The Progress of Things
1 Eta: The Jewel
Published: March 16, 2023
Warnings: Violence, Sexual themes/flirting, Tower's an asshole
Blurb: The times, they are a-changin'. Tower is here to usher the new age in - or something like that, he supposes.
The twisting cacophony of Eta’s largest city filled his lungs with a special sort of trepidation.
Not the kind that would make him anxious, no. Rather, a large smile had plastered itself over his features, broad and unnerving. It would take one of his peers to notice the way his eyes darted every which way - spying exit routes, catching the eyes of natives, admiring for a brief moment the spiraling nest of skyscrapers and sky-paths that made up this steel-lined trap of a so-called home.
Heheh. What a hellhole.
As if sensing his thoughts, the little servant-guard type mortal next to him gave him a wary, nervous glance out of the corners of their eyes.
He simply watched their reflection in the elevator’s shimmering-glass walls - the way their gaze slid up, trembling, to the exhilarating halo that hung over his head. It sparked in a bit of glee, and they both paled and averted their eyes.
“Intimidated?” he asked.
They half-turned to him, having swallowed some of the fear - but it was still evident in their eyes. Their mouth twitched, as if words wanted to worm out, but they said nothing.
“You’ve no need to fret,” he said, clasping his hands together. “Aryl will be beside himself with glee to see me.”
Their hand wavered over the cellie latched to their belt. Aw. They wanted to reread the instructions from high above again. Would that make them feel less scared?
He politely turned his head towards the steel-city again. They hurriedly ripped their cellie free, unlocking it with shaking hands, and poured over the texts. He didn’t know exactly what they said - but he had a good idea, of course.
Intruder, calling himself some inane insane title, demanding to see their local Fragment, god above all. The look of irritation on their face when he’d marched up to the glowing skyscraper, all lights and flash and low cuts of clothing and announced his identity - it’d been wiped so cleanly away to horror when their phone buzzed with the response.
This guy, this jackass, was legit - he knew it said. Send him up to the penthouse suite at once. The kind of VIP access that the mortals of Eta clambored for, all cutthroat and vulgar and scrambling until they were kneeling at Aryl’s divine grin and begging luxuries.
Hahaha. What a hellhole. And they called Psi a monster.
He smiled to himself, and busied himself with adjusting the hem of his robes. The click of the latch told him the cellie was returned to its rightful place, and he gave the mortal a wry smile.
“So do you live here?” he asked, voice light and airy.
Their shoulders scrunched together more. “What?”
He tapped the elevator, “In the capital!”
The look of confusion on their face was an excellent answer. Simply - he was stupid if he thought the answer were ‘no’. They fumbled for words, not wanting to be rude, and managed: “Um, yes.”
The unspoken ‘why?’ hung in the air. Hehe. They knew at least not to pry, not to ask too much, to avoid engaging him in more talk.
It was fine. They didn’t need to talk. His question had been one of idle curiosity, a distraction from the steel-city he was currently caged in. Conversation lost, however, he turned back to it - and let the casual smile slip from his features.
Ah, Eta. The reek of industry, the noise of population. And yet, as they climbed higher and higher, he could spy things of constructed beauty - a waterfall here, pouring into an artificial river; a luxury resort, boasting beds of pure cloud weaved from silky magic; a flashing-lights building with a dozen advertisements of fun and pleasure and drugs.
Hahahah. Best vacation spot in the Originals. He shook his head idly as the elevator dinged, and the doors slipped open.
On their other side was a sharply-dressed mortal, lapel decorated in a dozen little insignias. They barked something to the mortal at his side - probably their name, though he didn’t catch it - before balking wide-eyed at his halo.
“You must be the head of security or somesuch,” he offered, smiling.
They took only a second to compose themselves, but turned to the other mortal instead of him, “Does Mr. Aryl-”
“-Oh he’s aware I’m here, yes,” he said, still smiling. “Waiting for me, in fact.”
“You don’t have an appointment,” they barked at him, likely in an attempt to get him to shut up. His smile remained as they hissed to the other mortal, “Does he know who this is?”
He hummed, busied himself with glancing at the lobby’s spectacular paintings, chin in a hand.
“He was the one to send for us to come up right away,” came the weak reply.
They were all masterpieces in their own rights, of course, painted in beautiful handmade strokes, most nude, most of Aryl. Hehe. How the other Frag shrugged off narcissism accusations was beyond him, really.
“Are you daft? Have you seen their halo? You’ve invited a legion’s worth of a mage right to Mr. Aryl’s doorstep and you-”
He paused to admire a few of Phenyl and Xylyl. Idly, he wondered when they had posed for such things. Not that he’d call himself all-knowing, but he’d figured he’d gotten a decent impression of them the last few times he’d been in Eta, and well-
“Reign yourself in, Concerta,” came a third voice. All turned to the newcomer, dressed in a crisp pencil skirt with several holo-screens buzzing around them. The look on their face was, clearly, that of an overworked assistant - a very familiar one. “I can verify his identity.”
“Toliil!” he chirped, clasping his hands together, “and here I thought Aryl would’ve fired you by now! Or you’d die.”
The two security’s faces paled something fierce, but Toliil only sighed. “Hello, Tower. I’m a Gladar, need I remind you.”
“Oh, but that doesn’t stop death, that old thing, does it?” Milk and Stone, the Tower, smiled.
They stepped back to gesture him towards the fine dark-oak doors. “Why don’t you just come this way.”
The corridors were as grand as the lobby, the carpets plush under his feet, the smell of magic-tinged incense blanketing the ceiling. Tower licked his lips, but the nuances of the spell were hard to discern.
If he had to wager a guess, though, he’d say somewhere between calming and pleasure-inducing, with maybe a hint of suggestive mind-control to make visitors a tad more agreeable.
His eyes flicked to Toliil. They didn’t wear anything that screamed of being an anti-mind-altering enchantment. Maybe they were just used to the incense, then, or were more careful about showing such an artifact off.
“Have I come at a bad time?” he asked, tone light.
Toliil heaved another sigh. “Yes. No. Does it matter? Aryl’s been restless since he got your message.”
“A visit from a fellow Original is always a delight.” except to Psi, of course. Nobody visited Psi. “What am I interrupting?”
“I’ll handle it,” was all Toliil said, their signifier that they were done talking.
A shame. He would’ve liked to pry a bit more out of them. But he simply hummed a pleasant affirmative, and gave friendly nods to the bunches of underdressed mortals draped over lounges they passed.
Toliil pulled open the great doors at the end of the hall. The smell of the incense reached a crescendo, and even Tower had to shake his head briefly to dispel the fingers of its effects.
Hah. Aryl’s office was as decadent as ever, more of a cozy little den than anything else. Curtains strung across glass walls blocked much of the steel-city’s polluting light, leaving carefully-dimmed bulbs and occasional candles instead. Comfortable pillows were strewn about, some covered in a pinkish dust. It was impressive that the bookshelves in the back hadn’t gotten covered in their own thick layer - though the maid did squeak and drop their duster upon seeing his halo.
There were assorted mortals and whatnot on several types of couch, who blearily glanced up at his arrival, but Aryl himself was sat behind an impressive desk and was bent over a few holo-screens projected by a secretary, brow furrowed.
His head tilted up, and their eyes met - and Aryl positively beamed, a wide thing of a grin.
Tower’s chest twitched, just slightly, at the sheer enthusiasm Aryl poured into the air as he bolted up, chair rolling back slightly.
“Tower!” he threw his arms open, as if asking for a hug. The secretary balked slightly as the motion swiped away the holograms. “So it is you!”
“In the flesh and magic,” he responded, a smirk over his face. He crossed the distance to Aryl’s desk in a few steps and offered out his hand.
It took a moment for Aryl to shake it, swift little look of rejection replaced with almost-too-friendly instead. “If you’d called ahead - what teleport pad did you come in through? - I’d have had something better prepared! I mean - I didn’t believe the messages security was sending me!”
“Who across voidspace could mimic this?” Tower twinged his smile amused, and pointed at his voracious halo.
“Well, mortals, you know - their memories are so, and it’s been - well-” Aryl cocked his head, though his smile remained, “Well I suppose I should get out the nice wine! Do you still prefer strawberry?”
Funny he remembered that. A sign of desperation, maybe?
“Kind of you!” Tower exclaimed right back, clapping his hands together, “I’m afraid this isn’t quite a vacation, however - spare your best, I’m here for a mere chat.”
“A mere chat?” almost as if uncomprehending, Aryl’s smile lowered at the corners. “From Psi?”
Ah, there it was - the well-hidden, tiniest little mote of disgust and fear. Like a little poison, it swept across the room, filled it with a brief sort of chill. The mortals coiled back just slightly into their comfortable beds and chairs. After all, whatever could accursed Psi want, knocking on beautiful Eta’s door?
Idiots and sluts they were, happy to wrap themselves up in absurd opulence and drink of their Fragments’ work. How many of them even knew Psi, knew it truly - or were they simply reacting to the revulsion in Aryl’s tone? Sheep and butchers.
But Tower, too, was good at keeping irritation off his face. He lifted a hand, instead, to cover his mouth and give a cheerful laugh. “Nothing that would damper your spirits, I’m sure!”
“That’s a relief,” Aryl said, for a brief second, before his voice returned to overly-friendly: “It’ll have to wait a bit regardless! Darling, fetch the good wine, would you?”
What. Tower barely registered one of the mortals peeling themselves up to stagger towards the door. “Oh?”
“You’ve caught me at quite the time, Tower,” he responded with a sheepish grin, dusting off the front of his obnoxiously-colored suit, “it’s the Sinmerivida tonight - starts at midnight sharp, goes on for a whole week!”
He knew his face flashed in anger and frustration - he couldn’t help it. As if Aryl was ever busy. What the fuck could he be busy with, hm? Finding another mortal toy to drug and lose himself with?
Tower’s lip curled, but he willed it away as soon as it came. “Do pardon my ignorance, but I’m not familiar with Eta’s holidays.”
“More reason to visit more often!” Aryl said, coming around the desk to sling an arm around Tower’s shoulders. “I’m sure you’ll be impressed, though - it’s a fabulous thing, a celebration of harvest and fertility!”
“Fertility,” Tower echoed, smile twitching.
He admitted it was a nice festival.
The drink was nice, rich, probably Aryl’s best. Whether that was from the festival or from his presence, Tower figured it was the latter. But the drink flowed for the mortals, too - good fruits and strong liquors, revealing outfits and the shaking of leaf-laden branches and the dancing of many people in one of the steel-city’s highest sky-roads.
He kept the simple contempt and jealousy from his expression, nursing a single glass of the wine and instead staring in something of curiosity.
The signs on the skyscrapers had lit up all reds and pinks and soft greens, displaying phrases of gratitude and joy for another good and prosperous year, splaying thanks to Aryl and his magicks and to Xylyl’s magic circle that kept them all stable and in one piece.
Even as he thought of it, the entire city glowed a faint violet for a half-second as the great circle, somewhere on the horizon, pulsed, sending a wave of warm magic through the air and across the festival.
The mortals screeched in glee, throwing petals and flowers upwards, and Tower licked at the acrid taste on his lips.
He sipped at the wine, idly, watching the parade-procession down the main street. The alcohol was sharp, almost carbonated. He frowned at the glass.
“Craving a different flavor?” came Aryl’s voice, from behind. Tower turned to spy him clutching two bottles per hand, which he shook invitingly.
“I’m not much of a drinker,” he said, with a hint of amusement.
Aryl’s face flickered. It was sort of cute how much he tried to memorize about other people. He must’ve felt so embarrassed, but he forced his expression relaxed. “No worries,” and the bottles were magicked away.
“You finally managed to pry yourself from the festivities,” Tower said, swirling his drink around, “it’s a wonder those mortals ever let you out of their claws!”
Aryl gave a light laugh, coming up beside Tower to lean on the balcony’s railing, too. “Well, they’re not all mortals, you know. Some are Gladar, some are lesser gods.”
“There’s not much difference compared to us, though.”
“True.” Aryl seemed somber, pausing to glance down at the street, almost forlorn.
Tower hummed. Did he want to press those buttons? Haha. Of course he did. He shot the other a smile as he sipped again, “Where’s Xylyl? I figured he at least would’ve been up here with you.”
Aryl gave a tiny chuckle, more awkward than not, “Well, he’s - off in his magic circles and studies, you know - whittling away at his replicas. I invited him but he declined, as he does.”
“Ah, if he declined, then Phenyl....”
Silence hung in the air, perfect and primed. Aryl’s private, contained grimace spoke volumes: he didn’t even know where Phenyl was. Not a particularly rare occurrence, sure, but it must’ve hurt during a festival like this.
Aryl would’ve gone mad to see Eta’s other two Fragments dressed up all pretty as peacocks and dancing gaily for him. Hehe, he probably would’ve liked Phenyl’s look of discomfort, too.
Was that a nasty thought to think about Aryl? Absolutely. Tower smiled around his glass. “Sorry to hear.”
“It’s alright - just - just normal Frag politics, I suppose. You sure you don’t want to stay for the whole week, see the entire festival?” Aryl’s hand glided, wordless, to rest on one of Tower’s.
Brittle disgust shot through his body, wings tensing and tail stiffening. It took every drop of self-control not to wrench his hand away and swing it in a backhand across Aryl’s face.
Tower swallowed the tiniest tremble in his throat, and kept his stare on the road below - hiding his face well from the other while he stilled it. “My schedule’s packed to the brim, I’m afraid.”
“Is Psi alright?” wow. It almost sounded like genuine concern in Aryl’s voice.
“Psi is as it ever is,” he replied, waving his free hand fancifully, “I’m not here to beg for magic or anything of the sort, if that’s what you’ve concerned yourself with.”
Aryl snorted. “The offer’s always there. I’m sure Xylyl would love to try some of his replicas on Psi.”
Yeah, like he’d let any fucking cum-drunk Eta magic touch Psi’s fragile stability. Yeah, like he’d let mindfucked self-centered Xylyl wander around Psi’s oceans and scribble horrid little magic circles everywhere.
“I’m sure he would!” Tower chirped, and managed to slide his captured hand away neatly, “I wouldn’t want to encroach on your hospitality, though. Especially since he’s - well, he’s not here himself to offer.”
Aryl deflated again. Thank the stars.
“I really appreciate you letting me come here on such short notice, though,” Tower continued, eying Aryl from the corners of his eyes, waving another hand, “It speaks volumes of Eta’s kindness, really. And stability.”
“Oh, Tower, you and the rest of Psi are welcome anytime - really - I promise. I’d love for you - you all to visit more often.” Aryl managed a weak smile.
“I’ll keep that in mind. But - like I said, this isn’t for pleasure. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
Aryl looked down to the street again, past all the sweeping glass and metal, down to the violet torchfire and heaping baskets of fruit. A profound sort of sadness marked itself on his face, contorting his prettyboy billionaire features into something more befitting of a Fragment.
“My office will suffice,” he said, and peeled away from the railings.
They entered, together, to an empty office. The sofas that once held Aryl’s pets were long empty, the incense long burned out. Aryl fiddled with the lights to bring the atmosphere to a more professional tone before slumping into the chair.
Tower slipped into a broader seat across from him, wide enough to accommodate his wings, and beamed. In a mixture of relief and eagerness, Aryl smiled back.
“You seem stressed,” Tower said, with a tilt of his head, “I hope my presence isn’t worsening it.”
“Oh, it’s not you - not at all. Just -”
“Phenyl and Xylyl?”
Aryl heaved a sigh that filled the room. “Partly. Is it bad to want to talk about them to you? It feels - like it’s breaking some sort of - code. Confidentiality. Like I owe it to them not to - gossip, I suppose, to the other Originals.”
“Really, thinking on it, it’s a shame we’re as separated as we are, isn’t it? Us Originals.”
“It’s the way it is.” Aryl had picked up a pen to idly play with, twisting it between his fingers. Good. He was thoughtful right now. “With the instability, it’s not that strange the COR wants to put up walls.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a few others around, though?” Tower opened his arms. “Is it really fair for us to be stuck with the lot we drew, worst of any Fragments? I’m sure some of Gamma’s would love to find their way into your bed.”
Aryl paused. He hummed, then let his eyes flick up to hold Tower’s stare over the tops of his glasses. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounded like - an offer. Is the tension in Psi that bad?”
“You misread me, I promise.” Tower gave a light laugh. “I’m not here to flee Psi’s ever-loving embrace, but merely to vent a sort of idea that must be vented occasionally. Right?”
“Beta barely got away with what it did to Gamma, and that was before the laws regarding - I mean, I’m happy for people to visit, but everyone knows that’s - that’s under the table sort of thing.”
“But it doesn’t have to be.”
Aryl frowned. “Under what authority?”
Tower sighed, then tapped once-twice on Aryl’s desk with his palm. A certificate magicked its way on top of Aryl’s useless stacks of photographs and frames. “I suppose I should stop dancing around the subject, hm? It’s not so bad to say aloud, is it?”
“I don’t want to presume about you, Xylyl, Phenyl, the lot, or your relationship. Frankly, it’s simply not my business to pry into it. But anyone with a heart can tell you’re craving the touch of someone who understands you. Another Frag.”
“Eta is the most stable of the Originals, though many of the others are varying degrees of such. Even Psi holds itself together fairly well, all things considered. All of that, without the COR’s help. Right? Xylyl was the one who crafted the magic circle that holds Eta together. The COR was useless in that regard. Eta was built by you three and they simply bickered on the sidelines. No?”
As if on perfect cue, a faint violet light spilled across the city, into the room, as the circle pulsed.
Aryl had picked up the certificate, and opened his mouth, but Tower was faster: “Psi has officially broken its ties with the Coalition. What can they say? They’ll stomp their feet and throw a tantrum and remain as ineffectual as ever.”
“What threatens us? Genuinely. If some Fragment appeared claiming they’re to attack Psi - well they’re nothing but a gnat, really, compared to us Originals. Have we not clawed through hell and sludged through high water? Are we not some of the most powerful Fragments? Have we not been privy to suffering and struggle the others could barely fathom? Are we not strong of mind and magic both?”
Aryl stared, almost helplessly.
Tower’s smile grew teeth. “And without the Coalition’s laws - which, mind, have never done any of us Originals much good, have they? - you’d have all the Fragments flocking to Eta, publicly, doing as they please. No more scampering about in the dark like rats. You can forge Eta into what you’ve truly wanted it to be: a beacon of what the Originals are. Not just trash to be protected from a meek idea of archival, but glorious worlds pushing through the grime of rejected reality to find identities and purpose.”
“What exactly are you asking of me?” his voice was hoarse.
“Rescind your ties to the Coalition. Sign your names and Eta to the Foundational Alliance - of the Original Frags, working for the interest of the Originals. Join Psi in this.”
There was a long silence, but that was fine. Tower watched, hawkish, as Aryl slumped back into his chair, letting the words fill his brain and mind, dropping the certificate on his desk.
From the angle, Tower could spy Cradle’s neat little handwriting, the official seal they’d designed, the beautiful twirls and shapes, the blank three signature lines and the huge scrawl of “ETA” across the top. Even from here, it brimmed with magic - a binding contract.
A tall order, sure. But even the strongest enchantments couldn’t hold against his infuriated, frenzied paper-tearing with magic and hand both, the flinging of the old contract’s scraps at the bewildered COR receptionist. No need to be scared of this one.
“Quit the COR,” Aryl echoed.
“Yes,” was all Tower said.
Aryl breathed in, deep. The noise filled the room. His exhale was more of a trembling sigh.
“I thought you... for a good, nice time....” his voice petered out.
Tower nodded sagely. “I did warn you this was business, not pleasure. But I’m sorry, Aryl.”
“Does the... COR know about this Alliance already?”
“They’ve been made aware of Psi’s secession.”
“But not that you’re... this,” he waved the certificate.
“We were hoping to have a few more Timelines behind us before making it public, yes.”
Aryl let out another long exhale, setting the certificate down gingerly.
“Eta was the first Cradle and I agreed to approach.”
“Why us?” he sounded so strangled.
Tower smiled. “Because Eta is strong. Eta is the jewel of the Originals. No one can look at Eta and claim it can’t stand on its own.”
“And because you think I’m easily manipulated,” Aryl said, weakly.
He leaned forwards, elbows on desk, head in hands. His shoulders didn’t shake - no crying, then - but he trembled, just slightly, with the shock of the situation.
Tower stood, quietly, and rounded the desk to stand at Aryl’s side. He gave the back of the other’s head a pitying glance, stilled his own breathing enough to swallow the disgust, and placed a hand on Aryl’s shoulderblades.
“You’re trying to manipulate me right now,” his voice was tiny, thin, worn.
“Am I?” he rubbed comforting, soothing circles into Aryl’s back, leaning down.
“Cradle sends you to talk to me - for something or another - and you - you do this every time.”
Tower’s teeth pressed against Aryl’s ear. “So? Does it feel bad? Does it make you uncomfortable? Would you rather not have Psi magic pressed up against yours?”
“That’s not-” Aryl was cut off by a sharp gasp as Tower’s other hand planted against his front, sliding down, pushing him back into his chair.
“Manipulative is one word,” Tower offered, with a grin of teeth, “persuasive is another, isn’t it? And when was the last time you had Xylyl here? Or, really, Phenyl.”
“Ah, damn you,” Aryl hissed, pressing a palm into his face hard - then waving at Tower to shoo. “Enough.”
But Tower pressed forwards, mouth to neck, a sort-of kiss. Not that he thought he was a fantastic kisser, really, but Aryl’s quiet moan was judgment enough.
“You’re asking a lot,” Aryl said, still strangled, eyes squeezed shut.
His grin widened an inch, breath hot against Aryl’s neck. “I know.”
“You won’t be able to convince - convince all of them. Phi, for one. What are you going to - how will you - Beta?”
“It doesn’t need to be all of us,” he said, with a tilt of the head akin to a raptor, “simply enough of us. Enough that it becomes defacto for the rest.”
“And what’s stopping you all from - how will this Alliance function? Where’s the - proof it won’t be - a second COR?”
“It has to exist first,” Tower said, pressing another kiss up to Aryl’s collarbone.
The other shuddered. “That’s - that’s not-”
“Not what? Is it so bad to let yourself indulge a little, breathe it all in? I know this is what you crave in your little chest, Aryl. I know you need this.” his hand slid lower.
Aryl let out a whimper. One hand clutched the back of Tower’s head - he had to keep himself from snarling - but the other groped the desk blindly.
It only took a nudge of a wing to knock the pen into his hands. Aryl gasped, just slight, and struggled to scribble his name across the first of the lines.
“I can’t convince the others,” he said, pathetically, almost broken, “you know I can’t.”
Tower offered him a broad, sharp grin. “No worries. I’m persuasive.”
And he slipped down to his knees, and Aryl let out a stifled cry.
The shuddering of the magic circle rippled through the ground, almost an earthquake, almost knocking Tower off his feet.
But, of course, he righted himself - jabbing wings out to counterbalance, arms flailing for a second - then stood straight once more.
He glanced to his left, to the edge of the mighty construct, and gave it a cheeky grin. Huge grooves in the dirt, many times larger than he, were the chalk-filled conduits for the circle, pulsing bright violet, brighter than Eta’s several moons far above.
And it almost got him that time!
But, of course, it didn’t reply.
He set off again, down the winding path, faint against the dirt, the smell of the steel-city far behind. Of course, the circle’s presence was no real comfort - the raw magic brimming in the air, the taste of acid - it’d make anyone’s tail stand on end.
But, he admitted, it was nice to be away from civilization again. Psi’s was small, tiny, sagging, rotting, but it was comfortable and familiar. Eta....
Well, he was glad for the distance from the steel-city. Here, there were no buildings for miles and miles - an endless unused waste of a land to give the circle breathing room, away from the marrow of the criss-crossing city streets.
After all, who would want to live in a hellhole like this, drenched in raw magic powerful enough to wipe mortals off the face of the dirt? How could anyone build cities next to the sloshing sea of poison?
Hehe. He could remember those questions, so clearly, nearly hissed in his face by an Overseer upon seeing one of Psi’s settlements near its putrid ocean.
Still. It was no wonder Aryl didn’t come to these stretches. He’d probably faint from the exertion. Tower gave one last look towards the steel-city, massive and overgrown, pressed up against the limits of the wasteland and curling around it like the uneven edges of a scab.
He gave a light shrug, tucked his hands in the upper parts of his robe.
It was what it was.
Step, step, step.
The light of his halo gently lit the figure at his feet, crouched over papers and charcoal strewn about. They didn’t react - merely continued transcribing something onto a spare sheet.
Tower found a sizeable rock off to their right. He perched on it, wings tucked against his body, and watched.
Xylyl did not notice his captive audience. His gaze flicked from the circle to his dozens of papers, back and forth, like an artist and a muse.
The recreations were intricate, detailed. They were not perfect, being made of ugly charcoal and sketches on mere paper, but they were a close shadow. Of course they were, made by the crafter’s own hand. Of course they were close enough.
His cellie buzzed. He cursed softly under his breath and pried it free, pressing it to his ear. Right. He always forgot Eta used strange models. “What?”
Funny he still didn’t notice Tower. If he were malicious, it’d be simple to have Xylyl tied up and ransomed, or stabbed through with gold and consumed by now.
Was that why Aryl was so protective of him and Phenyl?
“Huh, of course I’m fine. I’m just working.”
Tower tilted his ears, but he could only catch indiscernible buzz from the cellie. A shame, really.
“Is this actually important? ...No, I don’t need - I’m not at the university. Psi?”
Oh, then it WAS Aryl on the phone. Or one of Aryl’s pets, doing his dirty work for him. Toliil?
“Can’t we talk about this some other time? You’re really messing with my concentration.”
Probably Aryl. If it was a lesser, Xylyl would’ve hung up right away once he hit ‘annoyance’. He was polite, but not that polite.
“Yes, I know. I know. Okay. Thanks. I’ll try tomorrow, but you know I can’t make promises like that.”
The cellie beeped, and Xylyl sighed, almost dejected, slipping it back into his bag. Tower caught sight of Aryl’s face and ‘CALL ENDED’. Yup, he was right.
His eyes flicked back to the other Frag, who stared, empty-expressioned, at the papers strewn across the ground. The energy wasn’t quite right anymore to keep working, then, was it?
Ah, the specifics of magery. Vibrations and resonations and feelings, a wishy-washy sort of science.
He was, of course, familiar.
Still, timing. Tower leaned back on his rock and let out a light yawn, stretching his wings.
The other Frag startled hard, dropping his charcoal and yelping. Tower offered a smirk.
Xylyl’s voice was initially unsteady. “You’re - Tower, right? From Psi?”
“In the flesh and magic,” he said, smiling.
Xylyl stood, magicking his papers away with a flick of the wrist. “Okay, good, good, I was pretty sure I recognized your face, I think. It is Tower, right?”
“Yes, it is. Does Aryl know you’re out here?”
Xylyl’s muzzle scrunched, “I - why? Is he looking?”
Haha, like he hadn’t heard their cellie conversation. “Something like that. You seem busy, though.”
“Oh! Yes, I am - was,” Xylyl glanced over his shoulder, almost sheepishly, before offering Tower a little shrug. “It’s - don’t worry about it, haha. It’s eternal work.”
Eternal work. An excuse that well-off Frags gave themselves so they had something to do. The ultimate marker of luxury and pride. Did Psi’s Fragments get to decide it was “eternal work”, or did they just get to suffer from short straws and its curse?
Not that it mattered here, now. He let his voice be light. “The kind you don’t expect to accomplish?”
“Er - no, I - I’ll get it eventually. I mean, got nothing but time to throw at it. Actually.” Xylyl stood up straighter, now frowning, “Actually, why are you here? Not uh, in Eta, but here.”
“Visiting for a few particular conversations with some particular peoples,” Tower said, brightly, “though I didn’t mean to interrupt your studies. Working on your replicas, yes?”
Xylyl blinked once-twice, then glanced back at the soft pulsing violet magic - then blushed slightly, “Oh, it’s fine. Aryl finds ways to drag me away from my work all the time regardless. It’s almost like he doesn’t want me to crack this thing. Uh - I mean to say, don’t worry about it.”
“A shame. It’d be a beauty to place in other Timelines.”
“Sure,” Xylyl said, distantly.
Tower’s eyes flicked over his face, the almost-vacant look in his eyes, the faint purple tinging of his fur from the light, the way his glasses slipped down his muzzle.
After a half second, Xylyl stirred back to near reality, and offered an awkward smile up at Tower.
“It’ll be worth it just to understand it too, though, really. It’s quite an impressive little feat.” Tower prompted, correctly.
Now Xylyl’s face lit up in the first genuine emotion he’d seen - excitement, pure and unbridled. “Yes! Exactly! I don’t know how anyone can cope with it just SITTING here! It’s so hard to convince the other researchers to - er, sorry, I-”
“If I were better at magic circles, I’d offer you my help, honest!”
“Ah, you don’t need to worry about that - I mean, it’s my circle, I’ll - I’ll figure it out eventually.” but Xylyl was still smiling.
“Best of luck with it,” Tower said, “tell me about it when you’ve got it hacked?”
“Haha, if I could, maybe. Who knows what the COR’ll want to do with the information first.” Xylyl coughed into a hand. “A-Anyways, conversations, you said? Aryl’s much easier to get ahold of. And he, uh, does most of the administration. I’m just the mage.”
“Just the mage, he says!” Tower gave a bit of a laugh. “Haha, I’ll start introducing myself that way, too. Good salutations, I’m Milk and Stone, just-the-mage of Psi.”
“Well I didn’t-” Xylyl put his hands on his hips, but the smile on his face was secure, “-that’s beside the point. Usually I only get contacted for magic-related whatnots. So, what, you need a circler? Runeist? Enchanter?”
“Something like that, but on a bigger scale than you’re picturing. A grander scale. One with a title, perhaps.”
“I imagine we’ll be needing plenty of mages, especially ones of your talent,” Tower said, lifting both hands.
Xylyl looked as if he wanted to laugh, but didn’t. “I’ve never really done work for hire before. I’m not sure if I can even, er, deal with a workplace.”
“It’s not much of a workplace, don’t worry. Not really a job, in the traditional sense? You won’t have to disrupt your research. I suppose I’m just beating around the bush, though, aren’t-”
Tower’s ears swiveled, his head turned. The newcomer trudged up to the duo, hands shoved deep in jacket pockets, glare all but obscured under the rim of a casual-looking hat, unlit cigarette clenched in mouth.
Ah, motherfucker. Was he tailing him the entire time? Tower’s tail froze. How hadn’t he noticed? How long had he been lurking in the shadows, listening to their conversation?
Tower smiled brightly regardless. “Oh, Phenyl. I was expecting to have to find you later.”
“Phenyl!” Xylyl scrambled over to him, reaching to adjust the other’s tilted hat - Phenyl batted him away from it. He almost threw his arms open to hug the Phenyl, but stopped himself short. “Why’s everyone coming out to the circle today?”
“I was looking for you,” Phenyl responded, voice low, and then jabbed a thumb at Tower, “him too. Did you sign anything?”
Slippery bastard. Had Aryl called and spilled the information, or had Phenyl been stalking him all night? That’d be an unusual modicum of effort from him, but-
“Sign anything? No, what does that have to do with-”
“-He’s got Aryl’s signature on some absurd contract,” came the hiss.
-Haha, listen to them.
“Oh, you were watching us?” Tower tilted his head. “Aryl said he couldn’t find you. Or implied as much, really. Said I’d have to trawl a triple-dozen slum bars to even catch a hint of your trail. But you were right under his nose the entire time?”
“Well, that’s,” Phenyl’s scowl deepened, and then he huffed, and then he turned his head away. “It’s whatever. Xylyl, let’s just go back to your place.”
Xylyl frowned. “I’m not a dog. What contract did Aryl sign?”
“Psi’s come up with this - fucking, cockshit idea about an Alliance,” Phenyl nearly spat. Tower hummed. That wasn’t exactly an inaccurate assessment. “Fucked Aryl into signing it.”
“An Alliance? Can you please just get to the point-”
“-He wants Eta to leave the COR. Form some fucking group of the Originals. No plan, no government, no ideas in place except some pissant rebellion.” Phenyl’s good eye narrowed. “Needs all our signatures, though. Don’t sign any jack that he gives you.”
Xylyl frowned, then reached to rub his forehead slightly. “A contract? To leave the COR?”
“Why wouldn’t I sign that?”
Phenyl balked - only a little. Xylyl had crossed his arms, regarding the other with an expectant sort of look - a ‘you know me better than that’ sort of look, the kind Clarity loved to shoot at Horizons all the time. Hehe.
“You trust Psi to set something like this up?” Phenyl cursed under his breath and grabbed his hat by the brim. “No, that’s not - ugh, you and your fucking research, isn’t it. You’re mad the COR wants copies. It’s just fucking copies!”
“It’s not ‘just’ copies,” Xylyl hissed back. “It’s interruptions and demands and operatives getting their, er, hands all over the thing. Messing with the magic. You know how much I’ve been trying to keep them away from disturbing it!”
Haha, if only Psi’s problem had been too many operatives trying to help. Funny. Did anyone in Eta have any semblance of empathy, of sympathy? Could they give a shit about anyone outside of their own stupid fucking obsessions?
Ah, he couldn’t be too mad. Anyone would be defensive and protective of their Timeline and its intricacies. And, soon enough, they’d be his proper allies - not just Originals peers. Best to start thinking of the best of them.
“Well that’s why we shouldn’t have put all our fucking eggs in that basket!” Phenyl gestured at the circle with both arms, “how much damage have we fucking accumulated while the damn thing’s covering it up? Gauze over a festering infection!”
Nice imagery, Tower thought to himself.
“Just gauze!” Xylyl barked, so deeply offended that his face flushed slightly. “Spitting on my life’s work. Spitting on everything that makes Eta itself!”
“Oh, here we go again, this fucking narcissistic little Eta’s-only-Eta-cause-of-me shit. Glad to know that we were just a bunch of fucking nothing Bereave washoff before your holy ass descended in a drug-high and carved some bullshit into the ground.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Tower’s smile finally slipped. Not that he didn’t like gleaning information from others’ arguments, but there wasn’t an angle for him to get a phrase in and bring the conversation back to its original point.
That was starting to itch under his skin. This was taking too long.
“It’s damn close enough. It’s what you’re fucking thinking.”
Xylyl reached to pluck the cigarette out of Phenyl’s mouth, snuffing it out with a tiny blast of magic. “You run around stalking me and talking like this and then you wonder why Aryl wants to keep you in a crate all the time.”
“Just me? I’m sure he’d be just as happy to have you under lock and key, too. I mean, just between you and fucking me, you’re the one he jerks it to when he’s bored in his office - not me.”
“Because I’m not the one getting sloppy drunk all the time! I have goals, aspirations, accomplishments!”
“Yeah, like dragging some random university kids out to inhale enough magical radiation to set their lungs on fire out here,” Phenyl snarled, reaching for the cigarette - but Xylyl flicked it away from the circle, to the dirt.
“Honestly, why aren’t you off in your favorite slums? Doing whatever it is you do?”
Phenyl scoffed. “Yeah, rub in how little you give a shit about anything but your stupid fucking circle.”
“The circle that is keeping Eta completely stable, need I remind you.”
“For now - UGH,” Xylyl swung around to face Tower, expression scrunched in an irritated grimace, “give me the contract.”
“Don’t you fucking dare sign that!” Phenyl shouted, reaching to pull at Xylyl’s shoulder, “we’re not fucking leaving the COR!”
Tower obliged, magicking up the certificate, eyes flicking between the two.
“Give me one good reason not to!” a pen materialized in Xylyl’s hands - a pen that was quickly scuffled over as Phenyl lunged for it.
Tower smiled, offering out the certificate, grateful briefly for its protective enchantments. “It’s an Alliance of the Original Timelines. Self-governed and founded by us, no interference from the COR.”
“See, that sounds reasonable,” Xylyl said, pointedly, in Phenyl’s face.
The other hissed again. “There’s no structure! No plan! They came begging us first because we’re the best at pretending to be stable! They’re fucking Psi, Xylyl! Psi!”
“Don’t be derogatory,” Xylyl hissed right back, almost snakish, almost Horizons.
“Aryl has already signed and agreed,” Tower continued, smoothly, “he saw the merits of the Foundational Alliance. Do you really want to be the one to hold Eta back?”
Phenyl backed away, thankfully, from Xylyl as he growled, “You don’t even have a plan! You want to open us up to Beta having an excuse to conquer the rest of the Originals? No stopgaps in place to stop another wave of war?”
“There’ll be stopgaps,” Tower said, and his halo vibrated. “You have no faith if you think Beta’s Fragments are the strongest of the lots.”
“What about the Timelines without any Fragments?”
“We’ll protect them and include them as vassal states. Not like they ever signed a contract with the COR themselves, hm?”
Phenyl just stared, baleful and trembling, hands balled into fists.
He didn’t speak as Xylyl huffed and scribbled his name across the second signature line.
Silence filled the air.
Xylyl stepped one-two back, and glanced over his shoulder at Phenyl. Tower silently wished he knew them half as well as he knew Aryl, for a brief second - if only to read them just a bit better. What unspoken communication was filling the emptiness around them?
Trembling, Phenyl turned his back to the both of them - almost crossing his arms, though it was more of a self-hug than pure irritation. He glared bitterly towards the circle, which pulsed brightly - just on cue.
The air had taken on a somber hint. Xylyl looked... not defeated, but forlorn, staring after Phenyl. As if he wanted to reach out to him, gently touch his shoulder, pull him into a hug like a stupid fucking Eta movie that went happily-ever-after.
Tower couldn’t blame them for that, though. They were Eta, too. They were full of its stupid ideas and its poison little flights of fancy and believed in shit that made stories like that.
In the same way, of course, that Psi made stories about struggle and death and decay and the inevitable march of rot, inescapable and all-consuming, starting from deep within and eating its way out of everyone’s hearts.
He shook his head, twitching a wing. He needed to get Phenyl to sign the certificate. He could bitch about Eta later.
But before he could speak, the look of dejection on Xylyl’s face withered, replaced with a concentrated squint, like he’d pieced something together.
Xylyl turned towards Phenyl, this time without pity, and plainly said, “Chomyzi’s here, aren’t they. That’s why you were out and about.”
Phenyl’s face paled, but more in sickly disgust than ensnarement. Both hands were promptly shoved into his coat rather than be wrapped around himself. “Yes.”
“Chomyzi’s in Eta? That’s fortuitous,” Tower said, and the duo turned to face him, “That’s two Timelines with one stone, then.”
“They’re not exactly - maybe you shouldn’t see them right now,” Xylyl tried, gently but quickly.
“It’s not much of a shock that they come here to do drugs,” Tower offered with an amused little shrug.
“Drugs,” Phenyl scoffed.
Neither of the other two spoke. Tower’s stare flicked between their muted expressions, private little biting-lips and averted eyes. They weren’t going to tell him.
What, scared he was going to snitch? Or scared that speaking of whatever concoction Chomyzi was guzzling would invoke some divine wrath, some unspoken rules?
Haha. He was Psiblood. He’d had to fish so many mortals out of the damned ocean, intent on drinking the “holy” water and partaking of the “sacred” spring of life, and then squish their bony little chests until mold came out of their mouths in clumps.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll take your words for it,” he said, and some of the tension in the air squeezed out. “I’ll try to catch them when they’re back in Epsilon, then.”
“They’re always here,” Phenyl muttered, reaching up to his mouth - only to remember his missing cigarette and scowl further. “Damnit. Fuck. Whatever. I’m leaving, you two can go suck Aryl’s cock. Whatever!”
“You’re not leaving yet,” Xylyl snapped, grabbing Phenyl by the shoulder.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Xylyl - I’m not fucking signing the contract.”
“It’s majority’s vote. Just sign it.”
“No it fucking ain’t. COR won’t take it without everyone’s signatures. So I’m not fucking signing it.”
Xylyl’s frown deepened, eyes narrowed. “You’re just going to spit in the face of our chance to escape them?”
“I don’t WANT to escape them! What’s so hard to grasp about that! Good for you that you want to, fucking stuck-up mage you are!”
“There’s no need to start another argument,” Tower interjected, lifting a hand to his chest just like Cradle.
Xylyl nodded, almost self-important, “So just sign it, and stop arguing. I’ll take you home and give you some of the nice liquor-”
“-Holy fucking shit, I’m not a fucking bum you can bribe,” Phenyl hissed, swatting at Xylyl’s firm grip, “at least Aryl got laid first before he kissed away our Timeline!”
Xylyl’s hand tightened further, and Phenyl let out a startled yelp.
For a second, there was nothing - only Xylyl staring, intensely, at Phenyl’s confused and wide-eyed face, the gusto and violence drained out of the other. Almost pathetic, almost disgusting.
Xylyl’s other hand twitched, blitzed with magic.
Tower stiffened, wings flaring enough that he could take to the skies if needed - but the magic wrapped around Phenyl’s arm instead, yanked it forwards even as the other let out a horrified cry, a little strangled and pained noise.
Phenyl tried to rip his arm back, but from the shoulder down he no longer had control of his limb.
He was screaming something - probably obscenities, threats, hatred - as Xylyl firmly pushed the pen into Phenyl’s waiting palm, closed his fingers around it.
Tower watched, rapt, as Xylyl’s magic directed Phenyl’s fingers to shakily press signature to paper, in unstable little looping lines.
It lifted again, with trembling hands. Tower glanced down at the certificate, now complete. The signature looked unsteady, almost fake, but it was a signature all the same.
Well. That had all been much easier than he’d thought, if he was perfectly honest. He allowed himself a smug smile.
“-Duress! Mind-altering magic! That’s not fucking legal!”
“Quiet down,” Xylyl said, an almost manic-detached tone in his voice, “who’s going to believe you?”
“I didn’t see anything,” Tower chirped.
Phenyl’s dismayed look only deepened. Xylyl’s magic released, and he yanked his hand back against his chest, cradling it as if he’d been injured.
“I’ll escort you back to Aryl’s. If you’re not going to be barhopping you might as well be accounted for,” Xylyl said, darkly.
“Like it’s my fault Chomyzi’s here,” Phenyl said, more of a wounded animal than anything else, shaking.
Tower stood. “I’d best be on my way, then, too. Thanks muchly, both of you, for your cooperation! We’ll have more news as more of the Originals sign on - be ready for our first Alliance meeting.”
Xylyl perked up again, finally smiling once more - the first real one since Phenyl had announced his presence. Phenyl only shrunk down more, ears pinned to the back of his head.
The part of him that was fascinated by people begged him to stay, to study the duo more, to piece apart their little dynamic.
But with a flash of halo and magic alike, teleportation wrapped around Tower.
In the brief stretch between there and here, he clutched the certificate close to his bosom, something like pride pushing through his chest.
He opened his eyes, standing on one of Psi’s teleport pads. He breathed in the familiar air, the heaviness of it, the poison of it.
His head tilted side-to-side. To his left, Cradle’s obelisk rose above the other religious buildings. To his right, the familiar complex of Clarity and his little military base.
Familiar and perfect.
Of course, he knew he had been the best pick for recruitment. Powerful, skilled, an adept mage, an adept manipulator - the perfect skillset. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t grateful beyond measure to be home, even if briefly.
Cradle would be so pleased. A light sensation churned in his stomach at the thought of the other’s subdued little smile.
Eta had gone better than either of them could’ve hoped.
It wasn’t a guarantee that the other Originals would bend the knee equally as easy. But it was a good sign, a proud little sign. And he’d barely had to talk Xylyl into it all! Nothing to mention of Phenyl.
Tower allowed himself another smile, setting off towards the obelisk.
With every step, the Alliance felt more and more of a reality.