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Level: 5 (38 -> 43 -> 45/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Al Mamoon
Word Count: 859/1198 (+2 EXP)

While the others caught Tora up on the overall scheme and talked around the Conductor who obstructed them, Fox used the distraction to step away from the group to find an isolated area between idle/unused train cars parked in the yard. He checked his surroundings for prying eyes and to make sure he wasn’t being followed before taking a knee and mocking radio contact to summon a messenger from home.

After a couple moments, a familiar puff of smoke heralded the arrival of one of Alcamoth's correspondent moogles. The little white creature appeared with its kind's iconic, whimsical whistling noise, the pom stopped her head a-bobbing, and waved to Fox with both hands. "Hiya! So excited to be here! What can I do ya for, mister?"

“Update: We’re held up in Al Mamoon. Volatile political tensions threaten to break out into civil war. We believe Robin may be involved, and possibly in immediate danger.” His emphasis on the individual would be readily apparent in its intent to his Smash cohorts back at Alcamoth, thus further justifying the delay in their progress. “We’re looking into it on our end, but we may not have much time.” His stolidly professional tone was marked with an undertone of malaise that creeped into his voice with the thought of worst cases and the request that followed. “Ready a diplomatic relief response for the aftermath, for whatever that may look like. The people here could use the outreach either way.”

“Um...okay!” the moogle responded after a moment, more than a little overwhelmed by both the content of Fox’s request and his tone. “I’ll just tell the boss everything you told me. But, um…” She looked a little hesitant, pawing at the side of her head. “I assume that’s on the map or something, but even if it is, I don’t think the boss likes sending people to unknown areas. He’d probably ask something like, is there a good way to get there? And even if we get a team ready, it might be a long time to get to Elm...or, wherever you are. If only we had a fast-travel system…” Even as she considered the ramifications of Fox’s request, she still stayed mostly upbeat, rattling off things to be aware of in a matter-of-fact manner. “Anything else?”

Fox had, of course, failed to consider the projected cost or potential risks of his request. The more sizable party he travelled in had something of a hard time getting there already, while incurring personnel losses along the way. A smaller party of four might fare worse still. For this reason he bit his tongue on how they might get there, and abstained from relaying further instruction--on travel or rescue. “We lost four on the train here,” he told her, shaking his head to confirm a negative. “We may have to figure out a better way. Just keep them on standby until then.” No more complicated than his order was, he realized he was already asking too much, motivated expressly by a recognized need for assistance and connection, and a desire to help in any way that mattered.

“Ah…” The little creature looked crestfallen. “Can do. Will do.”

He then recalled one out of the previous orders made, incidental to their current situation or how it may further aid any further efforts on either end. “What’s the status on Naboris?” he asked plainly.

Having not handled that mission’s correspondence herself, the moogle took a moment to identify what Fox meant. “If that’s the one for bringing in the giant stone camel, I don’t think it went that well. I mean, the mercenaries found it pretty easily. It picked up a few hitchhikers or something, but that wasn’t the main issue. I don’t think they ever figured out a way to control it. So it’s just sort of standing out in the desert near the path leading to the Eryth Sea.” She scratched her head. “Maybe that’s good enough? We don’t have a place to store it anyway.”

Right… there was still that issue. He didn’t understand to begin with how Midna was able to pilot it short of subsuming its old pilot’s Spirit. They did seem to have a world of origin in common, however. Considering this for a second, he suggested, “Consult any Hylians we have at home. See if they can get it running. We’ll keep you updated on our end where we can in the meantime.”

“Okay!” The Moogle said, blissfully unaware that Zelda had been on that mission (as Fox had also neglected to ascertain). “Good luck then, and see you later. You got this, guys!” With a final cheer she left.

Fox wordlessly thanked the creature with a parting, affirmative nod before it disappeared. He took one last look around him for good measure before standing back up and heading off to rejoin the others.

He walked in on the exchange of ideas between interested party members on how to possibly track down the local rebels. To Big Band’s address of “control” he simply shook his head in amicable dismissal of presumed protest on his part; as if to say “You’re good.” “I was just going to suggest we go look for trouble, but I’m open to ideas.” Bounties and commissions then came into the conversation, about which he had compromising thoughts on their relevance to the task. “There’s a chance they may be indirectly responsible for some of these problems people are having,” he said about the listed and referenced jobs for anyone who considered taking one. “Start with those, if anything.” To Panther, who expressed understandable interest in regrouping with her own team, he added, “Could you relay to them what we’ve learned when you find them?” His question was more rhetorical than anything, as he expected she would anyway. If he was later contacted by them afterwards, he would know why.

As he made ready to leave, Fox addressed the group one more time, following Midna’s declaration of intent. “Wherever we all go we should keep ourselves small; split up and cover as much ground as we can,” he advised in endorsement of Band’s recommendation. “I’ll be seeing what I can’t find on my own.” With that, he set off at a nonchalant pace out of the marketplace, specifying not where he was going, for he didn’t entirely know himself.

He thought he might start with the ‘Paranormal Thief’, if he had a starting location to go by. He guessed that such activity would make for just the kind of chaos that would attract or be perpetrated by the anarchally-prone. Perhaps coincidentally, and unbeknownst to him, the Phantom Thieves would be coming fresh off of their run in with the culprit. He thus stood to run into them (and/or possibly Big Band, depending), provided his blind path took him in the right direction, but that would depend also on whether or not he encountered anything of interest on his way. There was no telling what he might run into wandering the city looking for its darkest, quietest corners by his lonesome, but he would be carefully looking out for any and all of it.

Level: 5 (29 -> 36 -> 38/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Al Mamoon; Grimleal Headquarters
Word Count: 826 (+2 EXP)

Their various businesses concluded and ongoing, the divided Yellow Team soon reconvened in the marketplace where they left off, barring appearances from Sly (expectedly) and the rest of the Phantom Thieves, absent on some unspecified account vouched for by Panther. Those who had new information shared if and as they saw fit, which Fox did. That much would suffice for options/direction. Any who cared to could go take on any one of the publicly available jobs from the board. The rest, should they not have other ideas, would be following Fox back to the palace temple to meet with the Grimleal, to get a better read of them and the situation at large.

That marked the first oddity in their rendezvous for Fox; that the Grimleal were apparently attached to a religious order rather than serving strictly as a high guard or para/military contingent, perhaps acting as all three? Far be it for Fox to care who anyone prays to, but he couldn’t help getting the immediate impression that the Vizier’s ‘elite’ troop were more of a ‘personal’ one, which he didn’t mind, of course. He knew a little something about working with the people he best liked and most trusted. The question stood of whether or not they could trust these people, and what it would speak of Validar if he put his own faith in them. No points for shared tastes in dark, chthonic motifs.

On the subject of ‘faith’, it was hard not to notice the imposing visage of the violet-lit dragon, the presumed subject of their worship. If that was what they called their ‘god’, then they might find themselves disappointed to learn that it too is likely just another slave to the Light; that far greater powers reside over the World still. Even for the theologically uninclined or uninitiated, one could no longer claim to not be a believer after everything that had happened, upon learning of it all, or having experienced it for one’s self firsthand.

The Grimleal generals were… eager to say the least. They seemed to be under the impression that the Yellow Team participants would show up ready to go right away, no questions asked. As much as that fit Fox’s usual model, this wasn’t his usual case. He knew that same eagerness for action over planning, but would not readily act on it if it chanced meaning he would be fighting the wrong people, and potentially forthe wrong people. This once, at least, he would have to--and willingly--make an exception, and more carefully consider his approach.

“Then I hate to tell you this, but you may want to temper your enthusiasm for a bit longer,” he said to the bow-wielding hare woman as a start. “Because I would like to know more. I think I speak for all of us on that,” he iterated more broadly to all three generals, gesturing referentially to the rest of the team that accompanied him. “Call me old-fashioned, but I like to actually know who I’m being hired to fight.” Midna’s following citation of war philosophy corroborated as much.

Provided his definitive participation, this would hardly be the first war Fox threw himself in the middle of, and far from the biggest. That said, stakes and morality every time secretly factored into his decision on who was worth helping and why, and thus who to take a paycheck from. He nor any he represented were just some common mercenary ilk of lax standard to be exploited by the highest bidder. In as few words and as little mounted suspicion as possible, he thought he might impress that upon them--preferably from a purely pragmatic/strategic perspective. The last thing they needed was the zealous denunciation of moral propagation to be followed with a catered preaching of morals intended to coerce them into premature action. They were there to gather information, not debate ideology; a sentiment the generals might surely agree with.

Midna obligingly laid out a short list of starting inquiries for valuable information they would want regardless. To it, Fox added, “Let’s start with where we can find them.” This, first and foremost, would be best to know. That way whatever they couldn’t learn in their meeting they could go find out for themselves, but truth be told, Fox already had every intention of going to look when they left. On that note, he also bore in mind that they boasted the distinct advantage of political anonymity and, until such time as they acted, neutrality. That the Resistance were unaware of them or their affiliations made them prime candidates for an ‘infiltration’ pitch, with the rebels of their group being even more qualified, even in the unlikely event that they could actually be used for such a ploy. The generals didn’t need to know any of that just yet anyhow, so he kept it to himself for now to gauge them and their intentions by their responses.

Level: 7 (37 -> 38/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Bottomless Sea
Word Count: 485 (+1 EXP)

Hat: Default
Item: Necro Smasher (Loan)

Just before the prevailing sea demon’s fastball pitch impacted with the Atomos, smashing the windshield inward into deadly shards, Hat Kid felt herself get yanked off her feet into the protective of Bowser’s umbral likeness. The remaining crew were safe, but only for so long as their now worse-worn ship would stay aloft to allow for. She supposed this was the thanks they got (or perhaps what they had coming) for getting involved in a battle of two titanic monstrosities that might otherwise have been content to leave them alone, provided perhaps that they went unnoticed. What exactly was their plan anyway?

The ephemeral Koopa faded out, releasing her and Jr who promptly rushed the ship’s controls as the ship began to list lopsidedly. He seemed to immediately understand what was wrong (as did she), tossed her a wooden mallet, and ordered her to do something about it. She questioned not if she had the right tool for the job or how she was expected to make miracles happen with it. Her own ship was made of wood, so who could guess what similarly unorthodox processes went into its construction and maintenance. For all anyone else knew, mallet-smashing a faulty engine back into function was perfectly normal for her. Only she could speak to it, if she cared to at all.

“Aye, Aye!” she responded jovially to Jr, saluting with the hand that held the hammer, and readying her umbrella rearways with the other. Pointing her parasol outside, she opened it to catch a wind-ride out the door, carrying her to the back of the ship at speed, and just as quickly had to close it to ‘drop her sail’ so to speak. In a backward tumble she clamped a clawed handhold onto the lip of the still-functioning engine by the Hookshot tip of her umbrella, her save aided by the ship’s sudden, forced cessation with its encasing in anchoring golden light. This pause allowed her to drop down/swing over onto the damaged engine and begin going to work on it, which entailed simply wailing on the affected area haphazardly with the clumsy miracle bludgeoning tool she was lent.

The hastening glow holding the ship in place indicated to her that she didn’t have long to work, so she quickened her blows in kind to compensate and get as many hits in as she could before bailing from the engine with a dive onto/into the ship proper to brace for takeoff. It wouldn’t do for her to be thrown overboard with the airship’s resumed movement, even if it was still going down by then. Who would be on hand to fix it, then? With that said, she was perfectly fine hazarding a hotfix attempt while it was still moving before realizing she had some help stalling it out of nowhere, and would resign herself to another try, should her initial efforts prove insufficient.

Level: 7 (19 -> 34 -> 37/70)
Location: Edge of the Blue - Luma Pools -> Bottomless Sea
Word Count: 1264 (+3 EXP)

Hat: Default

In spite of the sounds of rescue, the following confrontation, and general chatter and activity, Hat Kid managed to peacefully nod off on the palm-shaded patch of sand she lazily occupied. Picking up zero hits on her Compass Badge told her there was nothing that currently demanded her immediate attention, and so decided she’d rather pay it to nothing other than her afforded relaxation time to rest her head. It wasn’t long until she was roused by food smells unfamiliar to her, but in their own way enticing nonetheless. She sat up and tilted her hat out of her eyes to observe the culinary activity that brought it about, then popped up onto her feet and made her way over to join the others around the fire. A feast was in order, it seemed, courtesy of Link, Cadet, the (rest of) the girls, and a new guy who happened to befriend a nearby chimp. Whatever they were serving, she wouldn’t be saying no to a free meal. (It IS free this time, right?) Shameless thoughts of repeat freeloading aside, with the contents prepared and set, she set in with the others to help herself at the proverbial ring of the dinner bell (one that Link could probably hear for some reason).

She liked the fish, but she wouldn’t say she loved it. Certainly, it was pleasant for what it was, as light a flavor as it had against a semi-crunchy, flakey, succulent texture, but something about it she hadn’t the palate to place gave off an underlying impression of “We worked with what we had.” Still, not bad overall… definitely better than what the Mafia ‘of Cooks’ could manage, which admittedly wasn’t saying much considering their food resided on an astonishingly low qualitative end of putting any partakers into an early grave. Strangely, nothing struck her as anatomically bizarre about the fish, being no more weird or alien to her than any other creature she had likely encountered (and/or tasted) in her unrecounted space travels.

This thing they called ’froot’ was another thing entirely. Her off-hand knowledge was of its exclusive use in decorative table arrangements in ornate bowls or horn-shaped baskets, the same way hamburgers were clearly furniture made by/for earthlings to sit on (a previously held myth dispelled for her back at the Hammerhead branch of Grillby’s). She was unaware until now that it also came in edible form, and was apparently enjoyable at that, going by the reactions of others. The only question that remained for her was which one to try first.

At any rate, she opted for cooked and raw bites of each for a proper sample size and reference. The hot pink one in the green-striped, less than edible shell proved better left raw, if good in its own right. Cooking it seemed to render out some of the juiciness and reduced the texture somewhat, even if it ended up enhancing the decadently sweet flavor overall. The uninitiated child’s second eager bite closer to the rind was met with a pause of displeasure at the unintended crunching sensation that hadn’t happened with the first. Put off by this, she reflexively spat out the black she had caught a mouthful of and reexamined the partially-eaten melon wedge in her hand to notice plenty more still within it. She wondered then if filtering them out as you went was part of the experience, for meticulously removing them seemed unduly laborious for the otherwise pleasurable act of consumption. She tried again, this time expecting it, sucking down each flavorful bite of watermelon and projectile spitting the seeds out in any direction--enough to quickly develop a feel for and start having fun with it. Like that, she went from working around her food to playing with it like the child she was, messy smile and all.

The golden one with the ‘prickly-but-not-really’ skin was great either way. A little less sweet, but just enough with a balanced tang--somehow moreso when grilled. To boot, when paired with a bite of fish, it made that better too! Preferable cooked, but excellent regardless. Definitely the highlight of the feast. The ‘creamy boomerangs’ were a toss-up as to whether they were better cooked or raw, but were hard not to love either way. If anything was for certain, especially after experimenting with it, they were certainly better by themselves than paired with anything else they were serving. Thankfully, they would have no shortage of them for the road.

Soon enough their recess came to an end. They re-split the party between both vessels--Hat Kid assuming a roaming post in the Atomos’ ballista bay once more--and set off downstream. The passing scenery of lush, red flora and glistening waters brought a peaceful smile to her face. Not that she didn’t normally smile by default already, but it made her feel slightly more at ease while it lasted. It didn’t take long for the colors to run with gloom and decay the closer they got to the Sea until there was naught else to behold, marking a complete turn in the child’s attitude and expression, changing at pace with the scenic transition.

For all the comfort it was worth, the abyssal black waters may as well have been a bottomless void of open air, no more welcoming than it was by feeling and appearances alone, coupled with an endlessly-spanning storm that could throw them into it with a wrong turn in any direction. Thalassophobia wasn’t quite the word. She had actually been in the Deep Sea once before--or a rift-borne imitation of it at least (which too was seemingly bottomless)--but at least it was stable, even when it was un-stable… and she couldn’t drown or anything else in it. What she found here was strikingly unnerving by comparison… to anything she had experienced up to this point. Only Vanessa had ever made her nervous like this once before.

Perhaps the most critical distinction between this and the dimensional dream reflection of the ocean and its depths as she had experienced it before was both the inherent and readily apparent realization that they weren’t alone, and they didn’t yet know what all awaited them. Sharks seemed an appropriate tone-setting opener, of which she could see more beneath the water’s practically opaque surface, and on which some seemed to place inordinate focus. What worried her more was the atmosphere itself and the foreboding promise of doubtlessly greater dangers that lie beyond; things that were bigger and much more threatening than a mere school or carnivorous fish.

Lo, she was shortly proven to be right, for they soon had back row seats to a duel of arguably mythological (or at least cinematic) caliber between two sea monsters. Bowser had the right idea… at first: Just leave them alone to fight each other and move on. Then, for no apparent reason--probably some arbitrary affront to his pride or whatever--he decided to ignore his own advisement and jumped into the water anyway, seemingly with every intention now of getting involved. Geralt, with his new upgrade, followed in after, followed by Sakura. She guessed they wouldn’t be leaving this one alone after all, but that still put her at a loss for what she, specifically, would do. "Hey!" she called tothe remaining Koopa family, joining them on the control deck and looked to them expectantly for some kind of action plan, hoping they might have a better idea, and waiting to hear it if so, before compulsively, recklessly devising and enacting one of her own on the spot.

Level: 5 (27 -> 29/50)
Location: Sandswept Sky - Hollow Heights -> Al Mamoon
Word Count: 1222 (+2 EXP)

As expected, enough of the group (all of them, fortunately) came to their senses to get going again in a timely fashion. Fox stayed off the tracks in wait for the passing train, catching the second cart by its support and swinging aboard. He spent the remainder of the trip to Al Mamoon with naught but the noise of locomotion, the passing scenic view, and his own thoughts to keep him company this time. With a single stop at a snow-water oasis to rehydrate (and thankfully no more storms to brave) on the way, that would be for the next couple of hours left of the morning. Eventually they came within view of their destination, visible out from the last few miles until reaching it, before passing around through its grand walls into the exotic, bustling, surprisingly industrious desert city. An apparent and most impressive takeaway, going by first impressions, was that an eclectic civilization such as it could thrive in a wasteland so far removed from everything (which the railroad infrastructure probably had a great deal to do with). Would that Fox’s own birthworld, Papetoon, had anything resembling...

“We’ve got it from here. Thanks!” Fox offered his parting, genuine word of gratitude to Gnorbu as he and the others began to disembark. Though he clearly didn’t speak for everyone, as far as he was interested, there wasn’t much he could do to help them reach the mountain any faster. (He wondered then, in light of that, what would have been had they followed that woman they met at the desert landing on the initial route up the mountain rather than taking an early detour.) Their mission hardly called for a tour guide, for he hadn’t planned on staying any longer than they had to. Besides, they already had someone on hand who he guessed might know the area.

“You said you were living here before...” he said to his raccoon acquaintance coming up next to him.

“I was,” he replied in short. “Can’t remember why, but… yeah.” Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember much of anything between the world lighting up in Egypt (which might explain him ending up in a desert) and the night before. Any recollection he had of the events leading up to the present were blurry for the most part. The question came to him of what he might have been doing here in the first place, or in Parnasse thereafter. Probably on the run from the law or some other self-appointed body of authority, knowing his luck and track record. He figured with enough time it would come back to him in short order.

“Anything you can tell us about this place? Anything we should know?”

With a shrug, Sly responded “You’re pretty much looking at it,” and gestured outwardly in presentory fashion to the exotic marketplace that lay just ahead. “Might take advantage of it while you’re here,” he suggested as if to politely nudging him into what the world around him had to offer while it lasted; to “live a little” as it were. Fox would politely, tacitly decline by way of silence. There was nothing he could think they might have that he wanted badly enough as to go out of his way for it, nor did he have available any personal funds to make the thought worth entertaining. That wasn’t to say, however, that there wasn’t anything of immediate interest and potential use that might ultimately be worth their time, happening upon said object of interest with their first steps off the train.

What they found within the station was, of course, another train, but heavily armored, outfitted with a number of artillery batteries, including one main cannon (with a cork in it for some reason), presumably faster, by the look of it, and… disappointingly, inoperable. That’s what the avian(?) Conductor had to tell Tora anyway; that it had somehow fallen neglectfully into disrepair. Like Tora, Fox’s attention fell on the train with interest, albeit more quietly, and minus the Nopon’s exuberance and open enthusiasm. A subtle, cocky smirk crossed his lips as he picked up on the gist of Tora’s exchange with the pseudo-bird, and dangerous thoughts began to fill his head. If the city wanted it gone as badly as Tora wanted to make it run, and could manage to make it before day’s end, Fox would more than gladly endorse such an investment. He would know exactly how to put it to good use… provided they could reach the summit with it. That much, they still needed to find out. Sly noticed this arrest of Fox’s attention and the clear expression of thoughts that went with it. He wondered if he should even ask…

Then Tora came running back to the group to issue his plan. Fox, of course, liked this plan! Still, someone had to play devil’s advocate, and this time, as with a few before, that was Poppi. She wasn’t wrong in that there were still other variables to consider, but he figured it would be worth taking care of as many ends of the issue as possible in tandem.

“We’ll take care of that!” By that, he meant he would accompany their resident royalty, their willingness permitting, to the Cowlipha’s Court to see what they could work out in regards to their mission. “Red,” as she heard her call herself, “already has business with her.” As a fellow mercenary himself, he knew she would see her hire and whoever she was with. “I’ll go with her, Midna and the Queen. See if she’ll help us.” He turned then to Tora. “Find one of us if you need anything,” he said simply, “and if we have anyone who can stand to, I think someone should stick with Tora. Help him with whatever he needs.” He looked about his group in the open call for potential volunteers. “The rest of you find what you can while you’re out, and meet back here around sundown.”

“I think I’ll leave the royalty business up to you guys,” Sly interjected. He wasn’t one keen to show his true face--the masked one--to anyone in the public eye who mattered, and would otherwise need a disguise and cover. Incidentally, he wasn’t much good at pulling that off either. “I’m… not too sure not on a ‘wanted’ list here,” he speculated, shifting his gaze around awkwardly. “I’ll see what else I can’t take care of on my end in the meantime. No promises on deadline though.” A thief, after all, did their best work at night. Shouldering his cane, he prepared to set off.

“Just be careful, then. Stay sharp, keep us posted, and try not to get yourself caught.” He ended with a lightly sardonic word of caution regarding whatever crime the thief suspected he may or may not have committed. Sly affirmed with a parting nod and casual cane salute before disappearing over the train carts with a single floating bound, and with that, the party broke off in their respective directions. For Fox, that meant finding Red and Midna, wherever they took off to. Short of finding them within the city, he would simply wait them out shortly outside of the palace proper to intercept them and accompany them in. She was bound to show up there eventually.

Level: 5 (24 -> 27/50)
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, happen to find 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 -> 24/50)
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.
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