Chains rattled as Chase walked. She had expected something like this. This place was a prison, after all.
What she hadn't expected was to be trussed up to the point where she had trouble walking. She didn't quite have any balance anymore, so much as she had momentum. And more than once she'd failed to take a corner and fallen over, at which point the guards had taken out their frustrations on her with kicks and angry shouts.
She'd cried back in obvious pain, faking every second of it. The chains were so thick and numerous that she barely felt their blows, and if she'd dared to call up her status screen she was halfway convinced that she'd find her armor had risen to triple digits.
But she didn't speak. She kept her eyes and ears open and watched and listened. Not to the scowling guards, who were silent or screaming without any in-between. But to the sounds of distant fighting, of gates opening and shutting, and alarms starting up in the distance, interrupted by closed doors, only to resound once more when she passed by frantically rattling mechanical chimes.
Up stairs, down stairs, over long chasms in the rock... she lost track of her placement in short order. It was amazing, in its own way, and if she weren't fighting every step to avoid rolling down the stairs, or focusing on staying in the exact center of the too-narrow bridges over those deep, deep gorges, Chase would have appreciated it more. As it was, all she could wonder about was why nobody had thought to include railings.
Finally they brought her sweating, exhausted body through a set of iron double doors four times her height, and into a high-ceilinged room, vaulted, with columns and something like an altar on the far end of it. Tubes lined the walls, spiraling in all directions, overlapping each other until the culminated in a stand next to the 'altar'.
A single guard, the oldest Chase had seen, stood stooped, whispering into one of the tubes. He straightened up as they dragged Chase to him, and gestured her over. Before she could try to change course, her escorts picked her up bodily and deposited her next to the tubes, being none too gentle about the whole affair.
“Our lady, in her mercy, has decided to speak unto you.” The older guard intoned, his fierce eyes never leaving hers. “If you attempt trickery or disrespect, we shall kill you. We have little time for fools or foes. Do you understand me?”
“I understand,” Chase said. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Instead of replying the old man simply turned his back and marched off, waving her escort away as he did so.
And the second eyes were off her, Chase scrunched her neck down, pushing her mouth below the highest ring of chains. Then she mouthed “Silent Activation, Diagnose.”
Your Silent Activation skill is now level 4!
Staring at the guard, she got one of the answers she was looking for... but not the one she was hoping for.
Speranza's pet – Warden Grimaldi
Her singing doesn't just charm them, Chase thought, feeling her gorge rise in her throat. It makes them her pets.
She'd talked with Renny about trapping his friends, tricking them into a cell of the prison and using absorb condition to peel the charm off them one by one. It would take a day per person to purge it from her, but once the crisis was over it could be done. But now, given what she'd just learned, this solution wouldn't work. Absorb condition only worked on debuffs or conditions. This was something more fundamental, she thought. The skill wouldn't work.
That's fine, Chase thought to herself. That's a later part of a fall-back plan anyway. I just have to use a different plan, here.
“Girl?” A familiar, melodious voice asked from the open speaking tube. “Girl, are you there?”
“I am,” Chase said, turning to more properly face it. “Are you Thomasi's friend?”
An intake of breath, then. Subtle and fast, but Chase had good ears. “I am,” Speranza said.
“Good. I'm sorry about the fuss, but I didn't have any time to waste. I had to get here before she did. Are you safe?”
“Safe is such a relative word. I'm afraid you're too late... the—” Speranza used some very unflattering curses that indicated a very bad woman, then continued. “—is already in the prison. I'm going to need all the help I can get stopping her. So how strong are you, dear?”
“Not very,” Chase said. “I'm a newly-trained Oracle.”
“An Oracle? Hm... What's your level?”
“Tch. That's too low. No, no, you'd barely be a speedbump to her. I don't think I'll be borrowing you, not while I've got guards still uncharmed.”
Chase sagged in her chains, relieved beyond measure. This had been the diciest part of the plan. She'd hoped that if she appeared too weak, that Speranza wouldn't want to waste energy to enslave her. It seemed that she had figured correctly, there.
But the relief froze in Chase's veins as Speranza continued, her voice sharpening. “And yet, two of my guards are dead. Seemingly from running into you. Now how did that come to be, dear?”
Time to start up the half-truths, Chase knew. Again, she dipped her mouth into the chains, and formed the words “Silent Activation, Silver Tongue.”
Your Silver Tongue skill is now level 2!
“I had to seek help from an adventurer to get in here,” Chase said, bending the truth. “He agreed to help me, so long as I helped him save his friends. When the guards showed up he used his air powers to toss everything around and kill them. I couldn't stop him, I'm sorry. I never wanted to fight them!”
“I see. And where is the fox now?”
I didn't tell her he was a fox. But it's possible the mob of guards noticed him when we went through. “I don't know. He escaped through a hole in the wall. But he can't save his friends, can he? So it's kind of a moot point.”
“No. He can't. Not until this is all over. I'll happily let his friends go once we're done. I'm no monster. All this is temporary.”
“Thomasi certainly hopes you will,” Chase said, and let the bait hang in the air, even though she wanted to say more. This was the sticking point, this was the crux. Everything hinged on Speranza's reaction, here...
...and she did not disappoint.
“Did he? Did... Thomasi tell you anything? About me?”
And there it was.
That tone, that little hitch in her voice, that Chase knew by heart. The hitch that happened when someone desperately, woefully, loved someone else. Or thought they did, anyway, and that was pretty much the same thing.
Speranza was a dangerous and mysterious creature... an entity of blatant and horrible power, but she wore the body and had at least part of the soul of a hopeful woman.
And Chase had been trading in romantic hopes and dreams for years, in one of the most unforgiving and hazardous environments possible; the hormone-laden teenage courts of a small, isolated village.
“Yes.” She said, grinning and not bothering to hide it. “He regrets that he could never truly tell you how he felt. But he couldn't! Not with them listening in like that. You understand, of course.”
“Ah!” Speranza gasped. “Of course.”
The raw relief in her tone was everything Chase had hoped for and more. “At any rate, he'll do what he can from outside. But he sent me to help on the inside. I can't really do that while I'm chained up like this, though. May I trouble you for release, here?”
“Yes, yes. Though I'm not certain how you can help. Oracles can heal, right? I don't recall reading much about them on the forums. Of course it's been a while...” her voice turned melancholy. “No matter. Warden? Free her. She's a guest, not a prisoner.”
Frowning, the guard did so.
Chase rubbed the soreness from her limbs, as best she could. “Yes, I could heal, but I'd rather help figure out how to get you out of here. My former ally, the fox, had some ideas but he didn't share them. You're trapped behind a stone wall, right?”
“Thomasi didn't tell you about that? That's strange,” in an instant, Speranza's voice sharpened, and Chase froze, her mind working in overdrive.
A misstep. This could be bad. Unless...
“Silent Activation, Foresight,” Chase mouthed, and saw the results of speaking the first thing that came into her head. The last thing she saw was her shadow form shaking her head frantically. “Um,” Chase said instead, following it up with another “Silent Activation, Foresight,” and an “Uh,” when that one resulted in a negative, as well. She made sure to shake her head frantically, matching ghostly Chase's actions. That helped, somewhat, but not completely. The paradox built, and with it, the pain.
“What was that?” Speranza asked.
Chase felt the band tighten in her chest, and kept it up, feeling the moxie drain from her, bravery fleeing bit by bit. Feeling that odd, indescribable tug as her fortune leached out of her, disappearing to Hoon or however it worked. But the fifth foresight worked, as instead of shaking her head, her ghost-version nodded.
Your Foresight skill is now level 15!
“Um... I really hate to admit it, but I think Mister Thomasi doesn't think I'm competent enough to handle this yet. This is kind of a test for me. To see if I'm worthy to be his servant.”
“Ah,” Speranza said, satisfied. “That makes sense.”
And the band in Chase's chest faded, as she nodded happily.
“You want to be his servant that much, then?” Speranza asked, sounding entirely too innocent. But in her voice there was a current, that current of undecided jealousy that Chase had spent years learning to detect.
“I do! I want to join his circus and live a life of adventure, where I can meet a rich halven man who isn't from my stupid village and fall in love!” Chase said all in a rush, trying her best to sound like Loosy Lapin.
“Oh girl...” Speranza definitely sounded relieved. Relieved and amused. “That's, ah, that’s a worthy goal. Who knows, maybe you can help somehow? My Siren Charm definitely does a number on my poor guards attributes. And they weren't recruited for their brains to begin with... yes. Zenobia's stuck trying to get through several very thick gates right now, so we've got a little time to talk and plan, at least. How do you think you can help me?”
Chase looked around, and motioned toward a nearby stool. When the guards just stared at her, she sighed, went and dragged it over, and had a seat. “Why don't you start by telling me what your situation is? We can go from there.”
“Simply put, they've sealed me in a stone room. My food and water comes down through a dumbwaiter.”
“A box on a rope, which comes through a chimney-like passage,” Speranza sounded frustrated. “There are no other ways in or out. For a long time I was left alone. That was... a bad time. Then the others tried to escape, and they got some concessions, and so did I. Then someone installed speaker tubes in the walls, so I could at least talk to the other playas.”
Chase wondered if she had heard that last word correctly. But all of her social instincts were telling her that interrupting Speranza again for more definitions was a bad idea.
Chase took a breath. That was a good reminder of just how dangerous the situation was. For all the lady seemed pleasant and cooperative, she was still dangerous. Chase forced herself to tune back in to what Speranza was saying.
“…no other ways out. They planned for me to die here. Unless I could shrink myself down and try the dumbwaiter or vents, or swim out through the toilet, I’m stuck.” She laughed a laugh that was barely on the happy side of sanity. “I thought perhaps the guards had shrinking potions. You know? Something labeled eat me, or drink me. Like Alice! But I had them look and no, no. Nothing of that sort.”
“Okay… do you know precisely where in the prison you are?”
“Kind of. The Warden was obliging enough to dig out the blueprints, after I tamed him. But… they’re hard to read. Most of my poor minions don’t have the intelligence anymore. If only I were higher level!” Speranza sighed. “Or maybe if I could find an engineer… or whatever they’re called, here.”
“A Tinker?” Chase offered.
“Yes! Those people. But even a Tinker wouldn’t be of much use unless I had a Mason. I don’t see how the blueprints are of much help.”
“Is Dijornos a Tinker?” Chase asked.
Speranza’s laugh was pure scorn vocalized. “He isn’t. Or he’d have found a way to save himself already. Not that it matters. If there’s one consolation I have from this mess, it’s that he’ll die too. And he’s low. He’s almost out of tokens, I’d bet my livestream on it.”
Chase blinked, and held her tongu, though the curiosity burned within her. “Well, let me take a look at the blueprints anyway. Maybe there’s something there.”
They took her to the Warden’s office, with Grimaldi’s name neatly printed across the door. The lamps were brighter in here than the ones in the halls, and Chase stared thoughtfully at the blueprints that were laid across the desk.
The thoroughly incomprehensible blueprints.
With a sigh, she rolled them up… and a hand fell on her shoulder.
“Those aren’t yours,” the Warden ground.
“I know of someone who might be able to use them to free your lady,” Chase said, holding his gaze. “But they can’t come here, so the blueprints will have to go to them. We’ll have to get her permission, though… unless you speak for her now?”
“Of course not!” The Warden looked shocked. “The Lady is… she’s everything.”
“Then let’s go ask her,” Chase said, holding back a shudder.
“Well,” Chase said, as she returned to the cathedral-like room. “The bad news is that I can’t read the blueprints. The good news is that I know someone who can. But… it’s not entirely good news.”
“I’m listening,” Speranza confirmed.
“The adventurer who got me in here, the fox. He’s very, very smart. And he has a list of names and jobs of people you’ve captured. That list might reveal a mason or a tinker or someone helpful.”
“I don’t have any captives!”
“The halven,” The Warden spoke, eyeing Chase with new suspicion.
Chase smiled back, and felt a drop of sweat roll down her brow.
“Oh, them! Yes… I hadn’t even considered that. Good idea! Say… you’re halven. You know them, then?”
“Yes, but I don’t know their jobs,” Chase said, lying… well, mostly lying. She didn’t know everyone’s full list of jobs, and the group was full of old people. At least one of them was fifty. “And given the circumstances I don’t think they’ll just tell me. And besides, if you convert one of them, even if they have something useful it might cut their skills down to the point where they can’t help you.”
“You say the fox knows their jobs. But you’re a halven. How do you not know?”
It was time to play a card and hope for the best. She checked it with foresight, just to be sure, and was relieved to see her ghost-self nod.
“You may have noticed that the group was mostly men,” Chase said, sourly. “Where I come from, halven men don’t think much of women. We’re for babies and cooking and chores. So they don’t tell me anything and I’m stuck in the kitchen whenever I can’t make up an excuse to get away. Why do you think I want to join the circus?” She threw in a vigorous nod, and felt the tension ease.
“Ah. Talk about a neckbeard’s paradise,” Speranza snorted. “I don’t blame you one bit, kid. So what do you propose? How do we get the halvens working for me?”
“The fox knows who might be able to help. Their name, anyway. The halvens need to cooperate willingly, in order to bring their full skills and talents on the matter. But neither of them have any reason to trust you. And you don’t have the time to bring them around to your point of view. That’s where I come into the picture!” Chase smiled, tucking the blueprints under her arm and spreading her hands… before she remembered that the woman couldn’t see her. “I can be your negotiator!” Chase continued, before the silence grew awkward.
“And what do you have to gain out of the matter?” Speranza asked.
“Thomasi’s approval! And a spot in his circus, once you’re free and this whole matter’s wrapped up—”
The room shook, the mountain itself seeming to rock with an unspeakable force. Dust rained down on Chase’s head as she dove for giver, dimly noticing with what little attention she could spare that the guards were doing the same.
Once the rumbling and cracking noise settled, Chase poked her head up, and stared at the speaking tubes. “Speranza? Speranza?”
“I’m here,” the woman replied. “Grimaldi? Check section B.”
The Warden uncapped a tube, and started barking questions into it, pushing his ear up against it as voices answered. And the more he heard, the grimmer his face grew.
“Zenobia’s forces retreated from the bulkhead gates a few minutes ago. Now the gates are gone. So are your servants who were too far forward. The redoubt sees the enemy advancing through the smoke. They’ll sell their lives dearly, ma’am.”
“Of course you will,” Speranza said. “Well. It looks like she’s got a tinker. Or brought a lot of explosives, anyway.” There was a tension to Speranza’s voice now. “You. Halven girl. Are you still alive?”
“I am. I’m here,” Chase said, stepping back to the tubes.
“That time we had to discuss and plan? It’s gone now. You want to negotiate for my freedom?”
“Done. Warden, tell the other guards. This girl walks where she will, and is not to be harmed. Assist her with any reasonable, safe request.”
“I’ll need maps,” Chase said, smiling at the now-growling Warden. “This place is a maze.”
“Give her those too.”
Grudgingly, the Warden barked orders, and in the space of a minute guards were tossing scrolls at her, as she caught them one by one. “It’s done, Lady,” the Warden said while the last one was still in the air.
“Good. Go, girl. Save me and I’ll speak well of you to Thomasi!”
“I’ll do my best!” Chase promised.
Only when she was outside the door, did Chase relax. And even then, just for a second. She was exhausted, drained…
…for all of five seconds, before a familiar rush of power filled her.
You are now a level 3 Grifter!
For a dim, distant second she was upset that she hadn’t gotten an Oracle level out of it. Figuring out how to use foresight to navigate a dangerous conversation seemed pretty ingenious…
…but only for a second.
“I have too much to do and time is not on my side,” Chase said, reminding herself. She sat down, flipping through the maps, looking for the place she needed to be.
CHASE'S CHARACTER SHEET
Name: Chase Berrymore
Age: 15 Years
Halven level 8, Cook level 4, Archer level 2, Grifter level 3, Oracle level 4
Attributes Pools Defenses
Strength: 47 Constitution: 28 Hit Points: 75 Armor: 0
Intelligence: 49 Wisdom: 69 Sanity: 118 Mental Fortitude: 25
Dexterity: 75 Agility: 53 Stamina: 128 Endurance: 0
Charisma: 93 Willpower: 38 Moxie: 131 Cool: 25
Perception: 50 Luck: 93 Fortune: 143 Fate: 20
Archery – Level 1
Brawling – Level 7
Climb – Level 15
Dagger – Level 2
Dodge – Level 10
Fishing – Level 14
Ride – Level 10
Stealth – Level 14
Swim – Level 7
Throwing – Level 19
Fate's Friend – Level N/A
Small in a Good Way – Level N/A
Cooking - Level 14
Freshen - Level 10
Aim – Level 1
Missile Mastery – Level N/A
Quickdraw – Level N/A
Rapid Fire – Level N/A
Ricochet Shot – Level 1
Fools Gold – Level 1
Master of Disguise – Level 3
Silent Activation – Level 4
Silver Tongue – Level 3
Size Up – Level 1
Absorb Condition – Level N/A
Diagnose – Level N/A
Divine Pawn – Level N/A
Foresight – Level 15
Lesser Healing – Level 8
Farmer, Herbalist, Teacher