Song of the Earth

It’s late in the afternoon by the time the party gets to Davenport. Will equips them with devices that should allow them to communicate with the chantry HQ even should they be separated through time. They visit with the vampires first—America to ask Alethia for help, Daniel to talk to Jacob before they depart. Alethia is skeptical, she’s not sure she should be anywhere near something that corrupts its users. But she’s the closest thing to an Adept of Time that they have—she can do much less than Daniel, but she can do things even he can’t. She agrees to go to Davenport, at least, but makes no commitment to actually enter the Passage.

When they reach Davenport they don’t actually know where the Starlight Passage is. It’s not a big city but it’s still not that simple to find if they’re searching the city on foot.

But… Daniel knows where it is. He can sense it, some strange alluring permutation of time. Any time mage who got close enough would surely be drawn in.

As they come to Vander Veer Park, Sonia feels a strong sense of familiarity, as if she had been here before. As if she knows this place. America feels absolutely nothing, for all that she lived here longer than Sonia did, and actually has been to the park. For that matter, so has Alethia, though much longer ago.

It takes some time for the mages to figure out what to do. Between America and the information brochures at the park, they learn a bit more. It was established in 1885 as one of the first botanical gardens west of the Mississippi, originally called Central Park, and modeled after New York’s Central Park. There is a conservatory, a music pavilion, fountain, a rose garden, a lilac garden gazebo, a sprawling waterway. In a couple of months of darkness, much of it has fallen into disrepair: the roses are dead, the river is frozen solid. But it’s still a beautiful place.

Alethia keeps getting drawn back to the rose garden. There is a Greco-Roman-inspired set of columns there, 8 of them on each side with a slatted roof above. America’s sense of Prime, Daniel’s sense of Time, even Jianyu‘s spirit magick says that’s the right place but not the entrance. This is a Shallowing. Through trial and error they figure out they need to walk around the fountain 9 times and head to the passage in the rose garden to enter the Starlight Passage.

Sonia and Jianyu, America and Daniel and Alethia look at each other. “Who goes first?” Sonia asks. “You could do two abreast,” Alethia suggests. “I will wait outside and monitor the passage.”

There is an irony in the fact that the captivating permutation in time has drawn them to a place of beauty — at least Daniel thinks so. The gardens in peak summer must smell and look delightful, the perfect place to get lost or to stop and smell the literal roses. Even in the dead of winter, he can appreciate the beauty of this place.

After much wandering and ending up finally figuring out what they need to do, Daniel shifts his violin on his shoulder. “Two abreast should be okay.” He agrees. Buddy system is always best, if his recent experiences with time are anything to judge by.

He’s been wandering with one earbud tucked into his ear, and with his violin case shoved in a backpack that’s slung over one shoulder. It’s now that he stops, picking up the other earbud and tucking it in his ear as he considers their options. A part of him drifts off as he looks ahead, trying to get a sense of exactly what they’re in for when they pass through the other side. It might help decide a preferred order in which they should enter, after all.

Given the warning of Gabrielle Harrison, America Anders arrives on scene in her Iron America armour. Her helmet pulls back to reveal her face, and she smiles at Alethia. “Thank you,” she says quietly to the vampire, both for coming with and keeping watch. She steps up to the front of the group and begins to walk. “Sonia, you should take up the rear with Jianyu,” the armoured Etherite suggests.

“You are welcome, Iron Maiden.” Alethia replies expressionlessly. In public, she’s given no indication she cares for America one way or another. But… she came.

Daniel senses time flowing into another… place and disappearing. There is Spirit magick at work here. He can’t sense beyond it until they enter the Shallowing.

“I was just going to say,” Jianyu brings up at America’s suggestion. “Gabrielle mentioned America first as your protector. And I’ll be good with Sonia.” He smiles at the Chakravanti, who smiles back, taking his arm. “After you?” Sonia looks to America and Daniel. They will have to make the circuits around the fountain first.

Daniel pulls the earbud back out of his ear so he has one available to him once more. “I don’t think I’m going to know what’s facing us until we’re through this part. I can feel it flowing, but my complete lack of knowledge in Spirit is stopping me.” He offers. Has he said thank you for coming enough yet? Probably not.

He nods his head. “It’s true, she did mention that. Alright, let’s go, America.” He smiles and joins her as she begins to walk around the fountain.

With a nod, the face mask snaps back into place for the Daughter of Ether. “Let’s rock and roll,” she says through the tinny modulation of her helmet, a sort of awkward pun to the music being put into place for her ecstatic compatriot.

She takes the lead and begins to walk the path.

The two circumambulate the fountain, and then make there way to the pavilion in the rose garden. As they walk between the arches, the view of the sky through the slats changes—first ashy clouds, then grey skies, then a cloudless black, glittering with thousands and thousands of stars, the same view from the park when it was first built last century.

Then they’re gone. They feel resistance, something trying to break their grip on each other, as if they’d been dropped into rapids. Then:

“Good morning America,” Sapphira says with a smile as she lays breakfast on the table. America is dressed in her jammies, a year younger. James gives his wife a kiss before settling down with his coffee. “What were you telling your father about this crazy dream?”

America… kind of knows this isn’t real. But it’s like when you almost awaken in the morning—you could wake up in your cold bed, and go about your dreary morning, or you could stay a little longer in this wonderful and perfect dream. And the longer she stays, with each heartbeat, it’s harder to believe the events that led up to this, the one her mother just positioned as a dream.

There is one oddity: Daniel fills the other chair, himself just a year or two younger. More out of place characters have appeared in her dreams: here and now, Daniel is just her older brother, her older deadbeat jobless brother. The dream is slower to take effect for Daniel—it’s not meant for him—but the plausible reality constructs itself in his mind, his brain filling in the gaps in the story.

Who’d think they’d ever see stars again — but hence the name Starlight Passage, right? Daniel may turn his head up toward the sky once or twice, breathing in a deep, calming breath at the view of the cloudless sky.

He does his best to hold tightly to America in her armor before they get dropped into a cozy kitchen with delightful smells filling the air. There is a certain warmth to it that the Ecstatic mage can appreciate, even enjoy as everything starts to come together in his mind. He keeps silent, like a fly on the wall as he takes in the scene unfolding before him for now.

America blinks, her armour having been replaced by comfy jammies and the uncertainty of the garden replaced with the warm safety of her home. She melts over in a big smile and exhales. “Smells great Mom,” she replies in regards to the food before her. The entire experience, the scents, the temperature, and voices, it all overwhelms the synesthetic.

“My dream?” she asks, not because she doesn’t know the subject, but because reality isn’t often referred to as a dream. “We’re following the yellow brick road, basically. Off to see the wizard, I guess.”

“It sounds great,” Sapphira says, in a tone like she’s not totally paying attention as she sets up the family’s breakfast. “Except for the ash and darkness.”

“And the earthquake, and the tsunamis,” James says mildly. “The loss of life from rioting and famine.” He opens the paper, almost appearing disinterested in the conversation.

“Dystopias are more your father’s entertainment. I like quests. The hero’s quest for redemption, the journey that transforms her by the end.”

Daniel glances across at America, eyebrows lifting on his forehead. It’s hard to swallow how bleak their reality is when explained that way. “Well, a Dystopia could link into the hero’s quest easily. The quest for redemption which also saves the world,” He speaks up. “It could transform her but also set the dystopia back on it’s natural course.” His foot bounces anxiously under the table. “Gotta finish that journey to find out, though…right?”

America looks down at her plate as her parents list off the calamities that have befallen the world. “Don’t quests usually come from something needing to be done, fixed, or rescued, Mom?” she asks. She looks long at her Father, half-hidden by the paper. She just stares, watching him, comparing him to the video shown in the Spartacus.

“A wonderful metaphor Daniel. Eat your breakfast, America.” There is no in-between: just as in a dream, one moment she’s watching James, the next she is eating her breakfast and watching James. She and Daniel both feel as if some moments have passed, as Daniel picks at his.

“I wouldn’t know,” Sapphira says to America. “I’ve spent so much time raising you that I’ve never gotten to go on a quest of my own.” Something immediately changes in the dream, the way reality feels, with Sapphira’s tone, cheerful and yet with an edge.

“You know, I was reading that the parents of lesbians are more likely to get divorced than others,” James observes, chewing his toast, his paper in his left hand.

“I wonder what causes it.” Sapphira asks.

“Not enough attention from the father, most likely.”

“I would assume it has more to do with the lack of a real bond from the mother,” The Verbena corrects him. James shakes his head. “It’s all a lack of dick. They just need the right man to come along and set them straight.” He chuckles, belatedly, at his own joke.

Cheery with an edge, just like breakfast in his youth. The way the dream seems to skip between moments keeps the Ecstatic on edge. It’s not unusual for moments of non-importance to pass him in the blink of an eye, but this one seems surreal. It keeps him grasping, remembering.

Daniel’s eyebrows arch up on his head as the conversation takes a turn for the horrific. “Good God, are you kidding me?” Daniel remonstrates. “Are you serious with this bullshit right now? Could it be that maybe the parents who get divorced and blame it on their queer children are just awful people?”

He looks between Sapphira and James before his eyes cut to America. “America…she would never say that to you.” He pauses, grasping at straws. “This is your journey…your reality. You can shape it however you like.”

America returns Daniel’s gaze, listening intently. The wisdom echoes in her thoughts and she smiles. “Dad,” she begins with a tone that implies this teenager is about to be a bitch. “The papers also suggest you can catch ’the gay.”

She turns to her Mom and smiles, genuinely happy whenever her Mom is around. Her Mom, her first quest. She rescued Sapphira from walking the same path a second time, caught in a downward spiral of her own tragedy. She’s come so far. She’s so great. “Mom, you’re a straight up bad ass,” she says firmly and proudly, picking up the fork next to her and stabbing it into her Father’s hand without breaking eye contact with her Mom. “Like your daughter, before you.”

“Mmm.” James hardly reacts at all to the fork in his hand. It seems to have a lifeless quality, to America, like a piece of meat. “That’s quite enough of that.” He sets the fork and the paper down, getting up. He abruptly has his coat, shrugging his arms into the sleeves.

Sapphira is wearing outdoor clothing too, now. “And that’s why I deserve better. Your father and I are going to go end the world now.”

“I never wanted kids,” James adds emphatically. “You were just a drunken one-night stand.”

“I mean I did,” Sapphira clarifies, sounding wishy-washy. “But I also wanted an olive green bathroom and I got tired of that.”

“If we’d wanted you, we would have made some effort, you know?”

“Before you were 17,” Her mom adds with a shrug and a head-tilt.

Daniel narrows his eyes as he stands up. “Alright…” He murmurs. “So there is more to this than that.” He picks up his own fork and jabs it hard into the meaty part of his thigh. It’s gonna hurt, but hopefully it’ll get the job done. All he needs is to reach outside of himself and get a sense of the magic at work in this dream. “She wants you America. She loves you. I’ve seen it.”

Daniel’s affirmations continue to bolster the former-orphan. Her emotions are mixed as her Father shrugs off her violence and her parents so casually insult her. He’s dead inside. He’s dead. My Father was a monster and he died, she tells herself silently.

She is standing outside in the same clothes she wore that windy day in the park she met him, when he pushed her away. “You tried ending the world already,” she says in a firm and tone, confronting and mocking.

Her clothing shimmers and transforms into sheets of metal which coil like serpents over her. In an instant she is dressed like a psychedelic merger of Evilyn from He-Man, She-Ra, Princess of Power, and Iron America herself. A large plume of peacock feathers erupts from a tiara like a fabulous headdress and she raises her hand, the coiling serpentine metal forming her gauntlet. America points at her Father, a beam of pure gay rainbows cracks like lightning and cuts through the dreamy air to impact upon her Father. “It killed you,” she finishes, accepting this figment is dead, lifeless meat. Matter, whose Etheric properties can be transmogrified into sand.

Stabbing himself definitely fucking hurts, but the Ecstatic doesn’t get any sense of the dream. Maybe he should stab himself again?

America quite successfully warps the dream to her version of reality. The beam, disappointingly, doesn’t transform her father’s hand—the stuff of this landscape is made of something much more immaterial than Matter. The dream fades out, and the two of them feel a wrenching sensation again.

Then they find themselves in a massive graveyard at sunset, the atmosphere cloudly but clear. The iconography on the headstones, the dirt on top of several immediately tells them this is a Jewish graveyard. Daniel feels an undeniable compulsion to come closer, to read the headstones.

Well…if the first stabbing didn’t work, Daniel is gonna wait before he tries again. He will just keep offering his well-meaning words to America until she has won against reality.

When everything shifts again, he feels a lurch through his stomach as realty shifts around them.

“Where are we?” He asks softly, staring around at the scenery of the graveyard. “Oh…oh I see.” He steps forward toward the tombstones to read them, a slight limp in his step.

America is back in her street clothes. She puts her hands in her pockets and looks around, her eyes eventually landing on Daniel. She follows him to the tombstones, a step behind but to his side. “Daniel?” she asks softly.

He’s drawn to his brother’s headstone: on either side, his mother and father. The graves are hastily done, shallow, packed together, as if there were too many bodies in too short a time to plan better. They still have the headstone, though.

The dirt stirs, after a moment. Fingernails part the dirt, decrepit hands reaching for the sky.

Daniel lets out a soft sigh as he comes upon his families’ headstone. “It’s my brother,” He says softly. “My mom and dad.” He points to each in turn. He keeps off of the shallow graves themselves, recognizing them as such. Not to mention it would be disrespectful to tread on their resting place so soon after death. “My dad died years ago. He was the catalyst that lead me down the path to here. But my brother’s death was recent, during the aftermath of the cataclysm.”

He takes a step back as hands begin to reach out of the ground. “Oh…oh that’s not good.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” America Anders replies. She had been so focused on her own recent tragedies she hadn’t noticed the likely grief of others.

When the dead begin to claw their way from the earth, the Daughter of Ether steps back and withdraws her hands from her pockets to prepare herself. “Oh shit, are you serious with the zombies?!”

Daniel’s brother pushes himself up out of the ground to his waist. He looks awful—about as bad as you’d expect someone decomposing for two months to look. Little details are wrong here and there—that’s Daniel’s shirt, not Aaron’s—but all and all it feels eerily real to him, down to the expression. “You did this,” He tells Daniel. “You and your friends fucked this up. You know that, right?”

Daniel shrugs at America’s apology. “It’s okay. We were never very close.” After his initial shock of finding out, he isn’t entirely sure how he’s supposed to feel about it.

His face turns sour as Aaron sits up from the grave in all his rotting glory. This isn’t exactly how he wanted to confront his brother again, but maybe some closure would help. “Fuck off, Aaron,” He snaps. Aaron has always been good at getting under Daniel’s skin. “Yeah, we fucked this up by being used by a fucking Archmage. Totally our fault.” Sarcasm is his default mode with this man. He’s trying to ignore the stinging feeling of tears at the corners of his eyes.

“Fuck that,” America chimes in, reaching out to touch Daniel on the arm. “This was fucked up before any of us were on the field. We’re just bringing a new play – moving onward and upward instead of dwelling on and trying to change what’s done,” she argues down at the corpse complainant.

The memory of her time being lynched by grieving Virtual Adepts in the Spartacus push forward, causing the woman’s expression to become stern, her will galvanizing. America isn’t blaming others, succumbing to grief, and she isn’t trying to fix what’s broken or loop back and prevent it. She is a Daughter of Ether. She builds towers from salvage.

Aaron Amar rolls his eyes. “You had every chance to change things, and you didn’t. You’re a failure, just like you always have been. And now you’ve locked yourself outside of time, and you won’t even be there when Kal murders all your friends.” The corpse pauses, and looks considering. “Unless it’s already happened.”

There is stirring in the dirt beside them, and then there is Jacob. “Are you sad?” He asks Daniel. “I can make you not sad.”

“Change things how? Go back? Get killed like everyone else?” Daniel asks. He realises arguing with this apparition is pointless, but he’s doing it anyway. It’s like having an argument with himself that he hasn’t been able to win. He relaxes when America touches his arm. That support is all he needs to bring forth his confidence.

“I haven’t locked myself outside of time. I will get back.” He sounds so self-assured. He can figure this out. “What a Technocratic, simplistic point of view. Sure it could have happened. It could have happened ten minutes ago, or it could be happening right now. Our reality isn’t set in stone until it happens, and I can get out of here to any point in time I want, when I find the point I want. You always doubted me. Why not try having a little faith for once?”

He glances toward Jacob as he appears. “No. I’m okay Jacob. It’s okay. Thank you.”

“By spending the year your cabal knew about it doing something productive, talking to others, if you couldn’t solve it on your own.” Aaron retorts. “By not just trusting some ”/wikis/virtual-adepts" class=“wiki-page-link”> Virtual Adepts had it covered. By not running away to Kite while your family died."

The dream fades out before Daniel can confront his brother, and the pair are led through several more scenarios, largely alternating in impact (though more are directed at America). None of them are the most awful events they could imagine, as have happened in some mindscapes, but they’re all unpleasant and filled with regret. America’s best friend as a young child, separated by time and memory when she moved away. Daniel being bullied in school. The loss of America’s adoptive parents. The social rejection of the Ecstatics in Buffalo. Killing Jahan. Watching Kite and Juanita fall, and being called worthless by Kate. Kouamé blaming America for the loss of his Avatar and his whole life.

Nothing either of them manages, so far, does anything to stop these scenarios. The Starlight Passage is much subtler than a Man in White’s mindscape: after several of these scenarios America and Daniel just begin to feel worn out, if nothing else, and they’re not over yet.

They reappear in the chantry—America has her armor, except for her helmet—watching what she terms the east coast or main line Avengers. Will. Alex. Sonia. Karasi, now. Dylan, in the background.

“So they never came back,” Sonia says, her body snuggled up against Will. She doesn’t seem that concerned.

“It doesn’t matter.” Alex says. “We’ve cleared the atmosphere without them.”

“I’m glad they didn’t succeed.” Will’s eyes are on his handheld. “We didn’t need Daniel fucking around with time.” Daniel and America are ghosts here—they can stand on the floor, but their hands go through the Avengers, the furniture. No one can hear them but each other.

Emotional wear and tear takes it’s toll. It’s hard to keep their objective in his mind and to continue through these low-key awful dreams after a while, and it’s hard to keep reality in check.

Daniel rubs his face when the dream shifts again, this time to the chantry. He steps forward to the middle of the conversation, not bothering to speak up or speak out. Instead he analyzes and thinks.

It’s the way the cabal talks about them as if they’re unimportant or just a hindrance that makes an idea light up. He turns toward the Daughter of Ether, tired eyes bright as he speaks. “America…the way this place is fucking with us…” Daniel speaks as if he truly believes he’s onto something. Or maybe he’s just grasping at straws? “He knows and he’s threatened. We’re unique, you especially. You and I haven’t been Awakened through the loops before and it might not be entirely accounted for in his plans. If he can tuck us away here forever, we’re no longer something he has to worry about.” He shrugs the backpack carrying his violin off of his shoulder for the first time through this whole adventure.

That makes sense. America nods agreement, “He’s been so hung up on downplaying me, this reads like a page from the same book. I plan to return this book to the library.”

The Daughter of Ether brings her arm up and opens a panel on her armour at the forearm. She turns a series of dials and the armour at her trap-muscle pops up, sprinkling prime counter measures throughout the area to disturb the magick.

The scene before them warps and blurs as if America took a blender to it, but there’s more… substance that moves in to take its place. Still, it has bought them a moment.

“You’re both right,” a familiar voice says behind them. Jianyu has his hands tucked into his pockets, a tired expression on his features. He usually looks more animated.

“You don’t have any reason to believe in me, but let me buy you some time. Just because someone wasn’t in a previous loop doesn’t mean they weren’t around, somewhere—there are billions and billions of people in the world who haven’t been involved directly—but /you/ weren’t.” The Dreamspeaker turns to face America. “Kate was telling the truth, for once, when she said you were new, but she lied in tone. Do you remember what ”/characters/matt-coronas" class=“wiki-content-link”>Matt said about the Tellurian choosing its champions?"

A moment is good. It’s a moment to think. A moment of respite from the onslaught. The Ecstatic goes about getting his violin out of his case while this reality blurs about them. He’s about to test whether the instrument is in tune when Jianyu speaks.

“Jianyu!” His eyes widen when he turns. “Where is Sonia? Are you alright?” Important questions, but perhaps not important right at this moment. Not as important as what the Dreamspeaker has to say, maybe. His eyes widen as his focus shifts to America, but remains quiet.

America doesn’t know much. She vaguely is aware of the information Matt disclosed, through a telephone game of cabal members. She nods to Jianyu, “Go on.”

“Heh.” Jianyu turns to Daniel. “I’m not the same version as the Jianyu you entered the Passage with. I mean, I am him. But we all already got out of here, from my perspective. But a part of me will always remain here because a part of me was here.” He makes solid eye contact with Daniel, as if he expects the time mage, in particular, to understand his point.

“We already know the Tellurian has played an active role in resisting events,” Jianyu breaks away, to America. “What we didn’t know is the Tellurian spins out new spirits to replace some of those lost—so many over countless loops, to fill the gaps from where they were unwritten. You’re something new. A new way of thinking and acting. A new strategy for this loop, a new plan because what happened before wasn’t working. Maybe ”/characters/kal" class=“wiki-content-link”>Kal created the homunculi, but the Universe created you."

“I’m sure us being here isn’t coincidental. But the Passage also contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Effect is pinned onto Aaron—Aaron Spaulding—in the center, if you can reach him."

“Because we’re in all time and no time, yes.” Daniel agrees. “So you’ll always exist in a place where time stands still, despite coming and going, because there is no time to signify you coming and going.” He takes a moment to spin around in their blurred moment, keeping that point in his mind. “We’ll all always exist here, in some way or another.” He lets out a deep sigh.

“It makes sense, that the Tellurian would do such a thing. To fight destruction and decay, you must create.” He smiles.

“In the center,” Daniel repeats, head turning toward Jianyu at Aaron’s name. “Well, I suppose we will have to head that way.”

America doesn’t recognize Aaron, nor feel any familiarity with the name, but she does feel /something/ at the discussion of being created by the universe, by the Tellurian. She smiles, feeling warm pride swell up.

“If Kal wants this guy locked away, then we’re going to break him out,” she says with a grin.

The dream begins to reform around them. “I can’t tell you how to find him, I didn’t the first time. But the key to his release is one of the Nine Sacred Passions, grief.” This is Ecstatic talk after all. Grief is the passion Ecstatics associate with time. “The Passage should provide you with plenty of it.”

And then they are in the wreckage of Earth, the sky grey with ash, the earth dark with black snow. Frozen, emaciated bodies pepper the snow. Their reprieve is over, but they have a goal if they can just find the center.

Outside the Passage, Alethia gives a start from where she stands unfeeling in the cold snow. She’s been watching the time-frozen bodies standing between the columns, apparently helpless, though she knows no ordinary force of malice could reach them.

“It’s closing…” She murmurs. Instinctively she reaches out and freezes the anomaly. Whatever’s happening inside will continue, but the Passage’s relationship with the outside world won’t be able to continue to deteriorate. “Whatever it is you’re doing America, hurry your ass up.” The vampire lights a cigarette to occupy herself.

“Grief. Of course it is.” Daniel murmurs, eyes bright. “Thank you, Jianyu.” He positions the violin properly under his chin as the dream reshapes into the bleak landscape of their current reality. He doesn’t begin to play right away, but holds the bow at his side.

“I don’t know if it would work, but I have been here before, with him and Jacob. We could try to track the part of my resonance that would still be here.” He looks to America, eyes passing over the dark sky, ashen snow and starved bodies for the moment. “Otherwise, we could try to track the main power of the effect itself. But if the key to this is grief, then the key to this is Time.” He lifts his bow, drawing it easily across the strings.

“Play a sad tune?” America replies. She doesn’t have the knowledge of time her colleague does. She understands tracking the power source, and begins to ponder a solution to that, but trusts in Daniel’s plan to follow the emotion.

Daniel nods his head, playing something soft and fore-longing on his violin for a moment. He works his magic slowly and the tune changes to something different…something he hears from his own soul. He steps forward, delicate steps as he follows the sound of his own resonance from himself, from somewhere far off and from the violin itself. “This way.” He says. He steps carefully around the bodies and tracks through the black snow toward the tug of himself.

His steps speed up as he gets a better read, as he feels himself pulling closer. It’s not until they’re almost on top of the pit that he comes to an abrupt stop. “Ah….well, this is where it leads.” Daniel lifts the bow from the strings before staring down into the black, bottomless pit he’s led them to. “Like a black hole…”

There is a pit there, and on one level America is aware she’s in an (admittedly fake) frozen landscape looking at a pit.

On another level, she’s an armored astronaut, tethered with Daniel to a damaged capsule ship. And the pit? Is an actual black hole.

The starscape she sees almost on the level of a flashback, though she’s not remembering anything. The drumbeat of her own heart in her ears separates them. It’s almost like synaesthesia—one of these is triggering the other for her—but much less integrated than her synaesthetic senses.

She takes a long minute to stare, in awe of seeing a black hole right before her. “Daniel, are you seeing this?” she asks through the comm of her space suit. “It’s incredible.”

The landscape is beautiful, also, but admittedly less awe-inspiring than the cosmic phenomenon. She pulls up her arm and opens the panel at her forearm, examining a readout of Etheric flow.

“I’m in two places at once, but both share a common theme: emptiness. A pit, a black hole. I think Aaron is beyond this,” she suggests.

Daniel stares down into the bottomless pit, then over at the Daughter of Ether. “Seeing what?” He asks. “It is kind of…awe-inspiring. Endless.” He taps his bow against his leg. “I felt the flow of Time being pulled in the Passage…do you think maybe it is being pulled into this pit?” He half-laughs to himself. “Like a Devourer of Time.”

He glances back into the pit. “Emptiness. That makes sense. When I was with him, it was a white landscape of nothingness. So we have to go through that, then.” It’s a half-question, half-statement. “Let me check something first.” He starts to play his instrument again, this time playing something slow and sweet as he works his magick. He is trying to See, specifically with “ahead” in mind.

“Devourer?” America echoes thoughtfully. “That certainly is one way to describe a black hole. Yeah, I get the sense that’s the way through, but let’s make sure we won’t be ‘devoured’” she continues, finishing with air quotes.

Both Time and Prime tell some of the same things: this is a Time Effect. There is a bit more of an exchange than a pit or black hole would suggest, as something is coming out—whatever is maintaining the Effect is in there, and the Passage is centered around that miasma.

Daniel gets a sense of himself—his own Time magick, at least—in the pit, and a flavor he thinks might be Aaron’s, but not confidently enough to say he’s not projecting it because he’s expecting it. It’s pretty hard to tell with the nasty energy of grief and sadness emanating, if it wasn’t his own magick he wouldn’t be able to tell for sure.

“Yeah. Aaron used the term to describe…well, I guess Kal,” Daniel replies with a half-smile. “I guess I just find it ironic.”

His song takes a sad turn as the grief and sadness overrides his senses, not entirely aware that that is what has happened. He plays through it for a few moments more before he takes a deep breath. Nevermind the tears streaking down his face. “Jesus. This is awful. It’s just boiling over in grief. It’s a Time effect, for sure…in fact, I can sense my own Time magick in there, and I think I can feel Aaron. I’m not one hundred percent, but I think so. I might be able to dismantle it, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

He glances into it, then to America. “Should we go in?”

“Probably a terrible idea. Let’s do it,” she says, glancing back at Daniel through the tint of her space helmet. With that, she initiates her prime jets and with the hiss of compressed gas, propels the pair of them towards the event horizon of the black hole. The vibrations begin immediately, klaxons sounding warnings of gravitational forces increasing. America chides the warnings and damns the odds, steering the pair of them, one playing violin into the most incredible of space anomalies.

To America’s vision, they enter a tunnel of psychadelic light, as if their entrance between time and space shattered glass in a billion colors, glass that lines the tunnel of shifting light.

Even at the same time, she sees what Daniel sees, a dark and dreary pit that they are tumbling in freefall.

They could fall like this forever. In this place of misery and emptiness. In this space of light and shape and potential. But America sees the brittleness, the places where the walls can be broken and their escape made. Daniel perceives it too, places where the emptiness is even greater in the echoes of his song, places of sadness where one might be held forever.

Daniel channels the sadness and darkness as he makes the violin weep with his music. He tries to fill the darkness with the sound, looking for greater places of emptiness and attempting to tear them down with his countermagick. He draws the bow across the strings in slow sweeps at first, his song slowly picking up to reverbate against the magick and tear it apart.

America, too attempts to bring down the weak points with countermeasures. Adjusting the Etheric modulation on her gauntlet, she fires a crisp brilliant beam of prime towards the weak part of the kaleidoscope, attempting to support the same tear down her musical counterpart is engaged in.

Daniel in particular still has powerful anti-Time countermeasures at his disposal. They tear through the veil, managing to half bounce, and half get sucked through.

They find themselves in a dusty, forgotten hallway. At least, that’s all Daniel will perceive. The air is thick with musk, and memory. Ghostly footprints and half-forgotten memories of laughter reverberate through the dim hallways, laden with books and trophies of ages past. America, however, sees a planet, with an alien green sky. Red megaflora is all around them, alien life that never (at least predominately) developed chlorophyll. There’s something like a coiled purple tentacle, part tree and part animal, and tiny blue whales that swim through the tributary stream to her left. The path ahead is clear.

And ahead of them, they see Aaron—America may not know what he looks like, but it’s hard to miss a young man made out of a pillar of salt—this detail is actually the same in both places, although he is dressed like an astronaut in America’s vision and in street clothes in Daniel’s.

Daniel stops playing as the scene shifts again. This time, he lets the violin fall from his chin and holds it tightly at his side. “Well, at least we’ve stopped falling.” He takes a deep breath and swipes a few stray tears from his face. Experiencing that onslaught of grief is overwhelming. He sounds stable enough, though? “Look at this place. A trip down memory lane. Are you seeing the same thing, America?” He glances at his cabal-mate for confirmation before his attention is absorbed by the stimuli, both physical and metaphysical. “This place hasn’t been disturbed in so long. I wonder if it’s the memories of everyone who’s been through here.”

He is only another step or two forward before he stops in his tracks. His eyes are focused entirely on the pillar of salt that is Aaron ahead of them. “Holy shit,” He breaths, this time a mix of anguish and wonder bleeding out into is tone.

“Uh, no,” America replies, looking about with a huge smile at the alien landscape before her. Her eyes settle on Aaron as well and she calls up her helmet scanner to give a reading. “I see him,” she says as she closes the distance to about 30 feet.

Nothing in particular happens. Aaron is a pillar of salt. You can taste him to check.

Outside the Passage, Alethia pauses, a vision dancing before her eyes. Her own flesh, transmogrified into white phosphorus.

She would be a poor seer if she couldn’t even perceive threats to herself before they happened. For half a second, she hesitates, redoubling her efforts to sustain the anomaly. I’m sorry America, she thinks, but she can come back if she’s still alive.

Letting the cigarette fall from her mouth, she moves as fast as Time will carry her, flowing like a river of action over the frozen garden landscape. She bursts through a brick wall at the tourist center, catching one homonculus who is not nearly surprised enough to satisfy the vampire. Her momentum carries her forward, but she pivots at the hip, bringing back her fist and smashing it into the console on Kate’s left arm.

She expected to smash the device and the arm at the very least, and maybe break some of those fingers touching it, but most of the force of the impact is carried away. Kate’s arm just drops as if she’d punched her like a human being. She brought up her fist again—what one fist can’t solve, five or six might—

And then Kate teleports away. “Shit.” Alethia looks around.

The anomaly starts to shrink.

“I see him, too.” Daniel sounds momentarily breathless. He continues forward toward the pillar of Aaron, eyes a little too bright. “There’s a symbolism to this, if I’m remembering my Hebrew school studies correctly. The moral is that you shouldn’t look back.” He snorts softly. “He may be caught in his grief of wanting the past and it’s stopping him from moving forward. Or Kal has just frozen him like this as punishment for attempting to look back.” He pauses, violin lifted to sit snugly under his chin once more. “Either way, we can undo this. Right?” He smiles at America.

He pulls the bow across the strings of his instrument experimentally, letting it sing with one or two notes as his fingers stretch over the fingerboard. He doesn’t have a particular song in mind at the moment, just the sounds of his soul being dragged out of him. The music is slow and soothing, a sad undertone definitely within. It takes him time to build back up to that edge of release with the music he plays, the song becoming stronger and more pronounced as he goes. He reaches outside of himself toward the pillar, pulling on the magick surrounding it and trying to get a better sense of what they might be about to unravel.

The Daughter of Ether shrugs, not sure how feelings factor into Science, but not in a position to argue it either. She ponders the theory and blinks as the sad music begins again. “Why’s everything about grief and sadness?” she asks. It isn’t an affront or criticism, just genuine curiosity. Concern.

America, for all that’s happened to her, her family, her friends, and the whole damn world, hasn’t succumbed to grief much beyond cutting her hair and contemplating dying it fancy colours. She’s remained confident the Avengers will see this through, and hopeful they can rebuild the world rather than dwelling on the tragedy and trying to reverse it.

“Hope,” she says quietly, stepping closer to the salt Aaron. Then she looks to Daniel and makes a face. “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad,” she half-sings half-says awkwardly. Then she turns her attention, blushing towards Aaron. “Take a sad song, and make it better,” she sings.

America’s song changes the context of Daniel’s music but it can’t make his magick work. It changes America’s vision, though. In the spaceman version of America’s vision, she sees not a pillar of salt but a young man wrapping himself in clothes of chrome, holding the outside world out and reflected.

“Hey Jude, don’t be afraid,” Jianyu chimes in. His singing is at least as awkward as America’s, which is probably why he gives it up after one line. “You don’t need music. It needs tears.” He looks at America. “Freeing Aaron won’t free you from this prison though.” To America’s gaze, he is almost transparent, the memory of a person more than a person himself.

“Sadness and grief is not a bad thing,” Daniel responds mid-song. “You just cannot let it consume you. It’s something to build off of, something to learn from. You just cannot dwell on it or you will be swallowed alive, paralyzed by fear of fucking up again and again.” He speaks as if he knows this all-to-well. He presses the bow harder to the strings, causing them to vibrate in time with America’s song. He puts his own little flourish in it as he changes notes, or drawing out others. “The world is a fucking mess. Love lost, lives lost…so much loss. Feeling that loss and grieving it is not a bad thing, as long as you don’t let it destroy you with regret.” He blinks rapidly, clearly taking Jianyu’s words to heart.

“You need me to cry?” the young woman asks, perplexed. She doesn’t want to get trapped in here forever. Why did we come to a prison again? She regrets that.

With a sigh, she shrugs and lets her arms fall to her side. She listens to Daniel’s music and quietly thinks. It takes awhile, but as her mind mulls over the horrors of recent events, all the death or allies old and new, and the cataclysm, she feels sad.

“The salt prison needs someone’s tears,” Jianyu replies. “America, you’re the only one who’s ever gotten out of a place like this. Somewhere designed to corrupt you.” The Cauls. It was her father’s advice—not to advance, despite everything in her nature telling her to move forward. “This is different, but you’re the only one here who has ever beaten a trap like this.”

Daniel keeps playing, shedding his own tears as he does. His music takes a turn back into sadness and grief as the violin weeps it’s desperate song. He swallows the rough lump forming in his throat as he glances across to America. “That’s right. And you saved someone in the process. How did you do it the first time?”

“She saved me,” America corrects, referring to Sonia. In the Cauls, the orphan mage had been told to survive meant playing by a set of rules. Now these rules apply instead of those.

She closes her eyes and focuses her thoughts, trying to sift through the numb sadness and latch onto something real, so viscerally painful that it makes her cry. The Spartacus yields rage, that’s not the right emotion. She shifts to thoughts of James and it hurts, but she’s been crying quietly to herself so much about him that it isn’t real. The apparitions of her parents and the scenes that played out earlier dulled her grief in respect to those individuals.

Eleanor was absent from those visions. She’s been absent from the young woman’s life. A first love, lost in such a violent end is a terrible thing. The way it played out, being forced to betray the woman she loved in order to save her friends, to do what was right was difficult. Eleanor’s betrayal stung on so many levels, she murdered Davey, America’s closest friend. That day she lost the two people she cared for most. Her thoughts drift to Alethia and the wild sex and America gasps. She opens her eyes, and begins crying.

America wipes her eyes and then touches the statue. Maybe more than crying is required.

The statue forms a crack where the tear dissolves the salt, a crack that spreads down the length of Aaron’s face, his body. A pale light emanates from inside, and America feels the dream whirling around her, as if it could prevent what was about to happen. The wind whips around her violently, forming a wall that keeps Daniel back, but she is in the center of it. To her eye, the chrome around Aaron’s body contracts like the iron core of a star, then expands like a nova.

Jianyu reaches out and grasps Daniel’s hand. “You’re on your own from here. Hurry. Aaron can help you more than I can.” He gives it a squeeze, smiling a little. “I love you big brother.”

The salt and light falls away, leaving a young man in his mid-late twenties. He’s dressed in khaki boots, faded jeans, a white shirt and brown leather jacket, with a flannel sweater ties around his waist—classic grunge, coming into style before the Cataclysm. He looks startled. “Who are you?” He asks America as the energy around him fades. America was not part of his timeline at all. His eyebrows go up. “Daniel!” He says, recognizing the now-solitary figure. He takes a step forward but wobbles—he was just a salt statue—and stumbles toward America.

Daniel takes a step back as the winds spin into life. He pulls the violin down to be held in front of himself so it doesn’t go sweeping away. His fingers squeeze tightly around Jianyu’s when he grasps his hand. “We’ll figure it out.” He assures the Dreamspeaker, eyes shining brightly. “I love you too, kiddo.” Never mind the slight crack in his voice.

He’s left standing alone, a few steps back from America as he grasps his violin tightly to his chest, his right hand falling loosely to his side. “Holy fuck.” He gasps. Part of him surprised that they managed it. That America managed this. “Ah, careful, Aaron.” He takes a step forward to reach out and stop him from falling on his face. America’s closer than he is, though, so she might get there faster. He’s a little dumbstruck to be answering questions right away.

“Woah,” the armor-clad Etherite says, leaning in to catch the newly de-chromed Aaron before he falls. She looks to Daniel with a smile as they recognize each other. She remains quiet, deferring to her comrade, who clearly knows this guy they came to rescue. Instead, she just remains a crutch for him to lean on as long as he requires.

America looks around, surveying the situation. She remembers Jianyu’s warning that they need to escape.

The landscape ripples and changes around them—around America. She knows what’s happening even before she sees Sapphira, before her armor disappears. How could she forget Super Tuesday, where her own mother ripped her guts out before being killed by Matt?

Or maybe she did forget it. It was the height of violence by her mother as a Nephandus. The Passage pulls that weapon now.

The Passage forces her to drop Aaron on the floor by the force of its change. “Hey, party tank!” He calls up at her, past Sapphira’s clawed hands. “The Passage has been weakened. Don’t buy into its bullshit!”

Not even a moment for reprieve. The change in landscape pulls the Ecstatic mage from his awe as the dreamscape attacks America with full force. “Shit, America!” He gasps and makes to body-check the Nephadus-Sapphira away. “This isn’t her, not anymore! You control your reality and this isn’t it!”

The musician magician is right. America Anders looks upon the vision of the monster that once tormented her and wore the face of her Mother. She feels pity, but also hope. The Daughter of Ether withdraws a flash grenade, just like she did before, and hands it to Sapphira, the sticky foam adhesing it to her clawed hands. The needles spring open and just like before, they pump Sapphira full of powerful anesthesia.

“We’ve been here before,” she says with confidence, watching Sapphira with a smile. “This is another example of why we’re going to win. We’re going to move on and rebuild the world. This horror ended here today. My Mother was saved, freed from this twisted fate. She’s got a new chance at life.”

She turns to look to Aaron, offering a hand to help him up, and turns her gaze to Daniel with a prideful grin. “Kal’s time is up. We are the future.”

The Starlight Passage works on grief, and regret, and self-loathing. These are powerful forces—enough to keep Aaron trapped here forever, retreating into himself away from memory.

But they aren’t enough to hold America. There is every reason why they should. The daughter of two Nephandi, who by all rights should’ve been corrupted, cursed from birth, born into a broken, dying world. She has every reason to despair, to be worthless, to give into the circumstances of her birth. Instead, she brings forth change, glittering gold through filth.

The illusions dissolve around them, leaving 5 people standing between frozen arches under a frozen canopy. America feels the thrill of triumph as her two worlds collapse to one, and she passes her Seeking, coming face-to-face with the missing Jessica, standing outside looking in. “Welcome ba—”

“Jianyu!” Sonia calls. The boy is slumped over her, insensate. “Something’s wrong.”

Jessica rushes to their side, mumbling under her breath. She examines the Dreamspeaker. “He’s gone away. I can’t—” A woman screams in the background. “We need to move. Matt and ”/characters/fr-a-vilhjalmsson" class=“wiki-content-link”>Fríða are trying to fight Kate."

Daniel smiles softly at America as she manages to once again overcome all odds. “We are. You are.” He agrees, breathless. “You are incredible, America. I hope you always know that.”

And then reality shifts, bringing them once again back into the icy landscape of an ash-covered world. “Jessica!” He exclaims. He might have more to say, but everything starts happening all at once.

“Oh no. Oh Jianyu, you didn’t…” The last words the young mage said to him hits him over the head like a ton of bricks. He is right behind Jessica as the Dreamspeaker moves to Jianyu’s side, hovering awkwardly overhead.

His head turns toward the sound of the woman’s voice in the background. “Fuck. Shit. Fuck her.” His temper flares. “We need to help them. We need to stop her.” But first maybe they should move Jianyu. He bends down to help, offering to pick the young man up so they can move.

America blushes at Daniel’s compliment, but its gone in an instant as the focus changes to Jianyu’s collapse and news of danger nearby. America looks around, “Where’s Alethia? Is she alright!?” she asks to everyone and no one in particular. At the mention of Kate, her features harden and she ensures her suit is powered up. The helmet snaps shut on her face, eyes glowing, and she scans the area for any evidence of where the fight might be happening.

“Daniel, are you and Jessica going to be alright with Jianyu? Sonia and I are going to go Thelma and Louise on a meat puppet dressed as a Virtual Adept.”

Sonia is strong, an athlete. She can hold Jianyu. But her magick depends heavily on her physical ability. She passes the insensate Dreamspeaker to Daniel.

“She tried,” Jessica tells America. “She’s hurt. We’re not /fighting/ her,” Jessica insists heatedly. “Not more than we have to. They were holding her off for you.” She looks back at the others—Jianyu, Aaron who they sacrificed to catch. “If we don’t return, follow the golden path. The yellow brick road.” Reality swirls around the men as she speaks. “It will lead you back to the chantry.”

Aaron, Daniel, and Jianyu find themselves in the Umbra. It looks like this place wrapped in summer, and while there are no bricks, a road of yellow flowers leads out of the garden and beyond.

Sonia and America are left with the Master Dreamspeaker. “Come on. Let’s get the others out.” She starts heading to the Visitor Information Center.

Daniel nods his head at America’s question. “Yeah I’ll take him. You go help them. Get them out of there. Whatever needs to be done.” Just as quickly as his temper spiked, it seems to have evened out once more. Daniel takes Jianyu into his arms, cradling him tightly to his chest as best he can. “We will.” He tells Jessica. “We’ll wait an hour, then go on ahead. Be careful.” That last bit is offered to the group as a whole.

Then the world shifts again. He stares at Aaron and offers a glassy-eyed look. It’s somewhere between relief that his fellow Ecstatic mage is there in the flesh and anxiety about everything that has followed in the last few moments. “Well…” He starts. Daniel isn’t really sure what to say at the moment. “I apologise, we’ve pulled you back into the mess of a lifetime. C’mon, lets find somewhere along the path we can wait and maybe See. We should also contact the chantry and let them know what’s going on.”

America accepts what Jessica is saying and follows along with the Dreamspeaker. “Fast as fast can. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt on my account,” the armoured Etherite says. “Is Alethia with the others?” she asks, concerned. America pulls up her scanning equipment and attempts to detect significant resonances in the area.

Will would probably appreciate using those communication devices he gave you, although now they’re in the Spirit realm (and Will is a little busy himself). Aaron is staring at Daniel, still sort of stunned. “Who is the chantry? What year is this timeline? Also where were we?” Waking up in 1992 would have been weird enough; waking up in a post-apocalyptic 1993…

Prime comes more easily and distinctly than ever for America. No sense of Daniel, Jianyu, or Aaron, but she can see Sonia, and who must be Jessica. Kate engaged with 2 other magical signals. And one more…

Her equipment passively warns her about an attempt to move her internal organs outside both her body and armor before Jessica says, “Look out!” Why does she say it? Jessica likely doesn’t even know. It’s a human habit. The Master dissolves the attack. “Kibo,” She almost growls. “You’re not the only one who can be everywhere and nowhere. Get Fríða to retreat,” She says to America, before her body vanishes.

The piercing growl of a panther breaks the silence, echoing all around the park.

Sonia looks at America, knives drawn. This whole thing is escalating. “I’ve got you,” She begins, not sure of what else to say.

And then there is no time. They enter the visitor information center to find Kate standing in one end of the rubble-strewn place, working calmly on the computer in her arm, the only sign of any disarray being her hair is a little out of place. At the other end, Fríða is kneeling serenely, her staff across her lap, three candles lit around her. And in the middle is Matt, struggling against an invisible barrier that keeps him from Kate, twisting and pointing with a bone. Nearby Alethia lies crumpled, feebly lifting herself on her elbows to watch the fight.

“The chantry is a what in this case. It’s our cabal’s home. Will and Alex are there right now, dealing with locking the Net down from other people accessing it.” Daniel explains. “We were in Davenport, in the botanical gardens. S’where we tracked the entrance to the passage.” He shifts his feet and the Dreamspeaker in his arms. “It’s March of ’93. From what I understand, the timeline has been sped up with each loop.” He pauses. "Can you take Jianyu? I’m going to try to reach Will.

“Get through to Matt and fall back with Fríða,” America says quickly to Sonia through the modulation of her helmet. Sonia has always been the bridge between viewpoints, be they Will and America or Matt and everybody else. A tap at her arm pops open a panel reading at her bracer where she feeds herself ‘the juice’.

The iron maiden bursts forward with blinding speed as she is propelled by rockets at her back into the skirmish. She lines herself up between Kate and Alethia before her counter measures pop up from her pouldrons and what looks like a spectacular fireworks display snap, crackle, and pop in the air like its the 4th. The measures ought to be keyed to the resonance Fríða and Will helped identify as Kate, anti-magick personalized to make the Virtual Adept’s life as difficult as possible.

“Are you alright?!” she says back at Alethia, her worry coming through clearly despite the tinny tone. “Grab onto my back. We’re getting out of here.”

America resists the urge to focus the experience on fighting Kate. This is the first time she’s seen that nasty woman since Spartacus, and she gives her a smoldering hate glare through her helmet, but as much as she’d enjoy ending the homonculus here, there’s wounded and they’ve already won the battle. Quitting while ahead with the team in tact means a better shot at winning the championship.

“Drained,” Alethia whispers to America. She grasps hold of America.

Kate hisses in annoyance at the reinforcements. Really, America’s counter-measures are laughable—something to be overcome in a moment. But it does build up, like being mauled by by a group of cats. Between her, and Fríða, and Matt, and Kibo’s sudden absence, Kate is forced to fall back. She touches her hand and disappears in a click of blue light.

Seeing the others arrive, Fríða switches gears, a shining white light descending on her, on Matt and Sonia, on America and Alethia. All of them re-emerge on Jessica’s golden path, as Aaron is taking the inert Jianyu from Daniel. “Are we all here?” Fríða asks.

“Jessica went to fight Kibo.”

“Gods damn it, we just rescued her.” Matt growls. Fríða taps his arm, pointing. “Is that… a cat?” Sonia asks.

An oversized purple panther bounds in, dropping the corpse of a Virtual Adept—a man, not Kate—at their feet. Sonia reaches for the panther, petting its giant head. “Jessica?” The panther purrs, rubbing her head against Sonia’s hand. Then it dissolves in mist.

Unsteadily, Jessica picks her way toward the others from the opposite direction of the panther’s arrival. “I don’t think Kate will come after us. She’s too cautious without preparation.”

Fríða takes the opportunity to examine Jianyu, though she lets Aaron hold him. “He’s alive. His spirit is there,” She begins. “But his mind is beyond reach. I’m sorry, only a Master of Mind could help him, and none of us are that.”

Daniel manages not to jump out of his skin when everyone appears around them. “Thank goodness,” He breaths when he counts out everyone is there. He’s already feeling around on his person for the device that lets them contact Will. “We could contact ”/characters/yorick" class=“wiki-content-link”>Yorick, but I’m loath to let that man near another of the cabal." He says to Fríða. Look at what happened to Jahan, after all.

When he finally finds the device, he’ll send a message along to Will that they’re alive, they have Aaron and they’ve escaped an attacking Kate.



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