investigations yesterday didn't prove as fruitful as you hoped, so today you're going to try something different.

Sometimes, arming yourself with facts or logic isn’t enough.

Sometimes you just have to go with what your gut tells you.

You stride along the lonely streets of Stronghold 21. It’s very late, the time roaming somewhere around the mid-negatives, but you are more than used to the setting by now. In fact, you prefer it.

There is a sort of peace to be found in the dead glow of morning. The city performs its sinfonietta as if by rote, all for an audience of one. Crosswalks spanning empty streets invite you with automated tones. Beep! Beep! Beep!

At any other time, this street would be a flashing, multicolored mess. Neon signs and LCD panels would all be fighting for your attention, peddling distraction after distraction.

New fashions that will go from haute couture to discount rack in a sweep. The McRib is back at the steamed ham joint on the corner. Jarl Balgruuf is in Smash. You have limited understanding of what the last one means.

Music plays distantly from various vacant storefronts — pop hits and elevator jazz, all reverberating off the architecture into square waves of pleasantly echoing sound.

Every Stronghold is eerily similar. They’re all carefully partitioned, and as sterilized as the multi-purpose slime solution that is used as a general cleaning aid by most of the populace.

That solution is also the same one your species uses to bathe in. It kind of burns when you use it for that purpose, at least at first. Easing into the pain, however, is simply a matter of practice.

You're sure there's a solid metaphor you could be making here. Something pertaining to the stakes held in this kind of industry, perhaps.

But you digress.

It may just be that primordial sludge you drank yesterday doing the talking, but recently... you’ve found yourself with the recurring feeling of being trapped. Stuck, in an endless cycle of repetition.

Not only recently, and not only as far as this case is concerned, but for your whole life.

It started after you spoke to Rypite. The two suspects you’ve interrogated thus far have led you nowhere in exactly the same way.

The same actions, same motions. Same shit on a different day.

This will not be one of those days, you tell yourself.

And yet, the nagging feeling that it could amount to nothing but another blurry spot in the picture you’re trying to piece together is something that makes your mouth press into a black-lipped scowl.

A few of the Stronghold residents are still wandering around — those among them whose circadian rhythm is off-kilter, you presume. 

They’re not paying close attention to your affairs, though. Some seem to be outright avoiding you.

Just like when you hunted for Sirage. Just like always.

You had to take a risk. 

On a whim, you decided to make arrangements with someone not part of your initial roster of suspects.

You hassled a poor receptionist in the main Corporate building to that end. The man has always been too anxious to say no to your requests.

A few pointed calls later, and you’re scheduled to meet your mark after hours at one of his business establishments, in order to properly discuss your investment options.

Little does he know what this so-called "investment" entails. There’s nothing for you to gain here except knowledge.

Knowledge, and a deep-seated sense of satisfaction whenever you inevitably pin this scruffy player to the board.

You may believe in being clear cut with many of your choices, but every now and again a surprise can be just what you need in order to advance toward a new stage of the game.

The game in question is called life, and you are about to knock another piece right off the table.

>Recall: BYTCON KRYPTO.

BYTCON KRYPTO.

You’ve had your scouter set on him for sweeps now, but you have never been able to catch him in the act of — well, anything. Not embezzlement, not fraud, not even good old indecent exposure.

The slimy little rodent has always managed to give you the slip before you got the chance to inspect him for disease.

All perps eventually mold themselves into some kind of allegorical vermin in your (quite bland, all things considered) imagination.

But there’s really no need to be going on such an inane tangent inside your own head. Who are you even explaining this to, yourself?

The point is: he is the giant rat that makes all of the rules in his field. There, plain and simple. You know exactly what type of man he is.

He started young. A regular conman. For many, it’s the ideal pursuit in these trying times.

Everyone wants more than they already have, and some even genuinely need it. Bytcon doesn’t strike you as the latter, though.

He quickly rose through the ranks of scammers and cheats, the cash of gullible fools succulent and ripe for his taking.

From a start in television and show business, he moved on to business business, and did not rest until he had a vice-like grip on the ebb and flow of currency.

Now, the public bows to his every financial whim, and not even corporate regulation seems capable of keeping him in check anymore.

CYPHERCASH didn’t hold anyone’s interest until Bytcon was involved. But in no time at all, he single-handedly expanded the market’s relevance — from entirely worthless to an alarmingly massive phenomenon.

Of the currently existing 5,786 or so forms of analogged tender, he has either personally crafted or otherwise popularized roughly a quarter of the total sum.

Whether or not all of those are still maintained is irrelevant. The bottom line is, the guy's fucking minted.

And with such a striking amount of equity on full display, he may very well be the highest bidder on a certain missing piece of history.

>Bust in.

You were so focused on RECALLING — or aggressively not doing that, as the case may be — that you didn’t realize you were pushing through the revolving doors that lead into the STRONGHOLD 21 CURRENCY DOME.

It’s not your favorite hunting ground for white collar crime, but it’s certainly the most bustling.

And, just like clockwork, the noted trailblazers and easily suckered alike scramble and close in at the slightest hint of fresh blood.

You can’t make out any of the words these frantic two-piece suit types holler as you press forward.

The electronic ringing of alarms, phones and endless chatter all coalesce into a singular wall of amorphous noise, and it makes you grit your teeth. Your head hurts.

No matter. You have already spotted your target.

When he told you to search for a "sign of excellence", you were fully prepared to engage in a mutual bout of falsified identity. Cryptic statements such as this usually precede these exchanges.

The suggestion to meet at a non-covert location did leave you apprehensive, but as you said: you’ve been in a risk-taking mood lately.

What you were not expecting was a bonafide electronic light show booth, sitting smack-dab in the middle of the complex’s main floor.

The damned monstrosity is even complete with gaudy, headache-inducing "AS SEEN ON TV" flashing signs. Signs that could threaten the continued use of your weary eyes.

You immediately start to regret this.

He’s sitting pretty behind his... remarkably empty stand as you make your way to him, chin propped up on interlocked fingers. It’s almost as if he laced an entire circle around himself with repellent.

BYTCON: 8-> INCREDIBLY FEARLESS!
BYTCON: 8-> THIS, PEOPLE, IS A TRUE PATRON OF OUR CRAFT! AS NONE OF YOU DARE LEECH FROM A MASTER IN A WORLD UNKNOWN!

You prepare to deploy one of your famed rugged coughs in order to draw his attention to you, as opposed to the non-existent audience he seems to be addressing at present.

Bytcon talks fast enough to cut that idea off before the phlegm even has the chance to reach your pipes."

BYTCON: 0-> Don’t worry, I just like to brag.
BYTCON: 0-> It keeps the weak-willed away.
BYTCON: 0-> Welcome to the club!

Ah, yes. The "club".

Under your current fabricated persona, you concocted a cover story about wishing to join the ranks of his nasty little clique, bound together in the loose trappings of a frail economy as they are.

Still, you feel a deep, soul-curdling shiver at his words. You really do not care for the insinuation that Bytcon and you are anything in the vicinity of peers.

Cliques and clubs were never something you cared to involve yourself with, due to a simple fact:

You like to win. On your own terms, by your own merit.

(And you do quite simply despise this man.)

BYTCON: 0-> My name is Bytcon Krypto. Surely you know me from places such as our official phone line, and obviously my many adverts on television.
BYTCON: 0-> You’re Miss Annonn Yemous?

ANNONN: 1.d4 That’s the name I’ve given you, yes. ...d5
BYTCON: 0-> Blunt. I like that!

It’s very easy to formulate aliases in a world where names can range from perfectly serviceable to absolute gibberish. They’re all inherently meaningless.

You typically tend to err on the side of an indistinct mash of letters — something like a "zhmbfg", for example — and it always works.

It was a purely tactical measure to come up with something a little more... stupid. After all, Bytcon spends his time mentally diving into pools of worthless metal — certainly not the sharpest tool in the box.

You’re not the biggest fan of undercover gigs. With what’s on the line, though, you will try your damndest to seem as ignorant and non-threatening as possible. All in the name of your job, of course.

Annonn Yemous. Heh.

BYTCON: 0-> I’ve been looking forward to our meeting of the minds.
BYTCON: 0-> I’m afraid that my office isn’t exactly in working order at the moment, but this place is far better suited toward newcomers of the after hours trade.
BYTCON: 0-> Which, as those who are inserted into said trade know, is slang for "prime time to meet big stupid trolls".
BYTCON: 8-> BIG STUPID TROLLS WHO YEARN FOR STUPIDLY HUGE REWARDS!
BYTCON: 0-> So, in the interest of your interest in being curt, let’s not waste a moment more of your time with common courtesy!
BYTCON: 0-> You seem to know exactly what you’re about.
BYTCON: 0-> We can get you started with the lower strings of tender. There are several light-risk options you can deal in that haven’t caught on yet.
BYTCON: 0-> You never specified your price range, so I’m just going to assume that you’re broke.
BYTCON: 8-> THAT’S LESS THAN A PROBLEM HERE! NO LOOPS, NO CREDIT, NO ISSUE!
BYTCON: 8-> NEW IDEAS? NO RISK!
BYTCON: 0-> We can even hook you up with a Netcoin mental copyright stocking plan right away, easy-peasy.

Well, this is going to be easier than expected.

You could meticulously tap him out, slow-dripping little pieces of information through an orderly conversation.

Just stand here and talk to him, each of you wielding your respective personal quirks, as your non-diegetic progress bar slowly fills itself in.

If you’ve learned anything from your first couple suspects, that’s exactly what you’ll be forced to do, for what will seem like an eternity that goes nowhere. You’ll just have to prepare for the mental density that requires.

You have absolutely no interest in dealing with this man for even a second longer than necessary.

The reason you decided Bytcon even ranked on the suspici-o-meter in the first place is that you’re well aware of the seedy underbelly these businesses usually breed.

There's no shortage of those interested in sending this planet’s marketplace so far into the black, it may as well be made of garbage.

You can’t just idly chat about these run-of-the-mill currencies, you’d be here all day. You have to go all in. You have to think like him."

You have to try and go stupid.

ANNONN: 2.c4 Oh, that won’t be necessary. ...e6
ANNONN: 3.Nf3 I have a much better idea of what I would like from this deal. ...Be7

BYTCON: 0-> And what would that be?
ANNONN: 4.Nc3 Well, I’m not really clear on the specifics. That’s much more your department. ...Nf6
ANNONN: 5.cxd5 But if you were to ask me, I’m simply of the belief that all bright lights cast a... ...exd5

You add in a dramatic pause for good measure.

ANNONN: 6.Bf4 ...shadow. ...c6

Bytcon makes a vain attempt to hide a pointed smirk. His eyes are darting across the room, as if he’s trying to keep tabs on every single person in the vicinity.

You have him. Hook, line and sinker.

In the past, you’ve had to perform a fair number of mundane tasks for your job. Trawling through the bear market of Repiton’s unmitigated disaster of an internet landscape probably ranks as one of the easiest so far.

Picking up the lingo the underground set tends to sling around is a natural consequence in your line of work — expected, even."

When you’re constantly pulling stunts such as trailing bomb threats and putting a stop to unjust attacks in Mirthamaniac torture chambers, it’s kind of difficult not to.

Those types love to use code names when they speak — a single word that shows what they’re about. Hermit and Noxious are two you can think of off the top of your shot for shot intellect. 

They also don’t like to speak in quirks, and are very fond of their special codes. "Shadow" tends to broadly refer to all kinds of under the table services, including specific types of cryptocurrency.

At any rate, Bytcon gets your picture and takes the bait — he’s suddenly much more excited about you as a client.

Now that’s direct service.

BYTCON: 0-> This job never gets old.
ANNONN: 7.Qc2 Agreed. ...Na6

Oh, there is absolutely a hidden place in the back. You know there is.

You can’t wait for him to say it. Please, say that you have to "follow him" and slink right off to the—

BYTCON: 8-> HOLD THAT THOUGHT! DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL!
BYTCON: 0-> I will see to it that your needs are met.

He casually flips his chair around from behind his gaudy little booth and just... starts kicking his foot against the floor. It doesn’t seem rhythmic — or like any kind of formal code you know, really."

ANNONN: 8.a3 My needs are... currently sitting at a very stagnant place. ...Nc7
ANNONN: 9.e3 Just what exactly are you trying to accomplish here? ...Ne6

BYTCON: 8-> WHY, GIVING YOU JUST WHAT YOU DESIRE, OF COURSE!
BYTCON: 0-> You want to see the dark side of this industry, don’t you?

A low, garbled hiss sounds from below. Immediately, Bytcon stops his incessant tapping and tosses his chair to the side, beckoning you forward with beady eyes and that pinpoint grin.

BYTCON: 0-> This is the way down to it.

You realize he was speaking in very literal terms as he ducks down and disappears from view.

To say that this was nowhere near what you had in mind would be a gross understatement. You suppose it makes sense that a rat has his tunnels.

Also, you really need to stop with the rat comparisons, the guy doesn’t even have a rat lusus on file.

...You don’t think you can help it, on second thought. He just fits the bill way too well.

You waste no time in tailing him. Apparently, there is a sort of lock mechanism on this tile that springs open whenever a certain beat sequence is met. A relatively new security measure — this building was renovated recently, you recall.

It doesn’t seem to be a secret, either. None of the couple hundred or so trolls in the lobby area pay you any mind as you inspect the opening.

Your hunch is that this leads into one of the underground structures formerly occupied by the age old BROODING CAVERNS and WAR COLONIES, long since repurposed. You’d need to see permits to be sure, though.

Luckily, you don’t need any kind of permit to be invited right into the ra—that is, the lion’s den.

You have a special interrogation to start.

A narrow, dimly lit chrome staircase leads you downwards as you slink off and close the tile behind you.

Claustrophobia claws at you as soon as the hatch closes. You’re forced to hunch, just to keep your horns from scraping at the ceiling.

Your only guiding lights are the murmur of surreptitious conversations and the dim bulbs lining the walls on the way down. 

A line starting at the very end of the stairs slowly comes into view. What in the world are so many people even doing in this dinky, cramped corridor? They must have been waiting here for hours.

This obnoxious chatter is way too loud for such a small space.

You make your way to the end of the steps, finally catching sight of Bytcon. It seems that he cut his way to the front of the room as you were busy contemplating this hall’s poor design choices.

It also seems that he is quite the star with this crowd. He’s shaking hands left and right, throwing around practiced smiles and making lively conversation about stocks with multiple people.

He’s... completely ignoring you.

You shoulder past a cluster of trolls to the sound of indignant grunts and exclamations. He’s well into a tirade about convincing some soul-sighted jackoff to shoot their overpriced luxury car into space by the time you reach him. 

You fix him with a glare. He simply grins at you.

Bytcon adjusts his tie — which is to say, makes it look even more haphazardly tossed around his neck — and motions toward a discreet entrance you hadn’t noticed until now.

He doesn’t wait for you to follow him before spinning on his heels and entering the room.

The line scooches to the side for you, but they seem much less enthused about your presence than they were with his. Probably out of jealousy for your V.I.P. treatment, rugged looks and charming personality.

That, or it’s just the fact that outsiders tend to be looked down upon by any sort of close-knit community.

Really, it’s either or. You don’t particularly care about the specifics when you are this far into the search for a lead.

The bunker you’re lead into is much more your speed compared to the messy, frantic runabouts happening on the floor above or the crowd you left behind.

A lukewarm and hazy atmosphere permeates the room, with every patron either paying you no mind at all or carefully watching your every move.

You’re better accustomed to this more miserable kind of company.

It’s an acquired taste, but you much prefer to dance on floors like this — among the anonymous, the shifting and the spotlight-dodgers.

ANNONN: 10.Be5 There’s something to be said about your customer service that I can’t quite put my finger on. ...Ng4
BYTCON: 0-> Now, now. Let’s not make the jump from blunt to hasty.
BYTCON: 0-> I mingle! Every single person in here has been my client at some point or another.
BYTCON: 8-> I AM VERY COOL AND POPULAR!
BYTCON: 0-> So cool and popular, in fact, that I was able to snag a nice little private room, just for the two of us.
BYTCON: 0-> This way, we’ll be able to comfortably discuss what exactly you want from my services.
BYTCON: 8-> IMPRESSED?

ANNONN: 11.Bg3 It’s so very thoughtful of you to do exactly what your job requires. ...Ng5
ANNONN: 12.Nxg5 If I didn’t know any better, I would even call you a gentleman. ...Bxg5

BYTCON: 0-> Oh no, I’m absolutely nothing of the sort.
BYTCON: 0-> People familiar with the trade have a particular saying about the kind of man that I am.

You repress your urge to root around in your pan for more rat-based metaphors.

ANNONN: 13.Bd3 I can’t say I know exactly what that would be. ...h5
ANNONN: 14.h3 I’m very new to this. ...Nh6

BYTCON: 0-> Is that so? Because as far as I can tell, you seem very old and very tired.
BYTCON: 0-> So! Why don’t you follow along, cut the bullshit and tell me all about what you actually think of me.
BYTCON: 0-> Secily.

He once again moves too fast for you to come up with an answer, casually putting an arm around your shoulders and dragging you into a nearby DIVIDEND CONFESSIONAL.

It’s narrower than the stairwell, with a higher ceiling and two built in slabs against its side walls for seats.

You feel as though you have no room to breathe — your own coat might as well be a noose tied around your neck.

Bytcon, on the other hand, seems perfectly accustomed to it. In fact, he looks downright expectant.

Well. If that’s how he wants to play it, who are you to disappoint?

You prepare to start your usual questioning routine, as you are well established to do by now.

BYTCON: 0-> Go ahead and state your business, Miss Iopara. This thing is one hundred percent soundproof, guaranteed.
SECILY: 15.O-O How did you know it was me? ...O-O
BYTCON: 0-> That’s a really piss poor question. You know that, right?
BYTCON: 0-> Not the most formidable opener.
BYTCON: 0-> What you should actually be asking is:
BYTCON: 8-> HOW COULD I NOT KNOW IT WAS YOU?
BYTCON: 0-> Your intuition must be as bad as your fake names.

SECILY: 16.b4 ...From the outside looking in, you seemed like nothing more than a dolt who’s had one too many easy streaks. ...f5
SECILY: 17.Ne2 I thought you would buy it. ...h4
SECILY: 18.Bh2 Also, you bring out that voice every single time you try to make a point? ...Be7
SECILY: 19.b5 It’s grating on television, it’s grating through text, and it’s grating coming out of your mouth right now. ...Bd6

BYTCON: 0-> What can I say, I’m a big fan of my voice.
BYTCON: 8-> I LIKE TO PROJECT!
BYTCON: 0-> But to further expand on your previous point, let’s talk a bit more about one of my favorite subjects:
BYTCON: 8-> ME!
BYTCON: 0-> Surely you’re more than familiar with how this works, Secily. I have people just as you have people.
BYTCON: 0-> Informants, assistants, the whole thousand expanses.
BYTCON: 0-> I just so happen to have mine bundled up into a single, convenient little intern package.

So, one person.

BYTCON: 0-> Honestly, I had no idea what you even wanted to do with me until this morning, when they traced the call back to your headquarters.
BYTCON: 0-> You had to be on my tail on account of that old blood.
BYTCON: 0-> Both ours and the one you’re chasing after, of course.
BYTCON: 0-> As mired as we are in deliberate misinformation and fake news, it’s still not too hard to read between the lines and find out what’s really going on.
BYTCON: 0-> I never bought into any of that warped ancestral mumbo-jumbo the media tries to feed us, but it seems as though you’re in need of someone to implicate at this point.
BYTCON: 8-> AND WHO BETTER THAN YOURS TRULY?"
BYTCON: 0-> You know...
BYTCON: 0-> With the way your reputation precedes you, it's a wonder you’re not as famous as me, Secily.

SECILY: 20.Bxd6 I’ve gotten that a lot recently. ...Qxd6
SECILY: 21.bxc6 What I actually need is for this case to be solved, and I’m already sick of going to someone only to find they don’t have any answers. ...bxc6
SECILY: 22.Rfc1 I’m hardened, hungover and hellbent, so forgive me if I sound a bit at the moment. ...Bd7
SECILY: 23.Qc5 It seems like you’ve been waiting for me to make a move, even though I could never catch you before. ...Qxc5
SECILY: 24.Rxc5 If you wanted to speak with me so badly, you could have spared us both the trouble and done so by now. ...Rfb8
SECILY: 25.Nf4 I would have been happy to either take you in or watch the blood drip from your chest. ...Kf7
SECILY: 26.Bc2 This song and dance number you put me through was completely unnecessary. ...Ng8

BYTCON: 0-> You’re here now, though!
BYTCON: 0-> And isn’t that what matters?
BYTCON: 0-> Besides, I do enjoy a healthy amount of showmanship. Some glitz, some glamour, some pizzazz.
BYTCON: 0-> But if an interrogation is what you want, Miss Iopara, I’m an open market.
BYTCON: 8-> BEFORE WE START IT ALL UP, HOWEVER! YOU STILL HAVE TO RIDDLE ME THIS!
BYTCON: 0-> What do people call me?

You find yourself resigned. For once, you're forced to bend to someone else’s will — brought down to their level, quite literally.

You made a mistake in underestimating an experienced hustler, a dealer with no limits. A con artist who knows exactly how this system falls into place. A kind you’re no stranger to tangoing with.

SECILY: 27.Nf5 A thief. ...Nf3
BYTCON: 0-> Bingo.

>Assert implications.

SECILY: 28.Nd3 It seems like you have a deeper understanding of this case than you should. ...Ke6
SECILY: 29.Rac1 I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume a swindler of your caliber may have had something to do with this theft. ...Rb6

BYTCON: 0-> You don't say? Fascinating theory, Regulator. Consider getting a production company on the horn.
BYTCON: 0-> If you need an agent, I once met quite the handsome gentleman in the mirror.

You consider deploying a nasty burn involving his looks, but he already barely takes you seriously without any half-baked, flimsy insults thrown in the ring.

SECILY: 30.Ra5 Give me one good reason not to make you kiss your assets goodbye. ...Kd6
BYTCON: 0-> I'll do you one better, as a matter of fact.
BYTCON: 8-> APPLY FOR ONE BOON, GET ONE FREE!

Cocky bastard.

BYTCON: 0-> Here's one made to order:
BYTCON: 8-> PROVE I DID IT! IN THIS SPHERE, WE TAKE FACTS IN SPADES!
BYTCON: 0-> Do you have any evidence of my involvement? I would think you’ve had plenty of time to practice since your last attempt.
BYTCON: 0-> So I’m a thief. Big deal! There's a surplus of them all around us, and we're getting the overstock savings.
BYTCON: 8-> NO SHORTAGE AT ALL!
BYTCON: 0-> I just happen to be the one you've had the most experience with thus far.

That one stings, for multiple reasons.

He's right. Regrettably. You haven't been doing a spectacular job at proving your point, so you hold your tongue — let him keep talking. Bait him into more conversation until something spills.

You wait for his second point — and he better not be taking your silence as defeat.

BYTCON: 0-> As for my next number:
BYTCON: 8-> YOU'RE IN MY ARENA! PERSONALLY TAILORED TO MY NEEDS, WANTS AND DESIRES!
BYTCON: 0-> Consider the following: Two people have walked deep into this little neck of the blow-up foliage clump.
BYTCON: 0-> Don't you think it would be a mite suspicious if only one of them were to walk out?
BYTCON: 0-> Or, perish the thought, escorting the other out in handcuffs?

Funny how he thinks he has any chance of being calmly escorted out in handcuffs, fully conscious.

BYTCON: 0-> There were quite a number of eye-witnesses, Secily. And us currency enthusiasts are very observant.
SECILY: 31.Kf1 What makes you think I'd simply stop my investigation and leave if you did turn out to be involved? ...Bc8
BYTCON: 0-> Oh, yes, let me be a stationary target for you to catch at your leisure, now that we got to know each other a little better.
BYTCON: 0-> Same time and place tomorrow?

SECILY: 32.Nb4 Sounds lovely. Every word you say makes me more enthusiastic about the prospect of driving a blade into your chest. ...Bb7

What leaves his mouth can only be described as a parody of genuine amusement. It might have been convincing if you weren't dedicated to detecting minor behavioral quirks.

SECILY: 33.Ke2 If you're done stroking your ego? ...a6
BYTCON: 0-> Absolutely not, but carry on, Regulator. Prove my guilt.
SECILY: 34.Rg1 I... ...g5

It's hard to admit that you're only here because of a gut feeling, but you know for a fact that he'll be able to deflect any wooly evidence you attempt to pull over his eyes.

On the subject of eyes. You swear the longer you stare at his striped suit, the more your internal matrix treats it as some form of optical illusion.

Ugh.

BYTCON: 0-> That's what I thought.
SECILY: 35.Nd3 Need I remind you that I've been chasing you for some time, Bytcon? ...Rg8
SECILY: 36.Rc5 Don't think I can only take you in for charges relating to this case. ...f4

BYTCON: 0-> Oh, you couldn't keep me out of the picture if you tried.

Those are very bold words coming from someone whose continued existence you don't care for in the slightest.

SECILY: 37.Rgc1 I'm dying to know what could possibly make you think that. ...fxe3
BYTCON: 0-> I hold a very special place in the hearts of many. I'm this close to having a valuable autograph.
BYTCON: 0-> So if my blood were to stain your hands on account of a mere gut instinct?
BYTCON: 0-> If you were to kill a planet-wide hero, simply because of his questionable involvement in a nebulous web of responsibility?
BYTCON: 8-> FINANCIAL STABILITY DROPS LIKE THESE PRICES!
BYTCON: 0-> Shadow Loops crash like clumsy avians. Values skyrocket and plummet simultaneously.
BYTCON: 0-> A power vacuum opens wide, and every loop-grubbing, moolah-twiddling entrepreneur with a half-baked plan and no charisma to speak of tries to fill the void.
BYTCON: 8-> THE PEOPLE'S HEARTS ARE BROKEN! CYBERMARKETS GO STAGNANT! MINERS SLAVE AWAY WITHOUT PURPOSE!

He stands tall and proud throughout his spiel. Then, without warning, he rests a hand on his forehead and swoons hopelessly against your shoulder. The curly branch of his horn threatens to snag your coat.

BYTCON: 8-> SECILY, THINK OF THE ECONOMY!
SECILY: 38.fxe3 I get it. You're very popular and the world has horrid taste in heroes. ...Rf8
SECILY: 39.Nb4 Now stop touching me before I turn you into a skewered rodent. ...Rf8

Bytcon springs away from you like a drunken slinky, clearly lost in his own amusement. Unfortunately, he's made a point.

You're only here because he's a fixture on your list of permanent suspects, even if you can’t draw an immediate connection between him and this case at the moment.

You'll need to bait him into spilling something a bit more illegal. Catch him in a... Rat trap.

Thank you, thank you. You'll be here for as little time as possible because his overbearing cologne is threatening to nullify your sense of smell.

>Question use of Shadow Currency.

For the purposes of preserving the illusion of choice without interfering with this non-linear sequence of events, let's say you're an ambiguous amount of time into this.

You're such an amount of time into this that his grating voice is making you regret ever picking up that disgusting mixture from Sirage. Your headache is beyond dissatisfied with today.

You just want to get him talking. But how?

SECILY: 40.Bc2 I take it you'd refrain from giving me an actual answer if I condescendingly asked why you're so passionate about analogged tender in the first place. ...Kc7
BYTCON: 0-> I’d feign hurt feelings, yes, and then keep my lips sealed.
BYTCON: 0-> But do you know what I take very kindly to?
BYTCON: 8-> PRAISE SO SWEET IT BORDERS ON SICKENING!

Oh, for crying out loud.

SECILY: 41.Bd3 I have no interest at all in trying to appeal to you. ...Kb8
BYTCON: 0-> Aw, and here I was ready to be all buttered up.
BYTCON: 0-> I might have even let something slip in my euphoria-induced celebration.

He's fishing for compliments. You cannot believe this man is fishing for compliments. You’ve gathered that he is ridiculously vain at this point, but this is just—

Sigh. Here goes.

SECILY: 42.Rf1 ...Well, there's really nobody better to ask than the rising star of the business world, I guess. ...Rxf1
SECILY: 43.Kxf1 An individual who is just. So much more knowledgeable than me in all matters economic. ...Bc8
SECILY: 44.Kf2 So please, Mr. Krypto, answer me this. ...Kb7
SECILY: 45.Ra5 Why do you have such a fascination with this chaotic cryptocurrency catastrophe? ...Ka7

BYTCON: 0-> It's hard not to be a fan of your alliteration. I'll tell you everything.
BYTCON: 8-> IT ALL STARTED WITH A REDUPLICATED MARVEL!
BYTCON: 8-> GROWING FROM THE ROLE OF HUMBLE VIRTUAL HANDSHAKING CONMAN...
BYTCON: 8-> TO THE POPULAR TELEVISION EXTRAORDINAIRE ON SCREENS EVERYWHERE...
BYTCON: 8-> AND INTO THE UNSTOPPABLE PROFESSIONAL RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU! YOU KNOW THE NAME LIKE YOU KNOW YOUR OWN MIND!

SECILY: 46.Rc5 I get the feeling I just wasted several undeserved compliments. ...g4
BYTCON: 8-> BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE!

Your ears are in fucking turmoil right now.

SECILY: 47.hxg4 Do us both a favor and make it snappy, then. Perhaps use an inside voice if you're feeling benevolent. ...Bxg4
BYTCON: 0-> I don't need to share my life story with you, you know. I have an autobiography for sale.
BYTCON: 8-> PRE-ORDER NOW, BEFORE THEY FLY OFF THE SHELVES!
BYTCON: 0-> I’m gonna give that Turnin fellow a run for my money, mark these words.

SECILY: 48.Kg1 We're done talking about Shadow Currency, then? Are you happy with plugging yourself and moving on? ...Kb7
BYTCON: 0-> Of course not.

He exudes the aura of one of those ridiculous and greasy monorail supervisors, which applies even as he's taking a seat. He'd probably kick his feet up if he could.

You know this because he's taking advantage of you declining to recline by using your own seat as his footrest.

BYTCON: 0-> Tell me, Secily. Do you ever wish things would just stay the same — boring, stagnant?
BYTCON: 0-> Forever trapped in mundanity and tediosity?

SECILY: 49.Ra5 This feels like a trick question, and I'll refrain from answering. ...Nf5
BYTCON: 0-> Oh, please. Who could feel alive if every day was exactly the same? It would be torture!
BYTCON: 8-> THE WORST POSSIBLE OUTCOME! DON'T LET THAT HAPPEN TO YOU!

There's a lull in his little speech. This is starting to get away from you, but you can't help being a bit curious when this man, of all people, seems to be getting into a bout of intense, contemplative navel-gazing.

He's been thinking for too long, though. You let out a non-committal hum of interest to kick him into gear again.

BYTCON: 0-> There's something thrilling about always being kept on your toes, isn’t there? Nothing quite like an adrenaline rush to remind you that you're making the most of life.
SECILY: 50.Bxa6+ The adrenaline of walking the tightrope of a terribly unstable system, which threatens to implode on itself at any moment? ...Kc7

As much as you're pouring your soul into making that a sarcastic question, you'd be a hypocrite if you said you weren't one for constant brushes with death.

You do not further examine the thought that the two of you might have something in common.

BYTCON: 8-> AND WINNING, OF COURSE! GLORIOUS, TRIUMPHANT VICTORY!
BYTCON: 0-> You'd be a fool not to love winning.

SECILY: 51.Kf2 Yes, I’ve dabbled in the concept. ...h3
SECILY: 52.gxh3 How does this tie into Shadow Currency? ...Bxh3

BYTCON: 0-> Because, with Shadow Currency, I know how to win.
BYTCON: 0-> For example?
BYTCON: 8-> WRATHCOIN IS UP!
BYTCON: 0-> But with my keen knowledge of the system, I would advise you either find a middle ground coin to ensure you don’t crash and burn when buying big, or just go for the cheapest option available.
BYTCON: 0-> Might I suggest to you: lustcoin?
BYTCON: 8-> IT’S BEEN LYING DORMANT, BUT THAT JUST MEANS IT’S WELL OVERDUE FOR A COMEBACK IN A BIG WAY!
BYTCON: 0-> I’m sure you’ll see.
BYTCON: 0-> Or, actually — no, you probably won’t.
BYTCON: 0-> It’s not for you. Forget I said anything.

You briefly consider feeling insulted, but decide against it in the end. You simply slump further down in your seat.

You really do not care about these obscure internet shenanigans all that much. You’re positive you’re just going to get more of a chasmfull of it down the line, anyway.

You’re done with this topic. Next.

>Potential bribe.

It doesn't take a criminally overdeveloped think pan to come to the conclusion that Bytcon seems to like money. Hell, he'd probably change his name to "Mohney" if he could.

He may be sitting at the top of this slice of the underworld, but everybody bleeds — and whenever a wound threatens to leak loops, you suspect he smells it from a long distance, just like the rest of the ankle biters.

SECILY: 53.Bd3 I'm sure you're familiar with the pricelessness of the stolen goods I'm trying to track down. ...Nd6
SECILY: 54.Na6+ There must be a market of customers willing to pay a pretty ring for that kind of inventory. ...Kc8
SECILY: 55.Nc5 Collectors, megalomaniacal scientists, perhaps even cultists? ...Bf5
SECILY: 56.Ra8+ I don't suppose you'd be in the know about the precise amount of dough it would take to get your hands dirty with ancient artifacts. ...Rb8

He looks more and more engaged every time you slide an additional synonym for "coinage" across the metaphorical table.

BYTCON: 0-> Oh, I have no doubts at all regarding the value of our little glass bottle filled with limey life juice.
BYTCON: 0-> It's funny how such a small item can have such a large impact, hm?

SECILY: 57.Ra6 In truth, it can only be considered "small" if you refuse to look at the big picture. ...Kc7
BYTCON: 8-> CHAOS EVERYWHERE! CONFIDE IN YOUR EXPERTS FOR A TRUSTWORTHY EVALUATION TODAY!
SECILY: 58.bxf5 And what would your evaluation be? ...Nxf5

In an expected turn of events, Bytcon insists on making a show of things. A theme that many professions of your kind tend to run with.

He pointedly clears his throat, like he’s about to announce the winner of a brand new vehicle — you don't bother getting your hopes up about that one, though.

BYTCON: 8-> SUCH A RARE AND MYSTICAL RELIC OF THE PAST...
BYTCON: 0-> It might be doubted at first, especially by a sensible individual such as myself.
BYTCON: 0-> But if people got a whiff of Shmorporate's involvement?
BYTCON: 8-> YOU'D BE THE RICHEST TROLL ON THE PLANET! 50,000 CONTENDERS, ONE CHAMPION TO RULE THEM ALL!
BYTCON: 0-> I am of course speaking in hypotheticals only, as someone who has had no previous interaction with the item in question.
BYTCON: 0-> And also as someone who could sell a single shoelace for one grand on a bad day.

Excellent, you've established a potential motive.

A motive besides "would swindle a pre-schooled grub out of a cracker for fun," that is.

SECILY: 59.Ra7+ Interesting. ...Kb6
SECILY: 60.Ra6+ Because I think there's a very real possibility you could have paid a much smaller fee for the collection of an item marketed as significantly less important. ...Kc7
SECILY: 61.Ra7+ Taking advantage of the thick cloud of mystery and obscurity surrounding something all but nonexistent in the eyes of the public? ...Kb6

He says it before you can.

BYTCON: 0-> Seems like a classic Bytcon move, doesn't it?

It's sickening, how he wears the accusation with pride.

BYTCON: 0-> Not sorry to disappoint, but that's a little ambitious. There's no way I'd be able to hide the value of such a hard seller.
SECILY: 62.Ra4 How so? ...Rh8
BYTCON: 8-> CORPORATE'S CERTIFIED STAMP OF APPROVAL! A GENUINE ARTICLE OF HISTORY!
BYTCON: 0-> It was transported in a heavily fortified truck, right in the middle of a conspicuously bland tundra turf.
BYTCON: 0-> No grunt worth his minerals would break in and out of there without realizing its importance.
BYTCON: 0-> Try again.

Seems like you're incapable of flexing your finest accusatory muscles right now. You just can’t ever win the draw for a clueless moron when you need it, can you?

SECILY: 63.Kf3 I wouldn't put it past a few lower-rung members of Corporate to be swayed by a potential bribe. ...Nd6

Low in contrast to people like Sestro, of course, but still high enough to know about something that’s caused this much of a dreadful stir.

Never in a million sweeps would you believe that Corporate's slogan truly applies to every last individual listed in its records. There’s obviously a weak link somewhere if information was leaked.

BYTCON: 0-> There is, without question, some schmuck up in the big top who’s not doing their job properly.
BYTCON: 0-> Not a terribly difficult conclusion to come to.
BYTCON: 0-> But if I knew who they were?
BYTCON: 0-> I would have been able to take so much more, so much earlier on.
BYTCON: 0-> Hypothetically speaking, of course.

He's quick to tack that last part on, so as not to implicate himself too strongly. The end result is equivalent to trying to make a dumpster more palatable by throwing a single bottle of perfume inside.

SECILY: 64.Ra6+ Do tell me if you happen to find out who the blabbermouth is. ...Kc7
BYTCON: 0-> Likewise.

>Really? That’s it?

The scowl plastered across your face intensifies by several degrees. Again, there is silence — and again, there is Bytcon, staring at you with unbridled eagerness.

Alas, both your time and mental capacity have been exhausted. Another telltale grin — that same goddamn smile, every single time — sends out a clear message.

You’ve lost.

BYTCON: 0-> Nothing else?
SECILY: 65.Ra7+ ... ...Kb6
BYTCON: 8-> NO COMMENTS? NO QUIPS?
BYTCON: 8-> JAPES? JESTS? JABS?
BYTCON: 8-> OTHERWISE IRRELEVANT QUARRELS?
BYTCON: 0-> Good.

His hand rasps against the side of the box you’ve both spent the better third of a route in, and the door automatically raises open.

You sit there and continue to say nothing. A numbness spreads through your body.

Bytcon seems confused for a brief moment, but shrugs it off easily enough. You imagine disregarding the emotions of others is business as usual for him.

You wish you could claim that he'd fallen into your trap, that you'd plotted for him to lower his guard around you — which is never something one should do, if one enjoys the continued state of being alive.

As it stands, you're just a very good improviser.

You see a turned back, and in a split-second decision, launch yourself out of the confessional like a bat out of hell.

Your fencing hand is quick on the draw. In one swift motion, Bytcon has a very sharp edge pressing against his neck.

SECILY: 66.Re7 I don't care for your pathetic excuses anymore. I want an airtight, legitimate alibi right now. ...Rh3+
SECILY: 67.Ke2 Unless you want to become intimately acquainted with the smell of fresh cerulean blood mixed in with that foul cologne of yours. ...Nc4

Unsurprisingly, this catches the attention of all the other patrons around you.

Slightly more surprisingly, every last one of them draws their weapons from their respective STRIFE SPECIBI and aim a concerning variety of lethal tools of the trade your way.

Downright shocking is how Bytcon doesn't so much as tense his shoulders. Proserpina extracts a solitary thin, blue droplet from his throat, and yet he stares at you, unfazed.

He doesn't simply believe it — he knows he has the support of every last person in here. Your ears pick up on the ragged breathing of someone who sounds very loyal and very trigger-happy.

(See, Sestro? Your hearing is completely untouched, don't worry about it.)

You try your best to hold on to your professional composure, but Bytcon's smiling like he just saw you throw a temper tantrum.

BYTCON: 0-> Well, well, well.
BYTCON: 0-> Well, well, well, well, well, WELL.
BYTCON: 0-> Looks like you really are down on your luck.
BYTCON: 0-> Remarkable.

You don't take kindly to him talking down to you, like you're even more of an amusing science experiment than your species already is. When you press your blade harder against his skin, you hear several guns cock.

BYTCON: 0-> Now, now, everyone, calm down. Yes, that means you too, Greedi.
BYTCON: 0-> Dappis, take care of them, would you?

All he has to do is wave a hand dismissively, and the entire mob grows complacent. You... are forced to concede this round and lighten up just a little. Only a bit.

Again.

BYTCON: 0-> Let me just breathe for a second and then come with me. We'll get you your orderly documents.
BYTCON: 0-> It won't take too long. I know how much you value your time.

You have no idea what he's talking about (more code, probably), but as much as you try to justify it, you can't bring yourself to turn him down. Not when he's thoroughly embarrassed you like this.

You sheathe your rapier as he motions for you to resume your role as his tail.

(Don't say rat tail. Do not say rat tail.)

He's quick to guide you past the crowd and around the corner of the room.

Oh, he's leading you into a supply closet now? Great. All the space of the confessional, with the added smell of janitorial duties.

The door clicks shut and his voice hushes significantly. You're starting to like this closet a little more.

BYTCON: 0-> Alright, you want an alibi? Fine, I'll give you an alibi.
BYTCON: 0-> It's not like I'm actually guilty. I have hobbies! Passions! Things to do outside of causing a ruckus downtown.

You suppose it’s his turn for a dramatic pause. You patiently wait for him to continue.

BYTCON: 0-> You see, on the night of the incident, I was with...
BYTCON: 0-> The Boys.

You don't know why he's looking at you like you're supposed to know who "The Boys" are. He cannot possibly be serious about resting his case on that sentence alone.

SECILY: 68.Kd3 "The Boys"? ...Rg3
BYTCON: 0-> Ah, you must be wondering about our killer team name.
SECILY: 69.Ke2 Not really— ...Rh3
BYTCON: 0-> I came up with it while I was waiting for them on a bout of steamed hams.
BYTCON: 0-> I knew that we had to have an excellent name — for the sake of regaling our tales to outsiders, you see — but it was a damn conundrum at the time.
BYTCON: 0-> As soon as I saw them approach, though, I stood up and said:
BYTCON: 8-> "WHAT'S UP, BOYS?"
BYTCON: 0-> And then the entire restaurant cheered, everybody went absolutely insane.
BYTCON: 0-> It was like the liberation of... an oppressed group, somewhere.
BYTCON: 0-> I'm pretty sure I got a medal, if I recall correctly? It's been a while.

You fall into stunned silence. It seems you have finally succeed in feeling insulted.

SECILY: 70.Kf2 You expect me to take you at your word, just like that? ...Ka5
SECILY: 71.Ra7+ You genuinely expect me to let you off the chain because you got some fucking slop with a few friends? ...Kb6
SECILY: 72.Rb7 This is BULLSHIT. ...Ka5

BYTCON: 0-> Ah, yes.
BYTCON: 8-> BUT! IT’S GOOD BULLSHIT!

SECILY: 73.Rb3 Your "incredible tale" doesn't even remotely give you an alibi! You could have still dipped your toes into the deep end of an organised burglary earlier. ...Rh2
SECILY: 74.Kg3 How could I possibly be expected to trust you? ...Ra2

BYTCON: 8-> DON'T JUST TAKE MY WORD FOR IT! HERE'S A MESSAGE FROM OUR TRUSTED SPONSOR!

His trusted sponsor is apparently a slip of paper, advertising one Endari Vernir’s whimsy and horoscopes.

BYTCON: 0-> I know you can't take me at my word. I’m well aware of what my reputation does for me on that front.
BYTCON: 0-> That's why I'm passing you along to one of The Boys.
BYTCON: 0-> Endari can vouch for me, we’re very close.
BYTCON: 0-> Aaaand also, this is for good luck.

What he hands you next is a small photograph of... himself. It’s signed on the back.

In it, he has the exact same expression he's giving you right now, in the flesh. It also perfectly matches his expression when he's on television. Or... any marketing you've ever seen him in, now that you think about it.

SECILY: 75.a4 And why exactly am I taking this? ...Ra3
BYTCON: 0-> If not for good luck, then consider it an invitation to find me again. If I'm wrong, I’m sure you could come back and finish the job, easily.
BYTCON: 8-> RESULTS GUARANTEED!

SECILY: 76.Rxa3 ...Fine. ...Nxa3

There's nothing appealing about the concept of shaking this man's hand. Levelling the playing field between you two makes you sick to your stomach, but you have no choice other than to "trust" him for now.

The fact that he's willing to put himself on the line proves that he's at least trying to earn your "trust" as well.

SECILY: 77.Kf4 I'll be seeing you very soon if you're wrong. ...Nc4
SECILY: 78.e4 Tell your "people" to keep an eye out. ...dxe4

BYTCON: 0-> Pleasure doing business with you, Secily.
BYTCON: 0-> I’m deeply sorry that this didn’t go as you planned.
BYTCON: 0-> But we have a saying in business when that happens.

SECILY: 79.Kxe4 It’s just business? ...Kb4 ½-½
BYTCON: 0-> No.
BYTCON: 8-> BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME, CHUMP!

It's a decently lengthy trip out of the Currency Dome, which you use as a chance to think. You always ruminate when you have to walk. And right now?

You’re thinking: "fuck today."

You're starting to feel less hungover, but even more like an absolute buffoon. You completely failed to dupe an exasperating customer, and he gave you nothing useful to boot.

Just like the last time, as you feared.

You have nothing to show for any of this other than the faint wisp of a lead that ended in a closed-off alley, to the sound of a laughing audience pointing directly at your catastrophic failure.

Going with your intuition alone was a mistake — sometimes a gut feeling really is just a feeling. You shouldn’t have taken it upon yourself to simply assume you were right.

You got hasty, you got impatient, bordering on incompetent. And that’s not you.

You make a promise to yourself: you need to be better.

You will be better.

You are getting results, starting tomorrow. Even if it's just confirming or denying the involvement of a rat, once and for all.

No more screw ups.

No more dead ends.

END

HUSSKE MAYZEE

Don't trust anyone. That's what Hamifi told you.

You've heard nothing new from her or Sestro, and nothing new from the mysterious voice in your ear either. But you’ve still got that ominous tip, and Hekrix is crazy if she thinks you'll just ignore it.

??????: [Eidolic Acres. +2.111. Two d a  y   s    .]
??????: [Listen cl o  s   e    .]

Your two days are up, and the time is fast approaching. You decide to pay the Eidolic Acres a visit.

You had an archivist back at the office (terrified of you, always useful in an asset) put together a file on the place.

There wasn't much on hand at the Regulatory, as it happened. Mostly second-hand, internal accounts. Nothing well-known. Only rumours.

"Farm that provides corn for various uses. High quality product, proprietors reclusive. Weekly pickup takes boxes and leaves loops. Travelers have reported chanting at night. The voices of children."

Spooky. Things are only spooky when there's something to hide.

Want to cover up a smuggling operation? Start wearing robes and singing ominously at dusk, and trolls who are more superstitious will give you a wide berth.

It’s hard to blame them, really. Cults have been getting unusual as of late.

There is nowhere a chief regulator fears to tread, however. You repeat this to yourself as you squelch your boot into a sticky puddle by accident while crossing the street to your motorbike. Fearlessly.

The walls of the stronghold — pristine white on the inside, colorfully graffitied on the out — give way to authorized exurbs. The exurbs give way to sprawling shanties.

Finally the slums give out too, and not a single beggar or burnout is to be seen on the lonely road. You head south from the urban sprawl, and out into a boundless expanse of farmland.

It takes an endless amount of crops to satisfy public demand for processed food, and even more endless hectares on which to grow them.

Most of the newer fields have no buildings or troll presence at all, and are worked only by prototype CO-branded drones. All shiny white plastic: perfect parabolic curves.

The rollout has been a rather slow and arduous affair, despite Hamifi's relentless insistence on efficiency.

Sestro has been reluctant as ever, and not without good reason. Further automation putting already impoverished laborers out of work altogether could turn nasty very, very efficiently indeed.

That’s how it always is between them. One ruthless, one guilty; one scathing, one mournful. An ouroboros of angst and paranoia. Acting, then regretting. Breaking, then rebuilding.

Sowing, then reaping, you think, as a lonely red barn peeks out from between the cornfields and rolling hills you've navigated for the past few hours.

It's pretty well-hidden, all the way out here. You would have missed it if you didn't know where it was. You stop the bike at a bend in the road, and scope out the place for a bit with your overhead.

The blurry forms of small figures scramble on the horizon, as though they’re being marshalled into the barn one by one. Looks like they spied you first.

Oh well. So much for the element of surprise.

You check that your pistol is loaded and adjust both your swords, scabbards against your hip. The tall fields of corn can still cover your approach.

As you draw near to the barn, something catches your eye at the corner. Just briefly. You turn to see what it could be, but there's no sign of anything around.

There's just hectare upon vaguely creepy hectare of corn waving idly in front of you. The wind rushes through with a rasping, whistling sound.

It... was probably nothing.

You pull your gaze out from between the corn stalks and continue on towards the entrance to the barn.

As you quickly close the remaining distance, you see the door open.

Your sword hand instinctively moves to hang just shy of Proserpina's hilt. It's a reflex, one that you've honed through many long sweeps of intense, anticipatory gestures. Countless hours of practice.

You don't mind saying it. That sword hand hover is your pride and joy. Whoever or whatever comes out through the doorway, you're more than ready for it.

A small child stands before you.

Pickaxe in hand, they bar the entryway with both arms stretched as wide as they can go, which is admittedly not very far. They can't be older than about 5 or 6 sweeps at most.

Suffice it to say that you were not ready for this.

SECILY: 1.e4 Um. Hello. ...Nc6

You don't know how to talk to kids. The young troll just stares at you.

SECILY: 2.Nc3 Do not be alarmed, child. I am here to see the proprietor of this establishment. Is there perhaps an adult on the premises I could speak with? ...e6

Yikes. You really don't know how to talk to kids, apparently. Now they're positively glaring at you, like you asked an unspeakably stupid question.

You move your hand back away from your sword, realizing it might not be helping matters. May have jumped the gun on that one. Speaking of guns, the one in your holster begins to feel very heavy all of a sudden.

You can’t help but remember another day like this one, a lifetime ago.

>RECALL: Your first assignment.

You had just been relocated to Stronghold 21.

Two sweeps of training in an external Regulatory facility saw you emerge top of your class, and now, inside the walls, you were at the bottom again. But you didn't mind. You lived for it.

At that point you had a great deal more superiors than you do now, and none of them were as good as Sestro or Hamifi. Your first assignment was one that had been puzzling them for a while, which didn't say much.

A long string of petty thefts had been going on inside the walls for about a sweep. Nothing of substantial monetary value was being taken, though. What went missing was bread.

It was like clockwork. Every wice, another bakery got burgled, and nobody knew how it happened. The perps were perfect, leaving no trace behind.

You say "perps" because, at the time, the Regulatory was convinced there was a skilled team of bandits responsible. No way something so airtight was the work of one troll, according to the higher-ups.

But like you said, they weren't the brightest bunch.

It didn't take you long to work out the truth.

There's no clock that ticks quite so unceasingly as hunger. This wasn't the work of a coordinated team. Just someone who desperately needed to eat.

You saw the pieces moving in a pattern, and made your own move accordingly. It wasn't hard to predict where they'd go next. All you had to do was wait.

They were small, fast, and alone. A single pawn, racing desperately for cover. And maybe if you'd been anyone else, they would have managed it. As it was, the pursuit was over before it started.

You'd taken precautions.

Your trap was sprung, and you had the culprit right where you wanted. You drew your sword.

But then the light of the moons caught her face for the first time. She was just a child. Thin, weather-beaten, and starving.

In the twelve sweeps since you were first handed a blade, you've never hurt a kid. Instead, you made her a promise.

She'd never go hungry again.

You struck your deal, and then headed back to the Regulatory. There was always more paperwork to be done, even back in those days.

You sit down in your brand new office chair, crack open a case file, and turn the radio on.

You fiddle with the tuning knob for a few minutes, trying and failing to find a station.

You...

SECILY: 3.d4 Wait. ...Bb4
SECILY: 4.Nf3 This isn't right. ...d6
SECILY: 5.Bf4 I don't listen to the radio. I don't remember doing that at all. ...Nge7

And yet the memory is still going. The static coming through the speakers is getting louder.

And louder.

You can't stop the memory from happening, though you're certain this isn't even a memory any more. It feels too alive.

SECILY: 6.Be2 What the hell is happening?! ...Bxc3+

You don't know what the hell is happening.

The dark black of the back of your eyelids looks menacing to you now, like it's about to reach forward and swallow you whole. You can't escape it, you can't do anything. The static builds to a deafening roar.

There's only one thing you can think to do.

You open your eyes.

You are now standing a little ways from the barn, turned around to face the corn still rippling and crackling in the wind.

You don't remember moving. That thought terrifies you a little bit.

For some reason you can't help but peer deeper into the fields, your eyes getting lost in the hundreds of little gaps and voids between the stalks.

When you opened your eyes, the static from the spooky radio blended seamlessly into the gently ebbing sound of leaves enchanted by a breeze. The noise beckons you forward, wordlessly.

Come closer.

You feel yourself shift, as if to take a step.

?????? støp!!!

The sound of a voice snaps you out of whatever unsettling reverie you were in the process of slipping into. You look down to see the kid from before, blocking your entry into the cornfield.

?????? yøu mustnt. gø in there.
?????? yøu can hear it. cant yøu.
?????? the vøice. in the field. that calls withøut wørds. that whispers. in the spaces between.

You look back up, to the field sprawling out in front of you.

SECILY: 7.bxc3 I... ...O-O

You find yourself at a loss for words, which is really quite something for someone of your verbosity. Usually, when something bugs you, you'll regurgitate half a thesaurus at the slightest provocation.

But now you don't know what to say at all. You look to and fro, between the empty eyes of the child in your way and the darkness, threaded through the stalks, tugging at the corners of your eyes.

?????? yøu can hear it. i can see it. in yøur eyes.

They're looking up at you intently, examining your face with a gaze that is no less impactful for seeming to have no substance at all.

??????: i havent met an adult. whø cøuld hear it beføre.

After considering things for a few moments more, they hold out one hand, business-like. Offering to shake.

You take their hand, and some very enthusiastic shakes ensue. Their words punctuate the motion. Placid. Yet pointed.

??????: my name. is husske. husske mayzee.
HUSSKE: welcøme. tø the cørnfields.
HUSSKE: althøugh again. thats nøt a welcøme. før yøu tø gø intø the field itself. its actually. very impørtant that yøu dønt dø that. før yøur øwn safety.
HUSSKE: the cørnfields. is just what we call this place. øn accøunt. øf all the cørn and stuff.

They gesture back over to the barn with a thumb.

HUSSKE: we shøuld. head inside.
HUSSKE: its dangerøus tø stay øut here. før sømeøne like yøu. and everyøne else is waiting.
HUSSKE: i need tø let them knøw. that everything is alright.
HUSSKE: yøu asked beføre. if there was. a grøwnup in charge here. well. i suppøse that wøuld be me.

The two of you are still in the middle of this handshake, arms moving in big sweeps up and down. Their small fingers are barely managing to wrap around the very ends of your own. It's kind of adorable.

SECILY: 8.O-O It's uh. It's nice to meet you, Husske. My name is Secily Iopara, as I believe I said before. I'm here on um. Business. ...Ng6

The wild, swinging pendulum of your joined arms is making you a little queasy again, so you extricate yourself from Husske's grip as politely as possible. You cough, to clear your head as much as your throat.

SECILY: 9.Be3 I was summoned here by someone. It wasn't you, was it? ...Qe7
HUSSKE: . . .
HUSSKE: nø. im nøt in the habit. øf summøning. peøple.

They put a strange emphasis on the word "people" in that sentence.

HUSSKE: sømething else. has brøught yøu here. maybe its the vøice in the field. ør a different vøice altøgether.

You're gonna go with a different voice altogether. Something tells you that your unknown caller isn't an inscrutable entity capable of maybe warping REALITY ITSELF. He just sounds like a bit of a douchebag.

Well let's not get carried away here. Husske didn't say anything about reality bending or nothin'. Perhaps you're reading too much into things. Yeah, that's almost certainly what's going on here.

This place is messing with your head. It's not as if you're CREEPED OUT about what's going on or anything, though. There is nowhere that a chief regulator fears to tread... right?

HUSSKE: yøu seem. a little scared. før an adult.
SECILY: 10.Re1 I... well, ...Bd7
SECILY: 11.Qc1 That is to say... ...b6
SECILY: 12.Nd2 There is nowhere that, uh. A chief regulator fears to tread. ...e5

Absolutely unbelievable. Unwavering in the face of death? Painfully easy. Maintaining a stoic façade while staring down a horde of cutthroat vagrants? Pants-shittingly simple.

But showing a brave face in front of a spooky child who might be in communion with an inscrutable cosmic entity hiding in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere? That's apparently your limit.

The shame is unbearable.

HUSSKE: i dønt. think thats a lie. even thøugh yøu might be scared here. if there is nøwhere. that yøu fear tø tread. then perhaps yøu fear. treading nøwhere.
HUSSKE: and if theres a place. that cøuld be called nøwhere. then i think. that this might be it.
HUSSKE: the peøple. in the city. they sømetimes cøme here. and they see nøthing. because lets be real. theres basically nøthing here.
HUSSKE: but at the same time. they dønt. see. the nøthing. they dønt løøk at it. they dønt hear it.
HUSSKE: and sø this place. which is nøt a place. means nøthing tø them.
HUSSKE: but i see sømething. in between the stalks. i feel sømething. that pulls. in each strand øf cørnsilk.
HUSSKE: in each kernel. there is a smaller part. øf a whøle. bigger than me. bigger than all øf us.
HUSSKE: and that whøle. is alsø. a høle. an empty space. that lies between. that alløws things tø grøw.
HUSSKE: and as før the humble cørn cøb. we can share its bøunty. we can drink øf its syrup. and eat øf its flesh. and find øur trøubles. but a husk. in the wind.

Their face assumes a plaintive, almost mournful expression. You think?? You're having a bit of a hard time reading this kid, if you're honest. Where did that soliloquy even come from, anyway?

The way their voice lilts up and down, sometimes dying away and sometimes rushing forwards, reminds you a lot of Sestro in a way. It's the voice of someone who's used to speaking to a crowd.

Or maybe a congregation.

Something about their words relaxes you, a particularly peaceful panacea. You feel some of the anxiousness, though you would never call it that, slip away into the dirt.

It's all going to be alright.

You can always count on Secily Iopara to keep her head when those around her are losing theirs. Especially when she's usually responsible for removing them in the first place.

More importantly, you can count on Secily Iopara because she's you. Yes, YOU are Secily Iopara. Momentary lapse of recollective perfection be damned, you're still the same person as ever.

Whatever happened to you a little while ago, it's most definitely, absolutely, categorically nothing to worry about.

Husske patiently waits out this brief moment of personal affirmation, standing halfway through the now completely open barn door with a bemused expression on their face.

They shake their head, tutting to themself for a moment as if to say, tch. Adults.

HUSSKE: tch. adults.

They show you inside.

Inside the barn, things are pretty homely. You wouldn't say domestic per se, since it's looked after by a gang of youngsters. But it's obviously a pretty well-loved place: it's home to them.

There are about twenty kids nervously huddled upstairs, peeking from above to watch you as you enter with Husske. They call up to them.

HUSSKE: it's alright. everyøne. theres nø danger.
HUSSKE: this. very tall lady. has heard the call. øf the field.
HUSSKE: shell be visiting. før a little while. until she is called away.

Oh, right, you never did get around to explaining why exactly you're here. You don't suppose it matters all that much. It might take too much time to get into, especially with kids.

You give a kind of shy little wave to some of the braver ones who are showing their faces: one or two of the girls wave back, but a nervous looking kid ducks back out of sight, quick as a flash.

That makes you feel a bit peculiar, sad even.

You like to think you cut an imposing shadow: it was actually part of what got you this job. Your silhouette was pitted against those of several other intimidating interviewees, and came out the clear winner.

You'd hate to think that you scare people unnecessarily though, especially not children. But it's not their fault.

So rather than navel-gaze any further, you take the chance to have a little look around at the inside of this barn.

There's a huge amount of supplies and provisions in here, and over in the distance... is that an armory you spy over there? Damn. You mean, darn. 'Scuse your language.

But most of all, you see eyes. Lots of eyes, in varying sizes and shades of color. The one thing they all have in common is a single pupil, uncannily oblong.

It's the symbol of one of Repiton's principal deities. She goes by many names: the all-mother, the Fountainhead, That Spooky Goat Thing. But most just know her as Kheparia.

The eyes have been hung above the doorways and windows, as well as strung between the rafters. One of the kids even has it embroidered on a shirt.

It's like She's watching over this fragile haven that they've dug out for themselves here.

Maybe you can live by Her example and keep an eye on these youngsters, while you wait for whatever nonsense your prank caller has in store.

Oh, huh. Wasn't expecting this thing to show up here.

Whatever, it probably just means there's some vague, tangential clue buried somewhere around this barn that's relevant to your mission. Maybe you should try talking to Husske some more.

You're loathe to poke your nose where it doesn't belong, but then again, where doesn't it belong? That's a rhetorical question. Thank goodness.

>The stash of supplies.

You eye the large stash of supplies stacked up against one wall. There's all sorts of stuff here — food, mostly, but also beverages, bolts of multicolored cloth, and some first-aid provisions too.

Pretty much everything you could need to run a self-sustaining operation outside the Stronghold.

SECILY: 13.Bd3 You have a very substantial larder over there. How do you keep it stocked? ...Qf6
SECILY: 14.Nb3 It's not like you have anywhere out here that sells anything, unless there's a supermarket hiding out in this cornfield as well. ...h6
SECILY: 15.a4 A lot of this looks like Stronghold stuff, too, and there's no way any of you are walking all that way. ...a5
SECILY: 16.Bb5 ... Please tell me none of you are walking all that way. ...Rae8

Husske cocks their head slightly.

HUSSKE: nøne øf us. are walking all that way. thats right.
HUSSKE: it wøuld be ødd. før a grøup øf peøple. whø have turned away frøm cørpørate. tø cøme crawling back tø them.
HUSSKE: we dø what we can før øthers. and receive øur dues in return.
HUSSKE: we give ønly cørn. and the cørn. gives tø us.

Well there's no denying it: that sounds like some straight up mystical bullshit if ever you heard it. "The corn gives to us"? Do they mean that they just find these things out there in the fields or something?

HUSSKE: øh nø. i mean. we trade før this stuff. what kind øf cult dø yøu take us før.
HUSSKE: every wice. when the trucks cøme. we strike a deal.
HUSSKE: they bring møney. but that is møstly. just tø hide the truth.
HUSSKE: nøt everything needs tø play øut. in terms øf løøps and bands.
HUSSKE: it may surprise yøu tø knøw. that there are søme. whø simply give and receive in material things.

Wait... could this kid be saying what you think they're saying?

Exchanging goods without having some sort of Corporate intermediary currency to facilitate the transferral of value... what kind of occult mysticism are you dealing with here?!

This is really what you're getting pent up about right now, the precise economic situation of these corn kids. You've got a loop-sized lump stuck in your craw. Your mind is reeling.

But hang on, let's not blow our lids over the concept of bartering here. You remember suddenly that this is what that's called: bartering. Having a word for it calms your financiering frenzy a little.

You cast your mind back through the sweeps, to your re-education in the Regulatory.

The history of Repiton is hazy to most, and for good reason. Not all of it is public knowledge. One of the perks of being a higher-up is knowing things that the average troll doesn't.

That's also one of the main drawbacks.

Anyway, one of the big, think pan-boggling reveals buried in all that junk was the fact that the Corporate system of loops, bands and rings was actually a fairly recent invention.

Before it came into enforcement, especially pre-renaissance, a lot of trolls just SWAPPED things, rather than appealing to proxy. The simplicity of it is overwhelming.

Even recalling it threatens to blow your pan all over again, all these sweeps later. This shit is why.

This is why you hate thinking about the economy.

Husske seems to take your involuntary grimace as a judgement on their illicit behaviour. Not participating in the Corporate financial institution is heavily frowned upon, after all.

HUSSKE: please. dønt take øur way øf life tø be a threat.
HUSSKE: i explained this. tø the peøple frøm beføre. the ønes whø wøuldnt. take øur cørn.
HUSSKE: i think. that sømetimes adults need tø understand. that caring sø much abøut what a bunch øf kids dø. in private. is um. kind øf weird.
HUSSKE: we dønt intend tø dismantle. ønly tø grøw sømething different. in the space alløtted tø us.
HUSSKE: we dønt. have the answers. ør believe that there are any. we just want. tø exist.
HUSSKE: tø prøvide. før øurselves. and live as we chøøse.
HUSSKE: and. møney døesnt prøvide før us. like it døes før yøu. its nøt like we can eat it.
HUSSKE: it. makes nice jewellery thøugh.

They turn their head slightly, looking towards the loft. A young girl, who was spying on you from above, quickly scurries out of sight. She appeared to be wearing two loops as earrings.

Husske blushes. Just a bit.

SECILY: 17.f3 That's... a novel and ingenious way of using them. I can't say I go in for that kind of accessorization myself. ...Nb8
SECILY: 18.Bf1 I would have expected you to adorn yourselves with something a little more in keeping with your established theme. Here I was, thinking you made everything out of corn. ...Bc6

HUSSKE: øk. just because cørn. is basically my life.
HUSSKE: and has many magical. and wønderful prøperties. that i cant even begin tø explain. tø sømeøne whø døesnt appreciate them.
HUSSKE: døesnt mean that. literally everything we dø. has tø revølve arøund cørn.
HUSSKE: that wøuld be. a really børing. and øne dimensiønal take. øf my character. actually.

>The all-mother's eyes.

SECILY: 19.c4 I noticed it when I came in, but you have quite a lot of... religious iconography about the place, don't you. ...exd4

You gesture to the various eyes dotted about the barn.

SECILY: 20.Nxd4 I didn't expect to see quite such a strong following all the way out here. The all-mother's influence spreads far. ...Bb7

Husske looks around at each eye, meeting their gazes one by one.

HUSSKE: its nøt like her influence. spreads. nøt really. wøuld yøu say. that the air. spreads far.
HUSSKE: maybe yøu wøuld. i dønt knøw. yøu say very silly things. and yøu say them. very seriøusly.

That one wins them a smirk. While it hasn't happened in a duel before, you still know when you're beat in a clash of wits. Cutting trolls is your strong suit. Cutting remarks, less so.

You just got totally roasted by this kid, in monotone, deadpan fashion. They seem to know it too, because they actually reach over and get a high-five from one of their friends.

It hurts, but you endure.

HUSSKE: she is. in all things. because they all spring. frøm her. she. is the søil. and øur hands dø her wørk. when we søw.
HUSSKE: but. our hands. dø his wørk. when we reap.

They don't say his name, but you know to whom they're referring. He's less well-understood, and even less widely talked about than Kheparia himself.

The naught-father. The Abyss. Gaiaeon.

HUSSKE: i dønt think møst trølls. realize. the need før balance.

This sounds familiar. You're a follower of the all-mother, so the mythological concepts aren't entirely alien to you. Balance, poise, an even hand... these are all things someone like you can appreciate.

Husske pauses. They walk up to an especially large eye drawn on the wall in chalk.

HUSSKE: an øbligatiøn. tø die. and return yøur gift. we all die when we must.
HUSSKE: the all-møther is generøus. nøt stupid. and we need her. øut here. her eyes watch. they cøunt us. a tally. øf labøring hands.
HUSSKE: we wørk. sø they judge us. as deserving. and in the meantime. we await the saviør.

Oh of course. You were wondering where the kinda kooky vibe you were getting came from. This must be it.

Some Kheparia sects are a little "out there" as far as doctrine goes. The weirdest ones tend to focus on the strange story of a savior: some guy destined to save your society from inevitable ruin.

But if you ask you? It's all a load of cornball nonsense.

One boy being the saving grace for an entire culture? You'd be the first in line to say that it sounds like unreal kinds of bogus, theologically speaking. Downright naïve, even.

You've never met a man who could do anything of the kind.

You keep quiet with the blasphemy, though. You've been accepted into the home of this kid cult by their good graces, and you'd hate to make them mad. Some of these trolls look like they've actually killed before.

Instead, you affect something you hope resembles genuine interest.

SECILY: 21.Nb5 Ah yes, of course. The savior. How long must we wait for his coming, I wonder. ...Na6
HUSSKE: ! ! !

For once in your life, it appears you might have been a little too genuine. Husske's face positively lights up. Their eyes, usually dim and shaded, now sparkle with something wild and fierce.

HUSSKE: yes! the saviør! sø yøuve heard øf him!
HUSSKE: i knew it! i knew! that there was sømething abøut yøu! this must be! the reasøn!
HUSSKE: his høly døctrine! called yøu here! as it did us! because yøu knew!
HUSSKE: he is cøming! the things øut there fear him! just as the all-møther løves him!
HUSSKE: the strønghølders scørn him! and we his følløwers! they søw seeds! øf døubt!
HUSSKE: but we knøw! we knøw that its true!

They're really popping off at this point, shifting from sermonic drawl into full-blown proclamatory spiel. The other kids begin to crowd around, getting a bit caught up in the excitement.

HUSSKE: we hear his name! in the pøpping! øf kernels! when we micrøwave them! før a møvie snack! his presence is in the wind! the creaking øf the weather vane!
HUSSKE: his bløød tubes! are filled! with syrup! the very stuff! øf life itself! and when we chug! øur bøttles! øf special red elixir! we draw cløser! tø his divine image!
HUSSKE: he is! a høly vessel øf the cørn! a bøøn bestøwed by the møther! he is a herø! he will find us! and he will be øur deliverance!

They reach the apex of their religious rant in triumph, and then twenty pairs of expectant, evangelical pre-teens eyes swivel to face you all at once.

Better proselytize, and fast.

SECILY: 22.Bd4 Um, yes. Who could, er, possibly doubt such incontrovertible evidence as to our savior's existence, when even the breeze and branch proclaim him? ...Qd8
SECILY: 23.Qd2 Let all naysayers take heed of his um, most definitely imminent arrival. ...Nb4

Now this is much more like it. You were a bit lost for words earlier, but now you're back on top, logorrheic form. Secily Iopara is back in business, and in characteristically polysyllabic style.

SECILY: 24.Bc3 Avaunt, you who would cast aspersions and other unpleasant remarks at feet of our great, though momentarily absent redeemer, whose name escapes me for the moment!! ...Na6

Oh who are you kidding. This is a disaster. You can't proclaim for shit, and inter-sect-tional politics is harder than it looks. You silently plead with the all-mother for inspiration.

SECILY: 25.Bd4 But uh, it is of no consequence. We the faithful shall remain, as um, a bounteous harvest, while all else is cast away in the great Husking yet to come. ...Bc6

Here goes nothing.

SECILY: 26.Rad1 Checkmate, atheists. ...Re7

...

The kids just straight up fucking lose it.

We're talking whooping, cheering, high-fives and low-fives all around. Husske crowd surfs at one point. A feral boy runs up to you excitedly and makes a noise that sounds like "asdhfjkl" or something.

The energy you've dished out is like manna for these kids. Who knew that affirming their core religious beliefs would get them so excited. It's nice to feel like you've been a positive influence.

But amongst the revelry it's hard not to feel a twinge of guilt. You weren't being entirely honest with them.

You don't like lying, partly because you're just unfathomably bad at it. But you're a person of authority, and it's important that you give it to people straight.

Maybe it's okay to bend the truth a bit for these kids, though, if it makes them happy. After all, they may be utterly deluded evangelizing fanatics, but then what do YOU know, really?

Husske sees your brow furrowed in pained deliberation, and seems to take it as a sign of discomfort, caused by all the attention.

They urge the agitated farm kids to settle down for a moment, and after a while they all head back to what they were doing earlier.

>The weapons on the walls.

You look over to one of the far walls, where the dull glint of metal is drawing your attention.

Scythes, pitchforks, shovels: a lot of this is Corporate-issue weaponry, the kind that gets handed to a kid once they're fresh out of school and ready to face the world on their own.

Or not, as it often turns out.

It's widely known that none of them make particularly effective weapons, though. This fact is basically one of the most long standing in-jokes your culture has.

It's not like anyone's gonna be cleaving an aggressor in half with a weenie tier scythe any time soon.

You expect the kids here stockpiled all of the strife specibi they got lumped with to create this miniature arsenal. But they're not going to be winning any fights with this pile of garbage.

SECILY: 27.Qf2 That weaponry that you have stockpiled over there. It's quite the collection. ...Rfe8
SECILY: 28.Qg3 However I don't think it's going to be of much use, should you ever have to defend this place. It's almost painful to look at, on account of how decidedly un-painful these specibi tend to be in practice. ...Re6
SECILY: 29.Kh1 If you're in need of some more comprehensive armaments then I could make some arrangements for you. ...Qe7

You might not fight children, but that doesn't mean other people have the same ethical qualms. Almost nobody does. The least you can do is make sure they can defend themselves properly.

Husske looks at you with a confused expression. Their eyes flick between you and the makeshift armory several times, before glancing down towards your sword.

HUSSKE: ah. thøse.
HUSSKE: they. are nøt weapøns.
HUSSKE: hønestly its a little wørrying. that yøu wøuld think that.
HUSSKE: althøugh i suppøse. i get why. yøu grøwnups. are all. sø alike.

They sigh, looking a little disappointed.

HUSSKE: its true. that these things were given tø us. tø use før bad things. like hurting.
HUSSKE: thats why a løt øf us. ran away. we didnt want. tø hurt anyøne.
HUSSKE: its true. that if bad things were tø happen tø us. that maybe we wøuldnt be able. tø støp it. using them. we are nøt gøød at fighting.
HUSSKE: but møst øf us. dønt want tø be. and i think thats øk.
HUSSKE: its. nøt the pøint øf living. i dønt think.

It may not be the point, you think to yourself, but sometimes it's the only way you can keep on living at all. But you're not about to derail this important monologue with such meaningless pedantry out loud.

Doing it in your own head is bad enough as it is.

HUSSKE: when we came here. we learned that the things. which had scared us. the things we thøught were evil. and scary.
HUSSKE: cøuld have a different purpøse. cøuld be used in new ways.
HUSSKE: we dønt like tø call them weapøns. tø us theyre tøøls.
HUSSKE: a scythe is um. pretty bad. at splitting. flesh.
HUSSKE: but. it is very handy. før harvesting the cørn.
HUSSKE: a shøvel might. be useful. før. hurting.
HUSSKE: but. its even møre useful før tilling the søil. før planting seeds.

Once again, there's something about the quiet tone of their voice that echoes deep in your chest as they say their piece.

You don't know why, but some part of you knows that there's great potential hidden behind their words. An inscrutable force biding its time. Waiting, like a shoot in soil.

Who knows what this kid might grow into when they're older.

You mutter a quick prayer to the all-mother in the hope that yes, they will grow older. It's unlike you. You're going soft. Like this kid's words are microwaves, washing over the corn cob of your subconscious.

HUSSKE: um. sørry. did yøu say sømething.

Husske has the good grace to rescue us all from this simile. They might be a feral farm child, but at least they have enough manners to know a literary quagmire when they spot it.

SECILY: 30.Bf2 It was nøthing. Please continue. ...Nb4
HUSSKE: . . .

They look at you with that oddly piercing gaze.

HUSSKE: we dønt need weapøns. because. we already have the ønly øne we need.
HUSSKE: yøu said beføre. that we appear. suspiciøus. because we hide øut here.
HUSSKE: i knøw its suspiciøus. tø hide.
HUSSKE: but. anyøne can dø it.
HUSSKE: we hide. in the cørn fields. as yøu hide. in yøur førtress.
HUSSKE: hiding. its just a tøøl. same as yøur swørd. ør øur scythes and tills.
HUSSKE: secrets can be used. tø dø bad things.
HUSSKE: but yøu keep secrets. i dønt knøw. why yøure here. and thats øk.

It's an interesting way of putting it. Maybe the unknown is kind of like a field, you think. Fertile ground for things to take root. Full of the fecundity of the unfathomable.

...

Okay, even you have to admit that was pretty pretentious. Maybe you've been around these farmers for a bit too long. Your thoughts are starting to become a little corny already.

You collect your final INSIGHT INCREMENT without much fanfare. That's weird. You're not even really sure what purpose the meter was serving here. It just showed up, like usual, without any input from you.

Maybe it's your visor playing up. That thought worries you a lot. You've had this thing a long, long time. You don't know what you'd do without it.

Whatever. It's nothing. This thing is old, and things only get old when they're built to endure. You don't think even a landmine could destroy this thing. A little glitch is hardly cause for concern.

HUSSKE: . . .

Your conversation with Husske has reached a natural lull though, and absent of any other questions they decide to go and check in with their friends.

You watch the way the other kids swarm them, looking up at them with bright eyes filled with admiration. Maybe they can't believe that someone had the guts to talk to a big, scary adult.

Or maybe they all see the same thing that you do. That Husske Mayzee has something special about them. An aura of anticipation, one that spreads throughout the space they inhabit and the people nearby.

Perhaps the other kids see those distant, searching eyes, empty and yet full of something indescribable, and can't help but follow their gaze.

Or just maybe, you think, as Husske lifts one of the younger kids up onto their shoulders for a ride... maybe they're simply a good friend. Sometimes that's all you need to see the goodness in everything.

Hey now. No use getting all sentimental out here. They didn't ask for your protection, or your feelings. Sometimes you need to learn when to leave people alone.

But you can't help it. There's something here worth protecting, you think. People like these are the sort that, underneath it all, you took this job in order to help.

It's good to remind yourself of that when you can, even though you never forget anything. If you were to lose that, then maybe... you'd lose yourself?

Your thoughts take a dive from worrying emotionality into patent existentialism with all the grace of a dead cornfowl falling off a building. It hits the sidewalk below with a painfully allegorical THUD.

A loud thudding noise comes from outside the barn. It sounds suspiciously like something dropping out of the sky and crashing into the ground, hard.

A tiny boy who was keeping lookout races into the barn in a panic. He yells about something dropping out of the sky and crashing into the ground, hard, before scurrying up a ladder.

You spring to your feet, sword hand flying to Proserpina's hilt as you check the time on your overhead.

+2.111. Just like the voice said. Looks like your playtime in the cornfields is over.

Frightened by the noise, the rest of the kids all scramble frantically up into the loft and into little cubby holes, hiding with lightning speed. It's like they've prepared for something like this.

In the mad dash for cover, Husske's eyes meet yours. They blaze bright with something akin to anger for a moment, before cooling into something else. They nod, shakily.

HUSSKE: yøure gøing øutside. tø see what it is.
HUSSKE: i need tø stay here. in case. øf. sømething.
HUSSKE: i dønt knøw what exactly. i.

They hide their face beneath the wide brim of their hat. Their voice is trembling.

HUSSKE: i. cant leave.

In that moment you realize your mistake. Husske is still a child, despite the wisdom beyond their sweeps. In fact, maybe even saying that is doing them a disservice.

Perhaps the distance from your own childhood is making you read more into what they say than there really is. It's kinda cliche actually, having a child be the most insightful one around.

That's a whole lot of pressure to put on someone so small.

You crouch down to meet their eyes.

SECILY: 31.c3 It's... alright. I will take care of it. ...Na6
SECILY: 32.Nd4 There is no shame in staying behind to ensure the safety of others. Let the risk fall upon those better equipped to deal with danger. ...Bxa4

You draw Proserpina in one sharp, practiced motion.

SECILY: 33.Ra1 And by better equipped I mean that literally. ...Bd7
SECILY: 34.Nxe6 I don't know if you have noticed but I have a fucking sword. ...Qxe6

Husske looks at you with an odd expression before you realize your mistake. Shit. And you'd been doing so well not swearing in front of these kids.

Now that word will spread throughout the cornfields like a plague, a curse by name and by nature. You have brought this pestilence upon their way of life. Their youthful innocence is no more.

Where once there was only wind through the corn and devoted prayer, now there shall echo the muffled sounds of dozens of children, exchanging bad words with each other in foul-mouthed, furtive whispers.

YOU did this to them.

SECILY: 35.c5 Okay, uh. ...Nxc5
SECILY: 36.Bxc5 Please pretend you didn't hear that. ...bxc5

HUSSKE: . . .
HUSSKE: i knøw. what fuck is. dingus.
HUSSKE: ive been. ønline.

And with that horrific revelation, they flash you a cheeky smile and then scamper up a ladder to join their friends.

You can't help it. Something stirs deep within your lukewarm, teal-tinted bloodpusher.

You swear in this moment to protect this child with your life.

You exit the barn cautiously, sword in hand.

It's deathly quiet out here, now. The wind, which had been rustling through the fields and giving to the air a persistent crackling hum, has died down completely.

It's unnerving, like the sound of a clock stopping. You notice it because it's not there.

You grip your sword tighter, and inch your way around the back of the building, to where the loud crash came from. You round the corner, slowly. Holding your breath.

The ground out behind the barn is wet and muddy from a recent downpour. The soggy earth has mixed together with bits of straw and dry grass, forming an unpleasantly rustic kind of sludge.

Bits of it are caked all over the wall of the building, thrown up by a sudden impact.

And at the centre of the blast sits a long, black box. From a distance it takes you a few moments to realize what it is that you're looking at.

It's a violin case.

You glance all around, to make sure that nobody is hiding nearby. You even look up at the sky for some stupid reason, as though they might be spying on you from up there.

There's not a soul in sight. You make your way over to the case, bending down and pulling it up out of the mud puddle it plunged into.

It's very light. Too light, even. If there ever was an instrument inside this thing, it probably isn't in there any more. It's just as well, since it wouldn't have survived the drop.

You wipe away a bit of the slime from the lid, and then pop the clasps on the front. It isn't locked.

>Open it.

Inside, the case is lined with a rather garish red velvet. Just as you thought, there's no violin in here. Or by the looks of things, anything at all. It's empty.

Or so it appeared. As you open the lid all the way, a mechanism inside the hinge makes a loud "CLICK".

In an instant you dart back away from the case, fearing the worst. You should have known there would be some kind of trap involved.

But the explosion you saw in your mind's eye doesn't come. Instead, you hear a voice. A familiar voice.

??????: [Having fun, Sec i  l   y    ?]
??????: [I thought you might enjoy a little frolic through the cornfields while you still have the cha n  c   e    .]
??????: [Before our game really gets going, I mean. You'd do well to treasure your memories here in the days ah e  a   d    .]
??????: [I hope you made sure to listen clos e  l   y    .]

The voice pauses, as if inviting a response.

SECILY: 37.Rxa5 I always do. ...Qf8
SECILY: 38.Rc1 Why did you direct me here? One of the good things about games is that you get to choose whether or not to continue. I haven't seen anything from you yet that would convince me to keep playing. ...h5 ½-½

The voice is silent for a moment more, and then chimes in again.

??????: [This message is pre-recorded, so your witty response was as worthless as the farmland on which you currently st a  n   d    .]
??????: [There is nobody to hear you but countless deaf, mindless e a  r   s    .]
??????: [And that's just the children running about the pl a  c   e    .]

Uh. Wait. What did this guy just say about these kids? YOUR kids?

??????: [Their worthless idolatry means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Surely you must understand t h  i   s    .]
??????: [Their faith is but the chaff, cast away by a zephyr breeze. An insignificant speck in Repiton's long history. This "haven" is nothing more than a blem i  s   h    .]

The voice spits the words out as if it resents the effort, oozing malignance and superciliousness in equal measure.

??????: [All of which is to say that I find it pretty fucking pointl e  s   s    .]
??????: [What is there to build here that will not eventually crumble? What seed can be planted that will not wither and perish? What life can exist without succumbing to ever encroaching de a  t   h    ?]
??????: [Surely you must agree with me, Secily. Surely you of all people must see it t o  o   .]
??????: [The rot that pervades this planet. The people who crawl on its surface like a virulent scou r  g   e    .]
??????: [That's your job, isn't it? To weed out the infestat i  o   n    .]

You bite back the urge to snap back at this imbecile. It's insufferable having to listen to the crap this guy is spewing. Bullshit like this wouldn't even make good fertilizer.

??????: [Hahaha. Don't worry, I won't keep you much longer, lap dog. I've had my fun for n o  w   .]
??????: [Before you leave these savages behind, you should check this case a little more thoroughly. There's a little gift I'd like you to h a  v   e    .]
??????: [I know what it looks like, but please. Don't take it as a thr e  a   t    .]
??????: [Merely a warning, from one player to another. Or perhaps a suggestion. As to where your skills might be better sui t  e   d    .]
??????: [After all... secrecy can only keep you safe when you keep your secrets s a  f   e    .]

The final rasping word of this monotonous diatribe fades out, the recorded message mercifully at an end. The wind starts up through the corn again, seeming to carry the whisper out over the hills and fields beyond.

Safe... ssssssssafe... Hissing, spitting, crackling like static at the end of a tape. It's as though the leaves and the stalks themselves are mocking the idea.

Whatever. What does a bunch of plants know about anything.

You're furious.

You couldn't admit it to yourself while he was talking, but something about what the voice said got under your skin in the worst way.

So dismissive, so uncaring. Perhaps it reminded you too much of yourself.

But most of all, it made you afraid for Husske and their friends. The life they made for themselves out here. Hearing someone dismiss it as worthless brought home to you how fragile it really is.

It's people like them that you most want to protect from people like this voice. From people like you.

Without thinking, in a burst of frustration, you lift Proserpina high above your head and stab down at the open violin case. You put all your weight behind the motion, going for the kill.

The blade plunges effortlessly through the velvet fabric, puncturing the padding and the board underneath before breaking through the rigid exterior and down into the soil in one last, satisfying push.

You try not to think about how alike to flesh and bone it feels. You try not to think about how much you enjoyed it, because of that.

Ugh. You hate to admit it, but the voice was right about one thing. Though your sword might not be, what you're doing right now is rather pointless.

You tug Proserpina back out of the body of the case, bracing one foot against the rim. The whole felt interior, board and all, comes out with the blade. Whoops.

Something else comes up out of the hollow shell along with it. A small, square bit of card that someone must have hidden underneath. You pull it off and get a closer look at it.

A blurry figure looks out from an even blurrier photograph. It looks like this was taken at a distance, secretly.

They appear to be standing atop a cliff, wearing some kind of helmet. Their legs are bandaged. Your sword pierced them, straight through the sternum. Pierced her.

Because you recognize this girl, you realize.

This photograph shouldn't exist. But it does. She should be a secret. But she isn't.

You hear the voice's warning loud and clear: she's been found.

Oricka Rourst is in danger.

END