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File: 1687234241445.png (Spoiler Image, 614.87 KB, 1248x701, TCS One More Final.png)

 No.764657[View All]


You hear peaceful sounds. Birds call, and leafy branches, idly stirred by a languid breeze, whisper a soft response.

>[..] is gone. In its […] breaking […]. […] the sky and […] Dim radiance […] holy protection […] of the earth…

>And […] horizon. […]

>[…] millions of paths […] in […] millions and millions of […] every path […] a spiral, […] dancing […]

You have been walking through these sounds for quite some time.

>[…] has […] prove to […] Yet […]

>[…] fading […]

>All […]

> […] dancing themselves to […] […] [……………………]

Colors, sounds, wind and light blend, turning and swirling before, around and within you, like dark tea, stirred in crystalline glassware. Yet, this synesthesia is all of the world, to you. This chaotic reality, contrasted against the solidity of warm, hard-packed dirt beneath you. A path, a long, long path, walked by countless many alters…
94 posts omitted. Click reply to view.


Time passes, and you learn in your festival-going that the Queens wish to have their honored guests assembled at the Royal Castle – or as near as they can get to it – at the cusp of nightfall, when sun and moon are to trade their watch over all the land and skies. You occupy yourselves until then, meeting faces new and old, playing games, trying snacks, collecting souvenirs and making fond memories.

At the promised time, you gather before the Royal Castle, where a magnificent stage has been established on an upper balcony overlooking the grounds. Two great places have been set, one for each Queen, and another between them, for a guest not yet known. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands–

>[…] millions and millions […]

–of Souls have gathered before the great Castle, of every walk of life–

>[…] born here, or others came to it, whether from another Castle, or even, as the rumors go, from elsewhere in the […]

And the air is palpable with a great and fervent anticipation of what this festival, this–


–thousandth year will herald for the land of–


>Part 1/?



As a certain weariness briefly overtakes you, you become aware of three figures in the crowd, some distance ahead. A certain visual grain, a kind of static, covers their forms, as if they were superimposed upon the scene from an old VCR recording.

As for their appearances, they are hard to make out. For, you see, a kind of mist covers them as well, from head to about midway down their shins. It radiates out from the figure in the center.

The central figure is a tall, bipedal figure. He wears a heavy coat, yet, from the great tail extending from his backside, you can tell he is a dragon. He carries a briefcase at his side.

To his left is a quadrupedal figure. You cannot tell their race, only that they are mighty of stature. Their fore and hind hooves are made of high-end, military grade cybernetics.

To his right is another quadrupedal figure. This one is modestly dressed, covered even to the legs in a classy hybrid of dress and suit. Yet, from the part of her hooves you can see, you can tell she is a changeling nymph. She must have incredibly long hair, for two strands, twintails, extend to about her shin-height.

After the figures have registered in your field of view, you become aware also of another peculiar imposition. Canterbury, it seems, has been blended with the streets of another mighty city. Buildings, intersecting streets, signs and other fixtures of city life are laid atop one another, like clipping computer-game models. Nobody, not even the three occulted figures, seems to notice this strange visual error.

A door upon the balcony opens, and out march the Queens, to much fanfare and heraldry. Yet, the three occulted figures pay no heed to it.

For, concurrent with the appearance of the Queens, another door has opened– a door of Agate, overlaid onto the base of the Queens' Royal Castle.

Out from that door steps an entourage of gray-suited figures, some quadrupedal, some bipedal. Their appearances are unmemorable– so much so that they do not even register in your minds. These, agents the Lux Deorum. They accompany a portly and old crystal pony, dressed in royal finery, and topped with a great crown. No queen, nor princes nor princesses, accompany this Agate King. He is all alone, half-staggering and drunk.

Though you cannot see his face, the central occulted figure – the Dragon – has his eye upon the Agate King.

>To be continued…


What a strange trio. These queens are something, but the trio is mysterious. I keep my eye on them.




Those three are bad news; she can feel it in her gut. She decides to follow them.


Lost follows along, sensing something off about them.


I look to my old members and see what their intent is, and follow my group in whatever they do. This strange bunch has my attention now, however.


The dragon and the two quadrupeds offer a saluting half-bow to the Agate King, demonstrating their knowledge of protocol for when meeting a Royal not of one's own Castle – an exceedingly rare instance, knowledge therefore irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of all Ironcastle's citizens, and indeed, even most the Nobles and Royals themselves, except the most exalted of dignitaries. The Agate King does not reciprocate this dedication to decorum with the traditional response of a King to foreigners, merely waving them off with unmasked annoyance.

Plastic greetings are exchanged between the groups, and yet, you can hear no word of them. Indeed, something is quite different about these apparitions than the ones before. The film grain covering the trio also covers the Agate King, his entourage, and even the glimpses of Agatecastle's architecture visible while superimposed onto the scene of Canterbury. Conflagration, straying too close, notices that the Dragon's tail sweeps toward him, and retreats too late– yet, the tail passes through his forearm without making contact, as if this scene were nothing more than a hologram. It calls to mind the security footage that Mogao presented when trying to implicate Ironcastle in the destruction of Agatecastle. Indeed, is undoubtedly that very scene, recreated from the past– by none other than the Backstage.

The Agate King, continuing to swagger and complain – judging by his silent, drunken movements – motions for the dragon and the two quadrupeds to follow him, into the opened doors, into the depths of Agatecastle. So too do you.

Their trajectory takes them down through the Layers of Agatecastle, by elevator, trolley and private car. The Observatorium; the Barracks; the Commons; the Technicarum; the Aetherium; the Magesterium; the Orchards; the Noblesse; down, even, to the Palace. Nine Layers, with nine Floors each, housing close to one billion living souls. Every one, assigned an inviolable Caste, and with it, an inescapable lot in life…

Forty-five Lux Deorum agents escort the Agate King and his Iron entourage to a secure meeting-hall, and in turn into a secure meeting-chamber. It is, in an instant, familiar to you– you swore your fealty to Iron King Ischyros in a chamber exactly identical to this one, in order to be officiated as a member of this Investigation. But, rather than swear fealty to the Agate King, the occulted trio sit, as directed to by the Agate King.

>Part 1/?



The Dragon opens his briefcase, withdrawing a sizable stack of folders and papers, all stamped with an official Ironcastle wax seal. The papers deal with the consumption of energy converted from the Light Undefiled – the holy Light produced by the Heart of every Castle. Prior to your departure upon the Investigation, eco-terrorist provocateurs had stirred up trouble in Ironcastle by claiming that this Light was not infinite, as was commonly believed, and was soon to be all spent. They nearly caused mass panic, but the claims were quickly debunked by official sources. Yet, judging by the energy conservation plans detailed in the Dragon's papers, Ironcastle's authorities were taking the concerns gravely seriously.

Though you cannot see the faces of the trio, the Dragon is large enough that you can read his gestures. He is clearly passionate about the subject, and with carefully-rehearsed movements, seems to be trying to persuade the Agate King about the veracity of the energy crisis, and the proposed counter-measures.

Yet for all the Dragon's passion, the Agate King clearly could not care less. He continues to pour himself drinks, and lazily snack upon richly-decorated confections that a Commoner's annual wages could never hope to purchase. He frequently interrupts, his countenance mocking, his gestures flippant. The Dragon persists, consulting charts, projections, proposals, scenarios and mathematics. The scene fast-forwards for a period of indeterminate time spent negotiating, perhaps even for a week, with neither party giving an inch…

Until, it resumes at a normal speed. The Agate King, his hedonistic indulgences having brought him to a severe state of inebriation, is unstable, his patience expired. He gestures for a Lux Deorum agent, who brings him a folder of his own. The Agate King, with an arrogant smirk, presents it to the negotiators. The outside is nearly black with ink stamps – LEVEL ZERO SECURITY CLEARANCE. None except the very Royal Agate Family itself is to lay eyes upon it. The negotiators are shocked as the Agate King throws it open in his drunken pride. Inside there lays a document, entitled–



With growing horror, the trio of negotiators read through the folder, headless of the security violation punishable by their deaths. Every page outlines a simple core plan, in response to the extinguishment of the Light Undefiled: The arming of the Sword of the Five Gods – and Agatecastle's total nuclear self-destruction.

The Agate King boasts of the Protocol, at times bold, at times disparaging and contemptuous, at times bitter and melancholic, at times vindictive and giddy. The Dragon tries to interrupt in protest, gesturing desperately to his own documents of energetic conservation, a slim hope of life, but the Agate King hears nothing of it in his perverted reveries, and the argument, once diplomatic and calm, dissolves into overlapping shouts.

At once, the Dragon stands in molten fury, his claws trembling as his chair clatters to the ground. The changeling nymph moves to restrain him, but the Lux Deorum of Agatecastle have already mobilized, reaching for their guns. The figure with the mechanical body stands as well, and the Dragon nods at them. In an instant, they have leapt to the other side of the room– and the Lux Deorum, 45 members strong, are bashed to pieces, dissolving into floating, neon lines of code as they perish.

The Agate King, realizing far, far too late the gravity of what he has invoked, can only stare down the Dragon with snarling contempt as he approaches. The Dragon, animated now by undilutable wrath, hesitates not for an instant. His arm streaks through the air– and shreds the Agate King into a shower of gore.


At the very moment that the Dragon annihilates the Agate King, gray static rips through the Nine Layers of Agatecastle. Reality itself cracks like glass dashed upon stone. Every fragment distorts, rending into myriad disasters, each of its own sort, descending onto the people of Agatecastle. Infernos, quakes, hurricanes and tsunamis; siege engine invasions; disesases of the body and mind; terrorist bombings; mass hysteria and mob violence; meteors and cosmic terrors; the mutation of citizens into the Dreaded Ones– every catastrophe imaginable twists its way into reality, an amalgamate apocalypse. As screams, sirens, smoke and blood engulf the dream of Agatecastle's demise… gray static mercifully drowns your senses.

The source– none other than the unrestrained Heart of Agatecastle.


Observing this, Deadweight keeps her cool, but she can't help but feel distressed inside. What is reality? She know what she wants it to be, and she's afraid that it isn't. This all makes too much sense, and it doesn't make sense that it does. She looks around, then when she finds Lost Hope, she wordlessly grabs her before reality unravels.


I watch this happen and wonder if someone else should have been seeing it as well.


Lost slowly looked over to Deadweight unsure, she would have quite a few questions for her mother about this but given everything they had seen… she couldn't help but think perhaps this actually had happened.


"That's disturbing, isn't it?"


"It is, Sir Conflagration, as it also means this final protocol failed in its purpose."


Drowning beneath static, all sensation dissipates, one by one, like theatre lights blinking out… one by one, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, movement, and spirit fade away, leaving you with a placid void, an empty peace…

…until you feel yourself, once more, upon an endless path.

Through restless dreams, Firmgold, Deadweight, Steadfast, Lost Hope, Xu, Cautaa and Huitlapan awaken in Layer Nine, Floor Seven, where the Agatecastle Investigation Team has established the barracks and medical ward of its Forward Operating Base.

Judging by the time, only about four hours remain until you are due to attend a Team-wide debriefing regarding all that has transpired thus far. You've slept nearly fourteen hours, and quite frankly, you feel like you could sleep for ten more.


Lying in her bed, Deadweight grits her teeth and squeezes her eyes shut, then she takes a deep breath. She gets up and goes to the mess hall to get something to eat.


I set an in-helmet alarm and close my eyes for another 3 hours. Waking up the last so I can freshen up and eat for the debriefing.


Lost was very slow, the hollow feeling was still there but it was… a bit better. She sighed and simply wondered why the world had to be so nasty, why they couldn't have a happy life where everyone didn't have to fight to survive.

She rubbed her puffy eyes and slowly dragged herself to the mess hall to get some food


In the mess hall, it looks like most other staff members – those well enough to walk – aren't faring much better. The kitchen staff have opted to serve only the easiest meals, but the rest of the staff aren't complaining, as even eating in this state proves a difficult task. Plenty of staff members break the one-tray-per-member rule, in order to bring breakfast to those stuck in the infirmary.

Eventually, the time for debriefing comes, as scheduled, and despite your stupors, you manage to make it to attendance.

Like the previous team-wide meetings, this is led by Seneschal Colonnade Reprise and Knight-Brother Mountain. Staff members are invited to speak each in turn to give their respective accounts of the fight between the Necromancer and Mogao, as well as the aftermath.

However, every time that a Staff member attempts to broach the subject of the strange dreams – Seneschal Reprise affixes her gaze right upon them, and her spiral-pattern eyes seem, for a time, impossible to look away from. Each time this happens, the staff member quickly changes the subject away from the dreams, and the rest of the staff soon gets the picture.

When all accounts of the battle are gathered, Mountain announces that the Moon and Sun Staves have been placed into Priority Zero storage, along with the body of Mogao, as well as Conflagration's personal effects. Conflagration, as it will be no surprise to hear, shall be nominated for Martyr of the Abbey, alongside everyone else who died during the battle.

Perhaps, if Lost were inclined, Dhampir could receive such an honor as well…

Conflagration, however, will also be submitted for canonization as Saint of the Abbey for his apparent miracle in dispelling the strange apparition that appeared over the battlefield, which saved everyone's life. It is, technically, a bit early, given no miracles have come from his intercession after his… disappearance from this world… but there is quite a bit of confidence among the gathered that the case will succeed.

Furthermore, your team in particular have been chosen for special honors for your slaying of the Necromancer, and for Lost's exceptional service in saving the injured following the battle. Special medallions will be prepared for you in Ironcastle, and shipped to Agatecastle on a future supply delivery run. Alongside this announcement, you learn that your fellow staff members have begun calling you the Mourning Lights, as a sort of collective team name. A bit shakesponian, but it sounds like the name is sticking.

The Seneschal invites you here to say a few words, if you are so inclined.


When it's Deadweight's turn to speak, she simply debriefs her side of the battle, laconic and austere with her words. She doesn't forget to commend her team and the rest of the Castle who fought in the fierce battle, especially those who lost their lives, including her comrades Dhampir and Conflagration. After she's done, she walks back to her seat, still stony-faced.


"I… would like to request that my partner and brother Dhampir receive a commendation, a military reward, he wasn't one for faith so I think it would be more… appropriate for him. I wouldn't have been able to save everyone. I mean no offense to the abbey I just… feel like it would honor his memory best." she said softly, the pain evident in her voice.

She looked to the Seneschal, staring into those swirling eyes with a mixture of pain and resolve, as she gave her final words for this.

"The highs and lows, the darkness and the light, everything I have seen here… it has changed me in ways I don't think I'll ever truly recover from, but…" she looked to Deadweight and she smiled softly before looking back "I shall not lie about what I saw. I won't lose my hope of understanding and finding out how to save our people and this world." she said before she left.


I decline any words.


When Deadweight sees Lost smiling at her, she smiles back. Though it's faint, it's the first smile she's made today.


Seneschal Reprise nods. "Meet me later, and we'll put in the paperwork for his commendations on the next supply run. Thank you."

The Seneschal thanks you again. Xu, Deadweight and Huitlapan each add a little bit themselves, but as they are quite drained, they mostly co-sign what has been said already.

When at last you go back to your seats, the leaders quickly wrap up the debriefing. You are all told that you're in for two weeks' paid vacation, as well as a special bonus.

Just as the meeting is nearly done, someone tries to ask whether or not it is possible for an Investigation Team member to withdraw from the effort, and be sent back to Ironcastle.

…The Seneschal, having hit that staff member too late with her spiral eyes, does not directly answer their question, but assures them that their concerns will be taken into consideration.

With that, the debriefing ends, and you are dismissed, to do as you wish.

>timeskip to two weeks from now available


When Deadweight and Lost are alone, Deadweight breaks her stony exterior and sobs. Still not speaking a word, she grabs onto Lost, seeking comfort.



Lost just helps her. Holding her tight and letting her have all the time she needed



I will go to distract myself with making sure my underground trade lines weren't discovered or gone-after, and then start making small trades of things that I believe would be valuable for small comforts for myself and Steadfast while we're still here.


You spend your paid vacation as you will. Not many places to go to in the FOB, but Xu is very generous with her gaming collection. Inspired by her example, other staff members orchestrate get-togethers of their own, sharing hobbies of this sort and the other; crochet, card games, cookouts, the painting of wargame miniatures, and many kinds of sports.

All too soon, two weeks pass…

…And the supply ships come in.

The supply runs are more of the logistical team's responsibility, but this time, something of a commotion gets your attention on the runway…

Alongside the supply ships, three Ironcastle Lux Deorum ships have arrived. The intelligence agency of Ironcastle… and as you saw in your dream, also of Agatecastle. These Lux Deorum members look identical to the ones you saw massacred by the negotiator with the mechanical body… gray suit, gray tie, gray coat, gray hat, unremarkable features…


They are busy speaking with Seneschal Colonnade Reprise, and Knight-Brother Mountain. Though the latter two are stone-faced, confronted by these intelligence agents, you've gotten to know them well enough to sense, albeit vaguely, when they are disconcerted.

The talks end between them, and Reprise and Mountain head to the Storage Areas. The Lux Deorum immediately begin to refuel their ships with the assistance of the shipyard team.

A Concord message pings in your inboxes.

>RE: Continuation of Investigation Duties

>Seneschal and I are getting recalled to Ironcastle. The King would like to personally hear about our progress so far. Vacation's been extended by a week until replacement leadership can be dispatched. Yes, it is still paid. You are still barred from leaving the FOB until the next leadership says otherwise.
>In the Name of Iron.
>K-B M.


"Why couldn't we stay there?" she whimpers in between sobs.

Deadweight furrows her brows at her magicomp. Something seems amiss.



Roll #1 8 = 8


I make sure there are other stashable weapons and bugout kits reachable and hidden away.


Lost was apprehensive around the Lux, she had seen them get angry and the fallout of thier mission here. She watched them with narrowed eyes under her helmet.

She scanned the area for signs of something amiss.

[1d10] Perception

Roll #1 3 = 3


Sensing something in the air, you ensure your 'just in case' preparations are top of the line…

You see that the shipyard team is hauling crates from the Priority Zero Storage. Though you aren't certain which crate contains which from this distance, you simply know, through a gut feeling, that the crates, in total, contain Mogao's body, Conflagration's belongings, and the twin Staves of the Sun and Moon.

A Lux Deorum agent attempts to direct the shipyard staff to load it onto one of their own ships, but Mountain is quick to intercept, and has the staff change course. The staff instead load the crates onto Mountain and Reprise's personal skiff – the very one you rode into Agatecastle. A brief argument follows between Mountain and the Lux Deorum agent… but Mountain seems to win, as the agent ceases their argument.

Shipyard staff remain posted around Mountain and Reprise's personal skiff. They look confused, but remain at their posts while the two leaders, or rather, former leaders, load up their personal belongings onto the ship. They seem to be taking quite a lot for a temporary trip back home…

Eventually, loading is complete. The shipyard staff move from their watch-posts, and prepare to see off the four ships, on their return trip to Ironcastle.

The sole staff member who wished to go home watches the ships depart with a forlorn look in her eyes.

>Now, what is Conflagration up to…?


I am enjoying myself immensely sunning myself, barbecuing, honing my magic, and generally enjoying my retirement. Whether it's Ironcastle or Canterbury doesn't really matter much. It's a tall, tiered city just like I'm used to but open to a world of sunshine and nature rather than darkness and devastation. My friends never come to visit me, of course, but I've got the sneaking suspicion that's a good thing. Or maybe not. This place is much nicer than wherever I used to be.


Lost opted to try and slip into the shadows

[1d10] Stealth

Roll #1 10 = 10


Deadweight walks up to the lone staff member. "Yo, those crates looked heavy. I broke a sweat just watching 'em gettin' carried to the ships."

>Gib info


Roll #1 4 = 4


Once they leave I return to doing not much else, as there's no going out of the FoB that means there's no trade going through either, on any channel.


Equestria is certainly an eclectic land, and her people do not always get along – to say nothing of how they get along with the people of the neighboring lands – but it is a good and prosperous home for you. Nothing's ever too difficult to get over with a little ingenuity and a little help from your friends – new friends met in this town or another.

Every now and then, a strange feeling bothers you, like you're forgetting something… but the feeling drifts away, time and again. It does happen, now and then, that you catch a strange craving for mochi. The store-bought stuff is just crap, as you know; you've got to get the real, traditionally-made stuff. Canterbury's got a good festival scene. Maybe something there…

The lone staff member curls up into a ball and cries.


As for you, you would have to wait for the arrival of your next set of leaders before you could learn more of the truth of Agatecastle's fate…

…Alas, your epilogues will have to remain unwritten for the time being…

>Part 1/?


An Ironcastle armored skiff flies low over the black landscape of the Outlands, concealed by a cloaking device. Inside, the two occupants sit in silence. Knight-Brother Mountain, and Seneschal Colonnade Reprise, former leaders of the clandestine Castle of Silence Investigation… as of less than three hours prior, they have been temporarily relieved of their duties, and summoned back to Ironcastle, to give a report in person to Iron King Ischyros.

Three Lux Deorum gunships trail them, holding an escort pattern behind their ship. These members of Ironcastle's intelligence agency had been the very messengers to relieve the two leaders of their duties. Despite having just endured a week-long trip by ship to Agatecastle from Ironcastle, the Lux insisted upon taking the two leaders back to Ironcastle the very moment that refueling was complete.

So it has unfolded.

Inside the armored skiff, Reprise flits her eyes toward Mountain, and then to one of the camera feeds– the one displaying the Lux Deorum escort.

Mountain shakes his head. "I've checked every inch of the ship thrice over – software, too. Not a single monitoring device. It's safe to talk."

Reprise practically collapses in her chair from relief. "Finally… I've been ruminating on that dream the entire vacation. Thankfully, I don't think the Lux saw any of the written reports we got about it. I confiscated every one before the ink was even dry."

Mountain sips a bit of coffee from a thermos. "Well, where should we begin?"



"That dream…" Reprise mutters. "Is it safe to assume that that was the Interior Castle giving us a glimpse into the past?"

Mountain nods. "Mogao and his Moon cult refer to the Interior Castle as 'the Backstage,' going by the Concord voice data harvested from the Mourning Lights. But, same idea."

"I figured," Reprise says. "Then, it wasn't just a mere dream, but genuine history… That was how Agatecastle was destroyed. And, as for those three figures…"

"I'd bet my last schilling that they belonged to the Thorns," Mountain says.

"Let's not paint with too broad a brush," Reprise says. "The Dragon who flew into a rage– he's definitely a Thorn. Seemed like an ideologue, for him to have gone berserk like that. There could still be a chance that those other two were just high-level mercenaries – especially the one with the mechanical body."

"Maybe," Mountain admits. "But, the Thorns historically don't accompany their own mercenaries. It's either all Thorns, or all mercenaries… though, I suppose that makes the two of us exceptions to the rule."

"Fair enough," Reprise says. "Next question, then: To what faction do they belong?"

"Either the Ecumenists, or the Syncretists," Mountain says. "I'm sure of it."

"Not the Dogmatics?"

Mountain shakes his head. "A Dogmatic wouldn't lose his composure at the thought of Annihilationists getting ready to destroy themselves. First and foremost, those three went to Agatecastle to convince the Agate King of something. It was only after the Agate King revealed the Annihilation Protocol that the Dragon flew off the handle. Genuine Dogmatics wouldn't waste their time trying to parley with Annihilationists. Not even to get them to surrender their Light Undefiled – it'd be a lost cause."

"I see…" Reprise says. "Then, in that case, they're either Ecumenists or Syncretists– and moreover, they weren't aware of the existence of the Annihilationists in the first place. The mere concept was enough to send the Dragon over the edge after all that negotiating… I'd bet they're Syncretists, in that case. Out of all the factions we know about, they're the biggest bleeding hearts."

"Sounds about right," Mountain says.

"And, I think it's all but certain that they really were from Ironcastle," Reprise notes, her countenance grim.


"How do you figure?"

"The wax seal on their documents could have been, in theory, forged," Reprise says. "So, here's the real damning evidence: The contradictory reports from both inside and outside Agatecastle about when, precisely, it fell.

"When the Agate King died, the Agate Heart instantly broke free of its Ribcage, and went into meltdown. Time, causality and history within Agatecastle distorted at random, leaving the survivors with all manner of contradictory memories about the timeframe of Agatecastle's collapse. With that in mind, I see three scenarios possible:

"The first, that Agatecastle really did collapse ten thousand years ago, and that the Dragon's team reported it as such to the Iron Monarchy of ten thousand years ago.

"The second, that Agatecastle collapsed not very long ago, but was falsely reported as having been collapsed for ten thousand years, either by the Dragon's team, or someone working for them.

"The third… that the Dragon's team never formally reported Agatecastle's collapse. They escaped Agatecastle at the very moment that the time and history inside Agatecastle distorted, such that Agatecastle 'collapsed ten thousand years ago.' Then, upon the team's return to Ironcastle… the Iron Heart extracted the Data that 'Agatecastle collapsed ten thousand years ago' from the team's personal Data Fields. With that Data being the most recent Data regarding Agatecastle, Ironcastle's history revised itself to be consistent with that Data."


Mountain scratches his chin in thought. "Hmm… if they're the same saboteurs behind the shortages of Ironcastle's Crystal Heart supply, then it's the second or third scenario we're looking at."

"But now this has me thinking," Reprise continues. "I find it hard to believe that the murder of the Agate King was enough for the Agate Heart to break free of its Ribcage. Yet, reality descended into madness the moment that the Agate King died. That was undoubtedly a meltdown we saw. But, there had to have been more failsafes in place… right?"

"I would think so…" Mountain says. "But consider this. It was clear that the Agate King lived in a state of perpetual hedonia, to be so drunk and gluttonous in front of foreign dignitaries. There wasn't any Royal Family with him. Not even any Nobles, nor proper royal guards. The only ones he kept around him were the rank-and-file of the Lux Deorum. Since we can assume that they're the same as Ironcastle's Lux Deorum… it means that he kept himself surrounded with agents that lacked any kind of free will or sapient thought. In other words– the Agate King kept nobody in his inner circle who could tell him 'No.'"

Reprise slowly nods as she pieces together the picture. "So, you think he'd turned into a tyrant as a result of falling in with the Annihilationists?"

Mountain nods. "It's a bit chicken-or-the-egg to say, but that's the idea. Having anyone else be a failsafe would have been a check on his own power and pleasure. Remember just how ecstatic he looked when he explained the Annihilation Protocol to the Dragon. It's easy to imagine he loved the idea of being the one thing holding Agatecastle back from the complete distortion of its inner reality."

"But Agatecastle more or less stands," Reprise observes. "Inside, reality is mostly stable. The Papillions must have gotten the Agate Heart back under some kind of emergency restraints not too long after the Dragon killed the Agate King… so just what in the world are those two Staves, then?"

The Staff of the Moon, and the Staff of the Sun… both, along with Mogao's comatose body, and Conflagration's personal effects, are kept in the storage unit of the skiff.


"Probably the work of rogue Papillions," Mountain suggests. "They would know how to craft machinations like that, and how to hide them in the Interior Castle. Or, to use Mogao's preferred metaphor: How to stash props in the Backstage."

"I could see that," Reprise continues. "Assuming they weren't sympathetic to the Annihilationist cause, Papillions would have the means and the will to foment mutiny… and that would probably explain why they didn't activate the Sword of the Five Gods when the Dreaded Ones were detected inside Agatecastle."

"There may still be a few holding out inside the lowermost Layers," Mountain agrees. "Wonder if they picked up on the Investigation team's presence."

"If they did, they may try to make contact…" Reprise says. "But if word got out that the Agate King was murdered by an Ironcastle operative, that contact just might turn ugly…" She sighs. "No use worrying about it now. At the very least In any case… Was that really was the Archetype of the Moon that Mogao summoned?"

"Not just the Archetype," Mountain says. "That Moon was coming down to collapse onto some kind of gargantuan monster – the monster appeared not long after the Moon got close to the battlefield. That too… was an historical event. Mogao didn't just summon the concept of the Moon– he summoned a particular Moon, from a particular World."

"A World in which the Moon was made into a weapon… the situation must have been hopeless," Reprise observes. "That isn't just mass destruction… that's mutually assured destruction."

Mountain nods, and the two are silent in thought for awhile, sipping their coffee.

Behind their armored skiff, the three Ironcastle Lux Deorum gunships follow along. Ostensibly, an escort back to Ironcastle…


"By the way…" Reprise begins. "Between the Agate Alters that Mogao summoned… and the ones we saw Backstage… Did you see any Alters that looked like either of us?"

"No," Mountain says, without hesitation.

Better to confront fate directly.

"I'd wager no Alters exist of either of us, anymore," he concludes.

"So, the Rite worked," Reprise sighs. "Damnatio Memoriae… we really are genuine Thorns." She laughs a bitter laugh… and half-mutters, half-sings, "Nothing can stop us from becoming nothing now…"

"I've got that cassette around here somewhere if you wanna pop it in," Mountain says.

Reprise scoffs and gestures around the cockpit's messy interior. "Buried under all your energy drink cans."

"I'm saving them," Mountain says. "That's good money if you take 'em to the recycling center. Could buy us lunch on it."

"Could you, now…" Reprise says. She looks into the rear-view camera feed, her eyes on the three Lux Deorum ships. Inch by inch, with mathematical precision, those three ships are moving into an attack formation on the down-low.

"Too bad we aren't going to make it back to Ironcastle, then," Reprise says.

"We've been married ten years and you still don't trust my piloting," Mountain chides.

"It's the traffic I'm more concerned about," Reprise says.

"Dickheads," Mountain snorts, glancing at the camera feed. "Passing lane's right there, guys. Go around me."

"…They're going to try to kill the Mourning Lights too, aren't they?" Reprise says.

"Not directly," Mountain says. "The Lights aren't Thorns, but they saw the Annihilation Protocol, and the murder of the Agate King. They know too much. It's more likely that the Lights will suffer a very tragic accident the next time they descend into Agatecastle."

"I just hope the Lights find the dead mare's switch I made," Reprise says.

Mountain nods. "They'll be fine,"

"And I hope the Lux Deorum find the dead mare's switches I made for them," Reprise adds with a cruel grin.

Mountain smirks. "Now them, they're fucked." His hoof goes to the autocannon controls. "As for these guys…"

Reprise nods, and grabs the controls for the ship's secondary guns.

Somewhere in the Outlands, four armored skiffs exchange a cavalcade of silent hardlight gunfire. Over an impossible distance… a lone figure – a Dragon, occulted by static – observes the exchange.


>Iron King Ischyros, the Far Seeker, sets down the fourth and final Report of the Agatecastle Investigation, and sips the coffee Sister Root had set before him. They are the only ones to occupy the conference room on this Cycle.

>Mabin, High Director of the Lux Deorum, is uncharacteristically absent.

>"Sister," Ischyros says, keen to take his mind off anything other than his confidant's absence. "Make a note about this Concord program. It desperately needs some security updates. I mean, have you read this Report? Seems just about everyone's exploiting it one way or another."

>"Yes, sire," the Sister says. She casts another glance at the conference room's sealed and enchanted door. "…Th-this Report was late in coming, I note. Do you think Mabin's absence may be–"

>Before she can finish that sentence, the door flies open. With quick and long strides, a lanky white Diamond Dog, his clothing ruffled and stained by dried blood, enters the room. Sister Root gasps, fishing for the medical supplies she always carries in her saddlebag.

>"You must forgive my tardiness, your Majesty," High Director Mabin says as he takes a seat, taking care to not let the dried blood flake off as he fishes his cigarettes from his coat pocket. "I had an unexpected rendezvous with a certain Noble and spent the past hours in a most gripping discussion."

>Iron King Ischyros scoffs. "Surely we have known each other long enough that you do not need to hide your personal affairs behind euphemisms!" he says. "Truly, it seems the missus was–"

>"No, no," Mabin interrupts. "I speak plainly, but allow me to be even clearer. The Noble who accosted me was none other than Lady Offbeaten Path, of House Titanite."


Ischyros launches up from his chair, shocking Sister Root as she dabs at Mabin's injuries with a wet cloth. "That incorrigible… she's been interfering with the Agatecastle Investigation from the very first, and now she assails my right-hand dog. I'll have her–"

"Arrested? Tried? Jailed?" Mabin scoffs. "Sire, please save yourself the time, trouble and personnel. Now that my conversation with her is complete, I have no doubt she could elude us at every step if she were so inclinded – she may even have done so under a different name, a different body, perhaps even under a different Royal Family."

Ischyros blinks in shock. "You mean to say – she may even be from a different Castle?"

"We've other matters to discuss first, sire," Mabin says. "It is for the best that she captured and interrogated me, actually. I believe she was on the hunt for high-ranking members of the Lux Deorum, in order to obtain the Reports of the Agatecastle Investigation. I know now that I am one of the very few who could have survived such an encounter. Had she needed to capture others, they in their loyalty would not have submitted to her interrogation – and we would have lost countless valuable agents. But I am arrogant, prideful and reckless, and so I told her what she wished to know. In the end, I am certain I surrendered nothing that she would not have been able to learn through other, bloodier means. And for my collaboration, I managed to obtain information I sought as well."

"An Iron Hero as ever, High Director," Ischyros sighs. "Now: What is her obsession with the Agatecastle Investigation?"

"Her interest was less about Agatecastle," Mabin says. "And more about her very flesh and blood… her magnum opus."

"Her estranged daughter, Lost Hope?" Ischyros asks.

Mabin is silent, and does not answer for a time. "…I shall begin with a review of her interference in the Investigation.


"Lost Hope, as you know, was not on the initial list of personnel we selected when planning the Investigation. We only discovered that she had been surreptitiously added to the list of vetted and approved personnel mere hours before they were scheduled to be sworn to secrecy, debriefed and deployed. With my staff otherwise occupied, and under a time crunch, I opted to verify her files myself. This was my error, no doubt deliberately engineered by Lady Path. When Lost's files, by my hasty review, appeared to be clean of red flags, I convinced myself that I had simply missed her vetting while juggling my countless other duties and stressors in the months leading up to the Investigation. Therefore, I did not cancel her deployment.

"But I could not shake the feeling that I was missing something. Thus, I passed along her files for a more thorough verification by the Lux Deorum's typical vetting procedures. The Lady is crafty beyond peer… but even she could not hide from the Light of the Gods forever. They discovered that Lost Hope's records, down to her very birth certificate, were a truly convincing forgery. Near-perfect pastiches, down to the very chemical composition of the ink and paper upon which they were printed… I considered having Lady Path arrested and questioned, but I was not confident such an attempt would succeed. Besides, she wounded my pride. I did not want to retaliate with brute force where she had succeeded with guile. Truly, sire, she would make a better High Director than I–"

"Cease that kowtowing," Ischyros snaps. "What happened next?"

"…Right. I deployed my very best agent, my personal bodyguard, on a covert mission into the Manor Titanite. If any trace whatsoever were left – an indentation on a rug, a fallen hair, even discarded skin cells – I feared we would be found out… but the mission was flawless. My agent discovered that not even Lady Path was without a heart. They captured a snapshot of a pair of genuine documents, worn down by years of reading and rereading… two certificates of death, both issued on the same date.

"The first, for a filly, who had almost reached the age of two. The second, for a colt, who had just turned four. Their names, respectively, were Charity and Hope."



For a moment, none can speak. Mabin drags on his cigarette, and continues.

"We used the notarization on these genuine certificates to continue our investigation… As you know, the blessed internment of the dead is a matter of the utmost severity in Ironcastle. No death certificate exists that is not linked to a corresponding certificate of cremation… or so we believed. When we found the cremation certificates linked to the deaths of those foals… we found that, like Lost's records, they were forgeries."

"The bodies were never cremated?" Ischyros asks.

"Correct," Mabin answers.

"Then, the bodies…"

"The search continued even deeper into the criminal underworld of Ironcastle. I specially appointed another of my personal retinue to spearhead this search. The Lux Deorum rank-and-file are less suited for negotiating criminal activities than we would like to admit. The Lux Deorum thrives on numbers, data, patterns, statistics. The criminal underworld operates on personality, suggestion, unspoken words… this required a personal touch.

"The investigation slowed nearly to a crawl… until we uncovered a lead, from an old soul at the heart of a smuggler's network. An old soul who had seen, and done, far too much in the Outlands. My agent could threaten him with nothing that could shake him. He laughed in their face, and volunteered the lead freely.

"It was a rumor.


"A rumor of a surgeon. They possessed incredible influence and wealth – most likely a Noble – and commissioned the smuggling of a very specific species of Dreaded One into Ironcastle. The most unthinkable of crimes, the only crime punishable by the Nonagintimation: The execution of the criminal and a random ninety percent of all living Souls who have any relation, blood or personal, to the criminal, regardless of stratum, occupation, or age. It is the most grotesque of all punishments conceivable, more deterrent than threat… and yet, this surgeon was rumored to have defied it.

"It wasn't much to go on, but we would not be called the Light of the Gods if that were enough to halt us. Following that rumor and related ones to their sources, my agents grafted together a loose narrative of whispers.

"Of a surgeon Noble, who paid an unthinkable sum commissioning an unthinkable smuggling…
"Of a clandestine hospital, deep in the unmapped expanses of the Noblesse, whose staff consisted of a single surgeon…
"Of a congenital disease, once believed incurable, and one hundred percent fatal…
"Of an impossible event, wrought not by a miracle, but unspeakable, blasphemous science…
"Of the true reversal of death itself."

Ischyros sits there, pale-faced, his pupils small and dark. "Then…"

"This was the heart of my conversation with Lady Offbeaten Path," Mabin says. "The symbiotic lifeform codenamed 'Dhampir,' begotten of the fusion of Hope's corpse with that of a Dreaded One. Iron Soul Lost Hope inherited her life, power, and name from Dhampir – twice over. First, when Lady Path surgically implanted Dhampir into Charity's central nervous system, reviving the filly anew under the name 'Lost Hope,' nearly seventeen years ago. And again, when Dhampir sacrificed his life to restore Lost Hope's, in order that she could save their allies from the falling of the false Moon.

"I confirmed that Lady Path cured her other two children, Good Intentions and Lazy Days, of their congenital diseases using Dhampir's cells. They also owe their health and lives to him… to the original Hope."


"…I've a question," Sister Root says. "In order for flesh to live, it requires a soul. The soul remains in the body for three Cycles after death, before it returns to the Light Undefiled… if it is not first consumed by a Dreaded. All arcane knowledge on the soul attests to this. Only necromancy's most forbidden rituals can detain a soul from this departure, but they must be done immediately after death to be efficacious. How then, did Lady Path forge a living consciousness from… well, to be blunt, from two corpses and a soulless abomination?"

"That, I do not know, for she did not confess," Mabin says. "And at this point, I do not know if any speculation I can dream of is too wild for Lady Path's capabilities… However, she named her youngest daughter 'Lazy Days,' a most unusual expression. The term 'Day' is the supposed name of the country of the mythical 'King of the Sun.' Why then would there be 'Days,' as in more than one? How can a country be 'Lazy?' It may be that Lady Path has an inkling of the true secret of the Castles, just as Mogao and Mendicant Rudolph did."

Ischyros leans upon the table, face obscured by his interlocked fingers, and is silent for much time, while Sister Root continues to clean Mabin's injuries.

"…I would have her summoned here," Ischyros finally says.

"As I have warned before, an attempt at arrest would probably backfire," Mabin says.

"I do not want her arrested," Ischyros says. "I want her recruited into the Thorns."

Mabin lets the cigarette droop, his eyebrows arched so high they might leave his forehead. Eventually he sighs, extinguishes what remains of the butt, then stands and bows. "I shall extend thy inviation, sire."

"Thank you," Ischyros says. "And then you are to take two weeks' vacation, to be punished by two more weeks, if you are caught doing so much as checking your e-mails. You too, Sister Root."

Sister Root nods silently, and then glances at Mabin, whose mouth is already open to form a protest. Mabin, feeling the stare of the Sister and the King weigh upon him, sighs again. The old spymaster allows himself to relax, if only a little, and if only under orders. "As you wish, your Majesty… thank you."

>So reads the End of the report of the Castle of Silence.

>Thank you for playing.


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