Snowbound Blood Transcript: Volume 7

Volume 7 - Of Bounties and Botany

Your name is SECILY IOPARA and the last couple of wices have been getting to you.

Your present case has got you off-kilter, still running around like a barkbeast chasing its tail, circle after circle after circle. Just like you were around Cadlys.

You keep telling yourself you’re going to break out of this pattern, but you inevitably find yourself even more tangled in it.

Normally, you would have more progress to show for all the time that you’ve spent on an assignment.

You’re beginning to think a linear measure of your advancement is ill-suited for the situation at hand.

Or... maybe you just wish the mental progress bar you project onto the situation was fuller, so to speak.

Not that your investigations have been uneventful. You’ve had a sizeable roster of trolls to interview, made up of potential suspects — as well as tentative allies.

You’re notably bad at making those under any normal circumstances. 

But through it all, you’ve made a few new acquaintances, caught up with some old ones - within Stronghold 21 as well as in locations you’re not keen on revisiting.

They have all helped you start piecing together this situation you’re embroiled in, each in their own unique way.

Perhaps now, as you begin another chapter of your investigation, is the best time to review those pieces. 

>Recall: THE CASE SO FAR.:

Let's start from the beginning, one last time.

The case is Priority Aleph. Cases like this don't sprout from artificial parkside trees. Even most matters of life and death don't approach this level of importance.

Sestro summoned you to his office the night after a security breach resulted in three dead trolls and a vital artifact stolen. 

A philter, presumed to carry a vial of the Vivifier's blood, was missing.

Said vial was most certainly the target of the assailant(s). The thieves had precise information on where the transport convoy was headed, what it contained, and where it was contained.

After your investigation of the crime scene proper, you received your first call from him.

An anonymous caller touched base with you immediately upon the conclusion of your initial investigation. Taunting you. Mocking you. He gave you a place and a time: Eidolic Acres. +2.111. Two days.

You met with Hamifi to discuss the details. She warned you, in big bold letters, not to trust anyone.

You had your list of suspects, and started searching close to home. The branch responsible for the development of Skorpe held two suspects.

Sirage Feltri was initially a suspect due to a conveniently timed absence from work after an ambiguous wicend, but her playing hooky was related to a slightly different substance.

She's proven useful as a connection to the black market since then — an extra pair of spying globes and sound absorbers in the underworld. You make a mental note to make use of her more often.

Rypite Koldan gave you little else other than a headache, a headful of puns of varying quality and a business card suggesting you talk to his moirail about puzzles. 

You later discovered that she's an arms dealer, a fact which you're keeping in mind for future endeavors.

Rypite himself, though? He couldn't steal a free sample from a food store if he tried.

Bytcon Krypto... he was just a gut instinct. You'd been trying to catch him for a long time, but he would always slip just out of your grasp. That day didn't end up being as cathartic as you'd hoped.

He'd provided an alibi that would later be backed up by someone close to him, unfortunately proving him innocent. Of this crime.

You met one Husske Mayzee at Eidolic Acres, per the directions of your mystery caller. You took note of a strange cornsyrup sigil painted on the walls of their barn and swore to protect the kids that lived there.

Things turned sour when a falling instrument case implied a threat to the safety of a dear friend of yours, however.

Oricka Rourst, as it turns out, was safe and sound. The whole thing was a setup, and you'd been nearly tricked into biting the dust — thanks to her automated defense system. 

Your old visor didn't make it, unfortunately.

While she worked on YVES, its replacement, you discovered she'd been harassed by someone online. Someone you're confident you know the voice of.

Endari Vernir confirmed that Bytcon wasn't involved, but cast suspicion on himself once you'd connected the dots and pinpointed his involvement with cult activity.

Though he didn't end up having ties to the case either, you witnessed a brief flash of color just as the two of you were parting ways that suggested you were being spied on. 

You haven't seen that troll since.

Occeus Coliad's interrogation was a personal request from Hamifi. She'd received an anonymous tip that cast suspicion on him, and so was more than eager to set you on his trail.

Your investigation took you to his lab in the Skulltitan Graveyard, where you ended up running into yet another instance of that sigil the corn children held so dear.

That was not the only notable symbol you saw that day.

...Ellsee Raines. The Vivifier’s very real descendant — and Occeus’s matesprit.

You could have taken her in. Delivered her to Corporate on a silver platter, where her blood would be studied and utilized to save this world.

You could have ended all of this instantly.

But you didn't. And you don't regret it.

So now, this Raines girl is a secret you promised to keep from the world — for both their sakes.

In the end, you found out that the tip given to Hamifi came from none other than your least favorite caller in the world, and almost resulted in Coliad’s blood on your hands.

You don’t appreciate being taken for a pawn.

They gave you a new location, and a date: the cracked skull of the Baragonith. Three days. -0.000.

From that point forward, the philter itself became less important than the people who have their hands on it.

There is something going on here, bigger than all of you — so you threw your demands from Corporate out the window and decided to enact justice on your own terms from that point on.

Mshiri Libeta was partially a personal affair.

You were long overdue for a visit, and... you missed her dearly. The small reprieve from case work was a much needed break, after everything you’d been through.

There was still business involved, however: you established an official ally and, with the assistance of her keen mind and sharp eyes, worked on some plans and potential partnerships for the future.

...And then you discovered that Sestro's ancestor, THE EXECUTIVE, had tried to bargain for the life of your matesprit, all those sweeps ago. Like she was nothing more than an object, a value in a cost-benefit equation.

You learned that from some perspectives, lives are acceptable collateral.

Though Hamifi talked you down from a confrontation, you have no intention of forgetting about that. Not ever.

Hermit — that is, Cadlys Rankor was waiting for you days later behind the cracked skull of the Baragonith, just as promised.

He mentioned chasing after "aqua vitae", eternal life. You talked about masks, among other things.

You didn't see the point of the visit — not until he mentioned a person only known as the Ashbringer. That one rang a few bells.

After your visit, you asked Oricka about her matesprit's whereabouts, more curious about him now than you were before. Call it a professional hunch.

After that, you decided to pay a certain chef a visit. Raurou Dersal was present at Corporate's Awards For All event and helped jog your memory on the proceedings of the night.

As it turns out, you had heard a snippet of conversation about route data that had slipped your mind until then.

The assistance was much appreciated, seeing as how you were...

Preoccupied.

And now, you’re here.

>Keep moving forward.:

Succinctly put, you’ve done an objectionable amount of legwork, had a number of world-changing revelations, stumbled into many secrets and kept quite a few of them — and yet you seem no closer to discovering the whereabouts of the philter.

Even so, you need to keep searching for answers. Answers to questions Corporate never asked you in the first place.

And it’s becoming increasingly apparent you’ll need to resort to unconventional methods in order to get them.

NECRON EXMORT

It’s time you sought out one NECRON EXMORT. The ASHBRINGER.

Two people have suggested that you look for him so far, and, frankly, you should have listened to the first one. She doesn’t typically give bad advice.

Well, better late than never.

Deciding to find the man is one thing — actually tracking him down is another matter entirely. 

His matesprit gave you his current coordinates, but even she wasn’t able to tell you what he was doing there or what the place actually was. She simply said he was on one of his jobs.

Necron’s jobs. You have an idea as to what those entail. He’s a... vigilante of sorts, one of those types that take it upon themselves to exact justice on those they deem deserving of it.

Now, you could go on about the morality of playing regulator, perpetrator, and warranter, but... that might be a tad too hypocritical.

In a way, what he does is similar to your own occupation. With less Corporate oversight, naturally, and - you’re certain of this - much less flair.

The specifics of how Necron chooses his targets are unclear to you, however. He’s infamous, in a way, but it’s hard to sift through all of the contradictory information about him and form a cohesive idea of the man.

He’s pretty much universally feared in the criminal underworld, and reviled in equal measure.

But you could say the same for yourself.

Normally, you would be wary of meeting someone like this — you often find that self-proclaimed vigilantes are volatile, aggressive, or just kind of grating. But you’re going to give Necron the benefit of the doubt.

While you find some of Oricka’s decisions questionable, the fondness with which she talks about her matesprit is enough to put him in your good graces.

Tentatively.

You rev your bike and speed down the road, sending a spray of gravel flying into the air around you. You’re approaching the location Oricka sent you.

Surrounding you is an empty, flat expanse littered with the skeletons of long-abandoned factories. Even now, picked clean by the elements and pilferers alike, they’re imposing with their hard lines and sharp angles.

This used to be a stronghold too, once. Not a residential one like Stronghold 21, but an industrial one, a grid of factories and power plants that supplied some other pocket of civilisation.

Until one day, it didn’t. You don’t know the particulars, but due to incorrect use, poor maintenance, or plain old bad luck, it is not a rare occurrence for these places to be ravaged by disaster.

This town is a husk now, for all intents and purposes besides those of the criminally inclined.

Or those who pursue them, as the case may be.

You keep driving. Slowly, the landscape around you changes. Different buildings, smaller and closer together and less imposing, but just as decrepit.

Then, all at once, your internal map snaps into place. You know exactly where you are.

You scoff and the wind is quick to steal the sound from your mouth. You’re approaching from a different direction, but there’s no doubt about it: you’ve reached the area where your previous case ended.

The radius of this circle you’re moving around keeps getting smaller.

Briefly, you entertain the notion that you’re going to find Necron in the exact same building where you dealt with the drug ring. Perhaps the bodies of those ruffians haven’t even been disposed of yet.

You double-check the coordinates Oricka sent you and realise your destination is a bit farther still. Not the exact same place, then.

You slow down a little as you navigate down a network of narrow streets between a series of identical rectangular buildings. Warehouses, you surmise.

The last one to the right is your objective.

You turn off your engine and let your momentum carry you down the narrow slope to the parking lot in front of it. There’s a single other vehicle, so caked with dirt that you assume it’s been abandoned there.

You park your bike on the opposite side of the lot. Then, you pause and listen.

At first, the only thing that you hear is the faint hiss of the wind between the buildings. A vehicle zipping past in the distance. Silence.

Thump.

A loud crash comes from within the warehouse, followed by muffled yelling.

You grip Proserpina and start running towards the door.

It wouldn’t do for Necron to meet his end before you meet him.

You rush in, épée  in hand, your coat whipping dramatically behind you. In a display of pure generosity, the door is unlocked, so it doesn’t obstruct your entrance.

You barge in on quite the scene.

Two trolls are fighting it out in the middle of the room, trading blows, grunting and cursing. Blood, rust-coloured and cerulean, splatters on the floor.

For a moment, you’re not certain which of them you came here to support.

Then, you catch a glimpse of a metal hand and you know that its owner is your man.

Before you can as much as take a step forward, Necron shoves his opponent back with a grunt, causing them to stagger into the containers lining the wall.

They lose their footing, tumble backwards, and collapse against one of them with the shrill sound of bent metal and a startled yell that dies in their throat.

You flinch.

The troll remains motionless.

Necron straightens up and dusts off, relaxing from his combat-ready stance. This is when he notices you and spins around to face you.

SECILY: 1.e4 My name’s— ...e6

There is movement behind him. Your eyes dart towards Necron’s former assailant as you frantically switch gears to warn him of the danger.

He just gives you a wide grin.

NECRON: † Be with ya shortly, sweetheart. †

Just as the troll behind him pushes back up to their feet, Necron switches his prosthetic hand to a spoon.

They take an unsteady step towards him. A glint of metal flashes in their hand and you know they’ve drawn a knife.

You instinctively lift up your own blade, ready to dash forward before they have taken a swing — despite the aggravating denominator you’ve just been given. You’re in a charitable mood today.

Then, Necron whips around and plunges his spoon appendage into the troll’s right eye socket.

It sinks in with a wet, sucking noise. Blood coats the mechanical hand and drips to the floor. The troll’s entire body locks up, any sound of pain they might have made cut short by the severity of the blow.

NECRON: † Hope ya like your eggs scrambled. †

Sweet All-mother.

With a mechanical whir, the spoon starts spinning rapidly on its axis. You don’t want to think too hard about what happens inside of this sucker’s skull, but it’s enough to permanently terminate all of their neurological functions. 

They’re dead before their body slumps onto the floor.

Necron turns off his hand spoon.

Blood and bits of whisked brain matter fall to the floor, but he wipes the utensil off on his pants, appearing unfazed.

Just like you thought, he has room for improvement in the elegance department.

He gives the corpse a light kick in the side to make sure they are truly dead, and then turns back to you.

Let’s try this again.

SECILY: 1.e4 My name’s— ...e6
NECRON: † Secily. I know. Recognised you ‘soon as I saw you. †

Oh.

Before you can decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing, he takes a step towards you and gives you a broad smile.

NECRON: †† Oricka’s told me a lot about ya. ††

The spoon on his prosthetic retracts with a series of clicks, to be replaced by a mechanical hand. It, too, is covered in blood, but he extends it for a handshake, oblivious.

SECILY: 2.d4 ...Likewise. ...d5

After a moment’s deliberation, you accept the offered hand. You really hope this blood doesn’t stick to your fingers.

You earn yourself another bright grin, this time accompanied by a firm steely handshake.

NECRON: †† Righteous! Been hopin’ our paths would proper cross someday, regulator. ††

You raise your eyebrows. You can’t say you get this one often.

NECRON: †† Any friend of sugar's is my friend, too. ††

That’s... wow. You haven't heard that term in sweeps.

What you can’t help but notice, though, is how he lights up when he mentions Oricka. She does the same, invariably, whenever he comes up.

You don't want to stereotype, but what is it with every blueblood you meet having a vehement love for their matesprit?

It's a trend you're happy to see but wary to outwardly acknowledge.

It makes you feel like you’re infringing on something not meant for your eyes.

Before you can dwell on the feeling too much, Necron keeps going.

NECRON: † So what can I do for ya, luv? I’m assumin’ this ain’t a courtesy visit. †
SECILY: 3.exd5 You’re assuming correctly. ...exd5
SECILY: 4.Bd3 First of all. Never call me ‘luv’ again. ...Nf6
SECILY: 5.Nf3 If we are to be working together, you will refrain from using terms of endearment with me. ‘Secily’ will do just fine. ...Bd6

NECRON: † Workin’ together? †

Oh. You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself.

SECILY: 6.O-O Let me backtrack a little. ...O-O
SECILY: 7.Nc3 I’m working on a case that seems connected to your own... pursuits. I thought it would be prudent to compare notes and see whether between the two of us, we have enough information to complete the puzzle. ...c6

He’s considering you carefully, much more serious now that you broached the subject of his work. You wonder if he’s been as troubled of late as you have.

SECILY: 8.Ne2 It started with a murglary— ...Be6
NECRON: †† Murglary? Hah! That’s like, a tubular portmanteau. ††

You... didn’t expect this. It’s oddly flattering.

SECILY: 9.Bf4 Thank you. Anyway. I have reason to believe that my prime suspect is someone of your interest, as well. ...Bxf4

You have his undivided attention. A single drop of blood drips from his mechanical hand as you ponder how to proceed.

SECILY: 10.Nxf4 Would you mind me asking you a few questions before I relay what I know? ...Nbd7
NECRON: † You bet. What’s the skinny? †

You take a moment to collect your thoughts.

>Tell me about yourself.:

NECRON: † ‘Bout me? I’m just a dude who hunts down baddies. †
NECRON: † I’m like, hella good at it, but beyond that... †

He considers for a moment.

NECRON: † I got a collection of historically accurate replicas of bladed weapons from the Renaissance. †

That’s... not even tangential to the purpose of this conversation. It’s so unrelated to what you’re meant to be discussing that it didn’t only miss the mark, but landed in an entirely different building.

Still, you can’t help but be intrigued.

SECILY: 11.Nxe6 Decorative or functional? ...fxe6

His newest grin nearly splits his face in half.

NECRON: †† Absolutely legit. ††
NECRON: †† You could like, cleave a troll in half with any of those beauties, easy. ††

SECILY: 12.Re1 How many do you have? ...Re8
NECRON: † Last I counted, seventeen. †
SECILY: 13.h3 Respectable. ...Nf8
SECILY: 14.Ne5 I’m something of a blade aficionado myself. ...N6d7

NECRON: † No fake? I had a hunch. †

He nods towards the épée sheathed at your side.

Oh. You hadn’t realised when you’d put Proserpina away.

You lay a fond hand on the hilt and allow the two of you a moment of camaraderie over your common interest. Perhaps Necron has a more refined taste than you gave him credit for.

Then, you ponder your next question.

>The troll you just murdered.:

NECRON: †† Oh, that wastoid? ††
NECRON: †† That one was a fuckin’ handful, I kid you not. ††
NECRON: †† Got a kick outta preyin’ on unbonded trolls. ††
NECRON: †† ‘Far as I can tell, he had at least a dozen more bondmates than he should have. ††
NECRON: †† Sucks that people still fall for that trick. Totally bogus. ††

Your face contorts into a grimace almost of its own volition.

Albeit repugnant, such acts aren’t unprecedented: every so often, you hear about trolls who use bonding as a means of sowing pain. They’re no better than a killer in your eyes.

Even worse, perhaps.

With the way your species’ body chemistry works, you can bond with no more than two partners.

Your society isn’t kind to those who try to circumvent this limitation. Those caught with more than two bonds are cast out, left jobless — treated worse than criminals.

You know, perhaps better than most, that not everyone who is willing to toe or cross that line has malicious intent.

But the troll whose body is slowly getting cold in front of you undoubtedly did.

The methodology is clear: he seems to have taken a page out of Acerigger Switchem’s playbook.

As far as you know, it was Switchem who started this trend. He had no reason to, besides his sick enjoyment of others’ misery.

That, and the cocktail of hormones that comes with having more than two bonds must have been a powerful drug. One can assume that at some point, the withdrawals he made himself go through turned into a literal high.

Some speculate that he’s more responsible than Caesar for the doomed path your society is now on.

You don’t know much about that. But it seems clear to you that if it hadn’t been for Switchem, the way your culture views romance and sexuality might not have turned out quite so... black and white.

You look at the corpse on the floor with newfound disdain. You wish the troll were still alive just so you could kill him again.

Not that it would help the people he’s left behind.

You clear your throat.

SECILY: 15.Qd2 Are these the sort of trolls you typically pursue? ...Qh4

He nods.

NECRON: † More or less. Plenty of folks out there lookin’ to hurt others in messed-up ways, doubt that you need me to tell ya that. †
NECRON: † I keep busy. †

Depending on the source, you’ve heard different examples of the kinds of trolls that he keeps busy with.

Some say he goes after murderers, or predators like the one whose blood is currently congealing on the floor. Others, that he targets people who... well.

Defy your culture’s relationship conventions. Let’s go with that.

In any case, you’re not sure where the truth lies.

You stare at the man before you, and he holds your gaze, smiling even as confusion creeps into his features.

You almost look away as the familiar bitterness of your guilt claws up your throat.

Would he make you his enemy if he knew how you felt?

You don’t find it within you to ask just yet.

Instead, you focus on business.

>The hand.:

You keep glancing at it.

It’s shiny, bulky, and sophisticated. It’s not hard to recognise Oricka’s handiwork.

...Pun not intended.

You can’t help but be curious.

SECILY: 16.Re3 Your mechanical hand looks impressive. Would you mind telling me more about it? ...Re7
NECRON: †† What, this ol’ thing? ††

He lifts it up and turns it around in the air so you can get a better look.

NECRON: †† Oricka made it for me some sweeps ago. It’s wizard to. The. Max. ††
NECRON: †† It’s got, like, all the functions a guy could dream of. All sorts of weapons, tools, utensils... a toothpick. ††

SECILY: 17.Rae1 A... toothpick? ...Nxe5
SECILY: 18.dxe5 Just the one? ...Rf7

He adopts a serious demeanor, and it’s so jarring that you blink in surprise.

NECRON: †† Regulator, you better believe that the power of the toothpick has gotta be used wisely. ††
NECRON: †† Every night, I wake up in a cold sweat thinkin' about the poor soulsucking hoser that'll make me unleash it on 'em. ††

The dramatics startle an amused scoff out of you. It makes his face split into yet another wide grin. He just doesn’t know how to quit them, apparently.

You idly wonder if the toothpick has also been weaponised the way the spoon was earlier. You have an educated guess about that one.

NECRON: † Anywho. If I find myself needin’ something, Oricka’s usually able to give it an upgrade. †
SECILY: 19.Rg3 Sounds like a mutually beneficial arrangement. ...Re8

He finger-guns you with his prosthetic hand. The tip of his index finger slides off to reveal the barrel of an actual gun.

NECRON: ††† You know it. †††

>Noxious.: 

You think you’re starting to get a better idea of who Necron is. He’s certainly more easy-going than you expected, and not at all the brooding, taciturn type you associate with his line of work.

On the contrary, you’d say the conversation has been progressing rather smoothly.

You think you’ve built enough of a rapport to move on to the question that you came here to ask.

SECILY: 20.Rg4 Tell me, Necron. ...Qe7
SECILY: 21.c3 What do you know about Noxious? ...g6

Necron’s expression darkens in an instant.

NECRON: ††† Noxious. †††

He spits the word out like something rotten.

NECRON: †† Been on the trail of that All-Motherfucker for a sweep or so now, and I ain’t gotten any closer to catchin’ him. ††

Necron shuffles on his feet, his eyes flitting to the side before they meet yours again.

NECRON: †† Gonna level with ya, Secily, that dude’s M.O. is way out of my area of expertise. ††
NECRON: † I’m good at shootin’ things, beatin’ trolls tattered... Technology ain’t my ballgame. †

You suppose that’s another thing you both have in common.

His hand curls into a fist.

NECRON: ††† He can’t hide behind his damn screen forever. †††

You hope he’s right.

SECILY: 22.Qh6 What else do you know about him? ...Rg7
NECRON: †† Less than I’d like to. ††
NECRON: †† He picks on trolls online and gets under their skin until he’s got them proper messed up. ††
NECRON: ††† And then he makes them kill themselves. †††

He heaves a deep sigh.

NECRON: †† It’s always too late when we get wind of it. ††

It must be, especially if Noxious talks to his victims over direct messages.

The thought fills you with a familiar mixture of unease and anger.

NECRON: ††† He was targeting Oricka, too. †††

obnoxiousAntidote.

You recall his chat logs with Oricka that you went over while you were at her place. She listed off several other trolls’ handles.

It’s not a leap to think what happened to them.

What almost happened to you.

Necron’s staring at his mechanical hand, his fingers gripping the base of it like he’s trying to crush it or rip it off. His whole body is tense and you wonder if he’s about to lash out, but when he speaks, it’s barely above a whisper.

NECRON: †††† If he’d done something to her... ††††

He trails off. He doesn’t need to finish his thought for you to know the intent of it. The pain written over his face is one you know all too well.

Then, he shakes his head and looks back at you. His shoulders relax, but his grin doesn’t manage to convince you.

NECRON: † He went and messed with the wrong crowd this time for sure, though. †
NECRON: † I got the knowhow and I bet you got the necessary experience. †
NECRON: †† Like, that’s what you came here for, right? If we got the two of us on his heels, that bag of scum scraped off the bottom of the Depths doesn’t stand a chance. ††
NECRON: ††† Ain’t that so, regulator? †††

You didn’t expect him to embrace your possible collaboration so readily.

...You also didn’t expect to find yourself seriously considering it, either.

You still have your doubts, but you nod anyway.

SECILY: 23.h4 You got that right, Exmort. ...a6

You have exhausted your reserve of questions. For now.

You take a moment to mull over the newly-acquired information and consider your next course of action. Necron waits, patiently.

And then, a sudden ringing sound breaks the silence.

You look around in confusion before realising it’s coming from Necron’s mechanical hand. Is this... his mobile device?

Sure enough, it transforms into something like a phone, except it’s still also his hand.

This is handy, you guess.

...Damn it, you’re not going to stop slipping into these puns, are you?

He presses the phone to his ear.

NECRON: †† Nyello? ††

Did... did you hear that right?

You can’t hear the other end of the line, but if his massive grin is anything to go by, it must be Oricka.

NECRON: †† Yeah? Nuh-uh. She sure did. That’s all handled, darlin’. ††

His grin fades into a more serious expression.

NECRON: † Yeah? Yep, I’m listenin’. †

He takes to pacing across the room while Oricka talks, throwing you an apologetic look as he points towards his phone and mouths an, I’m sorry.

You nod and wave your hand. Don’t worry about it.

Whatever she tells him must be a matter of some severity, judging by the crease that forms between his brows.

NECRON: † Where’s that? Roger. You know it. †

Another overused grin spreads across his face and you feel your eyebrows shoot up again. You REALLY weren’t expecting this.

NECRON: ††† Operation Eye of the Striped Purrbeast is go. †††

And now he’s lost you completely.

NECRON: †††† Yeppers! Yep, natch. You know I always do. Love you too, sugarplum. ††††

He hangs up and turns back to face you. There seems to be a spring in his step, a glint in his eye.

He starts explaining before you can even ask the question.

NECRON: †† So here’s the 4-1-1. Whole buncha cultists are gatherin’ in town. Nasty folks, the lot of ‘em. Been on their tracks for a while too. ††
NECRON: †† Oricka was able to get me the coordinates before the meeting goes down, so I should be able to reach the rendezvous point with time to spare. ††
NECRON: † Soooo... †

He seems to be considering, drawing out the word until it has at least three o’s too many.

NECRON: †† How’s about you come with, sugar— ††
SECILY: 24.h5 We talked about the pet names. ...gxh5
NECRON: ††† Right on! †††

He scratches the back of his neck and he shuffles on his feet.

NECRON: †† Anyway, Secily, how’s it sound? ††

You weren’t planning to follow Necron around while he’s chasing down his targets. If anything, you wanted him to back you up with information or, if you were particularly impressed, perhaps even as a sidekick.

You can see this idea has merit, however.

The thrill of getting an opening during a case — that’s something you understand very well. Especially if the case in question has overstayed its welcome.

In the interest of your future cooperation, you don’t want to hold Necron back from pursuing this.

Not to mention that it would be in rather bad form.

Plus, if you go with him, you can make sure he doesn’t get himself killed, and you can expedite matters.

Necron flashes you another grin.

NECRON: †† Here, I’m gonna sweeten the pot: My truck’s out back. I’ll give you a ride. ††

You focus back on him. The blood of the troll he murdered has formed a puddle around his feet, and he’s left rusty footprints across the room while he was on the phone. He doesn’t seem to mind it at all.

He keeps bouncing from his heels to his toes and back as he waits for you to respond. You wonder if he’s deliberately attempting to soak his shoes in blood, and resist the urge to grimace.

At any rate. Nothing’s keeping you here, and the dust in the air is starting to irritate your respiratory cavities.

It seems you’re going cultist hunting. However, you hardly need a ride.

SECILY: 25.Rxg7+ I came here on my bike. ...Qxg7

He seems to catch on to the underlying agreement and touches his temple with two fingers in a faux salute.

NECRON: † Ain’t a problem, regulator. We can load it in the back, plenty of space there even with all my arsenal. †

He waves at you with his prosthetic hand.  Then — finally — he steps out of the puddle of blood and heads towards the exit you came in through.

You make a point of walking around the blood as you follow him.

NECRON: †† It’s a primo truck, lemme tell you. Pretty oldschool, I’ll admit, but with all the mods Oricka’s been makin’ for me? It’s bangin’. ††

You only recall one other vehicle being parked in the empty lot when you arrived here earlier, and the only way it would be ‘banging’ is if it had some sort of mechanical malfunction. You’re willing to believe it has plenty of those.

You cast a sidelong glance at your new acquaintance.

The blood isn’t only on his shoes, and it isn’t only rust-coloured. His clothes are worn and dirty, new stains overlapping old ones, the hems threadbare.

He wears the tears as a badge of honour, and you suppose in a way, it is. A reminder of past battles — of past victories, but mistakes, too. If he hadn’t made any, there would be no cuts on his clothes.

You understand the sentiment.

You are also utterly unsurprised to find out that the beat-up truck you saw before really does belong to him.

He lays a hand on the scratched paint and beams at you.

NECRON: †† A beaut, ain’t she? Like, totally radical. ††

Luckily, he doesn’t pause long enough for you to need to think of a reply.

NECRON: † Got her when I quit my retail job. Was so amped about it at the time, ‘cause I’d been saving up. For a long time, too. Still ended up spending my entire last paycheck on her. †

He chuckles — the memory’s clearly a fond one.

NECRON: † Good thing I had Oricka there to save my ass like she always does. Still. †

He pats the truck like a beloved barkbeast.

NECRON: †† Best purchase I ever made. ††
SECILY: 26.Qxh5 You worked in retail? ...Re7
NECRON: † Yep. †

He props his elbows on the side of the cargo bed, running his hand through his hair.

NECRON: † Used to be a manager at a Supermart. And I was damn good at it to boot. Needed a box to fit all my Employee of the Blink plaques in by the end of it. †

You try to imagine Necron in a Supermart uniform. It gives you vertigo.

You’ve heard retail does things to a person.

NECRON: †† Anyway! ††

He pushes off the truck and dusts off. You can see the imprints of his elbows on the surface.

The dirt covering this truck is so thick that you could use it as camouflage on the beach where Oricka’s cave is.

NECRON: † You said you had a bike? †

You did. Resigned, you nod towards where you parked it. It seems like you’re getting this ride whether you’d care to or not.

Necron’s already moving toward the back of the cargo bed.

NECRON: † Bring her over, then? †

You bring her over. It. You bring your bike over.

While you’re fussing with the lock, a rattle comes from behind you, followed by a sharp cry of pain.

You whip around, hand already on Proserpina’s handle, your whole body taut. You’re expecting to witness Necron being attacked, or accidentally mauled by one of the many weapons stocked in his truck.

Instead, you see him hopping in place, face contorted in pain, his left hand gripping the front of his right leg. The hatch on the truck’s back hangs open, right where you imagine his shin used to be a mere couple of seconds ago.

You shake your head. For all his swagger, this man could trip on even ground.

You manage to load the bike into the truck without further incident, despite the array of weapons piled up in the cargo. Then, Necron walks around to open the door for you.

A spark of irritation flares inside you when his mechanical hand reaches for the handle. Last time you checked, you were able to operate doors just fine on your own. 

You look at him, eyebrow arched, and he gives you a somewhat sheepish grin back. 

NECRON: †† Got a busted hinge there. ††

He grunts with exertion as he forces it open. The door lets out a loud, tinny creak.

With a flourish, he motions toward the passenger's seat that is now freely accessible. If nothing else, you have to acknowledge his thoughtfulness. You climb inside and pull the door shut.

While you wait for Necron to walk around the front, you take a look inside the cabin. 

It’s neater than you expected. A plaque with a gilded inscription decorates the dashboard. In cursive, it says: Employee of the Blink. A small picture of Necron and Oricka is tucked underneath it.

You sigh, with a reluctant measure of fondness.

Just below, your eye catches a mishmash of what you assume are roadside tunes.

"I'm Gonna Bond with the Highway," "Blood Color? Hardly Know Her," "Turnin Kaikai Could Devour Me Whole and I'd Thank Them," the list goes on.

You're not surprised to see Smash Mouth in his collection.

Necron hops into the driver's seat and hits the ignition, flashing you another wide grin.

NECRON: † Time to book outta here. †
SECILY: 27.Re3 Book... it? ...Ng6
NECRON: † Nah. Just book. †

You sigh and give him a firm nod.

Time to book.

Just as you’re leaning back and adjusting to the seat, the engine sputters and chokes.

You raise your eyebrows at Necron.

NECRON: †† She does this sometimes. Not to worry, I got it. ††

It takes a few more attempts, but eventually, he does got it. The engine coughs like someone politely announcing their presence and then settles into an even purr before rising off the ground.

NECRON: † There we go. †

He takes the truck out of the parking lot in a smooth curve, and then you’re riding back the way you came.

The same open landscape stretches out around you, but this time your eyes linger on the skeletons of the old factories. Is one of them your destination?

It’s as likely a possibility as any. There is no shortage of old abandoned buildings on your planet, each of them an appealing spot for shady types to gather and conduct their shadier affairs.

There was this one case that took you to an abandoned toy store. That was one choice of backdrop that you weren’t really able to understand, but to each their own, you reckon.

For the time being, it’s... calming, almost, not to have to worry about where you’re going next. You don’t often get to sit back and, quite literally, enjoy the ride.

Necron’s a good driver, despite any doubts you might have had. What’s even better, he doesn’t move to play any music. 

You make yourself comfortable and watch the world slip past.

It’s a few minutes before Necron breaks the silence.

NECRON: † So, regulator, you never told me about this murglary that’s got you so troubled. †

You suppose you didn’t.

After considering for a moment, you present him with a rundown of your situation as you reviewed it for your personal benefit some hours prior.

It’s concise, to the point, and it includes all the relevant information without getting sidetracked into unnecessary specifics. Your visit with a certain scientist you omit entirely.

Necron listens attentively, humming and nodding as necessary, and when you’re done, he lets out a bark of laughter.

NECRON: † Really quite the sitch you got on your hands, huh? †
SECILY: 28.Rg3 It’s been shaping up to be one, yes. ...Kf7
NECRON: ††† And it’s got Noxious’s stench all over it... †††
NECRON: † This how investigatin’ usually go for you, or...? †

You scoff.

SECILY: 29.Qf3+ Hardly. It’s all part of the job, however. ...Kg8
NECRON: †† Damn right! ††

You give him a sidelong glance.

SECILY: 30.Qh5 I take it you’ve encountered your share of conundrums, then? Besides the one that’s currently occupying both of us. ...Kf7
NECRON: † Oh, most definitely. There’s always the sickos that like yankin’ your chain. †
NECRON: †† ‘s all part of the job. ††

You give him a pointed look, but he pretends not to notice and focuses on the road ahead.

SECILY: 31.a4 How did you end up doing this, anyway? It seems quite the leap between Supermart and... ...c5

You gesture across the truck interior. You can make out at least three different firearms just looking in the rear-view mirror.

NECRON: † That’s ‘cause you’ve never worked at a Supermart. †

You’re perfectly willing to accept this explanation.

NECRON: † Nah, legit... Supermart was alright. Short-term. Woulda gone stir-crazy if I’d stayed much longer though. †
NECRON: †† And there’s so much grody shit goin’ on out there. So many trolls hurtin’ and killin’ others and all that static. ††

Your eyes snap to his face.

SECILY: 32.f4 So you decided to do something about it. ...c4
NECRON: †† Yep. ††

He glances at you, his expression as dark as when you were discussing Noxious earlier.

NECRON: †† Lotsa folks don’t get what I do. Why I do it. And as far as I’m concerned, they’re better off like that. ††
NECRON: †† But I wish there was somebody like me around back when I left school. ††
NECRON: † And yeah, I know I sound totally up my waste chute when I say that. †

He flashes you a smirk, but it fades just as quickly.

NECRON: †† Yunno, Oricka... She was hurt by people like these. The types I go after, I mean. ††
NECRON: †† And like, it was jus’ the two of us back then, and I couldn’t let all that happen to her again. Or anyone else if I could help it. ††

He’s silent for a few seconds. His hand clutches the steering wheel as he stares ahead.

NECRON: † I’m not sayin’ mine is the best way to go about this, but... †
NECRON: ††† Someone’s gotta. †††

You watch him for another beat before facing ahead, too. You didn’t intend to question him on his motivations - at least not right now - but you get the impression this is something he’s needed to say for a while.

You wonder if all the different accounts of what he does get to him. If he feels the need to defend himself.

You stay silent for the time being. Your picture of this man has become a little clearer, you believe.

Not another two minutes later, he slows down.

NECRON: † We’re almost there. †

He takes the next exit and drives around a wide U-turn with a slight decline. You follow it with your gaze.

It leads to another factory, just as abandoned and uninviting as the rest of them. You can’t tell what was being produced here at a glance.

It’s too far for you to be able to make out any signs of life, but you have little doubt that you’ll be easy to spot from there.

Before you can verbalise your concern, Necron says:

NECRON: † Hold on tight, regulator. †

He twists the steering wheel and the truck swerves off the road. Your teeth rattle, but you’ve braced yourself on the door handle and avoid the brunt of the discomfort.

SECILY: 33.Bc2 Smart move. ...b6

He takes you along the circumference of a wide circle around the factory and approaches it from the back.

Not unlike what you did earlier, he slows down until most of what’s propelling you forward is the momentum of moving downhill.

You understand the desire to be as stealthy as possible; your own breathing has gotten slower and more quiet, as if that would make the difference in whether you’d be spotted or not.

The factory looms before you now, close enough to see the stains and rust on the walls. Colourful writings and crass drawings covering them suggest that many trolls have made their way here over the sweeps.

You have yet to notice any signs of life.

The truck inches another short distance ahead before Necron hits the brakes and turns off the engine.

NECRON: † Let’s walk. †

You nod. Ever so carefully, you crack your door open and push it until you can feel the resistance of the broken hinge.

The opening you’re left with is barely big enough to slip through, but you take that over the risk of the door creaking. You shimmy your way out of the truck.

Necron joins you in front of it, almost as quiet, and the two of you make your way forward.

Neither utters a word. Beyond the soft crunch of gravel underneath your feet, there’s not a sound that you can hear.

Necron gestures towards a set of double doors. One of them hangs open. Dust and debris have filled the crack, keeping it in place.

Inside, you can glimpse only darkness.

You quietly approach the door, with Necron in the front and you on the lookout for any movement around you. Necron lays his hands on it and nods at you. You follow suit.

Slowly, carefully, you push the door open together, stopping whenever it feels like it might creak.

Thankfully, you manage to open it wide enough without a sound.

Necron switches his prosthetic to what appears to be a shotgun and walks in first.

You follow after him, Proserpina firmly in your grip.

You step into a single open space with a high ceiling and various equipment scattered throughout it.

You don’t pause to try and discern the purpose of them. They’ve long since been unable to fulfill it, if the rusted, dust-covered surfaces are anything to go by. 

There’s graffiti all over the place. You realise that you recognise a lot of it: eyes like those you saw in Husske’s barn, and...

Ellsee’s symbol and this of Occeus’s other friend, animatedHumorist, again and again, all over the place.

Did these start to crop up only recently, or had you not been paying attention before?

There’s so much in this world that seems to have escaped your notice until now.

You and Necron tiptoe your way around a big machine and towards the centre of the room, each of you ready to use your respective weapons.

Then, after you’ve made a full circle back to the doors you came in through, Necron lowers his armed hand.

NECRON: †† Looks like we’re early to the party. ††

You sheathe your blade once more.

SECILY: 34.Bb1 Seems that way. We should find a place to hide and keep an eye on the entrance. ...b5

He nods, already scanning the room.

NECRON: † Over there. †

You head over.

It’s been a while since you needed a stakeout, but you can feel that familiar thrill of anticipation.

The two of you settle in your hideout and get ready to wait.

For a while, everything is still and quiet. Dust floats in the air, shimmering in the faint light that drips through the windows.

Beside you, Necron shuffles.

NECRON: †† Hey, regulator, uh... Can I talk to ya about somethin’? ††

You consider the risk of talking while you’re waiting for an unknown number of potentially dangerous cultists to show up, but then shrug. It’s not like you won’t be able to hear them first.

SECILY: 35.axb5 Yes. What do you wish to discuss? ...axb5

He shuffles again. You give him a look; it seems unlike him to be so hesitant.

NECRON: † So y’know that me and Oricka are like, a thing? †
SECILY: 36.Rf3 Yes. ...Kg8

As does anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in the company of either of them.

NECRON: †† Right. Yeah. Uhh... ††

You’re starting to get a little concerned for him.

NECRON: † She’s been my BFF long as I can remember, and we’ve been goin’ steady for decagrades. †

You hum to indicate that you’re listening, even if you have no idea where this is going.

NECRON: †† We ain’t bonded yet. ††

Oh.

This is going to be that kind of conversation.

Bonding is the highest form of commitment between two trolls in a flushed or pitch relationship — for understandable reasons.

The decision to permanently alter your body’s chemistry to match your partner’s, to quite literally become linked to another... There’s a finality to it that can be intimidating.

It’s not a step to be taken lightly. But most settle on their red and black bondmates much earlier than someone of Necron’s (still admittedly young) age.

You wonder if you’re the right person to discuss this with. The two of you aren’t even that close — you literally just met today.

Is this his way of telling you he’s nervous? Or does he really trust this quickly?

Necron glances at you, seemingly waiting for some sort of reply. You hear yourself saying:

SECILY: 37.g4 Go on. ...Rf7
NECRON: †† She’s been wantin’ to for a while and so have I, but... ††

He’s absently playing with a switch on his mechanical hand. You hope it isn’t the one that activates the built-in heat-seeking missile.

You don’t know if he actually has one. You wouldn’t be surprised if he did, is all you’re saying.

NECRON: †† You know Oricka. She deserves the fuckin’ world, I really don’t want her to end up regrettin’... ††
NECRON: ††† Me. †††

He sighs, still fidgeting with the switch.

NECRON: †† Natch, there’s also all this shit. ††

He gestures around the room.

NECRON: †† I’m ace at what I do, regulator, but like, what if we bond and then some dick-for-brains gets the better of me? What happens to her? ††

She lives with it. She grieves, and she gets assigned a well-trained TEMP, and she makes friends with the void inside her.

She doesn’t move on. Not only because her body never lets her, not only because of the constant painful reminders of what she used to have, but because she would never forgive herself if she did.

Or perhaps that’s just you.

Thankfully, Necron doesn’t expect a reply this time.

NECRON: ††† Reckon what I’m askin’ is... how do I know that the time is right? †††

You’re really not the right person to answer that.

Never. As soon as possible.

It’s always going to be a risk. That’s just the world you live in, the way your bodies function. There’s never going to be a "perfect time."

But that’s no reason to never try, is it?

After Ahlina’s death, you’ve asked yourself more than once if you’d still make the same decisions if you knew how it was going to turn out.

The answer never changes.

Necron’s turned to fully face you now, his expression earnest and expectant.

You might have felt this way once, too. It’s hard to be sure across the distance of time and bitterness. Though you feel like these relationship conventions have always been alienating to you.

But this isn’t about you, and Necron’s still waiting for you to say something.

SECILY: 38.Bxg6 Have you talked to her about it? ...Qxg6
NECRON: † Yeah. Kind of. †
SECILY: 39.Qxg6+ Kind of? ...hxg6
NECRON: †† Not really ‘bout the dying stuff. But she’s gotta know. ††
SECILY: 40.Kf2 And what does she think about it? ...Ra7

He turns the switch on his prosthetic all the way and it turns into... a flame torch?

With a startled yelp, Necron quickly changes it back to a hand.

NECRON: ††† Whoa! Uh, anyway... She says she understands the risks, but she still wants it. †††
NECRON: †† Has for a long while now. ††

SECILY: 41.Ke3 So why aren’t you believing her? ...Kf7

For the first time in your (admittedly brief) acquaintance, you seem to have rendered Necron speechless.

SECILY: 42.Kd4 Oricka is an intelligent person, I don’t need to tell you that either. I’m certain she has given the matter due consideration. ...Ke7
SECILY: 43.Rh3 It’s to your credit that you’re worried about her. But if this is something you both want, by withholding it, you’re prioritising your fears over her choice. ...Ra2
SECILY: 44.Rh2 You need to trust that she knows what’s best for her. ...Ra1

NECRON: †† I—I think I getcha, regulator. ††

His shoulders relax. There is still worry in the smile that he gives you, but he nods.

NECRON: †† Hadn’t... really thought of it that way, I s’pose. ††
NECRON: † Thank you, Secily. †

A loud screech interrupts your would-be somewhat warm response: the main entrance slowly starts opening. The cultists are arriving.

Necron gives you a sharp grin.

NECRON: †† It’s show time. ††

They start pouring in from both corners of the decrepit building, two big, garishly dressed groups of people, and it isn’t hard to tell where their religious allegiances lie.

On the right side, a dozen or so MIRTHAMANIACS parade in, slowly, practically exuding smugness. All of them are purplebloods.

You wouldn’t expect anything less from them. The Mirthamaniacs are practically the last group on this planet that cares so much about blood colour.

And entering stage left, HARBINGERS OF THE ALPOCALYPSE. You can tell because all of them are wearing that gaudy screwball mascot as a mask to disguise their identity.

All of them — except for one.

You focus on the maskless person, a sense of familiarity tugging at your mind.

...Of course. That’s the same girl that you saw scamper off after you interrogated Endari. Albeit in a somehow even tackier set of garbs.

You’d had an interest in this meeting because you thought it would be a light reprieve from your recent endeavours, but now you’re at full attention.

Beside you, so is Necron. He’s frozen, eyes darting back and forth between the two groups. He looks — angry is an understatement. He looks like he has a personal vendetta.

Is the past catching up to him as well?

NECRON: ††† You gotta be shittin’ me... †††

He hisses the words out through clenched teeth. Something isn’t right here — more than you suspected, even.

SECILY: 45.Kc5 What? ...Rf1
NECRON: ††† That damn book. The black one. You see it? †††

You look a little closer, scanning the crowd for what he’s describing.

The overly large Mirthamaniac representative at the front is holding a STARK BLACK BOOK with some sort of symbol in WHITE on the front.

It almost looks... alchemical. First era, not like any of the tomes housed for Corporate’s purposes, or even a general guide.

You had been positive that anything like this was burned along with the rest of what remained from the Renaissance. If you had known, you would have asked Sestro — or even Cadlys — for more information.

NECRON: ††† That thing right there’s been causin’ so much fucking trouble. †††
NECRON: ††† Thought I got rid of it last time. But it keeps coming back. †††
NECRON: †† Real talk? This entire thing goes way over my head. ††
NECRON: †† But these hosers’ve been passin’ it round like a chump ball on the wicend. It’s always them, every time. ††
NECRON: ††† Regulator, we gotta get that thing. †††

There’s a finality to his words, his voice and his body equally tense. He looks ready to launch himself at the trolls before you. You’re starting to see how he gets into so many scrapes.

You grip his shoulder to stop him, and whisper back to him.

SECILY: 46.Rh7+ First, listen. They might tell us something important. ...Kf8

It takes a moment, but then Necron slumps back from his preemptive battle stance. Though the scoff he makes suggests that he’s not particularly happy about watching the show anymore.

You, on the other hand, have been waiting for such an opportunity for a while.

As if on cue, the petite maskless girl starts speaking.

[Note: Talald speaks in the Jokerman font, but because that font is unavailable, she speaks in Comic Sans in this transcript.]

??????: did you doooo it?? did you really dooooo it?? i’m going to start making pouty faces if you didn’t dooooooooooooo ittttttttttt!!!

Her voice is high-pitched and lilting, as if she’s moments away from bursting into song. It makes your skin crawl.

The man holding the book, evidently the leader of this group of Mirthamaniacs, is the one to respond to her, his voice booming every other word.

??????: you REALLY don’t KNOW when THE party STOPS do YOU
??????: thanks TO your ELEVATED contraband IT worked OUT just FINE

Contraband? The book?

??????: yahoo!!!!!!! see see see??? not such a cruel task after all now is it???
??????: with the setup out of the way, we’re one step closer to an ecstatical life under my man big AL!!!!
??????: blood secured through informant? check! horrorcore rifts areeeeeeeeeee??

This must be the Vivifier’s blood. An informant. You’d kill a man to know who that is.

??????: TALALD you KNOW thats OUR word
TALALD: i know but its so much better than what theyre actually called!!!
??????: WE got IT all RIPENED for YOUR sacrificial PROCEEDINGS
??????: provided THAT we’re STILL on FOR having A spot ON the BIG chair

TALALD: well duh!!! thats a part of the plan too!!! just at the very end of the planned stages of the plan!!!
TALALD: pozzol you should have been there for our OLD plans!!! like this one we made with the young and droopy teal girl!!! you know??? ‘comic relief’??? oh it has a great punchline!!!

POZZOL: YEAH you TOLD us ABOUT it A solid FIFTY times
TALALD: really????????: i don’t remember that at all
POZZOL: AINT that THE raw GOSPEL truth SPILLED
POZZOL: if I gotta BE hearing ABOUT your PROPHECIES anymore ID rather CARVE it INTO your GULLET so YOU can READ it OFF at WILL

TALALD: gasp!!! silly silly silly man. i wouldn't be able to feel that anyways!! it would probably tickle though!!!!!
TALALD: okay last question!!!!!!! so pay attention for me!!!
TALALD: this one is worth aaaaaaall of the talald points!!!!!!!

You’ve leaned forward by now, desperate not to miss a single word of their exchange. Not that it’s likely, given how loudly they both speak.

TALALD: do YOU know all of the archetypes's locations??

The wrestle clown responds with a lifeless and snide chuckle.

POZZOL: christened ONE of THEM with MY own GREASY puppet FINGERS
POZZOL: disappointing THAT fate DECIDES on THOSE who ARE weak TO task
POZZOL: EQUALLY disappointing THAT we COULDNT get MUCH of A look AT our MOST important PICK

TALALD: awwwww don’t be so down on yourself!!! we got it done at least!!!
TALALD: maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get to see her and her weird pupil again someday soon!!

POZZOL: ill HOLD you TO that GIGGLEMAMA
POZZOL: because WE ain’t REALLY finished UNTIL i SEE what IT looks LIKE when HER limbripped ASS bleeds SWEET lime FOR me

A chill runs down your spine. Ellsee. They can only be talking about Ellsee.

TALALD: tee hee!!!!!! you're so funny!!!!!!!! i like you!!!!!!! :)))

The girl — Talald? — erupts into a burst of giggles and you get the feeling that this meeting is coming to a close.

Beside you, Necron seems to have reached the same conclusion.

NECRON: ††† That’s enough listenin’. It’s time we got that fuckin’ book. †††

You scan the group in front of you. There’s at least twenty of them, easy, and you can see various weapons on their persons.

The big troll moves closer to Talald, about to hand her the book.

SECILY: 47.Kd6 This is a terrible idea. ...Rxf4
NECRON: †† No fake. You ready? ††

You think about the weird book again, about these people’s apocalyptic (alpocalyptic?) plans, about how your case is connected to it.

You think about Necron and his eagerness to do the right thing, and his matesprit, hard at work to support him the only way she currently can.

You nod.

NECRON: ††† Check this out, regulator. †††

He points across the room with his prosthetic hand, now back in its gun form, and you don’t have time to ask what he’s pointing at before he fires it.

There’s a big metal container on the other side of the room, one that you dismissed as a defunct machine in your earlier investigation. Now, you realise you were wrong.

You see the explosive hazard sign a moment before Necron’s bullet sinks into it.

The blast makes your ears ring.

A bright burst of light and a wave of heat that sends the cultists stumbling. When the initial burst of fire subsides, you see that three of the Mirthamaniacs are lying on the floor, buried in crumbling debris and blood.

19/22 remaining.

Necron is already rushing in, so you pull out Proserpina and charge into the fray.

Your eyes are on your target: the book and the troll who was holding it. Luckily, the purpleblood is an easy mark, towering above everyone as he is.

Necron is also headed for him.

He dashes past another Harbinger before they can even take out their battlehammer. They swing it at his back, but before they can land a hit, you sink your épée under their arm. You twist.  

You pull your blade out and the gushing blood stains the front of your coat indigo. 18/22.

The cultists are starting to pull themselves together, however. They swarm you and Necron, blocking you off from the book.

Someone rushes you with a long knife, but you parry and ram your elbow into their nose.

To your left, Necron empties his gun into someone’s chest, then quickly switches to a knife appendage and plunges it into another’s throat.

16/22.

You cover Necron while he’s pulling his hand free. A long, thin blade slashes towards your face, but you duck out of the way and counter with a thrust that finds purchase.

There’s no time to deliver a final blow, however, as now there’s more of them surrounding you. Against so many opponents, you need to exercise patience.

Instinctively, Necron and you end up back to back, protecting each other’s flanks from the onslaught. All you can see is painted faces distorted in bloodthirsty grimaces, and that same bestial mask.

It’s been no more than thirty seconds since the explosion. Your hearing is starting to come back.

A familiar cheerful voice reaches you over the cacophony of grunts and cries of pain.

TALALD: come on big boy the go away heat is getting hotter or whatever it is that you guys say!!!

You don’t get to hear the response.

Gradually, you can feel the balance shift. You’re down to 11, but you’ve been taking more hits, too.

Your wrist smarts from where you deflected a bat aimed at Necron’s head. Blood drips down the side of your neck, and this time it’s your own.

Then: an opening in the crowd. You come face to face with the giant purpleblood.

He didn’t listen when Talald told him to leave. That was his mistake.

And now, you’ll make sure he pays for it.

SECILY: 1.d4 You’re not leaving with that book. ...d5

He doesn’t bother with a response, already halfway through raising that gnarled stick of his to attack. 

Purple swirls in his eyes — he’s about to use his PsyOP. Although you suppose he would still call it CHUCKLEVOODOO.

You barely get a chance to notice how his body starts to ripple and charge with extra power. A strength-enhancer, then.

With a guttural roar, he swings his weapon at you.

You turn Proserpina to block with the guard, but the impact is much more forceful than you anticipated.

The pain shoots up your arm, through your shoulder, and straight into your think pan, and for a moment, your vision swims.

You step back, bracing yourself for the next attack, but Talald grips him by the arm and tries to pull him towards the exit.

To your surprise, he lets her.

NECRON: ††† Secily! You gotta get that book! †††

Your eyes snap in the direction of his voice.

He’s still facing away from you to protect your +6:000, and he’s fighting four cultists at once.

He’s covered in sweat and blood and breathing heavily, but he holds his ground.

A well-placed kick sends one of his opponents crashing into another one. Yet, a third one immediately takes their place.

You turn back around to dodge out of the way of a bat aimed at your face.

SECILY: 48.Kxe6 You can’t hold them all off by yourself! ...d4

You hear the whirr of a chainsaw, see a burst of purple streak through the air, feel the floor’s give as another dead body collapses. 9/22.

NECRON: †††† Go! Now! I got this. ††††

Your target has almost reached the door.

You’re running out of time.

You can feel the single thread of a lead you have is about to tear.

With a growl, you shove a baton-wielding troll out of the way and bolt for the door.

You stop at the threshold, just for a moment, and look back over your shoulder at Necron.

He’s taken out another one of them, and he leaps through the gap they left upon the broken conveyor belt behind him. He has the higher ground, but that doesn’t deter the cultists who’re already following.

He meets your eyes for a second and gives you a thumbs up.

Then, his face twists in pain. A spear has sunk into his thigh. He stumbles back, barely deflecting a sickle arching towards him, and there’s so much blood on him you don’t know how he’s still standing.

You almost rush back in to help him, but you catch yourself.

You turn back around and run out of the factory.

There he is!

You spot the troll just as he’s legging it away from the factory with Talald in tow, and give chase with a cry of anger.

You’ve barely made five steps before three figures spring in front of you, blocking your way.

CULTIST: Nooot sooo fast, bea—

Your blade jammed into their throat cuts off the rest of their sentence. You don’t have any patience left for this.

The troll you’re chasing stops. His companion almost crashes into him. He turns around to face her, slowly, like he’s got all the time in the world. What are they doing?

The purpleblood looks at you. He grins, a slow, wide, malicious grin that mocks you even from afar. Your blood thrums in your ears, anger clouding your vision as you realise you won’t reach them in time.

Your second assailant starts raising their mace, but they’re too slow, and you’re too desperate. You pull your épée free and use the momentum to slam its pommel into their temple.

Their eyes roll back into their head and they hit the ground, hard.

But it’s too late.

Just as your eyes find Talald and the purpleblood again, time and space seem to bend around them, ever so slightly.

A scratch on a CD, a pothole that you can’t see — and the two trolls are gone.

Vanished. Quite literally, into thin air.

Despite everything you did, despite leaving your ally behind—

You lost. You didn’t move fast enough. You failed.

And Necron...

Behind you, a muffled boom rattles the factory.

Your insides twist as you think about those last moments you saw of Necron fighting before you ran out of the factory.

He was already getting overwhelmed, you don’t know...

You don’t think he could have survived an explosion.

Your eyes lock on the last troll standing in front of you.

They’ve taken a step away, and they’re just staring at their fallen allies in mute shock, the thin knife they’re armed with hanging at their side, forgotten.

They’re not a threat to you right now.

You don’t care.

You think about Necron, swarmed by more enemies than anyone could reasonably handle, but still insisting that you go, do what you came here to do.

Still so confident even as he was bleeding out. 

You take your spare épée out and hand it to the troll in front of you.

SECILY: 1.e4 Take it. ...b6

They do, too stunned to object.

SECILY: 2.d4 This is not a trick. ...Bb7

There’s a slight tremor to your voice, but when you lift up Proserpina, your hand is steady.

The blade glistens with blood, as many colours as you can think of. 

SECILY: 3.f3 I’m certain you know how it goes. ...g6

You take a breath, preparing to explain the rules of this ritual of yours. Your audience has yet to make a sound.

Then, they gasp and stumble backwards.

Bright purple blooms on their chest, right above their blood pusher.

Their knees buckle and they crumple to the ground. The épée drops from their limp hand.

You spin around and see Necron. Battered, cobalt blood-covered and barely bracing himself against the wall, but he gives you a cheeky grin.

NECRON: †† Hate to say it, regulator, but your coping mechanisms kinda... blow. ††

And he slumps down the wall and onto the ground.

For a moment, you’re too stunned to say anything. You want to ask him how he’s still alive, you want to thank him, you want to tell him to fuck off...

You hurry to his side, for once not bothering to wipe the blood off Proserpina before you slip her back into her sheath.

He grunts as you help him back upright, trying to make himself more comfortable against the hard surface.

NECRON: † Was that the last of ‘em? †
SECILY: 49.cxd4 No. The two leaders got away with the book. If it hadn’t been for this ambush, I would have stopped them. ...Rxd4
NECRON: †† I bet, regulator. ††
NECRON: † S’alright. Happens almost every time. †

You look him over, taking account of his injuries.

As numerous as they are — you can’t make out the original colour of his clothes underneath all the blood — they don’t seem as deep as you feared.

Even the gash on his thigh appears to have missed any major arteries.

Relief rushes through you, and the strength of it takes you aback. With a sigh, you sit down on the ground next to him.

SECILY: 50.Rb7 Well done back there. ...Rxg4

Necron throws his head back and laughs. He stops immediately, gripping his side with a hard wince.

NECRON: † Anyone ever tell ya you gotta loosen up a bit, regulator? †
SECILY: 51.Kf6 No. ...Ke8

Still, you crack a smile despite yourself. Necron beams back at you.

SECILY: 52.e6 We should take you to a medical specialist. ...Rf4+
NECRON: † Yeah. Can you find the way to Oricka’s from here? †
SECILY: 53.Kxg6 Oricka? ...c3

You somehow don’t think a tiny bandaid is going to be of much more help here than it was for your concussion. Not even a few dozen tiny bandaids.

NECRON: †† Hell yeah! Been teachin’ her how to do first aid. She can patch me up nice and proper. ††

You... decide not to argue the point. Grunting, you push back up to your feet.

SECILY: 54.bxc3 Fair enough. Let’s get you back to your truck. ...Rf3

...

The ride to Oricka’s is uneventful.

It’s been a while since you’ve driven anything but your bike, but you get used to the bigger, heavier truck quickly enough.

You try to go as fast as you can without rattling you both too much, and keep an eye on Necron’s injuries.

He seems to be holding up well enough.

The last leg of your journey is the toughest. Navigating the beach towards Oricka’s home is even more challenging when you have to support another troll’s weight.

Doubly so when he’s limping so severely.

Nevertheless, you eventually complete your de facto three-legged race and reach Oricka’s door. No automated weapons greet you this time, just the troll herself.

ORICKA: secily? ...RON? :hyegh:

You barely have time to brace yourself before she tackles Necron — and by extension, you - in an eager hug.

She is now heavily stained in Necron’s blood, and doesn’t seem to care at all.

Necron grunts with the impact, but immediately wraps his arms around her.

NECRON: ††† You shoulda seen the other guys, sweetheart. †††
ORICKA: oh i don’t DOUBT it darling!! :flushed:
ORICKA: did you manage to get the book this time?? :surprisenoodle:

NECRON: †† ...We didn’t. They got away. ††
ORICKA: aw!! thats fine tho im so glad you made it back in one piece :flex:
ORICKA: both of you!! :shoutpole:

She ushers you both inside, gently supporting Necron with an arm around his waist. While you’re walking, she turns to you.

ORICKA: im glad you were able to find him ses :nice:
ORICKA: i was getting worried because of how long he was taking to get back to me........ :coldsweat:

SECILY: 55.Rc7 We... encountered some resistance. ...Rf4

Necron laughs under his breath.

NECRON: †† You can say that again, regulator. ††

Oricka turns back to him.

ORICKA: you need to tell me everything :flushedeyes:

Oricka sits you both down and retrieves her medical supplies. With Necron’s supervision, she begins to treat his wounds. She actually does a fine job, to your surprise.

He tells her about the day’s events in the meantime, pausing occasionally when the pain becomes too distracting.

You observe them for a while. This seems like a well-practiced routine, the way Oricka just nods to the next wound she wants to treat and Necron adjusts to give her access to it.

Neither of them seems particularly bothered by this. You wonder how many times they’ve had to do it before.

Although he’s keeping his voice loud enough for you to hear, every so often, the two of them exchange murmurs that you can’t — and don’t want to — make out.

She cuts his shirt around a laceration on his side and says something under her breath. It makes Necron giggle.

You shuffle a bit farther from them to give them space.

Today wasn’t a victory, but helping ensure that Oricka can treat her partner’s injuries one more time takes some of the sting of defeat away.

As long as they’re together, these two will be just fine, you think.

Then, just as some of the tension in your body is starting to melt away, YVES alerts you of an incoming call.

NECRON: ††† Is it...? †††

It must be.

You pick up. This time, you put the call on speaker.

NOXIOUS: [Sec i  l   y    .]

The voice fills the room, garbled through a voice-changer — low, raspy, unpleasantly close to the microphone. It’s some relief to see both Necron and Oricka looking as furious as you feel.

NOXIOUS: [I was wondering if I would hear your voice again after tod  a   y    .]
SECILY: 1.e4 How does it feel that your little plans keep failing? ...e5

You hadn’t realised it before you said it, but you’d wager it’s true. How much of a coincidence would it have been for Necron to make a breakthrough in his case the very same day you went to look for him?

A "breakthrough" that nearly cost you both your lives?

Noxious laughs. The sound makes your mouth fill with bile.

NOXIOUS: [Is that what you th i  n   k    ?]
NOXIOUS: [I have you just where I want you, Sec i  l   y    .]
NOXIOUS: [Maybe you’ll understand better when you interview your next cont a  c   t    .]
NOXIOUS: [That is, if I don’t get to him fi r  s   t    .]

The words hang in the air for a second. Then, the line disconnects.

NECRON: ††††† Bulgebrained scum-licking All-motherfucker. †††††

You’re inclined to agree.

ORICKA: your next contact?? ses do you know who he meant??? :surprisenoodle:
SECILY: 56.Rf7 I will. ...Rc4

You stand up.

You’re exhausted. Every inch of your body hurts, and you want nothing more than to get out of your blood-stained clothes and sleep for a very long time.

Instead of moving to the door, you take a step towards Necron.

SECILY: 57.Rf3 We made a decent team back in the factory....Ke7
NECRON: † We totally did, yeah. †
SECILY: 58.Re3 It seems we both have a stake in handling Noxious....b4
NECRON: †† We totally do, yeah. ††

It’s not often — or ever — that you find yourself making this offer, and yet, you’re convinced it’s the right call.

At first, it was a slip of the tongue.

But now you feel that for once, maybe your gut won’t lead you astray.

Maybe... there are more people that you can trust to have your back when you need them.

You extend your hand, your left one, to Necron.

SECILY: 59.cxb4 Let’s keep working together on this case. ...Rxb4 ½-½

He hops to his feet with surprising vigour, given his state, and grabs the offered hand.

NECRON: ††† Slammin’. †††
NECRON: ††† I’m with ya, Secily. Let’s go get that sonuvabitch. †††

END

GERBAT BATRAV

You grew up fast. 

Naiveté never did anyone any favors as far as you’re concerned, and so you seized opportunities as they presented themselves. 

You listened (at least passively) to all the slogans and the self-help mantras about turning yourself into a productive member of society.

Even while most of them were either useless or so propagandizing that they failed to make coherent points, you took the core message to heart. And you never looked back. 

For all that you’ve learned over the sweeps, nothing prepared you for the way everything changes. Something that means the world to you today could mean nothing tomorrow. 

Everything is weathered, and everyone is trying to change themselves, even you. 

But the world resists that change.

For every bit of malleability in a person, there is just as much repetition. With enough experience, the patterns become glaringly obvious.

You can predict the outcome of almost any situation. A memory like yours grants you all the tools you need to develop a profound wisdom regarding this planet. 

More often than not, though, your wisdom presents itself in the form of cynicism.

...Sestro didn’t kill your matesprit. You can’t hold Mr. "For Good" accountable for anything that happened — not when his personality so sharply contradicts any corrupt label you might want to stick to him. 

The kid spends his free time making toy buildings, for god’s sake. He’s soft-hearted and idealistic, and you’re the closest thing to a mentor that he has. 

Odds are he’s falling to pieces over indirectly hurting you like this. You really should go back and put him together again. 

That’s exactly what makes this so hard. You're trying, but you're so used to projecting your hate outwards — angry has always been easier than hurt

You almost wish you could find some way to hate Sestro regardless of his good intentions. That way you could at least be consistent.

These are the thoughts that flit around your head as you speed down the remote, incongruous backroads that lie far outside of Stronghold 21. 

It feels like you've lost it - that sense of... unity? Justice? You don't know, but whatever it was it was the one thing keeping you together. What do you do when everything feels so wrong like this?

Well, you just mount your bike and drive, you guess.

So you’ve been at this for a few hours now. This is definitely not on your agenda, but it's something to focus on. 

You could even say that the very fact that it's unscripted is a welcome change compared to the rest of this case.

Hell, maybe you'll just so happen to stumble upon your mystery caller out here. Wouldn't that be nice?

Unfortunately, all you know is that you’re looking for cults, and even then, ‘cult’ could mean any number of things.

You’re wasting time. You know that. The wind in your ears seems to scream it to you — that no matter what you end up finding, it couldn’t possibly shed even a desk lamp’s light on this mess. 

But the wind is also in your hair out here. You're alone and alive, and anything is better than knocking over the dominoes that Noxious set up to try to kill you.

You like to think you have the capacity to be rebellious.

For the fifth time in the last hour, you release YVES to scout out the area. You’ve spent the whole day stumbling across old ruins and abandoned temples in search of anything that might count as ‘cult activity’. 

These past few expanses, you’ve been happening across disgruntled folk on the side of the road with increasing frequency, and you have a gut feeling that you’re getting close to something. 

Some kind of farm, maybe? An anti-corporate hideout? It doesn’t matter.

The terrain has been getting steadily wetter the farther you move from the stronghold. The acidity of the rain-drenched ground threatens to sink this whole place into one huge, swampy bog. 

Every now and then, something slithers its way up out of the sludge and reminds you why you never come out this way.

YVES, flying overhead, suddenly veers sharply to the left. 

She’s found what you’re tracking. Soon, she’ll return to you and give you the details, but you likely have a few minutes before that happens. 

In the meantime, you pull over and try to force yourself to think clearly.

Some days, an irregular sort of music will root itself into your head, occupying your thoughts for hours. It lacks consistency; in fact you could almost call it a medley if it wasn’t so unrefined and inscrutable. 

It lines your periphery, filling up the odd spaces in your mind until you’re swimming in it. Or would it be more accurate to say ‘drowning’? 

You’ve heard it over and over again working this case. 

Hamifi has played her chords from the start. Husske marks the downbeats in an innocent, disarming way. 

Yeshin forces her melody now, beautiful and caustic — an emphatic and irreparable presence even though you haven’t seen her in wices.

...Wait, what are you saying? You’re pretty sure the most sentimental instrument Yeshin would ever play for you is an airhorn. 

Maybe she’ll set ‘em up in a line and tap out Chopsticks outside your window or something. It’d be all romantic and grating, just like in that one movie. The one with that guy with the boombox. Brendan Fraser? Whatever.

There’s just no end to the mental sludge you have to dig your way out of to form a coherent thought.

All-mother, you’re exhausted. You bring your hand up to rub your eyes. 

YVES takes this opportunity to land softly on your right horn. When you move your hand, she reconfigures back into your visor and fills you in on what she found. 

It doesn’t look like much. A settlement carved out of a swamp, it seems, flanked by old stony walls. The most impressive structure there is a medium-sized church. There are signs of life there, though. 

You decide to check it out. 

When you arrive, you find that there’s a bit more to this place than you initially thought. Several people are loitering around a couple of mushroom huts, and a few more are filing in and out of the church. 

It’s not populous here, not by a long shot, but it looks like this place could potentially be home to up to 100 or so trolls.

The noise your bike made getting here was probably louder than anything this place has heard for sweeps. It certainly seems to have drawn some attention. 

A lot of attention.

...Are you imagining it, or are all these trolls staring at you with pure hatred in their eyes? 

You'll have to be on your guard here.

You dismount your bike and proceed to very officially trip when your boot sinks to the ankle into the goddamn mud. 

It makes a sound like what you imagine a troll swallowing a bowling ball would sound like, sort of a wet ‘gluogh-KACH’. 

Hm. Pretty gross.

When you manage to pull your leg out, you do your best to make it clear that you’re here on official business. To your chagrin, it looks like pretty much everyone saw you playing in the mud. None of them found it very funny.

In fact, when you look around at these people, you notice something odd. They won’t hold your gaze. Instead, they respond to your staring by becoming seemingly distracted by some feature in the dirt around their hives. 

For a moment, you’re unsure, but you quickly come to the conclusion that they’re all acting — trying to put on an illusion of harmlessness. You draw your sword.

SECILY: 1.e4 My name is Secily Iopara, Chief Regulator of Stronghold 21. ...g6
SECILY: 2.d4 Who’s in charge here? ...Bg7

No one responds at first. You begin to wonder if Proserpina would make a difference, but that thought is cut short when a mountain of a man steps forward from your right.

GERBAT: Г for the moment- J

You whip your sword towards the approaching troll. He throws his hands up, palms empty save for a dirty rag, which he promptly drops. 

Is that... a jadeblood? Interesting. Maybe you do have some real business here.

He starts talking again, this time a little more tense. Only a little. 

GERBAT: Г ...that’d be me J
SECILY: 3.Nf3 And you are? ...d6

Your sword is right at his throat. It’s a familiar spectacle for you, really. 

GERBAT: Г nobody important, I promise you that J

The two of you stare at each other. You squint at him and he looks at you like he just found you pouring ketchup on your cornflakes. 

Finally, he gives you a gentle look that seems to say, ‘look how slowly I'm moving’, and then he draws your attention over to his right hand. 

He closes it save for just the pointer finger, and you follow it with your whole head as he raises it up and taps your blade away from his neck. 

GERBAT: Г not anyone worth killing over, I mean J
SECILY: 4.Bc4 I'll be the judge of that. Why don’t you start by telling me what a jadeblood is doing all the way out here? ...Nf6
GERBAT: Г ... J
GERBAT: Г mind if I tell you somewhere private? J

He glances around, making a sort of half gesture with his eyes. Still, no one looks up. It's as if you're being intentionally ignored. 

No... not ignored. Worse. 

You're being tolerated.

Only now do you notice the state of this place. Some of these people are missing limbs. Others are clearly deathly ill or so downtrodden that they may as well be. They shrink away from your eyes, scared to be seen.

Maybe their innocence wasn't an act, after all. 

You feel a spark of guilt coursing through you. Your impromptu suspect is still at your mercy, standing at swordpoint in full public display.

Did you want to humiliate him? 

All-mother, what is wrong with you? 

You shrug, defeated, and signal for your would-be captive to lead the way. He bends down and picks up his now mud-soaked rag with an almost undetectable frown. 

You consider apologizing, but he’s already walking towards the church by the time the thought has fully formed in your mind.

When you catch up to him, he's standing just outside the doors to a stopgap churchside greenhouse. He’s holding his ruined rag in one hand, and with the other he holds open the door.

You press your lips together and frown as you step inside. 

SECILY: 5.Qe2 I feel like an apology is in order here. I hope you can understand, I don’t normally threaten innocent people like that. ...O-O
GERBAT: Г been a rough few wices for all of us J
SECILY: 6.O-O That it has. ...c6
SECILY: 7.Bb3 I'm not sure I got your name. ...d5

GERBAT: Г Gerbat Batrav J
GERBAT: Г hm J
GERBAT: Г I know this is your investigation regulator J
GERBAT: Г but do you mind if I ask a question of you J

A certain Skorpe employee comes to mind. 

SECILY: 8.e5 Usually I try to keep things strictly professional, but seeing as I ruined your rag... ...Ne8

Gerbat takes a moment to think. He huffs. 

GERBAT: Г regulator... J
GERBAT: Г just what are you trying to acheive here? J
GERBAT: Г I understand this place may look suspicious to someone like you J
GERBAT: Г but my blood is no excuse to assume the worst of me J
GERBAT: Г and living out here doesn’t make these people criminals J

He looks to the side.

GERBAT: Г alot’s been going on these past few blinks. It’s not pretty, but it’s not what it looks like either J
GERBAT: Г I figure you can understand that J

SECILY: 9.c4 You’re making me suspicious, Batrav. ...dxc4

His expression sours. 

SECILY: 10.Bxc4 I'm only here for information, not to make arrests. ...Nc7
SECILY: 11.Nc3 As long as there’s no reason to arrest you, that is. ...Be6

GERBAT: Г I can give you information J
GERBAT: Г but you gotta promise that I can trust you with it J
GERBAT: Г alot of these folks have had some bad experiances with corporate. There’s a risk involved in even letting you near this place J
GERBAT: Г I don’t want, uh... J
GERBAT: Г people... J
GERBAT: Г getting hurt J

He’s acting suspicious, but not in the way you’re used to. He seems... desperate? Scared of something, or perhaps for someone

...And what’s up with his accent, anyway? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but every time he says a lot it makes you wince a bit. Must be some regional dialect.

Regardless, you think of all the ways you could manipulate this scenario. 

You could threaten him. You could lie, tell him what he wants to hear so he’ll spill his guts, but something about him makes you want to give him a reason to trust you. 

You’ve been doling out a lot of that lately. ‘Trust’. First with that Occeus kid, and now with Gerbat.

It’s been a while since you felt like people could really trust you.

SECILY: 12.Bxe6 Alright. How about this. ...Nxe6
SECILY: 13.Rd1 If what you tell me isn’t dangerous or related to my investigation, I'll look the other way. ...Nc7

He visibly relaxes.

GERBAT: Г say, you ever had a freshly grown hot dog? J

Uh. 

SECILY: 14.Bf4 Uh. ...Nd5
GERBAT: Г I keep a bunch of ‘em right over here in the garden J
GERBAT: Г try one. I insist J

He reaches down to a particularly supple looking hot dog plant, pulling one of its fruits off with a loud snap. 

SECILY: 15.Nxd5 I'm not really in the mood. ...Qxd5
GERBAT: Г you think I'm trying to poison you or something? J

You can’t help the way your nose crinkles in distaste.

SECILY: 16.Qd2 Now that you mention it... ...Na6
GERBAT: Г if you can’t even trust me enough to eat a hot dog I don’t know how far this conversation’s gonna get J
GERBAT: Г come on now. Just take it J

>Refuse. 

>Take it. 

>Refuse: 

You wave the hot dog away. Gerbat seems heartbroken. He looks like he might cry. Come on, now, Secily, you can’t just let him cry, can you? 

>Refuse. 

>Take it.

Refuse: 

Turns out you don’t really care if he cries. You heartless bastard. 

GERBAT: Г now I come from a long line of people who know not to look a gift mythbeast in the mouth J
GERBAT: Г and you are looking this mythbeast up and down like it’s some kind of prize show J
GERBAT: Г do you have any idea how long it takes to grow one of these plants? J
GERBAT: Г it doesn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure J
GERBAT: Г first you gotta find the right kind of soil J
GERBAT: Г then you gotta hope that the seed imbibes quick, because it can take up to 6 wices for it to germinate if the field capacity is even half a centimeter from optimal J
GERBAT: Г and even then you sit around watchin’ a frail little sprout play in the dirt waiting for the fungi to show up. Can’t grow anything without the fungi J
GERBAT: Г and all-mother knows they can be hard to coax out if you’re soil isn’t tilled J

Should you... stop him? 

>Refuse. 

>Take the hot dog.

>Refuse: 

Nah. 

GERBAT: Г I mean just look at the flower structure J
GERBAT: Г you can’t tell me you think one species formed that J
GERBAT: Г and once your done ponderin’ that you should look even closer and ask yourself if you think that anything is going to grow from that flower with any kind of speed J
GERBAT: Г and if your answer is anything other than ‘I do not’ then I have some news for you J
GERBAT: Г a wice a centimeter. Could take you 5 blinks just to get a decent crop J
GERBAT: Г and they smell. These things are pollinated by flies, you know that? J
GERBAT: Г the whole garden starts smelling like a mortuary that’s run out of preservatives J
GERBAT: Г and then once the fungus is done sprouting, the actual fruit has to start growing out of it. Only known case of a plant re-parasitizing a fungal thallus, actually J
GERBAT: Г you know the meaty part of the hot dog is fungus. The skin on the outside is what we call the fruit J
GERBAT: Г it’s a mechanism. Plant gets pollinated, and that triggers the fungus to start growing J
GERBAT: Г and then the seeds grow in a corny layer on the surface J

You have the power to end this, Secily. You do. Just take it. 

>Refuse. 

>Just take it.

People like you make you sick. 

GERBAT: Г and the whole time you’re waiting for that, you have to watch the fields for just about a million different predators J
GERBAT: Г hot dogs are eaten by just about any small to medium sized lusi you can think of J
GERBAT: Г I don’t just go around passin’ them out to any old drifter. It’s not like its some kind of wiggler treat J
GERBAT: Г it’s a special offering. I hope that gives you some idea of what I’m willin’ to put into this J
GERBAT: Г but I guess some folks just don’t have the stomach for hard labor J
GERBAT: Г they prefer tomato paste and frilly condiments. That’s not how I like it J
GERBAT: Г the way it grows is nice enough for me. I just think it’s neat. Complicated, though J
GERBAT: Г way I see it, only reason you’d refuse this is if you’re trying to disrespect me J
GERBAT: Г but you know. I bet your lusus raised you better then that J

What are you trying to prove here? 

>Refuse. 

>Please take the hot dog. 

>Refuse: 

You feel as if the agency to make this decision has suddenly and metaphysically been lifted from your shoulders. 

Please take the hot dog, Secily.

>Please take the hot dog.

>Please take the hot dog. (or any variation of 'Take It'):

You make the only right decision. This was the only outcome. 

SECILY: 17.Bh6 Fine. ...Rad8

You cautiously take the hot dog from his outstretched hand. 

You don’t usually eat them with the corny skins still on — or at all, really. If you’re being honest, hot dogs are pretty far down your list of foods to eat during an investigation. 

But he’s watching you so... expectantly. 

He raises his eyebrows in anticipation, or at least in the closest thing to anticipation he can readily express. 

The silence is deafening. It’s just you, the hot dog, and your audience of one. 

You raise it to your mouth. 

POFF! 

The hot dog explodes all over your face as soon as you bite down. Oh, dear god. 

You start coughing and wiping at your eyes, and then you realize — you’ve just been poisoned. 

This is it. You’re going to die in a swamp in the middle of nowhere, and it’s all because you trusted a stranger enough to eat a fucking hot dog. 

You choke in one final breath and stare up at your assailant through watery eyes. He looks down at you, and... seems to be stifling a laugh. 

GERBAT: Г it’s overripe. Hah! J

It suddenly becomes clear to you that, unfortunately, you are not dying. No, it’s something far worse.

You just got punked. 

GERBAT: Г you gotta pick ‘em before they get too old or you get a face full of spores J
SECILY: 18.Qf4 Why would you— ...f6
SECILY: 19.Bxg7 HOW could you?! ...Kxg7

He points behind you. When you turn around, you notice a couple of the bystanders from before peeking through the windows. 

They’re struggling to keep grins off of their faces. 

Whereas before they couldn’t even bear to look at you, now they’re stealing quick glances at your powder-covered face and miming the scene to each other with exaggerated, explosive gesticulations.

SECILY: 20.Re1 Unbelievable. There were much simpler ways. ...Nb4
GERBAT: Г you think so? Or just less embarassing ones? J
GERBAT: Г now they know you don’t plan on killing anyone J

SECILY: 21.Qd2 I could’ve told them that. ...Qb5
GERBAT: Г they’ve all been lied to before. You just got humiliated and you didn’t lash out. Now they can trust you J

This is so stupid. Why do the people you interview always have to be so difficult? What, does he think the secret to diplomacy lies in blowing fruits up in peoples' faces?

You really hope your coat isn't permanently stained with this crap. 

Whatever. At the very least, now no one is focused on you. He’s brought you down to their level, for better or for worse. You hope he’s happy with himself. 

You decide not to tell Gerbat that you were seconds away from redrawing your sword. 

SECILY: 22.a3 I see. ...Nd5

You are not happy, but you’re enough of a professional to know when to keep your cool. You wipe your face off on your sleeve. It stains a yellowish-white. 

GERBAT: Г more importantly, I can trust you J
GERBAT: Г that and I couldn’t use that hot dog anyhow J

SECILY: 23.b4 I feel like we’ve gotten off track. ...Rd7
SECILY: 24.h4 Would you mind telling me why you’re here? That is, if I’m trustworthy enough. ...h5

GERBAT: Г no need to gripe. There’s a reason for all this J

He points out a noticeable division between the plants in his greenhouse. 

On one side, cash crops abound. Hot dog plants mostly, but some other less recognizable plants and plant hybrids are scattered here and there too. 

On the other side of the divide, stretches of nightmarish flowering weeds nearly obfuscate their containers, the perimeters only recognizable by the dessicated plant bodies that line their edges. 

Just to the side, powerful herbicides stand at the ready. 

SECILY: 25.Qc2 Yes, those are some ugly plants. ...a5
GERBAT: Г not just ugly. Dangerous J
GERBAT: Г they grow too quick and destroy everything J

SECILY: 26.Reb1 So you placed them next to food crops? ...axb4
GERBAT: Г I’m trying to grow hybrids. If I can breed a harmless little thing that still grows just as fast, I figure it’d be useful J
GERBAT: Г could plant them around and make some dead land live again J
GERBAT: Г the hot dogs are just an added bonus J

SECILY: 27.axb4 Aren’t you worried they’ll spread? ...Nf4
GERBAT: Г as if they haven’t already J
GERBAT: Г all I can do is weed them out as I see them for now J

SECILY: 28.Ra5 Yes, and I’m sure you do an excellent job. ...Qe2
SECILY: 29.Rb2 But that doesn’t explain why you’re here specifically. ...Qxc2
SECILY: 30.Rxc2 Do you expect me to agree that your... ‘botanics’ qualify as a reason to be so far away from the stronghold? Hamifi could easily arrange for a greenhouse of much higher caliber inside the city walls. ...Ne6

He looks at you like you’re some kind of idiot. The phrase ‘city folks just don’t get it’ rattles around in your head. 

GERBAT: Г guess not J
SECILY: 31.Ra7 So what is it, then? Are you running from something? ...Rfd8
SECILY: 32.g3 Or maybe you’re running from someone? ...g5

GERBAT: Г nothing like that J
GERBAT: Г just trying to study something, is all J

SECILY: 33.exf6+ And what would that be? ...exf6
GERBAT: Г look here J

He directs your attention over to a particularly colorful plant. It’s been a long time since anything with this much vivacity grew somewhere you could see it, so it has a certain charm to it all on its own. 

GERBAT: Г see, this looks pretty doesn’t it J
GERBAT: Г turns out it could kill you. And me! Ha J
GERBAT: Г all I would have to do is poke it on the anther and it’d paralyze me J

SECILY: 34.hxg5 Is that a threat? ...fxg5
GERBAT: Г what? No J
GERBAT: Г I just thought you’d think it was interesting J
GERBAT: Г I could tell you how I bred it but I bet you’d arrest me J

SECILY: 35.d5 Unless this is somehow relevant, maybe I should. ...cxd5
GERBAT: Г it’s relavent, don’t worry J

He looks down at the plant. The two of you share a moment of silence as you watch the gears turn in his head.

It stretches on much longer than it should, and you stare at him unrelentingly before he finally decides to take the hint and explain himself.

GERBAT: Г picture this J

He holds up his hands like he’s about to tell you something incredibly important.

GERBAT: Г sometimes... J
GERBAT: Г I feed it hot dogs J

Oh, for God’s sake.

SECILY: 36.Ne5 And? ...Nd4
GERBAT: Г remember that overripe hot dog I gave you? J
GERBAT: Г I feed it those too J
GERBAT: Г haha J

SECILY: 37.Nxd7 Are you just going to keep showing me plants? ...Nxc2
GERBAT: Г if I’m being honest I’m not sure what else I can do for you J
GERBAT: Г you asked why I’m outside the city, and these plants are the answer J

You briefly wonder how someone so big can walk around in a greenhouse this small without constantly breaking everything — not to mention the very real possibility that he could paralyze himself. 

You are suddenly very cautious about where you are putting your hands.

SECILY: 38.Nc5 Are all your plants this dangerous? ...Rb8
GERBAT: Г a fair amount are J
GERBAT: Г if you’re worried about them we can talk inside the church J

You’re inclined to go along with whatever he says at this point. You just nod.

He holds up a finger and fishes around in his pocket for a moment before presenting you a shiny, golden necklace. 

It’s quaint, but well made: though you can see some slight irregularities in the chain, the Kheparia pendant hanging from its center is expertly crafted by someone who clearly takes their work seriously.

You look at Gerbat quizzically. 

GERBAT: Г it’s tradition for this place of worship. I hope you can understand J

Yes, you can. You’ve done these kinds of stings before. Sometimes it serves you well to look the part, otherwise you catch some unwanted attention. You take the necklace and slip it over your head. 

The two of you exit the greenhouse and head toward the church doors. 

The inside of the church is far less gruesome than your mind played it up to be. There are no tuning forks, no screaming voices, no weird dark walls... in fact, it almost looks homey. Well lived-in. 

You get a few strange looks from some of the occupants, but any hostility you may or may not have imagined is gone — they seem satisfied enough when they notice the glimmer around your neck.

GERBAT: Г so J
GERBAT: Г what did you want to ask me? J

There are a few things you can think of that might be important.

Gerbat is a jadeblood. By birthright, he knows things about Corporate’s inner workings that most trolls don’t. 

You know he’s probably living off of a decent Corporate wage. If you asked, you’re sure Hamifi could dredge up all kinds of information on this guy, but you’re... not exactly desperate to talk to her at the moment. 

You know he’s growing and studying dangerous plants. 

You’re a little bit confused about them. If they’re so prolific, why have they not spread farther? Why are you only hearing about them now? 

You have no idea if Gerbat knows the answers, but there’s no harm in asking.

You also know he’s in charge of a nontraditional church of Kheparia. Now that you think about it, that could make a halfway decent motive for wanting to steal a vial of godlike blood. 

You sincerely doubt he had anything to do with the murglary given his disposition and his living situation, but it doesn’t hurt to be too cautious. Let it be known that you are not above grasping at straws.

You decide to ask about...

>Ties to Corporate. 

>Deadly Plants.

>The Case. 

>Ties to Corporate.:

SECILY: 39.Nd7 As a jadeblood, I imagine you’re well taken care of by Corporate. ...Rd8
GERBAT: Г that’s almost right J
GERBAT: Г when I feel the need to head into the city I’ve got money J
GERBAT: Г I don’t really see much point in it, though J

SECILY: 40.Rxb7 Because you grow your own food? ...Kg6
GERBAT: Г that and I can’t hardly stomach what they sell there anyway J
SECILY: 41.Rb6+ Surely you must keep in contact, though. ...Kf5
SECILY: 42.Rd6 You must be doing something important to convince Hamifi to let you live out here. ...Nxb4

GERBAT: Г I admit, the reasons I’m here border a little on the personal J
GERBAT: Г that and the plants I’m studying are region specific J

SECILY: 43.f3 How so? What’s stopping you from growing them in the city? ...Rxd7

Gerbat sighs.

GERBAT: Г hold on, you see these? J

He pulls his shirt collar to the side. 

Underneath, his chest is covered in painful-looking mosses and fungi. They seem to spread across his whole torso, embedded into what you can only assume are his arterial and venous patterns. 

GERBAT: Г I got permission to stay where I picked these up from J

You don’t know how to respond. Your mouth hangs open for a moment, ultimately leading you to sputter out the stupidest thing you could ask.

SECILY: 44.Rxd7 Is it contagious? ...g4

Gods. Sometimes you have trouble with this. 

If you would just keep your distance from people like you usually do, you wouldn’t keep making these mistakes. 

You’re like a magnet for bad conversations with strangers. Emotions and tact go out the window as soon as you lose even the slightest amount of control over a situation. 

As it stands, you got lucky: he hardly seems to notice your faux pas.

GERBAT: Г hah. Not likely J
GERBAT: Г gotta spend some quality time with the plants themselves to get this number J
GERBAT: Г it’s killed some friends of mine, though. Ruined a few farming communities too. I’m wanting to keep that from happening again J
GERBAT: Г part of what I’m doing out here is looking for a cure J
GERBAT: Г I’m not really supposed to be in this place specifically, though. Don’t think Hamifi is gonna like that much J

SECILY: 45.Rf7+ You’re telling me that you’re intentionally breaching your agreement with Corporate? ...Ke6
GERBAT: Г yep J
SECILY: 46.Rb7 And you don’t think I’d let Hamifi know what you’re doing? ...Nd3
GERBAT: Г nope. You don’t strike me as the type J
SECILY: 47.f4 Bold assessment. ...Nc5
SECILY: 48.Rb6+ She must not check in on you very often. ...Ke7

GERBAT: Г she fills me in on some things. Bit of a one-sided conversation usually J
GERBAT: Г sometimes I help out with cloning when she needs a hand J
GERBAT: Г but other then that, not much J

SECILY: 49.Rh6 Have you ever heard anything slip? Something that maybe you shouldn’t have? ...Ne4
GERBAT: Г why are you asking me? You’re the one working for ‘em J
SECILY: 50.Kg2 Stay with me here. I’m just trying to fill in a few gaps. ...Nf6
GERBAT: Г what is it with you? Scared of your bosses? J

He softly shakes his head.

GERBAT: Г you know, I knew who you were as soon as you stepped off that motorbike J
GERBAT: Г Hamifi doesn’t tell me much about herself, but from what I hear you practically raised her J
GERBAT: Г I hope you didn’t come all the way out here to try and dig up dirt on your kids J

He stares at you, daring you to defend yourself.

SECILY: 51.Rg6 I’m beginning to think you’re misreading the situation. You’re not really in the position to be questioning my motives. ...Ke6

He scoffs. 

GERBAT: Г I didn’t realize we were taking positions in the first place J
SECILY: 52.Rg5 It’s part of the job. ...Ke7
GERBAT: Г or it’s part of you. Everything always has to be some kind of challenge to you J
GERBAT: Г everybody has to have something to hide J
GERBAT: Г what are you hoping to find, regulator? J

SECILY: 53.Rf5 That’s an interesting take on the situation, Batrav, but it’s patently unhelpful. Perhaps we can leave the psychoanalysis to the TEMPs and stay on task. ...Ke6
GERBAT: Г all I’m trying to say is that there’s enough hostility in this world J
GERBAT: Г you’re not doing anyone any favors by adding to it J

SECILY: 54.Re5+ How noble of you. If you’d seen half of what I’ve seen I doubt you’d be so accusatory. ...Kf7
GERBAT: Г I think I’ve seen enough to form an opinion on it J
GERBAT: Г you know, I may not seem like it, but I’ve done a decent amount of reading J
GERBAT: Г you ever heard of something called a fair trial? J

SECILY: 55.Kh2 From my understanding of them, they were hardly fair. ...Kg6
GERBAT: Г the very fact that you can recognize that proves you know what I mean J
GERBAT: Г the Renaissance had some problems. Major problems. But it hit closer to the mark then whatever we’re doing now J
GERBAT: Г now, we hardly even arrest anybody. We just kill them instead. I mean, you just about took my head off back there J
GERBAT: Г and for what? Because I looked at you funny? J

SECILY: 56.Re7 I apologized for that. ...Kf5
SECILY: 57.Kg2 We both agreed that I misjudged the situation. ...Kg6

He chuckles. 

GERBAT: Г ‘misjudged’ it, huh? So what happens when it’s not me on the other end of your sword? Someone who doesn’t know how to deal with anger? J
GERBAT: Г what happens when an innocent troll gets ‘misjudged’? J

SECILY: 58.Re6 What happens when your ‘fair trial’ fails to convict a serial murderer? ...Kf7
SECILY: 59.Ra6 On my last case, I uncovered an operation that killed dozens of trolls with fake medicine. I found them with crates full of poison and a manifesto that would put it everywhere. ...Kg7
SECILY: 60.Rd6 What happens when the indictment for those smugglers gets lost in legalese? ...Kf7
SECILY: 61.Ra6 Should I redirect the widowed bondmates to you so you can explain your philosophy on justice? ...Kg7

He crosses his arms. Maybe you went too far. 

GERBAT: Г sure, regulator J
GERBAT: Г much better to let businesses decide who dies J

You’re obviously not getting anywhere with this. You sigh. 

SECILY: 62.Ra3 Why don’t we talk about something else? I have other questions. ...Kg6
GERBAT: Г be my guest J

>Deadly Plants:

SECILY: 63.Rd3 So, those plants. The ones that grow so fast. ...Kf5
SECILY: 64.Rd4 Why have I not seen them before? ...Ke6

GERBAT: Г you probably have if you’ve ever been around outside the stronghold J
GERBAT: Г they’ve gotten to be a bit troublesome J

SECILY: 65.Rb4 Given the fast-spreading nature of the species, I would think that they’d be impossible to avoid. ...Kf5
GERBAT: Г give ‘em time. It’s bound to happen sooner or later J
GERBAT: Г I’m trying to breed some nicer ones to outcompete them when it does J
GERBAT: Г that’s my cause J

SECILY: 66.Rb6 You say that like they haven’t already had time. I find it hard to believe that this species just so happened to evolve like this overnight. ...Ne4
GERBAT: Г you’d be right to be skeptical J
GERBAT: Г ready for a crackpot theory? J

SECILY: 67.Rh6 Those are usually pretty common in my line of work. Shoot. ...Nf6
GERBAT: Г I think someone made them this way J
GERBAT: Г I think someone wanted them to hurt people J
GERBAT: Г I’ve been around alot of plants... and these ones just aren’t right J

He’s speaking as if he’s informing you that your matesprit is in critical condition. Concerned. Saddened but professional. 

SECILY: 68.Kg1 Why would someone intentionally create something that could destroy the ecosystem of the entire planet? ...Ke6
GERBAT: Г your guess is as good as mine J

He looks down. 

GERBAT: Г if I’m being perfectly honest J
GERBAT: Г it takes alot out of me sometimes J
GERBAT: Г trying to keep my head up. Trying to keep from just throwing in the towel and leaving the world to its mess J
GERBAT: Г I guess that sounds pretty foolish coming from a troll who’s fighting for a cause like mine, huh J

SECILY: 69.Kf2 If I’ve learned one thing in this case, it’s that there are lots of causes to fight for. ...Kf7
SECILY: 70.Rh8 I’d venture that yours is better than most. ...Ne4+

He nods. 

GERBAT: Г what about you? J
GERBAT: Г what’re you fighting for? J

It’s an odd question. You haven’t really reasoned through the ‘why’s of your life since you were young. 

Back then, you fought for her. You wanted to succeed because that meant you could put the terror of this world, of failure, behind you. 

You saw yourself in your mind’s eye with a smile on your face. She would stand right there next to you, not a care in the world. 

She would be happy. Free. She would look at you like you hung the stars in the sky for her, because you would. Because you would do it a million times over for her. You would do anything.

But then she died. 

And now all you see is red. 

SECILY: 71.Kg2 I suppose... ...Nf6
SECILY: 72.Rc8 I suppose I fight so that no one will have to live through what I have. ...Kg6

He stares at you with a thoughtful look on his face. You can’t help but feel uncomfortable in the silence.

SECILY: 73.Rc6 I don’t mean to be melodramatic. ...Kg7
GERBAT: Г it’s not melodrama if it’s real J
GERBAT: Г you lost someone J

He’s seen right through you.

SECILY: 74.Rd6 How did you know? ...Kf7
GERBAT: Г I’ve seen it before. That’s the real reason I’m here J
GERBAT: Г I could set up shop with plants anywhere. I could spin some arguement about soil quality or whatever you like, but that’d just be talk J
GERBAT: Г I’m here to help a friend of mine get by J

SECILY: 75.f5 If you’re only here for one person, why are you in charge? ...Ne4
GERBAT: Г I’m really only in charge through proximity J
GERBAT: Г as it turns out, the one I’m here to help is the one who should be running this place J

SECILY: 76.Rxd5 That explains the lack of response to you being held at swordpoint, then. ...Kf6
GERBAT: Г yeah. Well, what can you do? J
GERBAT: Г they don’t look to me for guidance anyway J
GERBAT: Г kind of hard to lead a religious community when you’re not so religious yourself J

SECILY: 77.Kh2 I don’t blame you. I’ve seen a lot of harm come from piety. ...Ng5
GERBAT: Г I believe it J
GERBAT: Г I wouldn’t be surprized if a cult had something to do with those weeds, actually J
GERBAT: Г lot of people wanting to end the world one way or another in those circles J

Your conversation reaches a natural lull. It’s about time you changed the subject, you think. 

>The Case:

SECILY: 78.Kg2 Do you happen to know anything about a vial of lime green blood being stolen? ...Nf3

He looks confused.

GERBAT: Г lime green as in lime green? J
GERBAT: Г you sure it wasn’t olive? J

SECILY: 79.Rd8 If it was olive, why would I be looking into it? ...Kxf5

He makes a face like he’s wrestling with something. After a moment, he shakes his head and blinks his eyes clear.

GERBAT: Г I guess not J
GERBAT: Г sounds like something out of one of those fairy tales J

SECILY: 80.Rh8 I assure you, it is very real. Real enough to get at least three people killed. ...Kg5
GERBAT: Г what makes it worth killing over? J
SECILY: 81.Rg8+ I’m going to assume you’re not just playing dumb. ...Kf5
GERBAT: Г hah. Nope, this dumb is all real J
SECILY: 82.Rh8 Right. The blood is said to have life-giving properties. It’s rumored that it could make someone immortal in the right hands. ...Kg5
GERBAT: Г and you think I have something to do with it? J
SECILY: 83.Rg8+ I doubt you even had the means to pull off the operation in question. Unless you happen to have a lot of highly trained friends, that is. ...Kf5
GERBAT: Г I don’t make many friends J
GERBAT: Г especially not those kinds J

SECILY: 84.Rf8+ I didn’t think so. ...Kg5

Well, you can go ahead and cross Gerbat off your list, then. That was harmless. 

[End of choice section.]

>Move on.

Gerbat seems airtight. And yet...

Despite your best intentions — despite you making a fool of yourself time and time again today, you honestly don’t want to leave. 

Maybe it has nothing to do with Gerbat. Hell, of course it has nothing to do with Gerbat. 

Let’s be real, here. If you wanted a lecture, there are plenty of people on this planet that would love nothing more than to rip you to shreds. 

I don’t make many friends, he said. Yeah, you’re not the only one, Batrav. Birds of a feather flock together. Even those with broken wings. 

You don’t want to leave because it would mean going back. 

You don’t consider yourself an easily frightened person, and that would be because nothing scares you. Nothing physical, that is. Your head, though — there’s a story waiting to happen. 

You’re fascinated, you think, with Mshiri, with Yeshin, just as you were with Ahlina, because when you’re with them... you don’t have to focus on you.

Yes, of course they would talk about your life, your interests, your fucking coping mechanisms, but in spite of everything it never felt real. Nothing ever feels real. 

These people in your life have an incredible ability to shift your focus. 

They can make the world seem manageable for a time, either by promising you a partner in all this or by convincing you that the malaise you feel is something out of the ordinary. Something external. 

But it’s always there. 

You always feel it. You’ve always felt it, just waiting for you to let it in. 

If you keep busy, it can’t find its way to you. If you run it in circles, if you talk yourself up as the one in charge, then it has no room to take control. 

You are an incredibly important person to some people. That should be enough. 

You wish you could tell Mshiri everything. You wish she could feel the same way. You wish you didn’t have to feel this at all. You wish you could tell Ahlina Okay, Secily. Time to calm down. What was it you were doing? 

GERBAT: Г something wrong, regulator? J

Oh. Right. 

SECILY: 85.Ra8 Nothing at all. ...Nd2

Now that you think about it, there was something else you wanted to ask. 

>Gerbat’s friend. 

SECILY: 86.Ra5+ I was just thinking. Where is this friend of yours? ...Kg6
SECILY: 87.Kf2 And what happened to them? ...Ne4+

GERBAT: Г that’s one thing I’m not at liberty to talk about J
GERBAT: Г it’s not my business J

SECILY: 88.Kg2 I think by now we’ve established that it doesn’t so much matter whose business it is. ...Nd2
GERBAT: Г careful, regulator J
SECILY: 89.Ra4 Or what? ...Nf3
GERBAT: Г or I will ask you to leave J
SECILY: 90.Kf2 And then what? You think I’d just go? ...Kg5
SECILY: 91.Ra5+ I don’t think you took the vial, but I know from experience that intuition is a far cry from precognition. ...Kg6
SECILY: 92.Ke3 Would you call it cynical if I told you I was still suspicious of you? Of everyone here? ...h4

GERBAT: Г I don’t think that’s what makes you cynical J
SECILY: 93.gxh4 You know what? You have every right to call me a cynic. I’ll afford that to you. ...Nxh4
SECILY: 94.Kf4 By your standards, we’re all cynics. Maybe we should take a page out of your book and live in austerity. ...Kf7
SECILY: 95.Kxg4 Let’s all just let plague eat us alive. Who cares? Why should death matter if we’re pure of heart? ...Ng6

GERBAT: Г I can’t speak for the rest of the planet, but it wouldn’t do you any harm to let a few things go J

Ugh. Why does he keep doing that? 

GERBAT: Г I’m sorry. This just isn’t something I can do J
SECILY: 96.Ra6 Okay. ...Ne7
SECILY: 97.Kf4 I understand. ...Ng6+

He smiles. 

GERBAT: Г I knew you would J
GERBAT: Г I doubt you’d want to see him anyway J

SECILY: 98.Ke4 He’s in pretty bad shape, I imagine. ...Ne7
GERBAT: Г yeah J
GERBAT: Г like I said, it hasn’t been easy J

He rubs the back of his neck in a way that’s almost apologetic. His friend obviously means a lot to him. 

But then... something else catches your attention. It was quick, but his head turned just barely over his left shoulder. You follow his eyes. There’s a door. 

Interesting. 

SECILY: 99.Rh6 I suppose I should keep my promise. Nothing about this is related to my investigation, so like I said, I’ll look the other way. ...Kg7
SECILY: 100.Re6 That’s just about all I need from you. Thank you for your time. ...Kf7

Gerbat stands. You move to do the same, but he motions for you to remain seated. 

GERBAT: Г before you go... J
GERBAT: Г I know this trip hasn’t been kind to you, but I appreciate what you’re doing J
GERBAT: Г the way I see it, least I can do is make you some tea. I grew it myself J
GERBAT: Г isolated, of course. No contamination J

SECILY: 101.Ra6 Tea isn’t... ...Ng8
SECILY: 102.Ke5 Actually, that would be nice. ...Kg7

He smiles at you again, then he slowly walks out of the church. 

Time to investigate. 

You know what you’re doing is wrong. 

Well, that’s not exactly it. You know it would be wrong for someone who wasn’t investigating something as serious as you are. 

Not to mention, Gerbat is incredibly cagey. No one is that defensive when they have nothing to hide. You would have to be an idiot to not take this opportunity. 

This wouldn’t be the first time you took advantage of a suspect leaving you by yourself, and if you recall (which you do), some of your most groundbreaking discoveries have come from snooping around on your own. 

In a way, it’s sort of all you know. 

That, and there’s something eating at you. 

It feels like you’ve been losing control this whole time. If you have to leave and you come up with nothing, you only let yourself get taken advantage of again. 

For sweeps now, you’ve been nothing if not easy to manipulate. Corporate. Your mystery caller. Now Gerbat. 

You’re done. This lapdog can hold her own leash for once.  

You start by taking a more careful look around you. This church is nice enough, but upon further examination it does ring out as a little on the gauche side. The pendant you wear around your neck is proof of that. 

You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t put it on.

All eyes are on you as you stand up and walk toward the door in the back. It’s unlocked.

>Open the door. 

This place is disgusting. It almost makes you feel like you stumbled into the secret dungeon in one of those ‘reality show turned psychological horror’ TV programs that seem to be so popular these days. 

Honestly, you don’t remember the last time Repiton aired a season of decent reality TV. At this point it’d be more avant-garde for a bunch of beefcakes to actually just hang out with each other for 30 minutes. 

A brisk walk down the center hallway grants you a mental map of the floor. Looks like there are about six rooms here. You decide to start from the far end and work your way up.

You suppose this dismal lighting is probably meant to inspire feelings of danger in you, but the only feeling you get from the place is that it’s trying too hard to give you a headache. 

What are these, gas lamps? And so many chandeliers. 

Whoever planned this decor clearly had an aesthetic in mind — one that makes it hard for you to believe that all of these cobwebs are real.

At the end of the hall, one of the doors on your left hangs slightly open. You peek inside. 

Empty. What a waste.

The next door you try opens into what looks like a storage room. Inside is just about anything a troll would need to survive long stretches underground: food, clothes, detergents... 

Nothing useful to you. 

You take some minor pleasure in throwing the door closed and hearing the thud it makes echo down the hall. 

The next door you try is locked. 

That won’t do. 

You step back and plant a solid kick under the doorknob. The wood splinters, but doesn’t break completely. 

Apparently, you need to do some more physical training. You prepare yourself for a second kick. 

The door all but shatters with a satisfying crunch. What remains slams against the wall inside and bounces back towards you, shaking violently against its hinges. 

When you check inside, the disquiet in your head evolves into a dreadful seriousness. 

Unlit candles are amassed in the center of the room around a ring painted with religious symbols. The floors are dirty with discarded objects, and what could be either food or blood stains the walls. 

None of it could be more than a couple of wices old. 

You scan the corners, and for a moment you see yourself as a sacrifice under a blade, lying prone in the center of the circle. One slip and the blood on the walls could be yours. You should wrap this up quick.

??????: Gerbat...?

There’s your suspect. He’s just barely poking his head out of the room behind you. 

SECILY: 1.e4 Not quite. ...e5

You storm towards him, drawing your sword. He quickly steps back, but makes no move to close the door on you. You respect that. 

??????: wait
??????: who are you
??????: Δo you neeΔ something...?

SECILY: 2.Nf3 You can start by identifying yourself. ...Nc6

You push your way in. He recoils, backpedaling to re-establish some distance between you. 

CRETAS: my name is Cretas... i;m the heaΔ of the church
CRETAS: is Gerbat with you? ;;

Is he begging for help already? Pathetic.

SECILY: 3.c3 Gerbat won’t be joining us. ...Nf6
SECILY: 4.d4 As for you... ...d5

You grab your suspect’s arm. 

SECILY: 5.Bb5 Come with me. ...Nxe4

He struggles, but when it comes to strength there’s no contest. You force him across the hall. You hear his breathing quicken when he sees the painted circle. 

SECILY: 6.Nxe5 This was your doing, was it not? ...Bd7

He doesn’t respond. His arms cover his face instead, wrapping around his head. 

SECILY: 7.Qb3 Tell me. How many trolls have you sacrificed in this room? ...Qe7
SECILY: 8.Bxc6 How many innocent lives were lost because of you? ...Bxc6

CRETAS: it;s... it;s not like that...

His voice is barely audible. A breeze over a waterfall. 

SECILY: 9.O-O I’m not in the mood for lies, cultist. ...Qe6
CRETAS: you Δon;t unΔerstanΔ

You force him against the wall. 

SECILY: 10.Nd2 I think I understand perfectly fine. You spent sweeps building a tomb, and now you’re ashamed of the bodies. ...Nxd2
SECILY: 11.Bxd2 You make me sick. ...O-O-O

He’s practically choking on his own breath now. 

SECILY: 12.Rfe1 I won’t let you kill anyone else. ...h6

Suddenly, Cretas snaps. In a flash his teeth sink into your arm. 

You pull back and slam him into the wall hard enough that he’s forced to release you and gasp for air. As soon as you’re free, your sword is at his throat. He responds by collapsing into a pitiful heap.

You glare at him for a moment. This is nothing new to you, really. You’ve seen tons of suspects cry like this. Each time it ends the same. You unsheathe your second-best dueling rapier. 

SECILY: 13.a4 Take it. ...Be8

His only response is another wail. He’s hidden his face fully behind his arms, his nails digging sharply into the back of his head. 

SECILY: 14.a5 ...a6 This is your only chance at survival. Get up. ...½-½

Still, he doesn’t move. Maybe you should just end this. You feel the blood soaking through your coat sleeve from the bite. 

This feels familiar. For one graceful moment, all sound melts away. Your head spins. Across the hall, you can just see into Cretas’s room. 

It’s a wreck. There are layers of dishes and clothes, strange stains, abysmal lighting... It’s as if the motivation to even move had evaporated. 

It looks kind of like yours did when Ahlina died. 

You turn back towards Cretas, who has given up on screaming. His body is wracked with gentle sobs. Your grip on the rapier loosens.

A hand grabs the collar of your coat, and you watch the room pulse as you are dragged away. The sound returns all at once as your second-best rapier hits the ground. 

As you are pulled into the hall, you realize that you will likely never see it again. 

Gerbat deposits you at the top of the stairs, just outside the door you snuck into mere minutes ago. As you fall on your knees, he quickly disappears. For a brief moment, you are again left alone. 

In the middle of the church floor is an upturned tea set, its contents slowly seeping into the carpet between the pews. 

When Gerbat returns, he doesn’t even look at you. He stops just in front of you, seemingly in physical pain, and drops an assortment of herbs and bandages onto the ground. 

GERBAT: Г for the bite J

The words fall from his mouth like cinder blocks. 

As they hit the ground, his eyes turn up and he glowers at you, his face a tepid mixture of confusion and brutal disappointment. 

He practically jerks himself away when he turns to go back downstairs. 

door slams behind him. 

Given time, it's remarkably easy to become someone else. One could simply walk into another room.

Values and morals are malleable, derived from sycophantic threads like an unspoken mesh between the devout and the desperate. An intrinsic affectation. 

It's disquieting to perform for no audience, just as it is to realize that when the audience is gone, so too is most of what you would call 'you'. 

Silence will kill you. It suffocates. It recapitulates. It exposes you. It makes it all too easy to believe...

...That this doesn't matter. You're not meant to be liked, after all, and even if you were, what makes Gerbat qualified to pass any kind of judgement on you? You've known for a long time that there was never any magic in this world. 

It's his fault for not realizing that himself.

Fuck this. And fuck him, too. You remember back at the office, when you first joined as a junior regulator, one of the first things that caught your eye was a piece of paper stapled to the wall. 

It was a crudely drawn square, bright blue ink, with the caption 'Bang head here! REPEATEDLY!' It was some kind of office joke, something about being fed up with management, but it evolved into a tradition. 

A stupid decision earned you a comment from anyone nearby: Better pay the wall a visit, eh?

Well, you know where you're going when you get back.

You stand up and move towards the exit, but you can't seem to bring yourself to leave. Is there any chance he could forgive you? He seems like an understanding guy, right? 

You stare at the door to the stairs. 

Once again, all eyes are on you. It's not every day a troll sees a regulator get dragged up the stairs and dumped on the floor like a bag of barkbeast shit. Your indecision and pacing must be equally as perplexing. 

You linger, letting yourself get irradiated with judgemental stares, until there is only one thought left in your head. 

You have to get out of here. 

You turn towards the church doors, bracing yourself. You take a deep breath, and-

GERBAT: Г what are you still doing here? J

You look over your shoulder and he's there again, closing the door to the stairs as quietly as possible. 

He steps away from it and stops about 10 paces from you. He crosses his arms, struggles to get over something visceral, and finally looks up to meet your eyes. 

GERBAT: Г you know... J
GERBAT: Г I thought I knew you. I don't know why J
GERBAT: Г call it old souls J
GERBAT: Г but you are not who I thought you were. I guess that's just another example you can use to call me an idealist J
GERBAT: Г so congratulations, regulator. You were right after all J

SECILY: 103.Ke6 Sorry to hear that. ...Kf8
SECILY: 104.Ra7 If only I was more predictable for you. ...Nh6 ½-½
GERBAT: Г listen. I get it. Things are hard J
GERBAT: Г but it is not my job to fix you J
GERBAT: Г sort yourself out. But don't do it here J

He takes a deep breath. 

GERBAT: Г if I ever see you here again... J

He doesn't finish the sentence. 

As you walk down the path away from the church, the blood from your arm finally soaks the rest of the way through your coat.

It drips unceremoniously from your hand, briefly staining the dark ground below before it is overwhelmed and diluted by mud. 

You take a moment to wrap your wound with the bandages. You’re not well-versed enough in herbology to know how to use the rest, but you have people for that back at Corporate. 

Speaking of which...

You make a sort of mental ‘pros and cons’ list.

Cons: In the past wice, you have learned the brutal truth behind Ahlina’s death, alienated yourself from your place of work, and disobeyed orders to the point where you may as well call yourself freelance.

You learned of things that challenged everything you thought you knew about the world, yet you’re still so caught up in routine and mixed emotions that your internal monologue sounds a dirge. 

Last but not least, your clothes are ruined. You’re absolutely caked in dirt, fungus and blood, not to mention the bite-mark tears in your sleeve and your missing rapier.

Thankfully, this settlement doesn’t seem too keen on mirrors, otherwise you might have to self-reflect. 

And the pros? 

Well, at least you have your pride. 

Then again, thinking back on what just happened, maybe not. 

Gerbat’s a nobody, and you know as soon as you leave this place you will likely never hear anything about him ever again.

He’s not the type to go running to Hamifi either, so you don’t have to worry about another session of heated pen clicking. It's as if you were never here.

Besides, even if any of this did matter, he's not about to open up a dialogue with you anytime soon. You have nothing to gain from dwelling on this. 

You decide to forget this night ever happened. It’s for the best. 

You approach your bike, which is still sitting right where you left it.

As you take one last glance behind you, you make up your mind and scroll through your list of contacts. This little sabbatical of yours has gone on long enough. 

It rings a few times, and for a moment you wonder if he’s even taking calls from you anymore, but inevitably the ringing stops and you hear the gentle rustle of another person on the line.

SESTRO: ∞secily?

He sounds like he just received a call from the dead. 

Well, maybe that’s not exactly right. It’s more hopeful than that.

He sounds like he just received a call from an old friend. 

SECILY: 1.e4 Yes, it’s me. ...e5
SECILY: 2.f4 I think it’s time we talked this out. ...Bc5

END