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15

Real pain is that landscape marred by holes, in which you fall into one and you fall for what feels like forever into that sensation, suffocating, only to plunge back up to the surface, shaken, afraid to drown in it again.

(after the rain comes sorrow, after the sorrow comes rain again)

LeBlanc's neck threatens to cave in, sandwiched between the giantess's hand and the ice crackling underneath. No air can enter her lungs. Her right arm is pinned down, and her left is feebly clawing at the giantess. Dark spots are starting to pop in and out of her vision, marring that cruel face content with giving her pain.

It is beginning to go silent.

She thinks (imagines?) she sees Vayne's bolts striking the giantess – though it seems like the giantess won't give.

I'm going to die..

("Swishy-swishy!")

The knife is still in her pockets, her last chance for survival. In the midst of drowning, LeBlanc hurriedly gets her free arm to (feel the knife's sharp blade, now get the handle) grip the knife and pull it out – lunge forward at the giantess's general direction.

It stabs.

Her own throat doesn't feel immediately relieved, but she takes in a breath of that cold air anyway. It enters her lungs, and right away she is gasping, gasping--! Sparks are dancing with each intake of air, along with sputtering it out her mouth and nose, the opaque mist spilling out into the open.

She's holding tightly onto the handle of her knife with both hands, and it's wavering all over – she feels something slick pouring over her naked hands; it's the giantess's silver blood geysering from her puncture.

The giantess shrieks with terrible pain, and LeBlanc realises where she's stabbed; through the giantess's chest, through her heart. Now every one of the giantess's heartbeats makes her blood erupt over the lodged blade, dripping down LeBlanc's arms, the wet silver scathing and burning coldly, the ice giving way to numbness as the blood congeals into permafrost, freezing and freezing her amidst icy vapour.

But LeBlanc never lets go. Not even the worst of the painful sensations makes her want to let go – and like a petite child desperately clinging onto her mother's nipple, she keeps holding onto the knife's handle, and the rapid, frenetic twitches of the giantess seem to haul LeBlanc's body with it from the ground, shoulders and torso.

Until she starts to feel her arms shatter and break by the elbows – she doesn't feel it, but she hears a sharp clink and sees her own hands and forearms clinging onto the protruding knife, independent from her.

What a strange sight..

Gradually, the giantess slinks, the life slipping away from this nine-tailed beast. Until she remains motionless, slumping onto her backside – her tails crushed by her body. A brief twitch on one of her tails.

LeBlanc's hands are surreal over the giantess's heart. She notices for a first time how beautiful they can really be, in a desperate struggle's end.

Her thumping chest is beginning to relax, and she scrabbles over to the dead giantess – fumbling over the ice with her shortened arm stumps. She'd better find a way to pry her hands off the knife somehow. If Lulu can..

There's only the red bloodstain where Lulu was.

She finds Twisted Fate and the others (they look like dolls) gathering by her, cheerful at the giantess's defeat.

"..you're.. was.. truly.." LeBlanc hears Shen say – gee, it's kinda hard to hear him properly like this, being so big. Maybe that's why that foxy lady seemed to be able to stand loud and proud over everyone.

"Eh?" LeBlanc goes.

Then she sees the ground and everything suddenly rising before her; she's shrinking back to normal size.

"A courageous battle," Shen says, by the time she's just below his height. "It is a shame about Lulu; I hope that fortune will have her reviving by a friendly bonfire instead of the asylums." He chips off a piece of snow from his face shroud, before glancing at the giantess. LeBlanc's giant hands attached to the dagger seem to have gone. "About your hands," Shen says, "shall we ge--"

The ice begins to rumble deeply as Shen says his last word; a light is shimmering from the giantess's body – she is disintegrating into mere frost that vaporises into the air, snowflakes humming up to the moon before they seemingly disappear.

And what is left is a shimmering orb, like a distilled white dwarf that lingers mid-air for a moment. It soon starts to move, hovering towards the group – towards LeBlanc.

"It's the giantess's soul," Twisted Fate says, seeing LeBlanc hesitating, if she should be running from that light. "I told you how undead thrive and gain abilities. Who destroyed her? You, LeBlanc."

The light orbits around LeBlanc, her waist and her neck, swirling ever closer to her body. She can feel the same vie from it; that life and vitality of consuming a tangible soul at the bonfire. So she reaches out for the giantess's essence with her stumps, but instead the orb finally settles through her ribcage, directly into her beating heart.

And for a second, nothing seems to happen.

Then inside, LeBlanc feels the energies flood her, through her arms and legs and shoulders, like the heat of scaldingly hot water. Foreign memories pour through her mind, one infinitesimal moment of feeling extreme vanity and the next extreme futility, passing before she could fully apprehend it, like water through a sieve.

She is on her knees now, uncontrollable gasps escaping her, while the energies swirl and swish through her nervous system, undulating towards a comfortable equilibrium.

She feels her arm stumps sting, and she sees the tendrils start to grow out of those ends – the icy vines are twirling, coalescing into recognisable skeletal bone, overlaying muscle and the tissues and surface skin. It is her hands, good as new!

"My hands.. they're back again!" LeBlanc goes. She checks her other wound by the shoulder, and it's also healed too. Now all she needs is a nice vacation to go along.

"Excellente," Twisted Fate remarks, grinning. "I guess you could thank Lady Luck's good fortune."

"Thank her? I suppose.. hmm--"

Suddenly there's an eruption of ice; from the lake's centre hole, the waters geyser with such force that the icy boundaries fly apart into shards, and the waters spill through the resulting, spreading cracks.

It's happening far too fast for everyone to react.

The lake's water splashes over LeBlanc, all at once, an oceanic wet coldness that envelops, and the cold intensity pummels her with a whirling current. Her eyes are tightly shut, and behind the eyelids it seems there's only a noisy blackness (or are her eyes actually open, but somehow her vision has gone?)

Then she decides to risk it; allowing the cold water to touch her eyes, maybe freezing them with the badly sensation of ice picks.

She discovers she's hurling down an underwater tunnel; inside this blue vortex, its bottom seems to be a pure whiteness, shimmering. The light promising that there is some end, a surface. Some distances away, the others drift and spin at the mercy of the currents; their clothes rippling and their own selves struggling to move about properly, their arms and legs flailing like they're attempting to swim in the heavy space.

When LeBlanc catches a glance of the upward direction, there's only blackness. As if the lake and forest has never properly existed. Maybe it is the giantess's illusion collapsing with her death.

Her own lungs are aching; she's been holding her breath in since the splash, and now the urge to gulp in breathable air is irresistable.

She can't..

She tries making sure if this is actually air around her (that happens to be cold), or if it's a continuation of the lake's waters. The forces upon her feel crisp on her bare skin, more like wind than water current.

She can't hold her breath any longer, time to let it out and in again--

Bubbles erupt from her mouth, the bottomy light gleaming through their transparency. It almost seems Time itself has slowed for her to see her last moment alive. She reflexively breathes in, but there is utterly nothing. It's a vacumn, and her lungs feel totally constricted, unable to expand, and very soon it feels like her chest is collapsing upon itself.

And in her tumbling, she sees the shimmering light again. The others' forms are shadows upon it.

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14

Eventually, Odette's body finds a clearing, where the glade bears a frozen lake – the surface is sheening under the moonlight. Her body walks onto the ice and her feet burn through, steaming the ice into liquid, making her touch the water below.

"Oh no!" Lulu goes.

The white maiden leaves a trail of bubbling, hissing water as she wanders deeper down the lake; knee deep, waist deep. Then with a shudder the rest of her body plops down the cold depths, and fresh ice rapidly reseals the exposed portions amidst the mass of steam – the open wound closing.

"Whoa," LeBlanc mumbles. It's so cool to see, and at the same time unnerving. The knife she's tucked on her belt comes to mind.

"This must be it," Twisted Fate says.

The steam dissipates, simmering up and out. Instead of the bare ice though, what seems like an illusion at first has emerged in place. It is a giantess – looming at least twice their height. The steam erupting around her pale, contoured body. Nine white tails blossom behind her; each of which gleams with a silver sheen, each wavering and contorting like a whip on the verge.

"Who art thou?" she asks.

"'Art thou?'" Twisted Fate goes. "We're just travellers wanting to get to Anor Londo. Only question is, what happened to the path? The last time I went, there wasn't any blockage, or a forest that deep."

"Tis an accident thou hast misstept into my world?" she says. "If that is true, plunge down into the lake and hurry back safe. Else, if thou art seeking for thine witch-thief, thine desires shall be requited not, for she hast dishonoured herself so in her attempt to puncture a hole in this realm."

Ice seeps away from the lake's middle, leaving the clear waters lapping at the hole.

"No.." LeBlanc says to the giantess. Something just doesn't feel right about it. "That's Odette, and she just wanted to see if there's something going on with the path."

"Not true," the giantess replies, a grimace starting to show on her face. "Thine witch-thief despite all my warning has chosen to venture into the void; does thou knowest not of her use of red eye rock? It is poison. She would steal my vitality and claim it for her own."

LeBlanc is at a loss for words.

"Thou ought to returneth whence thou came," the giantess says. "I desire nothing more than peace, and thou truly does not belong."

"If you're not willing to return Odette," Vayne says, readying her crossbow, "I'm not going back.." She glances at LeBlanc, at the others for any sign of agreement. It's going to get very ugly.

"I beg of thee – do plunge down into the waters!" A desperate tone permeates her words, and her tails are fluctuating tensely.

Twisted Fate pulls out his deck of cards. He nods at everyone to get ready. Shen has his hand on his sheathed katana, while Lulu crowds by LeBlanc – Pixy fluttering in-between them.

"Pick a card miss."

And four encharged cards come out of Twisted Fate's fingers, flying in the giantess's direction. But a swift flick from one of her tails deflects the projectiles--

they're coming back,

"Watch OUT!" Shen yells as the party runs away, and LeBlanc just hears the whizz of a card past her head before it strikes the snow beside, and a jolt she feels pushing through her body, staggering her. She lands hard upon the ground, sliding – her left shoulder taking the brunt of the impact.

Straining her neck, she sees the others scattered all over the snow, having left skid marks where they've landed.

And then there is the giantess coming from the lake, gleaming. "Why dost thee hurry toward thine deaths? Thine bonfire hast been put out. Thou hast nowhere proper left to revive."

Pain throbs where LeBlanc has landed – her shoulder, her back. She brushes the hair from her face, feeling the chill of the snow over her. It seems like attacking the giantess is a terrible mistake – she could just easily swat away anything that is thrown at her; her tails are like fly-swatters. Unless someone here still has aces up their sleeve.

What about..

LeBlanc glances at where the giantess is standing – the frontal portion of the lake where it's still covered in ice. Maybe she can make her sink in the water somehow.. is the water actually a way back to reality, or is it..

(Odette's body trudging down into the lake.)

Is it actually a trap, designed to steal away the soul essences? That seems to be it.

The giantess is now wielding a large scythe in one hand, waiting, tempting everyone to try her again. The razor-edged blade looks as though it can cut through an entire body in one fell swoop. Better be careful.

LeBlanc and the others pull themselves up.

"Hey," LeBlanc goes. "I have an idea."

"What?" Vayne says.

"I think the lake is actually a soul receptacle," LeBlanc goes. "It's not an escape; if we can get that foxy lady into the water, we can get free of her."

"Hmmph." Vayne and the others ponder the notion for a bit. "Let's do it."

"Okay."

"I think I'll be doing the distracting.." Vayne aims her crossbow at the giantess, who seems ready to be tickled by the oncoming projectiles.

In the meanwhile, circling around seems to be a good way to approach. LeBlanc starts to strafe squeakily to the left, with Lulu deciding to follow her. Twisted Fate is strafing the other way; Shen lingers by Vayne's side – he'll help shield the crossbow artiste from any incoming danger.

The giantess can only laugh at their attempting. "Does thou truly thinketh I may find defeat by thine hands?"

Vayne unleashes her first volley of bolts; the silver bolts pierce through the air, arcing down to the giantess's torso and chest. A whiplash from her tails shatter the bolts – the giantess winces with pain as burn marks appear where they've been touched. And another volley is coming.

There's crossable ground by the lake's border, and LeBlanc and Lulu hastily traverse the snow before the ice. Their legs are quivering from the need to get into position, while struggling against the loss of sensation from the coldness. Whilst in the distance, the giantess moans from the scathing pain that Vayne's bolts deliver.

Sch-vroop!

The next volley slices directly through her burnt tails; white blood streaks out from the wound, jetting over onto the ice in droplets. The giantess screeches out, her howls deafening in the very night.

"You hit her!" Shen exclaims. "You might even be able to take her down single-handedly at this rate!"

Vayne is loading a fresh batch of bolts into her crossbow. Before she readies herself to shoot though, she sees the giantess beginning to glimmer. A smug grin comes over the giantess's face, and she swishes her wounded tails in front of her, and the tails rapidly wave up and down. At first it is the blood that trickles out – then thick mist joins in also, obscuring her, and it billows out from her in a slow explosion.

"What's.." Vayne mutters.

What the mist touches, you briefly see covered with a veneer of frost before it's hidden.

"It's gonna freeze us to death!" Vayne goes.

But Shen is already dashing in front of Vayne, and he erects an energy shield that surrounds them. A poof of smoke comes beside – Twisted Fate also joins them inside the bubble.

On the far side of the lake, Lulu gets her Pixy to put up a shield of his own for herself and LeBlanc; the outside noises are muted.

The mist gets close, and LeBlanc finds herself holding her breath as she sees how the mist is composed of numerous little snowflakes, before it envelops them and they are plunged into an autistic darkness.

Ta-dum.

The only light now is from Pixy's wings, as he seems stuck in place mid-air. The only noise LeBlanc hears is that distant rumbling, and her own quivering breaths with Lulu's.

"Are you there..?" LeBlanc asks.

"I'm here," Lulu goes. "It's kinda scary, huh?"

"It is."

Then LeBlanc feels something touch her fingers – the warmth of Lulu's hands clasping tightly around hers.

"I'm c-- cold.." LeBlanc says. "I'm freezing. I don't know if you are, but I wish I had an extra coat on me."

"Same."

Then a faint crackle in the dark. The mist is passing them by, and gradually more light sheens through until they can see the lake and trees once more, now transformed into a pure glassy, chalk whiteness.

The giantess seems to have gone.

Pixy flutters back to Lulu's shoulder – he's weak, he is shivering. Lulu pets him – "You did great," she tells him, and she gently puts him in the comfort of her pockets.

Back over there, LeBlanc notices the other three (Shen, Twisted Fate and Vayne) recovering from the blast of mist. Phew, they're fine too, at least.

"Hey," LeBlanc says, "where'd the foxy lady with the tails go?"

"I dunno," Lulu goes.

"Hm, why don't you send Pixy over to find out?"

"Pixy needs his nappy time," Lulu goes, frowning.

"Oh, right-- merde.."

LeBlanc glances over the frozen lake, looking for any sign of the giantess. Where's the last spot she was at? Then, on a closer look, the lake's frost seems to show a pattern that points towards an epicentre. That's where.

Then she looks down at her feet. She scrapes the frosted ground across, and sees how she leaves a visible indent.

Then she glances back at the epicentre and notices how there's alternating marks, like footprints, in a direction that is coming straight towards her.

And another footprint has just been made, by an unseen foot.

"Oh merde--!" LeBlanc goes. "She's still here..! There's footprints, foxy lady's turned invisible!"

Another footprint; the giantess must be pretty close already – a few more steps and she could easily swoop her scythe.

"I see footprints too!" Lulu pips.

"We gotta run," LeBlanc goes, and she takes Lulu's hand and starts to bolt away from those footprints. "Run!"

She hears a whooosh just then, and the loud slice through the place that they once were. Glancing back, LeBlanc almost imagines that she's seen the visage of the giantess post-swing, before flickering into invisibility once more.

Squeak squeak squeak.

For some reason, Lulu is dawdling behind, and LeBlanc feels the lag of having to pull the fey girl with her.

"It's so slippery," Lulu goes, in-between pants. Her feet slip and slide on the icy ground.

"Really?"

Squeak squeak squeak! LeBlanc's bunny slippers seem to squeak with a newfound desperation.

"My slippers must be weatherproof," LeBlanc says.

Slice! The giantess's scythe chops a section of the ground behind into bits; shards of ice fly up from the impact, while the giantess flickers into hiding.

"She's gaining on us!" Lulu goes. "Some stuff got on my hair."

Up ahead is the watery portion of the lake. It's the exposed hole, surrounded by that solid ice. LeBlanc only makes it some more steps before--

"Waaahh--!" Lulu's been struck by a lightning; the redness spills from her back from the scythe's cleave, and she tumbles onto her belly, sliding a little from inertia. LeBlanc notices her scream and the slackening of her grip, and she glances behind.

The giantess is visible – her scythe's point has deeply embedded itself in the blooded ground by Lulu, and she is trying to yank it back out with two hands. The calm, assured smile on her face wants to suggest that their deaths are an inevitable fact, embedded scythe or not.

"Run.. I'm done for.." Lulu half-mutters on her face. As she glances up at LeBlanc's eyes, you'd notice the tears verging on pouring down her cheeks. The bloodstain on her back is ballooning.

The giantess tugs on her scythe's handle, and the ground cracks a bit.

"Please.." Lulu goes, her voice already growing weaker. "Run away.."

LeBlanc blinks.

Lulu's eyelids droop, and her tears run free.

..

"NON!!"

Suddenly an almost supernatural willpower is flowing through LeBlanc – she scrambles over to Lulu and finding a hold under, she strains, lifting the bleeding Lulu in her arms, don't let your damned knees buckle.

The ground before the scythe splits open in a hail of ice and snow, and already the giantess pulls the scythe back to swing.

It almost seems like the scythe itself is swinging in slow-motion.

All the other sounds are pushed away as the surge of heartbeats rushes through LeBlanc's ears, beating and beating, her pulse like an erratic drum under the waterfall.

Ta-dum ta-dum--!

The very air seems to sizzle around the scythe's incoming trajectory – directly towards her abdomen.

(move!!)

With all might, LeBlanc hurls herself to the side, away from the scythe, tumbling down to the ground, Lulu huddled in her arms. The scythe manages to shear the cloth of her forearm, passing over her.

The ice catches her hard on her sides, making her spit out air, and she slips down an additional distance before resting.

She is wheezing. Sweat is all over her skin (mon coeur est sur le point d'exploser), and she's feeling the uncomfortable dichotomy of her inner heat merging with the outer freeze.

"Ouchies.." Lulu quietly goes.

LeBlanc realises the warm, coagulating redness that's been dripping down her hands. "Ouchies.. indeed," she goes.

The giantess is approaching.Her scythe scrapes along the ice. It's Death's scythe, signalling their death knell.

For LeBlanc, it feels like all the life and energies have been sapped out of her. It's so hard to will herself just to move even an inch. Her body is aching, even while adrenaline is being forced through her blood.

All the while, the scraping feels deafeningly loud.

"At least.. I tried," LeBlanc says. "Hehe."

Pixy pokes his head out of Lulu's pockets.

The invisible giantess must be leering over them now. Like a buzzard over its prey, she circles around their forms – the bottom of her scythe is scratching over the ice. It's unbearable to hear.

When the scratching comes in front of them, it stops. There's a loud clang on the ground by that spot, and the giantess flashes visibly for a bit, having slammed her scythe down.

And another clang.

And another.

Each clang sends a jolt through LeBlanc, as all her attention is on the place of impact. The curved blade pointing up. On the third clang, the giantess remains visible against the backdrop of the pale moon.

"Witness," the giantess goes. "Thy future's end."

She swoops her scythe up.

Ta-dum.

LeBlanc can only see the light fading in Lulu's eyes, before seeing it descend upon her.But suddenly, she sees a quick movement – Pixy flies right up, and in a blinding flash of light he intercepts the scythe mid-air.

Ta-dum.

The giantess struggles to get the scythe down against the butterfly's resistance. The blade's point wavers, sparks exploding out from where it hits Pixy's hastily-improvised shield.

"What is this trickery?" the giantess asks. "A mere butterfly, being brave?" The briefest moment comes when she slackens the exerted pressure on the scythe, to pull back for another blow – but instead, Pixy uses this opportunity to carry the scythe forth with its momentum, pulling the giantess's arms back and tripping her away, and getting the scythe out of her hands.

The scythe is flung up into the air, with Pixy following in the weapon's wake. The weapon gleams under the moonlight, before it starts to glow red hot, white hot; finally it explodes in a dazzling thunder. The shattered figments seem to dissolve away into thin air, like steam.

LeBlanc can't help breathing a sigh of relief.

"Le.. blonk.." she hears Lulu go. Lulu's so weak – her face has gone so pale that it almost looks like a different face entirely. Her fingers wiggle with the slightest movements. "In my pockets.. sprinkle.. dust.. on yourself." She coughs a high-pitched cough.

So LeBlanc struggles to Lulu, pulling herself to her, and she reaches inside Lulu's bloody clothes, feeling for that dust. Right away, she catches a whiff of that sweet scent – bingo. She pulls her hand to herself, and haphazardly she pats the dust on her chest, her abdomen. It feels tingly, as if littered with an electric charge.

"Do you want.. biggie?" Lulu sputters.

"Biggie?"

Lulu takes it as a yes; mustering the last of her strength, Lulu intently glances at LeBlanc (with a mischievous grin), and pips out, "Hugeify!"

Suddenly that latent electricity surges. It's a rush of air and coarsing energy, and LeBlanc's feels something loosen in her ear canals as Lulu seems to shrink into a petite, injured toy. The ice rumbles underneath her; it feels a little fragile to be on.

She has been made into a giant. The forest trees are just slightly taller than her. And nearby, the other giantess is lying prone on her back – a short distance from the lake's watery pit.

"Hey—" LeBlanc goes, her voice booming. She takes a step forward, and her movement feels slightly cumbersome, as though her body is weighed down by something, with the inertia of being underwater. (Still, now she can take on the giantess on better terms.)

Squeak!

A few more steps, and LeBlanc gets a better hang of giantism.

She approaches the giantess. The ice almost seems to bend under their combined weight. What can LeBlanc do with her? The watery pit looks like it could just barely fit one giantess as it is, and maybe she'll have to jump down on her if she and her tails get stuck somehow in the hole.

But the giantess is actually still awake. She's recovering from her daze, and she is perking her head up at LeBlanc--

A swift, squeakykick to the giantess's abdomen knocks the wind out of her. There's very little time, as LeBlanc hurriedly tries kneeling down and dragging the giantess's arms to the hole – the slippery ice makes it somewhat easier to do.

The giantess starts to tense under her grip. Time for another thrashing!

As LeBlanc aims a punch at the giantess's nose, her fist is stopped by the giantess's grip on her wrist.

"Thou cannot," the giantess goes.

"I will," LeBlanc retorts, trying to haul her wrist away.

"Thou will not."

The giantess's grip on LeBlanc's wrist tightens very hard in a deathgrip. It hurts. And with the other hand, the giantess lunges for her throat. The ferocity of it strikes her by surprise – she gags, and the giantess rises from the ground, while plunging LeBlanc onto it.

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13

The first raindrops pour down through the trees, timidly at first, and then more and more until it is a light drizzle, and the scouting party is waiting under a dry spot, sheltered by a mass of rearranged twigs, waiting for Odette to reappear.

Hiss..

"How long is this supposed to take?" LeBlanc asks.

"A few hours," Shen goes, kneeling, pressing his hands together meditatively.

The overcast afternoon turns into a dank evening, and no one says a word as they wait, glancing out at the glistening trunks, the mushrooms that have turned pink and lively as they emit their own light in the dark.

Then, LeBlanc sees a faint visage shift from behind the tree. She blinks, perking her head around – is it just a trick of the eye?

"Did you see that?" she asks. "Anyone?"

"What LeBlonk?" Lulu pips.

"Something moved there," LeBlanc says, getting on her knees. "I think I saw.."

The white visage shifts out of cover, and it is much more clearly visible this time. It seems to slowly shuffle.. towards the party.

"Yeah, there it is," Twisted Fate says, as he puts his cards away. "Let's check it out. It might be Odette."

So they get up and advance in the rain's trinkle. Vayne readies her crossbow at hand, expecting to slice some foe's hide with her bolts the next second. They head towards that crooked tree trunk – towards that white form, with her white robes and drooping hair.

"Odette!" Twisted Fate exclaims.

Odette's eyes are glancing with a distant daze, unfocused on the party. Her head wavers around, swaying in the rain, as if that centre of her which keeps her stable has been torn apart.

"Did she go hollow?" Vayne says, clutching harder at her crossbow.

"Her skin's lookin' fine," Twisted Fate goes. "I'm not sure.."

Then those strings holding the Odette marionette are severed, and the cleric lifelessly collapses onto the ground.

"Odette!" Twisted Fate clambers down to her body, where he holds her head in his hand and tries tapping her cheeks. "She's.. gone."

A beat.

"How can this be..?" Shen asks, with a restrained tremor. "If you try killing her, will she return to normal back at the bonfire?"

"Let me lookie," Lulu says, and everyone gives her a little room. She whispers something to Pixy, and the butterfly flutters down to the tip of Odette's nose, and he inches over her skin, pausing every second or so. Then Pixy flutters back to Lulu's shoulder. "He says Odette's soul has been taken," Lulu says. "If you make her reappear again, her body will go hollow."

"Does he know what happened?" Vayne asks. "That wonderland stuff really did wonders on her.. I wanna know if there's something my crossbow should hit."

"Hmm.." Lulu whispers sweet somethings to Pixy, and this time the butterfly heads over, burrowing into her robe by the collar. Then after a while, Pixy emerges and tells Lulu his findings. "He says it's a good chance that somebody did it," Lulu says, "and that somebody might be around here. We might be able to recover her soul from him."

"Best be treadin' cautiously," Twisted Fate says.

"What do we do with Odette's body?" Shen asks.

"Hmm.. why don't we carry her with us?" Twisted Fate goes. "In case we need Pixy to scrounge up some more dirt from her body."

"Actually," Lulu says – pondering. "It might-- it might be possible to-- because souls are drawn to fire, I wonder if I can make a fire that can lead us to her soul."

"Can you do that?" Twisted Fate says.

"Let's make a goodly!" Lulu pips. The fey girl pulls out some sparkling dust from her pockets (the same dust that seems to emit from Pixy's wings) and sprinkles it all over Odette's form. LeBlanc watches her perform, all the while hearing her hum throughout, and then Lulu asks Twisted Fate to throw one of his volatile cards onto Odette.

He does, and with a jolt Odette's body is alight in flickering white flame, glowing and illuminating the place around – it's almost blinding to look at. There's violet steam from the flames, rising and dissolving into the air.

"You're sure this isn't going to turn her body to a crisp?" Twisted Fate asks, before seeing Odette's body start to rise itself up, standing with a borrowed liveliness.

It stands still.

Lulu is holding her hands together. Then Odette's body begins to head forth, marching steadily to its destination. They follow the not-quite-alive Odette, as the white flame meanders around the trees, glintering reflections coming from their wet surfaces.

It begins to feel quite chilly. No longer does the rain feel like tickling dewdrops; it feels like a numbing drench, and LeBlanc resents having her own clothes stick to her, soppily dripping, as her breath visibly jets out her lips. She decides to keep close to the burning Odette, holding her hands close to the flames, appreaciating what radiating warmth she can get. Her feet are still dry; the squeaking bunnies seem to be waterproof.

She feels like a wanderer, running through the unknown darkness – lead by holy light. It's an invigorating feeling. With bated breath, butterflies tickling her tummy, she feels like she could stumble across the greatest moment around the next corner.

The woods seem steeper and gnarly. The ground is terribly uneven, with jagged rocks now protruding from the dirt. Amidst the faint sky, the trunks seem to twist and curve like overlong fingernails. Odette's body trudges on.

"Brrr.." Vayne says. "Anyone else getting the shivers? I don't like this.."

"I hope it'll be a nice, warm, cozy den we'll be winding up at," Twisted Fate goes. "Maybe it'll be a hermit mage, and once we deal with him.. we could.."

"Squeak squeak squeak!" LeBlanc's slippers say.

Crusty snowflakes are falling amidst the rain, and they soon find patches of freshly laden snow – Odette's steps on the snow makes it hiss and evaporate. And then there's the icy flowers, like various signposts littering the woods – a white luminescence emitting from them.

A flower is a very pretty thing. To look at, absorbing the vivid colours of the rainbow from its petals. To smell, finding the places where the rainbow can take you. LeBlanc is entranced by the flowers – an urge comes over her, and she quickly skips over to the nearest ice flower, where she picks one up in her fingers.

Suddenly she finds herself surrounded by blue. It's an icy land that stretches all over, in a barren landscape, under a cloudless sky that has no sun. She strains to see the horizons – it isn't visible, but hidden from her view like in a blind spot.

(behind clouds)

Her skin is numbing already from the subzero air, and she struggles to make a forward step on the ice, before she loses grip and tumbles onto the cold, unsympathetic surface.

Lying there inert, she sees visible forms, coming towards her. What are they? They look like they belong with this icy wasteland – their thin, vaguely humanoid bodies seem to almost merge with the ground, and their tendrils seem to shimmer, wavering like streams of living water.

"LeBlanc!"

In front of her, as vivid and clear as her eyes can see, the icy flower awaits – white light gleaming on the petals. And she blinks; feeling disoriented, she realises she has fallen down onto the ground. She looks up, and sees Shen and Twisted Fate, who pick her back up, the snow clufts tumbling from her clothes.

"Are you well?" Shen goes, his eyes quite concerned.

"I.. saw something," LeBlanc says. The snow is falling from above in sheets; some of them are glowing brighter than the others, before fading to darkness – Odette's glowing visage is getting away. "When I touched the flower, there was an icy landscape," she says. "With icy beings."

"Hmm – that's mighty interesting," Twisted Fate goes. He glances at where Odette is. "You better tell us about it later-- we've some catching up to do."

When they make it over to Odette, there's Lulu and Vayne still pacing with the flaming cleric. "She alright?" Vayne asks.

"Said she had a vision of an icy land, with icy beings," Twisted Fate goes. "It might have something to do with Odette's captor. Stay frosty."

qdesjardin: (Default)

12

LeBlanc notices violet mushrooms littering the dirt around the roots, as if they are nourishing themselves from the trees' strength. She almost wants to pick one for herself, but the harried pace of the scouting squad has her almost jogging just to keep up. Her bunny slippers seem to squeak to a musical beat. It only makes her feel more of an outsider – run, or you'll never keep up with us.

Then one of her feet get caught on the roots, and she slips and stumbles face-forward onto the ground. Peh.

"Come on." Twisted Fate helps her back up, and she is panting, exhausted. She dusts off the dirt and other debris on her robes.

"What's the hurry?" LeBlanc asks.

"Hm?"

"It's like.. you're having to run for a race.. or something," she says between breaths.

"To save time in explorin'," Twisted Fate goes. "You'll get used to it."

(A memory resurges from the depths: she's running or skipping down the hallways whilst the other children prefer to walk there. Why, you would ask? And she would answer, she simply likes the feeling of running, of skipping. It's enlivening.)

"I recommend skipping!" Lulu pips, before gallivanting forth on her little legs.

So LeBlanc tries skipping – lightly hopping over the roots, and she finds how easy it is to do.

And as it turns out, Odette the cleric is suspecting that the nature of the path blockage may be due to extrinsic forces; the dense trees are there unnaturally, and that something has made it so. She tells the group to wait, while she kneels down and pulls out a ruby crystal. Of which, she closes her eyes, shutting herself to her surroundings and entering a seance – her eyelids seem to bulge with rapid eye movement.

A subtle aura develops around Odette's languid form. She starts to fade in and out of existance. You can start to see through her form, until at once she is gone. LeBlanc heads to the spot where Odette once was and tries waving her hand through the space, feeling only empty air.

"Where'd she go?" LeBlanc asks.

"To wonderland," Vayne flatly says, picking at her sharp fingernails.

"What's wonderland?"

"It's a place of chaos, underlying the current reality here," Twisted Fate goes. "Sometimes, there's special, indescribable forces that can drastically change the way things are.. though they may not be obvious at first.

"We stumbled across this one time; our entire camp was travelling in circles by a lake, no matter which way we went. Even when we tried walking away from the lake, we'd just come by it again. It was perpetually day. Until Odette suggested to explore the lake itself, to dive underwater, in which.. it was an illusion, and we emerged on the other side, where it was night. But we were still trapped by it.

"That crystal you saw Odette hold – it's a red eye, which pierces into the formless void, underlying the surface. Sometimes, when you have the feeling that you just know something, but what it is, it's hard to explain, but you feel it nonetheless.. on the edges of awareness.

"When a newborn is born, the world around him is a muddle of light and noise," Twisted Fate says. "As he grows, he learns more and more about the world – language, morality, ideas, and other people. But at the same time, he forgets more and more of life. Because the very things he learns, they imprison him too. He forgets the idealism he once had as a child, which animates the dolls and toys he held. He forgets the unbridled joy of the unknown, learning to fear it as an animal fears the vast ocean. He becomes crystallised. 2 + 2 can only mean 4 to him, and nothing else. And often.. some of those crystals just don't seem to fit neatly so right, no matter what, and so, the paradoxes exist that make it possible that war is peace, death is life, hate is love. Where people seem peaceful and content with war, even if given the choice, they would choose peace. Where people don't live a day without anxiety and trepidation of the future, and they say they are happy to be alive. Where acts of the greatest hatred are easily done with the name of the greatest love.

"But sometimes.. in the little cracks that show, the formless void whispers inside us, even if briefly, nudging us awake from the imperfect definiteness that we grow inured to, as a fish remembers the very water that it swims in."

"Why is this happening?" LeBlanc asks.

"Because existence progresses as a heartbeat," Twisted Fate says. "Life in its many forms swells and fades, like the seasons of the year, like the tides of an ocean wave, searching for a perfection it can never truly attain, and so it continues. Where every end it finds is always a new beginning."

qdesjardin: (Default)

11

When LeBlanc holds up the fractured handmirror, it reflects a young, almost naive face. She glances at the reflection, honing in on her features, her complexion – the faint possibility that it could be viewed as unattractive, or boringly trite.

She's in the tent, where a divider shelters her form while she finds an outfit to wear. Some woman has been kind enough to share her clothes ("I hope they match your size!") and that one ornate handmirror.

It's surprisingly enjoyable to look through and try out each piece of clothing, to see if it fits her, making her more of herself in a musical way. She finds some rags, jewelry – putting them on at first before taking them off if she doesn't like it.

In the end, she has on a light dress; a robe, a skirt, and gloves. They're softly made, silk-thin and easy to wear.

And then she applies a tangy lip balm – badly chapped lips are no good.

When she peeks out of the divider, Twisted Fate is sitting cross-legged on the carpet, dealing out cards. He spots her, pleasantly happy to see her refined appearance.

"Very nice, very nice," he goes, tipping his hat. "You look like a pretty maiden. Say, why don't you come join me for some divination?"

LeBlanc kneels down by him. There's a set of cards that's already arranged in a cross, faces down, with one card overlapping another at the centre. It looks familiar to her for some reason.

"Divination?" she asks. "That's fortune telling.."

"Fortune telling.. haha. I haven't heard someone call it that in a long while," Twisted Fate says. "You see, legend says that everyone has within them akind of destiny. The sorts of paths they're inclined to follow down the road. And like all paths, they intertwine and collide with one 'nother – and it often so happens that the colliding paths get changed afterward.. various sorts of changes. You following me so far?"

"Like how people can meet each other in life," LeBlanc says. "They make relationships – friendship, romance, rivalry.. and how in the end, they leave impressions upon each other that would come to affect their future, one way or another."

"Right-o. You got it." Twisted Fate places four more cards beside the cross, bottom to top. He licks his lips. "Let's see what Destiny's got in store for all of us."

And with a flick of his wrist, the cards are flipped face up. Their faces almost seem to glow with a light of their own, bearing vivid, fantastical imagery. It's almost hypnotic to look at, as if you could find yourself falling into a lull.

LeBlanc finds Twisted Fate's intent concentration amusing. He hums to himself with greater and greater intensity until at last he lets out a grunt of relief, like an insight has just popped into mind.

"It's a story about you, LeBlanc," he goes. "Reborn as an undead, you are thrust into a life of uncertainty and chaos. You wonder about your past life – what it must be like before this. To have memories, to have a history. You're like a newborn child again, wanting to find out how this life is. And yet at the same time, you are condemned like the rest of us to an unwinding clock spring. Where every tick of a second, Life is progressing closer to Death.

"You long for answers to fill that emptiness within, but you will never feel satisfied – for no one can fully provide you with them. No one knows everything about what is going on. What we have are only shreds and fragments of elusive truth.

"What I know is.. more of the undead are appearing, branded with the darksign, and the living are feeling resentment about our existance. They don't yet realise that our fates indeed are tied together; we are two different sides of the same coin. And that coin is going to eventually rust away.. life and beauty itself, because the Angels are afraid to let their flame burn out. You met Oscar, didn't you?"

A beat. "I did," LeBlanc says. "He brought me out of a hole."

"Never thought Oscar would actually find new undead there," Twisted Fate goes. "Or at least.. an undead who hasn't gone out to hollowing yet. I guess he got lucky."

"Oscar went hollow," LeBlanc tells him. "He did just after he told me stuff."

"I see. Sorry about him." Twisted Fate packs up his cards, sliding them away into the pack. "You know, that pit you came from is a holding asylum – one out of many. When someone once alive dies with the darksign on them, the asylum captures them and leaves their body to rot and decay. It's a tragic fate."

There were bones littered all over in that place, LeBlanc recalls. She shudders, imagining how she could have been like that.

But then.. what was that whiteness?

"What's your first memory?" she asks him.

"My first memory?"

"Of being here."

"I guess it's waking up and smelling smoke and embers." Twisted Fate rubs his eyes. For a moment, he strains to recall the root of his existance. "It was the feeling of disorientation – like I was a fish struggling to breathe air through its gills. When I opened my eyes, I saw two things at once; there was myself lying down, seeing the ceiling with others' faces all over me. And there was myself.. in an overwhelming vast whiteness. It's the closest I've ever gotten to being in two places at once, I guess. But anyways, the image of the ceiling faded away for me.. until only the whiteness was there."

"Oh," LeBlanc goes.

"Yeah. Did you see that whiteness too?"

"I did," she says, piqued. "What is it?"

"I dunno." He shrugs. "I reckon it's supposed to be heaven or somethin'. Whenever your body dies, you always come back to that whiteness, before reappearing somewhere. You know-- the asylums are a recent thing; them mages dug those places and enchanted 'em – it makes it so that undead would spawn there instead, and nullifies whatever abilities they have. It's their way of holding back our numbers. But it doesn't do any good when more people are coming up with the darksign – they're dying to be like us, hehe."

LeBlanc nods. She has been picking at the fabric of her sleeves for the last minute; it feels soft, running her fingers over it.

"Ahh, I must be boring you," Twisted Fate says. "So I'll keep it to the point. Right now, all of us in this camp are just heading for Anor Londo. It's one day away at our current pace."

Suddenly LeBlanc lights up-- "Anor.. Londo?" she repeats, groping at the words. Something inside her has awakened to the name, as if a moment from a dream has been briefly evoked into awareness.

"Anor Londo," Twisted Fate says. "The one and only. Our mission is to delve into the Duke's archives beneath – there's a rumour that an artefact lays within, which will finally allow us to reach the First Flame's location. The only problem; others have been attempting the same, and it is fraught with guardians and barriers. They never managed to make it down there, yet."

"I think I remember the place," LeBlanc says, grasping through that muddle in her mind. "Anor Londo.."

"Did you know about it before you came here?" Twisted Fate asks.

"It's that abandoned kingdom.. isn't it?"

"Abandoned?" He pauses for a moment. "Oh.. maybe it's abandoned back in the material realm. But here, it's a bustling citytown. People come and go there for riches; it's rife with that mithril material that makes life there ever enchanting."

"Huh," LeBlanc goes.

"Imagine a place where the walls themselves are glimmering," Twisted Fate says, "where every street you walk down is rife with radiance, with trees and flowers and the feeling of richness. The people you see walking beside you are dressed in them fancy outwears. Sure would love to live there, if I'm alive. I've been there once or twice before – there's so much to do that you'd sure as hell won't ever get bored."

"It already sounds wonderful to me.." LeBlanc says.

~

It is a little later when the camp mobilises and the bonfire flames are snuffed out. The materials – tents, beddings and the like – are all packed into one little box, easily carried by a person.

"How did..?" LeBlanc is glancing at the box.

"It's bottomless," Twisted Fate explains. "The nice things we find along the way, we can always put inside."

The grass swishes in the gentle wind. It tickles LeBlanc's bare feet as she walks by, and it would smell sweet when she'd step on it. After a while, her feet begin to feel pleasurably soothing and light. And above all, it's never boring. The meandering valleys and flora are always beautiful to absorb yourself in.

She would hear some of the people mutter and chat to each other in hushed tones – this party of travellers has been quite quiet. Maybe there's only so much to talk about, or they are saving their energies for the trip itself.

Then someone begins to hum a folk song, in hushed tones at first, then more and more people join in until everyone's singing along. It's a simple medley. LeBlanc only listens along, allowing their music to whisk her mind into motion.

For her, it is a kind of wonder that she's never experienced before.

She walks with them through the sunrise – it's faint at first on the horizon, with purplish hues in the sky preceding the glow.

My first sunrise..

She feels the sunrays casting upon her, that dim yet palpable radiance of heat. It's with a kind of awe when you see that beautiful sun.

~

When they encounter a forest of trees, the ground they walk on is gnarly with fallen pine needles and protruding roots. It doesn't feel as pleasant with bare feet, so LeBlanc asks the cutsy box holder if there's some spare footwear she could wear.

"Tut tut!" The holder lays down the box and opens the lid. "Not here.. not this one.. ahh! I got it!" It's a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers. "These should do the trick!"

LeBlanc blinks, holding those pink slippers. They're cute. They slip on her feet as snug as a glove. Then she finds out that they squeak every step she makes. Maybe in case she gets lost, but when she needs to be sneaky..

Squeak! Squeak!

She'll have to find better footwear later, just in case. In the meanwhile – she squeaks her way along through the woods. The tree trunks seem to stretch forever into the sky; it's dizzying to take a look at where they end, amidst the clandestine branches which droop and hang with the sorts of cones and acorns that a squirrel may fancy. Here, the air is moist and cool, and you can hear the voices of a million insects and animals filling the ambiance.

By late afternoon, the dirt path becomes treacherous. It is made indistinguishable from the roots that complexly protrude from the ground, and the trees which bunch together in thicker and thicker density.

So the party decides to rest for a moment.

A few of them would get firewood from the box, where they arrange them in a bundle to light up as a bonfire.

"The reason why we light bonfires is mostly in case one of us dies," Twisted Fate goes. "If something happens for example, when we scavange for treasure and we get lost or killed, we can come back here, instead of the asylums or anywhere else in the world. Fire's a natural beacon for our souls. Otherwise, when we all travel, we'll just have to take our chances."

"Mm mm," LeBlanc says.

"Speaking of which--" Twisted Fate heads towards a band of travellers, who are just obtaining weaponry and trinkets from the box. "I'm gonna scout a way around with these folks. If you want Miss, you can come along too, or you can stay and help tend the camp."

"I'll go--!" she blurts out without a second's thought. (It might be very boring to wait around.)

"Right-o," he goes, and then he shows her to the box.

LeBlanc recognises the box holder from earlier – she's short and stout, with a hearty face that reminds of home, where you could eat those homemade snacks and steamy lunches made to your content. "Hello!" the holder sings. "Ahh, those bunny slippers..! You must be the new one here! I'm Lulu. What's your name?"

"LeBlanc," she replies.

"Mm-hmm! LeBlonk!" Lulu excitedly grins, before plunging herself into the box's depths, the items shaking and rattling at her behest. "I'mma find something appropriate for you. You'll need a weapon against the badly creatures!"

"What do you have?" LeBlanc asks.

"I'm thinking you're more of a swifty-knife type," Lulu goes. "Swishy swishy!" Her petite feet are wiggling up and down. "Were you thinking of something else?"

LeBlanc glances at the other travellers for reference. One of them has a crossbow hanging on her back; another has an elongated wood staff, in white robes with white drooping hair. The third, dressed up with dark cloth and a shroud over his face, has a curved sword – it's a katana, if she remembers right.

"Shen," the third guy introduces himself. His handshake is soft. "I shall promise to protect you."

"The crossbow-wielding girl is Vayne," Twisted Fate says, notioning to her. "And that one there is Odette – our cleric."

"Hello, LeBlanc," Odette goes, nodding.

Vayne simply gives a "pffft."

"Ahaha!" Lulu pops out of the chest – it's a very curved knife, almost rusty in appearance. "Here you go!" She thrusts it into LeBlanc's hands, and the first thing LeBlanc notices is how light it feels in her hand. When she makes a slicing motion, it almost seems as if the blade is guided by the very air itself.

"Do you like it?" Lulu asks.

"It's fine," LeBlanc goes, barely hiding a frown. She wishes she could go for a classier weapon than a rusty knife. But she supposes that in actual combat, the last thing you could care about is how pretty your weapon looks – as long as you could do some real damage, mwahaha.

"Excellente!" Lulu shuts the box lid, and waddles with the group. She taps her pocket; a butterfly flutters out of it, wavering around her head. "Pixy! You're awake!"

"Who's that?" LeBlanc asks.

"Pixy's my closest friend!" Lulu says, as she lays a finger out for the butterfly to rest on. "He found me when I was looking for my daisies, and now we play fey games together! Hop, skip, jump! The best way around is upside-down and inside-out! Woo--! He'll be on the lookout for anything nice or interesting – his eyes are much more dandier than mine. Heehee."

Pixy seems to emit glitterdust, and LeBlanc suddenly smells a sweet, tangy scent.

"Oh, don't forget—" Lulu gives LeBlanc a.. bone? "That's when you want to come back to the camp right away," Lulu says. "Just rub it three times, and there you fly! But use it wisely. We only have a few of those left in stock."

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