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Review: When a museum celebrating the Ku Klux Klan opens in a South Carolina town, the idealistic Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) strives to keep the peace even as he urges the group's Grand Dragon (Garrett Hedlund) to disavow his racist past. genres: Drama. 6,9 of 10. directed by: Andrew Heckler. countries: USA. Writer: Andrew Heckler. Burden Watch Full lengthy. OMG! THIS WAS FIRE AF! DAMNN. Burden watch full length movie. Alice was a child in a time when motor cars were new on the roads and the first aeroplanes were barely in the skies. She and her sister Millicent had gone to live with their grandparents after their parents had been lost in a flood. It had been a difficult change but her grandparents were loving and welcomed them into their home. It was a good house on a patch on the state road about a mile outside of Bakersville, a mill town where Grandfather had a dry goods store. They arrived near the end of the school year so Alice wasnt enrolled in the local grammar school right away. She had a long springtime that melded into summer and gave time for her to become enchanted with her new home. Sometimes Grandma would give her small chores to do but much of her time was her own. She spent much of it exploring the huge garden her grandmother had set up out back, or watching with curious confusion as Grandma made medicines for the neighbors from the many jars of herbs and roots that filled the kitchen shelves. One sunny Saturday afternoon in the autumn of her ninth year Alice was gathering huckleberries from the bushes that lined the road before her house. Once shed gathered enough in her small wicker basket she would bring them to her grandma who had promised to let young Alice help her in making preserves. Shed not been long at it when a gust of chill wind left her shivering and wishing shed brought a shawl. But as the wind faded she heard beneath it a strange voice, gravelly and deep, calling from the far bend to her left. Something in it left her more chilled than the wind. She ceased her berry picking and watched as a figure appeared in the distance. The voice came from it, a bit louder this time, and she heard the words it called out. “Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” Now, Alice was no fool. Her papa had told her to stay clear of strangers on the road, lest there be mischief. Vagabonds, he said, were not to be trusted. But Alice had seen such men before, and at first glance this stranger fit the bill. His clothes looked ragged and bare, his hat a crushed thing rescued from an ash heap. All were shades of dingy brown, akin to the road on which he walked, and a brown bag was slung over one shoulder. He walked with a shuffling gait that seemed to quicken when he perceived the fair Alice standing far down the road. Alice suddenly realized how alone she was. Grandfather was away at the dry goods store and her sister was not at home. It was only her and her grandma, and grandma was in the house baking. There was no one else on the road, no one but her and the brown-clad stranger coming towards her, calling out once more, “Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” The chill returned and sent Alice running to the house, huckleberries spilling everywhere as she spun to close the front gate fence before running onto the porch and into the house. “Grandma, Grandma! Theres a strange man on the road! ” Alice ran into the kitchen where her grandma was about to put a new loaf into the oven. The silver-haired woman smiled and looked at her grandchild, but her smile faded as she saw the look on Alices face. “What is it, Poppy? Why are you troubled? ” “Theres a man coming down the road. He scared me. ” Grandma smiled and set aside the pan. “Now, Poppy, not everyone you dont know is a villain. Tell me, did he say anything to you? ” Alice nodded. “He said, ‘Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” At this Grandma grew serious, the smile draining from her face. “Are you sure thats what he said? Thats what he called himself? ” “Yes, Grandma. He said Brown Sack. ” Grandma glanced at the open front door before looking at her granddaughter directly. “All right, dear. I want you to sit over there. ” She waved at a nearby stool. “Sit there and be quiet for a while. I have some things to do. ” Alice nodded and went to sit on the stool. Grandma went to the front door and checked to see the fence gate was closed. Making a strange sign with her hand, she said something too quiet to hear before closing the front door and repeating her actions. Returning to the kitchen, Grandma turned her attention to the dough she had been about to bake. “Got to make something for him”, she said more to herself than to Alice, though the young girl was paying attention as always. “Got to give him something. ” She pinched and pulled at the dough until the rectangular loaf had become a doughboy effigy with a round head and stubby arms. Then Grandma reached for some of the jars of herbs she kept on a shelf and pressed them into the dough, speaking once more in a tone too soft for Alice to hear. The dough then went into the oven. Alice watched as her grandma glanced at the clock, then sat on another stool and looked at Alice. “Now, we wait for it to bake. Shouldnt be too long. ” Minutes passed as Alice kicked her feet idly. She had a lot of things she wanted to ask her grandma, about the man and the bread and the way her grandma looked worried all of a sudden, but she got the feeling that it was not a good time to ask. As if reading her mind, Grandma looked at Alice and tried to smile. “Been a long time since he come around. Didnt think hed ever be back. ” “Who is he, Grandma? ” Alice asked quietly. Before her grandma could answer there was a voice outside coming from the road. “Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” Grandma sat up at the sound of his voice. She looked at Alice and whispered, “Sit right there! Dont move! ” She went to the oven and brought out the pan with the little doughboy, who was now all puffy and golden brown. She set it to cool as she reached for the oil and more of her herb jars. She put the oil and some herbs into a mixing bowl and stirred it with her finger while she recited something to herself that Alice didnt understand but sounded like the talk they did at church. She kept saying whatever it was as she took an oil-soaked finger and drew something on the baby-shaped loaf. Finally, she wrapped it in a cloth and held the bundle to her breast like a newborn. All the while the harsh, raspy voice called from outside the house, “Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” With a hard breath out Grandma looked at the front door, then at Alice. “Stay where you are till I tell you to come out. Dont say a word. ” Then she walked to the front door, unbolted it and opened it wide. Alice, never one to disobey, nonetheless walked softly to the parlour and stood next to the front window. Moving the curtain aside slightly, she peered out the window to see better the stranger who had so frightened her. What she saw did not set her at ease. Grandma stood at the edge of the porch with a stern look on her face. The ugly old man who called himself Brown Sack stood at the fence gate. There was indeed a brown sack flung over his back, and though it appeared empty and flat he stooped as if carrying a great burden. With his free hand he doffed his hat and gave Grandma a crooked smile. “A good afternoon to you, young lady. Ive walked far and long, and so I am tired and parched. Would it be too much for me to ask to sit in the shade of your porch awhile, and trouble you for a glass of water? ” He made to open the gate, but the latch remained shut despite his tattling. “It seems your gate is stuck. Would you be so kind as to come and open it for me? ” Grandma opened the screen door and stepped onto the porch, but went no farther. “Youll have no entry here, today or any day. ” Brown Sacks eyes narrowed a moment before his smile grew once more. “Thats a shame, for I did see a lovely young girl on the road and wanted to introduce myself. You see, she was gathering berries and Im sad to say my appearance did startle her and cause her to spill her basket. Would you be so kind as to call her outside, so I might make my apologies? ” Grandmas voice grew stern. “Youll be talking to no children today, Brown Sack. You may not remember me, but I know you. When I was a wee thing you came this way and filled your sack. Some of those you took were my friends. Be off with you, and never come back. ” Alice shivered to hear Brown Sack laugh at this, a hissing, unnatural wheeze. “I do remember you, young lady! What a grand summer I had that year! Oh, your little friends were delightful, so earthy and sour! A pity you could not have joined them! Ah, well, is what is. Ill bet that little girl youre hiding in there would be as sweet. ” “Youll never know. On your way, fiend! ” “My sack is empty and wants for a meal. Ill go when Ive had my fill, and no sooner. ” Then a gleam came to his eye as he espied the bundle at Grandmas breast. “Of course, it doesnt have to be the little angel I saw on the road. How about that sweet meat that sleeps at your bosom? Minding it for a friend, are you? Tell you what, give it to me and well call it even. You can say a coyote ran off with it, and keep your little angel. What do you say? ” Alice had to wonder what Brown Sack had for eyes. Even she could see the bundle Grandma held close was a baked loaf wrapped in a kitchen towel. But Grandma clutched it tightly as if hed asked for a real baby before asking, “…if I give you this, youll leave this house and never come back? ” Brown Sack made a bow. “I swear it. ” Grandma nodded, said, “So be it! ” and threw the hot loaf at Brown Sack. Alice wasnt sure what she saw next. Sure, he turned his shoulder to the porch and lifted his hand as if to open his bag. But to Alice it seemed the sack opened of itself, like the mouth of some giant worm or slug, and moved to receive the bundle. It snapped closed as soon as it had it, and Alice could see the lump of the bundle inside move down the sack as if in a swallowing throat. Brown Sack grinned mightily a moment. Then his face got all queer and he hacked and stuck out his tongue like hed eaten something foul. It took him a minute to regain himself. Meanwhile Grandma went into the house and retrieved the iron poker from the parlour fireplace. She paused a moment to give Alice a disapproving frown for leaving the kitchen before going back onto the porch and standing tall, the poker waving before her. “Theres your bread, Brown Sack! Now, off with you! This is a Christian house, and youll not do your devils work here! ” Brown Sack was himself again. “Im not the Devil, sweet girl, but I thank you for the compliment all the same. ” He smiled a bit as he doffed his hat. “That was a good trick you played! Im guessing you learnt some conjurin since last we met. But, a deal is a deal, and so Ill be on my way. Tis a pity well never meet again. Perhaps Ill have the good fortune to see your little angel once more. Good day! ” He made to walk on, but paused a moment and turned his head ever so slightly towards the window from which Alice peeked. There he stared a long moment before giving her a wink that made her gasp and shiver with fright. Then he worked his shoulders as if to settle a heavy load and walked on down the lane. She and her Grandma both stood and watched till long after hed gone. Alice stood silent as her grandma came into the parlor and put the iron poker back by the fire, then sat down in her favorite chair with a heavy sigh. She looked at Alice with a smile but it was one mixed with worry and a bit of pity. With open arms she beckoned Alice to sit with her, and the little girl nearly ran the few feet between them. They sat together and held one another tight a few minutes before Alice asked, “Grandma, who was he? Who is Brown Sack? What does he do? ” “Hes the worst of ‘em. He goes around trying to catch little ones like yourself. He says hes only looking for the bad children but I know hell take any he can find. He throws ‘em into that sack of his and takes ‘em away. No one knows where, and no one ever sees ‘em again. ” Grandma looked into the fearful eyes of her granddaughter and smiled reassuringly. “Now, dont you worry none. Its gone and it wont come back soon. And if it ever does, youll be all grown up and it wont want to bother with you. ” “Grandma, howd you know what to do? What did you do? ” “My mama taught me some things when I was little. ” She paused, looked out the window once more. “Guess its time I teach you a few things, too. ” And so began Alices tutelage in what her grandma called “the Powwow”. She learned what all the herbs on the shelf were, what Grandma used them for and how to find them. There was use for iron and silver as well, how a nail or a dime could bring good fortune or ward from the evil eye. Alice would help Grandma in the kitchen whenever she was home and listen while the older woman told her how to make or mix a thing and what prayers to say over the work she was doing. She loved her Grandma and was determined to make her proud. The same couldnt be said for Alices older sister, Millicent. She was a few years older than Alice and thought little of her grandmothers craft. The old woman had tried to include her in her lessons but Millicent was having none of it. Headstrong she was, and paid little mind to the wisdom her grandma would offer. “Theres hospitals now, and patent medicines. When Im old enough Ill marry a city fella and have everything I want. There wont be any grubbing for roots for me! ” Grandma would look on her with sad eyes, like she could see something bad coming and didnt know how to stop it. Nearly four years would pass from the time Brown Sack had paid his visit. Alice was growing from a precious child to a pretty young woman, all the while listening to the teachings of her beloved grandmother. All this would end in that fourth year as Alice noticed a change in her grandma. The old woman moved slower and needed help lifting the pots and pans. Soon she was sitting more than standing and would ask Alice in a shaky voice to do some task or other for her. Their forest walks grew shorter and fewer, and Grandma would have to pause here and there to rest. Alice grew worried for her, fearing her time was soon at hand. “Dont be scared for me”, she told Alice one day as they sat together at the kitchen table. “Everyone has their time. Mines been on the way quite a while. Ill be off to see your mama and papa soon. When the Lord calls me home, Ill go happily because I know youll be all right. Youre a good girl, Alice, and youve been the best friend an old woman could hope for. ” They both cried and help one anothers hands at that. The day finally came about a month later in the early days of October. Grandma couldnt get out of bed that morning. The doctor was called for but he said there was nothing to be done. Grandma was heard to mutter, “Hmph, I could have told him that. ” Alice went to check on her while her grandfather and Millicent spoke with the doctor in the parlor. Grandma was sitting up against a pile of pillows, her long, silver hair spread out in a halo. She smiled and perked up a bit to see Alice sitting nest to the bed. “Now, now, my dear, none of that. Ive some things for you. Take this. ” She unfurled her hand, in which she had been clenching a small key. “Theres a box under the bed whose lock fits that key. Its yours now. Take it to your room while theyre out jabbering, then come back quick. ” Alice did as she was told. “Good girl. But, youre not a girl now, are you? Youre the woman of the house. You have to keep the hearth lit, and the stove hot, sos your granddad and sister dont freeze to death in the dark! ” She chuckled a bit, then coughed and caught her breath before going on. “That box I gave you has things youll need. I was hoping to teach you more myself, but it looks like the Lord has other ideas. Ill be going now. My Edward is here to take me home. Gosh, dont he look handsome, same as the day he married your ma. ” Alice turned to look where her Grandma was looking but there was no one there, except maybe a slight glow to the air. When she turned back she saw her Grandma had closed her eyes and with a gentle exhalation had slipped away. After the service and the burial things began to settle into a new routine. Alice kept house same as she had with Grandma. It was lonely without her but Alice felt less alone than she thought she might. Everywhere she looked she was reminded of her, surrounded by her things. My things now, Alice reminded herself. Most important were the contents of the long wooden box that now sat under her own bed. Inside there were books with names such as the Long-Lost Friend, The Sixth And Seventh Books Of Moses, and the Legenda Sanctorum of Jacobus da Varagine. Most important of all to Alice were the journals filled with her grandmothers handwriting. They seemed part diary, part recipe book. In the times to come Alice would read them many times over, hearing the words in her grandmothers voice. On top of them all was Grandmas bible, the one she carried to church every Sunday. Shed filled the margins with notes and comments. Seeing her handwriting in it every time Alice opened it made it all the more special to her. It made Alice happy to carry it to church herself the next Sunday. People who used to visit her grandma when they had a problem now started asking for Alice. Word had got around that she was learning the Powwow and was growing to be a powerful conjure woman. But she didnt yet have the Sight, else she might have done something to stop the misery Caleb Morden brought to their door. Caleb was nineteen and the son of Josephus Morden, owner of the mill that employed a third of Bakersville. The elder Morden had gained a reputation for being ruthless in business and holding an iron grip over his employees. His was a quiet, vengeful harshness that he took his time in executing for all slights real or imagined. Everyone treated him with deference and avoided him whenever possible. The son was as forward as his father was reserved. Caleb and his good-time buddies were known for their vices and their violence. Many were the times when Josephus would have to clean up Calebs messes. Hush money was offered, and if that didnt work there was always fire or fists. Josephus got what he wanted any way he could, but try as he might he couldnt rein in his son. Caleb had been kicked out of two boarding schools and a year at a military academy seemed to only make him worse. He was back home the April after Alices grandmothers passing, all wound up and ready for a good time. That was when he set his eye into Millicent. Alice had seen how Caleb looked at her sister, the way he paused and shot her a crooked smile that Millie found charming. Alice, she saw the animal glint in Calebs eye, like a wolf who could smell easy meat. She didnt like Caleb at all. But there was no telling Millie about the wolf at her door. The one time Alice tried it she got an earful. It wasnt long till he started showing up places where Millicent would be and chatting her up with all kinds of smooth talk. He would tell Millie all about the big cities hed seen and how they were filled with light and wonder. She would talk about nothing else at the supper table until the night their grandfather told Millie he didnt want her spending any more time with Caleb. She flew off the handle at that, called her father a “timid old mouse hiding in his store” and other things. Then she stomped out of the house. She didnt come back till morning. Alice didnt have to ask where shed been, or with who. Grandma had taught her to see the auras of people. Calebs was red like a burning coal, and it was all over Millie like a stain. It was about a month later when Millie woke up one morning sick as could be. Alice knew right away that her sister was with child. The next day at the breakfast table she told Alice and her grandfather what they already knew “Is it Caleb Mordens? ” her grandfather asked quietly. Millie sat there a moment staring down at the table before nodding silently. The old man sighed. “That boys been trouble since the day he came into this world. ” The elder Walker breathed in deep and gave it some thought. “Ill have a talk with Josephus after the Sunday sermon. Ill put it to him that Caleb should step up and to the right thing, and marry Millicent. ” Alice watched her sister try to hold in her excitement as he continued, “If we have ‘em tie the knot before everyone else notices it will be all right. Ive known Josephus a long time, hell listen to reason. ” Alice wasnt so sure about that last part, but she knew her grandfather was a righteous man and would do his best to see things set straight. Grandpa Walker opened his store the next day but not a soul came in till near closing, when Josephus arrived with several of the larger men from his factory. What they talked about he wouldnt say, but when Walker got home that night he told his granddaughters theyd be moving soon. He had accepted an offer from Morden to buy out his business. The offer was on the low side of fair, but Walker took it as he knew the consequences of refusing Mordens generosity. “But, where will we go? ” Alice asked with concern. “Ive a friend who lives east of Springfield. He told me of a house outside of town that hed been looking to sell quick and cheap. Maybe its still available. ” As it so happened his friend did still own the house and agreed to let the Walkers have it for near what he got for his business. Grandfather made arrangements to rent out their old home to one of the families in town. “Been our home a long time. We might want to come back some day. Besides, all our loved ones are buried here. Wouldnt be right to abandon them. ” There was little more for them to do after that but pack up their things and leave. Three days later a motor car came to take them to the train station; a horse cart would come for what furnishings were not staying. Millicent had two big bags full of her fancy things. Alice had only a case with her everyday clothes and the box from her grandmother. As they neared the train station Alice spotted a vagabond walking on the road ahead. The car let off its horn to alert him as they sped past. He looked up and for a moment their eyes locked. Dressed all in brown, a sack made of leather over one shoulder, he looked as startled as Alice did, but where she shivered with dread in recognition, Brown Sack was delighted, his smile growing ever wider as he doffed his hat. A moment later they had left him behind, but Alice had the feeling she would see him again all too soon. Two days later they arrived at a house that was humbler than the one theyd vacated. Millicent burst into tears at the sight of it. All her dreams of fancy living were gone. Alice looked at the spare kitchen and weed-choked garden and sighed. There was work ahead of her, but she knew she could make something of it. Grandpa Walker was able to get a position keeping the books for a tool and die company in Springfield. It meant long days and more nights than not he got home late or stayed in town. Millie began to feel poorly on account of her condition and spent much of her time in a parlor chair or in bed. That left Alice to herself for most of the day. She didnt mind. Those first few weeks she lived in her apron and got the house and garden respectable. One night she dreamed of her Grandma. They were back in the kitchen of the old house, with sweet smells from the oven and golden light coming through the windows. Alice gave her grandma a big hug that was warmly returned. “I miss you, Grandma! ” “Oh, I miss you too, Poppy. ” She held Alice at arms length and smiled. “My, look how youve grown! Im so proud of you. ” “We, we lost the house. ” Her smile faded a bit. “I know. But youre in a new one, and home is where you make it. ” “Millie got herself in a real pickle. ” “I know that, too. And Im glad youre there for her. Shes going to need your help in the times to come. ” “Papa says we should tell everyone that shes widowed and her husband died in an accident. ” “That may be for the best. Be sure to get her a black dress, else folks will wonder. ” Then Grandma paused, a look of worry in her eyes. “Shes going to have a son, and hes going to be a handful. Therell be more of his father in him than whats natural. Auntie Alice will have to do what she can. ” Alice nodded. “I will, Grandma, I promise! ” And she smiled a bit. The thought of being an aunt hadnt crossed her mind till then. Grandma smiled back, then all faded to white as Alice awoke in her bed. Time passed and Millicent began to show. It was a pitiful sight to see a young woman in mourning black heavy with child, but few saw it as Millie kept to the house most days. Her burden drained her till she was thin and pale. Whats more, the child in her was restless, moving and kicking day and night. It began in her fifth month, not long before the day they got word that Caleb Morden had died in a drunken brawl, knifed through the heart by a man to whose wife Caleb had been paying visits. The birth was long and painful. The storm that crashed through that brutally hot August night did little to muffle the screams of the mother as she struggled to expel the child within her. Finally the child arrived as Millicent shrieked in tandem with the roar of a lightning bolt smashing through an ancient oak in the yard. The midwife declared the child a boy and said he was healthy and hale. Even so, there was a troubled look in her eye as she took her leave earlier than she might, leaving Alice to change the bedclothes and wipe the mess from her unconscious sister. Millicent was slow to recover from the ordeal. In the months to follow she remained painfully thin and weak, haunting the parlor with hollow eyes and hollow voice. Alice tended her with herbal teas and mixtures from her garden that brought her sister a modicum of relief. A doctor from the county hospital had come by and examined mother and child, confirming the vigor of the later but warning Millicent that it would be unwise to attempt a second child. She named him Rory. When asked why she had done so Millie could only say, “It just came to me”. He was much like his father, with hair of flame and a ruddy complexion. Rory was a difficult child. Rarely did he sleep through the night, fussing and crying the whole time. He writhed and screeched when anyone but his mother tried to hold or even touch him. Millicent had trouble producing milk for him so a wet nurse was hired but didnt last long, nor the two after her. They all complained of the restless child and of the way he clamped down so hard on them as to be unbearably painful. “I swear, ifn it had teeth it would have been drinking blood from me”, one departing helper had said. Grandpa started bringing tinned goats milk home for the child and talked of getting an animal for themselves. The child became a toddler but had trouble learning to stand and walk. Grandpa, never one to criticize, remarked to Alice that his great-grandson “stumbled like a saloon rat”, though he apologized for it quickly. Alice felt only sympathy for the man who had raised her and her sister after their parents had died and had been rewarded for his good deeds with exile and ruin. She knew that he wanted to love the child, being his kin, but that Rory was also a Morden and so one of the clan that had set him low. Shed also noticed how hed been missing his ride home more often, staying in town overnight. Time passed. Rory grew quickly. He took to solid food all right and would eat everything he could, though he preferred meat in all its forms. Those few folks who called on the Walker home would remark on how large the boy was for his age. He also grew strong and developed a habit of slapping away hands or punching anyone who held him. He was still too young to be real trouble, but Alice would look at the bruises on her skin and wonder what they would do if he didnt grow out of it. When finally he began to speak his first word was, “NO! ” It became his favorite. Hed shout it with a snap of new teeth and a glare in his eye. He also got bossy and would shout orders at his mother and aunt. Sometimes he would run up and punch his mother in the leg if he wasnt getting his way. He tried that on Alice a few times but she was stern and refused him no matter how much he yelled and cried. Soon enough he got the picture and from then on would only glower at his aunt. Grandfather Walker had taken it upon himself to write Josephus Morden and tell him of young Rory. He knew that the elder Morden must have been heartbroken at the loss of his only son and might find room in his heart for his grandson. Perhaps, he silently wondered, the Mordens might want to welcome him into their own home as one of their own and give him a better life than he could. It was a well-crafted letter, filled with uplifting messages of family and faith, ending on a hopeful note of friendship. It was answered two weeks later by a certified letter from Mordens attorney, denying all knowledge of Rory and accusing Walker of extortion. It threatened legal action if he persisted. Grandfather did not write again. Six years passed since the Walkers came to that house. Alice was past her teens now and began to wonder about the future. Grandpa was doing well at the tool and die company but shed noticed how tired he seemed and how his hands shook. The long hours were too much for a man of his age. He would sit with Alice sometimes and regret how the way things had gone had kept her from finding her own path. He revealed that hed been setting aside some money for her, and noted there was a secretarial school in Springfield that she could attend. From there she could find work and meet people, perhaps even a husband with whom she could have a home of her own. Alice thanked him for it all but said she was happy where she was. This was true, but more true was her fear that if she left he and Millicent on their own they would decline quickly. Especially, she noted, with Rory around. It was not long after, as the autumn set in and the green leaves were turning gold, that Alice was working in the garden when she felt a chill. This wasnt the autumn wind but a shiver that came from her bones, from the inside out. Shed felt it before on such a day nearly a decade prior. She knew what it meant. Leaving her basket where it was she stood up and walked around to the front of the house, looking expectantly from side to side. It was then she heard a familiar voice, calling from down the road. “Oh! Oh! Brown Sacks a-cold! Oh! Brown Sacks a-hungry! ” Alice needed a moment to brace herself against the memory of that long-ago day. The fiend had returned, as it had promised. She walked up to the rickety wooden fence at the edge of the yard and rested her hand on the gate as she recited to herself the prayer that Grandma had taught her. Then, she stood and waited. It was not long before Brown Sack saw her and smiled as if greeting a long-lost friend. He strode right up to the gate and stood only a few yards away, smiling and doffing his hat. “Good day to ye, young lady. How grand it is to see you after so long a time. A child no more! Sure you remember me? ” Alice nodded. “Brown Sack, if that be your name. ” “Tis not, but Ill take it as any other. Best people not know my true name, lest they cause me mischief. ” He peered behind her a bit theatrically. “I dont suppose your gram is at home? Id like to pay my respect to her as well. ” “You know better. ” His smile faded some. “Aye, that I do. And my deepest condolences on your loss. ” He doffed his hat once more. “Such a fine lady she was. Certain she showed me a new trick! Ill not soon forget her. Or, it. ” There was a knowing in his voice, a warning to Alice that her grandmothers trick would not work on him twice. “And now, youre the woman of the house. But not yet a mother, not yet a wife. Youve no child to fret for yourself. ” Alice saw the brown leather sack that hung limply over his shoulder move ever so slightly, its sphinctered opening moving a bit in his hand. The fiend was distracted a moment as if someone were whispering in his ear. As if the sack were speaking to him. He nodded before once more smiling towards Alice. “Oh, but you do worry for a child! One who came to you unbidden, kin but not kin, older within than without. One as difficult to love as he is unloving. How he drains your sister! How he worries your grandfather! You watch him grow and see his father in him, more and more every day. You know what he will become, and that all your craft will do nothing to stop it. All you can do is nurse your sister through it and hope ye both survive. Thats the child I see in this place. Such a burden to bear. ” There seemed true empathy in his voice as he asked, “Shall I ease you of it? ” The offer startled Alice to anger. “How dare you! ” “No need to be cross, dear lady. I am what I am, and I do what I do. ” “Not here you wont. You made a promise to my grandmother, one I witnessed. ” “Indeed, and one I have kept, for I promised to leave that house and never return. Never have I returned, and never shall I. But”, he smiled with a glint in his eye, “this is not that house, is it? ” Alice shuddered as she realized the pact no longer protected her, that all which stood between her and an ancient evil was a weathered gate and a flimsy lock. But Brown Sack only smiled and took a step back. “Now, now, my angel, be at peace. Ill not fill my sack today. Not yet. But the day may come when youll know the truth, that ol Brown Sack is a friend, mayhap the best friend youll ever have. ” He shifted his sack as if it were laden heavy. “Ill be on my way now. It was grand to see you again, little angel. Give my best to your gram when you see her next! ” And with a carefree laugh he walked on down the road. Alice waited until he had passed out of sight before turning and walking back to the garden. There she stood and watered the herbs she had been tending with her tears, for the terror of it all that was passing, and for herself, for that oh so brief and shameful moment when she wanted to accept his offer. Soon came All Hallows Eve. Alice remembered fondly how her grandmother would carve a turnip into a jack-o-lantern and set it with its lit candle on the porch rail for all to see. She set her own carved turnip on the porch and placed the stub of a candle inside. She put a bowl of hard candies on a stool and waited in the twilights gloaming for visitors. None came. None even walked by. It was only when her grandfather walked up the lane, home late once more, that she knew it was too late for children and no one was coming. They went inside to have their supper and called out to Millicent and Rory to join them. Neither responded. Alice checked their room. There she found her sister lying unconscious on the bed next to the open window. She had been attacked in her sleep, beaten about the head with the heel of her own boot by persons unknown. Rory was nowhere to be seen. The police and a doctor were called for. Millicent was whisked off to the county hospital with her grandfather. A detective convinced everyone there was a kidnapper on the prowl. “He must have come through the open window, knocked her senseless and taken the child”, he opined. Another policeman reminded his peers of the reports theyd had in the past few days of a vagabond with a leather sack walking the roads. No one asked how Alice, sitting only a few yards away, saw or heard nothing. An all-points bulletin was issued. The detective ordered the others to join in the search before leaving himself, making pale reassurances to Alice as their patrol cars sped away. Alice was left alone in the house. With nothing else to do she went to the kitchen to find something that might settle her stomach. As she gathered some herbs for the kettle she thought with dread on the state of her sister. Her thoughts crept to a terrible conclusion. The marks on her sister's face werent from fists. They looked more like the prints made by the heels of Millicents fancy boots, the ones she never wore anymore but kept in a drawer next to the bed. Heels on a pair of boots no one else would know were there. Heels on little boots that little hands could wield as a weapon, swinging them again and again. At six years of age Rory had grown large enough that most thought him a ten-year-old and he showed a quickness and strength great even for that age. Was he capable of this? So engrossed in her thoughts was Alice that she didnt hear the screen door open behind her. Only when it snapped shut did she jump in place and look to see Rory opening the cutlery drawer, reaching for the meat knife. He grasped it tightly in his small, meaty hands, a look of rapture in his eyes. Then he looked up at Alice, and smiled his fathers smile. Alice needed no further prompt. She dropped her tea and dashed out the back door into the garden in hope of outrunning the little goblin. Barely had she reached the tilled earth when a great pain slashed through her right calf. She screamed and stumbled to the ground. Rory, his knife wet with her blood, walked up beside her. He seemed in no hurry. Now more than ever his eyes seemed Calebs eyes, shining with unnatural delight. A shadow appeared behind the boy, an absence of light against the stars on that moonless night. Rory was so focused on his victim he never noticed as a tall, stooped man took something from his shoulder and held it wide before bending quickly. The demon child was at once enveloped in a brown leather sack, one which its owner held closed as he slung it over his shoulder. Alice lay wounded and trembling as she watched the sack on his shoulder thrash about mightily from the struggles of the trapped Rory whose bellowing screams were muffled to little more than piteous whimpers. Slowly the noise faded as the sack deflated like some balloon until it lay flat and still on its owners shoulder once more. The looming figure of Brown Sack, a silhouette with glowing coals for eyes, reached up and doffed his hat. “A fine evening we are having, little angel, wouldnt you say? Certainly a fine start. My sack has not fed so well in quite a while indeed. Ah, but where are my manners? Best you go inside and see to that leg. Wouldnt do to water the garden such. ” Even in the darkness she could tell he was smiling. He doffed his cap once more. “My sack and I must be going. Always a pleasure. ” And with that, he was gone. No sooner had Alice crawled back to the kitchen than a policeman returned to update her on the search. He called for help on seeing her distressed state. Soon for a second time that night the detective was questioning her while a doctor tended to her leg. Fortune was with her for the wound was not deep. She told a version of the truth where she had been menaced by a vagabond in brown carrying Rory in a sack. The search was renewed with the police staying at the house in case the fiend returned. Grandfather returned in the morning with news that Millicent would recover. Alice sat with him on the porch and talked of the future. She suggested that when Millie was herself again he send her to the secretarial school so she can have her life in the big city. He agreed it was for the best. “And what will you do, Alice? ” her grandfather asked. Alice stood, paused, and said, “I think Ill make another cup of tea. ” Then she went inside.

So 🔥 hid sound is on point. Stellarim Hilton, December 5th Benjamin Macintosh struggled, his hands stung the cord out trying to get the proper grip. This wasn't working. he tossed the red tie to the side and unbuttoned the top of his shirt to let his neck breathe. Forgo the tie, adjust composure. No sense in overthinking it. "You're seriously ditching the tie. Caitlin O'Brien scoffed, arms crossed as she leaned against the door. The interior of the hotel room was stale, beige, illuminated by empty blue light. "You should know how much I hate those nooses from Steve and Chelsea's wedding. Ben huffed. It was hard enough that Ben and Cait had been broken up since she left for that mission in Dallas with her sister. They couldn't seem to stop having to work together. It was only worse that their siblings, Steve O'Brien and Chelsea Macintosh were married. Thanksgiving and Christmas always got awkward. "You're such a fucking baby. Cait snickered, checking her phone. always the jabs. Always the coming out on top. That was all that mattered to her. Ben sighed as he picked up the notes from his father, Isaiah, The Adjudicator. Ben had requested the file on DIAL well in advance. Know your enemy after all, right? Listen I don't need a distraction from work and you reaaally aren't doing me favors here. Ben flipped through the pages of possible underlings used to do business. Some cutthroat guys, a few full metal bitches, some slimy motherfuckers. He didn't have to worry about the current head's sister, since she had her own operation prior and had been kicked off of that throne. Rather brutally too if the grapevine was accurate. His father was obsessive about repaying the disservice of Oluf Dorrik breaking his spine way back in the nineties. Ben didn't give two shits about that old grudge. "You know what your problem is. Cait made a face as she took a photo of herself with her phone. Ben knew where this was going. He wasn't going. Cait took another selfie. The speaker of the clock noise had a loose corner and rattled ever so slightly. God damn it. She was going to torment him with that until he responded. "Yeah? Enlighten my sorry ass. Ben rolled his eyes as he shoved the file in his briefcase and set it atop his heavy luggage. "You're too idealistic. Cait put the phone away, rolling her eyes. "whoever is in that room is going to kick you in the nuts and laugh at you. Not to mention what you're doing is fucking retarded. Ben felt his blood boil a little, his mind defensive of his little brother. "Hey- you mind not using that word. What? Fucking. No. You know the one. Ben glared over his shoulder as he finished packing for the meeting and the flight back home to L. A. to follow. "Huh. Right, whatever. Cait brushed it off. Opening the door to the seething orange of the hallway. "c'mon, sooner we go, sooner I can check off the stupid mandatory hero bodyguarding bullshit your dad and my boss has me doing for the rinkydink team of losers. ” Benjamin looked to the bed. "You forgetting something. He asked. Cait stepped up to the bed and stuffed the bra into her coat pocket. "Shut up. ATLAS Rocky Mountains Compound, somewhere in Northern Montana, present day Theme Monorail took a deep breath, the cold mountain complex air stinging her lungs, even through her helmet and indoors. The pale light and cold blue sky isolating her. She whipped her railgun around the corner to fire off a shot. The ATLAS security officer's head snapped back in a red mist, signaling her to tuck back behind the wall. The machine gun fire peppered the wall. one shot down. Her earpiece rang in her ear. This wasn't going the way Diane wanted it to go. the mountain complex was crawling with guards. The sound of a reload clicked through the air as the gunshots thinned. Monorail took a deep breath to steady herself and swung around for another shot, cleaving through the neck of another ATLAS security. two shots down. Again Monorail took the briefcase and removed the device, pressing it up against the wall and plugging the various parts into each other. This was messy. Too many guards, Crawling with them. The files were recovered, but they were scanning the system for what had been taken: Project Panacea. She had to slash and burn, destroy the backup so it couldn't get disseminated and get the hell out. Monorail pressed the button on the side of her helmet. "Monorail. Peter hissed in her ear. "A bit occupied. Diane swung her railgun up to fire off a shot at a Security officer who was peeking too far to the side for her liking. Three shots down. "we're on our way to help you and anyone else- Peter's voice blared in her ear. "It's just me. Diane stated, chancing a peek around the corner before jerking her head back to keep from getting shot. "okay whatever, but we're on our way, just stay put. Peter demanded. "Negative Frostburn. Diane flipped the switch to start the timer. "I won't let them leave this place alive. What- what are you talking about? you're pinned down. Peter stated in distress. "It's suicida. Don't worry about it. Just meet me at the rendezvous. Monorail reached up to the side of her helmet. "I've got my way out. Monorail hung up and muted her coms, taking note of the time on the C4 plastic explosives. Stellarim Conference Center, December 5th Benjamin stepped into the meeting room at the back of the center. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Benjamin huffed stepping into the room, tugging at his blazer to straighten out the wrinkles before checking his cufflinks. He froze at the end of the table. "Not to worry. The small young woman standing at the window overlooking the city in the foggy blue morning turned to face him. "I arrived a little late after checking in with my father. You know, I was hoping that I could get in touch with you. Benjamin approached and extended his hand. "Pleasure to meet you Diane. Diane gave a small smile and took Ben's hand. He could feel his hair standing on end as the air around her was absolutely tense. "Benjamin. I've heard things about you. Diane tilted her head up to meet his gaze. "All good things I hope. Ben chuckled. "I'd hope not. That'd make me suspicious. Diane smiled and raised a brow. "You mentioned you needed to make a contact through DIAL. “Well Im here on Official ATLAS business to scold DIAL for the general accusational stuff, like you know. taking over an ATLAS international water ports up in Alaska, or maybe throwing out hits on our satellite supply lines outside of Stellarim proper, but me. Im also here on personal business. ” “Mixing business with personal? Im going to have to reject any advances you intend to make, as I am in a relationship. ” Diane sat down on her side of the table, inviting him to sit. “Just to clear the air of any disappointment that you cant be my suitor beforehand. ” “No… nothing like that. ” Benjamin sat down. “I have a Job, and I need you to pass it along for me. ” ATLAS Rocky Mountains Compound, somewhere in Northern Montana, present day Monorail engaged her raildisks, letting them slide out from her back, and out down her arms and legs, swiveling into their place and lifting her feet off the ground. The room before her was near twenty meters long, with Security on the left along windows and right guarding the stairs down. Which left the far side windows. no balcony. second floor. Facing eastward down mountain. She felt her Overshield pulse on. A blue barrier as the orange of gunfire licked at the wall. it was showtime. She grabbed the edge of the wall and launched herself around the corner in a low skate, raising the barrel of her railgun to fire a shot into the guard who was aiming too high. His arm spouting like a fountain as the shot grazed under his shoulder and into his chest. four shots down. she flung an arm to launch a raildisk to smack into the guard on the right, knocking him over. The others scrambled to assess the situation, firing off shots in a wide spread. Diane had faith and a shield to protect her as she skated forward hard, keeping her head down and body weight forward as she accelerated toward the window, a few localized spider-web cracks sparking form the security teams haphazard shots. It wouldnt be enough. Monorail held up her arm, calling the raildisk back to her at a rapid pace, then swung forward, launching it ahead to slam into the weak window, the cracks spreading across the center as she rushed toward it. She leaped forward, tucking her Railgun up to her chest as the raildisk magnetized back to her suit, tucking her legs in. The force of the window hit her, the rush of even colder air blasting against her bodysuit. In short time, she felt herself become almost weightless at the apex of her leap, soaring through the air. Then, the bomb went off. Sound erupted in her ears as she felt the force hit her back, launching her further outward, her velocity changing as she freefell, spreading herself back out as she took aim. The sky flashed an angry orange, igniting her pulse. Stellarim Conference Center, December 5th “The Outsiders? ” Diane folded her hands together with an incredulous look. “Yes. I saw reports on their work with unveiling the scorpion back in august. ” Ben nodded, feeling the tension in his neck as his jaw pressed against itself. He wasnt afraid of her. She was just some peppy heiress who had her way bought into a prestigious villain school. Likely taking it for white collar crime. Tax evasion, black market deals, even then she didnt look like she would fit in, let alone among monsters and psychopaths. No, he was afraid of what was implied to be backing her. He knew that much would be enough to destroy him with minimal effort. Like a bug on the windshield. “I have intent to hire out one of them. ” “Thats who you want to make contact with? ” Diane asked. “The group of students who prance around pulling stunts and taking down big. didnt they hit an ATLAS facility in Rexxentrum a while back too? ” “Im intending to request one of them go on mission. I need someone who can get into a secure backup facility and eliminate a projects backup data” Benjamin tensed. The silence was palpable. “... you think Im a fucking idiot? ” Diane blinked, leaning back in her seat and crossing her arms. She was slipping further away. Closer to rejecting the request. “Letting you pass along a job bordering on corporate sabotage to help my competitor-” “No. I know you arent an idiot. ” Benjamin pressed. “I know its sketchy, but please just listen to me. ” “I dont have to listen to you. ” Diane squinted; arms still crossed. He was losing out. “I want them to remove a project I made from my Fathers company. ” Benjamin stood from his seat blurted out. He didnt care if it made him look weak before this incredulous little girl, more than five years his junior. He was desperate. Benjamin braced himself. “Well this took a weird turn. ” Diane tilted her head, sitting up ever so slightly. Some give. Benjamin could press this. “I developed a weapon that goes against nearly all that I believe in. ” Benjamin put a hand to his chest, self-referential. “and my father wants to put it to use in his own suit. If he uses it near a populated area? Innocent people could die. I cant have that on my conscience. ” “So instead of having some whack jobs trash your place for you, or having some wack jobs trash my place for you. you want me. to ask them to trash your place. for you. which is totally not going to bite me in the ass- giving you direct knowledge that I condoned corporate sabotage-” Diane laughed. “Its a widespread neurotoxin gas delivery system. ” Benjamin whispered. Dianes laugh cut out to a moment of shock her expression attempted to keep from being read. “Um. What? ” “The original design. was supposed to be used to deliver medical aide to groups of soldiers from a distance. chemical salves, disinfection, even some healing properties. You wouldnt have to send medics in with heavy bags full of those supplies. or otherwise, they wouldnt need to be anywhere near the action. ” Ben sat back down. “But my father sees that, and he thinks: How can I hurt people with this. ” Diane frowned, her arms lowering to grip the armrests of her chair. “Theres no solid proof unless the Outsider succeeds. “They get the plans undetected and the backup system will overwrite the data with a blank drive. This isnt a job that can be done with a full team, and based on my intel, theres one of their big three who can pull it off. I know you go to the same school as them. hell I wouldnt be surprised if you were dating one of them with how much theyre hitting ATLAS. But I need them to do this job. and I think you do to. not for yourself. but for family. ” Diane leaned back in her chair, her eyes narrow and downcast as she thought. Benjamin prayed hed gotten through to her how dangerous his mistake was with trusting his father with his work as the orange sun burned away the fog. ATLAS Rocky Mountains Compound, somewhere in Northern Montana, present day Plummeting. Diane was plummeting. She fired off a shot, causing the soldier below to waver like a flag, the other soldier further down noticing and turning about to see what the commotion was. Monorail. was plummeting. Fifth shot down. The wavering soldier grew closer and closer until Monorail slammed into his falling corpse, smashing him into the ground as she adjusted her momentum to throw herself into a roll with the man. Keeping track of how many times she saw the ground. Once. Twice. Monorail lurched herself to one side and heaved the corpse as hard as she could, dragging her railgun into her armpit and taking aim, watching the corpse knock the man off balance to lead her shot, pulling the trigger as they wizzed backwards in a red-orange mist, compared to her as her foot raildisks hit the snow, keeping her momentum. Sixth shot down. There were more soldiers ahead, turned to look back at whatever wreckage was behind her now. They looked small, but were growing in size as she got closer and closer. Quickly, Monorail raised her barrel and fired a shot into the closer one, the kickback twisting her to the side slightly. seventh shot down. the body of the soldier was coming up too fast as she was chambering the next round, and the next soldier was too close to raise her railgun into position fast enough. she had to think quick. She kicked off of the ground and thrust her heel forward, leaping over the corpse and driving her foot into the chest of the second, launching him backward with some of the transferred momentum, sliding down the snowy slope on his back as her rail disks planted slightly up-mountain and continued spinning, giving her weight distribution to swing the railgun up around and down with plenty of time, pulling the trigger. Eighth shot down. Time to reload. Monorail looked ahead, seeing one more soldier down this stretch of slope. She reached down to pull the two metal bars from their inlay on her shin, nearly the full length, reeling back and Lobbing it as hard as she could and dropping down to her back. Her raildisks adjusted to her shoulders, keeping her back and rear from scraping against the snow as she luged her way down the mountain. She watched her rails sail down the mountain as she ejected the spent rails from her barrel, slapping them against her shins as she slid between the dazed mans legs. She reached out and felt her rails tumbling toward the ground, feeling them pull toward her and snap to her hand, she unclamped them quickly and lodged them into her railgun, clasping them in place. She shifted one foot out to catch some traction in the snow, spinning her around so she was headfirst down the mountain on her back, turning her attention to the dazed man. The rubble of the building above tumbling down the mountain. No avalanche yet thank heavens. as he caught his bearing, turning to try getting her in his sights. Monorail was faster as she pulled the trigger, feeling the kick as it lurched into her shoulder. The mans body tumbling back into the mountain like a whack-a-mole. One shot down. Monorail kicked her other foot out to swivel herself around to feet first as she saw the main ledge approaching. A small contingent of soldiers staring up the mountain as she barreled toward the edge, pressing her feet down to launch herself over the ledge, taking aim from above. Bending and relaxing her legs as she prepared for the impact. Stellarim Financial District, December 5th Diane gripped her messenger bag as she left the conference center, conflicted. On one hand, it was almost invariably a trap meant to ensnare and implicate her. On the other hand, if Mr. Macintosh had truly created a bioweapon, it would be devastating to her dad. Could she call on the help of maybe someone who knew how to infiltrate? She hadnt heard from Yulia in a while, nor Zion for that matter. She might need to consult them first. Regardless, she wasnt just going to waltz in alone and waltz out alone to come home like nothing happened. This was a difficult job she didnt want to take. That said, she couldnt afford not to take it. Scorpion had barely been managed previously, and it had been a group effort. While her coding had helped Zion, it was Daniel who solved the delivery method. When doing missions with Praxyx, Diane could tell her burden was being carried. She felt like she was being called out. Even Knew better than to answer it unprepared. “Hwell, I dont think Ive had the pleasure of meetin you Miss Dorrik. ” A mans southern Drawl from her left chimed. Diane stopped and cocked an eyebrow as an enormous man moved up alongside her. sorry, do I know you? ” Diane asked. “Hwhere are my Manners. ” The man chuckled extending a hand down to shake. “My name is Thomas Wright. I do dabble in some war business, hwhile not as big a player as your fathah. I may have caught a glimpse of you at your uncles funeral. ” Diane felt herself trembling in her boots, but reached up to shake the massive mans hand, putting her grip into it maybe a little too hard. “Nice strong grip. ” Thomas chuckled. “I can imagine youve had training on that given what Im told of yoah fathahs handshake. ” Diane felt a slight annoyance at his words, like he was challenging her validity with every sentiment, even after his hand released hers. “Ya know, most think of war as a mans sport. ” Thomas chuckled, pacing alongside her. “But the norse thought otherwise, as their myths depicted the Valkyries, women warriors chosen by Odin to wade into battlefields to claim the souls of the most dedicated warriors to be delivered to Valhalla. Understand that you have my vote of confidence, young lady. ” Diane felt a fury boiling up inside of her like nothing before. “Regardless, I have much to attend to, so Ill keep ouah encountah as a brief hello. I imagine someone of your importance has a lot on their mind. ” Thomas gave a smile that seemed to grate on Dianes conscience. He split off to head north as Diane headed east to DIAL tower. Gradually, that boiling red-orange fury subsided into a cold blue emptiness. ATLAS Rocky Mountains Compound, somewhere in Northern Montana, present day The bullets whizzed past Monorail as she fell, the air rippling around her as her sights set on her target, the blast of her railgun flashing to reveal the red mist as it rushed up to meet her, her knees crashing into his chest, knocking the corpse to the ground as she rolled along the flat snow bank, the dust and snow kicking up. Second shot down. How many had there been? Ten? They were in trucks with snow chains- Monorail pushed the useless information back to stay in the moment, gritting her teeth as she jabbed her rail disks into the snow, the shields with just enough space between to fit the barrel of her railgun. She tilted her head to gaze into the sight as it trained on the closest target, pulling the trigger and painting the cool blue-white snow a dark red. Third shot down. The gunfire rattled against her shields, and she picked up the butt of her Railgun to shift it left, the barrel adjusting right. Out from the mountain to the truck on the right, she let the barrel sway in a rotating motion as she took a breath and held it, letting it steady itself on the soldier who was just now swinging the barrel of his rifle over the hood of the car at an awkward angle to try to shoot her. The trigger gave, and so did his head. Fourth shot down. A soldier at the back of the same truck changed weapons to a shotgun of sorts and took aim on Monorails position, firing off a metal slug which slammed into her shield, causing it to warp slightly as the power drew heavily due to magnetic disruption, the blue glow fading slightly as the orange of the firefight grew more intense. Monorail cursed her luck and dragged her elbows through the snow to train on him and fired a shot clean through his neck. Monorail huffed as she picked up the butt of the railgun once more, feeling the cold of the snow stab into her body as it burned back to try to melt it away. Domed in the goggles. Exhale, the fog rolled out from under her helmet as she breathed in the snow touched air to hold in for another. Cleaved through the neck. Her heart pounded in her ears as the red touched air tried to obscure her next target. Through the armpit into the chest. Shots six, seven and eight down. Shield was on its last legs. Shit three more. Attack. Monorail kicked off the ground, swinging her railgun to her back as she pulled the supply of small metal disks into her palms, two in each. The soldiers panicked, firing wide as she raised her right hand up to energize, the electrical force magnetizing the disk and launching it in a way that warped it into a hollow needle, piercing the pitiful armor and neutralizing one. she had to make these next shots count. Lowering her right hand and raising her left to accelerate the next shot, her heart thumping harder and harder as she dashed toward the truck, trying to shift to carve through the neck and into the last soldier. The second to last soldier fell as his neck ripped open, but the final soldier fired off a close-range round into her personal shield. Shit shit shit. Diane hesitated. Her left hand was available for another quick shot. It would be easy, just fire the shot. Diane fought against herself, dropping her left hand and raising her right hand to fire, clasping at her elbow with her left hand to steady the shot. The shot blasting through the air as she heard a sickening crack from her wrist. And the scrape of metal on metal as a gouge formed across the Trucks hood. Shed thrown away her shot, taking too long. The soldier popped back up from ducking, rifle prepared to fire. Her personal shield was down. Monorail ducked and kicked forward, ramming into the soldier to knock him down. Stumbling to keep her footing before pushing her flopping right hand to the side to take aim with her left hand. The blade plunged into the soldiers chest as a beam of blue washed over him “Monorail. You little shithead. ” Peters voice snapped Diane back to reality for a moment. “What the hell were you thinking doing dumb shit like that? ” Diane couldnt see Peters face as Frostburn Butted his helmet against her own. Radiance dropped down from the sky and held up a hand southward, snapping as a ball of fire enveloped one of the cars. Ohhhhh shit the pain was starting to come through. “Ah. ” Diane hunched forward slightly as her right wrist flopped slightly. Dealing with blood and guts and broken bones was something she was used to. when it wasnt her own, much as she talked a big game. Diane pressed her lips together to hold her breath as her stomach lurched. “Mon- Monorail? ” Peters voice echoed. “Jesus should I-” “No- ” Diane waved her hand feeling the wave of pain spiraling down her arm, she grabbed it. “Urgkh. no Ill be- Extraction. ” Peter huffed and pulled his gunblade from the corpsicle. CIA Offices, Stellarim, 12:10 pm [Known Interaction] Operations Officer Thomas Wright slipped the papers into the file on Monorail. A strange case that one. Why hesitate? This wasnt really something that needed to be answered, but it was a curiosity nevertheless. “Reporting sir. ” Caitlin stated in the doorway with a smart salute. “Ah. Nomad. Just who I was lookin foah. “How hwas youah assignment? ” “I have anothah assignment youll hate thas for sure. ” Thomas put away the monorail file and pulled out her assignment. “morah body guarding duty at the Hilton. ” “Due respect sir, Im not exactly jazzed about more time with young Mr. Macintosh. ” Caitlin grumbled. “We arent fond of each other around holidays. ” Part lies. “And due respect Nomad, Youre the only one I trust with this. ” Thomas insisted sincerely. It was also a partial lie, but he was much better at it. The truth was that she was the jobbing dog for some other project of his. It was in his best interest to push her down to be swallowed whole. Far too early for the dreamers to wake so that he could have his rematch. Caitlin reluctantly snatched the file out of Thomas hand with a sneer and turned to part out of the door. She was no Valkyrie like Monorail was. Nomad was no good at armistice. All she sought was the obliteration of those in her way. Thomas turned his nose down to his work. Devil airfield, 12:30 pm [open Interaction] Diane took a deep breath as she pulled her right hand down and pinched on it with her knees, slowly rotating her arm to match up the bones properly. Then tucked the boards in against her arm on top and bottom and began wrapping it firmly. “Youre not doing that again. ” Peter pressed. “Yep. ” Diane focused on not barfing as she continued wrapping. “No. Diane. I need you to say youre not doing it again. ” Peter insisted as the Helicopter touched down on the tarmac. “Yeah: Im not doing it again. ” “What are you not doing again? ” Peter reached out and flicked her forehead as she finished up her wrist brace. Diane took a breath and exhaled. Peter was right. “Im not going gung-ho guns blazing solo mission again. ” Diane cast her eyes down. “Youre not going to go out on missions with short notice and no briefing, then go about altering plans so rapidly and leaving us to adjust like today. You need to think ahead. ” Peter scolded. “More than you do now. Or itll be your end. ” Diane released her palm and tested the stability of her splint. Solid. “Are you listening? ” Peter grumbled. Peter. Im listening. I. I dunno, I got caught up, didnt realize I was at the wrong extraction. ” “Diane. ” Peter pressed to get her to shut up. “We worry about you. And when you do dumb shit like this, it hurts our feelings and we end up fighting, and none of that is good. Communicate. We understand that this was a rough mission where I probably would have been dead weight. but Hana could have at least been up there keeping watching the air if wed been notified earlier. Probably even extracted you by hand if she had to. ” Diane nodded, drooping her head. “You need to get that checked and accelerate the healing at the nurses, probably will put you out of action for the week, but well pull the slack. ” Peter relaxed his shoulders. “Did you get what you were looking for? ” Diane nodded. “Mission accomplished. “For a price. ” Hana grumbled and hopped down out of the tarmac. Something about the way she said it confirmed for Diane, that what shed done had upset her. “Give her space, talk to her tomorrow. ” Peter stated. “Trust me. You know all the immediate options are going to sound insincere. Just. relax, maybe get yourself a break. Things suck. I know. you needed a win for yourself to call your own, but people rely on you. you can't just expect everything to be hunky dory. ” “Right. ” Diane sighed, stepping down with Peter to follow Hana toward the Infirmary. (tag /u/winonadorrik for responses.

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Author note: The Cryopod to Hell is a Reddit-exclusive story with over three years of editing and refining. As of this post, the total rewrite is 204 parts long and 858, 000+ words. For more information, check out the link below: What is the Cryopod to Hell? Official Discord Server. Support me on Patreon! Every dollar helps, and you get access to lots of art and other cool stuff! Want to read the whole story without waiting? Click here. It's free! I will be reposting the full story on HFY until I've caught up with the current timeline. During that period, I will update the reposted parts to edit them more cohesively, as well. Once I catch up, new parts will be posted on HFY and RedditSerials, alongside my main subreddit as they become available. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. Previous Part. Part 001. Jason! Jason, are you alright. I wake up on my back. Solomon hovers over me, along with all three Archangels. They scan my face, looking for signs of distress. Ugh. The top of my head throbs like a motherfucker. What happened. The Archangels pull back, giving me space. Solomon rises to his feet. "You're lucky to be alive. The moment I initiated the vision, when you went under, a predatory being appeared inside your body's mana. I lost all contact with you for twelve seconds. It started overtaking your mental functions, and I had to initiate a mana burn to irradiate it. My apologies if your head hurts. I may have gone too far in trying to scorch the intruder out. I carefully pull myself to my feet, wincing the whole time. "Twelve seconds? You're kidding. That vision was at least thirty minutes long. Time perception, Jason. The deeper you are in a dream, the slower time moves in reality. Anyway, you're lucky I was able to pull you back. If you had stayed there for five more seconds. Solomon trails off, leaving the implication to hang in the air. "What would have happened. I ask. "I'm not sure. It would have likely reduced your lifespan by several decades. Beyond that, I can't say. I've never encountered anything like it in all my years, nor has anyone in my memory library. A moment passes. I sweep my hair back and glance at the angels. Valac's words echo in my mind. I turn back to Solomon. "So, ah. while I was inside the vision. the vision of Valac, I mean. I pause, unsure of how to explain. came to life. He started speaking to me. Solomon's expression turns screwy. "He came to life? It may have been a hallucination caused by brain damage. I don't, ah, think so. Valac knew things he shouldn't. The whole ordeal was pretty unnerving. Solomon stares at me for a moment, flicks his gaze to Raphael, then back to me. "Hmm. Well, truthfully, the thing in your mind reminded me of a soul. It wasn't complete. It felt more like the chipped edge of someone's soul than a complete picture, but. Slowly, Solomon raises his hand to his neatly trimmed beard. His expression hardens as he strokes the black hairs on his chin over and over. would be impossible. Valac died in the Ancient Era. You must have seen something else. Or someone else. Raphael mutters. "I don't know. The Valac I saw seemed identical to the one in the visions you showed me. I don't think he was a figment of my imagination. You're dismissing the thought awfully fast. Solomon shakes his head. "I'm not. Anything is possible. Satan came back to life after a hundred thousand years in purgatory. Valac, though. I doubt it was him. Solomon pauses for a moment, then waves his hand flippantly. "There are many demons with a variety of terrifying abilities, Jason. Ose, for example, can control people's bodies and take over their minds. I wouldn't assume Valac has returned just yet, especially when the soul I saw could have belonged to anyone. Michael clears his throat. "Ahem. More importantly, how could someone have placed an errant soul inside of the Hero? I think that's the question we should be asking. There shouldn't be many demons alive who can do such a thing. I nod. "Good question. I mean, maybe it wasn't Valac. When he started talking to me, he didn't do the whole rhyming thing. He did do it earlier in the vision, though. So it could have been anyone. Solomon says. A wave of relief passes over his face. "Nothing would terrify me more than the return of the Grim Reaper. Satan, as terrifying as he was, couldn't rip through an enemy's defenses and tear their soul out. Such unthinkable power belongs only to the damned. And the accursed. Raphael adds. "I would wager that Ose's brain-meddling had something to do with Jason's soul-violator. Pay the vision no mind, Jason. The ramblings of demons have about the same worth as mine. All three Archangels breathe a sigh of relief and wander over to their logs. While they do, I stare at their backs. Many thoughts swirl in my mind. Solomon squints at me. "Is something bothering you. Well. it's what 'Valac' said about, err, the angels. I dunno. Maybe I'm overthinking what I saw. Solomon closes his eyes. A moment passes as he concentrates. A tingling at the back of my mind indicates his probing of my memories. "Mmm. Solomon opens his eyes. He pulls me aside and lowers his voice so the Archangels can't hear. "I think I understand. Valac's comments about the angels and the heroes. you wonder if he was right. "Yeah. I mean, he's a demon, so I can't give him too much credence. correct. It's always good to ask questions, Jason. A healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anyone. If you want my opinion, I agree with you that the angels mistreated the imps. I agree that, in a way, the angels 'started' the conflict with the imps. However, there is a matter of justifiable force, wouldn't you agree. I cock an eyebrow. "Justifiable force? Explain. The angels shoved the imps around. They treated the imps like their inferiors. However, when Satan and his cronies gained incredible power from Leviathan, they didn't negotiate for reparations. Instead, the newly-arisen demons turned to the path of violence. They slew a hundred Cherubs, and Satan's actions directly led to the death of Samael. Wouldn't you agree that was far worse than what the angels did. Ten seconds pass. Twenty. Thirty. I lower my gaze and carefully consider Solomon's words. Angels created the dragons. Then, they forced a war with their creations. The same thing happened again with the Titans. It wasn't clear who initiated each conflict, but one thing always stayed true. The angels created a new species to be their inferiors, and eventually ended up at war with them. All things considered, Solomon is right. The imps responded to the angels with violence, escalating the conflict. Even so, they were a young species, angry at those who mistreated them. The imps were like juveniles, irrational and uncertain of how to right the wrongs committed against them. Most of the blame lies on Satan's shoulders too, given how he manipulated the rest. I don't know. The whole issue is too complex for me to analyze. I don't see either side as being in the right, no matter how they try to twist the past to their advantage. Solomon nods. "Good, good. I hear the doubt in your mind. As one who seeks knowledge, I understand that tough questions have tough answers. Once you factor in the bloodthirsty nature of the demons, you'll come to see that the angels were not the aggressors Valac painted them to be. I wet my lips. "What about the idea that Heroes are puppets? What did Valac mean by that. The universe is complex, Jason. When we reach the War in Heaven, everything will make sense to you. I promise. Even what Valac said about Heroes. The ancient king sighs. "Heroes are the balancers of nature. We exist to ensure the safety of all life. In our absence, chaos follows. You need only look at the universe's current situation to understand that fact. The demons and Volgrim rule the universe, now. They wiped out the angels and enslaved our species. With that in mind, you can understand how important Heroes are to maintaining the balance of power. Not wanting to argue anymore, I nod wearily. "Sure. That makes sense. Solomon pats my back. If you have other questions, we can continue this discussion later. Both of us turn to face the Archangels. Michael frowns at me. "Thy vision seems to have disturbed thee. Dost thee requireth a break before we continue. No. I'm. I'm fine. The demon was persuasive, but it's easy to twist the truth around as needed. I'll stop thinking about Valac's words eventually. Raphael nods. An uneasy look appears in his eyes, though I can't be sure if it's only my imagination. "We must return to the visions, then. Soon, we'll arrive at the War in Heaven. I cross my arms. "I've heard it referenced many times. What's so important about that war, specifically. Gabriel rubs his palms together in a circular motion. "There were only three instances of full-scale war between angels and demons. The first was when the demons launched their initial assault to recover their brothers in Heaven. The second was the War in Heaven, a cataclysmic event that destroyed the balance of power. And the third. Raphael answers. "The final battle was one which wiped out the remainder of my people at the end of the Energy Wars. While the humans engaged in battle with the Volgrim, the demons launched an attack against us. We fought valiantly, but Satan stood strong at the apex of his power. We perished. "Not much more to say than that, I'm afraid. A cloud of sorrow hangs over the Archangels. Each one stares into the fire as their thoughts swirl around like a hurricane, dwelling on those they've lost and those they'll never see again. I can't begin to imagine the weight of their losses. Solomon ignores the crippling depression bubbling within each Archangel. "Well, Jason, based on your memories, that vision you saw was the correct series of events. Valac slew four Titans in under a minute, and thanks to the power of their souls, he began to thirst for more. The bit at the end was the only embellishment, so as long as you ignore that, you're nearly caught up on the important history. What else happened. Very little worth mentioning. Over the next hundred and twenty years, Lucifer bred dozens of broodmothers, which spawned thousands of imps. The initial experiments created several demon variants, and a few rose through the ranks to become quite powerful. Agares and Vepar, for instance, increased their abilities thanks to Lucifer's magic. You mean Leviathan's, right. Of course. Beyond Lucifer's work and Valac's psychopathic murder-spree, the demons kept to the shadows and focused on improving their underground cave network. Solomon begins to form magic signs with his hands, but pauses. Before I send you off, I should double-check for any. irregularities. We don't want a repeat of last time. Yeah, let's be a little more cautious for this jump. Recommended Listening CLANG. CLANG. The sound of metal smashing against metal echoes inside Camael's forge. For the first time in Solomon's visions, I appear in her mind and gaze upon her handiwork as she slams a hammer against a red-hot sword. Camael pounds and flips the sword, folding and heating it over and over. Despite the time and effort, not a drop of sweat appears on her brow. The several-hundred-degree temperature in the room barely affects her as she focuses entirely on her task at hand. The ultimate weapon. Camael's thoughts bubble in her mind, allowing me to hear what she's thinking. My visions grow darker, night after night: torture and pain, sadness, and agony. Short have the days become. Long has it been since I enjoyed a soothing dream. I must finish Excalibur. The fate of Earth depends on it. Camael's gaze hardens as she plunges the sword into a vat of water. This sword has a long way to go. The mana it possesses must be enough to obliterate any threat I face, no matter the cost. I pray that my family never learns how dire my dreams have become. They would fall into darkness, just as I have. Camael lifts Excalibur and gazes at the charcoal-black weapon, scrunching up her face in disgust. Two paths formerly lay before us, but now only one remains. In recent decades, not once have I dreamt of a peaceful future. I see bodies piled into the sky. Brothers and sisters crying out my name. Terror stretched across the faces of those I love. Is this the fate of my people? Is this the future awaiting us? Camael snarls viciously and stabs the sword into her forge, reheating it once again. I cannot bear to tell them. I wish to see Uriel smile and laugh, Uzziel to dance and play, and for all the others to enjoy what time they have left. Nobody in my family would understand. The demons are our creation. They will rain upon us like fire from the sky. We will stand proud when they come, only to fall back, begging and screaming for mercy. The demons will show no sympathy to us, nor will we deserve it. Camael stares stoically into the forge, even as a tear drips down her face. She crushes the voices in her mind and wipes her eye, hardening her resolve again. If we cannot win, then we will fight with all our might. We will unleash all the power we can muster and put on a display for our descendants. Future beings will write songs about us and tell tales of how the angels stood resolute in the face of an unstoppable enemy. The demons might take our lives, but they will never take our dignity. After a minute, Camael yanks the sword out and begins pounding it with her hammer. CLANG. Outside, the sound of heavy footsteps catches Camael's attention. She pauses to gaze at the door. He's arrived. Her inner voice, sure as ever, announces the appearance of an unknown man. Two seconds later, someone yanks her door open. A thin male angel with sunken eyes waves his hand. "Sister Camael! I bring important news. Camael barely looks at him. "Brother Shepherd. You must be referring to the visitors. Yes! Two of them, and they- huh? Huh? They've only just arrived at Heaven's entrance. How dids't thee learn of their arrival. I saw them in my dream last night. Well, since our guests have arrived, I'll head to Elderium. Shepherd nods. "Aye, Raphael requests thy presence at once. Shall I fly ahead and inform him of thy coming. No need. I'm finished, anyway. This damned sword takes forever to fold. Shepherd's eyes follow mine to the weapon held firmly in my left hand. "Ah. Is that thy newest creation, the Shattering Blade? I've heard rumors of late regarding how thou dost keep overworking thyself and passing out in the forge. surely thy body needn't stress over making a simple weapon. Camael's gaze hardens. "Worry not about the splinter in my eye, but the stake in thine. I know full well what I am doing. Begone. I will travel to the Temple of Elderium as soon as I can. The young angel pales. "O-of course, eldest sister. I meant thee no disrespect. I'll take my leave. The door slams shut, and Shepherd vanishes, leaving Camael alone with her thoughts. The Archangel stares silently at Excalibur for twenty seconds before plunging it into the water and hanging it on the wall. "If only the others could understand. Minutes later, Camael soars through the sky toward the Temple of Elderium. She swoops down and lands smoothly on the front steps, dusts her armor off, and heads inside. Elderium, usually bustling with activity, is dead silent. Hundreds of angels gather inside and stare breathlessly at two wingless newcomers, each of whom stands ten feet tall. Gabriel, of course, towers four feet above them, but compared to the rest of the angels, the humanoids appear quite massive. Camael walks past her brothers and sisters lining the hall. The crowd of onlookers gently spill open before her as she walks, allowing their eldest sister to head toward the two guests without shoving through the crowd. your pardon, Raphael, but my father is in a rush. Zeus has much work to do, uniting the Titans against this demonic threat. We don't have time to barter and bargain about how you'll assist us. We'll allow you entry into Earth to come and go as you please. That should be enough. Camael strides up to a large table with a dozen chairs surrounding all of its sides. All of the other Archangels sit quietly around the two visitors, and as Camael takes her seat beside Michael, across from the newcomers, I get a good look at them. The one who spoke a moment ago is a giant, muscular man, with a clean-shaven face, a circlet of gold around his forehead, and dark black shoulder-length hair. His muscled body gives me the impression he could shatter concrete and bend steel with the slightest effort from his pinky fingers. His clothing is a mixture of ornate gold and white robes, with a silver belt securing everything to his waist. To his left sits a beautiful woman, with long, poofy black hair, a cute purple dress, and a golden bracelet with several emeralds embedded inside. She smiles at me as I take a seat. "Camael, Archangel of Divination. It is our pleasure to finally meet you. Gabriel, seated to the left of the female visitor, coughs into his fist. "Ah, sister, our guests are Hercules, son of Zeus, grandson of Cronus. The lovely flower beside him is his wife, Megara. Camael nods. "I am aware. I dreamed of thy arrival several nights ago. I am also aware of the situation on Earth. Raphael, seated to the right of Hercules, smiles politely. "Is that so? That saves us the trouble of explaining. Michael snaps his fingers to get everyone's attention. Back to the topic at hand. Hercules, if thy father expects us to offer our assistance simply for the right to walk Earth, he is sorely mistaken. Our mana is lower than ever. We're worried enough about the demons attacking us any day now. Uzziel hasn't had any luck creating new servants to breathe mana into our veins. Thy problems were caused by thy unwillingness to cooperate a century ago. Hercules sighs. "That's where you're wrong, Michael. While Cronus slept soundly, a lone demon tore across Earth and slaughtered over three thousand Titans. My cousin, Loki, died on his wedding day as that single foul creature slew him, his husband, and their entire entourage. I, too, might have died, had I not been too busy to attend. For a single creature to slay a hundred Titans in a single day, its power must dwarf that of the Archangels. We must work together if we are to stop this menace. Hercules crosses his arms. "Do not concern yourselves with Cronus's lethargic, slothful movements. After my father found out about Cronus's incompetence as a leader, he slew the Titan King in a fit of rage. Camael blinks in surprise. "Cronus is dead. Hercules' expression darkens. "Aye. Never have the Titans had another leader. I, too, felt disturbed when I discovered my father murdered my grandfather. However, given Cronus's inability to protect his fellow Titans and warn us of the demonic threat, many accepted Cronus's death with only a slight bitterness in their mouths. Of what use is a king who cares nothing for his subjects. A moment passes. Camael glances around the table at the faces of everyone present. Uriel and Uzziel sit quietly at the end of the table, listening intently. Michael bows his head, likely cursing himself for not defeating Cronus in glorious combat. Gabriel and Raphael shoot looks at each other, trading information through their eyes. They both nod, as if to confirm something between themselves. Gabriel raps his fingers on the stone table. "Hercules. Megara. If I may counter thy offer, I have a request. I would be willing to offer my people's assistance in eliminating the demons, but thou must first do my people a small favor. Hercules frowns. "And what would that be. We need mana. The angels are at death's door. If we go any longer without replenishing our reserves, we'll die from atrophy. Even now, we're already spreading ourselves too thinly. Megara purses her lips. Hercules seems to want to say 'no. at least until his wife nudges him. "That seems reasonable. If Zeus intends to let bygones be bygones, then I don't see why we can't support our new allies. Our mana restores under sunlight, anyway. The ten-foot Titan male glances at his wife, annoyance etched on his face. However, when she glares back at him in a do this, or else way, he relents. "Fine. I'll see what I can do. However, you must understand, we need all the strength we can muster. Nobody has ever seen Valac and lived to tell the tale. We only know his name because of the blood-etched letters he leaves behind after every massacre. It churns my stomach. We've seen him. Gabriel says. "He slew a hundred Cherubs in a matter of minutes. I'm not certain what his energy output is, but if he can reap souls. Then he is our number one target. Raphael says, finishing Gabriel's sentence. "Give us mana, Hercules. We will not lead thee astray in our quest to restore balance to the Earth. The young Titan smiles, but his expression is lethargic and forced. "R-right. Any assistance you can offer would be appreciated. Well, as fun as this meeting has been, I must return at once. My people- Hercules stops mid-sentence as Megara grabs his arm. "My love! Surely you will give them energy now? I will too, as a show of good faith. Hercules grunts. A look of unease passes over his face as he glances at the several hundred angels crowding around the table. "Worry not. I say. "Thou art our guests. We would never harm thee when thou cometh in peace. The ancient wars are old history. We would gladly wash away the past without a second thought. Hercules nods, but he appears less than enthusiastic about giving his energy to the angels. "Of. of course. It's just- my grandfather told me many stories about the ancient times. Oh? Did he. Raphael asks. "Surprising, given Cronus had no memory of the Primordial Era. I wouldn't put much stock in his words. I alone am the sole person possessing memories of the Titan and Dragon Wars. "Hm. Well, Cronus was awfully drunk when he spoke about the ancient times. Uriel breaks her silence with a chuckle. "Heh, it sounds like thy grandfather saw a few ghosts in his old age. Hah. You're not wrong. Hercules trails off. A few seconds pass. He coughs, then motions with his hands, and lightly touches Raphael's arm. "There. I've given you about half of my energy. Megara. The Titaness nods, motions with her hands, and gently grasps Gabriel's shoulder. The massive Archangel blushes at her touch, revealing a hint of the indecent thoughts in his mind. "Oh, my. Your arms are nearly as big as my husband's. Megara says, winking at him. Gabriel quickly looks away. "Ah, they do call me the Archangel of Power. Hercules rolls his eyes. "Stop flirting with our hosts, Meg. You're embarrassing me. Your jealousy is showing again. Megara replies with a smirk. A few minutes later, Uzziel and Uriel leave with the Titans to show them to Heaven's Gate. The rest of the Archangels stay behind at the table to discuss a few remaining matters. "I don't trust those Titans. Michael says, surprising nobody. "They're too hesitant to give us energy. They can regenerate their mana within a day, yet they didn't think to offer it to us immediately? Surely I'm not the only one who sees through their lies. Michael. Camael mutters. "I acknowledge thy concern, but the Titans are in a dire position. This news might surprise thee, but fewer than thirty thousand of them remain. Their numbers have dwindled significantly since the ancient wars. They're in no position to backstab us. Thirty thousand. Gabriel raises an eyebrow. "Unthinkable. Their numbers once dwarfed ours. What changed. Infighting. Blood battles. Violent sport. The Titans spend most of their time sleeping or fighting one another for territory. I think Valac's appearance has sent a lightning bolt of fear through them. Before, they knew Cronus would step in if their bloodthirsty ways threatened their survival. Now, with him gone and Zeus in command, this skinless demon is their worst nightmare. Camael goes quiet for a moment. When she speaks again, her voice wavers. "I. I have seen a vision recently. Gabriel nods. A look of trepidation appears in his eyes. "And. The Archangel of Divination taps her lip and gazes into Gabriel's eyes for several long moments. "According to my foresight, if we do not help the Titans, they will perish. Our deaths will follow. Saving them is the only course of action that will ensure our survival. Gabriel exhales. "Ah. 'Tis fortunate that thy visions are here to guide us, sister. Michael sighs. "If Camael's visions say we must help the Titans, then so we will. Far be it for me to stand against the architect of destiny. The Archangel of Courage rises to his feet. "Brothers. Sisters. I take my leave. Michael flaps his wings and departs. The other angels in the temple begin plodding away too, now that the formalities are over. Raphael strokes his beard. "Beloved sister, is something the matter? Thy expression could wilt the fairest rose. Long has it been since I saw thee languishing in such pain. Camael stiffens. Her body tenses up as she notices Raphael's wizened eyes evaluating her countenance. "I haven't slept well as of late. Please excuse me, Raphael. I must return to my forge. Very well. Peace be upon thee, little sister. Raphael tilts his head ever so slightly. Camael rises and heads toward the door, leaving her brothers behind. Her thoughts are a torrent of anguish. I lied to everyone. To my brothers. My sisters. They believe me when I say that helping the Titans will save us. but no such future awaits. We can only delay the inevitable. How am I to tell them? I cannot. They mustn't know. Hope is the only thing we have left. Without it, we will fall into despair. Camael's metal greaves scrape against her armor as she saunters toward Elderium's entrance. With a mighty flap of her wings, she soars into the sky to return to her forge. Excalibur. I must complete it. It alone has the might to extinguish the demonic menace forever. Somehow, despite the sincerity of her inner voice, I doubt her words. Excalibur won't save them. The Archangel of Divination alone bears the burden of knowing what will happen to her people. and she cannot stop it. Fate is inevitable. Next Part.

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Book 1 of The HEL Jumper [f. p. n. Previous] p. Book 2] f. Next] n] Thanks to Tulip, Big_Papa_Dakky, Mr_Polygon, txgunman65, Mamish, Vikairious, Sam Berry, ClarityAndVision, RedHawkdude, KillTech, LilLaussa, and 24 others currently supporting me on patreon. Alice. MacGregor got her attention, waiting to see how the situation would unfold. She seemed to understand his concerns. Asha and Zolta looked on quietly with curious expressions. "Russell is here too. I'll be alright. I think it's best we show some trust, all things considered. I'll call for you when you come up. She proposed, trying desperately to tamp down the swarm of butterflies in her chest and stomach while maintaining a composed outward appearance. "All the same I hope I don't come up. Center of attention seems to get knives thrown at em. Lachlan reasoned. Alice chuckled shortly. "I presume you'll be wanting a place to sleep. Ah that's a fair point, lass. You go on then. I'll be here with these three furry companions. he offered. "Yeah, alright then. Alice agreed, turning her back to the shuttle and staring at the gates as she murmured to herself. "I'll just go meet with the council of raptor cats that love my brother like. a brother and could probably kill me with their toes. No sweat. What could go wrong? No, let's not answer that…" Alice's private musings lasted the short trip to where her brother stood before the priests of the village, her boots kicking up small clouds of dust as she walked along the narrow strip of non-irrigated land. The little cub Russell had been tending took flight at seeing so many authority figures at once, leading his mother on a short chase past Alice and towards the shuttle, where MacGregor sat himself in the dirt and attempted to offer the little tyke a relatively nonthreatening option. Between the Marine, Veera, Zolta, and Asha, he was soon corralled and playing with Lachlan's impressive moustache, giving his mother a chance to catch up with him. The assembled priests all watched the proceedings closely while Russell shared a moment with his sister. "You good. He asked simply, feeling as close to her as hed ever been. “Ready to be a part of whatever all this is? ” "Yeah, I'll be alright. she assured him, taking solace in his presence. "This is literally everything I've ever dreamed of, since first contact at least. Then I'll be at the shuttle if you need me. Io, is she good for translation. Yes sir, we're in the clear. the AI assured him excitedly, projecting herself in an outfit to match Alices as a sign of solidarity. It only lasted a instant however, the AI picking up on Russells attitude and insistence that this be Alices time. "Thanks, Io. Good luck sis. Love you, bro. Alice whispered, giving him a quick hug. He'd never been the over the shoulder type, but he'd been looking out for her from afar since they were teens. Her courage was bolstered as he turned from the gates, making it clear to the Cauthan that they should deal with his sister independently. "Yeah, you too, ” he called over his shoulder. “Don't keep them waiting. Ratha's a bitch but the rest are good people. Hell even she is, I guess. With that confusing statement Russell walked off, letting Alice initiate her own entrance to village life as the swell of chatter and gossip grew behind the line of priests. Alice focused on the one that she knew, approaching Antoth and bowing politely. "Hmph, I guess this one has some manners. Ratha muttered, earning herself Antoth's hand, and claws, on her shoulder. The towering Cauthan spoke diplomatically while he reined in his mate as tactfully as possible given the situation. "Alice Winters, I have presented the treaty with your people to my fellows here. We are tasked with the burden of guiding our people. And while there is understandable nervousness among us…" Antoth held up a hand as Alice made to speak. "We are cautiously optimistic that your presence will be beneficial to our village. There is much in this document that is…subject to interpretation. We open our gates to you as a gesture of goodwill and as an expectation that our kindness shall be returned. I. I see. Thank you all for your consideration. Alice spoke clearly, allowing her A-MACS to translate for her. Relief spread through her as most of the Cauthan present nodded or ruffled their feathers in a similar fashion to what she'd seen from Veera once things had calmed on the Event Horizon. "My name is Alice Winters and it's an honor to make your acquaintance. I am Russell's older sister. Has he always been such an insufferable human. Ratha demanded haughtily, resting a hand on her hip as her mate growled quietly. "Oh shut it, Antoth. You let him hug me. Would it surprise you to learn that he likes you more than most humans. Alice asked nervously, watching as the elderly couple among the priests smiled widely and nodded to one another, their graying fur and slightly drooping jowls shifting to display what Alice hoped was humor and favor. That theory of cultural evolutionary convergence was already churning in her head at their subtle movements. Ratha did not seem pleased with her answer. "Why me. Ratha demanded of the sky, tilting her head to regard the clouds above. "You've become dramatic now that you're with dramatic. Antoth declared, swiftly moving his hand from Ratha's shoulder to her belt. "This is not a hunt, my mate. It is diplomacy. Keep your knife at your side and give this one a chance. She tore into Winters when he asked about her courtship. You would have approved. Now introduce yourself and do not dishonor our word. Alice watched cautiously, playing with the sleeve of her jumpsuit as Ratha simmered in silent frustration. To her marginal relief it seemed more directed at Antoth than her. Eventually Ratha shoved his hand away from her knife and stared Alice down. "My name is Ratha, servant of Valta and mate of the priest of as he is. she simpered with a coy glance Antoth's way. "So long as you respect the authority of the Huntress and don't go on any crazed hunts like and I will not have problems. Alice nodded, knowing that said brother would absolutely escalate the situation if he were her. She opted to tilt her head deferentially instead, hoping to placate the grumpiest of the priests. "I should like to learn of Valta and your traditions; if you have time, of course. she offered. Ratha looked her over keenly, as if searching for deception or weakness. Alice was reminded of a hawk. "Maybe later. was all she would say on the matter, feeling the eyes of her fellows, her people, and Winters upon her. "Let's get on with this already. Seil is annoyingly warm today. Well if you would stop acting like she's her brother we'd be done by now. Staroth boomed, stepping forward as Ratha shot him a death glare. "Alice Winters, it's a pleasure to meet you. Name's Staroth, village Guardian. Your brother was welcome among us under Antoth, and he remains so now that I've taken up the mantle of Uthos. You're welcome in the barracks at any time. If youre his kin, theres a place for you. Alice glanced around in stunned silence, temporarily shaken by the abrupt reversal in mood. "I…thank you very much, Staroth. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that my brother found his way into your world, should I? Can I ask you a question. Alice ventured, sensing an ease and casual friendliness about the Guardian that she did not feel around the impenetrable bulwark that was Antoth. "Yeah, course! That's why you're here isn't it? You dont seem like the conquering type. Staroth laughed before turning on his heel with surprising speed. "Gael, Rakis, save it for the festival you stone for brains! Pardon me, Alice. You didn't hear that, did you. Uhh…I'm sorry. Alice responded with a shrug, guessing that her hearing, the language barrier, or both had led to her missing something. Staroth shook his head like a father watching his sons do something incredibly stupid that he nevertheless intended to allow them to see through. "Nah, probably for the best. Bunch of young boys with mating on the brain, wanting to know if your fur is soft. I'll drill them hard tonight, dont you fret. So Alice, you had a question. Staroth continued, seemingly unconcerned with most anything. "Yes, actually. Is there a prescribed manner in which a female should greet a male in public? I wouldn't want to offend you and I wasn't sure if it would be proper to shake your hand. Alice explained her hesitation. Staroth brought his hand to his chin as Gentia chuckled and cooed about 'how polite the sister was. Well you don't really have feathers, do you? All that fur up top, can you move it. Staroth asked curiously. Alice laughed and shook her head back and forth, kicking her loosely tied ponytail about. A handful of Cauthan behind them spoke animatedly about the length of Alices black mane of hair. "No sir, not intentionally. Ha! Don't ever call me sir again. Reminds me of being old. So show me a handshake then, eh? Don't think I've ever done such a thing with your brother. He enjoys scale bashing far too much. The guard said with overbearing friendliness. Alice held out her hand, palm rotated slightly upward. Staroth measured her closely for a moment, eventually holding out his own paw and looking Alice in the eye for confirmation. He was only a couple inches taller than her and his brown eyes were quite amicable. She nodded, prompting the captain to turn his head and regard two of his younger charges. "Ha ha. Uproarious joviality rose from the assembled guardsmen as Staroth took Alice's hand in a strong shake, the two of them squeezing harder until a firm pressure was established and the gesture explained. Alice flashed her teeth in a wide smile as her brother laughed from a distance. "A pleasure to meet you, Staroth. I will certainly be taking you up on that offer to visit the barracks and learn more about your ways. You let go of her this instant, you lech. A female Cauthan called from the crowd. "Now now, fluff of my life, I'm just conducting diplomacy with this human. Staroth called with overemphasized innocence. "Diplomacy my tail! I know she's female. Did I mention I love my mate very much? Go on now, Alice. I'm sure we'll meet again. Staroth encouraged, incapable of fearing a smooth and soft being like a female human when he had arms and armor. The male that Alice had brought with her was another story, but he'd deal with that later. The next priest stepped forward. "I guess it's my turn then? A pleasure to meet you, Alice. I can see you've already met one of my charges. Alice took a couple paces down the line from Staroth to greet an elegant, blonde furred Cauthan who reminded her of an ermine. She had radiant blue eyes and sandy colored feathers, and was dressed easily the best of all the assembled priests. Unlike most of her fellow villagers who wore leather or fur, the Cauthan before her sported a fetching woven garment that Alice assumed was made of some sort of plant fiber. She'd not seen any animals that could be sheared since landing. The dress was not particularly detailed, but the dull white fabric was expertly tailored to her body. It lent the priestess an air of sophistication that was rather unique. "My name is Alyra, and I serve the Twins. It's a pleasure to meet you, Alyra. I love your dress; it's quite beautiful. So Asha is one of yours? I've only seen a dress like that on her so far. Alice deduced, holding out her hand tentatively to the other female. "Hmm, a keen eye on you as well? We'll have to have you stop by sometime and change out of is. Alyra turned up her nose at Alice's jumpsuit, marveling at how the human's cheeks suddenly flushed red. "Look we all have to wear them on board the ship, alright. Alice muttered, still awkwardly holding out her hand as her outfit was scrutinized. Alyra waved her off. "Well you're not on Is that it? You're not there anymore, are you. Alyra insisted, using the closest word she had. "So there. We'll have you looking the part in no time. Oh, and save your hand for the males. You have no feathers but there's nothing preventing us from using the customary human greeting your brother partakes in. Wait, he does wha. Alice yelped as Alyra stepped forward and embraced her, eliciting a hoot from Staroth as she tried to figure out how much of the Cauthan she was allowed to touch. In the end Alice opted to not rock the boat any further, gently applying pressure with her arms to Alyra's upper back. She signified that she accepted the hug, while indulging in the brief contact of the priestess' fur on her cheek. "Is something the matter, Alice? You appear to be changing colors. Alyra observed with genuine concern as Alices blush deepened. The human shook her head vigorously, wondering how to explain a flush of the cheek to an alien with no visible cheeks to flush. 'If I may, my friends. Io suddenly cut in, appearing at Alice's wrist. 'If she had feathers it would look something like this, Alyra. The Cauthan and human watched closely as Io shifted forms and waved the feathers of her avatar in a pattern that implied both embarrassment and excitement. "Ah, I see now. How very strange. And yet here I am wishing I could change my fur color. Alyra replied animatedly. "I do apologize, Alice. You just have no tail for that matter. The human smiled bashfully as Alyra flicked her slim, white tipped tail back and forth for emphasis. "That's quite alright. I was just surprised to be greeted in such a friendly manner! And why don't you just dye your fur. Alice suggested. "Surely you have pigments. Oh Alice, you do not want that fat, oil, and dirt all over your fur. You'd look a mess. The Twins might enjoy such a scene though. Alyra considered with a twinkle in her eyes. "And who are the Twins, if I may ask. Eiur and Auril, the two moons that scamper about the night skies and play among the stars. They are tricksters and patrons of the arts. Alyra explained, bringing a claw to her chin. "Now Alice, what is with that look, hmm? You have so many little movements on your face it's hard to keep track of. They like pranks and tricks. Alice asked eagerly. "Why, did you have something in mind. Alyra whispered with a flaring of her feathers. Alice leaned closer with her suggestion. "You find me something that looks better than this accursed jumpsuit and I'll see what I can do about changing your fur color! Temporarily of course. You jest. Maybe. Alice replied coyly, hopping back a pace and standing fully upright. Her guts were practically turning inside out with nerves. I dont want to overstep anything, but theyre all so friendly! Maybe not. Wouldn't want to offend the Twins by being so blunt. Alice ventured. "Sorry, Antoth. Oh brother, she's got you dead to rights. The burly Cauthan who had been waiting patiently next to Alyra finally piped up, reaching to clap Antoth on the shoulder. "I think the two of you ladies have had enough fun; and unlike your brother you'll probably be making more visits to Alyra's temple than mine. Name's Nerazek, forge master and high priest of Tyrdus, the Smith. We're the ones who make all the useful things around town. Zolta's master added with a terribly unsubtle look at Alyra. The priestess took it in stride. "Were it not for our trading you would have no metal to work with, Nerazek. Try not to get too big for your scales now. Big words from the pretty girl. he laughed. "I am a pretty girl. Alyra agreed, holding her head high and preening her feathers. Alice nodded with wide eyes, hoping not to offend anyone as she injected herself into what sounded like playful inter-temple banter. The details would have to be teased out at a later time. "I think you're quite pretty. she whispered. "See, forge master? The human agrees. And how many times has her brother stepped foot in your temple, hmm. Nerazek countered. "That's what I thought! Alice, pleasure to meet you and if you need anything fixed up, carved, forged or otherwise made, my temple's the place to go. You pay in metal like that. he proposed, pointing to the shuttle. "And we won't have any problems at all. Ah. I'm a bit short on Grizzly class shuttles at the moment and I don't think pilot Cromwell is selling hers. Do you accept other payment. Alice requested with a warm tone. "Anything of value. The forge master assured her. She nodded and held her hand out, analysis continuing within her mind. So a barter system. Then I look forward to visiting your temple. Quite so! Yes I believe we should do this shaking thing. Alyra has a mind of her own. We are both female. There is no problem. the priestess insisted. "Yeah yeah, as you say. And don't worry Alice, the scales don't hurt. Nerazek chortled as she took his hand. Alice hadn't considered it much in her interactions with Staroth or Antoth, but she took some time to get acquainted with the fine, small scales on the top of the smith's paw and fingers. Many of them were actually smoother than his calloused pads, and they blended seamlessly with the fine fur on the sides and bottoms of his digits. Oh I could spend a day just looking at their hands! Alice exclaimed internally. Ok that's really weird now that I say it out loud…well not really out loud. Anyway, time to meet the last two. You're almost there, Alice! No, they don't. Thank you for the kind welcome, sir. Alice concluded. "It's my pleasure. Welcome to our village. And watch out for her. Nerazek insisted, pointing not to Alyra, as Alice expected, but to the short, elderly female next to him. He received a whap of her cane to the back of his leg in reply. "See what I mean. Don't listen to him, dear. He's breathed in too many fumes at that forge lately. My name is Gentia. I serve Meylith, the Mother and patron of hearth and home. It is so good to meet you. Could you ask your brother to come here a moment, please. Alice was briefly taken aback by the elder's request but she certainly wasn't about to deny something so reasonable. "Hey Russell, Gentia wants to speak to you. She called, watching as her armored sibling shrugged his shoulders and ambled over. "What's going on Genti- hey! Cut that out. He ordered as Gentia lit into him with her walking stick the moment he was in range. "And when were you planning on telling me about your family, hmm? About this wonderful sister of yours who's polite and easy to look at. Gentia demanded, the customary light in her eyes as Alice utterly failed at keeping her mirth contained within her chest. "Mercy for my brother, please! He was never trained to fight off angry old women with canes. Hmph, if you insist young one. Go on now, Winters. You go play while I speak with your sister. Gentia advised happily as though she'd not just assaulted him. He looked down at her seriously. "You're gonna need a longer cane next time. he advised before tearing off for the shuttle and out of Gentia's range. The old priestess looked up at Alice "He's a good lad, saved many lives. Hers most of all. Gentia told the human as she pointed at Veera. The weight of emotion in Gentia's voice was such that the smile was wiped from Alice's face, leaving her to contemplate the many unknowns in the tale of her brother and his mate. "You will be welcome in my temple as his family, and I hope you can aid us as he has. We aren't out of the woods yet, so to speak. Is there something you need help with. Alice asked, opening her hands in offering. "Another time, my dear. That sort of talk is not for such an occasion. This should be a festive moment. Yes, well in that case thank you very much for meeting me. The sun is not too bad? We could move into the shade or. Oh perish the thought, dear. Felen has blessed us with ample clouds today and neither my mate nor I are pregnant. Gentia…" Ratha growled. "Meylith bless you, Ratha. You have yet to visit me regarding your cub. Gentia raised her voice, completing the image in Alice's mind of a pint sized midwife with a full sized attitude. "I'm fine. This cycle or I'll come visit you and make sure Antoth watches. Gentia sang, her words spurring Ratha to face Antoth and slam her fist against his solid chest. "You did this to me. She screeched before kissing Antoth the way only she could, leaving Alice rooted to the spot and Antoth looking at his wife with exasperation. "Ratha. I said hello. I'll kill her if she hurts anyone. I'm going home. The Huntress declared, spinning on her heel and departing the gate. No one dared block her path. "She will be a wonderful mother someday. Gentia declared, watching as Ratha's proud tail finally disappeared past the crowds. "I'll take you word for it. You've probably seen many more mothers than I have. Alice said. "Such is my joy and my duty. Gentia agreed, hugging Alice briefly around the waist due to her short stature. "One that I share with my mate. Thantis. Oh, of course, yes. Why I remember just under a year ago speaking with your brother at this very gate. the wizened priest informed her, gazing up into the skies. "Who are you, I asked him. Where did you come from? What is your purpose? Ah, so many questions there were and so many left unanswered. But I am forever grateful to have seen him in my twilight years. Such a momentous end to a long life. Oh stop it, you. We have many years left. Gentia insisted with love in her voice born of decades shared. "Now introduce yourself, priest of Kel. Indeed! Where are my manners? I do apologize. Thantis said, suddenly aware and alert instead of wistful and distant. He adjusted his cane and looked up at Alice. "Miss Alice, my name is Thantis. I serve Kel, lord of winter, death, knowledge, and He who keeps the balance. It is a pleasure to meet you. You're him, the death priest. Alice demanded excitedly as she extended her hand, shaking Thantis' gently. "My brother told me you're a scholar and keeper of knowledge. I am too! Will you teach me of you people and history. Well what do you know? She likes you best. Gentia provided with a smirk. "I do have one condition technically two. Thantis replied warmly, taking a moment to contemplate her hand in his palm. "On second thought, can I make it three. Start with one, my love. Gentia advised with a flutter of her aging feathers. "Sure, Thantis. Give and take right. Alice suggested in reply. The priests assembled nodded in agreement. The human didn't miss the gesture. "Yes well, first could I study your hand. Thantis requested. Gentia tittered delightfully while Antoth groaned and wondered how introductions had somehow turned into anatomy lessons. He blamed their familiarity with Alice's brother and her similarities to him. "Sure. Humans are quite comfortable with such things. What else. Will you join me for tea so that I might finally satisfy my curiosity with yptians of yours? Is that the word? I wrote it down somewhere… "Gods with animal heads, mummification, stone tombs. Alice asked, wondering if she's heard right. The upturn of Thantis' lips made it clear she had. "Yes yes, that's them. He exclaimed. Alice beamed at him. "I'd love to, Thantis. Just wait until you hear about the Greeks. And the last. She inquired, her brows furrowing as Thantis suddenly adopted a serious expression and posture. "I would ask that you make an effort to befriend my young apprentice. Much light has been stolen from his life. I hope that new knowledge might rekindle it. I…" Alice paused, looking left to Antoth and the others. All of them seemed to understand what Thantis was speaking of. "I am here to learn and to listen. I would be happy to speak with him. she agreed, feeling a cool breeze pass over her head as a cloud rolled past the sun above. "Then you have my thanks. Please visit soon! We are at the other end of the village by the east gate. the death priest explained. "Oh Ratha, I thought you were leaving us. Yeah I forgot something. the Huntress replied without care. "You lot seem done, finally. Antoth, where the heck are you going to put her. We were just getting to that. Antoth said accusingly. "Which you would know if you'd not stomped off. Alice, if you could summon your companion please? We must discuss your lodgings so long as none among us have objections. A moment if you would. Staroth requested, much to Antoth's surprise. The sun priest quickly hummed in understanding once the Guardian explained himself. "Alice, can we trust the other human? The warrior, who is he to you. Alice had anticipated such a question. She didn't hold the weapons. "He's a dear friend and someone who volunteered to come down here with me to keep me safe and assist with my work. We promised your people protection in the treaty. You can consider him a first line of defense, so to speak. His armor has the ability to communicate with our home ship high above us, and he's well trained in the art of war. Most importantly, I've been around him for about half a year now and I've never known him to be anything but a kind man with a strong sense of duty. I guess he's a bit like my brother in that way, but with less edge. Good, I almost cut myself on Winters. Ratha chuckled under her breath. "Satisfied, Staroth. I'd like him to train with my men at some point, get him used to them if he's going to fight with us. But yes, regarding admittance to the village I am in favor. Alice, if you would. With greetings completed and her mind positively humming with ideas, Alice turned and walked over to the shuttle, briefly explaining to Lachlan and the others what had been discussed to that point. The Scotsman, eager to show a comforting side to the villagers, stood with Sentaura's son in his arms. He let the young, curious boy continue to tap against his armor and run his claws along the ballistic fiber protecting his joints. "You're a curious little guy, aren't ye. He asked as the cubs mother followed at his side. 'You will find that curiosity is a defining trait of the species at large. Io opined using their various earpieces. 'Splendid job so far, Alice. You've gotten into none of the fights your brother did on his first day. Io, you can't just dangle that out in front of us and not deliver. Alice insisted hotly as the young Cauthan noticed her hair and reached for it instead, pulling on her ponytail and forcing Alice to suddenly bump into Lachlan or suffer. "Oh no no no no! Please stop, little guy. Woah, hey there young man! Ya can't be touching a lass like that. You gotta be gentle with beautiful things. the Marine insisted, slowly prying the Cauthans fingers away from Alices hair. "Oh stow it, Lachlan! They already saw me blushing. She squealed. "Begging your pardon, Alice. the Marine winked at her as Sentaura reprimanded her son. "Ursol, what have I told you about feathers. She asked in a stern voice. t pull. Little Ursol replied. "That's right, sweetheart. This human's fur is like feathers. Do you understand. So…no pull fur. Very good. his mother praised him as he refocused on Lachlan's equipment. The Marine met her eyes. "He's a wee, sharp lad, isn't he. He gets it from his father. was all she would say. Their time was up anyway, with Lachlan suddenly feeling sweat on the back of his neck as every Cauthan high priest scrutinized him as he held one of their treasured young. o' the morning to y'all! It is morning 't it. He asked, gauging the position of the star above. "Afternoon. Antoth clarified. "Huh, well is that right. Another time, Private. We must discuss where you two will be staying when you are with us. There are some complications that must be considered. the sun priest continued. "Last winter our village suffered fire. I'm sorry to hear that. Alice replied without inquiring further. Antoth nodded curtly her way. "Thank you. As things stand several families remain without homes, and others have had to relocate to…" The blockhouses. They're poor now. It sucks. At least we have enough food. Just get on with it. Ratha urged with acid in her voice. "I suppose my mate is right. It's not like we can hide the situation and perhaps you humans will have a solution? In any case, I cannot in good conscience place you in one of the newly constructed homes in the temple district while my own people still recover. I don't think that's a problem. Alice offered tentatively. "I'm sure that anywhere you have available will be more than enough. I can request any furnishings or gear I need from the Event Horizon. Same with Lachlan. When the Marine bobbed his head in affirmation of Alice's perspective, Antoth bowed to them both. "Meylith forgive me for treating you in such a way but thank you, Alice. There is a single unit available in the blockhouses. It was built for one, and rests adjacent to the east gate. Thantis and Gentia have their temples just to the south and the young couple you already met, Zolta and Asha, live in that quarter. I will personally ensure that you have what you need to remain here comfortably. Well that's mighty kind of ye, Antoth. Thank you. What is it. Lachlan asked as many eyes suddenly turned his way with suspicion. "Are you mated to Alice, young man. Gentia asked like a cat eyeing a canary. "No, no I'm not. the Marine replied unconcernedly, wondering where the conversation was headed as Alice mouthed 'I'm sorry' at him. "Then I'm afraid we must insist that you stay elsewhere. Gentia informed him. "It would be most improper for a man and woman, unmated, to share a roof and bed in such a way. Neither Lachlan nor Alice were about to argue with Gentia on that point. Such customs were not so alien to human history and they both knew well that breaking taboo around relationships was not something that would behoove them on their first day. Instead the humans looked at one another curiously, questioning silently what they were going to do. There didn't seem to be room at the inn. "Then he will stay with me. Sentaura, I forbid it. Ratha replied strongly. "Such a thing is. Ratha. the hunter's widow stopped her. "You have done more for me and my son than I can ever repay you for. Nonsense! I know you're working the fields this year. You shouldn't! I take care of my own. The Huntress insisted. Sentaura waved her feathers in understanding but carried on politely. "That home is too large for just a female and cub. It would dishonor me and Lady Meylith if such space were wasted. But. Sentaura looked sadly at the forest. "I have had my time, Ratha. I knew love, courtship, motherhood. I was bonded in the sight of the Mother. I am not like this young human maiden, and he and I are not even of the same species. There is no shame in what I have suggested. If they are here to help us then let me help them. Ratha looked first to her husband, then to Gentia. Her face was contorted in worry and sorrow. don't have to do this. I know, Huntress. It would be an honor to aid our people in such a way. High priest, please allow this human to stay with us. Antoth, you cannot! Look at what Winters did to Veera. that concern for the 'mutt' I heard in your voice. Antoth growled pleasingly, his voice like velvet. "You are a vile, unrepentant. Father of your. Antoth cut her off softly. "Ratha, there is no suitable alternative. What else would you have me do? Have him sleep with the shen? Sentaura remains mated in the eyes of the goddess until she chooses otherwise. We stand to gain from their presence here. When more homes are rebuilt this will not be an issue. Outnumbered and failing, Ratha approached the wife of one of her missing and took her by the shoulders. "He touches you, even one feather, you come to me. Understand. She pleaded. "As you say, Huntress. Thank you for this chance to serve the village. With that Ratha made for her temple, unwilling and unable to play at diplomacy and tact any longer. Antoth sighed as she left but refused to speak poorly of his mate outside of her presence. "I suppose that settles it then. Private MacGregor, is this arrangement suitable to you? I know you humans are a bit more. flexible regarding the mixing of the sexes. MacGregor took a moment to regard the tyke in his arms as well as his mother. “If thats the arrangement you all think is best, Ill be lodging no complaints. Just try and go easy on my moustache, would ya little guy? ” “Stache! Strache! ” Ursol repeated the word, reaching for the Marines facial hair again. “No no, dear. We do not use our claws with friends. Fingers only for touching and only in good places. Do you understand me? ” Sentaura scolded him politely. “Yes mamma! ” “Well would ya look at him? Well behaved lad and speakin English already! Gotta say Alice, I like these aliens a bit bettern the Ghaelen. Dont tell yer buddy I said so, ” Mac made a show of sharing secrets to try to break the tension. “Miss Sentaura, I thank ya kindly for your hospitality. ” “Mmm, resolution at last, ” Antoth murmured. “Any further concerns? ” He demanded of his fellows. When there were none the various priests bowed and returned to the village, resulting in the dispersal of the crowd as word immediately began to skip from lip to lip about the newest aliens who had come in peace. Each spiritual leader soon found themselves surrounded by curious villagers. “Kaha, if you would? ” “You have need of me, sir? ” The sun guard called, marching up to Antoth from where hed been standing amongst the people of the village. “I do. Kaha this is Alice, the sister of Winters. Well technically they are both Winters, but I know you refer to him in that manner. This other human you wouldnt mind, Private? ” Antoth requested. “Lachlan MacGregor, at your service. Thats some fine armor youve got yerself there, ” the Scotsman greeted Kaha, looking over the finely crafted ornamental fixtures on the sun guard's mostly leather armor. “I know not what to say about yours, human. I suspect it will prove more durable than mine. What orders, Antoth? ” “Please assist Miss Winters with any belongings or equipment that she needs carried. We will be allowing her to stay in the open room near the eastern gate, ” Antoth explained. “Of course, sir! Alice Winters are you finished here? ” Kaha requested, eager to be of service to a sun priest who, by and large, was the complete opposite of Vash and sought to do everything himself. “Yes. Its a pleasure to meet you, Kaha. Let me show you to my things. It should only be a comms array or two…” As the human woman and strapping Cauthan sun guard walked off to the shuttle, Lachlan finally handed Ursol over to his mother. “Would ya give me just a moment, please? ” He requested. She flared her feathers and responded affirmatively. “Thank you, miss. Antoth, Ill be informing the Admiral of the situation down here. Hell probably be wanting to set up a shuttle and orbital schedule once he knows were settled in and not in any trouble. ” “I will request that Alice explain what you just said to me at a later time, ” Antoth replied with a hint of annoyance. “Sentaura, please come find Ratha or myself if there are any issues at all. In the meantime Im sure half the Cauthan in the village wish to speak with me. Good day to you, Private. ” “ you, Antoth! ” Mac called after him, more than a bit stunned to have been left at the gates with what amounted to an open invitation. He shrugged his shoulders and activated the link between his armor and the bridge of the Event Horizon. “Admiral, are ye there? ” A loud yawn greeted him. “Im sure it must be quite exciting down there, but do you have any idea what time it is up here? ” Kaczynski requested. “What news, Private? ” “Sir, Alice and I have secured a place to stay and admittance to the village. Quaint little thing it is. Well be settin up comms and then taking a nap if its all the same ta you? Im sure well need a couple things from the fabricators here and there but thatll take a bit of time ta tease out. ” “Hmm, very good. And the First Lieutenant? ” Natori inquired seriously. “He looks right as rain now that hes back planetside, sir. ” “I see, ” was all Natori had to say on the matter. “Very well, Private. In order to lessen the draws on the drive core we will establish an orbital period of five hours and fifteen minutes or so. That should ensure a shuttle window of close to an hour four times per Maran day. As you establish yourselves down there we can adjust as needed. We have already set up an orbital communications relay system, so you should be able to reach us no matter where we are relative to the village. Oh, and do send pilot Cromwell back up when youre done, would you? She could use a rest most of all, I presume. ” “Aye aye, sir. Ill be doin that posthaste. Wouldn't want her usin more than one stim patch. Thank ya again for this opportunity. The locals have been real friendly, sir. ” “Thats wonderful to hear, Private. We shall speak again soon. Kaczynski out. ” Having touched base with the Event Horizon, MacGregor turned and held up a gloved finger, spinning it a couple times so that Cromwell knew she could start preparing for her ascent. Russell and Veera had already unloaded the spare components and batteries for Ios operation as well as much of the electronic gear brought by Alice. That left his couple of duffels and bedroll. “Miss Sentaura, do ya think you could be showin me to your home? I…” Mac had to take a pause to yawn prominently into the back of his hand. His helmets optics indicated it was almost four in the morning aboard the ship. “As ya can see its been a while since I last slept. ” When his words were translated, Ursol looked curiously at his mother, wondering if he understood the situation. At the age of four, the idea of an entertaining individual like MacGregor staying over at home was quite intriguing. The boys mother signaled with her feathers again, hoping that with time their new guests might pick up on Cauthan habits. “Of course. Do gather your things and Ill show you the way. And what shall I call you, human? ” “Lachlan is just fine, miss. ” “I see. Very well, Lachlan, ” Sentaura replied, her soft accent flowing around his name like a stream. “Welcome to our village. ”. Previous] p. First] f. Next] n. Patreon] y. 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Burden watch full length episode. Burden watch full length tv. Burden watch full length 2. Burden watch full length youtube. Burden watch full length episodes. The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound—a kind of soft hum, barely there, hovering at the edge of his aural horizon. After some time, he decides to investigate. Wandering the halls, the man wonders to himself, why did the monks so readily accept his presence? Is it mere monksmanship, or perhaps have they some deeper factor to conceal? Who is this man, anyway? The hum grows closer as he nears the exit, and a vague celeste gleam lies upon the tiles. There, beyond the archway, a being of sorts stands and smiles at his approach. He smiles back. "Come along with me. the being whispers. The man awaits further elaboration, but that appears to be the spirit's only request. It turns to ramble the marble path set along the steep outline of the monastery. A peculiar yet warm feeling, almost like levitating over a summery shore, cocoons the man, and prods him forward in pursuit of the visitant. As he makes his way past the boulders, this feeling grows somewhat heavier, so that once he crosses the last stepping stone, there is no doubt in his mind that his feet cannot feel the ground. Across the road is a vast forest, trees numerous like stars in the night. The spirit wanders yonder, and the man feels as if he's no choice but to wander along. His feet do not take him; surely, the breeze carries him forth. And as he ambles into the woods in wonderment, his consciousness diffuses among the waves—a state between living and dreaming—and he feels that he and the spirit are the only realities in the universe, and the trees and the stones and the monastery form the canvas upon which their figures are painted. The being pauses over a raised glade, and turns to face the man. It smiles. He smiles back, perhaps instinctively. The feeling of floating turns surreal, and the languor grows ever so fervent, rising, flying, approaching the infinite. The spirit wanders nearer. It all closes in. This is it. This is— "Good morning. He opens his eyes. Streaks of sunlight wander through the monastery window, falling on the monk who stirred him awake. The man glances about as the feeling rapidly falls away. "What… what…" We fixed your car. the monk continues. "I trust you should be on your way soon, but if you'd like breakfast, it's in the main hall. He leaves before the man can say another word. Blurry and perplexed, he slips into his yesterday getup and staggers to the main hall, where the monks have already begun enjoying their morning monk rations. Wishing at the least for an early snack, the man pours himself a bowl of soup and sits at a table beside some other monks. It is difficult to ascertain their religion, he notices; they all wear drab clothes fastened by hastily crafted belts, and some of them wear simple sandals while some walk barefooted. The monastery itself, too, was quite plain in appearance—no statues or lettering chiseled into the stone walls, just pleasant aesthetic patterns and the odd pillar. He has to wonder if these monks even worship any sort of higher being, or if they are simply generic monks cleverly designed so as not to suggest any religious behavior other than an unexplained aura of mystery. But why? Is there some grander purpose to all this nonsense? He turns to one of the monks sitting at his side. "So, what do you guys do? As monks. Fortunately disregarding the bluntness of the inquiry, the monk smiles. "I'm afraid I can't tell you, Mr. Carmichael. You are not a monk. Huh. Is it a secret. Secrets are few and far between these days. Is that a yes. Patience is the key to all doors, my friend. W-what. A true monk knows the blue girl is—" Okay, I get it. Mr. Carmichael returns to his soup, a somber unknowing plaguing his mind. And yet, there's still the matter of… "Wait. Did you say the blue girl. The monk eyes him with mild interest. "I think I saw her yesterday, in the night. It must've been a dream, and yet I recall it so vividly I am sure it couldn't have been one. She took me to the forest, and… well, that's as far as I can remember. He waits for the monk to respond, but he simply nods. "Who is she. I cannot say, Mr. Reluctantly, Mr. Carmichael abandons the discussion and finishes his soup. The car has been fixed quite skillfully, in spite of the fact that, being monks, the monks likely held no prior experience in car repair. Nevertheless, he thanks them for their reception and aid and goes about his merry way. Many years later, in a manner unimaginably convenient, the same exact Mr. Carmichael (of all the Mr. Carmichaels in the world, the particular one that had been there previously) is driving down the same exact road (for some oddly specific reason and notwithstanding the chance that he has moved in the intervening years) and breaks down near the same exact monastery (which still operates in the same place and practices the same beliefs, though perhaps that bit of information is less outrageous. The same exact monks accept him, feed him, even fix his same exact car. When he lies to sleep, the same exact hum he had heard oh so long ago in the same exact place keeps him awake once more. He recognizes the sound at once, and the memory of the blue girl retakes him. Almost as if by their own accord, his legs leave the linen bed and seek the source, and soon they find themselves before her. She smiles. "I must show you. she says. That's all she said, before turning once again to the walkway. Mr. Carmichael follows her once again, and when they cross the outline of that gloomy forest, a pair of crows alight behind them, almost seeming to block their retreat. As if we have reason to leave, Mr. Carmichael thinks with a chuckle. This is among the last thoughts his internal monologue can summon before the feeling of floating drowns it out. He nears the singularity once again. The girl stops in the same clearing, but now in its center sits a flat object, like a thin mirror, enveloped in a thick veil of sorts. She turns to Mr. Carmichael and softly grasps the sheet, smiling with unworldly happiness. Carmichael is utterly engrossed by the veiled mirror, and then, right there— "Good morning. No…" is the only thing he can mutter as it all falls away. "Why…" Breakfast's in the main hall. …why… why… why…" The monks sit with him in the main hall, but he chooses to keep some distance this time, in hopes of avoiding eccentric discourse. Yet, the soup cannot provide him company for long, and he eventually succumbs to the mortal want of society. "Hey, uh, have we met before. The monk looks up. "Yes, I think so. I saw her again. Hm. Can you please just tell me who she is? I must know. Her visions plague me, and I have spent countless nights pondering her. As I've said, Mr. Carmichael, I cannot tell you, for you are not a monk. Well… if I were a monk, would you tell me. There would be no need, for you would already know. Then how? How do I become a monk. The monk raises an eyebrow. "You would consider. He leans forward, his face darkening in the cinematic lighting. "I would do anything and more, sir. Nothing seems more desirable to me. The monk contemplates him for a minute, then sighs. "The journey to monkhood is a long and treacherous one. You must surrender everything you know about yourself. You must forget that you are Mr. Carmichael, for beyond the Three Tasks, you are not. You must leave your past life, for it shall be null if you succeed. Are you ready for such a sacrifice, Mr. Carmichael? Has the girl so utterly captivated you that you are determined to abandon these things in search of the truth. Yes. Mr. Carmichael answers sharply, though ironically not as sure as he lets on, but comfortable enough with his response—he has no background so to speak of, or at least he can't recall it. He is just a generic, run-of-the-mill, oddly resolute straight man, almost like the protagonist of some long-winded joke. As such, he has little reason to deny such a life-changing offer. "Then it shall be done. says the monk. "Follow down the path outside the monastery, to the Lake of Wisdom. Master Uru will be there. Go to him, and he will guide you to monkhood. Wasting no time besides the little needed to finish his soup, Mr. Carmichael hurries out of the monastery, descending the steep walkway leading down the mountainside. The journey is long and treacherous, but after what must be many hours, he finally approaches a colorful shore, his parched throat yearning for water. An old man sits motionless on the beach, dressed in the same drab clothes as the monks. Carmichael hesitantly nears him, full of awe at the so-called Master. He stops some distance behind him, expecting him to say some wise remark without so much as twitching a muscle, but the old man remains silent. How mystical! But some minutes pass, and the old man has still yet to utter a word. Is he really building the suspense for this long? Uhh…" Mr. Carmichael uhhs. "Oh, shit. The old man jumps and swings around. "How long have you been standing there. Er… a few minutes. Jesus, give me a warning next time. I thought you heard my footsteps. Well, I don't have the best hearing, do I. Erm…" I…" Master Uru's face relaxes abruptly. "I'm sorry. I get a little anxious sometimes. I understand you've come here because you wish to attain monkhood. Yes, that is my want. Very well. A true monk possesses three qualities most important: wisdom, fidelity, and celibacy. These qualities are tested to their limits in the sacred Three Tasks, which you must complete to achieve the status of a monk. The difficulty of each Task is exponentially larger than the previous—if you are not definite on your goal, leave now, and no harm will come to you. This will not be the case later on. Is that understood. Mr. Carmichael nods. "Now, the first Task is simple—before you lies the Lake of Wisdom. He gestures at the vast lake. "When you become a monk, you will not be infinitely wise at first, but it is essential that when you do acquire this wisdom, you will know how to use it. If you drink of the Lake's waters, you will, for a time, possess such wisdom. Now, what is your name. Nathan. Nathan, walk to the Lake and partake of its wisdom. Nathan walks to the lake and partakes of its wisdom, taking deep gulps to wet his crisp throat. His eyes open, and all the knowledge he needs is at his fingertips. "Now, Nathan, I will ask of you a simple question. Take as much time as you need, but do note that the effects of the water wear off after a time. So, here it is: How many pebbles do you see. Pebbles. Area of vision is a circle with horizon the boundary. Horizon is 2. 9 miles away—area is 2π×2. 9²≈52. 8416 square miles. Look down. Basic measure—the foot. Assume length of 1 foot, and ratio of width to length 1:3—area of foot is about a third of a square foot. 5, 280 feet in a mile—27, 878, 400 square feet in a square mile. Times 52. 8416 is about 1, 473, 138, 939 square feet. How many pebbles under a foot? Count—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. Density of pebbles is 22 pebbles per third of square foot. Multiply by 1, 473, 138, 939 square feet—97, 227, 169, 972 pebbles. Seems too high—how much downsizing is permitted? Saw around 200 monks in monastery, oldest being about 90 years. Road adjacent to monastery is scarcely visited, maybe twice a day—65, 700 visits since oldest monk birth. 1, 000, 000 citizens in county, so probability that a citizen visited at least once is 6. 3588. Times 1, 000, 000 citizens is 63, 588 visits, so 2, 112 are returns. Assuming every repeat visitor attempts monkhood, and 200 successful monks, the chance of passing all Three Tasks is 9. 469. Let n be the fraction of pilgrims passing the first Task. Tasks grow exponentially in difficulty due to Uru, so n² of people pass the second Task, and n³ of people pass the third, so n×n²×n³=n⁶ of people pass all Tasks and become monks, which is 9. Thus, n is the 6th root of 0. 09469, which is about 0. 6751. Thus, there must be an allowed error of 67. 51%—times the previously calculated pebble number, 97, 227, 169, 972, is the lowest correct answer: 65, 641, 272, 526. Well done. You have passed the first Task successfully. You are now ready to continue to the second. Master Uru points to his left. "Head north, towards the Mountain of Fidelity, and seek Master Zolath's camp. He will give you further directions if you show him this certificate. He hands him a small plastic card, imprinted upon which are the words APPROVED BY MASTER URU. "Take care, Nathan. And so, Nathan takes off to that great Mountain of Fidelity that looms in the distance. The journey is long and treacherous, but eventually, he arrives at the foot of the mountain and sees a pillar of smoke climbing from the roof of a large tent. Weary and fatigued, he parts the flaps and peeks inside. A cloaked figure sits there before the fire, warming its hands. He steps inside. "Nathan Carmichael. she says motionlessly. Impressive. Nathan feels not the need to ask her how she knows his name, for he deems it quite natural for a monk, no less a Master-monk. "I've Master Uru's certificate. He tries to hand her the card, but she is too focused on the fire. "Then you are ready. She beckons to him, and he sits before the fire. "Here. She hands him a plastic bottle of water, which he readily accepts. On a closer glance, he realizes that she is not merely thawing her palms—rather, she is coaxing the fire, kneading the hot air that surrounds it. To what occasion, he cannot tell. "You must be Master Zolath. Nathan speaks, and beneath the hood of her cloak he swears he glimpses the shadow of a grin. "Yes. The wind has led me here. It whispers the fates of all, and soon, I hope, you will learn its language. Woah. That's profound. Yes. Now, reach into the flame. What. Reach forward, into the heart of the blaze, and retrieve your torch. Nathan scratches his head. "Right, I get that you lot like being mystical, but what actually do you intend. I hide my words beneath no layers, Nathan. Send your hand into the flame—I shall keep it dormant in the meantime. Well, this woman sure looks wise and powerful. Perhaps she truly knows the ways of the fires. Resting on this notion, Nathan shuts his eyes and sends a tentative hand through the sparks. The heat stings, but he can tell that he is safe. After a bit of feeling around his fingers happen on a long thin cylinder, which he interprets to be the aforementioned torch. He holds a tight grasp and retrieves it from the fire, and in his hand he finds, indeed, a wooden torch, with a flame dancing on its end. "This torch you hold now shall guide you through the second Task. Bring it atop the Mountain of Fidelity, where Grandmaster Venus shall accept it. Take heed, for the air over the Mountain is cold and tempestuous. You must remember to keep the torch ablaze throughout the journey, no matter the price. And if the torch is to extinguish. Nathan is starting to get the hang of monkspeak. Then you shall meet a fate most unfortunate. What does that mean. Who can tell? Any concrete knowledge of such a scenario would imply some level of control, which we clearly do not possess. Nathan nods, though he is not sure what she means. "Now go—lest the flame dies early. He gets on his feet and heads outside, firmly grasping the burning torch. "And remember. shouts Master Zolath from beyond the folds, keep the torch aflame at all costs. And so, Nathan sets out to conquer the mighty Mountain of Fidelity, which now suddenly seems fifty stories taller than earlier. Having little experience (none, in fact) with mountain climbing, the idea at first startles him. The cold wind lashes at him, threatening the life of the flame, which he is to somehow bring to the peak alive. How would such an endeavor even be feasible, let alone possible? Yet, after a few minutes of scaling, Nathan seems to have happened upon the answer. The Mountain of Fidelity, certainly, had to be named aptly, for the second Task does require for any physical capabilities. All Nathan has to do is remain loyal to the torch and do all that is in his power to keep its flame alive. And surely the Task does not call for any further indulgence; to prove his fidelity he must only remain loyal. Indeed, this thought process is correct, but, once the wind begins howling, and the flame starts flickering, he panics. "No, no, no. He tries to hold still, so that the fire suffers less movement, but he cannot help it. The torchlight wanes, and soon there is but smolder in its place. What am I to do? Nathan thinks monkly. Think, man, think! All he needs to do is stay loyal, but how can loyalty help him here? Keep the torch aflame at all costs! costs, costs, costs…) There must be a way. There must be a way. There must— That's it! Nathan takes off his shirt, exposing his muscular torso to the elements. Ignoring the shivers, he wraps it around the smoldering top of the torch, which after a few tense moments catches fire and returns to its flaming state. And now, standing shirtless on the mountainside, and spotting a thick layer of ice up ahead, Nathan realizes the true meaning of fidelity. The fabric of the shirt keeps the flame busy for a time, and Nathan keeps it close to his chest as he enters the snowy portion of the mountain. He must be close to the end, he thinks—surely it can't get much colder than this. But after a while of climbing icy boulders and trudging through the snow, the flame flickers again. Shivering and groaning, Nathan looks around for something to feed it, but the ground is cold and barren. The fire has burnt through the shirt, and now asks for more. He contemplates this for a minute, and recalls what he told himself near the foot of the mountain—the Task asks for nought but his undying loyalty. If he provides this loyalty, he shall surely pass it alive. So he removes his trousers and stuffs them on the tip of the torch, which, again, soon flickers back into life. Now he is left only in his nonflammable sandals and his unfortunately flammable underpants, which he prays not to have to use. He goes forward, shaking against the biting wind, but nevertheless determined to fulfill this Task. At this point he can barely remember what the purpose of all this is. The wind shrieks at his ears, and the gelid air envelopes his naked body, almost repressing his movement. The question of mortality creeps into his mind, but he tosses it aside—he feels he does not know enough to tackle it. He only knows that he must prove his fidelity, no matter the cost. Soon, he spots a wooden building in the distance, sitting just at the edge of the fog. It is far, but the distance is finite, and that is all that matters now. Nathan glances at the torch, and to his horror, finds that it has already finished consuming his trousers. They lasted only a little longer than the shirt. He looks at the house—it is much too far away, and even if he were to make a run for it, the resulting wind would surely extinguish the flame in mere seconds. So, of course, he takes off his underpants and wraps them around the torch, and the flame lives on. His body is shaking uncontrollably, and surely if he doesn't make it to the house soon, he will die. But if he runs too hastily, and the fire is to vanish before he gets there, it will all have been useless. He walks steadily, not too quickly and hopefully not too slowly, though the constant quivering of his body makes it hard for him to verify these assumptions. He holds the torch close, but he knows the underpants won't last for long. Nathan doesn't have much self-esteem, as you can tell. His vision turns blurry, and he stumbles forward. The house must be getting closer, but it seems still so far away. At this point he has lost all feeling all around his body, and the rest of his senses gradually fade away as well. He steps forward, but his foot doesn't land on anything. At first he assumes his feet have simply lost feeling as well, but a few moments later, when he hears a dull shatter and the air suddenly turns much colder, he realizes something is wrong. His eyes open, and he finds himself suspended in water, the torch having left his grasp and lying on the edge of the icy lake. Oh, fuck, is the only thing he can think, before everything goes dark. … For a moment, nothing happens. Nathan's only thought is, I have died. There is no emotion accompanying this statement, because it is just a simple truth. He isn't afraid, nor sad, nor angry. He is dead. That is all. But after a while, he thinks of Descartes. He can't recall what Descartes had said, but he knows that if he can think of Descartes, that means he must exist. That's a rule of thumb he'd heard from someone. And if he must exist, then he must still somehow be alive—QED. So, if he is alive, there must be something he can mold with his imagination. So he fancies a teapot, and it materializes before him, stark against the blank void all around. He fancies a teacup, and a teaspoon, and perhaps a few teacubes of teasugar, and it all appears to him. Neat, he thinks, pouring himself a cuppa. Next, he imagines a hot bath, and, realizing he is missing a body, imagines himself a hunky physique, imagines himself its occupier, and imagines his figure lying in the bathtub. But he still feels rather lonely, what with the infinite nothingness in all directions, so he imagines that the bathtub sits on the ledge of an expensive villa, overlooking some Scandinavian landscape. He sighs and leans back as a draft passes by. A wooded region sits near the villa, separating it from the distant mountain range, and there near the edge a crow alights on a branch. All is well. And yet, something bothers him. He did not imagine the crow. He has no reason to even think of crows. And now, the crow takes off and lands on the edge of his bathtub, unnaturally close to him. That he most certainly did not intend. "ᮿᒔኻ ዼჽ᫞ᛵᾅ ᄩᓳ᫘ሲЇᐷዏᰜᬛ ᯌᒋዡ ᷿ᡵᩭᝳ" quoth the crow. "W-what. ᣠᄚኛὍЅቴዡፙዔᇀᰊᱹ᫹" What does that mean. The crow eyes him more intently. "Repent. That word resonates in his fancy, ricocheting off and shattering every one of his hopes and dreams. The crow thus flies off as the world so recklessly sculpted by Nathan rapidly withers away. Then, for what must be years and years, Nathan feels nothingness. But unlike the nothingness he experienced earlier, which he saw through the comforting lens of subconsciousness, this nothingness is pure and raw, and for the first time in his life he is filled with total, unadulterated terror. And the world follows his lead, and suddenly there is cold ground beneath him, and the next moment it's gone. It has never even thought to exist. He has always been falling down, faster and faster, past universes and worlds that only exist as backgrounds for some greater web of mysticism. He sees himself for the speck he is, in the imagination of another speck in the imagination of a young man, who is a meaningless speck in a gigantic universe that is probably a speck of fanciful thinking engendered by some other speck of meaninglessness. One of these specks must exist in reality, he is certain, but is it necessarily the last one in the seemingly unending cascade? Is it even the only one? Is there such a speck at all? As if to avoid the question altogether, the Engine appears before him, one of those many tiny specks magnified to seem more significant than it is. It's a simple function, really—take as input some array of experiences and stories, process them in some mysterious fashion, and output new stories and worlds. A self-replicating particle, and this is only one of its infinite variations. On one side sits hearsay of a mysterious frozen continent—on the other, a young girl who must save the world. On one side, a boy glancing at a girl he likes—on the other, a recursive encounter between a bartender and a customer. On one side, a silly joke about monks that gets reposted to r/Jokes every 2 months—and Nathan sits on the other. And somewhere in the midst of this process sits the crow. Nathan turns around, and finds an infinite row of such Engines, each just subtly different than the rest, all being fed endless romances, tragedies and comedies, and spitting out unique, tiny universes. One speaks of a pair of atoms flirting with each other; another, giant metallic behemoths hissing in the distance; and another, a malevolent god-like being learning the power of love. And somehow, perching on some motionless cogwheel, the crow oversees them all. "The clock ticks, thou Carmichael. croaks the crow. Indeed, the ticking grows louder, and the flame wanes. It echoes about his head. But surely, he is still in control! The scene before him is merely a drawing on a curtain, which he promptly tears apart. But beyond the curtain, the crow perches on a pedestal, looking down woefully. "The choice is yours. Behind the crow is a large door, through which a cold gray light illuminates the entrance. As the ticking grows, he realizes that the door won't last forever. In due course he will have to decide if he wishes to abandon these infinite powers and return to his reality. For what? What does the real world hold over the infinitely-plastic universe within his own mind? Beyond the doorway, nothing has purpose. Everything is for it is. But here, he himself assigns everything a purpose, and thus all that he begets has massive significance. Though, is the real world any different? Does nothing have significance if we do get to choose what significance even is? Is that power not inherent to all people? Then there's the question of control. Within this world, if he says "let there be light. then light be there let. But out there, saying "let there be light. the most he will get is a curious glare from some nearby stranger. In here, his powers have no limit—but out there, is he anything but powerless? And he recalls the Engine. A machine cannot operate without input. A self-propelled self-replicator is as good as a cancer cell. For the Engine to run it needs to see, to hear, to feel. If the Engine has nothing to feed on, it will never be able to create anything. It will remain forever stuck within its own thoughts, which will either be non-existent or unpredictably chaotic. And a man forever stuck with his own thoughts and nothing more, doubtless, is doomed to degrade to a similar fate. He needs input. He needs to see, and to hear, and to feel. He needs warmth, and sadness, and touch, and hatred, and love and joy and wonder. And all lies beyond that door. So he walks through. … Nathan opens his eyes. His naked body is submerged in near-frozen water, and with all the senses he still has he can only faintly detect the intense cold biting at his skin. He swims out of the lake and gasps deep of the icy air. The torch is still sitting there, burning faintly. Quaking uncontrollably, he snatches it and hastily makes his way towards the house in the distance. At this point, Nathan can hardly complain, even in his own head, about the severity of the situation. He seems to have lost that part of him, and whatever is left only urges him to keep going. When he reaches the door, he cannot bother to knock. He simply leans on the knob and pushes through, falling on the matted floor with a thud. The warmth within instantly thaws him; a little too quickly for his liking, in fact. His senses have not returned to him yet, and now the only thing he feels is a tingling sensation all across his skin. "Argh. he arghs, struggling to stir. Eventually, he hears the door closing behind him, and someone pulls him up and drags him away, although he can only assume this from his foggy vision as he still can't otherwise feel a thing. The stranger sits him down, and the thawing grows somewhat quicker. His vision sharpens a bit, and he can make out a figure pouring a mug, which it then promptly puts to Nathan's lips. "Drink. Nathan holds it in his pale fingers. "W-w-wh…" Drink it. Quickly. He gulps the liquid down his throat and coughs. "What is this. Coffee. Oh. He takes another gulp, and his senses start coming back. Now he can see the room more clearly. There's a fireplace in front of him, and within it a flame, dancing and crackling happily. On the walls he finds a pair of old-fashioned windows, through which a vast view of a green valley shines, and in the same wall a glass door provides entrance to a marble balcony. Nathan finds himself sat on a crimson couch, some distance from the fireplace, and his feet in a tub of hot water. In an opposite crimson couch sits a tall man, draped in simple monk clothes, inspecting him with intrigue. "How do you feel. the man asks. "Mm… better. Nathan looks down and realizes that he is still naked. His mind is too fuzzy for this to embarrass him, but he would feel better not exposed to the air. "Do you have a blanket. The man smiles. "Monk code requires that a candidate remain bare until the third Task. But yes, I should have a blanket somewhere. The man gets up and rummages through some cabinets on the other side of the room, and after a minute finds a white sheet which he tosses onto Nathan's body. "Thank you. He takes another gulp of his coffee. "You're Grandmaster Venus, right. The man chuckles. "So she told you, I trust. Nathan nods slowly. "It seems she's grown fond of confusing you lot. He sits back down and smiles. "I'm Master Zolath. The woman you met at the foot of the mountain is Grandmaster Venus. She swapped our names for her amusement. But what about Master Uru? He told me I'd meet Zolath at the tent. Yes, perhaps we should bring him up to date. Master Zolath pours himself a cup of coffee. "We were originally swapped. I was the guide for the second Task, and Venus was here, for the third Task, this House of Celibacy. I think you can imagine why she wished to swap places. Mhm. So now I am in charge of this burden, which for my sake and… well, probably for yours, too—although I don't judge—I'd rather we just sit here for however long you're required to… er, resist. He nods in agreement. "So what is your name. Oh, uh, Nathan. I thought you'd already know. You know, being a Master and whatnot. No, no, unfortunately. Only the Grandmaster holds such mystical powers. Nathan takes another sip, nearly emptying his mug. "Well, I've come this far—could you perhaps indulge me in the fabled secrets of the monks. Only when you become a monk. When will that be. In about…" He surveys his watch. "4 minutes. Not doing too bad. How are you feeling, Nathan. Well. The feeling has almost fully returned to his fingers. "Can you walk. I'll try. He draws his feet from the hot water and places them on the floor. The joy of warmth subsides quite tragically and the skin longs for the past, but otherwise he is fine. He ties the blanket about his neck, stands up with a deep groan, and steps along the carpet for a minute. "Yeah. Good. Master Zolath sets his cup on the table and gets on his feet. "I'd like to tell you some words in private. He gestures at the balcony. "Outside. If it's not too much trouble. They step out onto the overhang, where the air is significantly colder, and yet, with the blanket, liveable. The valley is spread out before them, glimmering joyfully in the reflections of the sinking sun, and right below them a steep walkway leads down the mountain and merges with the green. "I take it the pond befell you. says Master Zolath. "The Pond. No, no, just the pond. It's no official name—everyone falls in it, so we just call it the pond. Well, yes, then. So you have witnessed the Engine. …Yes. Then you must understand that you cannot revert your path. Wait, no. What do you mean. Master Zolath leans on the pale railing and heaves a heavy sigh. "Nathan, over the years I have seen the views of our monastery morph about. As Masters fall and rise, the values they preach grow ever so slightly different. The pond has been crucial to this metamorphosis, and the secrets it unveiled have affected our operations significantly. His glassy eyes rest on Nathan's. "You've seen her, haven't you. Nathan hesitates for a moment, then nods vaguely. "Who is she. The last of the mallocs. The final remnant of those that crafted the Engine. What happened to the rest. He closes his eyes. "The twilight fell on them. A tense quiet follows, and Nathan isn't really sure what to say, or how to interpret the Master's words. Surely the twilight is an allegory of some kind (or a metaphor; he never really understood the difference) and it falling on the mallocs alludes to some unfortunate fate, but which exactly, he cannot extrapolate. However, fearing disrespecting the mystical obscurity of the Master's discourse, he inquires further not. "Nathan, I know not where the wind should take you, but if you must go on, I only ask of you one thing. What's that. The malloc still controls the Engine. If she is joyous, the Engine will make joy. If she is in pain, the Engine shall make pain. And pain I have seen. Such terrible, awful pain. He turns to Nathan. "The malloc will not live forever. And if she is to perish naturally, she will surely bring the Engine down with her. Do you understand. …yes. I'm sorry. It's the only way. His eyes return to the valley. A crow alights nearby, and starts pecking at a bush. "You're free to go, Nathan. Take the path down the mountain and to the Caldera of Ordination, where you will become a monk. Thank you, Master Zolath. The journey to the end of the world requires arduous planning and preparation, but the journey to the Caldera of Ordination is easier. Nathan takes only a few hours to scale down the mountain, clutching his blanket tightly, but as the view of the steamy spring grows closer, his fingers gradually thaw back. At the margin, he finds another monk, with clothes much shorter than his brethren's. He stands next to a wooden boat, and as Nathan nears him, he notices the sweat dripping from his forehead. "You are ready. the monk says raspily. "Climb in. He rows Nathan into the midst of the caldera, and the steam grows thick and dense, obscuring their vision. Nathan's heart is pounding restlessly, though he isn't sure if this is because of the excitement or because he has trouble breathing. Minutes later, a small island, certainly in the dead center of the spring, emerges from beyond the steam curtains. Numerous stone structures decorate it, and circling them are a handful of monks, all wearing short monk clothes, their faces hidden by veils. They seem to be chanting something, though they might just be mindlessly humming. "Step forward, child. says the monk who rowed him. Nathan, a little irritated by his condescending address, nevertheless walks into the center of the monk circle. The steam grows even thicker, and soon he fails to witness the monks surrounding him. "Take the blanket off your skin. He takes his blanket off his skin, and the steam nears and licks his naked body. The humming of the monks grows louder, and the feeling of levitating returns to his feet. He closes his eyes, and somewhere, in there, he dimly sees the light. The truth is there. It has always been there, and now he will understand it. The humming grows louder. Everything is lighting up. It's all starting to make sense. Yes, yes, this is it! This is the light! This is what it's all been for! The light is here! The light is— Wake up. What—what was that? What's going on? Wake up, Nathan. No, no, no! Everything is falling away! The light! The light is retreating! It's all shattering! Why? Jesus, what did he take? Nathan! Everything is dying. Everything is dying. And the truth is gone. "Nathan. Shut up! Shut the fuck up. He looks around, breathing heavily. There's a room. It's a small room, maybe a living room. There's a window in the corner, and a streetlight blinks beyond it some distance away. He turns his head. There are people there. Two boys at his side, and a girl sitting on the carpet, wearing headphones. They all stare at him. It becomes apparent to him that he is the one who screamed those words. "Are you okay. asks one of the boys. "Y-yeah. Sorry. He looks at his companion. "He had a bad trip. Yeah, no shit, Uri. What're you mad at me for? You gave him the stuff. I didn't give him anything, I don't know where he got it. Nathan says nothing. He is too bewildered by the horrible feeling flooding his mind. "Zack. the girl calls, check his pulse. The other boy pulls up Nathan's sleeve and presses a finger to his wrist. "He's fine. I need…" Nathan murmurs. Zack looks at him. "What. I need a breather. He exchanges a worried expression with Uri, who nods grimly. "Alright. Wait, he can't go. says the girl. "Look at him! He's in shock! We need to—" Vera. Uri says seriously. "Let him. She opens her mouth to object, but closes it a moment later and sighs. Nathan leaves soon afterwards, entering the rainy night. The orange streetlights reflect on the pavement, breaking up and shattering into indistinct blurs. Slow, jazzy music plays in a nearby building, attentuated by the veils of time and space. He steps into the darkness of a small alleyway, chained metal clanging at his feet. A crow lands yonder, glaring through its ebony eyes. Nathan blinks, and the alley gradually turns gray, whatever life left in it draining away so quickly. Then it stops, and all that remains is its frozen ghost, whose only physicality is being a background to a distant black car, which now approaches him. It brakes some distance away, making a terrible noise against the pavement. The crow hops onto the car and turns to him. "Get in, thou Carmichael. What? My name's not Michael. The crow groans, then beckons him forward. Nathan climbs into the car and sits himself comfortably against the cushioned backseat. Soon enough, an abstract landscape speeds by the window, through other worlds and times, and as this is all happening, Nathan can't help but feel empty and minute against the vast scale of it all. He is doomed to forever be a marionette in the hands of a marionette which is held in the hands of an infinite tower of strings and marionettes. That much was made clear by Master Zolath, who may or may not even exist. Which begs the question—does the monastery exist? Does the Engine exist? Does he, even, exist? And does it really matter? If everything that can possibly exist is just a figment of imagination of imagination of imagination of imagination, does existing even have a valid definition? Is it anything more than an expression of want to be significant, or to stand out in the void? The car stops. Beyond the window, Nathan sees woods. Thick woods, shading the bushes and plants from the dim, metal-blue sky, where pink clouds hover. Quiet. And there, in the distance, the malloc stands. He soon finds himself at her side, almost levitating over the grass. Through the thicket he catches only glimpses of the ever so peaceful skies. "We do not get to choose who the twilight falls upon. she says. Nathan nods sympathetically. They reach the clearing again, and in the center once more sits the veiled Mirror. The malloc stops under the shade and smiles at him. He smiles back, then walks forward, towards the Mirror. His heart races, his hands shake, and he realizes that the truth may still be out there, after all. He pulls the veil, and—.

I literally thought the beginning was the song from endgame lmao. Burden watch full length season. Don't let your past determine your future. 💯. Burden watch full length free. I remember going in the house and getting all your equipment and drama... you come and stayed with me and my baby momma right after that. mad respect for you bro. hmu. you said yur only a phone call away... 1 Trail Rations Ingredient Moss-flour; a cave moss-fungus-lichen structure that only grows near luminescent or dimly lit regions of the underdark. It can be eaten raw, easily scavenged on the go, and is mostly flavorless, lightly crunchy, and provides a tiny amount of nutrition; it is usually dried and ground into a flour-like powder and used in making breads and the like. Unlike Bluecap, for which only the spores are edible, Moss-flour is completely edible, if less flavorful overall (Not that either are particularly flavorful. 2 Street-food Ingredient Q'tchoop (Dwarven Ketchup) uses fungus and pureed fruits in a ketchup-like consistency. 3 Street Food Ingredient Grawr Tolnur or Dwarven Mustard; Dwarves take their mustards seriously. A condiment made from coarsely ground mustard seeds and a harsh selection of herbs and minerals. Compared to a human mustard or an elvish poupon, its hard to mistake the bold, robust tang; the strong spice of grawr tolnur, to the milder sweet mustards and pleasant, complex-yet-light poupon. In dwarven tongue, yellow pleasure" literally) is a common part of their daily spice intake in an otherwise relatively bland diet. Be warned that if you try to pass off a mild mustard as grawr tolnur, you may make an enemy of the dwarf that you lie to! u/ Th3R3493r] 4 Street-food Ingredient Balıq Şarabı (Literally, Fish Swimming in Wine. is a fermented fish-puree sauce. 150 years or so ago, some numpty decided to mix various top-side fruits, spoiled wine, hot peppers, and... things. into the same barrel. Since then it's almost a mandatory seasoning for street-food, and sealed ceramic pots of the stuff are even quickly becoming a dwarven household condiment, adding an intense blast of salty, savory, spicy flavor to even the most bland staples. 5 Home-Cooking Ingredient Plump-Helmet; fungus which grows to the size of, and closely resembles the appearance of a large dwarven helmet. One of the most basic, resilient, and versatile ingredients in a Dwarven kitchen and forms the basis for much of their cuisine. 6 Home-Cooking Ingredient Dwarven Sugar; dried, ground powder of Sweet Pods, a dwarven staple. The starchy powder is sweet tasting, and can be used to thicken liquids or be mixed with various flours to form sweet-breads. 7 Home-Cooking Ingredient Dwarven Syrup, Press the oil-juice from Sweet Pods and you get Dwarven Syrup, which can vary in consistency from clear and slightly thicker than water, to nearly dark brown in color and the consistency of honey; used as a sweetener that won't thicken liquid dishes like Dwarven Sugar does. 8 Home-Cooking Ingredient Fortified Treacle; after you've pressed out most oil-juice from sweet-pods, grind them up, and heat-treat them under high pressure in the presence of water and ethanol. Flavor the pap-like ooze with herbal 'fortification' and press once more. The resulting sweet tar-like liquid is known as Fortified Treacle is a staple of most Dwarven homes, with flavor resembling molasses, tones of coffee, chocolate, tobacco, burnt rubber, and herbal notes that are unique to each individual clan's preferences. Unless heated, it usually has the consistency of pitch, and has to be "chipped" out of the barrel. 9 Home-Cooking Ingredient Rock-Nut Yeast Paste; Grind up some Rock-Nuts and add Rock-nut Oil, Dwarven Syrup, ground Lauter (cooked grains leftover from making Dwarven beers) Beer Yeast, and some Salt; press into cakes and age for at least a month in a cheese-cave. The resulting paste is spread on toasted dwarven bread. 10 Home-Cooking Ingredient Rothé; large creatures resemble Musk-ox, and can be used for Hair, Horn, Hide, Bone, Meat, and Milk. Their milk tends to have sour funk to it, resembling a more intense goat's milk. 11 Home-Cooking Ingredient Purring Maggot; aren't actually fly-larvae, but those of several species of giant beetles. Tends to produce a "milk" as well as edible flesh that serves the purpose of dairy and meat. The milk is mild and has a high fat-content. Smaller, much more docile than Rothé, but don't tolerate as wide of a variation in environmental conditions (light, temperature, humidity) compared to the larger creatures. 12 Home-Cooking Ingredient Bison Grass; An imported plant has become a near constant flavoring agent in Dwarven Cuisine. A common variety of Hierochloe alpina; its herbaceous aroma suggests chamomile; the flavor is grassy, fruity, with hints of coconut. Because it is imported, its more expensive the deeper one goes underground, but is common in larders closer to the surface. 13 High Cuisine Ingredient Aged Mammoth / Elephant Cheese; In the Far North and Distant South, are two beasts of different adaptations but similar appearance. Used by Northern and Southern Dwarves as a beast of burden, raised and trained as war machines, trained muscle and livestock; the Mammoth (North) and Elephant (South. The animals aged milk-cheeses, considered common-fare among the dwarves where elephantidae handlers are a frequent sight, it is upsold as a rarity everywhere else. If you manage to get elephant cheese cheap from a dwarven merchant, you can clearly see they took a shine to you. Terroir is prominent and starts with the fields and valleys the mammoth or elephant fed from; flavors like pine, valley meadow flowers; cactus fruit, and savanna grasses. After milking and processing, the cheese is traditionally left in ageing chambers to gain body and uniformity of texture; only" 3 years (for quick racks) to 3 decades (for a wheel fit for sale and the table of kings or conquerors. u/ Th3R3493r] 14 High Cuisine Ingredient True Demi-glace; Haqiqat Şoğırlanğan Thahkurs Gūşt. literally 'Truth Concentrated Meat Foundation. the very best of Dwarven Cuisine must have a solid foundation; that foundation is the very essence of meatiness known to the dwarves as "Truth. Haqiqat, is the alchemically distilled essence of finest aged meats; Dwarven Chefs go to great lengths to acquire it. Sub-par sauces do not qualify as Haqiqat, and one may go so far as to start a generations long blood-feud were one to serve a sub-par decoction, passing it off as 'True' 15 Trail Rations Beverage Ground Rock-nut Qaff (Dwarven Coffee. Trail Ration tip: If you soak your Dwarven Cave-Croc jerky in your Qaff it softens, and mellows out the bitterness of the Qaff somewhat. Keeps you warm, full, and awake on long watches. 16 Military Beverage Armored Kegs; the contents of a barrel may vary wildly, lagers, whiskeys, wines, or war-gins; the history of the armored kegs is a deceptively simple one. For many militaries, warbands, and militias, courage and morale is usually measured by the alcohol in a soldiers' or man-at-arms' blood and breath. For Dwarves, courage in battle is tied to their inherent code of honor; bravery is found in the sober and drunk alike. Nevertheless, Dwarven culture is a drinking one, thus booze is needed to remind the common soldier and high-ranking general of what and whom they fight for. Normal barrels would break if improperly handled by the inexperienced hands of a soldier, or leak under an enemy's arrows and attacks; to combat this quartermasters banded together to design a keg that could survive enemy fire and still keep a dwarf happy; the booze inside not tasting of foundry dust and soot! Except when that is precisely what they may seek, flavorwise, but that is another story. After much trial and error, the design perfected; the inside of an armored keg is a regular barrel modified to screw into a fluffy cocoon of copper or tin placed into an armored shell. It is tradition to safeguard the keg from enemy forces; a sign of the collected spirit and resolve of each troop. A keg is lost, stolen by rival dwarves or enemy forces, the ones assigned to guard it must retrieve it whether assistance of the rest of the troop is given or not; honor demands it. Traditionally, if a keg is destroyed by enemy attack, the remnants of the keg must be retaken and used to forge the new keg. In the eyes of many, a tarnished and beat keg is a thing of beauty as it holds to the grit and resolve all dwarves live for. [u/ Th3R3493r] 17 Street-food Beverage ' Mahamma Moonshine. an ancient recipe and process guarded by the Mahankam clan, until a head-brewmaster got shitfaced and sent a drunken love letter on the back of the original mash recipe to his ex in a different clan. A small civil war happened; the brewmaster ran off with his now lover again, and the recipe got spread around without the process. It ranges from boot-leg and off-flavor version of ' Mahankam Moonshine ' to Rotgut liquor with a flavor of troll-snot and appearance. Will easily catch on fire (most of the time) a strong, cheap drink; reserved for drunkards, adventurers, and those who want to forget all of their lives. One will eat almost anything while drunk on it. [u/ Th3R3493r] 18 Street-food Beverage Borehole 9's Dark Brown Special Fortified Bitter! Officially, the loose amalgamation that makes up the clans living in "Borehole 9" have issued a ruling that the exclamation mark in the name should always be pronounced whenever speaking of this brew; for most Dwarves, the ruling isn't necessary, it's that good. 19 Home-cooking Beverage Dwarven Syrup and Fortified Treacle; Small beer, made from a combination of fresh-water, Dwarven Syrup, bread-yeast, and a small amount of Fortified Treacle; the mixture is left to ferment for a few days and forms a slightly sweet, carbonated, lightly alcoholic beverage. 20 Home-Cooking Beverage Sweet Warm Maggot-Milk; when young dwarves are offered a treat, or have trouble sleeping, or have to take their medicine, they often ask for flavored Purring Maggot Milk. Parents usually melt a few chips of Dwarven Treacle in warm milk, add a tot of Dwarven Rum, and a pinch of whatever medicine is needed and simmer for a few minutes before serving. 21 Home-Cooking Beverage Dwarven Spiced Root-Wine; Dwarven beets and potatoes are as hardy as the dwarves that grow them. When the harsh winds blow hard on one's hearth fires, one reaches for a drink to warm the body and soul. Root-wine is made from the pulp of any beets and potatoes that not be fit to eat or deliberately grown for wine brewing. Snubbed by most wine fans as a "unfit, spit in the face for being called wine" many dwarves enjoy the taste and experience of root-wines. The wine by itself is uber-sweet with the aroma of the earth and rocks it came from. Spices vary from house to house, those which mountain or trade routes could supply. Some wines are tempered with only a spartan amount of salt and vinegar to dampen the sweetness, while others are given cinnamon, nutmeg, arc-root, orc-bane, fox-glove, and a veritable bouquet of flora to alter their flavor. [u/ Th3R3493r] 22 Home-Cooking Beverage Alad Krowg (literally 'Fruit Jug. most closely matched with the human beverage known as "Kompot" IRL. A fruit drink made with lots of water and all the leftover fruit near the end of a harvest, or when a dwarf feels like adding more to the fruit jug. No Alad Krowg is the exact same and strangely, for being a dwarven drink, is not supposed to be fermented; instead boiled to sterilize the drink and capped to keep fresh; a taste of summertime for a bitter winter's day. Some dwarves exchange personal Alad Krowg in a show of fraternity and to deepen personal ties. [u/ Th3R3493r] 23 Home-Cooking Beverage Dry Milk or Mluka Dupat (literally 'milk dust' in dwarven) Livestock does not fair well in cramped caves, but dwarves still want an occasional glass of milk now and then; mluka dupat or 'dry milk' common tongue) is a dwarven staple that was found by accident. On an expedition into a cold and dry mountain range, a young dwarf brought a skin of milk that had blemishes that allowed moisture to escape; after a long hike, when they went to drink the beverage they got a mouthful of milk flavored dust instead! Before the youth could toss the wine skin in anger, a veteran climber calmed him, tasted the powder and said they would put it into the next water ration as it may become milk again. It turned the water to milk and made a market in the dwarven world, almost over night, as now even the most isolated dwarf could enjoy milk when ever they need its comfort. As word spread and morphed, non-dwarven nobles started to share tales of a group of magical dwarves that could grind the mountain rocks to make creme-snow that turned to milk when put to water. It is a story that was jokingly spread more and more by dwarven merchants until almost all nobles on the continent got a desire to taste the 'rock milk. As soon as the nobles and gentry began offering large rewards for a cheap milk powder, the human and elvish markets got tricked thinking milk powder is rare as blue diamonds. To the dwarven peasantry, it is a cheap cellar stock item, but to the rich, it is an item to not take dwarven land for. [u/ Th3R3493r] 24 High Cuisine, Beverage Half-Pints of Aged Dwarven Rum and Fine Cigars in the Great Room. 25 High Cuisine Beverage ' Mahankam Secret Nectar. After the “ War of the Barrels ”; failure to kill the former brewmaster (ran off with a lover from a rival clan) the Mahankam Clan began production again, not ceasing for the past 1, 419 years. A palate of bitter notes, sharp tones, and ever-present 'mule kick to jaw. The old mash recipe may be out in the open, but a tweak to improve on it, the filtration process, herbal soaks, and secret steps in storage is what makes the imbiber keep on coming back for the “Bitter Nectar of the Mahankam Clan”. Pairs well with sweet, savory, hearty meals. [u/ Th3R3493r] 26 High Cuisine Beverage “ The Missing Master's Moonshine ”; to most, a myth or legend, but to a chosen few, the closest to paradise they get besides being in their lover's arms. Some tellings of the love ballad of the “ Drunken Brewmaster ”, instead of being caught and killed, say the master and lover started production of the original Mahankam Clan Moonshine with all the processes, painstaking steps supposedly held to. Compared to regular Mahankam is not noticed unless one drinks it with a “true one whom you love and loves you back”. If drank with true-love (even at great distances) the bitter notes are dulled and the hints of jasmine, rosemary, and juniper berry dances on ones tongue. The regular punch of the drink is replaced only with the feeling of your heart filling with a comfortable warmth and a faint dwarven love poem (that worms in the ear, skipping translation, but is still understood. The fly in the balm is "true love" is needed for any of these effects to happen, so many drink it without knowing, and fail to relive it (or those who know they have a genuine bottle can never prove it to a loveless expert. u/ Th3R3493r] 27 High Cuisine Beverage Assassin Vine Wine; dangerous carnivorous plant that doesn't cultivate well, and so must be tended wild. It grows above and below ground, its fruits can be pressed for a bitter juice, fermented, and with great skill turned into an expensive wine. The finished wine is crisp and very dry, and has mildly psycho-active properties; provides a long-lasting feeling of warmth and happiness. 28 Ritual Beverage Spirits of the Forge. Arvohi Vykavać Rwxtar) In truly Dwarven Foundries, stills can be found near the main forge. Every few months (or years for very large keeps) the ash and clinker of the forge must be removed for cleaning; Dwarves stick to a traditional ritual of flushing the cold forge with alcohol as the booze will disappear with the next fire lighting without much effort. All the ash, soot, charcoal that is surplus is shoveled out and recycled or sold to other races. The runoff booze from cleaning the foundry is collected and poured into the still where it is distilled again, and again, and again. Once yearly, the used alcohol is left to flow through a filter tube of activated charcoal, ash, local rocks, and dwarven sand (painstakingly ground quartz and the grindings of precious stones) while a ritual is performed. This runoff it is put into a barrel and saved for drinking or the next cleaning. As it is believed that even with a barrel being used over millenniums, the spirits used to clean a forge holds the history of the forge and what was made in it, tradition dictates that any foundry worker begins their service to the foundry with a stein of fresh cleaning spirits, and retire their service with a shot of the washing spirits. These two actions symbolize the proper starting and ending of things; the fresh alcohol cleans the foundry and ensures the proper function of it, and the shot of forge-spirits shows the fruit and devotion to an ashy, bold, honorable occupation. The flavor is smoky as a red dragon's angry breath, smooth as a blazing hot sword flowing through snow and ice. The parting shot of the spirit of the forge is one of the few times it is expected for a dwarf to cry. If a bottle is found of it in a collection, this is a sign of a great foreman or overseer of a traditional dwarven foundry; do not expect to receive a shot. [u/ Th3R3493r] 29 Prison Food Main Maggot Gruel with "Greens" Food spoils and corpses rot, both lead to flies finding them and maggots (not the Purring kind) coming by the droves; a batch process that takes all the refuse from the hold and sometimes even other local kingdoms. Traditionally reserved as a punishment food for only traitors in military service, prisoners who commit heinous crimes, and merchants who falsely advertise goods or quality. Vats with maggots are tended by a team of dung-farmers (collecting the feces of the town) morticians (usually only allow prisoner corpses or trash monsters but, in war, may throw enemy corpses of non-caring races or deserters) and trash-collectors (who focus on the waste food. The maggots feast until they are ready for harvest, when the vat is flooded with a mixture of warm water and lye. The maggots are allowed to die, swell to the top and burst. The "green" is an algae that purifies the gruel along with adding some nutrients. Not an appetizing dish, but it will keep one alive. In extreme sieges, it has been recorded that the more proud or weak of stomach chose to starve instead of eating the maggot gruel when rations completely ran out. Served cold to those who are forced to eat it, but (even worse) served warm for those merchants who lie to their customers as "blow all that hot air must be rewarded. This one is a nasty dish, but logical for a hold that needs to be kept clean. Reserved for a strong stomach or those who will get a strong stomach. [u/ Th3R3493r] 30 Trail-ration Main War Ration Bars; dried marinated war-boar jerky (or whatever jerky you have on hand) Goodberry puree, and Old-Man's-Beard Moss (for fiber as it will eventually give constipation to anyone who has to survive off of it exclusively) compressed into a block for ease of storage and wrapped in a thin layer of wax paper. Pairs will with Mahankam moonshine or bitter dry gins as the bitterness holds down the sweet notes of the Goodberry puree. [u/ Th3R3493r] 31 Trail Rations Main Dried Cave-Crocodile Jerky; even Dwarves find it a bit tough to chew, but it will provide adequate nourishment, and help support a good strong Dwarven jawline. 32 Street Food Main Dwarven Beard Knots; when dwarves first started to trade with humans and elves, naturally the first dwarven merchants made mistakes on how much food they needed on the travel to which they need to buy from the people they were selling to. In a small town in the Far North, a baker inspired by the first sight of a dwarven beard, made loaves of bread in the shape and style of its weaves and knots. When a merchant guard first saw the bread bread and mistook it as dwarven beard, a throwing ax was chucked at the baker and he was challenged in dwarvish to combat! The baker in shock, not knowing what is happening, looked to the caravan leader for mercy, to which the leader laughed and called off the guard. The leader ordered that "beard that fooled an honest dwarf to think was real" plus 20 more Knots, and paid the craftsman with the guard's ax and 1000 gp in compensation. The story spread fast and the style of bread gained popularity with the old and young alike. Almost all dwarven bakers worth their salt and chin hairs can braid a loaf to the style of a dwarf's beard in their hold. Try it with coarse Black Janderhoff-ian Salt and Truffle Oil or Mustard! u/ Th3R3493r] 33 Street-food Main Rat on a Stick, mustard costs extra. Sometimes, the squirt of Q'tchoop (Dwarven Ketchup) the dealer adds on is mandatory, but included gratis. [u/ Elethana] 34 Street-food Main Grilled Alpaca Sausage (Cooked over sprigs of Rosemary and Alder-wood) Q'tchoop (Dwarven Ketchup) 35 Street-food Main Steamed Cave Beetle Moss-flour Bao-buns; their meat resembles that of tough crab, the buns are made from flour ground from common cave-moss. 36 Street-food Main Purring Maggot in Sweet Cream; Bite sized morsels in a sweet creamy sauce! 37 Home Cooking Main Cave-moss and Bean Stew; A hearty, but usually bland stew. According to Ancient Dwarven Religious Edict, stew can only consist of: Water, Boiled Beans, Cave-moss, and Salt; On high holy days it is acceptable to brown some Rothé organ-meat mince and include in the dish, usually tripe, pizzle, liver, or " High-country Oysters. Sometime within the last 1000 years, as religious edicts were relaxed in the interests of fostering trade between the top-side and underdark, an adventurous dwarf skirted the law and added new ingredients: onion, garlic, hot-chillies, and tomato, and " Dwarven Chilli " was born! 38 Home Cooking Main Fried Cuy Sausages with Onion (vegetables traded from the surface. 39 Home-cooking Main Lacto-Fermented Cave Axolotl and Sauteed Plump-helmet over Boiled Barley 40 Home-cooking Main Steamed Blind-Cavefish, with Pickled-Cave-Lemon and Young White-Fungiwood Shoots; Goes good with a pint of Lager. 41 Home-Cooking Main Stirfried Purple Fungiwood-hearts and Black Garlic; the heart of Fungiwoods are edible, if prepared correctly. 42 Home-cooking Main Lona Mohii Osmonī; literally 'Sky-fish Nest. this dish is Roasted Bat (or Stirge, if one can get it) seasoned with Salt, Smoked Cave-fish, Bison Grass, Sliced Cave Carrot; is coated in a layer of Bentonite Clay and ground Moss-flour. The clay hardens as the dish cooks, but is eaten with the meat to celebrate a dwarf's connection with the earth (also absorbs any lingering toxins from any questionable side-dishes they may have consumed. 43 Home Cooking Main Kowt Genstaan (literally “Meat Gems”) common to miners who need to eat a hearty dish with little work, guardsmen who see their supply-line fail to deliver, or a ranger who must make every part of a kill be useful. Meat Gems (when it freezes, can be cut like gemstone, polished to shine like one) is a meat jelly dish that can be made of the refuse parts of animals. Put into a kettle of water and left on a long slow boil; the meat falls from the bones, the stock is strained through thin cloth into a large bowl, the bones and unwanted blemishes are removed. The cleansed meat and fat is returned to the stock and slowly mixed until the stock begins to let the meat chunks float in the center. This is allowed to cool and gelatinize. and Served with slice of baked bread, or bit of potatoes; add a dash of Balıq şarabı or mustard and it is fit for a common working dwarf or man! u/ Th3R3493r] 44 High Cuisine Main Qo'ziqorinlari and Truffle Soup; a Dwarven version of Huitlacoche (Corn Smut) prized for its earthy flavor; a delicacy consumed with great zeal. 45 High Cuisine Main Spring Onion and Smoked Chicken Sausage Delight; A Savory Pudding, the chickens are often imported) One can use Diatryma, but the result will be much gamier and lower quality fare. 46 High Cuisine Main Poached Young Cave-Fisher in Rothé-Milk and Plump-Helmet sauce; surprisingly tender and delicate when young, it takes a deft hand to poach them without them becoming gooey. 47 Trail Rations Side Slices of Smoked Moosh-melon; a woody fungus which tastes reminiscent of melon, which is preserved by wood-smoke. 48 Trail Rations Side Hard Cheese, on Cave Biscuit (a dry cracker) either Cow- Goat- Rothé. or Purring Maggot-Milk. 49 Trail Rations Side Potted Cave-Smelt; tiny sightless fish; a common food-stuff on the trail. Tiny fish are salted, smoked, and cooked before "potting. A waxy layer of Purring Maggot milk-fat provides a barrier to air and putrefaction; potted foods can last for many months if not opened. Once opened, the food only lasts for a few days. Their high oil content makes them a nutrient rich snack. Eat with bread, a dry cracker, or mix into a quick trail-side fish stew. 50 Street Food Side Fried Hide Strips; the dwarves were not the first to take animal hides and make food out of them (orcish cuisine like ' Kjani Gore. Blacktongue for 'gore food' raw skins dipped in oil) but these are a staple for a low-budget adventurer who wants meat but cannot afford it, or a copper-pincher who wants a barrel of snack food that should last them a month or three for the low-low price of only a few gold. Fried Hide Strips are a classic bar food in most holds. The hides that get fried are usually ones that are too damaged to repair or make equipment out of, or surplus hides that would flood a warehouse or marketplace, tanking their value. Rarely, instead of scrap hides, a choice few friers focus on the best quality hides and use exotic spices to make simple crunchy snacks an underappreciated treasure. The crunch and smoky flavor of a well made hide strip is a common, but pleasant experience. [u/ Th3R3493r.

Burden watch full length hair. Burdens biggies fan. Burden Watch full length. Totally stunning. LOVE IT <3. The Australian Open directors are getting a lot of flack, and rightfully so. Running a tournament is incredibly time-consuming as you have to fix the draw, disrespect the players health, be willfully ignorant and not mention worldwide issues that are within miles of the location, and then there is all that scheduling. I am inclined to cut them some slack though, as very few things that draw complaint and ire are black and white. The Australian Open is a HUGE source of revenue for Melbourne, and aside from aussie rules football might be one of the largest events held in the calendar year. My first inkling given the air quality being reported (1 day outside the equivalent of smoking 20 packs of cigarettes was reported on the news in towns near the fire) was that the event was in real danger of being cancelled, and while it is irresponsible to allow players to compete if they are in danger, the directors are under tremendous financial pressure to make this event happen. We all will be keeping a close eye on the players ability to dig deep in these 3/5 matches, and given the physical toll the AO has already been known to take due to the heat I expect this to be a very gritty event. For the first time in a few years I dont think there is a clear favorite to run away with the mens or womens title, and that spells hungry tennis from the guys who are in the hunt. In the mens I think Nadal, Federer, Novak, Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Khachanov, and Rublev will have a strangehold on the later rounds, with Berretini and Shapovalov being the darkhorse candidates. The womens has Barty, Pliskova, Osaka, and a resurgent Serena (hasnt played a top player but she improved at each event last year and theres no reason to think she wont be a bit calmer this year if she reaches the later stages of an event) looking to get busy on adding to their already impressive legacies, and I have to say Osaka showed a level of patience and ballstriking several times in her run at Brisbane that made her look almost unbeatable. Her backhand seems to have improved as well as shes been able to hit sharper angles than usual which enables her to utilize the slightly unorthodox down the line pass that she hits. Fuck all that two weeks from now noise though. Lets pick winners. Ill be doing the WTA also and editing it in here (might make a second post if it doesn't fit due to character length) but I wanted to get this up early. Also character max (40k) doesn't let me post it all so the rest is going in the comments. Nadal Dellien: While he should win this comfortably, this is a big fu to Nadal to play this guy in the early rounds. I often think directors place guys who Federer and Nadal and Novak are very similar to against them in the early rounds, and while this benefits Federer playing guys like Kohl and Gojo and skill players who dont take a big toll on the bones, Nadal gets the short end of the stick playing Schwartzman and other grinders seemingly nonstop. Dellien had a lot of bettors hearts hurting with his gutsy performance against Kwon last year at the USO, and hell extend rallies here as much as he can. Given his preference for clay, his court positioning isnt going to be such that Nadal will have much pressure, but he (Nadal) will have to earn all his points. Nadal in 3 annoying sets. Delbonis Sousa: Two good dudes. Delbonis is coming off qualifying in Adelaide before losing to hometown favorite Duckworth and Sousa is coming off a disappointing loss to Vasek Pospisil where he was literally hit off the court. That is something that for a journeyman like Sousa who prides himself on making matches physical is a tough one to take, and although generally hed be favored over Delbonis, this one may be difficult for him since he doesnt have a lot of matches or confidence. Delbonis has top level offense when hes serving well, and his backhand is a cannon, but this is not his best surface and he is prone to throwing in 4-5 poor points in a row. Expect this to go 4 or more sets, with Sousas backhand errors and Delbonis serving issues deciding the outcome. Id lean Sousa. Eubanks Gojowczyk: Eubanks qualifying for the AO is a big step for him. He has a great serve and big swings but he struggles with his movement and consistency. Gojowczyk is the guy youd hate to play doubles with until you randomly won the tournament. He will hit the ball awkwardly into the net over and over trying to make his shots perfect, but when hes on he can take the raquet out of anyones hands like a poormans Martin Klizan. The errors wont help him here, as his shots dont have to perfect against Eubanks. Given Eubanks usual status as a WC entrant, his qualifying run has to lend itself to him having a pretty good chance to win some sets here, and his serving game and Gojos awkward returning mean this will likely be decided in tiebreakers. Its hard to bet against the more experienced player in Gojo, but I could see either one taking this in 4-5 sets. Kovalik Carreno Busta: Kovalik is one of the few players to actually come back on a protected ranking and lose for a year and then gain traction. You love to see it and Marcel-Stebe is another one who seemed destined to be off the tour and then kinda got things together eventually. Kovalik has funky offense and is a solid challenger threat on clay to anyone he plays. This is the wrong first round for him. Although PCB went down fairly quickly to Lloyd Harris this past week, he finished up last year in fairly decent form after a horrendous return from injury that saw Benoit Paire use him as target practice several times, and 15-40 become his usual starting point in his service games. PCB may drop a set but barring injury his defense and consistent pace of play should be too much for Kovalik. PCB in 4 Kyrgios Sonego: “What are you gonna do, go bet on Kajeerios? ” said Miguel. My friends have not been wholly supportive of my decision to bet tennis fulltime, and have not been supportive of the proper pronunciation of any of these peoples names. Further still, they think that gambling and Nick Kyrgios go anywhere near each other. They dont. As a -700 favorite against Lorenzo Sonego, there should be no way that Nick can lose this match. He has a solid backhand, the best serve on tour when hes motivated, and a ton of skill. Unfortunately, ignorance is bliss, and Nick is wasting his best years not training and not competing because of nothing we can blame him for. Talented athletes come and go in sport, and their burden is to find the motivation when they likely have always just been able to “turn it up” when they wanted to win. In a sport where people train outrageously hard, Nick somehow finds himself in the same position. That ability to turn it up numbs the losses. “I dont care about this, ” is a fair statement and “I could win if I wanted to” is dangerous knowledge because it means you really only do win when you want to. “What do I really want” is too tricky a question for someone as superficial as Nick and so his mental struggles on the court will likely continue. I expect Sonego to steal a set here as he has a good bit of skill and is hungry to take the next step in his ascent, but really this is players at different stages of their career, and Nick should be ready to contend for a title now. Still, if a child doesnt want to eat their broccoli no amount of promising them its good for them will work. Nick in 4 or Sonego in 4 noisy whiney bitchfit sets. Cuevas Simon: Simon played well in his one match at the ATP cup but fell quickly to Chardy, who then seemed too tired to compete against PCB a round later. This doesnt give me much confidence, and for the past two seasons it seems like Simon is able to beat everyone one week, then about as good as a pusher can be without winning for the rest. This is a winnable match for him given Cuevas struggles to find consistent form on hardcourt, and his defensive prowess being his best form. Cuevas has the offense, variety, and physical ability to make hardcourt matches close against most of the top 100, but doesnt really string the wins together as he tends to experience surges in form within matches. It wont be lost on either of these veterans that NK likely waits in the next round and he is willing to gift anyone a win at any time. The “this is his home event he wont disrespect it” idea would make sense but to me that just adds to the looming frustration of a loss that sits in the back of his head as he decides whether or not to give his best effort. I gotta stop talking about this guy. No pick here and I expect Simon to come through. Uchiyama Ymer: Mikael Ymer has been the hottest player not quite on the tour for the past two months. Hes won a ton of matches on the challenger circuit and played moderately well in the nextgen cup. Uchiyama flies under the radar but is exactly the player to stretch Ymer if he makes errors. The match will be on Ymers raquet but you have to think how often you have been seeing Uchiyamas name in the draws at majors and how the pressure of being the “name” player will affect Ymers ability to perform. Still, this is giving too much credence to Ymers past as an inconsistent player. His athletic ability and serve should get him through this one. Ymer in 5. Vilella Martinez Khachanov: I love Khachanovs game but am consistently nervous when he plays qualifiers in the early rounds. He plays such a high intensity game that he seems to bring people up to his level, and Vilella Martinez who Ill admit Ive never seen play has been snagging people all week in the qualifiers that he was not expected to. Can he overcome a top 20 player in his first major on tour? Likely not, but I expect him to acquit himself nicely and possible even take a set if Khachanov is still finding problems in consistency on his forehand wing. Khachanov in 3-4. Monfils Lu: Im assuming Lu is in on a protected ranking or something as I havent seen him active on tour since giving Zverev a heart attack way back when. Monfils has been equally inactive but this is one of those “Monfils looked in great form in the 1st round” matches and given Pospisil and FAA in the next two rounds Monfils should be primed for a good run here at the AO. Monfils in 3 unless he really doesnt make an effort. Karlovic Pospisil: The fairy godmother returns! Karlovic serving looks like a fairy granting wishes with their magic wand. I hope he wins this, but he probably wont. Pospisil is seemingly approaching the levels that people thought he would in the past before he struggles with back injuries, and Im still not convinced of his potential to be anything other than another Dimitrov type overrated underperforming talent, but his ballstriking is solid enough here to win the few rallies theyll get into. Pospisil in 4 tbs. Duckworth Bedene: This seems like one of the cheapest games of the first round, with Bedene sitting at just -160. Duckworth played well and beat Delbonis this past week, but really hasnt been in any real matches on tour besides playing Andy Murray in one of his earlier comebacks. I get that the guy is a hometown favorite but Bedene has been a consistent challenger winner and a tour 2nd and 3rd rounder for 5 years now, and I think his serve/forehand combo are enough to maintain control of this match. Bedene in 3-4. Gulbis FAA: Rough one for Felix to start the tournament with. Gulbis is Nick Kyrgios travelled back in time to warn him to make an effort, but instead he noticed the tour hadnt really progressed that far and just hopped into qualifying. Gulbis marching easily through qualifying is tough for any first round opponent since his height and power make him able to hold serve at the end of sets when the qualifiers offense is supposed to falter. FAA had a rough patch at the end of 2019 but got it together after the FAA cup and was hitting with excellent length in his loss against Rublev this week. With Rublev pegged as a future #1 by John McEnroe last year, this is a good sign that FAA should have a decent Australian Open. What were all expecting though is the dominant 3 set future #1 beating from FAA and Im not sure if it will go that simply. FAA in 5 or fewer if hes able to win the tiebreakers. Fritz Griekspoor: I dont even think given some of Fritz past performances that he should be favored in this matchup. Griekspoor has a big game, a great compact serve, and is in form on these courts after coming through qualifying. Fritz will need to come out early with solid serving in order to put some doubt in Talons mind. The “working your way into the match” pushing the backhand into play bs that Fritz falls into will have this one going 5 sets before he knows it and guess which player has been playing more tennis recently (it isnt Fritz. Man I do not like the US strategy of awarding WCs nonstop to players who dont win and I think it has poisoned Fritz and Tiafoe and a few others who have the game to compete but lack the killer instinct. Griekspoor in 4. Ivashka Anderson: Unfortunate for Ivashka to pull a better version of himself. Ivashka boast a big serve and forehand and unlike many big men can play defense and hang in a rally. Anderson has been very inactive but is a better version of this. While his losses can be bizarre (Pella dispatching him in straights) he did fairly well at the ATP Cup against a hapless Christian Garin and should be a solid favorite to come through here. In the past Ive been guilty of backing Ivashka against the questionable tour names like Monfils which is a fun sweat but hasnt produced any dollars, so this time I will sit quietly. Anderson in 4-5. Bolt ARV: If its tennis in Australia, Alexander Bolt seems to be up for the task. A consistent qualifier and performer in the early 250 events, Bolt is a high energy player with a big serve and a compact backhand. This is not a great matchup for him, as ARV was hit off the court by Tommy Paul but first beat Munar and Thompson, two guys who dont make many errors and try to push the pace. ARV looked rock solid against both and didnt make many errors. I do believe he brings a level of defense that will stifle Bolts offense, and him being lefty is going to negate some of Bolts advantages. ARV in 3-4. Mannarino Thiem: I forgot about Thiem when I was writing the intro. His hardcourt game has progressed and in my opinion hes the most skilled player on tour right now outside the big 3. “Mannarino is a tricky lefty” Im tired of writing that. Mannarino doesnt beat guys with power, and mostly pushes the ball onto the backhand wing, which is the wrong strategy against Thiem. Thiem in 3 and Mannarino falls down at least once from the weight of shot. Medvedev Tiafoe: Great. Medvedev who works hard and plays consistent and doesnt bail out of volleys and takes his losses quietly against an overrated dude with an enabling camp. I am so disappointed in Tiafoes lack of progress and his immediate willingness to fistpump anytime anything goes right. Is there still no one in his camp that will tell him that consistent level of play is what wins on tour, not shots. Look at Benoit Paire who is supremely talented and hits 30+ winners per match but always finds himself in deciding sets. Tiafoe has really no chance here, and its sad because had he spent his time earning his way on tour rather than being gifted it, he would be able to compete at this level already. Hes one of the best athletes on tour with one of the worst perspectives. Medvedev in 3. Koepfer Martinez: Pedro Martinez qualifying on hardcourt is pretty damn impressive to me, and he has a guy who just spent a year doing some impressive qualifying. Im glad Koepfer gets his first direct entry into a major, and he should have an advantage here, after his main struggle in majors being fatigue in early rounds after pushing to get through the qualifying. Martinez has the game to take a set here and Koepfers height means he has to play every point a bit harder than most guys, but he should have the consistency to muscle through, and his lefty offense is legit. Koepfer in 4-5. Gaston Munar: Gaston is the French selection for the WC into this event, and he will go up against one of the more difficult defensive tests on the tour. Munar doesnt give up much, and is constantly improving. Gaston is getting acclimated to the challenger tour and isnt quite there yet, but this will be good experience for him and hopefully hell earn his way there in the future. Munar in 3. Popyrin Tsonga: Popyrin was an early round terror for a lot of people in 2019. 2020 has been a middling but brief start for him but he seems to be in good form. Tsonga has played one event and was quickly dismissed by Kecmanovic. This means very little as Tsonga is prone to not giving his best effort at 250 level events, and really has excelled mostly on the indoor tour and any event located in France. Family life and the 2nd half of his career may have taken a toll on Tsongas commitment to fitness, and that makes this match a question mark. Tsonga has the offense to take this match over, and the experience plus name to have this be a mental battle for Popyrin if he gets close to the finish line. Impossible to predict this one, but its hard to see either player winning in straight sets. Tsonga in 4-5 if hes fit and Popyrin in 4 if hes fat. Isner Monteiro: Monteiros impact has been absent on the hardcourt tour for a while now, and it was interesting to see him come through qualifying and beat Norrie before falling to Paire. The loss to Paire seems like one hed want back but Paire played some of his best tennis ever last week in his finals run. Monteiro gets a bonus in this matchup as hell have an easier time holding serve than he would against the rest of the tour, but Isner had a good time in Adelaide and got his serve going for a few matches. Generally when he is in form, his matches include tiebreakers and tiebreakers against Isner are as exhausting to play as they are boring to watch. Isner not being able to hit his backhand into the court is about the same as NBA players not being able to sink a free throw. I know hes a bigman and bigman tennis and fearhand and all the dumb excuses Tennis Channel makes for him, but get Gimelstob out of your box, fix your swing on the backhand wing, and try to be more than just a guy who ruins draws. Isner in 4. Im not sure why I suddenly got angry at Isner at the end of that, but Im not taking it back. Tabilo Galan: It always amazes me when I see guys like Coric and Querrey playing first round that they allow qualifiers to play each other. To be fair, they usually play into a bad section of the draw, but the increased prize money makes it seem like an awesome shot for the guys who land in that section. Tabilo is a good player from Chile and none of you have seen him play. I also have not seen him play, but recent results playing close with Luke Saville and Marc Polmans, coupled with his win over Stakhovsky suggest hes on the cusp of making the tour. Galan on the other hand is a year ahead of him, and did some very impressive qualifying last year. He has that niche factor of never being out of a match regardless of the score, and pushes the pace with his forehand and hits with range which can be difficult for some players to adjust to. His game reminds me a bit of Joao Sousa, and I lean towards his experience, but have no real way to suggest who will win this match. Kecmanovic Seppi: After a disappointing injury led to his US Open exit, Kecmanovic has to be all kinds of fired up to get back into a major event. This kind of speculative thinking leads to a lot of poor wagers as people back guys in “comeback games” against their old teams or “revenge matches” after prior losses. Seppi is a very tricky opponent who is as accurate as he is calm. He doesnt have the power to really hit through Kecmanovics defense but he has the experience to get deep in sets and his ease of pulling the trigger on what he considers the right shot regardless of the situation can make him dangerous once he gets there. Kecmanovic is likely going to be able to take advantage of Seppis spot serving with his movement and should wrap this one up in 4. Kecmanovic in 4. Dzumhur Wawrinka: Dzumhur has looked good the past two weeks in the events he played on the challenger tour and in Qatar, but this is the perfect matchup for Wawrinka to begin his run. Wawrinka managed to be frontpage on the AO page after one of my associates texted me excited about taking a Wawrinka future at 50/1, which means to me he is in immediate peril. Stan has been improving every match hes played since his return to the tour, and although its been a while, that just means hes still trying to get back to the top of the tour. Dzumhur has to produce a great deal of variety to win on tour given his lack of physical dominance, and while his skill is brilliant, at times his errors and demeanor is as well. I dont really see him winning a lot of baseline rallies, so this will likely come down to who is able to hold serve easier. That should be Stan, and I think he comes through here with at least one hiccough. Wawrinka in 4. Goffin Chardy: I swear these guys have played each other like 10 times in the first round at majors, but Wimbledon and Roland Garros are the only spots theyve met with a straight set victory going to Chardy on clay and Goffin on grass. Chardy looked bad last week against PCB after a decent win over countryman Simon, but he is a dangerous player in the first round of any event. He sometimes lacks the timing and with his very smooth oldschool game its important to minimize errors in todays compact game. Goffin is in good form again after a lonnnnnnnng return from eye problems that started to look like hed never get it together again. His serve can become ineffective at times and im hesitant to cite weather but I believe Goffin will have the easier time competing in the smoky heat of Melbourne. Still, its difficult to put out a guy who can play the kind of flawless offense that Jeremy can, so Id expect Goffin in 4. Herbert Norrie: This is a nice matchup of two guys on tour everyone expects to beat but nobody wants to play. Herbert is an upset threat in any 2/3 match and his variety/skill stemming from his years dominating doubles actually make him able to compete with a higher quality of opponent than his results would suggest. Norrie is somehow the opposite. His simple game and preference for the grind make him struggle with pretty much every opponent he plays. I really think the flat backhand/topspin forehand combination is a bad one as his opponents can choose which ball theyre better capable of defending when theyre on defense. Herbert unfortunately wont be the underdog here, and that makes it somewhat more difficult to back him. Norrie plays a low-risk low-reward game, but in a 3/5 format the grind can often be rewarded when one player is looking to play a skilled game and the other guy is bunting the ball back to you and making british noises. I dont think either player can run away with this one, but I hope Herbert does. Herbert in 5. Sugita Benchetrit: A lotta qualifiers are going to be squinting at this spot in the draw thinking at what could have been. Sugita can win the matches you count him out of, and its easy to overlook his consistency on tour over time due to his lack of marquee wins. Benchetrit pulled upset after upset to come through qualifying and that form makes him about even money in my mind to win this one. Sugita is a challenger tour journeyman and is used to competing with these guys, but somehow these two havent met. The winner meets Rublev, so Im not going to put too much thought into this one. Sugita in 4-5. Rublev OConnell: This is unfortunate for OConnell to be playing the hottest player on tour right now. Rublev is also playing some good ball. I spent 2019 making fun of Rublevs appearance, but Ill spend 2020 backing him to win tennis matches. Back to back titles and McEnroe stating that he thought he was a future #1 about a year and a half ago have me starting to believe. In the past hed cough up errors when pressed defensively, but he came up with the answer in the past week every time he was pressed, utilizing some skill that many had not seen before (a few onehanded slice passes and some beautiful two handed lobs. The second serve is a liability as he tends to just spin it in but until he plays a top-tier returner of Benoit freakin Paire he will do fine behind it as hes one of the best baseliners on tour. OConnell has been the most consistent player on the challenger tour in the past year and if you watch this match youre going to hear about how he worked on a fishing boat and now its a feelgood story. He has a smooth onehanded backhand and just keeps hitting the court until people fold. The key to beating him has been absurd power and thats where Rublev (barring fatigue or injury) will end his tournament. Rublev in 3. Basilashvili Kwon: Kwon getting to play in the Kooyong exhibition matches was an interesting choice for a guy who is usually grinding it out. I actually like it because the more comfortable he is on court with the tour players the quicker he will ground himself. Kwon has a very nice game and really doesnt miss off the backhand wing that much. He tends to get behind the baseline a bit given his speed and this is a problem against Basilashvili, who hits the ball past people sitting in the crowd. Basilashvili has been known to tie himself to a ball with string and just hit the ball to his next event destination for free airfare. I do not think there is a harder hitter on tour right now. With a middling ATP Cup, hell have trouble here with Kwon. Kwon moves the ball around and is a fake-test. If Basilashvili makes errors, hell lose this match. Thats fairly straightforward. With the momentum though itll be difficult for Kwon to serve this one out as he hits his spots nicely at times but doesnt exactly get to 40-0 often. Someone in 5 and if Basilashvili comes through easily hell be in good shape to best Verdasco in the next round. Verdasco Donskoy: Donskoy managed to get got in qualifying, and while normally Verdasco is a flight-risk from any match, he turned in a good effort in Doha and should be poised to win this one. Lucky loser entrants have a beautiful history of destroying higher ranked players, and Donskoy possesses a flat yet big offense, but I dont think fresh Verdasco isnt going to find a way to win 3/5 sets of tennis. Verdasco in 3-4. Ruud Gerasimov: Casper Ruud is always a threat to become great. His game seems complete, and when he wins it looks like hes the next big thing. I think his ceiling is either 40-50, or several years in the future, as this match has me thinking Gerasimov is going to win. A big server with a heap of wins over the past year, the fast courts of Melbourne are going to be decent for his chances here. This is a good spot in the draw with Zverev waiting and his early history in majors present in a players mind, and its difficult to gauge how effective Ruuds game will be on a given day. Being the frontrunner in tennis honestly seems to be a hump for all these guys, and so I think this one will be tight. If Ruud wins in 3 Ill back him against Zverev. If Gerasimov wins, I think hell cover a handicap against Zverev. Zverev Cecchinato: Zverev has to be glad to get one of the tours most notable hardcourt strugglers in his first round. Cecchinato hits big but makes errors off of routine balls, and his frustrations are so well-known at this point that even TC announcers mention them. I dont think hell be able to turn around his game against Zverev, and even though Zverev gives up at the slightest hint of adversity, he shouldnt have much here. Zverev in 3-4. See you in South America, Marco. Berretini Harris: This is the other Harris. A nice enough player, this WC will be seen on tour more in the future, but in this one hell just be seen playing defense. Defense, which, thus far, only the big 3 have really proved effective at against Berretinis forehand. Im excited to see how his backhand improves over the course of this year, as if it does hell become a threat to win majors. Sandgren Trungelliti: This is a strange matchup with Sandgren really not making the best effort in some matches and losing, and also making a great effort in some matches and not being rewarded with the W against some lesser players. Trungelliti isnt likely to give this one away, and I have to say that although Sandgren steps it up in majors, he is at risk here. Hes fat(for professional tennis. Its hot. Trungelliti in 4. RCB Berankis: This is an interesting match no one will watch. I wont watch it either. Maybe this match is not interesting. RCB and Berankis should be out there for hours, and although Ive seen Ricardas look dominant from the baseline, RCB doesnt really go away. Someone in 5. Querrey Coric: These two have had similar stories, with big successes being followed up by somewhat disappointing years. Querrey struggles to find the court in rallies and gets outworked when hes not thumping aces, and Coric attempts to outwork his opponents but cant stop hitting the tape long enough to do so. This is a rough first round for both of them as their opponent tests their weaknesses. Querrey is likely the player in better form right now, as he played moderate decent in Adelaide before getting dismissed by Rublev. If this is on an outer court Coric has a better chance as serving is generally more difficult and conditions are more windy. Im already cringing thinking about Berankis somehow beating RCB and then Coric, but Im not going to pick Coric here until he displays the form he did in 2017. Querrey in 4-5. Pella Smith: Pella just shouldnt lose this match. Smith is another of a good crop of Aussie tennis players, but I dont think he would have come through qualifying and I dont think hell hit through Pellas defenses. Pella is coming off good practice competing in the ATP cup, and should wrap this one up in 3. Safwat Barrere: Safwat won the last few rounds of qualifying as and underdog, and now gets rewarded by playing the king of 2019 qualifying. Barrere moves the ball around beautifully, and like other french players the score does not affect the shot selection which is great to see. His strength is holding serve, and it should be his edge in this matchup. Safwat scares me because hes one of the players in the draw I actually havent watched a lot, but this is a matchup of a challenger threat vs a tour threat and I think Barrere will solidify his place on tour with a win here. Barrere in 4-5. Thompson Bublik: Thompson plays tennis like he really wants to be on tour. Bublik plays tennis like he really wants to embarrass the tour. This is another good matchup of conflicting styles as Thompson will take every single point you give away and Bublik will constantly make his opponent uncomfortable. Bubliks T serve is brilliant and his game at net continues to improve. Hell definitely frustrate Thompson who in the past has had trouble finding the pass against serve and volleyers, and although he hasnt been that active recently, Bubliks top gear is better than Thompsons. Its difficult to find that top gear for a full match to I expect this one to go back and forth a bit. Bublik in 5. Opelka Fognini: Fognini is likely to take this one well. Opelka is the perfect storm of physical ability and flailing. Fognini doesnt want a single hair out of place and wont swing at a ball unless its a testament to skill and beauty. Fognini has shown in 2019 that he is not done winning on tour, and although he is prone to mope at any moment, he has competed well. Opelka seems to show improvement in the rally but still coughs up the errors. I dont think Fognini will find 3 full sets of breaks of serve here, and Opelka might by virtue of Fognini feeling the pressure and also Fognini feeling the anguish of possibly losing to a flailer. Opelka in 4-5 tiebreakers. Shapovalov Fucsovics: Marton cant catch a break. A former junior standout, Fucsovics works harder on his fitness than most teenagers work on their snapchat streaks. His reward is often playing the best players on tour and competing hard in a loss. A year ago Fucsovics was not quite as good. A year ago though Shapov (names too long thats all you get) would have been error prone enough to lose this match outright. I saw great things from him in his ATP Cup matches, and he looks a bit physically stronger this year which is a bonus because bless his heart he has puppy dog brains. Fucs (im running out of gas) is prone to getting slicehappy on his backhand, and that complacency works right into Shaps (even more lazy) gameplan as he hits most of his forehands crosscourt and works best starting point from there. Sha in 4. Sinner Purcell: This one is interesting as Sinner will be looking to nab some tour names this year, but Purcell is not one of those names, yet is a quality player. The hopeful in me wants Purcell to compete here, but I dont think Sinner is actually an overhyped talent. He hits very big, applies constant pressure, and although there are similarities to the Zverev that lost match point to Nadal, Sinner has no real serving issues. Sinner in 3-4. Mayer Paul: Tommy Paul had the best beginning to this season for unproven commodities, not only winning a few matches but also being predicted to do so by the books. Hes serving well, hitting with great pace, and is a pretty solid athlete which make him a threat when he keeps the ball on the court. Mayer is supposedly a clay specialist, but his hardcourt game is solid and he hits and serves big. I expect this to be a high level match but having seen some recent struggle from Mayer against guys playing a slight cut below Paul (Monteiro/Cecchinato) I actually expect Mayer to lose here. Paul in 4-5. Londero Dimitrov: Good. I always hope for Dimitrov to get it together and here is an opponent that will force him to. Dimitrov is the better player and has more talent, but Londero wants to win. Hell push the pace and he has legitimate offense that will force Dimitrov to play defense and hopefully keep the ball on the court. Londero isnt really best on hardcourt by a longshot but he has proven that hes willing to improve and compete, and thats big against an idiot parade like Dimitrov. Dimitrov in 4-5. Hurkacz Novak: This is pretty unfortunate for Novak who has been in great form this January. Hurkacz has been in finer form, and while Novak is a hardnose opponent unlikely to give up, Hurkacz has the bigger weapons and should be able to have an edge in this one. Still, given Novaks form I doubt it will be straight sets. Hurkacz in 4. Milman Umbert: This is an interesting matchup given Humberts title run, and Milmans relatively good form against Paire who played lights out tennis. Milman has one shot, and its his forehand crosscourt. Humberts backhand isnt the pinnacle of consistency, and his backhand let him down against Ymer in the nextgen cup so it could happen again. Milman will make this match physical, and while Humbert is capable of playing crisp enough offense to take the raquet out of his opponents hands, its in his best interest to do so here, as Milman will have a tremendous amount of home support out on Court 3. A stadium crowd is one thing, but a smaller stage can get raucous and frustrating, and Humberts main risk is momentum. Still, I think hes at a point where this will likely be a gutsy performance from Milman and an Humbert win. Humbert in 4-5. Halys Krajinovic: Ive never watched Halys play tennis, and its important to note that in case anyone thinks I know what Im talking about. I want to say that Kraj has this in the bag since he is a rocksolid tour player, but hes tossed in some terrible performances. Probably Krajinovic in 3, or Halys in 5.

Burden Watch Full length. I just found this👀👀 guy is NICE dammmm. 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Burden watch full length 2017. This song is WAY to UNDERrated. I lost my dad in January and had to step into his place with my mom and nieces. I heard this song and was instantly obsessed. I sent it to them and they both loved it. Perfect song for the perfect storm going on in my life. ❤.

I just finished watching this film at the Traverse City Film Festival, I absolutely cannot rave enough about this film! the cinematography, the acting, the dialogue, everything is absolutely spot on! It is so intense that you, as the viewer, can feel the struggle that Mike Burden is going through and it just captures you and sucks you right in. especially if you know anything about the backstory on it and what really happened. To be honest this film emotionally drained me, I am literally exhausted from watching it. I would even have to go as far as to giving it 6 out of 5 stars, this is one of those do not miss movies.




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