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Level: 5 (27 -> 30/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Sweet Canyon - Parnasse -> Hollow Heights
Word Count: 2458 (+3 EXP)

Despite being out until around midnight--or just past it--Fox still woke with the first faint dawnlight to prepare himself for the long day ahead, which mostly just meant stretching his legs and beating most of the rest of the party to the center of town for their rendezvous. He was content to skip breakfast, having no taste or appetite for what was apparently ‘hippo meat’ to begin with--leftover or not--and the very idea especially didn’t sit with him after hearing that one of the raccoon’s missing friends was a hippo. At any rate he was intuitively confident that he was involved nowhere in that desperate harvest for passable stand-in sustenance, believing they might have known if they had.

The more ‘formal’ morning proceedings did little other than weaken the general opinion of royalty, the local figure of which didn’t so much as better inform or compensate them for their trouble. Fox paid her not any inkling of the obeisant niceties or reverence she may have thought she was due, or much of any mind at all really. She obviously no more knew what was really going on than did the maimed mercenary in her employ, nor could she be accused of otherwise caring. Fox spent not a second too long waiting for them to conduct their business before marching off with their guides to the train that awaited them--unsurprisingly composed of more confectionery.

Following Primrose’s example, Fox hopped aboard the roof of one of the train cars to make room for the bigger, less agile of their party in the cabs, with the leading car presenting the only remaining vacancy. Narrow as the space was on either platform in front of or behind the thankfully smokeless stack was, he had no difficulty making it work for himself. Balance posed no issue for him in particular, and given the early time of day, he was fine putting up with the oncoming heat of the desert sun (which made surprise of the fact that the dessert-based landscape and town hadn’t melted by now) if it meant he could have a leading view of their travel, made all the more manageable by the fact that he had this space to himself. That was until another with the same idea made their way to the front mid-travel, unnoticed by any...

“This seat taken?” Sly enquired rhetorically, somewhat playfully in self-invitation.

Fox, sat upon the front-most platform with his back to the candle-stack, turned his gaze upward at the raccoon perched upon its rim before returning it forward and answering simply, “Help yourself.” The thief accepted, seating himself fully at the edge, hanging one leg off and leaning against the bent other with his cane resting at an incline on one shoulder. Fox had to admit himself slightly surprised to be seeing him again after last night’s interaction. Funny how that worked out; expect someone to follow and they take off, but let them go and they join you anyway. Then again, that’s how it’s always been, hasn’t it? Even his own friends followed him not because he asked, but because they wanted to--Falco especially. At any rate, he had expected, as said, that the raccoon would have better things to do; better places to be, speaking of friends and all.

“So you decided to come with us after all?” Fox couldn’t help asking with that much in mind. “I thought you would have taken off and been well on your way by now.” True enough, Fox even gave him directions and all; told him which way to go and where he could find help with anything at all, but the raccoon’s reasoning for not taking him up on that was simple enough:

“Believe me, I can find my way around easy enough when the world makes sense. But here,” he gestured headward to the about area as they began to pass through the transitional point where dessert became desert again, “I’d say my chances of making it anywhere fast are better with you guys than on my own.” He glanced back at those he could see, and the others he couldn’t but knew where there. “Though, I can’t say I wouldn’t be more comfortable with a smaller crew,” such that he was used to. “But you all seem decently trustworthy enough, you, that ‘Joker’ kid and the big guy Tora, anyway.” That he could somehow feel something in common with two out of three of them was all he had to go on for that, besides that he’s still alive when he could just as well have not been now, and that much would have to suffice for now. Though, it didn’t do much to clear up why Fox shot at him in the first place, he would just have to believe he had a good reason for it, given he at least felt somewhat more… himself now as a result.

“You have some of our names. Care to share yours?” Fox brought this up as a point of ‘trust’ and fairness, as well as simply needing to better acquaint himself with those he helped pick up for their team, as he had thus far neglected to do.

“Right. Where are my manners,” he started with a light chuckle. “The name’s… uhh...” He hesitated before asking, “You wouldn’t happen to work for the law, would you?” to get a broader confirmation of the fact that he couldn’t fully intuit from appearances alone, or assume purely by previous denial of any relationship with Carmelita (and by extension Interpol). “Don’t ask why. Let’s just say I don’t have the smoothest history with them”

“N-no...” Fox answered simply, visibly caught off by the question, but refraining from follow-up as requested.

“Okay, good! Just making sure. Anyway, as I was saying, the name’s Sly Cooper, world-class master thief, at your service… if you’ll have it.” He ended with a cane flourish and an inquisitive nod, and omitted the more specific information about his gang and lineage, figuring for a general lack of interest in his life’s story.

“Gladly,” Fox accepted, smiling weakly. “I think we could use someone like you on the team.” Looking to the sky for a second, then over his shoulder behind him, he thought, And whoever else we can get.

“Good to hear!” Sly responded, bringing his cane back to rest. “So about that, what are we after, exactly?”

Bringing his attention back to the front, Fox answered, “That.” pointing to the ever-looming, luminescent tyrant of the heavens itself, Galeem.

“Uh huh...” Sly responded with a look of bemusement. “And what is... ‘that’?”

“The thing responsible for all this; for all of us being here in the same place.”

“Just looks like the sun to me.” Sly continued gazing at spherical seraph in the great distant sky, half wondering why it didn’t hurt to look at...

Fox shook his head to de-confirm Sly’s knowingly incorrect conjecture, and replied, “Think bigger.” He did, as well as looking closer, and with his dying memory of the light, the big picture suddenly came into slightly greater focus for him.

“Oh… right...” was all he could manage to say initially as the realization set in for him. “So… better question, what’s the plan for when you get there, or for getting there at all? Can’t imagine it’ll just let us.” About this, he was right. “There is a plan, right?” he asked in during the short pause in conversation.

“To destroy it,” Fox answered, pulling a perky-eared turn of the head from an incredulous Sly. “And you’re right, it won’t just let us do that. Galeem-” So it has a name... Sly thought in the middle of Fox’s short explanation. “-still has eleven ‘Guardians’ and the rest of the world between us and it. We’re on our way to one now. If we free as many able bodies as we can along the way, we might stand a chance at beating it this time.”

“So let me get this straight,” started the still flabbergasted raccoon. “The ‘plan’ is to build up the gang-” “army” was more the word, “as much as possible, and take out a living god’s goons so we can fight it to the death in its own front yard?”

Fox said nothing at first, simply keeping his attention forward in momentary silence, which made for its own answer. With an exhale, he spoke. “Galeem brought everyone from every world into its own, then hypnotized us all into living in it none the wiser, as if we’d just be okay with that.” The mention of enthrallment made sense to Sly on account of the fog he had lifted on his mind and being the night before. “My ‘plan’ is to show them the mistake they made bringing us all together… and make them regret it.” He met Sly with a stoic glance. “If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.”

Sly merely nodded along in tentative agreement, still unsure of what to make of it all, with more revelations yet to come. “And I thought our plans were crazy.” He then made a mental point of reconciliation out of his past experiences with plans going wrong. Perhaps this was a case better not overthought.

“I did say it wouldn’t get any easier,” Fox said, returning his attention forward.

“I’ll take your word for it. Just one more thing: What did you mean by ‘this time’?” Sly asked with a pause. Fox turned his sight down in sudden thought, only just catching his Freudian slip after having it pointed out to him. He’d not have time to explain though, for a more urgent matter lay just ahead to meet them on the tracks.

The two of them heard and felt the wind portending the isolated sandstorm of monumental proportions that they were heading straight for, followed by the loudspeaker/intercom warning issued to all passengers, and moved to the back of the engine cart to brace themselves. Fox and Sly’s hand- and footholds beneath the rear platform--Sly’s assisted by the hook-end of his cane--held for a time up until the large, unseen entity passed them by as they were crossing the bridge over the indiscernibly deep canyon. Feeling the force of this caused Fox’s footing to give out underneath him, forcing him onto the second train car behind, below the honeypot, where he managed a waning grip on one of the support spoons. Seeing this, Sly released his hook-hold to catch another on the spoon opposite with the other hand outstretched to anchor Fox to him before he could completely slip away as his feet went weightless behind him. Quickly devising a simple solution, Fox communicated his intentions to Sly with his eyes, gesturing to the lime-shaped cab window behind him before swinging, tucking, and shooting feet-first through, shattering it with his abrupt entry. Sly, after aiding him with this, followed him in, where they both waited out the storm in relative safety.

At their first stop the group began piling out of the packed train cab, while those who held on outside were awarded reprieve from their tribulation and dismounted to recollect themselves. Casualties were promptly recounted, with Fox conducting his own head count to confirm it. He looked on at the storm and the chasm that surrounded it, listening as Tora pleaded to fate for the survival of the four they lost. “We’ll just have to trust that,” he said to himself and Joker in response to his last word (as well as Tora’s desperate conjecture) about their odds of having made it out alive.

It of course took no time at all for the more staunchly idealistic of them to start drafting ideas and suggestions for a likely futile search and rescue effort, with everyone else having their own mix of opinions about it. “Who put him in charge?” Sly pointedly asked in response to the first plan assertively put forth by the samurai, understandably hesitant to trust the first face he saw coming out of caramelized stasis after their uncomfortable first encounter. His plan, or anyone else’s, Fox had no intention of abiding by.

“We should keep moving,” he declared phlegmatically. “This wasn’t an accident, or a coincidence. Something’s trying to stop us from getting where we’re going. If we divide ourselves to look for them, we stand the chance of losing more of us, and helping it succeed,” he reasoned. “We’ll just have to hope for the best. We can send for them later, but if any of you feel that strongly about it, I won’t stop you. Either way, my mind’s made up.” With that, Fox started marching off alone toward their destination, on foot. “I’ll see the rest of you ahead.”

As hard a decision as this was to make, it was easy enough for him. He’d left behind closer in the past when it counted, uncertain at the time of their survival, having then initially made his peace with the opposite. Things would have turned out far differently had he not, he realized; that he, among a great many others, might not have been there now, otherwise. Shortly, he was silently caught up with by one to confront him on his rationale.

“Should I have let go of you back there, then?” questioned Sly, halting Fox in his steps. “I get where you’re coming from… but I’ve never left anyone behind either.” He let a pause linger for his words to set in. “I’m not sure I can start in good conscience,” he ended, implicitly calling into question the moral-ethical compass of his Kindred. With a subtly deflating exhale, Fox responded.

“We save who we can, when we can.” He was aware of the implications against him, and doubled down anyway. “You’re still free to go; do as you like.” He took his first couple of resumed steps onward before stopping to add, “You don’t have to agree with me… you don’t have to listen to me… and you sure as hell don’t have to follow me.” With his sullen parting words, he continued on his way. “None of you do.” he reiterated to himself what he expected them to understand by now, and what he had relearned himself that morning. About what it meant to lead… and whether or not he was still fit to.

Fox had purposely left the lingering party with the train in the event they came to an agreeable resolution and set off once more, as the approaching sounds of whistle and wheel seemed to signify. In anticipation of this, Fox waited for the train to close in, reaching out a ready hand to catch a hold on it, and boarded the moving locomotive on its continued route to Al Mamoon.

Level: 7 (17 -> 19/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Black Bay -> Luma Pools
Word Count: 1039 (+2 EXP)

Hat: Skull Cap -> Default -> Terry’s Cap -> Default

By a waypoint that only she could see, Hat Kid could confirm to herself that they were just within the final stretch or so of reaching their target destination. All they had to do was make it past the thicker of the Black Fleet. No problem! With Shippy’s suddenly improved condition and slightly improved situation, at which Hat Kid got a better look when Jr. brought the Atomos back around to her and crew, their odds of success began to appear more promising. The expectation of her to thread ballista fire between their allies in Shippy’s defense was unspokenly apparent, and though she wasn’t entirely sure of her ability to manage that, she was keen to give it her best try.

She recalled one of the bonus challenges tacked on to one of Snatcher’s contracts, stipulating that she take out scattered Mafia without harming any one of the frankly ridiculous number of birds that swarmed her along the way. How many times had she failed and died doing that? How many more times during other contracts? When did she ever die at all? Why was she suddenly remembering this as such a bad time?!

Her head began to rapidly fill, or perhaps refill itself with an extensive series of unpleasant, difficult, optional endeavors under her former employer and all the bad experiences that went with them, filling out a leftover blank space in her that she didn’t know had been there since re-awakening from Gleaming. She had to wonder then if these memories were in fact real, or if they were merely discouraging, debilitating falsehoods incubated within her mind while it slept, waiting for some ‘reminder’ to bring them forth? Either way, it made her stop what she was doing to clutch her temple and squeeze her eyes shut as if it physically pained her to remember any of this. Maybe it did. Now made for a poor time to think about it, as she quickly realized when, in the lapse of her attention, she allowed an errant Abyssal to dolphin jump aboard right at her, causing her to reflexively bail out of the gunner’s seat to spare herself its bite. It continued mindlessly flopping and gnashing her way until she batted its jaw aside with her umbrella, jabbed it with the point, and with her Power cap now equipped, blew it away--Spirit and all--with a shotgun blast of heatless fire, injecting her retaliatory attack with an atypical shot of anger and frustration involuntarily voiced with contact.

With her focus pulled back, she took back to the gunner’s (with now a bite taken out of it) and went right back to what she was doing before, painting her excited smile back on as if nothing happened. It quickly fell again with the appearance of the Harbor Demon to make things more difficult for them again, and to remind her just how little she could do here as she was. The child racked her brain for ideas the way she racked rounds through the artillery battery she sat at, mentally probing her skillset, personal arsenal and inventory for anything at all that she could use against it. Fortunately, the Ace Cadet beat her and everyone else to it… after Kamek and Sakura. After the latter two disabled the Demon from afar with their most powerful attacks, the team’s resident giant monster slayer did what she was thus far hesitant/unwilling to do by taking on a Spirit to hit the water and rushing the Demon down to face her head-on, and with her summary demise, Hat Kid was reminded of the reason for being part of a team: so others could could do the harder work for her teamwork!

Though the naval battle still wasn’t over, thankfully their part in it was finished, and with scant resistance left between them and the shore, both crews made their retreat for the inlet where they would find rest and reprieve from war… those who would have it anyway. Some, namely Sakura, took their experiences ashore with them, seemingly unable to let go of her freshly-induced trauma. It turned out a lot had happened on Shippy (and everywhere else) while Hat Kid wasn’t looking, between the death of so many now ‘Spiritized’ Azure ship-girls and the apparent loss of Brineybeard. Yet, even more tragic was just how little this singular war in this one particular region of the world mattered in the grand scheme overall; that it was all just a small part of the ever greater war against the Lord of Light, and that so many who died today may not have even been aware of that.

Of course, she neglected to remind the despondent Street Fight of that, or that she still carried the Spirit of one of the Navy’s dead sisters within her, or of anything else at all. Similarly, she opted out of any attempt at consoling her or anyone else, considering it to be out of her depth. Moreover, she wasn’t exactly at peace herself.

After the Atomos got clear enough of the action for her to comfortably dismount the main ballista, Hat Kid had spent the remainder of their unmolested trip inland gazing blankly, solemnly, forlornly at the celestial tyrant cradled in the sky above the distant center of the world before disembarking to take a short rest that their Highness had so graciously allowed them. She more needed to rest her mind than body, but she wouldn’t waste this chance to do both, sprawling out on her back under the shade of a palm tree with the rim of her top hat to pull over her eyes as a sun blinder. If nothing else, this at least gave her time to sit still long enough to check her Badge for any stray Time Pieces on the island. She was almost hoping she wouldn’t get any hits this time, for she already had make-up work for Inkwell Isle to attend to later. Should she be wrong, end up finding one anywhere nearby, in what proved thus far to be the most difficult place to reach, and end up being unable to retrieve it for some reason,, she would rather not have to come back for it later.




Level: 5 (19 -> 24 -> 27/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Sweet Canyon - Parnasse
Word Count: 4136/5076 (+3 EXP)

With the last of the dust settled (some of cocoa, some not), Fox hooked his ever-handy shield device back onto his belt and glanced about among his allies and the area for an outgoing assessment of the encounter. Having supportive assets like the Medic within their ranks practically precluded the need for him to call for a/n in/formal status report on everyone, as per routine and habit, unless something otherwise demanded his attention. Or maybe the Doctor’s involvement actually presented ironic cause for concern all its own. It became harder to be sure with that one the more they paid attention to and the longer anyone spent around him, which Fox hadn’t, as was fortunately the case for the sake of his peace of mind. That said, it may not do to leave him unattended in the night with any of his comatose “patients.”

Thus came the subject of rest that no small number of them doubtlessly needed, such as was admitted earlier by Joker on behalf of his team. Tora seconded this, succumbing lazily to his own fatigue, his level of which was understandable in light of just how much work he did (perhaps unknowingly) for them consistently pulling the team’s weight to the front of the line as one of its only two Shields. Poppi then volunteered herself for night watch, clarifying her absence of the need for rest as she casually bridal carried her “Masterpon” to bed. Primrose voiced her own concerns regarding the sleep and post arrangements, raising a point about maintaining a close proximity to one another, and thus their ability to watch over each other while they slept. Why she suggested they segregate by sex he didn’t hazard to question, certain that she had reason enough of her own for it, but he otherwise agreed with a nod that they could and should save no more effort than they had to keeping a closer eye on their fellow man and woman.

“In that case, anyone who can spare it should join Poppi; go in shifts if we have to,” he openly suggested to any prospective (but moreover trustworthy) volunteers within earshot. “If there’s anyone who shouldn’t be alone, it’s our watch,” he reasoned simply, more or less submitting himself for the task in the possible absence of any immediate takers. While he was going on a full day of activity without sleep or much rest at this point, he thought he could spare a couple more hours for everyone else’s sake. He refrained even from asking Necronomicon for her help (or Joker for permission to have it) on the assumption that she too, like Poppi, required no sleep. He always preferred taking action to demanding it anyway, and most of them had worked hard enough for today as far as he was concerned. “I’ll take the first one,” he offered in consideration of the others’ noticeable fatigue whilst trying to suppress his own, perhaps thereby setting the example for whoever should step up to relieve him later in the night.

Poppi blinked twice, a little confused, but her processors soon reached a satisfactory conclusion. However steadfast, Fox would need to rest eventually, so if there would be a joint watch it made sense for someone who didn’t to take a later one. “Roger! Let’s do our best.” In a maelstrom of sparking metal and flashing ribbon she changed to QT Pi mode, and flew up into the air to set up watch on an undamaged roof.

It didn’t take long for Fox’s concerns to be substantiated by a commotion coming from one of the nearby houses. Barely a minute or two after their battle with the two Goliath, and already it seemed they weren’t quite finished. Fox rushed to the source, pistol drawn, to tend to the disturbance personally, whatever may be the cause of it. He found out upon throwing the front door open and scanning the premises with his iron sights that it was merely the result of necessary measures being taken to free the captives housed within, as Midna reassured and everyone else of. Fox eased off and lowered his weapon, taking a second look about to see the fragmented remnants of resin prisons scattered along the floor at their bases, their occupants now missing. This would possibly give him something to look out for, he figured as he vacated the lightly-destructed gingerbread domicile, re-holstering his sidearm on his way out back to the center of town to begin the first watch.

A peaceful stillness settled over the fantastical town as its visitors fell asleep, one by one. Fox maintained his vigil, circumnavigating the premises over and over to keep an eye on as much of his surroundings as possible. On only his second loop, however, he found the tranquil silence disturbed by a hissed whisper. “Psst!” it came from the direction of swirled cream bushes.

The first hour or so of the late night passed uneventfully as Fox paced quietly about the town; mostly to keep himself awake at that point. It was no remedy for the drowsing boredom that had set in, however, but he figured boring was the preferable intended result of a watch. Between Poppi patrolling the air and rooftops on one end of the village, Necronomicon maintaining a perimeter around her housed team on the other, and Fox on the ground keeping an eye out for them, none of them picked up any movement or activity thus far. That was until the first instance of it suddenly decided to, of all things, whisper directly at him for his attention.

His ears twitched in response, prompting a double take from him as he looked around his immediate area for who- or whatever called in hushed tone for him. He wasn’t sure at first that sleep deprivation wasn’t causing him to imagine or hallucinate it until the voice again specifically addressed him from the direction of the whipped shrubbery, demanding his presence. This struck Fox as an obvious baiting attempt, but even knowing this he proceeded anyway toward the yonder bushes in slow, careful steps, keeping mindful of any sap traps that may be hidden within or around them. Surely, this wasn’t his pride, his general overconfidence in his abilities, his trademark ‘go it alone’ mentality making his decisions for him; causing him to skip over tipping off the other two; telling him it was something he could--and should--definitely handle himself.

In truth, that wasn’t the case. These weren’t thoughts he had, just habits he was in. Bad habits he would have thought himself too good for had he ever actually thought about it. What else was the point of going on a joint night watch if not to have a safety net and utilized line of communication in place? It was his idea to join them after all. It was in realizing this that he caught himself for all of a second to remember that he was part of a team and reach out to them. “Eyes out! Something’s here,” was all he gave his fellow watchwomen to go on, delivered in a whisper as quietly as he could manage as he approached the sound’s source to inspect, ready to draw at the first sign of hostility.

“Hey, buddy! Over here!” Only when Sly shifted did he reveal his presence. The shadows resolved themselves into the shape of an anthropomorphic raccoon, taller and slimmer than Fox, in a blue cap and shirt. That alone both suggested a true knack for stealth, and that Fox wouldn’t have found the stranger if he didn’t want it. So too did the swiftness with which he sized Fox up suggest a talent for perception, as held up his hands placatingly. “Take it easy! Don’t want any trouble. I’ve just had a really weird, exhausting day is all. First the machines, then getting stuck and blacking out, then finally waking up to some hairless ape with a sword talking nonsense. I was just hoping I could find someone normal and ask what in the world’s going on.”

At this point, Fox was convinced of non-aggressive intent by the fellow mammal and loosened his guard in kind. If he wanted to get the drop on him for any reason, he would have done it already, and not gave himself away to do it. Paradoxically, recognizing this was both unsettling and reassuring, that he could have found an enemy in him but wouldn’t. Not unless he shot first, that is, for he was still Gleaming by the looks of it. That much Fox noticed above all else about the raccoon’s appearance, besides the uncanny sense that they weren’t quite the same somehow, in spite of their shared anthropomorphic nature. Perhaps the questionable decision to forego pants while still donning boots had something to do with it. Either way, it came as good enough reason on his part to provisionally trust Fox, as he mentioned being an issue with the first person he met.

“Can’t say I blame you. I was exactly where you are just yesterday,” He reassured the stranger, in a rather cryptic, not-so-assuring manner. “Are you hurt at all?” he asked, with this World’s best answer for an olive branch very much in mind.

Sly looked himself once over. “Not...really? Well, not physically, anyway. This has been a real roller coaster, but I’m fine. I guess. Would be a lot better if I knew my buds were okay.” He scratched his head, clearly more concerned about getting the low-down than his own well-being at the moment. “So what’s the deal, do you know?”

Sadly, this meant that hitting him with a Friend Heart was out; not without doing him harm first. He hadn’t intended on it after lowering his alert level--still didn’t--but how much would he retain if he simply tried explaining it to him? It didn’t do Fox any wonders, waking up with a head full of fog following the beating he took in a string of back to back fights he didn’t remember having. And what if this man then decides to take off on his own into the World after getting less than satisfying answers? His chances were frankly worse out there, against any number of the multiverse’s goods and evils alike that could rope him into something that he would be compelled to see through, whether he could or not. Though, it’s possible as well that a man of his skillset, only the faintest idea of which Fox had been made privy to, could avoid such conflicts altogether if he wished. Were his concerns honestly warranted, and was he sure it would come to that anyway?

Moreover, why did he fret this at all? Why did he care this much about the fate of a single stranger? He was content to let go of one today already, after going through the trouble of freeing his Spirit. The simple answer was what he had already said before: that everyone was potentially valuable, and that they should be free regardless. There was something more to this, however. Something… abstract. Subject not to rational thought, but intrinsic feeling--that they were connected somehow…

“Enough… I think,” Fox answered with a sigh. With the possibilities still racing through his head, he continued. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Though a little frustrated by the lack of forthcoming answers and baffled as to how his own past played into it, Sly wracked his brains for his past. “Well, I was living in Al Mamoon, to the north of here. I’ve been traveling all over the world all my life, you see, a little here, a little there. Mostly with my pals, Bentley and Murray. Don’t suppose you’ve seen ‘em? Turtle fella with glasses in...well, in a wheelchair, and then a big, strong hippo dude. Um, anyway, we were together before Al Mamoon, doing...stuff, but I guess we got separated somewhere. I came out here at some point...I dunno, maybe just for a change of pace?” He shrugged. “Haven’t had much luck getting back into the ol’ groove.”

“Sounds about right,” Fox commented, nodding along at the end of the stranger’s recapitulation, that he could tell was incomplete. It was missing something integral to his arrival here, something he knew undoubtedly to be responsible for it, conveniently missing from his memory. “They don’t sound familiar. Not like anyone we’ve seen thus far. Sorry.” he answered regarding the stranger’s friends as described to him. “For what it’s worth you’re not alone. I think most of us are missing people of our own. Friends. Family. Rivals. Even enemies,” he stated with a light shrug, as if to appear sympathetic. With a sigh of resignation, he continued. “If it sounds like it doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s not supposed to,” he alluded with undue subtlety to the powerful influence over his mind that he remained and would remain unaware of, “and I’m not sure how to make sense of it any faster.” The latter half of his statement came at a lower register, almost as if he was saying it to himself as well.

Sly held up his hands in a resigned gesture. “Oh well, couldn’t hurt to ask. Sucks to be us, I guess. Hopefully we both find what we’re lookin’ for, huh?”

“Yeah...” he answered with a nod, his eyes directed contemplatively to the ground. Decisively, he looked back at the stranger and spoke. “I hate to tell you this, but it’s not going to get any easier...” Following a momentary pause, Fox quickly drew his Blaster and squeezed off an impact shot aimed for the raccoon’s chest.

Fox was quick on the draw, almost impractically so, but as a master thief Sly had honed his instincts to a razor’s edge. As the shot went off the raccoon had already gone low, running on all fours. On second thought, he was running on three--in his right had a hooked cane had appeared, pulled out of nowhere in a marvelous feat of sleight-of-hand. He attempted to snare Fox’s feet and pull him over, but the pilot flipped backward long before the cane could slip around his ankle. By the time he righted himself, however, his new acquaintance had disappeared into the shadows.

Fox recovered to stance from his evasive maneuver, training his sights on nothing when he did. His opponent had disappeared in the space of a second afforded to him between dodge and landing, a remarkable stunt of stealth unheard of for him; and he’s met Solid Snake. “...Not yet.” Fox intensely muttered under his breath, finishing his thought from before firing the opening shot.

“Looks like there’s more to you than meets the eye,” Sly remarked, his voice coming from nowhere in particular. Yet with the fight begun, he could not retreat. “You tired or something? Don’t worry, I’ll lay you out for a nice nap and be on my merry way.”

“You’ll thank me for this when you wake up.” In dispensing with the flimsy diplomatic charade, an attempt at which he would have taken more seriously if he thought it would get better results (as per his previous try at Lakeside), he believed he had taken a faster step closer to winning another ally, even if it was the hard way. The present mocking voice of his adversary confirmed for him that he hadn’t taken this opportunity to run away, for lack of being able to, which was exactly what Fox hoped for when gambling a shot at him.

In astonishingly near-perfect silence, Sly pounced from the shadows behind Fox, touching down in hug’s reach with footfalls to rival a cat with mufflers, and was awarded the first blow by ambush. Sharply he drove the pointed end of his cane into the vulpine’s back with two repeating uppercut swipes to lift them both from the ground. Fox never saw or heard it coming, but as he felt the back of his collar snag as he began to be dragged down by it, he made a snap impulse decision to slip out of his jacket in a rolling back tuck. In his play for an instant knockout--utilizing a signature move of his--Sly found himself bringing down only cloth rather than violently slamming his enemy’s head in the (or the dirt cake that passed for it here), and for his effort was met the toe of one boot to the face and the flat of the other to his chest.

Fox was back on top of him in no time, covering swiftly the distance between them forced by his last hit, following it with a series of rapid jabs--punches and kicks alike. Sly managed to redirect the first few of them with leveraging movements of hook and shaft, but was quickly overwhelmed with the gradually quickening oppressive flurry of strikes to get inside his guard, ending with a lunging kick to send him reeling back. Fox chased it with a snapping side kick to Sly’s abdomen while he was backed up against a craggy slab of rock candy to double him over and followed up with an over aerial heel kick to the back of his head. Even as Sly’s head was heading for the ground, he turned over in a floaty, physics-defying act of balance and recovery that had him landing instead back on his feet, whereupon he threw down a smoke bomb at his feet for a concealed quick escape and disappeared once more.

Sly should have known better than to think he could trust a fox, or that he could fight one up-close, after all the years spent on the run from (and at one point romantically involved with) Carmelita. He supposed this is what he got for never learning his lesson, but with a storied off-and-on history like theirs, he couldn’t really blame himself. What he did learn in a matter of seconds, about his opponent, was just how poorly matched they turned out to be in a contest of martial skill. Even the fastest he’s ever seen or faced were slower still. His best chance lay in making the most of his stealth, mobility and utility advantage and employing guerilla tactics to keep his opponent off-balance and try to end the fight in as few moves as possible.

As the smoke dissipated, Fox kept himself on a swivel with his gun drawn, snapping his sights to a conspicuous falling object that he nearly trigger-punched a hole through: Sly’s hat. It fell harmlessly at Fox’s feet, prompting him to look upward, and distracting him from the blinking red light of the decoy cap about to detonate. He noticed this too late to react, blowing him back off his feet. Then came Sly dropping down from the canopy with his cane spinning ahead of him in a drop attack that Fox rolled out of the way of just before impact. He stood up rapid firing at Sly, whose perception of time dilated at will as he ducked, weaved through, jumped over bolts of laser fire. Fox could almost swear to seeing him step off of one as if it were solid to gain air, but he couldn’t be sure.

Airborne, Sly hurled his cane downward at Fox, only for him to respond with a quick pulse of his Reflector to send it back. This sufficed regardless of damage, for he merely meant to stop him from shooting for long enough to execute a counterattack. He zipped downward at an angle, catching his returning cane on the way, and passed through Fox (or appeared to) in a generated line of dull blue electricity. Sly seamlessly continued to move, inexplicably sliding along an imaginary line on the ground as he swerved in a u-turn, assisted by grounding his cane as a pivot point. The electrical charge at his feet sustained with movement as he then entered an electrified wheel roll, colliding with the immobilized Fox, entering him into the proceeding tumble before throwing him by the hook end of his weapon.

Fox rolled back to his feet and fired off two reckless shots, and found them deflected back at him… with his own Reflector? Fox spat a subdued cry of searing pain when taking one of his own shots to the clavicle, then directed closer attention to Sly. It seemed the thief had somehow lifted Fox’s gadget off his person during their brief second of contact, which Sly was happy to admit with a boastful, presentory flourish, cocking an eyebrow and winking at Fox with a wry smirk. Annoyed, Fox shook his head and simply rushed him down with an advancing flurry of rotating kicks, only one which connected… with a trapped cardboard silhouette of his opponent that instantly swapped places with him.

The predictably aggressive Fox was momentarily paralyzed once again thanks to the electrical charges rigged to the dummy cutout, triggered the instant he struck it. He’d lost count by then of how many similar ‘counter’ techniques he had seen, dealt with, and had to work around in the past, but right about now he was feeling a little sick of it. From out of nowhere came Sly again to knock him down with a cane-twirling dive, and continued advancing on him to punish his ‘ukemi’ by rushing in with two spinning swings. He dizzyingly swatted Fox on the cheek with the first, caught him around his neck with the second, then swung himself around by his hooked foe, and brought himself in for a shoving flip kick to his chest that sent him flying.

Fox decided at this that he’d had enough, and that it was time to get a little more serious. He caught himself inverted against the ground by his hands, kipping up and taking off into an Illusion dash to expeditiously make up the distance between him and his opponent, meeting him up-close before either of their feet could hit the ground. Where Sly earlier punished his recovery, it was his turn to punish his landing, aiming to prove a point that he could do all of it better while he was at it.

Fox touched down deciseconds before Sly, as intended, and sent him back upward with a signature rushing backflip kick to the chin that snapped his head back, along with the rest of him. Not content to let him come back down on his own, Fox lept upward to drill stomp him into the sugar-frosted ‘snow’. Sly scrambled to his feet to defend, but to no avail. Fox blocked the first blind cane swipe with the flat of his foot, rattled the raccoon with a string of chain punches to the torso, and at the first attempt to fight back with it, twisted his off arm to relieve it of his stolen shield. He then hit him with a straight punch to the abdomen, empowered by a flash of his shield, before taking him off his feet with a tail-assisted leg sweep. Fox followed with a snapping front kick to Sly’s back to keep him suspended, and finished with an arcing reverse tornado kick to send him away.

Air left Sly’s lungs as he flew back-first into a nearby tree, causing him to fall over face down flat onto the ground in a now barely conscious heap. Fox made his way over one pacing step at a time, using his free hand to draw a Friend Heart from his chest. Groaning in pain, unwilling or -able to concede defeat, Sly tightened his grip around his cane and struggled in vain to lift it under the anchoring boot of Fox, who decided he would rather not let him even if he had the energy left to. Fox then knelt down before him, hovering the Heart over his weakened form, dropped it gingerly onto him, and watched and waited for it to take full effect.

In a single, brief flash, Sly’s situation took a complete turn, and his struggle ceased. Every burn and bruise on his body disappeared, the adrenaline pumping through him evaporated, and his fighting spirit stilled. For a moment he lay still with wide eyes devoid of comprehension, but then he let out the contents of his lungs in a heavy sigh of relief. “Whoo...boy. I tell ya, I’ve been on some wacky hijinx, but nothing half as crazy as this.” He let his neck go slack, and his head lolled back onto the cakey cushion of the ground.

“Do you remember now?” was all Fox said at first as he stood to lower his pacified adversary turned neutral acquaintance (and ideally future ally) a helping hand up.

After another moment, Sly accepted the hand. His reluctance seemed more to do with exhaustion than distrust. “Sort of. There’s a lot to deal with, a whole lot, jeez. Could run my thinker ‘til I get a headache, but maybe I oughta just sleep on it.”

Right… sleep. After a bout like that, already running on so little, Fox had forgotten all about it in the heat of battle and the moments leading up to it. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Fox replied, fatigue--equal parts mental and physical--clearly setting on him as he started taking his first steps away.

Slightly perplexed by his dismissive self-adjournment, Sly raised an eyebrow in the vulpine’s direction. “So… what, that’s it? We just beat each other senseless and go our separate ways? Is that how things work around here?” The facetiousness in his tone became increasingly evident with each sentence. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m kinda out of the loop here.”

Fox stopped in his steps, for a moment before speaking. “You were going to take off anyway, weren’t you?” the question begot a bewildered look from the raccoon as to what exactly he meant. Fox then glanced back at him in his continued address. “You said you wanted to find your friends. I don’t intend to talk you out of that. I already tried that once today.” He thought back to the Soldier from Lakeside, wondering how that may have panned out or will come to; for the better, he hoped.

He turned to direct his full attention to Sly, and told him, “When you do leave, head southwest from here. Pass over the mountains, and you’ll find a city floating above the bay. I can’t promise you’ll find your friends there, but you’ll find better answers--and maybe help finding them.” While he was largely assuming intent on Sly’s part, Fox advised him on directions to take with every hopeful intention that he might follow it, somewhat contrary dictation of non-interventionism. More concerned was he that he was doing right by a due comrade, in whom he somehow saw himself.

The two canids weren’t quite done yet. From a nearby rooftop, and with far less near-silent grace than the raccoon mustered during his fight, Poppi appeared with a wave of greeting. “Hello! Poppi hear noise and come to investigate. Only catch tail end of fight. All well that end well?” With a pleasant smile she attempted to deflect the wary glance that Sly sent her way. “Nice to meet new friend. Poppi name is Poppi!”

Fox’s eyes went Poppi’s way ahead of her arrival, certain she came to investigate before she said as much. “We’re okay here now, Poppi,” Fox reassured her before glancing back to Sly to do the same. “She’s with us.” It slipped his mind in his exhausted state that Sly wasn’t yet aware of an ‘us’.

With a nod, the artificial blade left again. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Fox was flagging, so it was about time she tagged in the next lookout. Another being without the need for sleep, Necronomicon had volunteered, so Poppi went off to rouse her from her dormant state. Fox could sleep easy knowing that his metal comrades had his safety both well in hand, and well in tentacle.

Mouth slightly agape in perplexion, Sly shook his head free of yet another strange occurrence to put himself back in the moment. “What about you, stranger? You got a name?” he asked half-rhetorically. “So I can let them know who sent me.” For him, this would be genuinely useful to know. He wasn’t, after all, accustomed to entering new places undisguised and being welcomed there.

“Fox,” he answered simply. “Fox McCloud.”

“‘Fox’, huh?” he asked, nodding curiously. “No relation to Carmelita, I take it?”

Failing to recognize any such name, Fox answered with a headshake and a shrug, “No one I would know of. Another friend of yours?” He asked simply as an extension of polite, friendly curiosity.

“I-It’s, uh… a bit more complicated than that,” Sly stammered, rubbing the back of his head.

“Hm. I hear you,” he nodded in reply, offering some sense of allusive understanding.

“Well, Fox,” he started, turning outward from him, “I guess we’ll be in touch,” he said with a smile and a salute of his cane.

Fox smiled weakly back, flitting his weightening eyelids as he looked back to the village, then back to Sly. “You should probabl-” he started to say, but by the time he looked back, Sly was gone. He would later realize that he failed to get his name in turn, but trusted that they would likely be seeing each other again somewhere down the line. He retrieved his jacket and contacted the Blade and Persona. “You two got it from here?” The Persona replied on behalf of both of them, insisting that he get some much needed rest, and that they would alert him if needed. “Thanks, girls! I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, he began his short walk back into the town proper to find a place to lay his head for the remainder of the night.

With or without anyone to fill in for him, and being too tired to worry about it either way, Fox sought out the first vacancy in accommodations he could find and made straight for an empty bed, which just so happened to be composed in its near entirety of fluffy marshmallow. “Of course,” he said to himself upon testing it, nodding with a resigned, tired sigh before laying down onto it anyway. He didn’t so much as remove his boots, belt, headset, or jacket, for he would sleep easy enough now with less to worry about.

Level: 7 (16 -> 17/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Black Bay; Aboard the Atomos
Word Count: 705 (+1 EXP)

Hat: Skull Cap -> Default -> Back

What was she doing, so far out on the sea in the middle of a warzone? She’d never been to war in her entire short life, or even participated in anything remotely resembling it until now. Even her allies--some of whom have--couldn’t keep themselves afloat fighting their way through the increasingly, hopelessly overwhelming odds; literally, as half of them were still aboard a now sinking ship in peril--one of the only two they had. She most certainly wasn’t cut out for this, but now she was entrusted with manning heavy artillery, with which she had zero experience, to do something about their predicament? Well… she entrusted herself to it, really, not exactly brimming with confidence in her ability to man it effectively. But with nowhere to flee, and a great roc and a dark marine army behind it turning their sights and all their force on them, what else was she going to do?

The answer: Miss entirely, but somehow, that was okay. Just as she went to let fly on the Helmaroc, gradually tensing up with nervous anticipation the closer they came to it, a significantly heavier round blew by it with a thunderous report of artillery from elsewhere aboard the vessel. The Atomos swerved to meet it on its dodge path for Bowser, and the surprise and motion of it all caused Hat Kid’s shot to sail wide of anything at all, as well as throwing her to the floor from her seat. Recuperating from the passing second of dizziness, she adjusted her bandana, pulled herself back up, and readied herself for another try.

A try at what, she wasn’t quite certain, but she was pretty sure it involved the ballista. This required some quick situational reassessment on her part. First, she had to reload, which turned out to be simple enough as to require no learning; it was practically automated--a relatively advanced feature on an obviously primitive design. It was good enough for her, at any rate. Imagine then her disappointment to find that the newly deployed bombers sent for the virtually defenseless Shippy were now out of her effective range, as she found out upon firing once more in their direction. Disheartened as she was to find herself powerless to avert the living ship’s fate, or that of those aboard it, the next best she could do was resolve to keep the one she was on from suffering the same. An expression of serious determination overtook her, and she unchambered another round.

One shot after another, she began throwing steel bolts at any and every dark naval creature that came within her range and sight, which happened to include the odd submarine here and there that she could see thanks to Lens she acquired on the farmstead, pinned like a Badge to her person, and finally found a use for. Of course, her accuracy was less than ideal, making it something of a learning experience for her, but not so little that she produced no results from her trial and error. Early into her counteroffensive, she started to notice faint, peculiar sensory cues cluing her in to the interval between reloads in which she intuited, somehow, that she could bypass part of the process and shortcut her way to faster reload times.

She took full advantage of this new insight provided to her (though her inherited headgear, as it turned out), falling soon into a gradually tightening rhythm. At one point she even discovered, mostly by accident, that ‘Perfect’ timing would result in the empowerment of the next shot, as indicated by the instant demise of the first Abyssal unlucky enough to prove it to her. It was after seeing this that became giddy and got greedy and careless for a moment enough to show her what it got her, causing the turret to jam momentarily as she mistimed a reload. Grumbling in response to her mistake, she slowed to correct her penalty and took the hint going forward not to push it. As she fell back into the motion, she took the first break in her assault to switch to her standard Hat to check their objective destination by distance and exact direction before switching back to resume return fire.

Level: 5 (18 -> 19/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Sweet Canyon - Parnasse
Word Count: 631 (+1 EXP)

The party eventually caught up with Midna and Necronomicon, both of whom they found upon arriving at the edge of the forest outside the village. When the Persona returned his call, Fox hadn’t expected that she would have taken on a passenger, nor that he would hear their voice on the other end of the line. He must have failed to notice, in their heated retreat across the desert, but apparently, the Scout took off in tow with Necronomicon when she broke away from the group. All that mattered now was that they were both safe and accounted for, the continuation of the former hinging on Necronomicon heeding Joker’s caution to maintain her altitude.

With or without the Persona’s plea for the bystanding villagers’ safety, it didn’t take much to get the lot of them moving to action once the two giant mechanoids began demolishing homes in search of Midna and their freshly absconded captive. That was all it took, really. The samurai took the initiative, and found out the hard way, as a man out of time expectedly might, that he wouldn’t simply cleave through a solid steel automaton. Others were quick to join in, like their new tagalong, Midna herself coming out of hiding, Tora and Poppi frontlining along with the power couple of Heavy and Braum; or Heavy and Medic; or Medic and whoever he decided to chain himself to, and of course, the Phantom Thieves, just to name the larger share of them. They had power and personnel to spare still; enough to split between the two machines. Fox, however, made time for both of them..

Him and Joker had the same idea, it seemed; ”great minds” and all. He was no engineer, but he and anyone else with an intuitive or learned sense for the physical could surmise at a glance that they weren’t built with utmost stability in mind (unless they could walk on all fours and still function combatively--or in some other way surprise them). Even faster than he could think about it, Fox made for the first-targetted Goliath, dashing within leg’s reach to its closest knee with a torquing reverse kick to its ball joint, empowered by the explosive Burst generated by his maneuver triggering in tandem with contact. He bothered not with trying for both legs, for it would suffice to buckle a single one, should he manage to hit it with enough force to do so. Anticipating retaliation either way, he aimed a handful of Impact Shots for its shoulder joint, squeezing off as many as he had to and could as he backed off out of its way and that of his allies (namely the blindly battle-furious Heavy).

On the other end, Primrose and the Thieves went to work on trying to down the other Goliath. As their success appeared imminent, the machine fought back to remain on its feet, firing off its back thruster to spit out a volley of dark energy at its assailants, discouraging further direct action by them against it. Seeing this, Fox took off, jetting over the short stretch of now caramalized battleground between them in an arc, cutting for himself a gap between shots of orb hail with a rapid spray of blaster fire, then tucking and untucking mid-flight to fit between it. This would place him directly in the line of fire, point-blank in front of the thruster, whereupon he drew forth his Reflector and held it shy of lidding the weapon with it, aiming to return its own fire at the source as the machine inflicted unwitting self-harm. This, he would sustain for as long as either of them could stand it until it relented one way or the other, provided it lacked the firepower to make Fox’s shield give out first.

Level: 7 (14 -> 16/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Limsa Lominscuttle Town - Limsa Harbor -> Black Bay
Word Count: 809 (+2 EXP)

Hat: Default -> Skull Cap
Item: -Ray Gun

Having concluded that she wasn’t particularly suited for one ship over the other per se, Hat Kid opted to take her place aboard Shippy for no better reason than because the Atomos was already getting crowded. That, and Peach kind of asked her to, for much the same reason. She still wasn’t entirely clear on what specific roles, if any, each ship would be playing beyond breaking through to the Bottomless Sea somehow, but assumed they would both end up in the same place either way. As usual, she would leave the problem of getting there up to the near future version of her to worry about, putting thoughts of it temporarily out of her mind as she smiled and waved back to the townspeople that saw them off and cheered them on.

Hat Kid scaled the mast to take her seat within the crow’s nest, and spent the entirety of their downtime sailing along the coast beholding the sights it had to offer. It wasn’t long until the first signs of battle could be seen at the front lines, from afar as they were, and zoomed in through Link’s Slate, which the child at one point peeked at from over his shoulder. A briefing call was shortly made, demanding their attendance down on the main deck. The first order, only semi-related to current matters, came from the cat lady (without ship rigging), relaying gossip she had picked up about a murder taking place the night before, for which she already had a suspect; another such mystery for the child to rent out a Detective Outfit to solve later.

Another call later came over the radio to issue the crew their main set of orders, laying out for them a more definitive road map of their siege operation. In preparation, Kid climbed to the top of the mast once more, peering out at their distant destination, verified by her top hat, then switching to her Skull Cap to bring out her inner swashbuckler, as it was the best and only set of attire she had suited for the occasion. She was about as ready as she was going to be for naval warfare at this point, so she may as well act in character and get excited for it however she could. Within the moment, the riotous report of artillery and the destruction that followed signalled the start of what may very well be the final battle between the Azure Navy and the Abyssal Fleet, and Blue Team were set to run right through the middle of it.

While Shippy’s Captain and designated swordsmen took care of the boarding Abyssals on and below deck (and then some), Hat Kid moved along the top of the masts to laser sweep at the smaller encroaching units from on high, fending off what she was able to with each successive blast. The enemy’s numbers made a clean break impossible, as no small amount of them bit away at Shippy’s hull. At which point Hat Kid dismounted the masts, hooked onto the central one with her grapple line to swing circles around the ship, and broke out the Ray Gun she picked up to pepper them with. With what she found out was only worth ten shots--some of which she missed with--it didn’t last her long before having to undo her hookshot to free up her umbrella for lasering them with again; this time keeping airborne by foot-bouncing off of the odd missile and mini-plane.

With the fast deteriorating condition of both Blue Team vessels, matters appeared to be made worse by the appearance of a great black avian on the battlefiel- battle sea? In the midst of the battle. It made way for the already overwhelmed Atomos, aiming to challenge the gigantified, havoc-wreaking Koopa King. It was upon seeing the full of the Atomos’ force and armaments in swing against the fleet that the child could recall seeing one while boarding that wasn’t in use; one that could possibly answer the harrying great-fowl.

Hat Kid maneuvered her way over, onto, and into the Atomos, hurried her way into the bay, hit the switch on the doors to open, mounted the hitherto unmanned ballista, and readied it to fire. If there was a time to use it, it would be now. Though, it could have asked for more accustomed hands than her own. Hopefully, her inexperience with ranged/ballistic weaponry wouldn’t show when it counted, but with the sudden uptake in speed, that may prove harder for her to see to. If nothing else, she could reload it faster thanks to her Skull Cap--for greater damage if her timing was good enough. That sense of timing would be better spent at the right moment in which they closed the distance on one another to let fly, for which she waited to do so.

Level: 5 (16 -> 18/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Sweet Canyon
Word Count: 926 (+2 EXP)

With the threat of machines and the Molduga behind them (right behind them in the latter case, forcing forward progression), Yellow Team continued onward at ease, slackening to a more manageable pace to allow those who needed it to catch their breath. Thankfully, most of them had the stamina for it--a benefit undercut by the need for certain others to recover their mana as well. They would see their moment’s rest once they reached the end of the tunnel, they hoped, foreshown by the nightlight visibly shining through in the near distance. They followed the beacon of moon rays along the train tracks until its boards were replaced with wafers, its rails with hardened chocolate, and up to the point when they made for open space again to get a good look at why.

Everything, from the flora, to the fauna, ‘man-made’ structures like the station they were in, and even down to the weather phenomena were seemingly all of a confectionery makeup. From what world a fully edible(?) biome and elements thereof was something that occurred naturally, Fox couldn’t so much hazard a guess. He could practically feel a toothache coming on just to behold it. It was a good thing one couldn’t get cavities just from looking, or else he might have been the first among the relatives of canine-kind to find out if they even could. At any rate, desserts may very well have been the preferable theme to any theoretical alternatives, for all he knew--like say, meats and/or vegetables. The thought, however, didn’t cross his mind; perhaps for the better. From the looks of it, the area stood no less a chance of greeting the party with dangers and hostility regardless, the breadth of which were now slightly more difficult to predict.

At Poppi’s mention of picking up an auditory distress signal, Fox made his own attempt to hone in on its source via his headset. In receiving nothing through communications, he at least ruled that out as a possibility, and concluded simply that it was something they would have to attend to personally, as would have ultimately been the case anyway. He concurred with Primrose on the initiative taken by Midna to go investigate, but before he could set off in tow, Joker demanded Fox’s ear. At his beckoning, Fox approached and lent him his attention.

The Phantom leader quietly voiced his concern about the physical and magical exhaustion of his teammates, wanting foremost for a solution to that before prolonging their day’s expedition much more, stifling any compulsion he might have otherwise had to explore. He agreed that prioritizing search and rescue was in order, suspecting it would be beneficial in finding their way--possibly to accommodations. Fox co-opted this, volunteering Yellow Team to take point in the meantime in consideration of the Thieves’ conditions, adding that he would too keep his eyes and earpiece open in lookout for the missing Persona of their group. As Midna had gotten them a head start on the next step of their journey, their marching order was already halfway established, and summarily agreed upon.

Just as they were about to set off, a new face--not the friendliest of which they’d seen--showed itself, belonging to what appeared to be a grim, aberrant humanoid, and approached with questions rather than the hostility that her appearance would suggest. Poppi and Joker stepped in to mediate at the first sign of aggressive response and offered the hooded wanderer a place among the pack for as long as she needed it, provided she remained on peaceful terms. All she asked in turn was that they provide any information they had on an apparent nemesis of hers: “a real bastard of a wolf.” Doubtful were the odds that she and Fox were thinking of the same person, but in the ever unlikely case that they were, he’d not soon indulge her that. That was a fight for him, and rivalries were something to be shared with no one, especially overeager unfamiliars with expressly violent intentions.

With the matter provisionally handled the party pressed on, guided by Midna’s tracks, trusting she would lead them true. They hit their first snag when Ryuji--as all in earshot learned his name to be, thanks to Panther’s involuntary tongue slip--found himself encased in a flash-hardened candy shell. It wasn’t so dense, however, as to require anything large of one’s own fists to break it down, so Fox pitched in with a rapid, standing flurry of kicks to free Skull, rather than turning a firearm on him to the same effect. They continued onward from there, carefully watching for more traps along the way, but it wasn’t long before Tora’s appetite created another problem for them (but mostly him), revealing yet another previously unaccountable danger of the sweet wilds.

“Nobody else eat anything here!” Fox ordered with a sigh while Mona and any other available healers attended Tora, the Medic perhaps being strangely qualified to deal with such a matter on account of a certain… unique experience with the opposite occurrence (animating pastries, rather than pastrifying living matter). He had expected such a caution would go without saying, considering not that enticing the sweet tooths of the unwary might have been the point of this place. In need of some better news, Fox attempted to contact Necronomicon, hoping for a response and update of any kind from her to let him know that she was still with them in some way. “You there? Come in!” He requested simply, not expecting anyone else but the Persona to answer.

Level: 7 (2 -> 12 -> 14/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Limsa Lominscuttle Town - The Bismarck - The Drowning Wench -> Limsa Harbor
Word Count: 802 (+2 EXP)

Hat: Ice -> Standard

‘Day 3 (I think?)...

So… a LOT happened today… or days??? (I *knew* I should’ve done this before I left!) Too much to fit in one entry anyway. I guess I’ll just have to leave this one blank. Sorry, (again) future me!’

Hat Kid’s diary read thusly, as jotted down on the vacant back of a menu she absconded with from one of the two eateries she had been to that evening. Certainly, a great deal had taken place for the Seekers over the course of a single day, or what at least seemed like one for those who might have lost track of time throughout it. Many of the meatier story beats, it seemed, took place in the child’s absence, as she found out by sitting in on the dinner table discussion. One element of the already interesting story of Red Team’s escapades through the Dead Zone stood out to her; Linkle’s disappearance.

A somber mood fell over the table for those who knew her, insofar as they were able to get to over the course of three days. Hat Kid was little exception in that regard, as she couldn’t honestly say she had grown close with anyone during her time awake in this World. Linkle just happened to be among those she directly interacted the most with, which still amounted to little more than sharing a stale cookie and rescuing a monk pilot who didn’t need it. Beyond that, there wasn’t much else; nothing besides a shared cause on which to form a kinship. Not that it ever stopped her before.

That was just it. Hers was less a feeling of loss (though still felt in some part) than a reminder of its possibility. She had to ask herself again, what was she doing here? With all these other people? Who were they, really? Did she really care to know? Did she have to? What was to stop her from going back to doing things the way she used to and always had--on her own? Would she--or they--ultimately prefer that she did, or miss her if she left? After all, she had her own task to complete that none of them knew about, and loathe as she was to entertain the idea, they might be glad for it by the time they need to reach Space. To that end, she couldn’t shake the sense that she would be more useful elsewhere, doing what she did best: reclaiming what was hers! Though, the one, and perhaps most important question remained… Was she okay with that?

Her waking thoughts echoed clamors of the past. They “didn’t need a hero”; they had enough of them already. But then, she remembered it was her who inspired, through her actions, those outcries to begin with. That happened because she was there to make it happen, whether she meant to or not. They only got to say that because she gave them the courage and a chance to. They may not have needed, or wanted, a hero, but they had one. And in the end, they were glad to have had one. How would that have changed if she had turned away?

These dwellings kept her awake for no longer than was reasonable to allow them to. That, and the Dead Zone explosion did wonders giving her something else to think about, making her especially glad to have not been there herself, whilst also reminding her of what they were up against with Galeem, waking momentarily for seemingly the first time since the day it all ended. The view of it from nightlit Limsa, though, happened to be particularly spectacular. She sat for a moment to admire the scene from the balcony of the room she had been afforded before eventually heading back in, setting her hat atop the nightstand, as per her routine, and bedding down for the night. She would wake tomorrow with renewed determination to give this ‘crusader’ thing another try.

Hat Kid made her way to the harbor the following morning to rejoin her group amidst the naval assembly. The inclusion of children within their ranks didn’t particularly bother her, for why would it. She was there, after all, despite her doubts about being the night before. Her mind lay forward, in the direction of the Bottomless Sea past Peach and the Captains, where her Hat pointed her, toward what lay in store for them. She stood to attention saluting the present authorities, unprompted, before and during the speeches, and following them, took her place aboard one of their two ships--whichever had more vacancies, or better suited her strengths. It occurred to her rather late into this phase of their adventure that she still had next to no clue what it entailed, or how she would best serve their efforts there...




Level: 5 (13 -> 16/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Shady Oasis; outbound
Word Count: 1481/1754 (+3 EXP)

Minutes passed--possibly an hour--with Fox keeping lookout while everyone else rested and divvied up Spirits and loot, none of which he was particularly interested in or thought he would need himself. His watch and their downtime concluded without a hitch; uneventfully on his end. Perhaps he had been overthinking in his assessment that someone else was there (besides a gaggle of slain hippos that inhabited the oasis ahead of their arrival), but it was better to have one person who could spare it making sure than none. He was doubly glad to have waited anyway when Joker clarified in his assembly call that Necronomicon had plotted a route for them in that time. Had he been alone, Fox might have sooner wandered off with aimless determination until he found something of import; but that, he learned, was where patience and teamwork availed him in ultimately wasting less time.

She led them through darkness and low-level opposition that spelled little issue for those eager to flex their newly acquired Spirit boons. Their path ended at a sunlit chamber and continued downward through the floor by way of a sloping river of sand that would carry them the rest of the way out. Fox stepped from the sandslide in seamless stride, taking in the landscape as he walked out beyond the temple’s boundary. Appreciably majestic as it was, he was less drinking in the picturesque view than trying to get a lay of the land ahead of setting off for the mountain. They did just that in short order once Necro and Joker refined their heading and took the initiative to lead on, following the railroad to the source.

The party pressed on at a steady pace through the evening into the night; long enough for stars to replace daylight and for everyone who didn’t already know that deserts could get just as cold as hot in the sun’s absence. The dark of nightfall made the following phenomenon all the harder to ignore. An entire region away, a grounded, painfully bright white nova spontaneously came into being with a resounding detonation that could be heard--and for some, faintly felt--throughout the World of Light, and for the short time it remained, it had the entire World’s attention… even that of its slumbering ruler.

Galeem--the sun that never set--took notice of this sudden disturbance in its realm, and sent a surge of its power forth in the same direction to hitherto indiscernible effect before going dormant once more. Fox (as well as a few others) stopped to see this transpire for himself, blocking the wind, sand and shine from his eyes when he could look no more, and reopening his eyes once the blast died down to nothing. He’d witnessed up close no small number of massive explosions throughout his career, between the Subspace Events and and those he had caused himself (even once escaping planetary destruction), but the otherwise desensitizing experiences didn’t make dealing with the unknown (regarding ‘how’ and ‘why’) any easier; especially if it fell within the notice of a ‘god’. Naturally, the question came up of what exactly had happened, and Fox was eager for an answer, calling in whoever he thought might have them. Though long-distance communication with Alcamoth was out, there was still an option of correspondence available to him that involved him putting a hand to his headpiece and simply imagining that he would reach someone.

A moment after he called out, a furry creature popped into existence before him in a little burst of magic. He waved ‘hello’, causing the pom on its head to bob back and forth. In his other tiny hand he held half a donut. “Hiya, kupo! What can I do for ya?”

“Sitrep,” Fox answered simply before clarifying, “Any idea what that was?” Given the urgency with which the creature was summoned just shortly following the inquired upon event, he hoped his request for information wasn’t premature; that they knew (or swiftly learned) enough to tell.

“Oh, it must have happened!” the Moogle exclaimed, remembering something with a start. “Boss told us that this nasty place called the Dead Zone was gonna blow up, but I went inside to have dinner, kupo. Guess I missed it? What did it look like?”

“Status on Red Team?” At the mention of the Dead Zone (which he remembered to be one of the three prospective mission destinations at the start of the day) and its subsequent destruction, Fox immediately thought of those that volunteered for it (without knowing specifically who they were), and threw out his follow up question in the middle of the Moogle’s lattermost thought. Naturally, the well-being of his fellow Seekers constituted a greater concern than a detailed recap of the explosion, which he glossed over out of a sense of priority rather than an unbefitting, unintended lack of regard for the underling.

The Moogle’s little brows shot up as he realized he’d forgotten an important detail. “Fine, fine! They got out of there way in advance. Went over to join the seaside team.” He nodded his little head furiously, trying to make Fox feel reassured.

“All of them?” Fox added, hoping the entirety of Red Team could be (and was being) accounted for.

“Um…” Even with his eyes pursed, the Moogle looked uneasy. “I don’t think so, kupo. Boss, someone they met there died, a someone named Linkle got turned into a monster and disappeared, and they lost contact with the monk guy.” He fidgeted, his fuzzy face apologetic.

Fox morosely cast his sight down in thought, unable to put faces to the name or descriptor he’d been given. He didn’t remember either of them, for he had only met them while he was still Gleaming, and hadn’t engaged with either one of them since then. To him, however, it made little difference. They still counted as casualties in his mind--any and all of which were unfortunate, if expected.

“The Courier’s missing on our end as well,” he explained to the effect that they too had unaccounted personal. Had he known the Courier at all, he might have realized the ‘lonesome’ attitude was completely in-character for him and expected him to take off on impulse to do as he may. Perhaps they would find him at the end waiting for them--a thought he entertained hopefully before getting back on track with the Dead Zone report. “So, that’s one more Guardian down, then?”

Since Fox shouldered the bad news, the Moogle decided to do the same. “Guess so! Nobody’s gone to check yet, but that Banjo guy seemed interested. Been hanging around Alcamoth.”

“Send whoever else is interested. We need to be sure.” As Fox put in the order to investigate that would likely have been carried out regardless, he suddenly had another assignment in mind. “Assemble a team to send here, while they’re at it. Tell them there’s a lakeside compound with mercenaries waiting to be picked up, and they should go ready for a fight, because whoever’s left will probably be looking for one. Someone there is putting them up to it--goes by ‘The Administrator’. Keeps reviving them and forcing them to fight. Have them look into that. Find out who and where she is and deal with her, if they can! Might be their best bet at freeing them. They just don’t know they need it yet.”

The Moogle polished off his donut, patted his stomach, and said, “Alright, kupo! Two missions, one Scout, one Strike. I’ll hop right on it!” He turned away, whispering to himself. “ that crazy lady and her friends would wanna check the Dead Zone, kupo. And then for this lake place…” With that, he vanished.

With his call concluded, having done all he could for his part for the time being, he set back on the path alongside the rest of the party. Necronomicon provided them with a report on the terrain ahead, cautioning them of hindering sands before flying ahead to get a more detailed assessment. Soon enough they found out for themselves exactly what she was talking about, sinking to the ankles--then the shins--with every footfall as those grounded were forced to slow their pace to a crawl. That was until they made their collective way onto the railroad proper, finding on it a stable foothold/pathway to proceed as normal, albeit more carefully along the narrow track..

It wasn’t long until Necronomicon hurried back to meet them to make her report more interesting. It wasn’t simply the terrain gradually changing, but the entire biome. As sands began to bleed over into brown sugar syrup, their surroundings started to make less sense to Fox. Perhaps that was the idea; to confound passers-through, be they Seekers or otherwise. To what end, who could say.

More urgent was the matter of the new area’s hostile denizens that quickly became their problem to deal with. Fox drew and readied himself at the first sign of impending enemy contact, and was adequately prepared to respond to the preemptive attack by the trawlers, which Heavy was notably quick to deal with to aid the Medic. In his fury he failed to notice the small flyers on approach, that Fox began to fire upon; at one point even leaping in front of Heavy’s bullet hail to deflect some of it into the machine flock. The combination of enemy and Yellow Team fire going the same way would surely suffice in suppressing the lighter of their opposition, levelled out by the narrow footing they had to work with. Hence the need to rescue the heaviest of their team from the ‘sands’ following the initial ambush.

Then came an enemy they were ill-suited to deal with in their relatively disadvantaged state, uprooting the train tracks in a wave as it plowed through after them. Fox had to silently agree with Joker in booking it rather than staying to fight, even if that meant possibly fighting it elsewhere. Poppi gave them a suitable head start by flash freezing the Molduga, knowing it wouldn’t last long; certainly not long enough to last the rest of their expedited trip, but if they were lucky, it wouldn’t have to. Luck willing, the tracks would eventually cross over into a bridge to lead the monstrous sand whale over and off of. Should that be the case, Fox would happily dare it to keep chasing them. Until then, they could only continue to fight and push on toward the mountain at their now grueling pace.

Level: 5 (12 -> 13/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Crown of Sand
Word Count: 958 (+1 EXP)

The ‘dragon hunting’ excursion couldn’t have ended in a more timely manner, for the three that had carried it out were already being lifted to the plateau by the time Fox and company made it back to the edge of the barrier to catch them on their return flight from afar. In part, they may have had the conversational delay to thank for the ground team’s tandem progress in the meantime, and the distance and wait of retrieving them for subsequent progress made by the Thieves in their advance. On that note, as Poppi and the Queen crested the cliff with their respective passengers, Fox received a call from one of their new “honorary” allies ahead.

“I read you,” he answered, verifying the working order of their newly established line of communication. Necronomicon then summarized their route and destination for them to follow, giving them a specific mark to look for in a ‘Sphinx,’ whatever that was. “Got it. We’re on our way, now. We’ll be right behind y-” Fox went aback in a surprise take as Tora caught him off guard, crowding him to talk into his headpiece after faintly picking up on the Persona’s speech through the other end. Just as well, since he at least thought to ask the proper question of what a ‘Sphinx’ was.

As little sense as it made in concept, at least by the description, Fox was confident they could put it together when they saw it. Though, she was gracious enough to offer that she wait out front for them just in case they didn’t. “Understood. We won’t keep you waiting.” With that, Fox was off by the way he last saw the Thieves heading, expecting the regathered Yellow Team would follow minus the need to direct as much, thus he abstained to as he began to march.

Through the obscuring sandwinds, the resulting inability to fly in them, and the visually samey nature of the ruined streets they passed through, it proved difficult further on to gather a solid sense of direction. Tora forged ahead, and soon found a path wrought with obstacles--possibly the one Necronomicon mentioned, but none of them could be sure short of crossing it to the other side. With a long history of putting his own aerial mobility to use where his continued survival and forward progress was concerned, Fox had little trouble at all finding his way across the suspended obstacle course. It was mostly a matter of skipping some of it in long, horizontal strides of air dashing, at one point timing a jump to lure a harassing Skullcrusher into dropping through the crumbling floor at his feet as he left it, kicking off of the face of an obstructing Walleye to maneuver around it, and just altogether ignoring the distraction of the Cymuls and Ergotroks, refraining from so much as entertaining the latter with a pulse of his Reflector.

At the end of the path lay the temple described to them previously, indicated doubly by the presence of the girl-turned-saucer outside waiting to greet them. She led the Team in at the thirst-driven behest of Tora, through an expectantly gloomy inner sanctum that the Thieves no doubt fought through in their absence, to a contrastly lavish, pristine pool hall where they now resided in respite. They were even adorned in decidedly casual attire as opposed to their masks and adjoining outfits, suggesting that their purpose may be more expressive rather than a means to conceal their identities. Though, perhaps the absence of a real name was all that mattered to them on that end.

At Skull’s direction, Fox took his needed drinks from the designated pool before rejoining the others around the swimming hole, but not in it. He wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, nor set to strip down accordingly, on top of having the added layer of fur that would take extra time to dry off, even in the sun, while it collected sand in the meantime. Mona, if no one else, might understand as much, even if he was comparatively advantaged by the allowance to go conventionally nude.

While they were still on a mission, Fox had no desire to cut short their revelry by urging them onward, even if he didn’t partake in it himself. Besides the brief intermissions of downtime between travel, most of them haven't had much honest opportunity for rest since Alcamoth, and more still had been at it for longer than that throughout the same day. It did them more good than not to take advantage of the moment while they had it to recuperate at their own pace in preparation for what lay ahead.

A thought occurred to him then; one not terribly reassuring. For an abandoned temple, the place in which they now resided was conspicuously well-kept, he thought. Not even a dusty surface presented itself. As for the provisions and camp setup, unless the Thieves had some manner of conjuration magic or the like (not that Fox would be able to distinguish or understand as much) that allowed them to summon or manifest them as needed, as per their outfits, that could only mean one thing to him: someone was there already. The arousal of his suspicions stopped him just ahead of taking a seat in a shaded area of the central platform overlooking the pools, almost thinking to ask Joker how much of it was there when they arrived before thinking the better of it. He opted instead to let them relax while they were down instead of putting them on edge, while he took an independent shift on watch for them, keeping a calm lookout for anything on the off chance he happened to be correct in his assumption.

Level: 7 (1 -> 2/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Limsa Lominscuttle Town - The Bismarck
Word Count: 572 (+1 EXP)

Hat: Brewing -> Ice
Power (Hat): Ice Hat
Item: -1 Honeycomb

And now, there were four! That was fair, because it had just been the sorceress (and her dark Link clones) versus the same said amount of them up to that point, plus one out of nowhere… whoever he was. At least both sides (and that one guy) were (numerically) even now, discounting the fact that she could (and did) continue summoning shadows to assist her at will. By her power to boot, they were all now stuck in there with her, along with every bystanding patron and staff member within who failed to evacuate the scene in time. Not that the child figured otherwise at this point, but if it wasn’t certain already that one side or the other would have to go down hard for this conflict to end, it was now so.

Hat Kid hadn’t yet learned, from personal experience anyway, that there was no quit in a ‘red-eyed’ Spirit still beholden to Galeem’s terms. Once disturbed, they would not cease, for they could not. They would fight until dead, freed, or sated by killing their aggressor; in this case, Hat Kid herself. This might explain the Red and Blue duplicates targeting her, specifically, out of all of them. Her evasive saulting and sliding under, over and atop tables helped her to a point, even once yanking the cloth from one to throw out and conceal her movements momentarily, but she soon faltered as she was caught with successive impacts of dark, spherical blasts that juggled her with each hit, interrupted only by the interference of the newcomer.

Groaning, Hat Kid sat halfway up, more hurt than irritated, but more expressing the latter. On the floor with her was the Blue clone, having paid for her zeal by taking the brunt of an incineration spell, suffering inarguably worse injuries. Her already dark skin scorched black across half her body, with her mask gruesomely grafted to her on the same side, yet she weakly persisted still, clearly in what could only be agonizing pain. Hat Kid shrank back, wincing at the sight not meant for young eyes such as her’s, and looked beyond to the woman’s sister duplicates, who seemed to show no care or concern for her well-being whatsoever. The child found herself hoping, in any case, that this was just a transient copy of the Prime sorceress, and not an individual, conscious living being doomed to suffer through her wounds.

She popped one of her spare Honeycombs in her mouth, golden casing and all, to heal and re-energize herself before kipping up from the floor into an advancing suicide dive. While airborne, she hooked onto the awning/rafters and swung toward the center of the action, sailing over Blue and bypassing her altogether, preferring not to cause her any more pain than necessary dealing with her. She then released mid-swing, throwing herself into a still gainer overhead. By which point, she had switched from her vial-loaded witch’s hat to a cyan cub-eared toboggan. From there, she instantly froze herself, dropping forcefully to the floor as a posing statue of crystalline blue ice between (or on top of) the sorceresses, shadows, and whoever else, launching airborne any uninitiated with the resulting quake of impact. Failing that, she could still block a couple of hits before losing her cold shell and having to disengage. Either way, it should serve to momentarily disrupt the flow of battle, one way or the other.
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