The Progress of Things
5 Sigma: The Drowned
Published: November 1, 2023
Blurb: While Tower is out of commission, the Alliance can't afford to wait. They must move before the Coalition does.
He wrung out the towel, carefully, watching the hot liquid splatter back into the bucket. Though his hands shook, he kept his pace steady as he returned to the bedside.
As if Tower could hear him... as if Tower would be worried if he didn’t sound like himself....
Beginnings draped it over Tower’s forehead, gentle. The healing magic infused in the water soothed Tower, clearly - his expression relaxed, his shoulders untensed.
He creaked open his eyes, gave Beginnings a half-exhausted smile. “You are... quite the doting nurse, you know.”
“Maybe you need that right now,” Beginnings replied, with a weak one-shouldered shrug.
Tower rolled his eyes, but still bore a - softer smile than usual. “It’s not so bad. Your fretting - while endearing - is misplaced, dear Endings. You needn’t slave over my bedside.”
That wasn’t really true, though, was it? Tower, draped in the bed, buried under a few sheets, still looked pale. The towel on his head did little to drop the - well, it wasn’t a fever in a mortal sense, but it was something like that. Some sort of desperate immune response to... Alpha.
And - Beginnings reached to lay his hand on Tower’s, to feel the magic brimming under the surface. It was...
The reminder sent a jolt into his chest, paranoid and guilty. Like it was his direct fault that Tower had... been hurt so badly. It was, in a way, wasn’t it? He was Psi itself, and he’d let one of his Fragments...
“Don’t look so glum,” Tower chided. “I’ve swallowed much worse.”
“Worse than Bereave’s corruption?” Beginnings echoed, unable to keep the doubt out of his voice.
Tower weakly smirked. “The Coalition has a great many tricks up their sleeve - you shouldn’t underesti-”
“Are you... sure you want to argue that?” Beginnings asked, raising an eyebrow. “That the Coalition could... is doing worse than Bereave corruption?”
“I wouldn’t be fully surprised,” Tower said, ear flicking. He hummed, glancing upwards thoughtfully. “Which is why Cradle and I do need to finalize the plans to get Xi and Zeta’s Fragments ferreted out of Headquarters before it’s too late.”
“I’m sure he’s drafting something,” Beginnings said, lifting the washcloth to wring it out into a bucket. “You should really just be napping again.”
Who knows how long you’ll need? he wondered, biting his lip. He dunked the towel into the water again, squeezed out the excess, and re-draped it over Tower.
“My sickness isn’t so progressed that I must submit to sleep for the entire week,” Tower protested.
Beginnings only stared. Tower managed a smugger grin, closer to his normal expressions.
His chest... ached, though. Deep inside of him.
He used to be so terrified of Tower, so intimidated. As if Tower would have ever hurt him, judged him. As if Tower’s snide lashings had ever been directed to him. But no.
Everyone in Psi had always treated him with a kindness, with welcomed arms. He had always been one of them, even before he’d realized his true nature. And... in return, he wasn’t even able to heal Tower. Here he lay, half-broken in this bed, despite his assurances of health.
There had to be something he could do. Right? Or else, what use was he?
Beginnings turned around to stir at the bucket, unable to meet Tower’s eyes. His mind meandered, half-desperate, half-uncertain, picking over ideas and discarding them just as easily - how could he actually help? How could he heal Tower?
He didn’t know healing magic from left from right. He didn’t have anything on-hand that could help restore Tower’s magic - no gemstones, no magic-rich treats - and Clarity had already tried that, anyways.
Useless. A permeating feeling that chewed on his meager self-confidence, pleased to swallow it down before it could grow into - grow into what? What did it matter if he was Psi personified and his Fragments were poisoned by Alpha.
The rage in his heart startled even himself. But, even as he acknowledged the intensity, he found himself agreeing with it - yes, fuck Alpha. Let the damn place rot. Let it suffer for what it did to - Tower had never hurt it, only approached with good intentions and ideals. With a peace offering! With a promise of help!
And look how that - that cursed place responded. With an insidious rot it planted deep in Tower’s chest. A rot that no one knew how to be rid of.
How dare it. How fucking dare it - it touch one of his Fragments. How dare it presume it had his permission to stick its ugly magic into Tower, by any means.
Something boiled under his skin. Beginnings’ fingers twitched.
“Endings,” came Tower’s voice, strangely distant. He turned, but nothing had changed in the other’s demeanor. “You’re clenching your fists. What angers you?”
“I’m not mad,” he said, automatically.
Tower gave him a dull look.
It was - so very Tower of him, to do that, wasn’t it? So very... Psi. So very familiar, and comforting, and - he could feel the energy brimming inside of him, sparking on the edges of his body, twisting in some sort of unfamiliar crescendo.
Tower’s ears perked. As if he could sense, too, that-
-That something deep in Beginnings’ soul, his magic, his Timeline, was filling every inch of his body, spilling into him like a broken dam as he stood, looming over the bed.
Tower didn’t speak. Just stared up, uncertain and cautious, waiting for a signal to react to, a twitch of the hands, a motion in the face. It was almost - strange, to see him suddenly on the back foot, searching for exits and explanation
But there was nowhere to go, as Beginnings’ hand slammed into Tower’s chest. Tower let out a strangled yelp, mostly startled - which was swallowed by the sudden cascade of magic.
It crashed into Beginnings - only a conduit, only a tether - from deep within the abyss, from the darkest pits of Psi. It filled him, vein to mouth, with raw energy, with raw magic, with the raw concepts of Psi itself - his halo sparkled, surged; his hand channeled it, let it run freely out of his palm and into Tower’s chest.
He felt it sink swift sharp teeth into the vestiges of Alpha’s touch, and crunched it apart like brittle bone. Tower made a strangled noise, back arching slightly from the sudden force. But the magic only nuzzled past his own, seeking out Alpha like a bloodhound, tearing it apart.
Beginnings was tearing it apart.
Because how fucking dare it. How fucking dare it touch Tower. One of his. One of his Fragments. He’d clean that rot right fucking out of Tower, from core out to flesh, scrub him down until he was pure again.
His hand wrenched off, punctuated by Tower’s gasp for air and Beginnings’ catching his breath. He stared down at his palm, the skin melted slightly from the sheer amount of raw magic.
He looked to Tower. The other’s chest seemed fine. His eyes slid up to Tower’s face.
Tower stared at him, uncomprehending at first. And then, a strange realization dawned on his face. As if he, for the first time, was seeing Beginnings for what he really was.
Seeing him as Psi.
It was... almost uncomfortable. Scrutinized. Beginnings shrank back slightly, gripping his wrist as the adrenaline tapered and the pain crept in.
“Endings,” Tower said. Then coughed, but righted himself just as quickly, “How did you-”
Abruptly, the doorknob turned. Both startled - Beginnings’ hand flying down to pin at his side, Tower slumping back slightly into bed. Cradle entered a second later - and glanced between their wide-eyed expressions, confused.
Panic stabbed into Beginnings’ chest. What could he say that w-
“Life!” Tower chirped, for him. “A visit from what I’m craving most!”
“You’re awake,” Cradle said, something between surprised and relieved. He glided to Tower’s side, linking his sleeves together. “How are you holding up?”
“My prognosis is grim, dear,” Tower said, trying to smirk.
Beginnings narrowed his eyes.
Cradle’s expression did not change. “Don’t joke about that, Milk.”
Tower blinked, then frowned. He didn’t flinch as Cradle’s hand gently came to rest on his forehead, pressing the towel in harder, the healing magic dripping down the sides of his head.
“Is everything okay?” Beginnings asked, quietly.
Cradle’s eyes flicked to him. “Yes.”
“I’ll be able to head to Sigma in a few days,” Tower said, shifting slightly to try to sit up. Cradle pushed him down firmly at the chest, but Tower still spoke, “I’m already feeling better-”
Cradle’s voice was warm. “-No. There’s no need for you to stress yourself out about that.”
“We mustn’t lose momentum.” Tower’s frown deepened.
Cradle shook his head, his jewelry clinking. “Stop worrying about the Alliance. Understand? Your recovery should be your focus. I’ve already made arrangements, so you don’t need to fret about momentum or the like.”
“You can’t leave Psi while I’m-!” Tower protested, and tried to sit again - back down, slumped into the bed under Cradle’s firm push. “What if something were to happen? I wouldn’t be able to-”
“I’m not going to Sigma.”
Beginnings cracked a smile, despite the pain in his palm.
Tower stared, devoid of understanding, only blinking. Then, slowly, as if the words were alien and foreign, “Then who is?”
A tiny, tiny smile broke over Cradle’s face.
Clarity of the Wheel tightened his half-desperate, half-disbelieving grip around the railing, both arms curled around it in a hug of life and death.
“Sorry you had to come at such a bad time,” One called, from the helm of the vessel, their fingers working the control lattice like a harp.
“It’s fine,” he managed, over the sound of the howling wind.
It wasn’t fine, actually.
But what else could he say, whipped by a thrashing gale, sprayed by a furious sea? The fact that the boat hadn’t splintered under the forces barraging it was a testament to its construction - though he couldn’t say that he was convinced it could withstand much more.
Maybe just ‘this sucked’. Not that that’d be helpful. But it did suck.
One’s hands moved deftly, illuminated by the dozens of lanterns strung across the ship. They provided the only light across the desolate sea - the sky choked by thick clouds, the sea a dark abyss.
But One commandeered the ship with a familiar confidence, with a sharp memory. They turned and snaked through the swells of the ocean with a laserlike focus, as dexterous as an arrow shot straight into bullseye.
All Clarity could think - if he had navigators like this back in Psi, they’d never need to refloat any of his fleet. Maybe there was a twinge of jealousy in there.
Though, in fairness to his subordinates, they didn’t exactly have - typhoons - in Psi.
It was definitely best that he’d volunteered for this, though. Horizons preferred the humble rowboat, as did Beginnings. This kind of storm-
“Almost there!” One said, encouragingly, over their shoulder. But just as quick they were back to tending the lattice, and Clarity could only stand there, clutching for dear life, clothes soaked through.
Like a wet cat. Great. Comparing himself to a wet cat now.
The stern dove dangerously low, but then rode the next wave with an astonishing grace. A splatter of seawater sloshed over the deck - but everything onboard was appropriately tied, and nothing slid. Thank the stars. It’d only take maybe one unsecured crate to knock him into the ocean.
Wait. Stop thinking about that. Damnit.
One made a noise of elation. Clarity squinted-
Looming out of the blackness before them - a desiccated mountain, battered and eroded by wind, water, and time. Pinprick lights strung across its stalwart face provided some sense of enormous scale and terrain. However, the most forthcoming concern were the barrage of rocks tumbling down its peaks, dislodged by the hurricane they were weathering.
Clarity’s body tensed automatically, steeling himself.
But One spun the boat’s control lattice, and they lurched into a sharp turn that felt perhaps a hair too tight. Clarity braced his legs against the deck, crouching down and clinging harder - his arms taking the brunt of the list.
-Just like that, they were out of the storm.
For its... questionable sturdiness... the wind and sleet did not break past the mountain. The waters were still rolling, high peaks sloshing about, but the ship itself seemed more comfortable - more sure, in this protected cove.
Clarity tentatively shifted to stand properly, scanning the boat. For a half-second, he marveled at how quiet it had become so quickly - then shook his head, frowned at, and smoothed out the wrinkles in his jacket.
He glanced up. One had stepped away from the helm to snap a photo of the top of the mountain, a quiet frown on their face.
“You alright?” he called, hands loosening on - but not letting go of - the railing.
One half-jumped, wings puffing, before offering Clarity a weak little smile. “Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m fine, just - need to note this, uh, it’s been taking more damage than usual. Uh, maintenance. You know?”
He glanced back to the mountain. It was hard to see, the light of the sun snuffed out by oppressive clouds, but there was an occasional glitter against the stone.
Magic circles? They devoted resources to this mountain. Was it constructed, or a natural barrier?
As he glanced around the cove, he could see it wrapping around the entire little inlet - vague shapes in the dark, rising like overgrown trees, branches splayed over the area. Lanterns were strung across each one, clearly signals. And, if he squinted to the east, deeper into the cove -
- Lights, dotted like small blots. A settlement, then. It made sense. Considering the weather, this was probably the best place to build a society. It was where he’d build something, if nothing else.
One stuffed the magink paper in an unseen pocket. They still stood at the helm for a few long seconds, tapping fingers together uncertainly.
Clarity took in a deep breath. Now was the time to posit the Alliance to-
“-So, I uh don’t mean to be rude, but why are you here?” One rounded on him, staring down with wide eyes, both hands now on the ship’s control panel. “Not that we aren’t welcome to visitors, uh, but....”
After One’s voice trailed off - and it was obvious they wouldn’t continue, Clarity shifted to tuck hands into his jacket and give a slight nod. “You’re not rude, don’t worry. It’s a reasonable ask.”
Relief blossomed on One’s face. It was the most comforted they’d looked since Clarity had arrived.
He cleared his throat and craned his head back to meet One’s eyes. “Psi’s been sending out scouts to most of our fellow Originals. We’re looking to form an Alliance of the Original Timelines. A breakaway from the Coalition.”
“We want to be able to support each other without fear of retaliation,” he said, voice even. “With people who understand what we’ve gone through. Hence, visiting all the Originals. Eta, Rho, Tau, and Alpha are already signed on.”
One blinked, a bit rapidly. “That’s - you - Sigma?”
“Yes. I’ve come to get your signatures for it.”
“That’s. Uh. That’s a little sudden, isn’t it?”
Clarity nodded again. “Sure. I understand if you’d want to talk to your fellow Naturals first.”
“That’s - well, kind of, but-” One rubbed the back of their head. “I guess I don’t - I mean. I don’t see all the points of-?”
“Assistance to one another, mostly,” Clarity said. “We’d shred the COR’s no-alterations rule for the Originals and look into permanent stability solutions catered to each Timeline’s needs. Basically - forming our own COR, with our own rules.”
One stared at the deck of the ship, hand still frozen behind their head. Their eyes were wide, but distant. Clearly thinking it through.
Clarity kept his expression neutral. If he knew Sigma better, he could’ve maybe handled that with a little more grace... Cradle’s COR docs hadn’t had a ton of information on it, and he’d only really met One and... the other one... at Eta bef-
“Okay, yeah, sure,” One said, straightening. They bit the inside of their cheek for a second, but then managed a smile.
Clarity regarded them with a piercing stare. “As in, you’ll join?”
“Y-yeah. Just, uh, you’ve got to get Asa and Thriga’s permission too, so we need to - go see them,” One said, then coughed into a hand. “So uh I’ll take you down to the capital, and you can tell them about the Alliance, too. Okay?”
“That’s... that would be great. Thank you, One.”
“Yeah. Haha. Uh, right this way.”
One leapt off the ship to the sandbar below.
Clarity hesitated a second - letting his mind churn and process that, uh, huh. That went... well. One of three down - wait, pun not intended. Fuck.
He slipped down the side of the boat with a huff. One had already set off down the beach and he jogged to catch up, coming to stride beside them. They offered him a small smile, and he nodded in return.
Well. It would be nice for things to go right during his first trip. Imagine the look on Tower’s face - the absolute indignance.
Okay. Now things were obligated to go right, just so he could see Tower look like he’d swallowed a lemon.
“Watch your step,” One’s wavering voice cut in, “sorry, I haven’t-”
Clarity glanced down. The sand was strewn with seaglass and what looked like - pipes of some sort, maybe the girth of his closed fist? They rose out of the earth, traveled some yards, and then dove back down, occasionally with a valve or two.
He carefully picked his way around them, tilting his head up to scan across the cove. There were a few structures, too shrouded in blackness to discern details - but they were certainly taller than him or One. Some of the pipes connected to the presumably-buildings.
Maintenance sheds? That would be a lot of sheds. They were too small to be lived in, though, surely.
“So, uh. When’d this Alliance idea start?” One asked, tailtip flicking as they glanced over their shoulder at Clarity.
His head snapped to meet theirs. “Funny you ask that. Not too long ago - we’ve been trying to move quickly and quietly. Spurred on by a series of, well, operatives not showing up when scheduled with Psi.”
They didn’t need to know that the operatives hadn’t shown up because they didn’t hand over Beginnings.
“Oh wow. That’s - sorry to hear that. I know they can be really surprisingly unreliable....”
“They can be. Tower reads intent into it, but personally I think they’re just overworked. Stretched too thin.”
One was quiet for a moment. Then: “Yeah, I think so too. They’ve never really seemed malicious or anything. Maybe a little judgy? But doing their best, yeah, I think.”
“Exactly.” Clarity nodded. “I can’t hold it against them if they’re genuinely trying their hardest. And even if the organization isn’t, then at least the operatives surely are.”
He noted the little smile on One’s face as they came to a stop in front of another looming structure. They patted the side of it affectionately, like a parent to child.
“What’s this one?” Clarity prompted.
“The main elevator!” One reached to grasp a lever. With a surprising effort, they heaved it on. “Hrgh - sorry - it gets automatically sent back - down so I gotta-”
“Do you... need help?”
With a loud groan, the bulbs surrounding the structure flicked on at once. They were strung across almost like fairy lights, but much brighter - illuminating a wide radius around them, and the almost-slipshod metal construction of the cabinet.
Well, it looked like an elevator. Just a kind of... questionable one.
“Sorry,” One said, recovered. “it’s for safety reasons - we get sea-behemoths all the time so we tend to keep the lights off despite-”
“It’s alright. You don’t have to apologize.”
“Well, I know it’s - a little strange how things work around here-”
Clarity tucked his hands back into his jacket. “It’s fine. I’d like to hear about Sigma, actually. I don’t know much about it.”
There was a long pause in which One stared at him, eyes wide. The mechanisms beside them groaned, tugging up the cab - Clarity could see the cables rolling through the pulleys - and filled the brief silence.
Then, in a small voice: “Really?”
“Of course.” Clarity raised an eyebrow.
“Because we’re allies?”
“...Because I like knowing things?”
One clasped their hands together. “W-well that works! Uhm - I don’t know where to start talking about it really, but if anything catches your eye, um. I can answer just about anything. I do a lot of the magic and tech work around here, actually, like uh.”
They patted the elevator again. Ah, of course. Clarity nodded.
“The uh, light system was really exciting to get online,” One continued, energized slightly by the nod. “I uh, heard about ‘suns’ in other Timelines and spent forever trying to make one. It um. Didn’t work but I managed these, they run on a closed-circuit self-recursive diagonal triangle-hourglass circle. Very small, easy to replicate.”
“You don’t have a sun? A moon?”
That explained the darkness. Great! He was already figuring out Sigma.
Clarity gave a lopsided smile. “Well. Psi only has the latter, so I suppose we’re not so different.”
“Really?” One turned, tail wagging slightly. “So it’s dark like - Sigma is?”
“Not as dark. Themoon provides... ample light. But significantly darker than most Timelines I’ve been to. Other than Eta, I suppose. They have a sun and they hate to use it.”
“Yeah! I know what you mean, haha - they have their big city lights and Aryl always tries to drag everyone in during nighttime! I didn’t think for a while that they even had a sun!”
“One wonders how they feed their mortals,” Clarity said, with a shake of his head. “I actually asked him a few visits ago. They grow synthetic meat in giant vats near the bottom of the cities. Artificial greenhouses down there, too.”
“Oh wow. Our mortals eat, like, fish and what we farm down there.” One pointed downwards. “Asa’s in charge of a lot of that, though. He’s really good at fighting off sea-behemoths when they attack the homesteads.”
“How often does that happen?”
One hummed, reaching to cup their chin. “During the harvest season, maybe like two to three times a week?”
“That’s. An inordinate amount of sea-behemoths.”
“Asa’s got it anyways! He’s really - well you’ll see him soon enough. I hope you’ll like him. He’s uh. The mortals really love him.”
“I look forwards to meeting him,” Clarity said, smiling.
Movement caught in the corners of his eyes. He glanced to his right, catching sight of bobbing - lanterns, probably, held on long poles. They barely illuminated their wielders, who were dressed in thick cloaks, bunched together into one crowd.
They stopped far short of approaching the duo. Clarity watched, but they neither attacked or fled. Merely stood and watched, a respectable distance. His eyes flicked to One, who had taken to watching them with trepidation.
Enemies? Did he need to brace himself? Get behind One? Defend the elevator?
“Landers,” One said, in way of sympathy, having caught his stare. “Don’t worry. They’ll leave us be.”
One summoned a trident to their side. It was made of almost entirely gemstone, carved excellently and smoothed comfortably. Rather than brandish it, though, they only hugged it close to their chest, as if it were more of a blanket than a weapon.
Clarity gave a slight nod, but didn’t tear his eyes from the distant people. Too far to see their expressions, too far to know in his heart if he could ease his caution or not. Best to hold onto it, then, in the face of uncertainty.
“It’s a bit odd to have them so close to an elevator,” One’s voice continued, quiet beside him. “Don’t worry if they come over. I can talk to them.”
Clarity turned his head, just slightly, to catch One’s frown. “Do none of Sigma’s Fragments live up here?”
There was a brief stretch of silence. Then, One’s eyes flicked to him. “No, Thriga and Asa live below.”
That had been the impression he’d gotten. “I don’t mean to scrutinize. I’m just looking to understand.”
One hummed - a considering noise. Judging, analyzing, in that brief stare to Clarity. Then, a look away, back towards the surface-people. “Some of them are from before the weather got so bad. Descendents, couple of Immortals, Gladar maybe. Some of them are people who grow up in the Veins and want something else.”
“And you let them move up here.” a statement without judgment.
“Mmm. Not our right to say no, you know?” One wriggled their fingers. “Sometimes they come back. Most don’t.”
“Do most die?”
One hummed, again. That single, pensive note, almost hidden by the groan of machinery behind them. Then, achingly: “I don’t know. I try to keep them safe best I can, though.”
Clarity hummed at the thought of the crumbling mountain, the magic circles strung along its wake. It was still visible, if he turned around and peered into the horizon, looping around the entire little cove.
At the thought of sea-behemoths churning through the waves, leaping out of them all teeth and scale and roar. He couldn’t taste any in the air, acrid magic as they were, but they were surely around.
Not an envious position.
“They all seem okay,” One said, having lifted a hand to shield their eyes as they squinted. “Nobody looks shaken or anything. They’re probably just wondering what I’m doing up here.”
What stories did they tell their children of One? They seemed so cautious, so distant. Like eyeing a predator on the horizon, weighing a threat.
“Are you scared?” One asked, almost innocently. “You - it’s okay, they won’t attack us or anything.
“I’m not scared. Thanks for the concern, though.”
The elevator let out a high-pitched whine, and the thick steel doors rattled open to reveal the pale metal room waiting for them. Bright light from halogen lamps filled the tiny room, reflecting off the shining metal, almost overwhelming.
But One beamed at it, hand reaching to nudge Clarity in - rethought, hand retracted. Not willing to touch him yet. He kept step with them, though, as they scuttled in.
Clarity took in a breath. This was still going excellently. And with any luck - he’d be walking out of here with two more signatures in as quick of - wait. He hadn’t gotten One’s signature yet. Fuck.
He reached to rub at his forehead, letting out a little sigh. A touch to his shoulder nearly startled him, but - it was just One’s hand, gentle, trying to be grounding. He glanced up to them, to their little smile.
And with one final glance to the surface-people, the doors slipped shut.
There was a pervasive pressure, all around them both, surrounding them. Like a thick heavy fog, whose presence did not obscure, but simply blanketed, the air itself weighted without sight.
The telltale sign of their descent deep into the earth, the pressure of the rock and stone and water all around them. The taste of the deep, of the abyss.
Clarity stared forwards, hands linked behind his back. The grumble of the machine was soothing, despite the knowledge that they were -
What? Was he scared of being buried alive, or something? In fairness, this was his first time going so - far underground. So, maybe he’d had a latent fear all along. Needed to make sure Tower didn’t figure that out.
One coughed into their hand. Clarity’s head turned.
“In a bit, we’ll be down in the Ligaments,” they said, with a grin, like that word had meaning in this context.
“...Is that how you quantify the depths? Comparing it to skin?”
One nodded. “I - I know it’s a little weird, but it - well sometimes it kinda acts like a living thing, so sometimes the - metaphor and all. If that makes sense?”
Clarity gave a slow nod.
“It’s no Mu!” One patted the elevator’s wall with a nervous grin, “But sometimes it - it helps to personify stuff. You know? Little flickers here and there. The way it dumps the water, it’s like -”
They paused. Right. Sigma’s flooding-drought cycle. Clarity waited.
“Like... it’s vomiting, I guess.” One’s voice twinged uncertain, staring at their reflection in the metal. “Spitting back out all that water back into the void. Y’know we still haven’t figured out where it’s getting all the water from?”
“My guess would be water cores? Some imbalance of ambient magic somewhere?” Clarity gave a light shrug, “Disrupted ley lines?”
“You’d think. But there’s nothing up there-” punctuated by a tap to the ceiling, a conspiratorial glance, “-beyond the clouds at all. No sun, no stars, no moon, nothing. Just the lid on the Timeline, inert.”
No sun. His mind flicked to the deep darkness outside, the lanterns hung everywhere of note, the lights thrown over the elevator almost haphazardly. As dark above the water as likely it was below.
But, he offered instead, “Ley lines?”
“We’ve tried. They bend and wiggle.” One waved their arms, mimicking a frothing sea. “No rhyme, they come and go, dissipate and reform. And they don’t have any correlation, far as we can see, with the water.”
“That’s... hm.” Clarity frowned. It was presumptuous to assume he’d have some sort of perspective that One hadn’t already explored, but a thread of guilt still nagged at him for being defeated so quickly.
One, however, beamed. “See - you get it. How befuddling this is. It’s why I’m up there as much as I am, you know? Trying to piece together anything. Just... slow goings, is all. And uh maintenance, obviously.”
“Do you ever speak to the surfacers about it?”
Was it the wrong question? The wrong angle? One’s eyes flicked - the only tiny motion - away for a second, searching for words. Clarity remained silent, patient, waiting.
Then: “No. They don’t really speak to me at all.”
There was plenty implied in that sentence. Clarity tapped his fingers against his arm. “Do they speak to any of the others?”
“No.” said easier, said quicker.
He gave another nod. “I suppose that makes sense. If they’re up here less than you.”
One leaned against the wall, slightly soothed. “Yeah, they’re busy, busy-busy. I mean, I’m busy too. I work. But - when they saw the alert lights come on, there’s a reason they sent - me to go getcha.”
They sent. Like it was a unilateral decision. “Thank you again.”
“We wouldn’t leave another Frag out in the storm,” One said, smiling.
“It’s appreciated anyways. I’m surprised you could get wires that stretched that far.”
“They’re my design.” a hint of pride in their voice. “Not as complicated as they look. You just have to stick a repeater every layer - you basically just - it goes right in the meat, like so.”
Clarity watched as One mimed hammering something into the elevator’s wall. The meat.
But past those metal sheets was just bedrock and strata.
“It’s the same principle that we use for the elevators, too. And their lights, and all. Little boreholes from the top, then you thread them down-” One drew a line down the wall with a finger, enraptured by their own explanation, “-then you can fill ‘em up with loose silt to keep them packed. Run them underground the entire time, if you need to cross a canyon - little metal boxes, like a tube.”
“And that withstands the storms and floods?”
“Needs some maintenance every dozenthousand, but yeah.” One lifted their hand away and smiled sidelong at Clarity. “Part of why I’m up here so much. Got plenty of alert circles but - well, safe than sorry. You know?”
“A philosophy I can wholly agree with.” Clarity nodded.
“Ah, see. You Psilings aren’t so bad!” One’s hand patted his shoulder. “It’s just people-misconceptions and judgings. Nobody tries for understanding and then they wonder why nothing gets along.”
It was a good thing Tower hadn’t come here.
“It’s something I take very seriously, you know?” One tucked their chin into their hand. “Trying to be respectful and compassionate even when it doesn’t make sense. Like with the - landers. Surfacers, same word.”
Clarity raised an eyebrow. “And your peers...?”
One fell silent, threaded their fingers together. Their trident was still lazily propped against their shoulder. “I’m not going to speak badly of them. They’re fine, it’s - it’s just-”
“Then pretend I never asked.”
One smiled. It was softer, a little more subdued than the others. “That’s good of you. I - for what it’s worth, I like your Alliance idea muchly. It’s good foundations and good ideals. And - this one’s a little selfish, but I like the idea of somebody else trying to....”
“To understand Sigma.”
“Mmm.” punctuated with an eager nod. “Maybe we could - well. I just think it’d be a nice project for the group, is all.”
“I agree.” Clarity tilted his head. “Though, there’s some plans floating around to try to resolve - Alpha’s problem.”
“Alpha? You lot want to do Alpha first?”
Clarity raised a placating hand. “There’s reasons for it. Nothing’s set in stone yet. We haven’t even half the Originals signed on yet.”
“Right - right, sorry, got... a little ahead of myself.” One glanced down, and said in a quieter tone, “Less than half, and Sigma’s....”
Clarity watched their tail flick, a spark of magic fizzling out of the ivoric at its tip.
They’d still help. How could he say that without making promises he wasn’t sure the others could keep? He wasn’t going to sign anyone on to some idea without discussing. But-
The elevator groaned, abruptly. Clarity glanced up, as if explanation could be found there - but only stumbled when the box jolted.
A metallic screech rang out over the sound of the elevator grinding into the surrounding rock. Clarity’s hands found the railing and gripped, tightly, hoisting himself up onto his legs proper.
Damnit. What was with Sigma trying to throw him to the ground?
One had caught themself with an outstretched arm against the far wall, and was glaring towards the doors with a surprising shot of irritated hatred. Their other hand gripped their trident with renewed indignation.
“Is this a problem that you need my help with?” Clarity shouted, over the screeching.
“Wh - no!” their baleful look broke when their head turned towards Clarity, wide-eyed, “No! You don’t have to worry about - it’s just veinslugs! Probably!”
Veinslugs. “Should I be reacting to that with fear or-?”
Before One could answer, the screeched cascaded into a higher whine, a higher note. A thud, louder and closer than the screech, accompanied a new dent in the elevator’s doors.
Clarity grit his teeth, fingers curling harder around the railing. If something dangerous poked its head in - One was reasonably adept as a mage and presumably as a fighter, if Sigma’s behemoth-tales were to be believed.
And he could hold his own, or at least teleport them out. If push came to shove, he could just - phase out of the Timeline, as ill-advised as that could be.
So he just needed to keep his eyes on his exits, and-
-The crack of the doors widened with an abrupt, shrill crackle. Thin black gooey claws protruded through the opening, scrabbling for grip, purchase.
The tip of One’s trident lodged itself in the elevator doors as they darted to put themself between Clarity and the - veinslugs. They braced, adjusted their grip on the handle, and bared fangs at the intrusion.
With a hard yank - hard enough to rattle the disturbed elevator - their trident tore open the doors entirely. The metal crumpled, shredded off their hinges. A half clattered across the floor of the elevator; the other tumbled down the shaft in silence.
Before them was the rock face, alive with throbbing veins of magic that wriggled and burrowed - enough that the blast of stale saturated air nearly knocked the wind out of Clarity’s lungs. The taste was acrid, strong, harsh.
A darkened tunnel extended into the strata, uneven and crude. It did not bear the scratchmarks of tunneling, nor the careful divots of excavation. Miniature stalagmites extended from the ceiling with no rhyme or reason, as if it’d been melted out from a great heat.
The pale-stark light of the halogen lamps illuminated the veinslug, almost as wide and tall as the tunnel, before them. It was an ugly, repulsive thing - probably made of raw magic somewhere between liquid and solid, sludging around like a sentient tumor. It had extended long thin dripping ‘arms’ towards them, the source of the claws - which looked far more immaterial, now that Clarity could see the beast proper.
Hideous, was his first thought. Then: how to get rid of it?
One swung their trident upwards. Its prongs clipped the slug, disrupting it enough to send it flying into the ceiling of the small tunnel. The rock hissed as they came into contact, and Clarity watched in rapt attention as little pebbles came tumbling down around the slug.
Made of pure liquid Magninium... it had literally burnt through the rock, crawling along with no eyes or ears or hands, made of caustic magic strong enough to act as an acid.
He didn’t envy having a pest like this.
“Ugh!” One barked, as if they’d just noticed a trash bin knocked over. They prodded the slug with their trident, which squealed in response. “Go! Shoo! I don’t have time for you right now! How did you even-”
The slug wrapped a glob of its magic around the end of the trident. It realized its mistake when One sent an arcing electric jolt down the gemstone - it let out another metallic screech and retracted towards the dark, but did not retreat.
“Go!” One implored, stabbing into it harder.
It slithered away, defeated for now. The ground fizzed as it pawed its way back through the tunnel, leaving behind tiny clods of liquid magic - which One promptly exploded with bolts of their own, face contorted in frustration.
There was a long silence.
Clarity cleared his throat.
One turned their head, sharply, eyes wide again. They gave a weak smile. “Oh. Psili- Clarity of the Wheel, right, sorry. It’s um - this happens - sorry.”
“You’re fine. Are we safe?”
One leaned back into the elevator, and slammed a lit hand into its side.
It lurched, not unlike the ship in the stormy waters above - and Clarity could hear whistling and shuffling noises above them, as the cables slipped back into place. It righted itself, but not before One kicked the broken door half into the shaft.
“Now we are,” they said, as the elevator groaned, and slowly restarted its descent. “Sorry about that again. Usually I - must’ve have eaten one of my wards to have gotten so close... damn.”
Clarity slowly, carefully, released his death grip on the railing. His hands ached ever-so-slightly, but he willed himself to step forwards and slip back into his typical crossed-arm stance.
And, of course, to tilt his head when he asked, “That was a... veinslug?”
“Yeah, a - a pretty small one, actually.” One estimated its size with their hands, spreading them apart. “They, uh, they’re like blood clots, is how I think of them. They like eating magic, they chew up the wires and whatnots. Try to eat the elevator too if they have a chance.”
Clarity glanced towards the open door. They weren’t far enough from the rock face that he could fall out of the elevator - maybe half a foot of clearance was afforded to them.
But, with the barriers gone, he could see the veins of magic criss-crossing the rock. Almost like little speckles of minerals, glittering in the aching light. They throbbed, pulsed, pushed out the rock around them, disrupting what had once been a smooth borehole.
“Your Timeline has an exceptional amount of raw magic in it,” he said, quietly. “Maybe that has something to do with the water.”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t get any more,” One said, leaning on their trident like a cane, “I don’t actually want Mu to happen again. Especially not to me - us - you know.”
“Understandable. Thank you for defending me so quickly.”
One straightened. “You don’t have to thank me for that, Clarity. I mean - the job’s not even done. I’ll have to crawl through after them and actually kill them whenever I’m not busy. And it’s, uh, just what needs to be done. They’ll break the elevator if they’re left alone.”
The image of One on their elbows and knees, shuffling through a cramped and darkened tunnel, trident clutched in a hand... hm. Not a job he envied.
Not a lot he envied here. Floodings, hurricanes, and... veinslugs.
“Best of luck with that,” Clarity offered.
Silence enveloped them. Not a peaceful silence, broken by the rattling of the battered elevator, but a calm silence between them. One took up staring intently at the rock, presumably scanning for further veinslugs.
Clarity, with little else to do, copied him.
Old tunnels, similar to the veinslug’s, passed them on occasion. Most were long empty, sometimes occupied by vermin who scurried further into the dark. Some caught glints of liquid something, and Clarity was grateful they slipped past without incident.
Occasionally, the gurgling of a pipe filled the air. Judging by the minute shifts in the air, they were likely moving around raw magic, or highly magically-charged water and the like. For what purpose? It was hard to discern.
But, likely, One had made it.
Clarity’s gaze fell upon them instead. They had withdrawn slightly, clutching their trident closer to their chest, thumbing over it. Their humble stance and incessant chattering did not belie their propensity for engineering. It was quite a talent.
It’d be nice to have someone like that working under him, back on Psi. Mortals came and went, and he always lost some of the harder-working ones before he remembered to ask Cradle for permission to slap Immortality into them.
Could probably get One to improve their ley line towers in some way or another. Increase the stability, ease the construction demands a little. Maybe nudge their efficiency so they didn’t need to place as many. That’d be nice. Less coordination, less often.
Haha. The pragmatism was pulling on his shirt collar again. Sizing up One like they’d be his underling.
Well... it was probably better than whatever Tower would be bombarding them with. Rapidfire judgments on their magitech? Invasive questions about their taking orders?
Speaking of. Hopefully Tower was healing alright.
“We’re basically here,” One said, breaking his trance. He gave a nod as they continued, “Just a few hundred more feet. You, uh, excited?”
“To see your cities?” Clarity smiled. “Of course.”
“Well it’s just really one city, kind of, split into districts. Uh, domes, really.” One made the shape with their hands. “Though I guess the districts are big enough to be their own cities....”
“Whatever administrative system works for you works. Discrete cities, I imagine, would be difficult.”
One gave a little shrug. “There’s actually a few other main domes in other, uh, trenches, as we expanded and what not and yeah. But this is still the main one, it’s - it’s actually kind of a long story. Insurgents, you know?”
The relief on One’s face was indescribable.
It quickly turned to tension as the elevator jolted. Clarity glanced towards the rock face, only to find that it had been replaced with a wrought-iron gate of some sort, and dense wooden doors beyond that.
One brushed forwards to tap something into the keypad. The series of doors hissed and slid open, one by one, despite their various constructions.
“We’ll go straight through the office,” One said, quietly, as the mechanisms groaned. They gestured forwards. “I’ll take you straight to Asa and you can talk to him about the Alliance.”
“That’s perfect. Thank you, One.”
The smile twitched back on their face. “Y-yeah. You’re welcome, Clarity. Is it okay if I call you Clarity?”
“Any shorthand works.”
Conversation ended with the final doors’ opening. Before them laid an unassuming, quiet lobby of sorts - dressed with a receptionist in one corner, and velvet drapes across the walls. The mortal glanced to them as One marched through the small building, but said nothing.
The hallways were equally subdued, nondescript. Comfortable, granted, but dusty at the corners, and devoid of much bustle. In a way, it reminded him of the more rural haunts in Psi, tired swamps and worn-down villages laden with empty buildings.
But they were upon the front door before he could reminisce further, and One threw it open with a bit too much flourish.
Clarity stepped closer to them, mindful of the sudden weight in his ears and head as his body snapped to adapt to the final shifts in the atmosphere.
One crept out, almost tentatively, having lost the confidence of their stride through the lobby. They gripped their trident, a source of comfort, and seemed calmed when they noticed how close Clarity lingered.
He, of course, was looking upwards.
The dome before them rose up like a great mountain - an inverted mountain, wrapped around them, its peak internal, far greater than that of the breaking one abovesea. Glass was boxed in by long, metallic girders, which occasionally glistened with magic circles.
The meek buildings of the city before them did not scrape at its heights - a gap laid between them, at least twice that of the tallest structure jutting out of the center of the sprawl like a spike.
Beyond the dome’s glass - nothing.
Nothing at all. Surely - there could be fish, and creatures, and plants. But the light of the great city did not penetrate far in the abyss, and was cloaked in a permeating darkness that bathed with the deep pressure and filled his chest with a trepidation that was impossible to ignore.
He couldn’t fathom what lay beyond. He knew the ocean - not as well as Horizons, not as intimately as Beginnings - but this was an entirely different beast. A darker one.
Had this really been their solution to the storms above? Was this really the best answer? It was hard to believe that mortals could stand this.
Yet, they bustled about - some glancing their way with dismissive almost-glares, others only peering from the corners of their eyes.
“One,” came a voice to their left. Both turned to face a mortal, dressed in decorated robes a size too large and filigree across their forehead like a tiara. “You’re back and -”
Their muzzle scrunched in disgust upon seeing Clarity.
“You - were waiting for me?” One asked, voice almost dreamlike from surprise, a hand over their chest.
“Did you bring a lander?” they pressed, leaning close to Clarity with narrowed eyes.
He didn’t respond. It wasn’t his place.
“I - no, Iade, this isn’t - they’re another Fragment!” One patted Clarity’s shoulder. “They’re from another Timeline. You remember-?”
The mortal straightened again, but the scowl did not dissipate. “Yes, of course. I’m not a schoolchild,” they snapped, with a bite of disrespect. Then, just as curt: “Why are they here?”
“He has an important - he’s here with important information,” One said. “You know. Like the operatives that are here sometimes, but vastly more significant.”
Iade scoffed. Their stare remained, blisteringly, on Clarity, who met it with a neutral blankness.
One tapped fingers against their trident, smile faltering. “Um, if that’s all, then we-”
“I’ve been plagued with a messenger’s job,” Iade said, with a flick of one of their sleeves. “Asalongalso wanted you to report to His desk with haste.”
“Well, that’s fine, we were going there anyways.” One smiled, shifted their trident in their arms. “Sorry he sent you to do busywork.”
“You’ll tell Him you broke the western elevator?”
“Veinslugs,” One said. Iade huffed. “Well, I’ll get it fixed soon. It’s fine.”
The glare Iade rounded on One was far worse than the scrutiny they’d buried Clarity in. Resentment, frustration, anger, exasperation. There were words that were too far for even them to say, somehow, despite the flippancy with which they’d dismissed One before.
One didn’t say anything. They just stared back, eyes a little wide. Feigned innocence, or deliberate submissiveness? Were they trying to temper how much they’d be scolded, or did they really want Iade’s approval?
Then, achingly, dripping with unspoken rage, Iade managed: “You’re lucky we’re not moving freight this week.”
“It doesn’t take me a week to fix the elevator,” One said, without a hint of irritation or insult. More a mere statement of fact - tinted with confusion, as if they didn’t grasp whatever Iade had been trying to convey.
In return, Iade gave a roll of their eyes, and swept back towards one of the buildings surrounding the elevator. They didn’t quite stomp, but to say their walk was calm would be a lie.
How uncomfortable, Clarity decided, quietly. How very uncomfortable.
“Sorry about that,” One said, patting Clarity’s back. “Let’s go before Asa starts wondering where I am.”
“Right,” he said, and kept pace with One’s longer strides.
It wasn’t that he was so judgmental as to hold Sigma up against Psi and pick at their differences. He’d like to nurture the idea that the whole point of existence was its many forms and shapes, individuality and uniqueness. Maybe he didn’t hold himself to that ideal all the time, but he kept it in the back of his mind.
Clarity of the wheel.
But - in unfamiliar waters, in strange spaces, he couldn’t help but crave to be back in Psi. He understood everything in Psi - better than anyone save Cradle, and he’d wager on that bet. The comings and goings of its mortals, the expansion of its cities, the planning down to the streets. It all filtered through him.
So, then, it was the lack of control and comprehension that bothered him. It was certainly a nasty feeling - one that he didn’t grapple with often.
When he looked out over Psi, he knew every speck of everything that moved in it. Not intimately, not personally, but he knew the way its gears turned and how its mortals looked to him for leadership. And he wasn’t controlling, he wouldn’t say - but he was their personable leader, accessible without the weight of religion like Cradle.
And here, when he looked out over Sigma’s capital, he only felt inspected and judged. There was no culture of reverence for Fragments, no respect to greater gods. Which - was fine, it was their prerogative. But it unsettled his gut, when thinking of the way Iade’s voice crescendoed at Asalongalso’s name.
It sounded like kind of a stupid name, if he were honest.
Not that ‘Clarity of the Wheel’ had many stones to throw, sure. But nobody spoke his name with worshipful awe, with the same admiration they leveled onto... Asa’s.
They’d met before, of course. The other one he’d forgotten the name of - damnit, pun unintended.
But briefly, a shake of the hands at an Eta party before Aryl distracted Asa with - certainly wine, probably flirtations. It was the same brief meeting he’d shared with One, but the details of Asa’s voice and poise had been lost to the sands of memory. So... he was going into this blind.
Not as blind as he’d be when meeting the third Sigma Fragment. The only sign of their existence was their name, printed quietly on the Coalition documents Tower had stolen: Thriga. And, uh, that One had named them earlier.
It was, of course, their right to never visit Eta if they didn’t desire it. Beginnings had a strong distaste for those parties, and never attended after his first disastrous reception.
But, as he looked over Sigma’s city, Thriga’s reclusiveness only worsened the pit of discomfort in his stomach. For - it seemed more and more likely that his assumption that it had been Thriga’s choice to never visit - was wrong.
Where were they?
All around, mortals shuffled. Some had the bravery to glare at him, distrustful, disgusted. Why would they believe One dragged a lander down here, if One didn’t speak to landers and vice-versa? Or - had those seconds of quietness earlier been an unspoken admission of ‘not anymore’? Had One - done something to instigate such a distrust of Fragments, and a hatred for landers?
His curiosity begged to know. His eyes flicked across the crowds, catching more glimpses of mortals dressed in embroidered robes, in swirling crowns. They stood above their peers, occasionally shuffling groups into buildings or down certain alleyways as One passed.
“Are they peacekeepers?” he asked, in quiet, to One.
They startled slightly - but recovered quickly, and gave a small smile. “What? Oh - like Iade? Yes, they’re Asa’s - I guess you can call them police. They don’t really... maybe it’s closer to, coordinators? of sorts.”
“What do they coordinate?”
“Mmm, mostly Asa’s orders. Things like evacuations if there’s danger, postwork curfews and shift changes, such-and-such.” One gestured as if holding a box and appraising its size. “Things he wants carried out that work best with people directing them.”
“How are they selected?”
One hummed. “It’s, uh, complicated and all thats. From birth mostly, sort of thing. They’re uh, descendants of some of the first families that got established, though there’s new blood here and there if someone does something important enough.”
“It sounds like they’re valued in your mortals’ culture.”
“Mostly due to Asa’s blessings.” admitted with a guilty smile. “Though a lot of people think they’re a little stuck-up....”
Clarity tucked his hands into his pockets. “Iade did come across as rude. Particularly to you.”
“Anyone would be mad if they were just relaying a message that - honestly, he could’ve just telepathy’d,” One huffed. “I think he kind of gets nervous about using magic on me - oh, we’re here!”
Damnit. Clarity’s ears swiveled back to idle.
One darted up to the enormous building in front of them, the center spoke of the entire city. It was the grand spire that came closest to the top of the dome, whose - lightning rod? - rested right under the tallest point.
More ‘peacekeepers’ were stationed around its entrance - though they didn’t seem as irritated at One’s approach - and the various tables-and-chairs scattered in front of it. Almost like a restaurant? They were all, however, empty save for deep red umbrellas, standing proud, like there’d ever be rain or sun.
Only the hugging of the lamps, and the pressure of the water above, and the glint of fish scales in the city’s light.
Clarity jogged to catch up. One had finished speaking to one of them, who now evaluated Clarity, face unreadable. He returned his own blank stare.
He didn’t lose his patience with mortals. But he was certainly a little tired of being judged.
“We’re going straight to the top,” One said, gesturing at the building. “I already told the coordinators who you are.”
Clarity glanced up to the gargantuan structure. “I’m guessing we’re not taking the stairs.”
“Yeah, it’s - another elevator. Sorry.” a sheepish grin begged forgiveness.
Clarity only shook his head, incredulous. “You’ve a remarkable amount of those for an underwater peoples.”
“Gotta go up-down, don’t you?” One half-grinned, holding open the door.
“You’d be surprised. The tallest building in Psi is all stairs.”
“That sounds awful.”
“It’s... yeah. It’s pretty awful.”
One let out a tiny laugh as they both stepped into the elevator. “What! It’s awful and you don’t even want to change it?”
“Some things are easier to change than others,” Clarity offered, shrugging. “It’s not my building, anyways, so it’s not like I have any authority over it.”
“This isn’t my building, either,” One said, a hand on a hip. They glanced, almost distantly, as the doors slipped shut. “Oh stars. Asa having to crawl up like fifty flights of stairs every day. Hahaha I bet he’d be fine.”
“He’s that in shape?”
“He tussles sea-behemoths,” One said, eyes wide.
Clarity hummed, and the elevator lightly jolted into motion.
The trip was made in near-silence. The cab slipped up its shaft with a quiet grace, without sound or interruption, despite the number of floors they flowed past, despite the fact that they’d been the only visible elevator on the ground floor.
It said something about Asalongalso, didn’t it? Something that Clarity struggled to put his thumb on. A kind of power, in a way. A power that brought their mortals to speak in reverence when merely alluding to him.
Was he intimidated? No. Psi’s populace thought of Cradle the same way, and Cradle was just another person. A peer, a Fragment. Godly to those beneath, but a lover of pranks and puns and the moon all the same as anyone else.
Though, he harbored concern for the way One stared into the corner of the elevator, discomfort plain on their blank expression. All the joking, the chattering, the eager jump to answer any questions had bled out of them as they’d stepped into Asa’s building.
Without fanfare, without announcement, the doors glided open calmer than imaginable. It was - a far contrast to the rickety and uncertain constructions One had hammered into shape, the surface elevators.
Speaking of - they hadn’t jumped when the doors suddenly opened - only remained focused on rolling their trident between their hands. They weren’t meeting Clarity’s eyes, nor did they look towards the plush and velvet lobby in front of them.
It worried him, in a way. Of all the snippets about Asa he’d picked up, One’s expression was by leagues the most concerning.
But he had to ignore that, for now. Had to get the signatures. And so he stepped out, into the spacious lobby, and stared.
It... echoed Eta, in a way. Comfortable and corporate. Inviting, in a subtle and disconcerting way. The chairs, with their deep burgundy cushions, the walls with draped curtains, the lack of windows.
It was only missing the reek of incense. And the slurry of mortals. But it still felt like a cage.
“You’ve got it from here, I presume?” One asked, quietly, voice breaking almost imperceptibly.
Clarity’s eyes flicked to them. They stared back, almost hopeful. It was strange, seeing them so nervous after everything. “I won’t force you to come with, if you’d rather not.”
The relief on One’s face was indescribable.
But short-lived, as the door at the end of the lobby opened. One’s smile withered, replaced with naked nervousness at the figure standing before them, framed by the doorway, almost too tall for it, horns almost clipping.
“One,” his voice filled the room, which almost shrank back in respect, “and - Clarity of the Wheel?”
Wow. He remembered his name.
“Asalongalso, I presume,” Clarity said, with a dip of the head.
As Asalongalso approached, the full breadth of his height became apparent. Clarity considered himself - average, perhaps. And One had sizeable inches on him. But Asa had over a head on One, taller than Cradle. And though his body was lithe, there was a calm strength in the way he carried himself that only added to his presence.
Tussles sea-behemoths indeed.
“You came through the portal?” Asa asked, voice smooth. His eyes, half-lidded, were obviously alert, despite the quietness of his tone.
Appraising. Like his blasted mortals.
“Bearing important news, yes,” Clarity said.
Asa lifted a hand to his chin thoughtfully, though his eyes never left Clarity’s. “Well, isn’t that ominous? Come in, both of you. I’ll have drinks made. How do you take your coffee, Clarity of the Wheel?”
“More creamer than coffee,” he said.
The roaring fireplace was certainly an interesting choice for the ruler of an abyssal city.
Clarity noted the fine brickwork that comprised it, sipping his drink. The wonderment at still having such fine masons was broken by the - damn, this was good coffee. He glanced down at the mug, sniffed it.
Asa let out a mild chuckle, shrugging off his violet jacket to hang it on a rack. “I’m glad you like it. I’m told I should be a barista, at times.”
“You’ve a talent,” Clarity offered.
One hadn’t touched their mug. It sat on a coaster, perched on the tiny end table beside the enormous, soft recliner Asa had ushered them into. They were comically tiny in it, legs drawn together tightly, averting their eyes, tapping a hand against their trident.
“Any other refreshments?” Asa glanced up, mid-pouring his own travel-sized cup. “I have some biscuits.”
“Not much of an eater,” Clarity said.
Asa chuckled, slipping around to his desk. He sat, graceful and poised, one leg crossed over the other. “Very well.”
There was a... casualness to him. It was different from Tower’s faux-casual, intended to be mocking-prying-annoying. It wasn’t a casual meant to lord power over someone else.
It was closer to... casually comfortable in power. Not to put pressure, but just because they were used to being the strongest in a room, and could depend on themselves. It was, if he was honest, a nice change of pace.
“So,” Asa said, past his mug. “Psi has sent me a messenger?”
“It’s important,” One cut in, tailtip flicking.
There was a subtle change in Asa’s expression as he looked to them. Something softer, nostalgic? Clarity narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t doubt that,” Asa said, voice gentler. “Any news from our peers would have to be significant to risk visitation.”
“Not like that,” One grumbled. They collapsed back into the chair, not meeting anyone’s eyes.
There was an awkward pause, as Asa stared at One for a second longer. Clarity sipped at his coffee, averting his eyes. Third wheel to - whatever was going on between them - was a most uncomfortable place to be.
Gracefully, as if that moment had never passed at all, Asa cleared his throat, shifting forwards in his chair. His eyes caught Clarity’s and held them well. “What news does Psi bring?”
“An Alliance,” he said, almost too quickly.
Asa raised an eyebrow.
“Of the Original Timelines,” he continued. “Releasing us from the Coalition and replacing it with a group made for our interests, by us. Looking to help one another, assist in fixing each other’s Timelines and providing support.”
Asa laced his hands together in front of his muzzle, elbows on desk. “What made Psi interested in the idea of such a thing?”
“We’ve been spurned by the COR for how difficult the Timeline is to assist,” Clarity said. “More and more we’ve had to restore stolen objects without any help figuring out where they’re from. Why bother abiding by the Coalition’s rules if we aren’t going to be helped when we need it? We started brainstorming.”
“Is it at all related to your newest Fragment’s birth?”
“Beginnings and Endings?” Clarity tilted his head, eyes narrowed slightly. “Sure, in a way. The Coalition demanded that he be handed over without question, and had no plans of returning him. He declined, and we agreed.”
“Was it ever discovered if he was truly of Psi or not?”
Interesting that Asa knew so many details. What connections did he have - friends at the COR, a listening ear for the gossiping Aryl, some way of attaining information? If so, why? What did he gain from this?
“He’s of Psi,” Clarity said, definitively. “Confirmed through-and-through.”
Asa hummed, still almost unblinking. “I see. I would like to meet him, I think. How would Alliance meetings be handled?”
“For now, we plan to use Eta for that. Ideally, though, we can establish a pocket Timeline and have a similar neutral ground as the Coalition, and not put the stress of hosting on any one Timeline.”
“What Magnitude Fragment would you request that from? Are you in contact with any of them?”
One, in the corner, almost looked sheepish. Embarrassed that he hadn’t though to ask any of this? Clarity didn’t blame him, though.
“We’re not in contact with any, yet. Discussing who would be most approachable would be one of our first topics at the first meeting.”
“What other topics would be planned?”
“Firstly - celebrating that the Alliance would be off the ground,” Clarity gave a small smile. “Secondly - brainstorming ideas and explorations for healing Alpha.”
“Healing Alpha,” Asa echoed. “Interesting. I can understand the intent.”
He looked down, shuffled through the papers on his desk. But he didn’t appear to be reading any of them. Likely just a force of habit as he processed and mulled over Clarity’s answers.
He was good at making it feel like an interrogation. Clarity’s tail was still stiff, rigid, like he was still under scrutiny. There was a definite authority, a power to Asa.
...Was this what Beginnings saw him as? This powerful, in-control entity who knew everything and controlled everything? It was a strange thought to hold.
Asa lifted his head. Clarity’s breath stuck in his throat.
“This Alliance sounds wonderful.”
Clarity let out his breath.
“Where do I sign?” with the same calm smile, Asa procured a fanciful fountain pen from his pencil cup.
It was that easy. It was that easy?
“A moment,” Clarity said, magic pulsing through his hands. The contract materialized, just as Tower said it would, just as he’d practiced as Cradle’d spun up the portal. “Right here. And - One should sign, too.”
“You brought him all the way here and hadn’t signed yet?” Asa asked, marking his signature in flowing letters.
One shifted uncomfortably. “It was important to get him here, as fast as I could....”
“Were you waiting for my approval?” Asa’s eyes flicked to One, though his head didn’t move.
“No. I would’ve signed anyways,” One said, almost defiant. Almost.
The chair squeaked as One stood, materializing their own pen with a bit of - irritation? Determination? - on their face, in the way they scribbled their signature next to Asa’s.
For a brief second, they almost looked irritated that they weren’t the first name listed.
“You’ll have to see to Thriga yourself, I’m afraid.” Asa placed his pen back in the cup. “Though I can’t imagine they’d disagree.”
“Ah. Thriga’s in the Heart, then?” a frown had reformed on One.
Asa gave a brief nod, but his smile had warmed slightly at One’s voice. “Recording outputs and surges, as they always are.”
Clarity stared down at the contracts.
“I’ll ring up a Coordinator to escort you, Clarity of the Wheel.” Asa plucked the receiver from the desk’s phone, reaching to dial a number on the rotary, “It’s a brief trip, though if you’d rather, I can have Thriga-”
“-Actually I’m taking him down there,” One barked.
Asa paused, still mid-dial. One stared back, hands balled into little fists. Asa’s eyes flicked to Clarity, expression unreadable - but he was clearly on the back foot.
Slowly, Asa lowered the phone. “You don’t have to,” he said, carefully, to One. “You’ve already been to the surface today.”
“I don’t care,” One snapped, crossing the room to Clarity’s side. They grabbed his wrist - gently, none of his coffee spilled. “Come on, Clarity.”
He set the mug down on one of the tables and stood. Asa didn’t speak as One nearly - yanked Clarity out of the room, almost dragged him behind them. He stumbled, but caught pace in a few strides, and glanced back over his shoulder at Asa’s receding office.
How brief. But - at the same time - how telling. His eyes flicked to One’s furrowed expression, squared jaw.
The tunnel to Sigma’s heart was a strange place.
It was - not made of rock, nor dirt. But it was also not plaster, not metal. Not constructed, clearly. But not entirely natural. Like something had bored through a liminal space, and called it a walk.
It was white, purely so. But like the rest of dark Sigma, there was no source of light, no sun, no lamps. Yet, it was still lit - just enough that Clarity could see One walking ahead of him like a guide, and he could see out some yards around, to the vague shape of circular walls surrounding them.
In a word, it was uncomfortable.
But he trudged along, anyways, mind occupied with the fact that - two signatures, already. And Asa had implied that he’d gain the third without contest.
It went... so well. Better than he’d prepared for. Better than Cradle had coached him for. Maybe... maybe this was doable, across all of them.
The silence surrounded them like a smog. One was still uncomfortable, despite Asa’s welcoming aura and easy agreement. There was some history there that he wasn’t privy to, obviously.
Hopefully it wouldn’t be as... tense with Thriga. One didn’t deserve to feel uncomfortable. He was animated, sure, and a little eccentric. But he had a good heart. Clarity would sign off on that.
They hadn’t said a word since they’d left the office. Not a peep. They’d broken off ahead after they’d made it to the tunnels, two yards or so ahead of Clarity. Clearly just - stuck in their head, mulling over Asa.
It was wrong to be so curious about it all, wasn’t it? To want to be invasive and ask a dozen questions. One had been plenty forthcoming about Sigma so far. But-
-His foot caught on something.
Clarity stumbled for a second, catching himself before he fell.
What the hell had he tripped on? There wasn’t anything here. His head tilted down in confusion, in disbelief.
Under his feet - it was like a little gap between floorboards. He stepped back, regarding the hole with sudden full attention, as his mind struggled to grasp the alien starscape beyond it.
No. The familiar starscape.
Sigma was crumpling.
He was looking down into voidspace, at the bottom of the Timeline. Little holes, spreading across its floor like mold, rotting away like drenched wood.
“Clarity?” One called. They’d stopped, turned around, confused.
He didn’t move forwards. Only pointed down, to the gaps. “How long have you known about this?”
One frowned, ears pinned back as if they’d been beaten. “Oh. That. It’s - it’s slow.”
“Have you told the Coalition?”
“No, Thriga says - well, what are they going to do about it anyways?”
“This is serious damage,” Clarity said, pointing again, like that’d drive the point home. “Losing any part of your Universe Core to voidspace is-”
“-I know, Clarity. I really do, okay? Come on, let’s go see-”
“You could’ve been getting help with this - it’s in the early stages, this is fixable with augmetia still. Gamma-”
“-I AM fixing it, okay!?”
One was trembling, slightly, hands thrown to either side and clenched into fists, wings puffed up like an irritated bird. Their face was scrunched, stressed, distressed.
“You?” Clarity asked. “You, specifically?”
One deflated, caught like they’d been rooting around in a treat jar. The aggression bled out of them, arms slumping back to paw at their trident, rubbing it between two palms. Uncertain, uncomfortable.
“I’m holding it together just fine,” they said, finally, voice a breath from silent. “Thriga helps but it’s - we have it under control. It doesn’t get any worse.”
Clarity’s eyes dragged, slowly, up to the misshapen pink horn boring into One’s white. To the half-pink halo around their neck. To the discoloration in one of their eyes.
“Your natural color’s near-white?”
“Pure white, actually,” came the glum reply. Like it was something to be embarrassed of? “The pink - yeah. You get it, already. Like you got everything before.”
Silence. Then, quietly, gently, Clarity lifted his arm, outstretched his hand towards One, who stared back with wide eyes.
He kept his voice steady. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Asa wouldn’t - he would’ve - it’s fine. I’m fine, I mean. Both. Of us. It’s.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No. It’s ok. I should’ve - I mean - I brought you down here.” One’s expression turned deeply guilty. “That’s probably why Asa was going to call Thriga up....”
“You’re okay,” Clarity said, stepping forwards. He set a hand on One’s shoulder, stable, comforting. The other stared up at him with those wide eyes.
Things clicked into place. One’s desperation for help. For someone to ask about Sigma. How talkative he’d been. How much he’d wanted someone to understand-
“I guess if you know then it - I can answer questions you have about it,” One managed.
- if he was, in some way or shape or form, the Timeline.
Clarity lowered his arm. “How connected are you, actually?”
“We should keep walking,” One said, awkwardly. “There’s still, uh, a ways to Thriga. I can keep talking while we walk.”
In relief, One almost sprinted down the nondescript tunnel. Clarity startled, but broke out into a run after them.
As they delved deeper, the holes in the ground disappeared, replaced by a smoothness unbroken by pebble, grass, or Timeline injury. And, as they delved deeper, One’s run slowed, first to a jog, then to a simple hurried pace.
Clarity matched it well, a few feet behind the other. Not so close that he couldn’t read every inch of One’s body language, but not too far that felt uncomfortable, distant.
Yet, it was several longer minutes before One spoke again.
“Uhm... to answer your question... I’m not sure?” One didn’t turn their head. Clarity half-wanted to ask them to turn to see their expression. “It’s - I mean, probably ‘more than Asa or Thriga would like’. But it works out okay.”
“I presume it helps you with your engineering?”
“Yeah!” One swung around, smiling broadly, almost elated at the idea. “It’s - I can see the ley lines, I can find harvestable sources of magic really easily! Usually I can tell when storms come in, but that can kind of be hit or miss and- you know.”
Clarity tilted his head. “Asa and Thriga still send you out to check the portal despite your-?”
A mote of silence. One looked guiltily thoughtful for a second before turning back around. “It’s, uh, easier for me to go up than for them. They’re really used to being down here, the uh. It sort of changes people? Magically, I mean. It all becomes denser down here, it’s, uh. But I’m not really... affected, because it’s all just....”
“I see. So Asa would... struggle to be on the surface?”
“Oh, he can visit for a brief while, and he’s usually okay in some of the other Timelines. But, like, uh, you saw how saturated Sigma is, and it’s even more in the depths, so like... he gets light-headed if I’m not there, and I’m too busy to be escorting him around, so... yeah.”
Which made it the perfect way to avoid him, Clarity noted. He said instead, “Do you find it lonely?”
“Sometimes? Not really. I don’t know. We’ve all gotten used to it by now I guess, it’s the normal.” One let out a short not-laugh. “It’s actually kind of frustrating because you’d think I’d have a good theory for the water by now because of it, right? But I don’t. It’s such a pain!”
“That is - kind of funny,” Clarity said, grinning despite himself. “Integrate with your Timeline and it still won’t share with you its secrets. What’s it gain from keeping them?”
“Stars, I haven’t the slightest idea! It’s like it doesn’t want to be helped,” One said, turning their head to laugh genuinely. “Wants to keep being - miserable and wet. Like, what’s it scared of, right? Deserts? I’ll keep the oceans, I promise!”
“A sound deal for a desert-fearing Timeline,” Clarity quipped. “Don’t show it pictures of Alpha.”
“Ahaha, I won’t! You’d hardly believe what the surface used to look like, though. Big huge canyons diving deep swoosh into the earth-” they gestured a wave with their free arm, “Asa talking a mile about how we’re going to have to make bridges and maybe make houses in the cliffsides, and I tell him, that’s just copying Pi, we have to do our own thing, and then of course the water starts, right?”
“Did the water come after the damage?”
“Uhm... that’s kind of hard to know concrete. We weren’t really down here enough to see anything until after the water, and it was - well it was kind of the state it’s in now, when we first saw it. Like a stasis, you know? Because of-”
Because of One interfacing with the Timeline.
A novel solution, on one hand. On the other, perhaps ‘harrowing’ did it justice. One seemed... well-put together, despite it all. Maybe it didn’t affect them as much as Clarity thought it did, or the meld wasn’t as severe.
After all, they’d dragged a physical body all the way up to the surface to pick him up. And they’d no idea the source of Sigma’s water, despite that. Maybe it was more of a tug-of-war thing.
It’d be invasive to ask, despite how curious he was.
“I suppose that’s why you’ve been so excited for the Alliance.”
One’s head tilted down for a brief second, but his voice was steadier than normal. “Yeah. I - it doesn’t hurt or anything, but it’s not really a solution, you know? Like. Uh. I just. It’d be nice to have help.”
“Asa and Thriga...?”
“They’re - don’t get me wrong, they’re fine, Clarity. They really are. Like there’s no real bad blood or anything. But Asa’s kind of - uh, I don’t really know how to phrase this, he’s sort of like, padded gloves. He always tries to keep me busy with stuff that keeps me in the capital, sort of thing.”
“Does it work?”
“Sometimes,” One lamented, rubbing their trident, “It makes his coordinators uh - they get jealous sometimes and if they know the situation they get even madder because I’m not obeying him, and I know he’s like, trying to figure out a way for him to be on the surface longer so I’m not the only one up, and....”
A deluge of information. Clarity hummed. “Did you like coming up to greet me?”
For a beat, the only sound was their shuffling footsteps. Then: “Yeah. But I really mostly just want Sigma to get better. And like, that means Asa and Thriga would be able to visit the surface again, too. So it’s not like, I value it over fixing Sigma.”
“I didn’t think so. You seem very dedicated to the idea of helping others.”
One stopped to turn around, eyes wide.
Clarity paused. “Do you disbelieve me? It’s the impression I’ve gotten.”
“That’s just - a nice thing of you to say,” One said, voice quiet. “I never - I mean, I try to think of other people in a positive way, but I thought - I don’t, I mean. Psi’s reputation-”
“-Precedes it. I don’t blame you.” Clarity smiled back. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad to have left a good impression on you, too. And - I want to help Sigma. In whatever way that manifests.”
“Thank you. Really, uh, sincerely. Thank you.” One smiled to the floor, then swung back towards the yawning emptiness, “We, uh, in that case, should - Thriga’s probably only a little ways ahead.”
“Lead the way,” Clarity said, and they descended further into the darkness.
The tunnel opened up, finally. The darkness here still clung to everything, chased away only by the strange imperceptible illumination that stopped the whiteness of the walls and floor from being too harsh.
Before them was primarily - nothingness. His eyes couldn’t see much of anything, only the pale colors, the false light. But his soul, his magic - it could sense brimming energies, like great pipes criss-crossing each other and overlapping one another.
Like the veins of a great machine, gurgling with oil, dragging its fuels to the great heart of the engine.
A place more metaphysical than not, in a myriad of ways. Had it been given form by One’s desire to help Sigma? Not every Timeline had such an accessible heart.
Psi certainly didn’t. They hadn’t found it, yet. It didn’t take a genius to guess, though, staring out over its still ocean.
Maybe Beginnings was....
“Thriga,” One said.
There was indeed a figure before them, cast in deep shadow against the light of the heart. They sat on the nondescript ground, some papers and instruments strewn in front of them, staring intently down. Their ear flicked at their name, but they didn’t turn, instead reaching to flick a switch on one of the tiny machines. A long thick tail trailed behind them.
“Give them a second,” One whispered to Clarity. “It’s best to let them finish-”
“-I can’t believe Asa told you to drag the outsider down here,” Thriga said, their voice slightly raspy. They threw their head back, and regarded Clarity with the same scrutiny the mortals had rounded on him.
Ugh. He kept his face blank.
“I’m sure he just didn’t want to have you come back up,” One said, placatingly. “I’m sorry about the interruption, though, I know-”
“Just give me the damn papers.”
Well. Clarity wouldn’t look that gift horse in the mouth. He reached forwards, summoning the papers as easily as they’d come to him before.
It almost felt - surreal, to hold these little documents. To know that they sealed the inevitable fate of the Timeline before him. That they would open a door that could never be closed again.
But they were just papers.
“You don’t want to hear about the Alliance?” One asked, tilting their head.
“I heard you and Asa talking about it,” Thriga said, rocking back to stand.
Rearing back, actually. The tail slid on the ground as Thriga adjusted - not a tail. Not a tail at all, Clarity realized, as the light glinted off of skittering claws. Half-Chilopoda, actually.
One frowned, and looked to the ground, rubbing at their trident. They mumbled something disapproving.
Thriga slithered over, summoning a pen as they lifted their torso to level. Their gaze was focused, almost solely, on the contracts, and did not spare a glance for One or for Clarity.
In silence, they scrawled their name next to the others’. Clarity magicked the contracts away.
Well, Asa had said that Thriga wouldn’t protest, right? They’d certaintly lived up to-
“Clarity of the Wheel, right?” Thriga asked, inspecting him.
“Just Clarity is fine.” he held their stare.
Close up, he could see the details of their face better - messy hair, two antennae poking between locks. Bags under eyes, whatever clothes that weren’t skintight half-askew. They were committed to the Chilopoda look.
It was at that precise second that he noted - that no rush of affection, excitement, greeting filled his chest. He squinted.
They cupped their chin in a hand. “I’ll be holding you to those promises. Personally.”
He frowned. “You don’t need to threaten me. We’re going to help everyone.”
Thriga’s eyes narrowed. “You know what you sound like?”
“Right. I’ll trust you when you can show some actual change.” their eyes flicked to One. “And One, you shouldn’t have told him anything.”
“It’s not like I did it on purpose,” came the meek reply.
“You wanted to come down here,” Thriga snapped, wagging a finger at them. “You knew he’d notice the tunnels. You wanted him to ask about it and pity you.”
One glanced aside. “Can we not fight in front of him?”
Thriga huffed, but turned away. Clarity watched them settle back in front of the machines, long body coiled and stretched like a lazing snake. They flicked the switch back on, and a quiet hum filled the room, louder than the sloshing of the magic in the heart.
“Are you a Fragment?” Clarity asked.
Thriga glanced back, almost startled, eyes slightly wider. “What? Of course I am. What kind of a question is that?”
“They’re a Fragment,” One said, palming their trident. “And, uh, you’ve gotten their signature, so we should probably leave them to their work....”
Clarity stared a second longer. But - he knew when to pick his battles, as much as it killed him. Thriga’s eyes stared into his, piercing, as if asking him to pick that fight, to question what they were.
It was an honest question. It really was.
But despite the raging curiosity in his chest, he turned on a heel, and followed One down the empty tunnel once more.
“That went better than I thought it would,” Clarity said, after the silence stretched on too long.
One glanced back from the ship’s helm. “What, Thriga? Or-?”
“All of it. All three of your signatures.” Clarity tapped his hands against the railing. “Tower implied it was - required more convincing. I believe him, of course, but....”
Maybe Tower was just a dick, and that complicated his persuasions. It’d be plausible.
It was hard not to be grateful, though, that he’d managed to handle Alpha already. That shadowed beast had already been slain. In a way, it felt unfair to judge Tower’s methods, if he’d managed to convince that place....
One cleared their throat. “That makes sense. I’m glad it went easily, even if Thriga was a little....”
“Distant,” Clarity offered.
Not the full truth. But the polite truth.
“I wish they weren’t still spying,” One bemoaned. “They’re not supposed to, Asa’ll be mad. Not that I’m going to tell him....”
One looked guilter, somehow. “It’s between them. I don’t fully - I’m not down here all the time, I don’t get all the nuances of their politics and stuff. Sometimes Asa asks Thriga to spy on mortals for - well, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just not my business.”
“No? Considering how you’re - connected to Sigma?”
Silence, for a beat. The ship bobbed across Sigma’s great ocean, lanterns strung over its mast and sides lighting up the sea around it. In the distance, two bright specks signaled land - signaled the teleport pad’s island.
Signaled, in a way, home.
Then, finally, One spoke: “I’m just - in its magic. They’re the ones who actually run the place, and care about the mortals, and stuff. Like real Fragments.”
“Taking care of a Timeline’s magic is as much a ‘real Fragment’ task as its mortals,” Clarity said, crossing his arms.
“Sure, but it’s not really the same, you know? The... it’s hard to... I try to be nice to them, but it’s, they’re so....” One sighed, and took several seconds before continuing, “they’re so small in comparison. They’re like, cells, I guess. So I just try to treat them gently and stuff, leave them to Thriga and Asa.”
The thought lingered in the air as One docked. Silence ruled them again - something a little awkward, uncomfortable, after Thriga. Like they were both still grasping Thriga’s attitude, their coldness, their bluntness.
Well, Clarity could see now why they’d never met before. Not that he was a fan of Aryl’s parties, but he couldn’t imagine Thriga tolerating them for even a second.
They disembarked, down to the pad, and One crouched down to flip open a small hatch. Contained within was an elaborate magic circle and bundles of wires, which they set to fiddling with.
For another long moment, the only sound was the distant howling wind, and the shove of clouds across the dark sky. A dark place, even up at the surface. A land devoid of a sun, or a blessed moon. A miserable place, in a way.
“I can understand now why you compared Sigma to Mu at times,” Clarity said.
“It’s easier to think of it like a body I guess, because-” One stopped themself. Then, as if they hadn’t stumbled over naming it, “I’d like it if you didn’t tell anyone though.”
Clarity nodded. “I can’t promise I won’t tell my Psi peers. I hope you understand that. But beyond that - of course, we’ll keep quiet.”
“Okay.” they didn’t quite sound satisfied. “I guess that’s the best I can ask for. Uh, sorry. I don’t mean to sound rude.”
“No, I understand your want for secrecy.” Clarity reached to pat One’s shoulder. Their eyes widened. “You’ve my word that Psi can keep this mum. If we’re good at nothing else....”
“Aw, I’m sure there’s - other stuff,” One said, punctuated with an awkward laugh. “You have an ocean, right? Maybe we could go sailing on it sometime or something.”
“...It’s much calmer waters than this,” Clarity said, half-deadpan. “More hazards to navigate around, though. Interested in a obstacle course?”
“Well, that doesn’t sound too bad,” One smiled back, his face lit almost lovingly. “Thanks for the offer, Clarity of the Wheel.”
One fiddled further with the pad’s controls. Clarity watched, leaning against one of the columns that surrounded the platform, hands in pockets.
Honestly, it’d been a miracle that Psi’s teleport had connected to Sigma’s at all, considering the state of its locked-down pad, the wards in the air. Maybe it was luck.
Or maybe, in some way, One had influenced it? That some subconscious part of them tugged on the Timeline’s heartstrings, and it saw help on the horizon and opened the door?
“Can I ask you something?” One abruptly cut in.
“Clarity of what wheel? Is it like, a physical wheel or is it - metaphorical?”
Clarity froze - then snorted, letting the smile overtake him. “It’s metaphorical. The wheel of life, I guess, the - cyclical nature of things. Knowledge of it.”
“It’s a cool name. Everyone in Psi has cool names.” the controls sparked, and One stood, half-proud. “I, uh, picked my name because of a stupid reason.”
One gave a sheepish shrug. “I was, uh, the first Fragment to wake up. That’s literally it. Then it was Asa and then Thriga, so it just sort of - ended up that way.”
“That’s not stupid.”
“It’s not as cool as like - Up On the Cradle’s Life.”
“It’s ‘Upon the Cradle of Life’, actually.”
One rounded on him, hands clasped together. “That’s even cooler!”
Clarity tilted his head, though he still smiled. “You could always change your name, couldn’t you?”
One paused. “I - I guess. It’d be weird after so long, though.”
“Change isn’t all bad,” Clarity said. “Sometimes it’s needed - to shake things up, clear the dust.”
In a way, Beginnings had done that for them. Opened their eyes anew, brought new life and perspectives into their monotony, ruined the comfortable routines they’d fallen into.
In a way, this entire Alliance business could be traced right back to that night where Horizons pulled him out of the ocean. After all, it’d been spurred on by the Coalition’s demands to study Beginnings, their insinuations that he wasn’t one of them.
They’d always known the Coalition didn’t really care, didn’t really have the patience. But to have them take such a sudden, vested, angry interest - only to fail to send operatives, to never follow through on anything... he could still remember the look on Cradle’s face, as their hands lifted off the telepathy crystal.
It was such an unfamiliar anger.
“You’re right,” One said, tapping their hands together in lieu of their trident. “It’s just - a lot at once. Maybe after the Alliance gets off the ground or something. Which, uh - the pad’s online, now.”
“Thanks, One.” Clarity stepped forwards. “It was nice to get to know you better.”
“That’s - the feeling’s mutuals!” One beamed.
They squeaked as Clarity gave them a brief, one-armed hug - just a tight, quick little squeeze, something between comforting and familiar. Their arms flew around him for a second, too, before releasing.
He gave them a nod. They stepped back, away from the pad’s runes, and regarded him with a hopeful little smile and widened eyes.
“Take care, alright?” Clarity said.
“You too,” One replied, tail swishing.
Clarity clapped his hands, and the surge of magic slammed into his body.
The vestiges of the teleportation dripped away from his fur in flecks and sparkles, and Clarity of the Wheel took in a deep, soothing breath of the humid and soft Psi air -
- and promptly had it knocked right back out of his lungs as Tower scooped him into a bone-crunching hug.
“Tower!” Beginnings’ yelp rang out over Cradle’s laughter, “Don’t break his spine! He needs that!”
“I wouldn’t be breaking his spine if you hadn’t let him wander off into Sigma alone!” came the retort, Tower shifting to squeeze tighter for a split second - before letting out a pained groan, and setting Clarity down gently.
He reached to rub at his back, wincing slightly. “Thanks for the welcome. What are you doing out of bed?”
His eyes flicked down, to a bundle of blankets and pillows on the floor. The pattern over the fabric told him that they’d been stolen right out of the obelisk’s hospice.
“He’s been here since he found out you were setting off,” Cradle said, serene as ever, hands crossed over his chest.
“With good reason!” Tower protested, voice cracking slightly. “Again, I repeat! You’ve sent off our good Wheel into the dark abyss alone!”
“He’s okay!” Beginnings protested, gesturing at Clarity, who was indeed fine. He straightened his back, to drive the point home. “And - if you’re back so soon-”
“Sigma’s joined,” Clarity said, and procured the contracts. “It went... better than I expected, honestly.”
Cradle’s face lit up with pure, unadulterated joy. He glided forwards to accept them gingerly, like they were precious jewels.
Maybe they were. One’s wide-eyed elation rose in his mind, a quiet reminder, something warm in his chest.
He’d like to help them. He’d like to help Sigma.
He’d like to help One.
Tower huffed. “I maintain - he shouldn’t have needed to go. What’s next? You tell me Sulfur’ll be sacrificed on the altar of momentum? That darling Wheel will continue to slave over our pet project, and his mortals will cry out in abandoned agony?”
“You were the one insisting on momentum,” Beginnings muttered, poking Tower’s ribs.
Clarity raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be going out again to Iota? We’re rotating shifts for a reason.”
“Rotating shifts?” Tower’s voice reached a new octave. “So Sulfur is actually - how did you agree to this, Wheel?”
“Horizons isn’t up next,” Clarity said.
Tower turned to Cradle in incredulous horror. Cradle gave a patient smile, and an amused shake of his head. Silence echoed over the space as the realization hit Tower.
Slowly, achingly, he pivoted towards Beginnings, arms open in utter uncomprehending confusion. Clarity grinned, in spite of himself.
“I’m going to Iota,” Beginnings said, chipper as ever.