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Like One Sundered Star - Shit, Let's Be Troll-Heroes

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===> Be Aradia Megido

There is a churail on the road to town.

Normally, the people of the village of Badanpura would deal with this on their own. Bhut in general tend to avoid cities, after all, but plague smaller villages like theirs with depressing frequency.  The dead are a common part of life, and the violent, restless dead only slightly less so. They are dangerous and unsettling but not, after thousands of years spent exorcizing such things, particularly mysterious.

But this one is different. Troll bhut are always troublesome; their souls cling and whisper, uninterested in nirvana or incarnation or any number of offered salvations. And churails are more taxing still. This one has proven indifferent to the usual methods of exorcism, oblivious to the touch of cold steel and the scent of burnt turmeric. Not even the atma-shanti rites have given it more than a moment's pause before it resumes its post by side of the dirt road, its feet twisted around to face backwards and its features hollow and skeletal on an upside down face. Its horns are two pikes that have gored four men and two trolls, and the people have become desperate.

Desperate enough that, when she arrives, they simply close their doors and look the other way. She is the Maid of Death, Mauta kī Naukarānī, and she has haunted this region for several hundred years now. But just because she is benevolent is no reason to become complacent around a ghost that commands other ghosts.

She would call herself a hero, if any of them dared venture out to ask. But as it is, they drag their children inside and shutter the windows. It does not do to speak to the dead, particularly not so strong a spirit as the Naukarānī. One never knows if drawing her attention could bring bad luck or a curse on one's family, or if she might simply smile and move on.

Best not to chance it.

-

She passes through the center of the village on her way to the bhut's road. Her pale grey toes sweep through the dirt, her cloth shoes reduced to tatters around her ankles by years of wandering. She trips along, always on her toes, the barest inch from floating along without skimming the earth at all. Her sari is shapeless and ragged, a rust red lined and embroidered with white, and the shredded strips of cloth tug here and there in the grip of winds that don't brush against anything else - the unseen hands of spirits she has called and bound to her side. Her thick, gnarled tangle of heavy rust-limned curls obscures her face and tumbles down her back, but the general consensus shared by most everyone who whispers about her is that hers would be the eyes of the dead, lidless and pale.

Not that they would know, of course!

The Naukarānī, less commonly known as Aradia Megido, tilts her head to one side and smiles. Adjusting her mask with a brush of her claw, her bone prayer beads clacking, she drifts through the village, drawing the souls of the deceased along with her in a heavy, wet fog. They can't take a more corporeal, visible form without her consent and extreme mental strain on her own part, and they tend to drift alongside her regardless of whether she intends to give that consent or not. There are few necromantic priestesses of her caliber in the world who aren't of a more villainous nature, and who would fling the dead about like cheap cannon fodder to serve their own ends. Aradia is more inclined to at least ask first. Death must always be respected; she of all people understands the power inherent in the act of dying.

She can't remember everything. But she remembers enough to realize that she has been born too early. The year is 1709 CE, and the last time she checked the queen regent Tarabai had just set up a court in Kolhapur. She doesn't hold much store with mortal politics at the moment, though; Aradia has it on quite good authority that more in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the Maratha Empire won't really serve her in the future, anyway. She keeps track of the Condesce, who has taken up residence in Mongolia of late, and she keeps her head down, emerging from her temple only to deal with incidents such as this one, when the locals can no longer defend themselves.

For years, she has created time for herself, coaxing out the span of her life with the implicit knowledge that she was born too soon. No one else is around yet, apart from enemies whose attention she would prefer not to draw down on her head. And, well...she has to pass the time somehow! Humming tunelessly, she floats out of town again, letting her sense of the dead guide her.

The bhut stands by the side of the road in the shade of a long-hanging tree, still and silent, with its arms hanging by its sides and head bowed. It does not look up when Aradia approaches, and in the tree's shadow it would be easy for an unwary passerby to miss the broken angle of the backwards feet. It would have had to have suffered a radically violent death and not received due justice or burial rites to be able to maintain a corporeal form without assistance from a necromancer like Aradia, and as Aradia comes to a halt before the ghostly apparition, the hero reaches out and cautiously tests the flow of time in the area. It is an ability she rarely uses because, like spatial anomalies, interference with time leaves behind...traces. Traces that could easily be tracked back to her, without the proper precaution of a void-ward. Alas, that Equius hasn't been born yet!

No use sighing over it, though; Aradia uses what little power she can afford to call up and investigates the churail's past, nodding every so often with a sympathetic grimace on her face. The ghost does not react, of course, oblivious to the scraps of time that only Aradia can see. If Aradia were male, the ghost would perhaps be more active in attempting to initiate a conversation. But the spirit's disinterest in females just means that Aradia can try to settle this with good old fashioned conversation! "Namastē," she says, blinking away the visions of a house burning among the trees, of a tiger-shaped lusus struggling and failing to drag its charge out of the flames. "Would you like to talk about it?"

The churail does not respond, but its eyes flicker open, a dull, flat white that stares through Aradia as though she isn't even present. "Really, I'm a very good listener," she adds, without a trace of modesty. "I have all the time in the world. I’m basically…made of time."

Alright, that was an awful pun. She chuckles gleefully anyway. The bhut perks up at the sound, its eyes flickering and rotating ten degrees counterclockwise around the edge of its blurred, grey face to stare at Aradia with avid interest. Well, at least it's paying attention, now! The spirits of the dead that accompany her begin to whisper warnings in her ears - as though she doesn't know to be wary of a bloodthirsty ghost like this, after all these years!

"I understand that you're quite upset," she continues, tugging down the drapes of her sari, thumbing at her mala beads with her right claw, and wriggling her bare toes in the dirt. Every tiny movement draws the unwavering focus of the bhut, and its facial features distort further, into a hollow, ghoulish mask. Faced with a male troll or human, it might have made more effort to conceal its murderous intent, the better to convince the unsuspecting victim to invite it into their home and so lay a curse on the residence itself; but Aradia is just provoking it, now, egging it on. "They killed your lusus afterward, didn't they? But you already took your revenge, and now you're just hanging around and rotting over here, long after you should have moved on. I can help with that, you know!" She grins brilliantly, under the jut of her ram's skull mask, and reaches out with her right hand, beckoning.

The churail's face finishes its grotesque transformation. The pale eyes glower up at Aradia from below, and a mouthful of jarring, serrated teeth opens up in the center of its forehead. It shrieks at her wordlessly, a chilling, high-pitched cry that pierces Aradia's ear drums. She flips her palm out, so that the three strings of her prayer beads swing and twine about her arm, each clack resonating with power. "But if you're just going to try to eat me, we can do this the hard way!" she says, shrugging, well aware that the grin on her face is not one that most would consider sane.

However, before she can begin to exorcise this ghost in earnest, Aradia blinks, and the world explodes.

"What in the world?" she says, riding out the blinding waves of light as her mind spirals in an attempt to reassert itself. Her physical body is unaffected, she notes absently, and when she can bear to open her eyes again and squint against the dying of the light overhead, she sees that the churail has been similarly unaffected by the shenanigans that have thrown Aradia's power into turmoil. She snaps her fingers over her prayer beads and stretches out the ghost in time, before it can leap upon her in her moment of distraction.

Time buzzes and crackles through her fingers in response, an unpleasant jolt that she accepts with grace. Pausing time is absolutely unconscionable, but even the act of stretching it out, so that seconds trickle along at a snail’s pace, strains the limits of what Aradia can achieve. But the bhut is effectively stopped, its motions sluggish and slow, and so Aradia can squint her eyes and survey the explosion that just took place smack dab in the middle of her nice, orderly timeline.

It's not centered on her. It may have felt as though time just blew up in her face, but when the fabric of paradox space stops twanging like an untuned piano wire, she can get a general look at the source of the vibrations. The epicenter is somewhere north, and west, and up, in the upper atmosphere if she's correct, but the concussive force of the explosion has spread outward in a circular radius.

"Mujhē kshamā kariyē," she apologizes to the bhut, shaking her head slowly as she stares at the shards of time that have rent through the fabric of paradox space around her. To her eyes, they resemble nothing so much as great, jagged cuts of quartz. The fact that the time energy itself has taken a solid, unyielding form is bad enough - time is meant to flow, like music, constantly in motion, and for such massive chunks of time to have stopped and crystallized like this can only mark a significant event occurring in the timeline. In fact, so much uncontrolled paradoxical disruption could only be caused by -

She slaps both hands to her face, and can't repress the burst of maniacal laughter that bursts forth from her lips. The ghost itself flinches back, twisting its face slowly back into a normal alignment in shock. It looks more like a confused young troll than a marauding spirit, now, utterly thrown by Aradia's actions. She pats it on the head, still laughing gustily. "I - oh my!" she says, her smile cracking all the wider as she focuses her attention north and west. "Someone else has arrived already? How fun!"

The bhut, belatedly, snarls. It probably wouldn't be fair for Aradia to just leave it here, suffering in a slowtime bubble while it still hasn't moved on to the proper next stage of its death, so she raps out a rapid atma-shanti and then snaps a finger again so that time for the bhut runs twice as quickly. The funeral rites slam through the ghost like a hāthī in a cloister, and leave it dazed. The distorted features of its face smooth even further, and when Aradia murmurs one of her more private necromantic chants under her breath, pressing three beads to the bhut's throat chakra. As usual for a marauding spirit, there is a distinct block in the flow of energy there, and Aradia chinks away at it until the energy starts flowing again. When the block dissolves at last, she opens her eyes and watches the bhut fade away, its corporeal form resolving into steam that melts into the air. The last remnants of the churail's spirit hangs around for a moment, drawn to the cluster of dead souls that accompany Aradia, but then it changes its mind and vanishes completely into the ether.

With that taken care of, Aradia glances in either direction down the dirt road, and after two seconds of thought decides 'oh, to Kali with it,' and lets her god-tier wings rip out through the back of her sari. The spirits of her convoy can't really hope to keep up as she hurtles up into the sky cackling, the symphony of the world crashing in her ears.

It's a risk, letting loose with god-tier level abilities this early in the game.

But if someone else has arrived, she has to know!

-

She makes a beeline over the Safavid Empire, past Kabul and ever northward, until she finds herself over the Kara Kum desert and is forced to fold her wings away. She's as close to the region of Mongolia as she has ever dared to come, and she doesn't want to attract certain eyes. That region has settled down a lot more than it should have by this time - Aradia can feel the influence of the Condesce even from here, little jolts rippling out as the timeline for this world accommodates the fuchsia-blooded troll's actions.

In a way, Aradia is grudgingly grateful for the arrival of Her Imperious Condescension. Before the Condesce gained ascendency, there'd been enough power-hungry fuchsia bloods vying for power that the world had seriously been on the verge of a premature world war. But Aradia has observed from the shadows over the years as the Condesce did what she does best: she claimed power for herself, cutting down all pretenders to the throne, until all those burgeoning troll empires were left to spoil in the sun like burst fruit. Now there is only one left, and for some reason she seems content to direct the khanates of Central Asia for her own gain, rather than expanding into the kind of world-wide empire she has always favored.

Maybe it's the presence of humans that gives her pause, or maybe the Condesce is just following her own personal check list before she tries to conquer everyone at once, a checklist Aradia is not privy to. Aradia doesn't question it. She knows what kind of power is backing the Condesce now, and she's steering clear of it for as long as she possibly can.

Grounded, Aradia hovers the rest of the way into the Kizil Kum under her own personal power, drawing up the spirits of the dead who haunt the sands and bearing herself along in a flood of fog that glistens under the morning sun. The temporal disruptions loom ever larger in her sight as she cautiously floats up the banks of the Syr Darya. She knows she is drawing near to the crash site when she at last spots the trail of smoke, dust, and debris rising up into the sky above an exposed rock formation, and she rushes over the rocky outcropping and peers over into the new crater a mile from the river's edge.

Her first thought is that the crater is far too large. The meteorite itself is completely out of scale, not suited for the simply (but important!) task of transporting a grub or a human child through time and space to their intended destination. Aradia lays a claw on the enormous spike of time crystal beside her, and guesses that the meteor may be as large as her own temple, back in India.

More significantly, when she flutters down to inspect it up close, she finds no sign of a fellow player perched atop the dull grey ridges of the meteorite. There are none of the usual safety precautions Skaia would generally take to ensure a fragile mortal being could survive the journey through the vacuum of space and the violent collision with the Earth; in fact, she doesn't think this is a player meteorite at all! Huffing, Aradia lands on top of the space rock and stamps her foot, trying to figure out just why such a useless non-player rock would have sent such damaging ripples through time. It has to be significant to paradox space, it has to, but she can't see how!

She tamps down with her foot again, tapping as she sucks on the inside of her cheek and scans the crater around her one last time. There's no sign of a wriggler or a human infant anywhere at all.

Then she pauses, and looks down at the rock beneath her. Raising her foot, she steps down deliberately.

The rock lets out a hollow noise, and when she dances a little, pounding her feet, the ringing thud of her feet echoes through a hollow space below. Laughing, Aradia kneels and dusts off the surface of the rock with her already filthy sari, until the symbol on the hidden door beneath her feet comes clear. She cocks her head to the side, confused, before realizing she is looking at the symbol upside down. Scooting over, she traces her claws over it. Two four-pointed crowns overlap each other, one black and one white.

Aradia has to sit back on her heels, and let that sink in, because what.

She had anticipated the arrival of her fellow players.

But nowhere in all of her travels and her struggle to piece together her own memories has she ever found evidence that the Queens would be arriving before the start of the session! They should have arrived within the incipisphere, not on the pre-game world, and used their head start to begin compiling the armies of Prospit and Derse. And stranger still...if this symbol is accurate, then -

A loud thump slams up against the door from within in the meteorite, and Aradia yelps, floating back from the sudden flurry of movement going on within the impossible rock. She hadn't realized she'd been kneeling right on top of the hinges for the door before the hatch itself swings open, and, of all people, the Black Queen straightens up and surveys the landscape around her from beneath the swathing folds of her pitch-black hood. The carapacian is slim and elegant, all clicking joints and etched limbs, and quite thoroughly unprototyped. When her white eyes land on Aradia at last, she arches a brow and starts signing immediately.

BQ: Oh for the love of horrors - no. It is far too early for this.

BQ: Why in the name of the Battlefield are you god-tiered? This is ridiculous. I don't have time to deal with this right now.

Even knowing that her fantastic investigative work on identifying that symbol was correct, Aradia is still...put out. Put out is the phrase she is looking for. "We scratched after I hit god-tier. It seems to have carried over."

The carapacian pinches her brow.

BQ: Oh, fantastic. First we get knocked off course, and now I have to deal with a pack of mewling gods who probably don't have half a clue what they're meant to be doing.

"Well, if it helps, I'm the only one who seems to have arrived yet!" Aradia throws in, chipper. She folds her legs in a lotus and tilts her head to the side, heart thumping but unafraid, even in the face of the game construct who technically wields the most power in all of Skaia. A few universes ago, she had never been able to meet the Black Queen in person, before the carapacian had been deposed by her team's antics. But she has gathered that in the session immediately before this - the human session that had gone so badly awry, and ultimately led to this joint scratch - that the Queens had been driven to be a little more helpful towards the players than they would in the progress of a normal game. Once the glitches and the mistakes and the horrors had begun to pile up, due to events beyond the players' control, certain failsafes had been activated that led the Black Queen in particular to assist the human session in the name of opposing her ex-Archagent.

With any luck, thanks to the cyclical nature of a Queen's existence, that inclination towards aiding and abetting the players may have carried over, just like Aradia's god-tiering!

BQ: Well, there's an unexpected blessing. Now, stand aside so that I may get this show on the road.

Bemused, Aradia moves to the side again, and the Black Queen swings the outer door of the meteor closed, and leaps off the meteorite to the scorched, glassy crater below. Taking one last look at the doubled crowns, and hearing the sound of machinery still echoing within the meteorite, Aradia frowns and hurries after the carapacian dame when it becomes clear that the Queen is walking toward the edge of the crater. "Where are you going? Isn't someone else in there?" she asks, glancing back and wondering if she should be worried. If the White Queen is in there, and the Black Queen set up some device to explode…

BQ: Her Wise, Woeful self is still down for the count. She took far more damage than I did, and she needs time to recover and to set up her own half of the ectobiological chamber before anything else can be accomplished. I've done my part.

"But...you're leaving her alone?" Aradia asks, frowning. "You're not even going to try to reach Prospit and Derse together, and get everything back in order?"

The Black Queen rounds on her, eyes narrowed dangerously. Aradia's eyes flicker toward the carapacian's ring hand on reflex, her whole body tense for a possible battle; even an unprototyped queen is still a Queen.

What she sees makes Aradia freeze up entirely. Time whines painfully in her ear, and she realizes, perhaps for the first time, just how very strange this game is going to be.

The Black Queen's ring claw is gone. That entirely segment of her hand has been lopped off, and when Aradia looks at the other hand, to see if that secondary ring claw has been lost as well, she sees the glove that has been drawn over the Queen's other hand and wrist, as though to obscure even more damage. "That should have been healed, shouldn't it?" she asks, her pulse pounding in her ears. "When you two transition between one game and the next, you're supposed to be reset. You two are continuous -" Her mouth snaps shut while she shakes her head. She is so very, very confused.

BQ: Well clearly, it didn't.

The Black Queen strokes at the half-hand with the gloved claws, almost absently, before her shoulders relax and she turns away from Aradia again. She gazes off across the flattened desert landscape, toward the east, but Aradia can't see anything but more sand in that direction.

BQ: It is not as though I have a ring to wear, anyway.

Aradia doesn't think she was meant to hear that. But now that she has - "We broke something, didn't we," she says quietly. It has not escaped her notice that the shards of broken time kicked up by the Queens' meteor form the four points of a crown in a circle around them. That's the thing one has to always, always remember when dealing with a game like this - everything is significant. Nothing can be left to chance. "When we scratched both sessions for this, we pushed the game mechanics too far." She can't remember everything, and that sucks, because she can tell that something has gone wrong but she can't tell what.

The Queen snorts, tossing a fold of her wrappings over a shoulder dismissively, and turns to walk off once more.

BQ: It was broken before it even began. I don't see the point of attempting to raise this hunk of useless rock back up and hurling it back through to the Medium, anyway. It landed here - let her build a Prospit here, if she so desires. I'm out.

"Where are you going to go?" Aradia asks. When the Black Queen pulls her hood up and stalks away, her thin feet leaving alien footprints in the dusty soil, the troll doesn't follow. It feels - wrong, and she doesn't know how long the Queen's patience will hold out. It would never do to forget that in any ordinary session, the Black Queen would unquestionably be an enemy. "What will the game do if all the carapacians are here and not on the Battlefield? How is this going to work?" Her mind is spinning, and she has the feeling that she's missed some critical piece in this puzzle. She remembers the games, she remembers scratching, but she can't remember why everything would be going so very wrong so early, or why the  -

The Black Queen just smirks, and walks away. The desert sun shines brilliantly overhead, washing out all the colors, and the carapacian is a dark line against the smoking ground. But when she reaches the edge of the crater, the carapacian turns and signs one last thing.

BQ: Oh, Maid. Haven't you realized? It's supposed to be broken. It's not going to work. That's the point.

Surprisingly enough, this clears up...everything.

No, really. That last piece of the puzzle slots into place, and Aradia can see where they're going with this, the path they need to take laid out before her like an uncovered fossil, the skeleton perfectly preserved in her mind's eye. All she'd needed was that final reminder, and a little push.

Aradia beams back, and waves goodbye to the Black Queen's back, wishing the carapacian luck on whatever journey she's set off on. She doubts the Queen would give a straight answer, even if Aradia asked her outright what she intended to do - it's not in the nature of the Dersites to be open with information, even when they are in a helpful mood. All she can do is hope that the Black Queen's actions truly are in their best interests, after all this time.

She considers waiting for the White Queen to finish setting up the Prospitian ectobiological cycle so she can greet her as well, but then she discards the idea and rises up to return to her usual haunting grounds.

She needs to make a few preparations. If they're throwing out the rule book, after all this time, she's going all out!

-

Three hundred or so years later, Aradia Megido is quite rudely awakened by the arrival of the Knight of Time. Her throat gurgles as she lurches upright, tearing the vines and thick, dark leaves of the plants that have overgrown her body in her latest sleep cycle, and glances around blearily with her sari lopsided and hanging off one shoulders.

She's taken to decades-long naps, of late. There are consequences to stretching one's lifespan out the way she has - she is no hero of Life, after all, and there is no way for her to rejuvenate herself once she is forced to let even a single second of her time slip away. But honestly, she thinks she might as well give this nap cycle up for good; she's been interrupted a good eleven times now in the past five years alone, as the arrival of each player sent jarring notes through the flow of time, and her friends slot themselves into place in their timeline. And now, this? If she'd known a fellow hero of Time would make landing today, she wouldn't have bothered hibernating at all!

Grumbling, Aradia peels the vines off her arms and legs, stripping lichen off her flesh. Her temple is overgrown and crumbling at the edges when she glances around, stretching her limbs with the pop and creak of bones that grind ever closer toward old age. No one but her has dwelled here for some time, let alone worshipped at the feet of the statue that rises up in center of the circle, its features worn smooth and grey by time, and the slanted light of dawn falls through the thick vines and illuminates the fragments of the floor mosaics that remain.

Aradia chose to rest this time on the section of the temple floor with design still intact, the sahasrara pattern in brilliant purple and black stones that forms the shape of a thousand-petal lotus. One would have to look very closely, and with a certain game in mind, to see the spirograph hidden in the mosaic piece. When she looks over at the entrance of the temple, she sees that the seedling banyan tree from only a century ago has grown to close off the entire entryway in a curtain of hanging branches and leaves. The morning air is heavy with the scent of her home, overgrown and ancient, and Aradia takes a moment to lay back on the floor and mourn the end of her slumber.

But if the Knight is here, the rest of the human players can't be far behind. It is long past time that she join the party!

There is also something new in the air, she senses - or to be more precise, in the fabric of time itself. The arrival of each player had kicked up more disruptions like that caused by the impact of the Queens and their equipment, but the Knight of Time would of course cause more than a wound in the timeline with his arrival - the very nature of time itself has altered. Aradia hums, her usual note, and hears how the echoes of her hum in time reverberate differently. Time still flows like a beautifully wound music box, but now she can feel brief pauses before time resumes at a slightly lower register.

Pauses are not normal. Pauses are the opposite of how time works, really. People may pause, but time should still continue on around them. But after each pause, Aradia cannot deny that this is how time flows now - with built-in hiccups that vibrate through her, jolting the crystallized shards and nudging them back into motion.

She cannot believe it. It is next to impossible for her to comprehend, mainly because it involves drawing on memories of her past life rather than this one. Aradia Megido of this iteration has never been exposed to modern music, but Aradia in another time and place knew the Alternian equivalent in the form of slam poetry.

For whatever reason, the  Knight of Time has decided...to drop the bass. On a cosmic level.

Knights. Always so conspicuous. Aradia just grins, sliding the mask back over her face as she flicks out her wings. Maids can create and manipulate time, but there's really nothing like a Knight for exploiting and weaponizing it. It'll be a few years yet, but she can already imagine what they'll be able to achieve with two time players in one gloriously broken session.

But she still has to wait. She's getting a bit tired of waiting, but everyone still has to grow up first! The oldest are Equius and Feferi, and even they aren't anywhere near ready for the game. Soooo...she might as well have some fun in the meantime! "I know you've been whispering to him, as well," she says, spreading out her arms and rising toward the wide, arching opening in the center of the roof. The spirits of the dead stream up and around her, a thousand thousand of them that have sunk into the rocks and foundations of the temple while the Naukarānī slept, all dead souls that she has collected over the centuries to compound her strength. With her time powers stymied by her need to be discreet, she has relied on necromancy more and more heavily over the years.

"Take me to him," she orders, sifting a hand through the spirits until she finds the one she's looking for, the voice of a dead troll who had been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a meteorite had blasted through a spirographic portal and through the roof of a grub center in Ontario. The rest of the spirit is still attached to the one who rode that meteor - like Aradia, he has an in-born tendency to attract the dead and the soon-to-die. It's what always makes them such good friends!

With the assurance from one of her other tame spirits that the Condesce is somewhere in Spain, and that other parties are occupied with the new musical arrangement of time's flow, Aradia snaps her fingers, and flies east, following the curvature of the earth as she speeds herself up to hurtle towards Canada. She could conceivably speed herself up enough that she wouldn't experience the trip at all, but where's the fun in that? She has to make a pit stop in the center of the Pacific Ocean to meet with an old friend, but she's still in a hurry to get where she's going, so she cuts it short and moves on.

By the time she reaches Ontario, she wonders that her wings haven't grown tired. She crisscrosses the world quite often when she's awake, darting here and there setting key events into motion and visiting the crash sites of other players to ensure they get where they need to be, but the veined, dust-thin wings of her god-tier form never tire. The perks of being a second-hand god, no doubt. She flutters over the city until she reaches a cluster of apartment buildings, and the whispers of the dead troll in her ears rise to a scream. She lets it go at last, and the ghost's voice departs.

Then, settling on top of the towering apartment complex, unseen and unheard, Aradia watches as Sollux emerges from within the apartment, to the excited trumpeting of the lusus that lies chained to the center post. He is barely five years old, but already gangly and strung too tall for his age, worn thin with stress and a choleric temperament, and Aradia wonders just how much or how little Sollux has changed. That's the thing with a scratched universe - there's no telling how the players will turn out. They were lucky to be players at all, this time around.

When the first spirit drifts down and tries to whisper in his ear, Aradia unspools her mala beads and begins to chant under her breath until the soon-to-be ghost yanks away and floats up to join her foggy train. She can't ease all of Sollux's burdens as a Doom player. But she can at least grant him some peace while he's too young to understand. She draws her knees up to her chin, smiling warmly down at the troll below, and lets her mind wander, thinking of all the preparations she still has to make for the sake of the game.

Somewhere to the south, time adjusts to the new, percussive beat of a third drummer.

-

The people of Toronto, Ontario don't connect the sudden appearance of the masked hero called Naukarani with the Mauta kī Naukarānī legend of the Indian subcontinent - those who do think her costume, a clean new sari embroidered with clockwork and a ram's skull refitted as a gruesome mask, to be simply a homage to an ancient, obscure legend.

Aradia doesn't really mind, one way or another. She drops to the street below with her latest entourage of wayward spirits, behind a man who has yet to realize that his attempt at mugging a woman is about to go horribly wrong.

Baring her teeth in a feral grin, Aradia presses her fingers to her temples.

It starts slowly, with a single, quiet crack. Aradia tilts her head to the side, and lets a curl of fog brush against her cheek.

With a louder crack, the fog solidifies, and a skeletal hand is caressing her cheek. Aradia giggles, and with a shattering CRACK a pair of arms, bone and no more, wrap around her throat as the first spirit sags out of the fog, hollow-eyed and grinning the same smile as the hero who summoned it forth.

After that, they gain momentum, as the dead slowly recollect their old physical forms and Aradia patiently feeds them the raw necromantic power they need to become corporeal. Some are...meatier than others, strips of flesh solidifying out of the fog with wet slurps as her little army steps forward out of the mist.

The mugger's victim, naturally, sees them first. Her scream has enough volume that the mugger flinches back, and the man whirls with his knifekind still at the ready.

He drops it. Sensible of him.

"Boo," Aradia says sweetly. A dozen skinless, skeletal faces loom forward out of the fog, reaching out with claws and fingers to clutch at the mugger's clothing. He screams shrilly and kicks out. The first skeleton to form latches both arms around his foot, and drags him down. The dead pull the man into the fog, and Aradia smiles and smiles and smiles while the screams are swallowed in the muffling fog.

The mugging victim must call the police after she flees, because Aradia certainly doesn't. Aradia doesn't quite understand cellphones, yet - they're very new - and she's grateful when she hears sirens, because she doesn’t really know what she's going to do with the criminal currently occupied with the corpse party.

Long after the mugger stops screaming, the police arrive. Aradia withdraws her skeleton crew and her fog, leaving the man curled up in a ball on the ground as she flits off into the sky. She'll never understand why people find the dead so downright terrifying - all she'd given them permission to do was to scare him a little, and he's been reduced to a whimpering wreck.

Well. What works, works!

Shrugging, Aradia rises up into the air and grins at the next spirit that comes to whisper in her ear, with news of a fresh murder over by CN Tower. She brushes up the draping edges of her sari, and sets to work.

-

Several years later…

Aradia considers the wall before her.

She could use the door like a normal person. But he would be expecting that, and no doubt has shoved his mind-honey mainframes up against the door like the antisocial miscreant that he is.

So instead, she raises a hand, thumbing at her old beads, and runs through all possible timelines until she finds one where the wall has been knocked in by a wrecking ball.

She then quite neatly replaces the current wall with the demolished one, swapping the two time segments and cackling as she sets the new time graft into motion. The wall appears to blow inward, taking out a column of bee hives as the debris from another time crashes through the roof.

From within, she hears the crash of someone falling off their computer chair, and she laughs even harder.

"Thon of a fuck!"

"Get up, Sollux!" She grins, hands on her hips as she hovers over the wreckage of the wall and into the room beyond. "We're going crime-fighting!"