<span id="title">On The Verge Of A Choice</span>
(if: (passage:)'s tags's length > 0)[
(print: "<script>$('html').addClass('" + (passage:)'s tags.join(' ') + "'\)</script>")
}The small, worn airship shudders as it strikes packed soil beneath layers of sand. Every machine gains quirks with age, and an owner learns to work around them; respect them, but never fully cotton to them.
That's what the man who rented it to you said, but his words betray a damning truth: only the owner can grasp the nuances of a stubborn tool. "Pull up a few meters in advance" doesn't account for uneven terrain. "Let it glide if the engine starts grinding" doesn't account for the deafening mirth of four fools nearing Desecrated Beach.
<div>[[What a welcoming name.]]</div>It's an artifact more than anything. It was actually called Pouly Beach until recently. Word's spread of some lady claiming the haunted castle to the West as her own. Now signs that read "Beach Desecration" outnumber the old plaques 20-to-1, and the place was nicknamed "Desecrated Beach". You aren't quite sure if it's more insulting or not. Beach Desecration already seems pretty bad.
Your friends spill out of the airship, eager to cool themselves off after such close proximity to an unventilated engine. Your more responsible friends, a lamia and a homunculus, regard the dents added to the hundreds of others with quiet certainty. They consider how they can use Psi to buff out the worst of it for a moment before one tosses a bundle over her shoulder and into your arms. "Set up the volleyball net, will you? Maven will show you where to do it."
<div>[[Do it.]]</div>You reel from the weight of the bag so effortlessly tossed by your inhuman companion. A steel stake jabs you between the ribs, but you betray no shock at the sensation. There's work to be done, and the sooner this net is unfurled the sooner you can rest your pained flesh.
Shaking the rocks out of your sensible shoes, you dip your wide-brimmed hat. The sun's glare still snakes its way to your sensitive eyes. The wind nips at your brow, carrying a payload of sand along its axis.
Somewhere, a croak rings out. A Dark Young? You behold the sea with wary fascination. Who knows what kind of unspeakable beasts wade across those depths, unbound by mortality or morality? For now, though, the afternoon is young and spirits are high. For now, though, the sea shall be the lifeblood of your vacation and nothing more.
Your foot swings forward, bearing the mindless purpose of a pendulum.
<div>[[Forward and forward.]]</div>Before long, you find Maven standing before (link-reveal: "a tent")[ (one ill-fitting the subtle summer vista)] with her arms theatrically thrown into the air. She is soon disrupted by the harsh noise of your metal-filled bag, however, and yells at you from her spot before the sea.
"Can you believe this!?" she says, less of a question and more of a demand to agree with her. "This is where our net is supposed to be!"
You prop the bag on one shoulder and use your newly-freed hand to point at it in confusion.
"Ughhhhh, no. I mean that tent is where you're supposed to ***put it***."
You maintain your position, unsure of what input you could possibly offer.
<div>[[She seethes to herself for a bit longer.]]</div>"Alright," she says. "Which of us is going to bust in and see if we have to kick someone out?"
You don't relish the thought of driving away someone who was here first... or driving someone away at all. Still, you can't see Maven accepting your calls for peace nor any assertion that she should be the one to shoulder the burden. There's only one way to get her to accept an outcome where you don't chase the poor camper off with a stick.
<div>[[You draw a familiar coin from your pocket.]]</div>Maven offers ungarnished disgust at this display, but goes along with it.
"Heads," she calls without a second thought.
Your thumb propels the coin into the air with the mindless purpose of the undead.
<div>[[The coin lands on heads.]]</div>You aren't sure if this means that you won or you lost, given the uncertain terms of agreement. The silent grin on Maven's face all the while suggests she knows this, too, and her arm extends to direct you towards the tent. You trudge forward, leaving the bag behind as your objective changes.
<div>[[The tent calls you forward.]]</div>Unlike many tents, the sickly green shelter has no flooring of any sort. Without the whipping wind to obscure it, the sound of sand turning to glass beneath the scrutiny of arcane flames is quite apparent.
A woman stands before you in archaic clothing. Red meets near-black and
pleasant browns as the well-tailored ensemble immediately catches your eye. You can barely make out her figure with the glare of the flames and the size of her cloak, but she seems to be an (link-reveal: "older woman")[ (and sickly, at that)].
One hand holds a large, worn book just beneath her face. "Liber Ivonis"
as the cover and spine proudly proclaim. You imagine you'd be more taken by its majesty if it weren't overshadowed by the gout of flame dancing across the hand opposite to it.
<div>[[She stares into your empty eyes as you intrude.]]</div>"Hmph. How dull. Do you intend to stop me?" she asks, probably expecting you to say yes.
You guess so, given that you need to tell her to move this tent. You give an uncertain nod.
"Fool of fools, what gives you the right? Does the rat stop the ratcatcher? Does the fish defy the fisherman?" She smiles, and for the briefest of moments you swear you catch a flash of an elongated fang. "Do you value your precious sun more than your life? Hah, of course you do; you are reaction where I am change. You are mortal comfort where I am greatness etched into the world!"
She looks down at her feet. "And etched into sand, I suppose."
<div>[[You don't quite get it.]]</div>"You are here to stop me from destroying the sun after weeks of preparation, correct? Or... do you intend to take your aspirations further? Drive me from this very earth, like that..."
Her voice hitches.
"...***Traitorous***, ***duplicitous abomination***?"
You think back to the discarded bag of poles and rope on the beach.
"Or perhaps you are her? Perhaps this is just a big ruse to get me talking and then ***stab me in the back once more***!" she says as she takes a threatening step towards you.
<div>[[She grabs your lapel.]]</div>Your skin stings where she touches you, as though it was raw.
She's taller than you, so she lifts your limp form quite a ways off the ground. The wind buffets the tent from the outside, leading it to infrequently strike against your head all the while. You hardly notice, but it puts quite the damper on her threats.
"Do you take me for a fool, Crawling Chaos? Of course you do. You expected me to reclaim my legacy by dancing on your strings. You expected me to do that after you ***told me to my face***."
You think back to the discarded bag on the beach.
"Now you've made the mistake of coming close enough for me to wrap my hands around your damnably-immortal neck. Take solace, for afterwards you can piece together your ravaged pride as I raze this world."
<div>[[A coin falls from your pocket.]]</div>Heads.
The woman purses her lips. "She hates Heads."
She retracts her grip from your shirt with practiced, royal decisiveness. You fall to the ground without trying to cushion the blow.
The spot where she touched you feels raw, as though burned.
<div>[[You automatically retrieve the coin.]]</div>She leans down, her tired face revealing the fundamental beauty still core to its form. Her eyes bore past yours, searching for something that isn't there. "No," she says with a smirk. "One such as yourself could never bear that thing's mantle. You're much to plain for that unrepetant showoff."
Not finding the irony in her own words, her hand gestures to the arcane sigils created by her strange power. "I wouldn't need more than another week to try again, anyways."
Her glasses drop further down the bridge of her nose as she leans forward a little more, cupping your chin. Her searching gaze is replaced by a hunger that weighs heavily upon you.
<div>[[Stop her.]]</div>The place where she touches your skin feels burned, as though the top layer of skin were simply gone.
[[...]]Her eyes eventually widen in mild surprise. "Do you have no survival instincts?" She laughs. "Cattle, you can't play Chicken when only your life is on the line."
She releases your face, letting you crumple into a broken heap. A few gestures later, though, and your life is no longer a flickering ember. More importantly, you feel blood beating through your veins.
Losing what little interest she had in you, the occultist returns to her work. "I have much to do and so little reason to delay, so be a good girl and leave me to my dark purposes."
<div>[[Leave her to her dark purposes.]]</div>You leave the tent, having failed to fulfil your goal. You stumble a bit across the beach before falling to the ground. Something else is wrong, and an unspeakable presence grips your heart as the world grows small.
You flail out with your hand in a state of temporary desperation. You strike the shin of a mysterious third party.
<div>[[The wind seems harsher.]]</div>Unable to focus from your position, you rise once more and find yourself face-to-face with yet another woman. Towering over a head above you, even taller than the regal scholar in the tent, your eyes meet.
Your gaze betrays quiet comprehension, yet no purpose. Her gaze betrays the apathy of one staring at a brick wall. You wonder for a moment if she can even see-
[[:)|-]]Unable to focus from your position, you rise once more and find yourself face-to-face with yet another woman. Towering a head above you, even taller than the regal scholar in the tent, your eyes can barely meet.
Your gaze betrays quiet comprehension, yet no purpose. Her gaze betrays the apathy of one staring at a brick wall.
She wears a black and purple outfit with a high neck; you can't decide whether it's a one-piece or a two-piece. You look down past her ankle-length hair and into the sand, trying to trace her footsteps and determine where she came from.
<div>[[There are none.]]</div>She turns back towards the tent. You believe she's lost interest in you, but she speaks up. "Quite the loud one, eh? Not particularly subtle, either. I'm surprised she didn't tell you her name five times over."
She smiles. "Although I guess she can't really help it when she has three middle names."
You look back to where the bag was, but it's gone. You hear the sounds of volleyball and mirth carried by the wind.
<div>[[Your goal has been accomplished.]]</div>You begin to walk off, but find yourself unable to as the woman speaks once more. "I'm not too fond of summer. Weather, seasons... I can't help but hate it all. Give me a moderate fall afternoon. So much easier to forget the world."
Your legs try to move with mindless purpose, but the muscle memory has fled from the voice echoing through every inch of your body. Your knees cross and buckle pathetically, like everything else that is alive and real.
"Still, for such a simple summer tryst to turn into this..." she says, laughing to herself through a sickening smile. Your skin begins to crawl.
"Such a shame, such a shame~."
<div>[[Was it always so hard to see?]]</div>"It doesn't matter either way. I'll admit I was a little hasty, but... I can salvage this."
She looks into the sky. Her expression becomes harsh for a moment before melting back into its unnatural resting mirth.
"I've lost a Black Knight, but I've gained a White King. ***Every*** piece is necessary to play a game of Chess, not just your own."
A hand, covered by a fingerless wool glove, is suddenly thrust in your direction. A knife dances across her fingers, propelled by expert movements. She reminds you of the first woman, but less practiced and more...
You don't want to consider it.
<div>[[Your skin is crawling.]]</div>"What do you say?" she teases, knowing the answer but demanding your participation regardless. "Feel like becoming a dark Pawn?" Her face twists into a (link-reveal: "wretched parody of humanity")[ (or perhaps humanity is just a wretched parody of perfection)], once more almost daring you to defy her request.
You say nothing, the coin burning a hole in your pocket.
Her hand thrusts upward, crumpling the knife unnaturally. "Just joking," she says, her original subtle beauty returning. "A knife like this couldn't harm anyone worth a damn. You couldn't, either."
You lack the capacity to deny this.
<div>[[Something crawls in your skin.]]</div>"Ah, but enough of that. There's work to be done, and the ultimate consequence waits in store for me if I fail." You can't begin to imagine what she's worried about, but you can't begin to imagine much to begin with. "Still, you could try to do something with yourself before your end arrives."
"Today is a day of choices. My friend here has chosen to screw over everything and everyone, including herself, by flaking out on me at the climax. I am left with the choice of how to resolve this once she's had her fun in there." The voice rings out from behind you, the woman suddenly placing you between her and the tent.
"And you will make the first and only choice of your pointless worldly existence. How exciting, how exciting!"
<div>[[You reach for your coin.]]</div>Some part of you, capable of pattern recognition, expects the woman to be furious at your response to the word "choice". She fails to react in any particular way.
"Will you return to your empty, thoughtless world?" she says, casually pointing at your companions. "Perhaps you'll choose to witness something great, instead. Either way, neither option matters if the other never existed."
She looks at the tent, however, obviously nudging you towards the outcome she prefers.
Heads is option number one. Tails is option number two.
<div>[[You flip the coin once more.]]</div>The coin chooses neither, landing perfectly on its edge.
Believing it to be improperly embedded in the sand, you opt to let it fall into your palm.
You try the classic "catch-and-flip-it" method.
The coin protrudes perfectly through your fingers.
The woman stares at you with victorious hunger, but you don't expect any mercy this time.
[[Walk Back.]]Devoid of context and incapable of comprehension, you are lost on the hostile winds of fate. A simple girl grating between the tectonic plates of reality, the machinations of eternity are beyond you.
And yet, somewhere deep down... perhaps the spark of sentience can yet live. For what is self and form but that which we deem to be so?
You can't begin to know, and yet your feet draw forward with purpose. You don't look back at the woman, whose presence sears the soul. You don't look back at your companions, who you can't remember ever meeting or truly knowing.
<div>[[You look forward.]]</div>There was once a discarded bag on the beach.
You expect the woman to be disappointed as you return to your friends, but she smiles all the same.
The word echoes through your empty mind as her eyes take a few final moments to trace the lines of your body. Your skin crawls, but you don't begin to notice or care or do anything about it.
You slide into place between your friends, striking a ball that flies as though it expected you to have already joined by now. The sun is there, then not, then there again, but you fail to notice. The ocean sprays briny water against your face until it never will again.
[[You move with mindless purpose.|The End]]
<span id="ending">THE END</span>
<div>[[Go Back?|You flip the coin once more.]]</div>
The tent yields before your hands. You suppose that's natural, given that it's just a tent. What's less than natural is the sight before you, as a Dark Lord hovers in a half-orb of blood.
Her lips curl into an apprehensive smile, seeing something behind your eyes without searching.
"Ah, so you'd see the world change without the hesitation of your nature?"
"Then let it change."
<div>[[And so it will.]]</div>You consider the White King before you and the words of a mysterious stranger. You wonder if you should tell her what a horrible choice she's making, but decide against it.
It's her choice to make, after all.
<div>[[Everything brightens, then darkens.]]</div>The tent is gone. You can feel the sand and hear the waves, but light leaves the world as the sun collapses in on itself. It fails to even take the earth with it, being dragged out of reality by chains of aberrant arcane blood.
It is dark, but you still know what's before you. It is cold, but in the most distant, inconsequential way. The world says that's the way these things are, but the world still turns regardless.
The natural order claws at a newly obstructed throat, so its lies are revealed to all who care to look.
<div>[[And it seems you cared.]]</div>Somewhere above you, the world ignites once more. Something is wrong, though. Unspeakably wrong, even within your new worldview. Something great claws its way into the sky, feeding a twisted lie of its own to the world.
It seems there's only so much five minutes of enlightenment can do for you, and your being screams at you to run. Run to impossible places. Away from the world. Into the past. This is a well where that woman was an ocean, yet none of that matters when your face is submerged.
You put on a brave face to glare at the Sun, and the Sun glares back.
<div>[[The Sun blinks second.|The End]]</div>