Song of the Earth

They awaken in a great dining hall:

They’re all here: Will and Daniel, Ava and Aaron, Kouamé and Dylan, though Jessica is conspicuous in her absence. Aaron touches his body, and then reaches over to hug Daniel, and Ava. “I died,” He says, suddenly grateful.

“I didn’t die. I was alone,” Ava says, remembering being stranded in the gas giant.

“I don’t think I was ever born.” Dylan says. “Will… ”/characters/gabrielle-harrison" class=“wiki-content-link”>Gabrielle?"

“There is death and there is death,” Gabrielle says. She sits at the head of the table. “It was easy to retrieve you from Saturn, where your deaths had no impact on the timeline.”

Gabrielle sits at the head of the table—it’s large, and round, but there’s no questioning she’s at the head of it. The others are here too: Alex, Ren, Fríða, and Karasi from St Louis. America, Ursula, Sapphira, Alethia, John, Jacob. Matt and Xifeng. The Technocrats who survived the battle: Charlotte, Russ, Siera, Lacey, Trista, and Keisha. Linda as well.

“No, not ”/characters/sonia-farooqi" class=“wiki-content-link”>Sonia," Gabrielle says sadly. “There is death and there is death. Even if ”/characters/kal" class=“wiki-content-link”>Kal hadn’t done the deed with his own hand, her death was felt and impacted by all."

There is something very weird about time here. Everyone feels a pervasive sense of deja vu, and not a single time mage, no matter their paradigm, can put a date and time to when they are, can even figure out how long they’ve been here.

That is the smallest difference. Of all the differences between the Ecstatic paradigm and others, the biggest might be this: there is no cause and effect. Later, those assembled won’t be able to put their conversations into any particular order, determine which thoughts and words influenced what. Did the Avengers from Saturn know that Sonia was gone when they realized they were alive? Why did the grief from that conversation not carry over to others? Why was that conversation not tinged with the joy of reunification?

Everyone is tired, but especially those who journeyed to Saturn—and Alex—find themselves famished from the journey. Gabrielle glances at the table, and it’s covered in food—everyone’s favorite is somewhere here. Chicken noodle soup and clam chowder, latkes and cotton candy, crab and lobster and scallops, roast asparagus and potatoes and casserole. There is roast beef and spiral ham, turkey with stuffing and cranberries and rolls. Blood oranges, peaches, cocktails. There are glasses of blood in fancy shapes for the vampires. Food from port cities, food from Algeria and France and the Ivory Coast, from India and Greece and other places.

The cornucopia happens in a moment’s notice, and doesn’t even seem to require any effort for her to sustain.

“I am not a run-of-the-mill Archmage,” Gabrielle says to Alex, and she sounds completely sincere stringing those words together. “But Kal is more powerful still. At best, I have maybe a 30% chance in a head-on confrontation with him. But his chances are better now, before I’ve had a chance to acclimate my Archmage senses to my new reality. The fact that he’s not… I see two possibilities.” Gabrielle says. “Either he’s afraid, or, as you were going to suggest, he’s overextended himself and has Paradox to contend with. Or other issues.”

No one really… gets a chance to talk. Gabrielle keeps taking the words from their minds, in some cases before they even get a chance to think them.

“And you made a box to hold an Archmage,” She says to Alex and Will, and Karasi and Fríða. She tries… very hard not to sound like a mother impressed with the school project her 7-year-old and his friends made. Very hard, and fails. “I’m so proud of you! If we can get him in it, it will hold for sure. Sorry Will,” She adds, or added, or adds later. “Your father is an Etherite. But I’ll concede you won anyway.”

“And what was your plan?” Gabrielle asks Siera. “You were just going to shoot Will, or Dylan, and make me emotionally distraught? And you thought I wouldn’t notice?” Siera draws her weapon, and Charlotte rams her in the shoulder, causing the wounded woman to drop it. Gabrielle ignores her, trusting the younger mages can handle it as the Technocrats drag her outside. “You don’t understand! They deserve it! They all deserve it! Do you have any idea what this world was like? The kinds of things that humans do to each other—they all deserved this!” The Void Engineer shrieks as she’s dragged outside.

“First we need to clean house,” Gabrielle remarks. “There is one Nephandus left among you, one last one you didn’t find.” She points her out. “Siera.”

“I’m not going to loop us again. Not right now, maybe not at all.” Gabrielle says between Daniel and America. They really represent the opposing viewpoints right now, don’t they? “First, such an endeavor would leave me completely helpless—helpless enough for Kal to do a more permanent job than he managed before. Second, the difference between an immediate loop and something like this is like the difference between returning you to life,” She touches Daniel’s shoulder with her finger, “And returning ”/characters/sid-sterling" class=“wiki-content-link”>Sid Sterling, or Jahan. Those events have touched too many lives, their absence impacted too much. There is also the question of which timeline to return to—there were so many created. Which one receives precedence? How do I—do we—respect the souls that belong to each iteration?" She touches America’s shoulder, briefly.

Little details seem to change here and there. “”/characters/jianyu-zheung" class=“wiki-content-link”>Jianyu is awake," She tells Daniel. “He can join us later.”

“This place is huge,” Ava gets out as she returns from the bathroom.

“Yes, it’s the chantry,” Gabrielle responds. “I made it a good deal bigger. There are a lot more people here, and if we get through this this will be one of the great chantries of the world, housing hundreds.” Hopefully everyone in the cabal is okay with living in a CASTLE now.

The room changes. Still the great cornucopia, but more tables now. Only the Avengers and the Daughters of Mnemosyne remain at this table: Will, Dylan, Jacob, Daniel, Aaron, Alex (and his raven), Karasi, Ursula, Kouamé, Alethia, John, Matt, Xifeng, America, and Sapphira. Plenty of perspectives. The others can simply partake of their hospitality.

Alex scans over the food with little interest in it, despite his very clear hunger. He was hit hard with the news of Sonia’s death, as though he just lost his baby sister. That it took arguably the most powerful mage living to snuff out her flame provides some minor comfort. That they are going to end the threat he poses to the rest of them provides more.

He’s about to suggest that Kal may be overloaded on paradox when Gabrielle pre-emptively responds to him. Of course she’s had this conversation before. Likely many times. Instead, he simply adds, “Yes, you certainly stand apart from all the other archmages I know.” He’s as sincere as she is. He chimes in again when she brings her conversation (monologue) to the topic of the cage. “We will get him into his little hampster cage, we can’t afford to fail. It would be easier if we knew his…” he trails off for a moment before looking Gabrielle directly in the eyes, “if anyone knows this, it would be you. What is Kal’s name? With that we could compel him.” Or kill him. As many times as needed.

He barely registers the Nephandus’ little outburst. His only acknowledgement of it is to sent to Karasi, Who’s she?

America is overjoyed to see the others. Her concerns regarding Gabrielle are tempered with the reasonable explanation. She blushes a little, knowing it is entirely possible the archmage is aware of the whispered conversation between Kal and she.

America moves over to Alex and punches him on the shoulder. “You did it!” she says with a weak smile. It has been so much trauma for everyone, so many people lost, but ultimately they have a scored a major victory here. Kate is gone and the world can heal. What’s left is to capture Kal, to which she listens to the Hermetic’s idea and nods agreement.

She moves over to hug her Mom, worried after having last seen her un-moving. She checks her over, touches her tummy, makes sure she’s fine. She looks over to Ursula as well, and then steps over to Alethia and hugs her.

Will is numb. Whatever he joy might feel at having brought his mother back, at the relative success of all their efforts, is tempered by the harrowing experience of having seen five of the people in this room die, including Dylan. And the news of Sonia’s death seems to have absolutely shattered him. He sits with his parents, picking silently at his food, occasionally glancing over at Alex in miserable sympathy. Though he smiles to see America so excited, it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He nods now and then to indicate he’s following the conversation, whatever order it may take, but seems to have little more to contribute, save a soft, “Mom, I think most of us agreed we don’t even want to loop again.” He’s watching the Daughter of Ether as he says it.

Xifeng has stayed close to Matt, keeping an eye on his condition. When they had a moment she took the time to acknowledge the loss of his former student properly. She’s been quietly trying to read his resonance, to gauge whether his condition has improved or deteriorated. When her former colleagues drag Siera out, she looks on with some dismay. She should have caught that one on her watch.

Daniel was openly weeping when they first awoke in the dining hall. “I died, too.” He speaks softly and pulls Aaron into a tight embrace. The mix of emotions washed over him, feeling too many things at once. He gave Ava a tight hug as well, murmuring “You aren’t alone anymore” into her ear.

Eventually, the emotions are pulled into some semblance of control as they find themselves seated around the table. He listens as the conversation moves…or as Gabrielle directs it, keeping quiet and in awe of the archmage. Unlike his companions, he doesn’t have much to contribute to more planning. He would rather eat and marvel at the magick at work, as well as marvel at the fact that he is still in the realm of the living.

“Could the timelines all be collapsed into one? Like what happened during the Juncture?” He pauses. “Not that it matters. We have a perfectly good one right here, now. But why did giving preference to certain individuals over others matter in the last loops?” He sounds genuinely curious to hear Gabrielle’s answer.

“He is?” The Ecstatic nearly drops his train of thought and jumps up to go find Jianyu, but Gabrielle’s statement that he will join later causes him to stop. “Okay.” He’ll wait. Not that Ecstatics truly ever have to wait.

“Yes. Of course you don’t,” Gabrielle says to her son. “But in another iteration, there is a version of you that wants to keep his experiences. The totality of his self and thoughts. There are people who were removed from the Tellurian by detonation or other means, who want to exist in the final timeline. But there are people like America who did not exist in earlier timelines.” The Archmage crosses her arms. “All of them have a right to have their experiences exist.”

“That is one possibility,” Gabrielle acknowledges, to Daniel. “A messy one. Some of the earlier timelines ended well into 2000, and we’re in 1993. Happy Easter, by the way.” Standing between Daniel and Will, she points out some eggs on the table if either of them have any interest in it.

Sapphira shows her daughter a bruise on her abdomen, but her wounds, like those of the others, have largely healed. “How long have we been here?” She asks America. The seat assignments keep changing, as if this wasn’t one meal but a series of them.

Gabrielle takes the empty seat next to America. “So you are right, in a way. I’m not the first time mage to redo events over and over again until she got a result she could live with. But the nature of this event… it was like inflicting a wound on the Tellurian, over and over and over. Fixing the weather is one part of this. But ultimately the damage to the Tellurian, to time itself, needs to be… not healed, but at least treated so it can heal on its own. Kal is an irritant to that process, because healing it would be change, and he’s becoming increasingly fixated on the way things are now as the way they should be.”

She places both hands folded across her knee, looking across at Alex. “Do I know his name?” She asks, punning on the tense of his sentence. “I did. But I’ve begun to think that may not be Kal at all. There are things that lurk in time. You two,” She points to Daniel and Karasi, “Were chased by some of them when you saw Tecumseh. If not for Alex and Xifeng, you would have been destroyed. But those were minor spirits, attracted to minor disturbances. There are things that hunt unwary Masters, and perhaps even Archmages who travel through time. And Kal was never more than a Master of Time.”

“I think it’s possible that something replaced Kal, or at least altered him. It’s why he’s singularly been focused on repeating events to their original configuration, after the first Cataclysm. But he’s made the damage to time much worse, killing the Time Masters and facilitating the loops. That makes me think he is less of an immune response than an opportunistic infection.”

“Like E. coli,” Sapphira suggests.

“Yes. Something naturally present but which can spiral out of control in a living organism. But we’re still dealing with a mage, and an Archmage, rather than a spirit, so I think the ‘altered by’ is more plausible. The name I gave you should work,” She adds to Alex.

Karasi shrugs at Alex’s inquiry. Some Technocrat Nephandus. I stayed away from them as much as I could.

“When the infection is removed, the body can begin to heal itself.” Alex continues along with the medical simile. “So when we remove Kal, doesn’t it stand to reason that the world will begin to heal itself? Isn’t it the height of hubris to think that one of us, even an archmage can fix it better than the Tellurian itself?”

Will lets out a deep sigh, raking his fingers through his messy hair. Folding his arms on the table, he just puts his head down on them with a dull thump. That’s all he has left to contribute to a conversation the cabal has already had a dozen times without the use of Time magick. From the slump of his shoulders, he’s apparently out of fucks to give.

“I agree with Alex,” Xifeng pipes up. “With all due respect, it sounds like looping time over and over to repeat the eruption has only made the situation worse. We need to remove Kal so he can’t keep murdering Time mages, but I don’t see why we should believe that we’ll suddenly get it right this time if we go back again. And in the meantime the Technocratic consensus is basically done for.” She can’t help but dart a look at Ursula and Kouamé as she says it.

This is reality,” America adds in support of Alex and Will. She gestures to Will with her hand facing upward. “Consensus is broken; the world is healing. People have seen so much to open their eyes, this will propel humanity into a new age of genius and discovery,” she says emphatically.

America looks over her exhausted friends and again counts how many are no longer among them. “The sacrifices of our friends, our family, of all the other realities is in vain if we loop again. We will not be looping again.” There is no room for debate in the teenager’s voice. She makes and holds eye contact with Gabrielle. She’s not the first arch-mage to receive the Daughter of Ether’s stare down in the last few…well America has no idea how long she’s been here, but the point still stands.

“Kal in box; patch the wound,” she says, counting one finger at a time. “If the temptation to loop is too great, for good reasons or bad, then you need to find a way to take that temptation away, Mrs. Harrison.” Even as she speaks sternly, she is respectful of this woman whose presence has been so heavily felt in the cabal despite having never met her.

Daniel taps his fingers gently on the tabletop. The easter eggs, while eyed momentarily, are ignored in favour of listening to Gabrielle speak. “Yes, that’s true. Collapsing timelines when events have or haven’t occurred yet would be messy. Which would take precedence over the others? Which events in a life would take precedence? It’s not like it’s just merely hours, like the juncture was.” He’s just musing, trying to wrap his head around the concept and understand it.

“Hmmm. Could Kal be healed of whatever…creature that has warped him? Maybe that’s something to consider after taking the bullet out of the wound, so to speak.” He glances off to the side. “Also, couldn’t the other time mages be written back in? Maybe not all of them…but if there is enough memory of a person, enough perspective, did they ever even cease to exist to begin with?” He glances across the table at Kouame. “Isn’t that part of the reason why you, Juanita, and Kite shared your memories with me? So you and your knowledge would never be forgotten if you were to perish?”

He has a thousand and one questions to ask, but falls silent again when the rest of the cabal speaks up.

Ursula’s lips tighten. “Sleepers are still using technology. Order has been restored in some locations through its use. Places like Australia, southern Africa, South America—these were least impacted by the Cataclysm and the Technocratic paradigm is still strong there. We can build the world again—in cooperation with the Traditions, this time,” She allows, sweeping her hand toward the table. Kouamé looks like he wants to speak in support, but they are not ‘we’ now.

“You could say the same thing about a human body,” Gabrielle tells Alex. “And some ”/wikis/verbena" class=“wiki-page-link”> Verbena do. But we know some things about Time. We know what Kal has been doing damages it further, but there are proactive steps that can be done to heal it too."

“And that’s where the temptation to fix things comes in,” Aaron speaks up, face solemn. “I feel it too. Knowing that with Kal out of the way, that last variable is gone. That’s what I was supposed to do, and Will. The Tellurian wanted us to prevent the wound it knew was coming.” He licks his lips, looking at Will. “Maybe it’s because I didn’t live it. I came back to a world that I don’t recognize, don’t… belong in. But if the Tellurian wanted us to protect it, then we can’t put it in a position to take that trauma again.”

“Squatters’ rights then.” Gabrielle says, pursing her lips. “I didn’t think how you all would view this experience. I knew, once, but I had forgotten that perspective.” She leans back in her chair, looking at America. “You knew that the Consensus was determined largely by Sleepers—did you know that the ‘vote’ of novices and initiates of Time carries more weight than Adepts and Masters, which carries more weight than Archmages? Not individually, but the people in this chantry have more right to make that decision than I do. There are ways that right can be enforced.” She doesn’t elaborate on it, content to give the information to America, for now.

“This still relies on boxing Kal. It’s important that he not be allowed to remove Ursula, remove Fríða, remove Daniel, and everyone beneath. I can challenge him but the odds are in his favor on my own.”

Will lifts his head, resting his chin heavily on his hand. Aaron and America both get grateful looks. He’s not sure what he was expecting when he went to find his mother, but this surely isn’t it. “Daniel, if we start cherry picking people to write back in, where do we stop? Why do we get to decide? Yours isn’t the only Tradition Kal decimated. Or were all the people jacked into the Web on New Year’s supposed to be lobotomized? What about Sonia, or Jahan or Davey?” he adds, his voice shaking slightly. “Can we just stop fucking with this, please?”

America nods to Ursula, her eyes going to Kouame afterwards.

“At the graveyard, Kal was all over the place. There were dozens of him, scattered throughout the yard. He cut people down from many places at once. Was that in his quiver of arrows or was that this – this infection?” the young woman asks, returning the subject back to the more aggressive of their two problems at hand.

“We compel him, and set up a lure in the box,” she suggests, gesturing to Alex, and then to Gabrielle. “Something he’ll want to deal with, that will keep his attention diverted from the what’s going on behind the curtain.”

“You say ‘behind the curtain’ as though he can’t steal our thoughts whenever he bloody well feels like it.” Alex says with a shrug. He’s not trying to poke holes in America’s plan, it’s simply a statement of facts. “We’ll need to assign people to this diversion who have any chance of resisting that. There’s another obstacle as well. At least two of us are inches away from being consumed by our resonance.”

“I’m not talking about the dead, nor am I talking about bringing them back to life.” Daniel replies to Will. “I’m talking about those who were written out of the Tellurian entirely. Those who exist only in our memories since Kal erased their existence.” He drops the subject though. It’s more scholarly interest for him, anyway.

“Even when he read any of our minds, he might still weight out the probabilities and decide to do it anyway. If he had a chance to wipe out the last remaining Adepts of Time and the Archmage he locked away, wouldn’t he take it? He might be too compelled by his desire to stop anything from changing further. Not to mention, he still has one Horcrux left to help him.” He picks up a few grapes from a fruit bowl and pops one in his mouth.

“Like ”/characters/sedna" class=“wiki-content-link”>Sedna, Kite, and Jessica? They are beyond my ability to reach," Gabrielle says to Daniel. She sounds sad about it, but there’s nothing any of them can do for them but fight on in their memory.

To America, “That’s simply a higher level of Correspondence and Prime. Or, potentially, Time and Prime. I can do the latter.”

“There are ways I can shield your thoughts from him. He has other avenues, like reading your futures. Right now I have all of us safe in a minor time anomaly so you can recover from your wounds and decide your plan.” That would explain the weird sense of deja vu. “If I take the battle to him he’ll be too busy with me to spare much thought for what you’re doing. I’m not sure he’d be stupid enough to go for a honeypot unless the bait was sweet enough. The remaining Adepts of Time in one place is not enough since he can just deal with them once I’m gone.”

It is a relief to hear that there wasn’t anything extra about Kal’s strength in numbers routine. Disconcerting, however that he can do it on a whim. America considers how she may use holographic technology to accomplish a similar goal. She pulls out the worn green duo tang playbook she’s used since Davenport and scrolls the concept down. Then, returning it to her jacket pocket, the brainstorm is put aside for the moment.

She grins at Alethia, checking her out. “Mrs. Harrison, you misunderstand,” she says, looking at Alethia before turning to face Gabrielle. “You are the honey pot.”

She lets the comment hang in the air for the however long time works here in this bubble: a blink and an eternity all at once? Then America elaborates, “You’ll be in the box, and make it seem you’re trying to use the power of the network to loop again. I doubt the thing that wears Kal’s face will be able to resist.”

From Will’s perspective, that settles the matter of further messing with the timeline. He rubs at his eyes, his shoulders slumping in relief. He listens to America lay out her idea, glancing between her and his mother. “It wouldn’t trap her by accident, would it?” That question is more directed at Alex and Fríða, who did the lion’s share of the work to create it. He helped to brainstorm more than anything else. Will understands America’s concerns with respect to looping again, and he’s opposed to it as well, but don’t think he hasn’t noticed her rather aggressive line of questioning.

Alex shakes his head slightly. “It shouldn’t, Will. We would attune the cell to Kal’s true name, so it should only respond to his presence.”

“The trap we made was designed to exploit Kal’s clarity,” Fríða explains. “It wouldn’t have the same effect on Mrs. Harrison even if we didn’t attune it to his true name.” She decides to adopt America’s respectful way of reference.

“But the structure is there, and Kal may be able to make alterations to it in his best case scenario.” Gabrielle cuts in. “I know it is keyed to you three, but you are new to managing this kind of power. All a Batini Archmage has to do is trick you into making the wrong change, or focusing on the wrong component of your ritual.” She reaches out to touch Will’s shoulder with her hand, holding Dylan’s hand under the table with her other. “There’s no one in this room who is carrying zero risk.”

“So. I will access your Network through one of you three, in St. Louis. It would be my son, then, or Alex. Kal knows I favor you. He will know immediately and be forced to confront me—there’s little else I could be using that much power for. Whichever members of this triad aren’t with me will need to fashion the trap. Does that plan sit well with you so far?”

“There is one more issue with it.” She bites her lip as she works it over in her mind. “His physical presence will still need to be removed for this to work.” Her eyes take in America, Alethia, John, and Ursula. “Something like you did before, though you could manage it without exploding him if he’s preoccupied.”

“Bring the boom. Got it,” America says, nodding to Ursula especially.

She thinks and then looks over everyone again, eyes setling in Matt. "Last time things got muddy. Wasn’t always clear who was black hat or white hat. Matt, you went after Ursula. Alex, you and him are both drowning in creepy. Will, you’re over 9000 on something else, I don’t even know. We need to sort this out now so Kal doesn’t use it against us later. "

“She shot me in the back,” Matt muses.

“You were being an idiot,” Ursula retorts.

“I didn’t gain jhor for raising Gabrielle, if that’s what you’re worried about. I think I lost some. More than that, I’m a Master now, of Entropy. I can set a geas, and I’m not going to lose my shit again.”

Unless you die. Gabrielle makes eye contact with Xifeng, dropping the thought into her mind.

Aside from her few comments, Xifeng has been keeping an eye on Matt throughout this discussion. He’s her Mentor; he can deal with her using him as an object lesson in detecting jhor. “He’s-” She hesitates, glancing over at Gabrielle. “… You’re not exactly better, though,” Xifeng says slowly. “But hey, congratulations.” She nudges him with her elbow.

“I’ll let you into the net,” Will offers immediately, looking up at his mother. America gets his attention, though. “Um. Well, if you want to check, you can. You said it’d be easier to tell if I was using magick?” He slides his handheld from his pocket.

“So then Fríða, Karasi and I set the trap?” Alex suggests, nodding in agreement with Will going with Gabrielle. He’s all for removing himself from the temptation to attack Kal. “What about the Daniel and the rest of the group?”

Anerica fiddles with a panel at her bracer and then raises her arm and a poof of sparkles crackle in the air around Will. She reads the results.

“What about ”/characters/johann-erdo-an" class=“wiki-content-link”>Johann? Kal might try to work through him to escape this trap." Daniel says between grapes.

Will taps an icon on his handheld, running a simple whereami rote to help America get a reading. “Johann wants to see Aaron,” he offers with an uncertain glance at the Ecstatics.

“I can deal with Johann,” Aaron says. He tries to sound grim about it but he sounds a little sick. He’s known about the betrayal since the end of the last loop but it doesn’t make it any easier for him to deal with it—anymore than Kate’s betrayal was easy for Will. The fact that Johann has shown remorse or regret, even while continuing to try to murder the Adepts, only makes it worse.

“Will you back me up on that?” He asks Daniel.

Daniel glances at Aaron, a frown of worry crossing his features in a flash. “Of course.” He offers in a reassuring tone.

“We have a plan then.” Gabrielle says.

“Kal is aware of my presence. We made contact just now—involuntarily—and he didn’t try to kill me. I asked him for tonight to spend with my family, and he agreed, in a binding fashion.” She lifts her hands as if it’s done. “We won’t move until morning. Spend these last few hours however you wish.”

America goes pale as she examines the data. She looks up at Will as she sees the resonance of the friend she had to hunt and kill. “Will,” she says softly, though its loud enough for the table to hear. “You’re swimming in madness.”

Will looks back to America, blinking disbelievingly. Like Matt, when she told him he was chock full of jhor, he shakes his head. “But I feel okay. Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks. How would I know for sure?”

“You’ll know in retrospect,” Gabrielle says, in a way that only an Archmage of Time would find helpful. She doesn’t say anything else, this is either a cabal discussion or a private one she’ll have with her son later.

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