The group of newcomers was large enough that their collective breath seemed to gather in the air above them as a small cloud- a sight that Hitax couldn’t help but smile at. This Cityship had been a gamble when he started it, but it didn’t feel quite that way anymore. His first round of recruits, the best and brightest from the area around Shugoki, had been accompanied by a wash of relief. The second group, though… them joining in made it a pattern- and one with the promise of growing far beyond anything he could have hoped for.
Hitax carefully maneuvered the coils of his bottom half, propelling himself up to the dais, where Amber awaited at what passed for attention with her. A small stand with a jury-rigged magical microphone stood at the front of the platform, and he slithered up to it, projecting a welcoming smile and trying to memorize every face in the crowd below. Looking back afterwards, Hitax couldn’t honestly remember what he had said in welcome, but it seemed to go well, with a smattering of laughter and even applause at the end.
Afterwards, he and Amber reclined in private, her with a mug of something potently alcoholic and him with a cup of tea, comparing notes on these newcomers and occasionally reminiscing about how all of this had started. Eventually, Amber stood, brushing herself off and giving a slightly tipsy goodbye as she headed back to her quarters. Hitax sat for a while longer, a small smile on his face as he remembered his adventures, and especially the events leading up to the Cityship’s construction.
He had always been the sort of person who couldn’t help but experiment. Magic, technology, the occasional potion brewing… Even those Gifts he had no access to were fascinating to him. His time in Shugoki’s Grand College of Magic had been admittedly far shorter than traditional, but so much had happened during that time that thinking back over it, he almost felt as though he had spent a lifetime there. Keirie bumped her head against his coils, and he was startled from his reverie for a moment. He grinned, lifting the little clockwork dragon up and giving her a little kiss on the head before setting her back down, one hand going to pet her head as he considered an in-progress prototype for a fully sentient synthetic being in one corner. A small smile crossed his lips as he considered how far he had come from that first clockwork horse. At some point, Hitax drifted from happy remembrances into sleep, Keirie curled up against him, gears whirring quietly.
As the speech wrapped up, the group began to separate. Very few of them knew each other, as they had been recruited from all across the world, so Hitax had encouraged them to introduce themselves and get to know each other. Mist didn’t honestly know how he expected them all to meld so easily, but it seemed like most of the others were managing. She grimaced as she stood apart from the newly forming clusters of people, brushing the glowing markings on her arms in a half-conscious prayer to Tarandrus, drew in a deep breath, and squared her shoulders, walking over to one of the others who was standing apart from the crowd.
Capella’s eyes widened as the woman she had been surreptitiously watching began to walk towards her, thanking every god whose name she could call to mind that her glasses would have made it near impossible to tell. She brushed a few strands of gray hair away from her face, eyes darting between the girl and her hands, trying to formulate some reason that wouldn’t sound creepy in case her observation had been noticed. Only when the woman extended her hand did Capella realize she had spoken. Silently cursing, she put on an awkward smile and took the hand, coughing slightly. “I’m sorry, I uh… was zoned out a bit. What was that?”
The dark lips of the other woman curved into a smile, and Capella immediately let loose an inner stream of cursing so vulgar that if her mother had heard it, she would have keeled over on the spot. To her relief, when the other woman spoke up again, her voice was only amused, not mocking. “I said hey, my name is Mist. What’s yours?”
Capella couldn’t help but let out a shaky laugh, dropping Mist’s hand and wrapping her own around herself. “I’m Capella. Capella of Longtree.” Her smile growing a bit less awkward, she gestured around the crowd. “So what’re you in for?”
Mist let out a burst of laughter, and to Capella’s surprise, she couldn’t help but grin along, her hand dropping from where it was wrapped around the other arm. “Nothing special. Hitax made it sound like all of you were some kind of geniuses, but I was actually recruited by Amber as part of the security team, so I’m sort of in awe, you know?”
Capella shook her head, grin dying down to an awkward half smile. “I’m not all that special, really. Just did a bit of fiddling around with technology in conjunction with magic. Honestly, most of the people here’ve probably done more than me. I’ve barely even managed to work out the basics of what I’m trying to do.”
For a while longer, the two continued exchanging feelings of inferiority in what almost seemed like a contest to convince the other their presence was more of a fluke than that of the other. Fortunately, though, after a few minutes of this, a spry old gnome with a bright white, braided beard that clashed magnificently with the pale brown of his bald head practically bounced across the plaza to them, booming out laughter so purely infectious that even without knowing what he was laughing about, they couldn’t help but grin, nearly breaking out into chuckles of their own.
As he drew close, the gnome gestured for them to lean in close to his relatively diminutive height, a blindingly bright smile drawing them to oblige. When they had both leaned in, he adopted a conspiratorial tone. “If ye ended up here, yer both amazing, gals. We all are, ye ken?” His bright smile holding, he gestured around the plaza, ending with the hand coming back to himself with a wink. “Ye’d hafta be t’keep up with me!”
Capella shook her head, her smile shifting from self-deprecating to genuine. Looking up at Mist, she saw her face go through a similar transformation, though the change in Mist’s posture spoke to self-confidence that Capella envied. Breathing out a sigh, she extended a hand to the gnome. “Alright, we’re all incredible. What’s your story, then?”
The gnome’s face lit up, and he took her hand, sapphire eyes sparkling. “The name’s Gunther. Gunther Bemt. Fer lengths now I’ve been workin’ on min’turized robotics. Hitax and his crew ‘ere snapped me up after I built a pretty little thing I call the Carebot.” He gave another wink, and a palm-sized silvery robot with four long, thin legs that bent in a distinctly insect-like manner crawled from his backpack onto his shoulder. “This little beaut takes scans of living tissue, an’ through some complicated shenanigans that I won’t get into just for your sake,” he gave a little chuckle at this before continuing, “it recreates that tissue in order t’ repair an’ regenerate livin’ things.” Gunther pushed at the front of the little robot and it scuttled down his back and back into the pack.
Seeing the glazed look on Mist’s face, Gunther grinned again, spreading his hands wide. “In short, lovelies, I made a lil robot that fixes people.” Capella’s eyes glittered, and she barely managed to keep herself from spewing out a thousand questions. Her excitement must have shown on her face, because Gunther shot a wink at her and patted her arm gently. “I’m sure we’ll have a time t’ get into all that in more detail later. Fer now, ‘ow about we try t’ find our bunks, eh?”
Capella swallowed her curiosity and nodded, and the three headed off to the registry. Just as they came up to the door, the Cityship shook, and they found themselves stumbling, the sound of an explosion tearing through the air. With a look of pure shock plastered across her face, Capella covered her head with her hands, instinctively crouching down and beginning to rock slightly in place. Mist cursed, checked to ensure that the other two weren’t hurt, and ran towards the sound, form occasionally blurring and snapping forward out of pace with her movement. Gunther stooped over Capella and put a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t know why the sound was affecting her as it was, but he refused to leave someone- even someone he had just met- alone while in such a state. With his free hand stroking one of the braids in his beard, he looked after Mist, a worried twist to the corner of his mouth.
Mist leaped between the walls of two buildings, barely touching one wall before pushing herself off to the other. Just short of the roof, she placed a foot against the opposite wall, her dark skin blurring against the glowing markings on it as she leapt backwards, body twisting and landing her facing the direction the explosion had came from. With shock, she gazed out at a scene of destruction far beyond what she had anticipated. Not two blocks from where she stood, several of the buildings just… ended. It didn’t look like they had been blown apart so much as cut with some massive blade, but the radius of the destruction spoke to the impossibility of that.
She cursed under her breath, looking around for any other members of security before realizing the only one she would recognize at this point would be Amber. This realization only made her curse more vehemently, her words instinctively moving from Standard to her home tongue as her cursing became more vicious. Reaching out into the air beside her with her left arm, she let her hand open slightly. As if in response to the motion, the markings on her arms, as well as the unseen ones on her back glowed brighter. Mist counted out five heartbeats silently, then closed her hand as a shining spectral bow dropped into it. With its comforting weight in her hand, she leapt across the roofs to the edge of the destruction, then knelt. Lifting the bow, she drew its string with her right hand, a spectral arrow settling into place. Sighting along it, she squinted towards the center of the destruction.
To her shock, there was a figure there: large, twisted just shy of humanoid, and pointing a face bereft of features directly towards her. She inhaled sharply, eyes widening slightly. Though it wasn’t a conscious reaction, her instincts screamed at her, insisting that this eyeless thing so clearly looking at her was bad. Her stomach in her throat, she tried to pull away, her terrified mind latching onto a half-destroyed chimney to her side as a potential source of cover. The focus of this… thing’s face on her somehow held her in place, though, and despite the straining of her body, she couldn’t move.
Mist, held hostage by this creature’s focus, trembled as every part of her screamed to be let free. She pulled in vain against the power this thing was exerting over her, feeling her muscles tense and shake, but couldn’t even shift a finger. After what felt like more than a length, the thing’s head shifted, and she was suddenly free. Heartbeat echoing in her ears, she fell backwards, then scrambled behind the chimney. She sat, eyes open but not seeing, her mind unable to drop the image of the faceless creature staring back at her. Though she couldn’t have told you how long she was sitting there, eventually the sound of a pair of boots landing on the roof beside her jostled her back to conscious recognition of the world. She turned slowly, terrified in the certainty that the creature had come to end her.
Mist was met by the sight of Amber standing beside her, hand extended to help her up. A feeling of relief purer than any she had ever felt swept through her, and she took the hand, pulling herself to her feet. With Amber at her side, she felt confident enough to look back towards where she had seen the figure, though she couldn’t help but to do so from behind the chimney, keeping herself mostly hidden. To her surprise and even greater relief, in the time that she had taken to recover, some sort of structure had been erected around the figure’s position. Another figure, one she recognized as Hitax’s serpentine frame stood beside it, face carefully blank.
Amber shook her head and stepped forward, body disappearing from where she stood and reappearing beside Hitax. She shot a glance back at Mist, who jumped slightly, then followed along in slightly less spectacular fashion. Hitax looked at Amber and spoke, barely restrained anger simmering in his voice. “I can’t get a read on it, but it’s not from anyone we know. Get volunteers, we’re going to figure this thing out.”