It's Getting Colder(Warning!)


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It was getting colder in the Kamchatka Peninsula. This was not a strange thing. Quite the contrary, according to the seasons and passage of time as defined as 'normal,' this temperature change was expected. What was, perhaps, not as expected was the recent development of the Kamchatka Peninsula declaring itself an independent theocracy by the name of 'Canaan' under the rule of 'The Goddess.'

That was, in fact, not 'normal.'

In the vein of not 'normal' things happening, almost one thousand men and women died in the care of ACF facility L-9. People died all the time, it was a natural progression of life, but typically they did not die at L-9 without authorization, a lot of paperwork, legal signatures, and prior notices. The 'humans' that died were captured members of a death cult GOI known as 'The Children of the Goddess.' They had been acquired in a named Breach event five years prior alongside ACF-1003. They had, until just now, all been healthy and alive with no signs of passing away.

The deaths had not been shocking, simply unexpected.

Autopsies revealed each had lost exactly 75% of their hearts, 52% of their livers, and 41% of their bone mass in what the doctors referred to as a 'sudden traumatic removal.' Where these pieces had gone would, normally, be impossible to track. But these people had been at L-9, and L-9 had authorizations, paperwork, legal signatures, and prior notices. As a result, L-9 knew exactly where the pieces of these people had gone.

A newly formed nation known as 'Canaan,' formerly the Kamchatka Peninsula, had acquired these bits of flesh and bone. Hocus Locusts had been dispatched via cargo plane to investigate, they would be briefed beforehand and during the travel process. Normally, this is not how Hocus Locusts traveled. However, things in the former Kamchatka Peninsula were anything but 'normal.' The region was experiencing an astronomical increase in reality distortion, focused on the capital city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The Locusts could have traveled their normal way, it wasn't impossible, but it would require authorization, paperwork, legal signatures, and prior notices.

And, at the current reality distortion increase rate, they did not have time for that.

So it was that, aboard an L-14 cargo plane, an L-9 team was dispatched to the new nation of Canaan to solve a problem before it hurt too many people. Because protecting the world was what the Locusts did, and L-14 just happened to have a plane already ready and waiting. Because sometimes coincidences were the universe's way of telling you that you were on the right path.
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Personnel: Surface Team Hocus Locusts: Gail Weber, "Duet," A-Class-E; Joshua Seimar, "Leech," R-Class-D; Caitlynn Corby, "Ghost in the Spell," A-Class-C; Brian Connor, "Tech Wizard," A-Class-C; Nic Gutierrez, "Damsel," A-Class-C

Location: en-route to "Canaan" incident area

Purpose: Theological Debate

"Cait pissed off a de~ity." Nic's tone was singsong and thoroughly amused with the situation, even if he was making fun of his fellow agent. Making fun of Cait was a time-honored tradition, after all, and he wasn't going to pass up the opportunity when he had such a good setup for it.

"Ugh, shut up." Cait also thought it was funny, but also this had been going on the entire trip and a decent part of the time before it. She was sitting on the floor of the cargo plane in front of Gail, who was twisting Cait's hair into an intricately braided coil around Cait's head, ostensibly because it fit better under the helmet that way. Also, it gave her something to do with her hands while they were waiting for the plane to get there. Flight was boring. They all knew why they couldn't just -gloop- in like usual, but that didn't make it any more interesting.

"Agent Corby was going to piss off a deity no matter what she chose in that situation." Joshua usually didn't get involved with the squabbles, so it was possible that he was getting a little tired of it as well. "She chose to piss off the one that wasn't already aligned with ACF. We could be headed into the Waking World instead of this new Canaan, you realize."

"I know. That's the problem. Cait got to go visit the meatworld and the rest of us didn't. It's not fair! Waaah!" Nic was being deliberately overdramatic to get a reaction, but that didn't mean it wasn't going to work.

"Oh my stars, Nic, are you three?"

"Five." Whether that meant that Nic had five years of memories or whether it meant that he was officially STRH/LH-IX-05 was anyone's guess, but both of them were equally bad puns.

"Ugh-" Cait moved a little bit, stopped by the tug of a half-finished braid.

"Hold still."

Cait was not good at holding still unless she really wanted to. She subsided, but fidgeted. "Can I throw something at him, at least? Ugh. Brian, hit him for me."

Brian glanced up from the tablet in his hand at Cait, then over at Nic, who was easily twice the size of anyone else on the team, then back at Cait. "No."

"And now you're being sensible again, I hate it when you're sensible."

"Hold still."

"Fine, fine. Holding still. Just don't drip demon goo in my hair." Given that Gail hadn't even manifested and wasn't likely to on the plane, this wasn't really anything to worry about so much as just a generalized complaint. "Also, it's not necessarily my fault."

This was met with a general sigh, from multiple angles.

"Cait, we all know it's your fault."

"It's not necessarily a bad thing - like lancing a boil, really."


"-Really, you would think you would be used to it by now. In any case: It needed to be done or it would be worse eventually. This way we have at least some control over the timing and are able to take steps to control the, ah, infection. As it were. The divine pustule."

"You know what, I regret saying I wanted to go to the meatworld, actually."

"Nic, you're such a baby."

"We're getting close. Time to suit up and put on your professionalism." Gail had pinned the trailing end of the last braid and released Cait from her position on the floor, giving everyone space to add on whatever bits of their Foundation armor they hadn't already been wearing.

Brian, being Brian, was already in everything except the helmet, his armor a dull machine gray for the first half of the flight, but the switch to professionalism meant activating his suit's specialized camouflage overlay, the dull gray fading away to blend in perfectly with his surroundings. He had an alternate digital camouflage mode that looked the standard gray on the outside but would fail to show up on any sort of sensors or computer monitors - but that wasn't likely to be the case here. Camouflage wasn't going to stop a Goddess, but it might give a cultist pause - or not, but they'd find out when they got there.

Nic's was orange, because it wasn't like people weren't going to see him anyway. It was vented at various places along the limbs and sides, which somehow let his summons gloop out from the tattoos on his skin and into the world around him. He wasn't really sure how it worked, and since it was something that Gail and Cait had worked up together, there was no way he was going to ask. There was a Tigger doodled on one of the biceps, which somehow made it terrifying.

Cait's was currently a galaxy purpleish, and covered with tiny stars. The tiny stars were undoubtedly some sort of spell, and the purpleish definitely meant something, and the Locusts were very carefully not commenting on what it meant even though they'd all figured it out. Knowing Cait, it was also tied into some sort of spell, which would do... whatever she thought it should, whenever she thought it was going to. In the wrong light, the purplish background was hiding tiny little occult runes all over the place, which might have also been part of a spell - or Cait might have just thought they looked neat. It was always hard to tell, with Cait.

Joshua's might have technically been armor, because they all had armor, but it was a dull olive green with little pouches all over the place, which were filled with random medical supplies that might be useful. He'd carry a pack as well, but it was easy to drop a pack and everything that he really needed, he wanted to have on him. There was just no knowing when you needed to do a blood transfusion sacrifice, after all.

And Gail's was probably white once. That was about all that could be said for it. Now it was discolored, with grayish-brownish oilslick smudges all over the place, most heavily along the arms. The demon mark didn't really wash out, after all. Or maybe it did, and she just left it that way because she liked it.

"Good. So. We're approaching the now-declared Canaan, which is going to be a hot mess of pissed off Goddess. Theoretically our godbait's back at L-14, but if she ends up showing up I won't be too surprised. Use her if we can, recontain her at the end. Same goes for Kanga, though she's an expendable six, 1003's an expendable three." An expendable one meant under no circumstances expendable, the mission would fail if they lost the target. Two was the security council, generally speaking. A three was prefer not to lose this one if possible. The team classed themselves as a four - they weren't in it to die, but they'd accept what came to them. That was part of being a surface team, after all.

"Probably going to be some husks in there, definitely some cultists. Use your discretion on those. We're not looking to bring home friends this time, but we'll take them if it's easy."

"I'm~ bringing home a baby de~i~ty-"

"Cait, shut up."

"And we need to keep in mind that the Goddess is pissed off specifically at Cait after that L-14 incident, so she's likely to be a target." The timing had lined up well enough that they all knew what had happened. Cait had been experimenting at L-14 with some of the old bodies and seeing about making a husk - but being Cait, she'd done it her way - and since resurrections always went wrong, at 2:22 the next morning, all of the cultists that had been brought back with 1003 had decided to engage in organ donation, so to speak. At that point, they'd known something was about to happen, and it had just been a matter of gathering what information they could while waiting for the hammer to drop.

"Watch her back, and your own. I'll draw aggro if I have the opportunity."

"You going to try to get a binding contract on her?"

"No." There was a lot of unspoken classified information in that no. A lot of it boiled down to that [expletive] stole our kid. Gail had opinions about that. The Locusts, every one of them, understood that those opinions were likely to be extremely violent. "I'm going to engage in theological debate."
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The moment Gail spoke the words ‘theological debate,’ as on queue, an explosion rocked the plane. The plane had not been hit directly, but something had exploded very, very close. A few expletives could be heard over the radios followed by the pilot reporting, “We are being [EXPLATIVE]ing fired at! I thought the Russian government agreed to this mi-“

Another explosion rocked the plane, bigger and closer than the last. The back door of the plane began to open, prepped for the occupants to drop out. The Russian government had approved of Foundation involvement in recovering their territory. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Russian government firing at the cargo plane.

The nation had not existed for more than a day or two, yet Cold War weapons had already been pulled out of storage, armed and manned. The Canaanites had been busy. Twelve dozen anti-Aircraft batteries had been set up at various rooftops and now fired up at the cargo plane. Normally, modern planes did not need to worry about these type of old weapons for a variety of reasons. Most of the reasons culminating in a massive increase in the height modern planes flew at.

Unfortunately the cargo plane was flying low enough to drop passengers out in parachutes.

Radio us if you need backup, we have a few surface teams on standby!”


The city was more than bustling down below, it was a veritable hive of frantic movement and activity. Every man, woman, and child was working frantically to build -something- in the center of the capital. There was really only one thing it could be, a shrine.

However, unlike previous arts and crafts projects of ACF-1003, this was not an amalgamation of bones and flesh strands. It was comprised mainly of metal. Bent, misshapen, and crudely welded metal spiraled into the world’s largest and ugliest looking modern art piece. However, from a certain angle, it almost looked like a an archway. From a certain angle, it almost looked like a doorframe. From a certain angle, it looked like something was trying to claw its way out from inside of it.

Or someone.

The cargo plane had barely reached the outskirts of the city before it was forced to start turning around. But its payload would likely be delivered with little trouble. Not every human was tasked with building the shrine, but every human’s task in the city was related to its construction. Some hunted and harvested food for the workers, others took over childcare so more could build, even more performed extensive maintainance on local apartment blocks so that efficient and clean living could be established for the workers. It was almost a perfect, kind, happy hive.

Except, happy people didn’t cry uncontrollably while they worked. They tended to smile, not plead for rest in Russian or stare dead eyed ahead while they cared for others. Some seemed fine with their new lifestyle, but whether it was a result of genuine love for their new Goddess or a coping mechanism, it was impossible to tell. No one stepped out of line though, no one dared. They were watching.

Her Husks.

Her Husks stood on two long, spindly legs. Their feet were wide and clawed, digging deep into the concrete rooftops upon which they posted as if it were no more than soft dirt between their toes. Their bodies were long and thin, and their arms looked almost human, almost. The similarities ended at the tips, they possessed no hands, only sharpened points for stabbing, impaling, and killing. They had no head, and no eyes, but their torsos held massive, gaping maws of teeth. But perhaps worst of all, they were completely silent. Even as they moved and patrolled, they did not turn as if to look around, nor did they make any noise whatsoever.

But they were watching.
The plane bucked, in a way it undoubtedly wasn't supposed to, and the noise of the impact was quickly followed by the noise of the pilot letting loose with a rather impressive stream of words that, unfortunately, wouldn't make it into the final report.

"I like this guy." They'd all found a way to hold on and were waiting to see what came next, unabashedly listening in on the pilot's conversation. More explosions followed, and that meant it was time for an executive decision.

"Okay, team. We're not going to get our ride blown up, let's drop in from here. Corby, you got the drop zone handled?"

"Yup. Easy."

"You're first, then. Gutierrez, stick by her. Connor, you're last man out, snipe from the sky if you need to."

A vague chorus of acknowledgement returned, which was all that was needed. Weber's attention turned to the pilot, temporarily between expletives. "Get out of here, we'll handle it. Put someone on standby and start moving them in closer, if this goes bad, it's going to go bad in a hurry."

From there, the only way to go was down. Cait slipped out first, dropping out of the plane with hardly even a whisper. She didn't seem to mind the fact that she was in freefall, weaving her hands into complicated signs, passing a bit of string between her fingers into a little cradle, which disappeared as she closed in on the ground. The string pattern was, briefly, reflected on the ground, which Cait touched down on, as if she'd just taken the last step off of the stairs and not jumped out of a plane. The rest of the team followed right behind her, not at all concerned about Cait deciding to break the laws of gravity. It was Cait, after all. She wasn't great at following rules. They'd learned to use that as an advantage.

Being down on the ground was weird. The team was good at assessing situations quickly, so it hardly took any time at all to look around and figure out what the [expletive] was going on.

There was a lot of [expletive] going on, as it turned out.

"We are going to blow that up, right?"

There could be only one that that Nic was referring to, the horrible modern art atrocity in the middle of the square.

"Of course we are."

"Sweet. Dibs."

"I'll go see what I can do about the, ah, civilian populace." Joshua didn't think for a moment that any one of those "civilians" - children and infants included - wouldn't try to murder them if commanded to do so - but he was a medic, and some of them looked unwell. It was no surprise that he wanted to check in on that - either because he thought he might be able to help, or because he thought he was the best bet at finding out what was going on with them.

"I'll take Team Statue. If She pops up there I wanna say hi."

"'Course you do."

"And to keep an eye on you so you don't get scared."

"Shut up, Ghost."

"Also if it goes dark I'll be able to direct traffic."

"Still can't believe- no, actually, I can. Never mind. Tech?"

"He's already gone." Connor would have faded into the background, silent, watchful, ready to take a shot if one presented itself. Given the current structure, he was almost certainly watching over the team's doctor.

"Cool beans. How about-" He stopped before finishing the question, because the only sound coming from the team's leader was a soft humming, harmonizing with itself. "Aaaand.... she's also gone. Okay, let's go vandalize the art museum." Nic and Cait moved towards the sculpture. This would undoubtedly attract the attention of the watchers, but the watchers already had their own attention to worry about.

Gail was standing in front of one of them already, her arm reached directly into the maw before it had known what was happening, a hand wrapped around one of the pointed teeth and jerking quickly downward. "Hell-lo. Any first Words?"
It did not respond as the newcomers landed, nor did it respond as one made itself known before its maw and reached for a tooth. Its form did not react as the tooth, firmly grasped and yanked, ripped clear from its mouth. To Gail’s hand, it would have felt similar to ripping a piece of rebar out of a weakened concrete block.

But the structure of the being did not move. Instead, a half dozen more would appear as if by magic. Of course, it was not magic. Their bodies moved as such incredible speed that they would be seen before they were heard, as their forms broke the sound barrier and slammed sonic booms mere meters above the ground. Car alarms would go off, glass would break, and locals would lose their ear drums as the Husks attempted to slam themselves into Gail. Pointed spiked outstretched, aimed to impale.


Not far off, but far enough the sonic booms wouldn’t blow out their eardrums, and close enough to be seen by Joshua, there was a small group of civilians. Two young women and a very old man herded seventeen small children into an apartment building. As if they knew what was happening, or what was going to happen, civilians were moving away from Gail.

One of the women, noticing Joshua, spoke quietly in Russian in his direction. The translation software built into his suit would sound off, “Are you with the government? Please, there are others I do not know what to do with. I- I don’t know how to help them, they will not stop crying.”

She beckoned him to follow and entered the apartment building. The moment the threshold had been passed, a deep darkness settled in around them. It was as if the light outside could not pass the doorframe. The women lit candles, but they did little more than illuminate the ground at their feet. Deeper into the building, soft whimpering and crying could be heard.

If Joshua followed, the woman would ask, “Are you like the construction workers? Do you hear the terrible voice in your head?”


The nearest Husks distracted, the path to the shrine laid relatively unoccupied. There were humans, of course, carrying metal and machinery to add to the horrifying amalgamation of modern art. But they ignored the presence of Nic and Cait. It was not as though they didn’t care, it was more that they did not dare to break focus off their work. Even from afar, a very tall, very large being could be seen standing before the shrine.

A denizen.

It was huge by Earth standards. Nearly fifty feet tall and twenty feet wide, its body looked like a thousand small cubic structures stacked into a humanoid shape. It stood on three pillar-like legs, possessed four arms that periodically combined and separated themselves, and had its body covered in pulsing bioluminescent blood vessels. Its eyes formed in ten rings of ten around its midsection and, where its head should have been, a great maw of teeth sat.

It was nearly impossible to tell if it noticed the pair moving toward it, but it had probably seen them. However, it seemed engrossed in the work of shaping and designing the metal structure. Its massive arms, like clouds of cubes within cubes, bent and shaped the iron and steel shrine as if it were no more than a sculpture of dried grass. Although it did not acknowledge the presence of Nic and Cait yet, its emotions could be felt like a miasma in the air.

It was in agony, and that agony spread to every human that came close to it. From there, the miasma would hang about the humans, keeping them in intense emotional distress.

-02, Joshua Seimar

Well, he'd attracted the notice he'd hoped for. One of the civilians had approached, asking quiet questions. He listened, nodding slightly as the software translated them.

"I, ah-" He did not speak Russian. The software could give him understanding, full translation was more difficult. He shook his head slightly, no, not with the government. Whether or not she'd understand that, who knew. Joshua pointed a thumb at himself. "Doctor." The word was in common usage in Russian as well as English - there was another word as well, the software told him, but this would suffice, and the woman seemed to be in enough torment without listening to him try to pronounce any Russian words.

Usually this was sufficient for people to assume that he wasn't with the government because he was a doctor, rather than questioning if he might be part of some underground organization. Those Medicine Sans Frontiers people that were commonplace now made for an excellent cover story. Joshua didn't often lie - too many of the things that the Locusts dealt with on a regular basis could tell if you were lying - but there was an art to selective truths and letting the other person believe what you'd implied without saying it. Gail was better at it, of course, but she was a lawyer. Doctors generally tried to convey information rather than conceal it.

He followed her into the apartment, which was an excellent way to get murdered, but Brian would be following along as well, silent and unseen, and ready to turn the interview into an autopsy if needed. The candles barely penetrated the darkness, and he found his mind wandering briefly to Cait and wondering what she would see in here. She'd informed the team of her status change, of course, but there hadn't really been time to do much with it between then and now. Ordinarily it was the sort of thing where one would say I hope that you know what you're doing, but with her knowing what she was doing did not necessarily stop it from being a terribly bad idea. He did hope this hadn't been the time where she'd gotten into more than she could handle, though. He'd watched her grow up, after all. He was rather fond of her.

From within the building, he could hear the soft noises of people in pain. A shame, that. He preferred his patients unconscious or dead, but being a field medic meant that he didn't often get to choose. Of course, there was always the opportunity to change that status, but he would see what he could do for the situation as it was. His guide was making additional inquiries of him, about construction workers and voices in his head. He shook his head again, wondering if she could see it in the darkness, and if she could, whether it was because there was just barely enough light or because she'd gotten her eyes unfixed.

Generally, the Locusts preferred to avoid voices in their heads - with the exception of maybe Gail, who had a bit of a special case in that regard. Their armor had hexes built in for that, both for keeping things out and for separating them for analysis, because sometimes it was useful to know what the voices in your head were supposed to have been saying. Usually Joshua let someone else handle that part, though, because if it was a voices in the head event, there was usually significant medical aid in need of rendering.

That thought alone was enough to make him wonder what he was about to walk into, here.

-03, Cait Corby
-05, Nic Gutierrez

Sound cracked, echoing across the clearing. Since it wasn't targeting them, Nic had a pretty good idea where the action would be. He kept his eyes on his own business, just like they'd all been trained to do. If the team lead said she was drawing aggro, you let the team lead draw aggro and did your own job while you had the opening. Also-

"Do you think she wants help?"

"Oh, [expletive], no." Nic's answer was immediate. "You haven't been around much. She's been pent up the whole time since that 'intervention.'" Neither one of them would make direct references to anything classified, of course, but they'd both recall that after Strings had glooped out a little baby Eldritch thing, the Security Council had decided to take a more active role in doing... whatever it was the Security Council did. That had left Strings absent from L-9, which had meant L-9's class E personnel had needed to step up, and that had included the Locust's team lead. Since they were also trying to keep it hush that Cait wanted the council position, that had meant Weber had been doing the extra layer of acting exactly like someone who was trying to get the position when Strings inevitably kicked the bucket, which was a whole lot of behaving herself and not letting the demon run amok. Cait had been distracted with L-14 stuff - a deliberate decision, with the benefit that distracting Cait with L-14 stuff was exactly what someone who was going for the Council position would have done - but Nic had been there for most of it. While, unlike a lot of ACF, the Locusts were all perfectly certain that Weber wasn't going to cut her demon loose until she was damn good and ready, that didn't mean they couldn't all tell.

So, she was probably having a great time. And since he and Cait had a whole statue to blow up, they were about to have a great time, too. They were both doing situation analysis, which meant watching what was going on and trying to figure out how to [expletive] it up in the best sort of way. The giant many eyed monster over on the side was a definite issue, as far as Nic was concerned.

Cait was going to want to bring it home, and where would they put it?

She was already watching it, and if she hadn't been properly suited up, he'd have been able to look over and see that cute little smile on her face, the dreamy one that meant whatever I am about to say is an absolutely terrible idea and you should be horrified.

"Hey, do you think-"

"We're not bringing it home." Nic didn't need to let her finish the question. The whole team would have known where that one was going.

"Aww... you're no fun. What're you thinking?"

"Keep an eye on it while I try something?

"Yay! I love it when people try things."

"It scares me when you approve."

"Baby. And you're going to do it anyway."

"Of course I am, otherwise I wouldn't be here." Nic had gotten his position on the Locusts fair and square, after all, which meant that he could be just as fun as the rest of them. He separated a bit from Cait, letting her take over watching to see what went wrong, found a piece of rebar in the mess of things and hit it against the ground a few times to knock the lingering bits of concrete off of it, and calmly walked over to put the twisted bit of metal onto the pile.

It wasn't like he could make it look any worse, but he wanted to see what happened when he did a little freelance guerilla artwork.

-01, Gail Weber

There was one of them, and then there were a lot of them. Of course, they couldn't all be in the same place at once, which made it easier. Gail had been in places where that wasn't the case, and it was certainly more interesting. She hummed softly - they didn't seem to have a song of their own, so she was choosing one for them. Being herselves, she was humming along with both the vocals and the instrumentals, simultaneously and without any issue. This was usually the point at which the rest of the Locusts backed away, but she'd already separated herselves, so there was nothing to worry about at all. Not for them, anyway.

The deadly spines came in, and she stepped between most of them, trusting the contract of The World and its restrictions on how many things could be in the same space at the same time. One of the spines skittered along the side of her armor, deflected; another was close enough that it left a rent in the thighpiece where it should have gone through her. Her hand came down on that one as the noise of their arrival finally surrounded them, impaling it with the tooth she'd pulled out at something that might have been a wrist or an elbow or a shoulder - it was a joint, anyway, and it would separate. She left the tooth; it wasn't as if she couldn't get others.

The humming hadn't stopped, of course, because the demon liked music. The attacks hadn't stopped either, and Gail stepped in to greet one of them, flexing her hand to release the armor enough that when the bone spike came in, it went through her palm. A part of her was definitely going to regret that in the morning, but the demon knew how to keep all the important parts intact. The skin around the wound didn't so much bleed as ooze, and she stepped in closer, closing her fist around it and yanking, hard enough to tear the limb from its socket and shaking her hand to dislodge it, closing the distance between herself and the next one once more. Another spine at her chest, the armor turned this one but her hand came down, bloody on the limb, and this time she held on - not jerking it away, but moving in, close, closer.

There was something on it - the color of livid bruises, something ropy and wormish, not quite so liquid but not so solid either, pulpy rather than stringy, twisting its way up the limb and starting to pull itself steadily over the body of the creature, bringing it together, as one, because there was no reason they couldn't get really close. It would be hard to tell what was happening at first, except there would be more of the things and... less of the husk they were attached to, as it was being slowly dissolved.

Or, more accurately, devoured.


The woman could see now that Joshua couldn’t understand her. It was disheartening, but she understood the word he spoke. The English word for Doctor and a Russian доктор sounded almost exactly the same. Human bodies were the same whether you were American or Russian, so at the very least he would be able to help if there were any injured humans.

But, the humans weren’t her problem.

The crying and whimpering would grow louder as the woman took point and lead the group up the dark apartment building stairs. It was not that whatever was making the noise was doing so louder, rather, it was the increase in volume from growing closer to the source. The children took up the middle of the column and the second woman and old man took up the rear. Whichever end Joshua found himself on, the woman closest to him would speak.

“Please, you help us. You- help- them.”

It was clear she was slowing her speech and using simple words in hopes that she’d be better understood. An unnecessary choice, but one made out of an intense desire to communicate. At the top of the third floor, the woman in the front took over leading children to different rooms while the old man made sure no one ran off in the intense darkness. The woman at the rear approached Joshua and beckoned him to follow her to the end of the apartment building hallway on their floor.

The crying and the whimpering noises were loud here, incoherent, and most definitively not human. Stopping at the door at the end of the hall, the woman put the candle out. There, in the darkness so thick it held almost a physical weight, she opened the door and all noises ceased. Inside the room, a quiet shuffling could be heard as the woman stepped inside and whispered noises. Her sounds were not translated, as they were in no language ever before heard on Earth.

Then, little things of many clawed hands and many clacking carapaces crawled their way onto the woman and reached for Joshua’s legs. The things were quiet, gentle, and completely obscured by the absence of light. However, the woman could be felt tapping Joshua and whispering,


At once, a dozen tiny voices repeated, “Doctor DoKtah Dortak Doktoo Doctoah DoctorDoctorDoctor.”

“Yes, Doctor. He’s going to help you.”

———Cait and Nic———

The other humans slowly avoided Nic and Cait as they approached, though it seemed less out of conscious decision and more a ‘they’re not us,’ mindset. The song of the great beast molding the shrine could be heard reverberating from deep within its chest as it worked. It was at once something Ira would not typically listen to and yet something She would definitively listen to. A chanting sort of song, a dark sort of song, a song about chains and fascism.

As Nic set the piece of rebar into the sculpture, he was not immediately noticed. However, the miasma of agony would attempt to settle itself upon him and drive his emotions into a state of turmoil. If, or when, it did not affect him as the beast anticipated, the massive monstrosity would speak from its maw.

“Aaaah, what intense suffering that your walk is not brought low alongside mine. What steps have brought you to the gate, dearest child? Or are you -they- that The Goddess warned me of?”

He would not move his hands away from the work, nor would he attack Nic or Cait. However, at this distance, Cait would be clearly able to see that his eyes were not right. They had not changed nor adjusted for this dimension of light. They saw the darkness and, seeing as it was still midday, the sun was absolutely rendering him completely blind. He was likely detecting others through emotional connection only.

And this world was not made for that.


It was indeed unfortunate that Gail fought Her Husks.

They moved faster than sound on approach, then nearly as fast as they dodged and struck out at the leader of the Locusts. Their joints tore as they were repulsed, their limbs desocketed, and even one becoming no more as it was devoured. But no matter what, they did not relent.

The three in one deities of the waking world did very little apart from each other. Or, so they were supposed to. Disagreements happened, arguments, and terms drawn between them. One such disagreement was concerning the Husks. To each their own, it had been decided, and each made their own. In regard to The Beast, one and only one was ever made. Woe unto any who may dare gaze upon it. In regard to The Child, she kept no more than four at a time. Special, nigh unstoppable, children with whom she spent time, care, and effort.

To The Goddess, there was no limit. They are not unstoppable, they are not unbreakable, and they are not special. But they are numerous. It was to this numerical advantage that they attempted to play as their strength against Gail. Where one broke a spinal arm, two more spikes take their place. Where one lost a tooth, two more maws would appear, and where one became nothing, two more Husks were seen before the boom of the sound barrier could be heard.

A victory pyrrhic was still a victory.
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-02, Joshua Seimar

Joshua had a feeling things were about to become very strange when she put the light out. Once again, he debated requesting Cait for backup - but she was probably needed where she was, and he was just going to have to handle this one... not entirely on his own, but if Agent Connor was staying quiet, it was because he didn't want to be noticed.

Joshua followed her into the darkness, listening to the sounds she made. That was definitely more Cait's strength, there. She could parrot back pretty much anything, no matter whether or not it was theoretically possible for humans to utter. Joshua could only listen and take notes for later.

The crying had stopped when they'd come in, though. That was interesting - it generally meant that whatever had been crying had stopped because they were comforted or stopped because they were afraid. The question, of course, was which one of those things it was - and the next question was whether it was because of him or because of her - and if he went down that road, he would be asking questions all day.

So, instead, he crouched on the ground while little things skittered in the darkness all around him. One got close enough that he could pick it up: Joshua had learned in his very early years how to catch critters that weren't very interested in being caught, so it wasn't much of a challenge, especially if he wasn't too picky about which one he retrieved.

He would have liked to see it, but he would just have to make do. His hands ran over the body of the thing, carefully probing for information. Bilateral symmetry, with... eight limbs? Yes, eight limbs arrayed on the ventral side, a singular head, a singular anus on the other side. No tail in evidence. Two eyes, he thought? He was not certain about that, eyes were hard in the dark. He probed further, for ears, to inspect the mouth for teeth and try to find out whether these little things were herbivores or carnivores or omnivores or... well, they were Eldritch-made, perhaps they were animavores or perhaps they slurped up the decaying corpses of their chosen food with a proboscis or perhaps they ingested darkness and defecated rainbows.

"Complicated little thing, aren't you?" Joshua set it down, capturing a second one and going through much the same procedure again to see if it was the same or if they were different - and if so whether it was a different species, or if it was a matter of different gender presentations. Sometimes that could be difficult to tell, in fact, if the sexual dimorphism was extreme enough as with anglerfish and... oh, what were those little spiral things they'd found in that one anomaly?

The point was, of course, that he had to check a few to be sure. He didn't pay much attention to the woman - if he didn't miss his guess, Brian had a target on her, just in case.

That was good, because she might get a bit touchy with the next part. Joshua held his current example firmly, pulling a scalpel out of a pouch and driving it quickly through the eye socket into where he estimated the brain would be. Usually it was a quick kill, but if he needed to take a few more stabs before opening it up, he would.

Doing an autopsy in the dark wasn't his preference, but he did want to know what they were like on the inside.

-03, Cait Corby
-05, Nic Gutierrez

The giant creature was singing. That just made Cait want to bring it back even more. Nic didn't want her to, but it wasn't like it was actually his decision. He was just offering an opinion - an opinion which happened to be wrong. Cait could think of all sorts of great things to do with a giant musical maw-mouth. The singing was... Russian, maybe? Some human language she didn't know.

She listened, though, and by the time the chorus came around the second time, she started singing along. Cait had no idea what any of it meant, of course, because she did not actually know any Russian, but it was easy enough to know what it was supposed to sound like and just make it sound like that.

Nic had gone up and added on to the statue, which was the opposite of what they were supposed to be doing, which meant Cait wholeheartedly approved. What would happen if they built it? Would it be neat? Would it be more fun than what happened if they ruined it? These were all such interesting questions!

"Whoa." There was a heaviness in that tone, wasn't there? Cait took a little step back, half-turning so that she could watch both Nic and the other giant. Of course, everyone tended to be on the giant scale when viewed through the oculus of Cait, but Nic was especially so. He was also looking a bit under the weather, so she flicked an invisible rock at him.

It hit the side of his helmet, both causing him to look over at her and triggering one of the runesets etched into it. He gave her a little nod a moment later, having dialed the blocking levels up to get rid of the emotional influence.

As for Cait?

She'd been miserable before. This was nothing new - and she wanted to know why it wanted her to feel this way. There had to be more to it, didn't there?

The creature was talking, which meant they'd attracted its notice. It was a lot quieter than she'd thought it would be. It was also talking in English, which was not what she'd expected. Cait had to wonder how it had gotten to that choice - was it because it was the only language she and Nic had in common, and if so, how did it know that? Or was it just taking a stab in the light and picking the language people had been speaking to the godbait to see if they responded?

A gate, huh? Gates were fun. Gates went places, or came from places, or marked places where things were or weren't supposed to be. Cait loved finding out all the rules for things like that. How else was she going to know how to break them?

Cait gave the maw a cheerful grin, because she'd learned how to fake that when she was miserable years ago, and it was still one of the most useful skills she'd ever learned.

"Hey, what would happen if I went through the gate?"

-01, ???

More of them.

Good. She hummed agreement with herself, weaving the harmonies together with the cacophony around them. Each sonic crack was only percussion, something to be part of an ever-changing tempo. Sometimes it slowed or sped up, or the beat changed entirely. Common time, five-eight, seven-sixteen. Adapt, change, mutate, edit. Words had all the meanings and no meanings; something inflicted and not something innate. Innate was song and slaughter. Blood or ichor or something like that, the word for it did not matter, the spray of it did. Everywhere, on the ground, on the rest of the surrounding Them that were not us, on us as well and each instance a crescendo.

They should be more, they should be close, closer. Rip, tear, break, slash, destroy. There were words for it, but words could not describe it. There was only the intoxicating melody. This was their forte.

More. More Them. More us? They could be more. These things were not human. Humans were immutable, these were already changed, the downward spiral. They could be more.


It pulled them back, a broken measure. The Contract, always the Contract. The Binding Word. She held it, always, even when it-she was they, there was always the writing writer, wordsmith, binder. Her Word was final; they could rip and tear and devour but they could not breed.

For a measure, there was self-loathing, but it passed. There was still ichor and bone. Neither one of them could create life, they that were bound together. They stopped each other. No life, only death.

And there was another child, wasn't there? Not theirs, but not unwanted. Wanted very much, and these Them, They were Hers and They were the ones in the way of what she-they wanted. Life created, not by them, but should-have-been-with-them.

A taloned foot, dismembered, was shoved into a gaping maw - yes, they had done that. They'd been thinking. She - Gail - stepped forward somewhat, adding a word to the song, just one: Not a Name but a name, a little name, one spilled like blood from the avatar of a dead god.


The first little thing squirmed in Joshua's hands, protesting with little noises but otherwise not really fighting back. It was more similar to a cat or a small dog that was unused to being handled rather than a truly wild animal. Then, once more the second one squirmed for a minute as Joshua picked it up and examined it as well. Perhaps unbeknownst to Joshua, the woman had silently stood up and left the room shortly after he began examining the little things.

Then he stabbed one.

It cried something awful, so Joshua stabbed it again, and again, and again. Even as it bled in Joshua's arms, the little creature did not die. Wherever he was stabbing, while estimated to be the location of its nerve center, was incorrect as a method of elimination. So it lived. So it cried. So it suffered. The thing did not make the noises of a creature dying, but rather, the sad, pitiful screams of a creature being tortured.

Then, quietly, terribly, something spoke in the back of the room. Whatever it was, it was massive, for even the exhales of its breath as it spoke were like great warm gusts of wind. It would be, of course, overtly obvious to Joshua that the reality distortion readings the Foundation had been picking up were affecting this building. A quantum tunnel bored in flesh and brick through the brutalist architecture of a Soviet-era apartment block. In short, it was bigger on the inside.

"She spoke true of ye, disgusting creatures. That ye would slaughter babes for thine own pleasure's sake- despicable. Unworthy of life. Unworthy of breath. Shall I strike ye? See by which infernal workings ye tick?"

Its voice was horrible, like the sound of gravel rocks dragged along a chalkboard, and it did not speak English. But its words, despite spewing forth in a language unknown to this world, carried with them emotions of rage, pain, and understanding. Unless Joshua actively blocked it out, he would hear what the great beast spoke and he would understand her. Then, quick as a flash, a clawed hand as large as the room itself shot out toward Joshua. It aimed to rend him head to toe.

———Cait and Nic———

Whether Cait and Nic understood it or not, feeling the emotions of the great beast before them connected them to a degree. More than feeling his emotions, which were muted a bit after Cait flung a rock at Nic's head, the pair could now feel his language as he projected it. Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, he would make a little more sense. He had felt the single shared language between them and, as a result, knew the words to say.

And more to say, he had. Continuing as if Cait had not asked any question at all, it spoke, "I am The Eyes Unblinking, the greatest among Her flock, and leader of a church eternal. You wretched things are no more than blight upon this cursed Sphere. Were it my decision I would see you all walk the steps of annihilation."

He did not respond to Cait's question, but he did not need to. The pair were linked now, and a link worked both ways. The answer would find itself to Cait should she truly want to know, and it was a resounding 'No. The gate works in only one direction. Beware approach. She is coming. I fear Her. You should too.'

Then, silently, red miasma began to seep up from the ground beneath the shrine. It smelled like honey and moved like fast, thick fog. While it did not seem to affect anything it touched, it did do something far more sinister. If Cait and Nic had oxygen monitors on their suits, they would be screaming at them about the rapidly dropping levels.

Whatever this red mist was, it was consuming the oxygen in the air it passed through and replacing it. While it may not be toxic, what was toxic was a complete and utter lack of one of the only things humans needed a constant supply of to survive.



Perhaps Gail was fully aware of her surroundings, perhaps not, but one thing was certain, the Husks' numbers were thinned. After a taloned foot thrust into the maw of another Husk, tearing through its back and breaking apart the central spine, the bulk of Husks retreated a hundred meters back. Only a few stayed close, sacrificing themselves to keep the Demon fighting. The Demon spoke a name, and it was not one they recognized by sound, but one they knew by feeling.

At the echo of that name, finally, they would sing.

Their voices raised in a choir of grating noise and baritone echoes, beings created for one purpose attempting to fulfill another. They sang not for their Goddess, of whom they owed their existence, but to the new child. The one whose mercy they still begged and sought. The one whose forgiveness they craved and bared their soulless bodies for. The one to whom they owed nothing, and yet owed everything.

They sang to Enki.

The name was not on their maws, nor would it be felt in their heartless emotions, but the essence would be known. The one to whom Gail called, the one whom the Demon affirmed, was one and same with that the Husks now lifted in worship. It would be obvious, because these things were obvious as reality bent and twisted to allow for the exchange of feelings. One being's emotions to another's. One heart to another.

And they were a cult of death, begging for forgiveness before their final moments.

-02, Joshua Seimar
-04, Brian Connor

Undying? Curious. Or perhaps he just hadn't found the right spot yet, or the right technique. Most things, in the purview of the Anomaly Containment Foundation, could be killed. Sometimes it was just a little more difficult to figure out how. Some of the locations could be a bit soft on that sort of thing, he was vaguely aware, but the level-1 locations; L-9, L-6 and so on... well. How do we contain it, how does it work, how do we kill it? Usually, but not always, in that order. Councilman Strings, for all his idiosyncracies, understood the benefit of a good experimentally based termination protocol. The Locusts often came up against things that weren't easy to kill, and figuring out what to do and how to do it was just part of the job.

Fortunately, there were enough of them in here that he should be able to separate out a control group from the experimentals and try a few techniques... it would be difficult in the dark, of course, but there were ways around that.

A voice interrupted his thoughts - not the voice of one of his teammates, but a Voice, one of those strange things that spoke words that made no sense and yet somehow he knew what they meant. He'd had the same reaction when Corby and Connor got onto one of those tangents where half the conversation was a reference to some video game or something. He didn't look up, because he wouldn't have been able to see anything anyway, and that was a bit pointless, especially when the smart thing to do was keep one's head down and present a smaller target.

There was a sound, unnatural, scraping - and then a gunshot; singular, high impact, the breeze of it whispering a heated trail above his head.

That was why one kept one's head down, after all - because the Locusts were a team, and they watched out for each other. Someone got the job done, someone else shot all the things trying to kill them while they did it. He wasn't sure exactly what Agent Connor had shot the thing with, but it would be something that packed enough punch to push it back, the impact being more important than the killshot in this case. Momentum and all that - a suitably large opposing force required. Joshua recognized the scent of explosives, and... brimstone?

One of the ones that Corby had nicknamed the get the Hell away bullets, then. Designed to push back, creating a blast radius past itself. He didn't know quite how it worked, as was the case with most things that Corby came up with, which was generally considered the best for one's remaining sanity.

"Well, Miss, if you'd said something earlier, we could have talked about it, so you've only yourself to blame for the lack of communication. Would you like to introduce yourself?"

-03, Cait Corby
-05, Nic Gutierrez

"Blight upon this cursed sphere," Nic repeated. He didn't even need to look at Cait to hold his hand out for a high-five, which she provided just as easily. Hell yeah, they were good. Annihilation threats already and they'd hardly been here five minutes. Most teams had to work on that for like an hour.

Cait got her answer about the portal, and Nic was a little relieved, because he just knew if she went through the portal, he was going to have to go with her, and [expletive] knew where that was going to end up.

"I said, "Can I take you home with me?"
She said, "Never in your wildest dreams"
And we danced all night to the best song ever
We knew every line, now I can't remember
How it goes but I know that I won't forget her-"

"Ghost, what the [expletive] is that?

"It's 'One Direction', dude, come on!"

"What - the band? Since when do you listen to One Direction?"

"Since it's useful to make stupid references when talking to angry eldritch beings?"

"Should have known. You gonna do something with this miasma?"

"I dunno, I sorta thought you'd handle it. Aren't you the one with the air elemental contract on your buttcheek?"

"It is not on my-" Nic sighed, which took up more of the remaining air, but it was worth it. And she was also right, though not about the buttcheek. He muttered a few Words to trigger the contract, a pale greenish mist oozing out from the vents in his armor and forming itself into a cloud around the two of them, keeping the redness at bay. "Okay. Gate crashing?"

"Mmm-hm. You know what they say about one way gates: You're just not trying hard enough."

"Do they say that?"

"Well, we say that."

That they did. Nic shrugged in a might as well agree with her way, then stepped down once and let the earth elemental he'd released into the ground bury down and up, underneath the gate, seeing if it could be exploded from the underside.

He did like blowing things up.

-01, Gail Weber

They knew.

She could hear it, in their song. She could feel it, in their hearts. She could taste it, in their bodies - blood that was not theirs, was hers, a taint upon some of them. The blood of the child, the twin, the innocent, the lost.

And these things, that were tainted with her blood, they sought forgiveness.

Gail was not, as it turned out, a very forgiving person. Being bound to a demon hadn't improved the situation at all. She had the scent of it now, or the demon did, or whatever they were when they were together did - the devouring had done it, she thought, or it thought, or they thought.

But she could tell which ones had the blood of the lost one upon them, and with that, the fight ceased to be a slaughter and instead became an assassination. It was no longer about which ones were most convenient to kill, but about choosing specific targets.

The ones who were untainted.

She wanted them dead, and quickly - out of the way. They craved death, she gave it to them - but the others, the tainted ones, those she sidestepped. Those she evaded. Those she left.

They would have died for her, the little lost one. She waited, until they were the only ones who remained.

"Live for her."

It was not forgiveness. It was a curse.
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———Joshua and Brian———

It cried out in pain as the shot hit it, the hand losing flesh, fur, and bone as chunks were blown apart in the darkness. The damage could not be seen, but it was heard, and Brian did not miss. The beast cried again as it withdrew, the rushing of air signaling the speed at which it pulled back, but its second cry was not one of physical pain. In the darkness, the drip-drip of blood from a damaged paw mixed with the drip-drip-dripping of another liquid, tears.

Once more, it spoke, a terrible sound mixed with emotion and understanding. Its voice was quieter now, confused, and anguished, "How can ye feel not the life of it as it passes in ye arms? Do ye feel not her pain? Her suffering? Suffering ye do cause? Deaf, deaf, and blind are ye all. Deaf and blind and senseless. I do not understand ye, I do not want to. I do not want to..."

The darkness lessened as the creature left the area, the reality distortion fading slowly and light slowly began to illuminate their surroundings. A ceiling lamp had been on the whole time, it seemed, but could not shine through the darkness until now. Joshua and Brian would find themselves alone in a small, barely decorated Russian apartment.

Joshua, unless he set it aside, would still be holding the animal. It seems it had bled out in his arms.

———Cait and Nic———

The air elemental protected the pair of agents perfectly as the red mist floated up from the ground. For now, it was one less problem to worry about. The Eyes Unblinking seemed to ignore the pair of them as Cait and Nic bantered back and forth, though his fear was certainly growing in intensity every second that passed.

While the Wind Elemental had an easy time of his job, the Earth Elemental was not so lucky. Upon burrowing underneath the gate, it would find barely six feet of dirt covering a massive, near-bottomless hole. The hole was lined with slick and nasty growths that pulsed rhythmically, repelling any attempts to touch or interact with them. If the Earth Elemental left the safety of the dirt or attempted to drill through the flesh, it would find itself pulled down by the growths.

The Eyes Unblinking said nothing as it continued its work, but it did not need to say anything. Its feelings were connected now, Cait and Nic would simply know what it was thinking and what it feared.

'This world is not prepared.'
'She is not waiting.'
'We need more time.'
'She is not waiting.'
'She will tear this whole region apart if She comes now.'

Its whole body shook as the hole beneath the shrine quaked with anticipation. The dirt covering barely held together as more red miasma seeped forth. Nearby civilians would have been in danger if any had remained nearby. As the red mist appeared, the locals seemed to disappear. Sheltered away in buildings, waiting for Her.

———Gail and The Demon———

They knew.

How could they not?

The Husks wished for death, and death was granted to them, but it was as unsatisfying for them as it was for Gail. These beings were alive but soulless. They were not undead, but undeath was the closest approximation a human might give to what they were. With their souls removed, their emotions, their memories, their experiences, none of it would carry forth into reincarnation. Of course they knew. How could they not?

When they died, they died. Nothing more, nothing less.

The ones who remained, the ones who deserved punishment the most, fell down -comatose- at being spared. They were unworthy, not of life, not of death, and they knew. How could they not? But a new command had been given to them, a new truth. So long after their birth, they accepted a new instruction.

"Live for her."

And they would. How could they not?

-03, Cait Corby
-05, Nic Gutierrez
-01, Gail Weber?

"Darling." An opener, sing-song, lilting in a way that was half musical and half unbalanced. "H-why-" The initial aspiration was very prominent. "Did you not yeet this thing into next Tuesday?"

There was something about the overly formal, archaic hwhy mixed with the clipped nouveau-urban yeet that felt slightly off, like it shouldn't have worked, shouldn't have been there at all, certainly shouldn't have been together - and yet there it was, and somehow it did work, even if it felt like it shouldn't.

Cait looked at Nic. Nic looked at Cait. There were a lot of things passed between them, in that one glance. Duet was apparently done fighting things and had decided to rejoin them, walking calmly towards the fifty-foot towering monstrosity as if it were just some loose bit of detritus that hadn't been cleaned up yet.

"Well, I wasn't sure if you wanted it yeeted into Tuesday like two days from now, or Tuesday like a week and a half from now, you know? Because it really could have been either." This wasn't exactly an answer, but also, this was Cait, and people were used to getting not-exactly-answers from her.

"Mm~hmm. I suppose it... depends. Are you a good which or a bad which?"

"I like to think of myself as more of a who." Cait was trying really hard not to giggle, and managing it for now. These parts were some of her favorite parts.

"Cindy-Lou Who, who was no more than... ah. But you're Nine, aren't you?" She was standing right next to the maw-creature now. It probably could have stepped on her, except they all seemed to know that if it tried, she would get out of the way.

"Oh, boy. How far in are you?" Nic was a spoilsport, sometimes.

"~hee-hee." That set Cait off, of course, because sometimes the only thing to do in the face of something terrifying was laugh at it, or at least giggle - because it was funny, and if she didn't think it was funny, she wouldn't have been Nine.

Nic was not giggling. He gave Cait another look. This one was less we're in this together and more well, okay, if you're gonna be like that, you're on your own. "I just don't think I've ever seen her this bad, that's all."

"I have once." Cait had stopped giggling, because this part wasn't funny, and would never be funny. "When she killed Rachel." There hadn't been a choice about it. Agent Emery had been too far gone - far enough that she wasn't even really her any more, except the tiny part of her that was begging for death, to be released from the... the... thing that she had become. She'd been nigh-immortal, too, at that point, and killing her hadn't been simple. Duet had gone in as far as she'd needed to, to get the job done. Sometimes Cait wondered if the demon had taken over as much as it had as a kindness. Duet seemed to be the only one who hadn't had nightmares about it, after all. Cait still did.

She probably would again tonight. Move past it - you always had to keep moving. Otherwise the things caught up with you. "Tech says there was one other time, too. Back at L-6." That had been before the Locusts, though, and Cait didn't know all the details, because Brian was still pretty L-6 himself, and that meant security and not telling people all the interesting details even if they were potentially funny and / or horrifying.

Duet was not so much ignoring them as choosing not to comment, at least on that part of the conversation. "They hurt our little one. But they won't do that again. Will they?" Her finger punctuated the threat - it was definitely a threat - poking the giant beside her. Since it towered over her, the fingertip would only land somewhere on its shin, but there was something about the motion that was less I am telling you something important and more like... popping a balloon. As if the whole towering thing could have gone careening over the horizon, letting out a symphonic squeal as it whirled its weird way across the sky.

Cait was going to have to see if she could put together a spell for that.

The red miasma grew, stretching out over the area. People scurried away, which was good in that they didn't need to worry about civilians getting in the way - not that the Locusts ever really worried about that - but also bad because they'd be harder to round up and amnesticize later. Fortunately, the ACF had a protocol for that, and the Locusts could probably duck out and let someone else handle that bit once the location was secure. Probably an L-6 team or something, they were detail oriented like that. Cait was detail oriented, too, just not so much about the boring parts.

The pressure in her mind was growing, a sense of anticipation for Her, because that was what the feelings were saying right now. They weren't Cait's feelings, except they kinda were, because she was just as excited about all this as the rest of them.

But it probably wasn't a good idea, because if Gail killed a goddess, she was just going to be even more hungover in the morning. Also, Cait didn't quite know how Ira would feel about her Her getting murked, and Ira's waking world already had one dead god.

"So... as much as I'd love to meet Her and all, maybe you could ask Her to wait for a better time? We're just kinda unprepared for a Goddess. Gotta get out the fancy china and the little cucumber sandwiches and all. Give Her the welcome She think She deserves instead of... y'know."

The one Gail thinks She deserves.

"It'd just be awkward. And I don't think Ira would be too happy about it."

-02, Joshua Seimar
-04, Brian Connor

The light came back, and whatever the lurker had been retreated, for now. Brian stayed on his guard, because sometimes there were more of things, ready to pop up when they thought they weren't expected. Probability said it wasn't likely to be as much of a threat, though, without the cover of darkness. He didn't like relying on probability, but sometimes it was all there was to go on.

"Hm. Looks like exsanguination is a viable termination strategy."

It was certainly better than relying on... whatever that was. Brian sighed, more to himself. Of course it was important to know how to kill things, in case they needed killing - but he liked his killing clean, or at least as clean as such things could be. It was less about not enjoying it and more about not being interested in it, and Leech... well, he was definitely interested in it.

He crouched, reaching down as the dark began to wane, seeing if he could catch one of the little things before it ran off to wherever little things like that went when people like Dr. Seimar were around.

"Trying to get a live one for further study? Good idea."

"No. It's not for you. It's for Ghost." They weren't cute, but she would think they were. Cait had strange ideas about what was cute, which was something Brian tried not to think about too much.

"Ahh." Dr. Siemar did one of the things that Brian thought of as a researcher pause, the kind where he was putting things together. "I didn't realize you two were together again. When did that happen?"

"We're not... exactly. It's complicated." It always was. Maybe they were. Maybe it didn't matter, at this point. "Since... the mall thing."

"Does Duet know?"

Brian made an exasperated sound. "She always knows." Usually before he and Cait did, which explained a lot about why she'd sent the two of them together to the mall in the first place. Joshua was having the same realization, in another one of those researcher pauses.

"Oh. She set you up." Another researcher pause, but this one was inconclusive. "Why?"

"Because she's a romantic, probably. And the demon's aromantic, which complicates things." It complicated things significantly, but that wasn't exactly Brian's business. It was emphatically not his business, actually.

"I doubt that's the answer, but suit yourself. Wasn't she in a long term relationship for a while? Back at L-6, before all this."

"We should head back." This was not an answer. It was as much of a non-answer as Brian could make it.

"I've always wondered who that was with." Dr. Seimar sifted through his pockets, presumably looking for a pouch to keep the dead creature in until it could be brought back for analysis.

Brian, studiously, said nothing. Unfortunately, this just prompted Joshua to have another researcher pause, and then look over at him. "You know. Don't you? Why haven't you told us?"

"We should head back. Also, that information is classified."

"Classified, bah. I'm a class-D." Brian, again, said nothing. "Still classified, then? Well that narrows the possibilities. Wait - it wasn't..."

"Please stop talking and bag up your dead abomination so that we can get back. Sir."

Joshua chuckled. "Really."

Brian debated shooting him a little to get him to stop talking, but it seemed like Dr. Seimar had gotten his things packed up and was ready to head back to where the rest of the Locusts were, which would hopefully end this conversation for good, because there was no way that even Joshua would bring it up in front of Agent Weber.

"So, when people always think she's banging the Councilman-"

Brian said nothing, guarded the hallway, and decided to ask Agent Weber to look over the new ethics code again and determine under what circumstances it was acceptable to let one's teammate get slaughtered by an Eldritch monstrosity.

It would certainly be preferable to continuing this conversation.

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——Gail, The Demon, Cait, and Nic——

The Eyes Unblinking did not respond as a new form graced their presence. He did not appear even to notice Gail's arrival, but Cait would know this not to be true. He noticed, it was that he simply did not react. Nearly all of his focus had transferred to the shrine, shaping it and changing it so that it might herald Her arrival, but it wasn't ready.

It might never be ready.

The one called Duet poked him, and he knew the threat. He knew of whom she spoke, and the questions that knowledge elicited in him could have taken up the time of a hundred conversations. But there could be no time for those conversations, not yet. Besides, The Eyes Unblinking knew the-one-whose-name-could-not-be-spoken, quite well. She was a wonderful child and would grow into a terrifying new god. A new god, the thought was beyond novel, it was-

He was losing focus.

His hands worked slower, the shapes that formed his arms slowly reduced their movements, and The Eyes Unblinking simply began to listen. He could hear the words of those below them, but, more importantly, he experienced the feelings of those connected to him. Cait's feelings, Cait's fears, and Cait's presumptions flowed through The Eyes Unblinking. Then, filtered down to their basest emotions, these feelings flowed back out from him.

The locals sheltering nearby fled even further away. They didn't know why, but they knew something even more dangerous was about to happen. They ran for their lives, taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, as they attempted to get to outlying towns at the very least. Everything flowing from The Eyes Unblinking to the civilians screamed of a need to run. Run, run or you will die.

But these were not the feelings he flowed back toward Cait. Unable to speak the words, for blasphemy was antithetical to his being, he attempted to communicate to her through his feelings.

Please, listen.
I have tried to make Her understand. I think She knows. I think She does not care.
The Little she.
That is the crux of our dilemma. The Little she, has ignored Her for too long.
They're bickering.
She believes that the Little she cannot avoid Her if She comes here.
A solution?

The Eyes Unblinking waited a moment, his arms completely released from the shrine and raised to the heavens. The red miasma lifted high into the air, allowing the free flow of oxygen once more at the cost of a reduction in light from the sun above. Holding up the sky, he asked aloud, "A solution- wretched creatures. Think you must- assemble a solution. I fear Her wrath, as should be feared, but the tears of the Little she should the Goddess break this world- I fear she would remake us all. Surely, your steps across this lifeless husk have bestowed some kind of knowledge? A solution?"

——Joshua and Brian——

Brian was able to capture one of the little things fairly easily as the pair finished their conversation. One of the little creatures had gotten stuck under a chair as it had tried to crawl away. In the light, the creature was now clearly visible. It had eight little furry legs, each ending in a clawed paw that seemed as though a child had drawn fur over a raptor's foot. What had felt like two eyes in the darkness were eyes, but their shape and color were off. They were strangely vertical ovoids, blacker than night, and it acted blind in the light.

Its body was covered in thick carapace shells growing independent of each other, clacking together gently as it shuffled and waddled around. Its head was similar to a bone-white wolf skull with exposed muscle strands moving and shifting the bone mouth around as it mimicked whatever sounds it heard. Additionally, and perhaps obvious to Dr. Seimar in the light, was the fact that it had two brains. One was partially exposed in the bone skull head, and another was likely placed near the butt of the creature.

It seemed that this baby would eventually grow so large it needed two brains to operate its body.

Then, without warning, the entire building began to evacuate. Red miasma seeped near the windows, rising high into the air while people fled recklessly away from the central square of the city. The feeling of panic and a need to run would be overwhelming unless the two agents had prepared against such mental invasions.

She was coming.
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-02, Joshua Seimar
-04, Brian Connor

We need to get out.

Oh, that was an interesting thought. Joshua examined it, turning his attention inward just as easily as he turned it outward. He wondered where it had come from, that little thought. Not from him, certainly. Joshua might have enjoyed research, but he was primarily a field medic. When things were awful, he went towards them, because that would be where he was needed most.

He put the corpse of the creature away in a sack, wondering if he should offer to stow the one that Agent Connor had picked up as well, but it didn't seem to be struggling at the moment, and Agent Connor had put it on his shoulder like some sort of abominable parrot - though Brian was about as far from a pirate as one ever got. Presumably the armor would stop the thing from taking his head off, if it were even so inclined. It seemed - not docile, merely... paralyzed, from a mental standpoint. Uncertain.

Such was the fate of many who encountered the Locusts, it seemed. Joshua would have said that secretly they rather enjoyed it, except it wasn't really much of a secret, which probably also accounted for the feeling somewhat.

He kept an eye on Agent Connor anyway, although it was almost certainly unnecessary. Joshua's teammate would be putting up all of his mental walls, L-6 bastions built out of strictness and order and method. They were not flexible like L-9 tended to be, but they were certainly strong for all their rigidity - and Brian had been at L-9 long enough to have developed a bit of flexibility along the way. Most likely Cait's influence - one didn't manage to stay around the occultist very long without a certain degree of going with the ever-changing flow.

Agent Connor was also silent, though that was more likely something to do with the previous conversations. Both of them had sealed their suits and engaged oxygen filters, to keep out the miasma and keep them breathing and make sure that the next time Cait decided to experiment with resurrection, they weren't the test subjects.

Although, Joshua did rather wonder what it was like, from the inside. One of these days he'd have to go chat with that L-14 fellow Cait had fixed up, just to ask a few questions. Not here, though, because they had things to run from, which meant somewhere to run towards.

It was time to rejoin the rest of the team, and find out what was about to go wrong next.

-03, Cait Corby
-05, Nic Gutierrez
-01, Gail Weber?

Cait was listening to the voices in her head. Nic recognized the look, because it was the same one that Agent Weber got when she was checking in with her other self about something. Not the one she had now; that one was the we have gone beyond checking in and all the way through to checking out look.

It was kind of freaking him out, honestly, but he was trying not to show that. He was a Locust, after all. They were used to weird stuff. Nic just preferred it when the weird stuff was physical - something that you could tape an explosive to, problem solved. You couldn't really tape an explosive to the voices in someone's head - at least, not directly. And the indirect method usually left something to be undesired.

The big guy was talking again, in sentences with way too many inflected pronouns. He got the gist of it, sure, because he'd been at L-9 for just about his whole ACF career, and you didn't last too long at L-9 if you didn't get the gist of things pretty quickly, before they ended up popping out of whatever hellhole they were trying to worm their way out of. Still, it kind of made him wonder if their own weird language had a bunch of different pronouns that just didn't translate well. A tú / usted sort of situation, but more Eldritch and screechy - like, was there a separate set of pronouns for the godbait versus the Goddess-who-was-coming-to-kick-ass? If you asked them for their pronouns, what sort of answer would you get?

Nic sort of regretted not letting the voices in to his head for this one, because his own mental conversation with himself was probably worse, all things considered. He certainly wasn't going to be the one to ask, anyway. Asking questions could often be a huge mistake.

Like, for example, the one the big guy had just made by asking them for a solution. The Locusts had all sorts of solutions. Solutions were basically what they did. Sure, some of their solutions were less like elegant chemistry and more like jamming everything in a blender, but hey, at the end of it all you got a solution, didn't you?

Probably. Or something like one, anyway. Nic had a vague feeling that a solution had to be dissolved and not just blended, probably courtesy of something Joshua had said at one point, but... well, the Locusts had dissolved plenty of things before, too.

He looked over at Agent Weber to see what sort of solution she was about to offer, but she was just standing there with a creepy sort of well isn't this great? expression, watching Cait listen to the voices. Maybe Agent Weber could hear the voices, too, or maybe there wasn't enough room for them. Either way, she was apparently waiting and letting Cait decide.

Now that was scary.

I guess we're serious about that whole Cait-For-Council thing, then. Nic wasn't an idiot - despite Cait's frequent comments to the contrary - and he could see where this all was going. If Gail was letting Cait make decisions, it was because she wanted to see what sorts of decisions Cait was going to make.

Definitely scary.

Nic was debating whether or not he ought to poke Cait to bring her back to the real world for a minute when she apparently decided she was done listening and ready to answer. Nic held his breath, because whatever it was, he just knew it was going to be bad.

"Have you... considered... giving her a hug?"


There it was.
The Eyes Unblinking laughed.

It was an ugly noise. It was something that simultaneously did not sound like laughter but could be nothing else. It was the sound of a thousand concrete bricks being scraped against each other, the collapsing of a pile of construction materials, and the screeching of a foreign, unknown bird simultaneously. It was not at all like laughter, but it could only be laughter.

Then, it stopped. The Eyes Unblinking thought for a few seconds, the wheels in his mind turned and his thoughts were laid bare before those who possessed the connection to hear.

It could not possibly work.
It could possibly work.
The Goddess whole is untouchable.
The Goddess is divided.
she is the seat of power
She is not.

It stepped away from the shrine. The Eyes Unblinking's immense body, so large a single misstep might mean a crushed human, gingerly moved himself away while holding his arms high. He was careful not to disturb nor step upon anything that might be damaged beneath his feet, human or otherwise. Wordlessly at first, then with chanting, he extended his arms higher and higher into the skin.

Once more, he spoke aloud to those gathered, "Loathsome filth, heretical monstrosities, listen well. A barrier I shall build around us, a wall from this plane and Hers. A division devised for the protection of this lifeless Sphere. Hold Her long, it will not, and annihilate me for my insolence, She will try. However, Her reach is weakened and Her power is diminished..."

A pause, then, "A deal I strike with thee, hold Her until the little she returns to us and I shall keep the origin of Her strength cut off from Her. She will be weakened, She will be angry, but perhaps She will be weak enough- for a hug."

The Eyes Unblinking laughed once more.

----The Goddess----​

She stood upon a platform of bone, moving up an esophagus of flesh not unlike unwanted stomach vomit being pushed up a throat.

Her clothes were simple, a black Foundation long-sleeve and black Foundation pants, the clothes of a test subject.

Her face was twisted in rage, this was taking far too long, The Eyes Unblinking worried too much about her.

He would need to be set on the proper course once all this was over. This was, after all, a relatively simple trip.

Rip apart their reality, grab her, and make her understand that her actions had consequences.

So, refusing to wait, She continued to rise.

They were all together once more. Together and together and together, creeps in this petty place. Not precisely The Second Coming, but close enough - and Yeats was dead, anyway. Gail laughed softly, to herselves - the demon didn't like poetry quite as much as music, but there was still a rhythm to it. The meter mattered, more often than not. She'd written contracts in dactylic hexameter before, when it had been necessary.

Hell, she'd written a contract as a dirty limerick before. Strings had said it was her best work yet. He wasn't here, but her people were, Leech and Tech emerging from one of the buildings, assessing the situation. Tech faded back against the wall, out of sight and out of mind, waiting again in case something needed shooting.

And Her people were here, too, or some of them anyway. Some of them were dead, which Gail had had a hand in. Or two hands, for some of them, all the way up to the elbows. It had gotten a bit messy there. Gail supposed the Goddess had already gone and rearranged their insides once, so She shouldn't really complain if Gail followed in her footsteps.

That wouldn't be the case, though. Deities could complain about anything. It was one of their defining features. She wondered what Cait would think of that, once she inevitably got herself stuck to one. The only reasons she hadn't yet was that soul-binding herself to one horrifying Elder god meant there were so many other horrifying Elder gods she wasn't binding herself to. She'd choose when she was ready, and until then, Gail was holding on to enough of her soul so that it didn't happen by accident.

Just in case a certain Goddess happened to have designs on any such things.

The creature above her spoke, of deals and bargains, and Gail knew Cait wouldn't answer that one. That was her own specialty, after all, and she toyed with the words in her mind that had been placed there like a string before a kitten, wondering whether or not to pounce. Gail was hardly a kitten, though, not any more. She was older and wiser, and she knew when to accept a bargain and when not to.

"Done." Their part of the deal was no more than they'd been planning to do anyway, so it was less a bargain and more an offering. She giggled, amused with demon-wroth at the incoming Goddess. Her hand, streaked with the remnants of the dead servants, reached out to pat the giant's ankle. "You, I like you." Chaos and destruction and betrayal. She didn't trust him for a moment, but that was most of why she liked him.

She walked away, though, towards the pile or pyre or whatever it would become, one bloody hand moving to the side of her armor, opening up a hidden compartment and withdrawing her weapon of choice.

A single fountain pen, tipped with a bone-nib that had been delicately shaved off of a spear, a tiny piece of something that had once been Annihilated. She stabbed it into her palm, blood mixing with the remnant ichor of the husks she'd dispatched, the pen eagerly drinking up the concoction and spitting it out once more in rust-colored words written upon a steel girder, cross-bracing the structure:

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate.
The Eyes Unblinking laughed again as his deal was accepted, but this time it sounded even worse. Red liquid began to pour from different positions on his body, hitting the earth and bouncing back up as if it severed its connection to gravity upon touching the ground. The red miasma in the air concentrated, forming a dome roughly a hundred meters high and the same in diameter around the area in which the group stood.

The barrier and its construction were the closest thing to magic ever made in Ira's world, fragments of shattered power held in safekeeping by those most trusted, those same who now betrayed their Goddess. It was an unheard of thing, a thing so heretical that the very thought of it might break the mind of a weaker denizen. The Eyes Unblinking was as strong as they came, but even he had to justify this to himself as in the Goddess's best interest.

If he was right, and if the wretched beasts below could uphold their end of the bargain, perhaps the little she would forgive him. If he was wrong, well, at least he would die in service to something he believed in. And all these things, including the steps and instructions for establishing the barrier, could not be withheld from those who would share his emotions. Namely, the one whom the little she felt adoration for, the special one among those gathered had been given special privilege- Cait.

He prayed this worked.

----The Goddess----

She arrived moments later.

The platform rose from deep within the esophagus of flesh and sealed the mouth of the entrance perfectly, a bone plug for an endless drain. Looking at those gathered from the center of the shrine stood Her, The Goddess. She looked, at least visually, like a one-for-one copy of Kanga, and a perfect adult version of ACF-1003, Ira. But everything from Her face to Her body language screamed that this was not the kind and inquisitive Husk that the Locusts knew. The Goddess stood tall, Her head held high, with a wicked smile as She drilled each member of the locusts with a stare, including the one who faded away.

Holding out Her arms, She spoke. Her voice was powerful and commanding, but notably nothing like Ira's. She spoke in complete sentences, she moved and acted with confidence, and, most notably for Cait, The Goddess's voice held absolutely none of the power or terror that erupted freely from her smaller counterpart. She certainly exuded the essence of an extra-planar Goddess, but that seemed to be all there was to Her.

"I see my steps are greeted with a red carpet of nearly every thorn in my side! How wondrous! Now let me see-" She clapped her hands together and looked to the ground, then, when nothing happened, She looked to The Eyes Unblinking. A saddened, disappointed look fell across Her features and She made a sound unlike anything human vocal cords could reproduce. More of the liquid poured from the pores of the Eyes, but the barrier did not fall.

Sighing, She waved Her hand and the shrine reformed itself around Her. The metal had become liquid at Her beck and call, condensing and compressing far more than any metal on earth should be capable of doing. With a flow as smooth as molten glass, the metal formed and condensed into a large round table. At one end of the table, a throne for the Goddess, at the other, iron chairs made as comfortable as iron could be. Gesturing to the chairs, She spoke, "Sit, please, let us speak. My desires are not terrible, and I would be despondent to tear asunder this world I have grown to love so dearly."

Cait stared up at the dome, watching as the red miasma solidified itself into something that was either a protective shield or a cage, depending on how you looked at it. The way she was looking at it, it was...

"Ooooh, pretty."

Maybe she should get one of those for L-9. She could put it in the cafeteria. Not really for any reason, just for fun. Put it over the coffee pot and watch the researchers panic. Of course, given what she'd done to the coffee a couple weeks ago, they all pretty much panicked any time they approached the coffee anyway, which was just funny. Also, she'd gotten several requests to do it again, but this time on purpose - which was the essence of L-9, really.

Of course, she couldn't just sit here and stare at the sky all day, because there was a Goddess arriving. They knew when she got there, of course - it was hard not to. Deities had a certain presence to them. Even little Ira had it, a bit, the commanding aura, the sense of... certainty, she supposed. Ira seemed to be staying out of this one, though, which was probably easier on everyone, though Cait thought it wasn't really quite as fun that way.

The Goddess spoke a greeting, and then seemed to notice that things weren't the way she wanted them to be. There was a sound, something that wasn't quite a scream or a shriek or... anything. There wasn't a word for it, really, there was just the sound and the Goddess. It wasn't a mortal sound.

So, of course, Cait listened. Her head tilted to one side a little bit, thoughtful, letting the sound work its way into her mind/soul/self, whatever it was where the sounds went when she was listening to them. Cait was great at listening. She was an excellent listener - all her friends said so. She could listen to anything and go mhm, mhm with the best of them. And she could make sound, when she wanted to. She'd gotten the hang of it years ago, growing up in L-9, because it was a great place for a kid to grow up, full of all sorts of things and all sorts of noises.

The noise stopped, and the barrier held, and Cait held the form of it inside, where she knew she could let it out again if she wanted. It wasn't a human sound, but that had never stopped her before. Cait was all sorts of flexible, when it came to that sort of thing.

"Don't even think about it."

"Oh my depths you are such a spoilsport today!" Of course she'd already been thinking about it, about letting the sound loose, but then Nic would go and call her out on it, and that just ruined it because it wasn't fun any more. And she supposed she ought to be paying attention to the Goddess, before She got all pissy and/or Gail started reciting poetry at her or something. Or legal statutes. There was just no coming back from As referenced in 'Foundation v. Tezcatlipoca, Mississippi 1948' or however it inevitably went.

So she went over to the reformed metal, a cheerful spring in her step, and sat down on the table, close enough to the Goddess that she could extend a hand for Her to shake, if she wanted.

"Hiya~! How's tricks?"
The Goddess smiled while the team moved and spoke amongst themselves first before turning to Her. It was just like she had described, The Goddess almost envied the new and exciting experiences that she had the fortune to enjoy on this lifeless husk. Of course, those sorts of thoughts bred jealousy, and that jealousy led to a reminder of why The Goddess was here in the first place.

And the rage came back, perfect. That was exactly what she needed. Gritting her teeth through her smile, she watched as the one she remembered as 'Ghost' sat down on the table and spoke. Leaning back and putting her hands together, The Goddess accidentally squeezed her palms together hard enough that the sheer force began to generate heat. Breathing deeply, She attempted to calm Herself and set Her steaming hands on the metal table.

Control slowly reestablished, The Goddess decided not to waste any time. She spoke in a voice sickly sweet, a sing-song motherly tone that implied disappointment and disapproval, "You're, Ghost, right? That precious part of me told me quite a lot about you all, about when you went and destroyed one of my shrines that had been accidentally activated. How silly when those things happen, right? I'm so grateful that you all were able to destroy those who sought annihilation for me."

Laughing mirthlessly, the rage still bubbling just beneath the surface, The Goddess continued, "I won't dawdle, your infernal sphere cannot stand my presence long and poor Eyes here is killing himself to try and keep the bulk of my destruction at bay. So- the part of me in your possession. Return
her. I intend to take her home and leave this forsaken place for all of time. That's what you all want, isn't it? Keeping your, thing- your 'world'- safe? This is the penultimate act of safety! Complete removal of the danger permanently!"

Cait had the Goddess distracted, of course. She knew her role just as well as any of them. Brian stayed in the background, faded, keeping an eye on danger. Gail was willing to bet he had a sight on The Eyes Unblinking, just in case they needed to get blinked, as it were. And Nic... Nic would be exploring the dome through the earth, to see if it was a sphere or merely a half-shell, because if such things mattered, they tended to matter quite a bit. Joshua would be analyzing, thinking about things for later, ready to step in and act if someone got themselves stabbed or shot or dismembered or any number of the other things that could happen at any time.

And Gail walked up behind the seated Goddess, not trying to hide her presence, the demon humming softly in her voices - something a little haunting, from before the time of some of the Locusts, but not before the time of the Goddess, of course. She slipped her arms around the deity's neck from behind, not strangling, not even threatening to strangle. It was half hanging on and half an embrace, easy and effortless and probably all too familiar. She did the same thing to Strings, which was probably a reason for some of those rumors, but there was nothing like that in it.

And, of course, in this particular case, her hands were still stained with the ichor of the Goddess' dead husks, so that was only all the more impertinent.

"Hm~mmm..." It was half a thought, half a sigh. Gail leaned her head down, tilting it a little, a whisper in the Goddess' ear. "I was thinking the same thing. You-" A little motion of her finger, tracing a circle over where the Goddess' heart certainly wouldn't be- "Didn't bring the ba~by."

Her smile was practically audible, something that lingered well past when it should have. "So... how about... you show me yours and I'll show you mine?"