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  1. "Eeeeeurgh," the girl complained, "Is the river going to keep rising? The mud is disgusting." "It will rise another foot," her mentor replied, "We must come here while the machinery is underwater or it will not function properly. Which is precisely why we spent so much buying you such expensive oilskin boots at yesterday's market, child." "I know!" she protested, "What's the point in getting nice boots if they're just going to get covered with muck and scum?" The older man shook his head and ignored the complaints, "Are the machines all prepared?" "Which ones, the weird moving pipes, the big stompy robots, or the creepy little bells?" she replied. "All of them, as I said." She gestured all around at the assembled machinery, insulted that he might even question it. "Look for yourself." The older man frowned and walked among the machines: the steam-powered harpooner, once silver and bright but now orange with rust. The howling artifact that spawned little screaming dust devils. The pieces of flesh and gears. The spiked bells. The assorted levels and contraptions. He nodded thoughtfully at them. "These will do," he concluded. "They are rusted but still functional." "I'm going to ignore that jibe," she replied snappishly. "And you know the plan?" She rolled her eyes and sighed and repeated the plan for the fiftieth time, "Direct the critters to add the valves along the central pipeline. Make sure they do it right. And if the Neverborn come out of the forest to stop us --" "When they come out to stop us." "-- stick the bells onto them." "The chimes act as a damper field. While attempting to interfere, they will in fact make the machinery work even better." "I knew that," she complained, almost by impulse, "And what about when your creepy doll-girls start tripping over everything?" The old man did not answer, except with a sad little smile. * * * The forests watched. So much to see here. So much to learn. Pandora opened her iron box, and new Sorrows came forth: disgust at a plan gone awry, the loss of machines turned to rust, the fear of a lost child. So much to learn. Kade sat nearby on the forest floor, idly stabbing the legs off the fireflies with a vicious precision. "Are you ready?" Pandora asked. Kade snorted and giggled, and ignored the question. "This whole thing is for your benefit, you know, so pay attention." "Bear," the infant Woe demanded insolently. He held forth his toy bear. Pandora smiled, "Very well." Green smoke poured from her hands and seeped into the stuffed doll. It grew and twisted quickly, growing enormous fangs and claws and a primeval hunch. Kade hugged the bear tightly. "Bear!" Among the shadows, another Pandora stood, examining her own rippling hands. "He isn't ready yet, you know." Pandora frowned, "I will decide that. And do not suppose on my form." The other Pandora looked nervous and let her skin ripple and take on yet another woman's form. There was no benefit in angering the Mistress, and much to be lost. "How may I repay my slight?" the doppelganger asked nervously. Pandora tilted her head and looked out toward the river with a smile. "In blood, of course." And just then, the two were distracted by a gleeful malevolent cheer, "Bear!" Kade the Innocent followed the lumbering monstrosity quickly out to the river. "The ambush starts now, then," the doppelganger said with wry amusement. But Pandora was already gone, floating across the floodplains along green mists. * * * The machinery was not much set up when Alyce heard the first rumblings of trouble. "They are here!" she said. She walked among the centuries-old ruins that were eroding and crumbling under the river's yearly force. "Take care of them," Leveticus said to the girl, not looking up from his workings. There were valves to connect, and machines to direct, and problems to handle. This was a crossroads of sorts, here. A place where the lines of aether met and crashed against each other, just in the same spot where the waters of the two rivers crashed and collided. There was more turbulence in a crossroads like this, but more potential as well. Shots rang out from the girl's pistol, and Leveticus looked up. "No, the bells!" he told her sharply, but then he saw the child, quite well surrounded and terrified. The girl stood atop a hill, firing in every direction into the green mists, panicked by giggling voices and twisting apparitions. Looming shapes would leap out at her and terrify her, only to disappear again. "Distract them," the woman called out to the mists, "Distract them, torment them, alarm them, devour them." Leveticus pointed his staff toward the woman, to unweave her and unmake her, but she moved too quickly, and Leveticus found to his horror that he had struck his own pupil, Alyce. The girl screamed in confusion and anger, turning around too many times. In the mists, one of the woes took the form of a leering imitation of her trusted mentor, his face contorted in strange menace. Another took the form of a giggling child. Others shrieked and moaned. She faced every way and could do nothing. The hulking form of a bear lunged out from among the ruins, but Leveticus could sense the magic of its animation -- a construct made from equal parts cloth and fear. He managed to unweave the thing with some concentration, leaving only a heap of fabrice and two enormous button eyes where the thing once stood. While he was distracted, though, the mists had gotten everywhere. His waifs were moaning and falling to the ground. His constructions were melting in fear. There was too much happening. He saw Alyce clutch her own neck and crumple to the ground, and he knew what it meant to fear. * * * Pandora swept through the battlefield, riding on the terrors of the newly sentient. These machines were such a wonder of the human age. She could feel their mechanical minds roil with new awareness. The rusted things, once mindlessly efficient, were confused by the rising sensation of emotions they had never known before: memory and ambition, dread and doubt. What utter satisfaction, the experience of these new minds awakening into torment. And what an honor to be the conductor of such a symphony of anguish. These minds, these innocent new minds, suddenly awakened and distorted and tearing themselves to shreds. That one, on mechanical horseback, shaking herself apart with new feelings of awareness. Those strange soulless half-humans no longer drifting about, but devouring themselves with anguish. The rusted lumps of half-flesh forgetting their duties and instead wailing with anguish. The girl fell, surrounded and consumed by mists, screaming at imagined or perhaps real betrayal from the old man she had trusted. The machines tore themselves apart. She advanced on the old man, barely noticing when one of the dying machines pinned a bell to her sleeve. She was uninterested in individual machines -- focusing her attention instead on the feast of emotions from the wrecked human expedition. She hoped that Kade was paying good attention to all of this. This was a lesson for his benefit, after all. * * * Leveticus felt himself slip free from his dissolving body, untethered for the moment. Alyce was lost, hopefully unconscious but perhaps dead. The machinery was falling apart. The Neverborn had torn the machines asunder. He had no anchor nearby, and so he floated free and watched over the ruins and the floodplains. A bell chimed. The valves churned. Everything would be alright. Alyce was gone, the Waifs were gone, and Leveticus was gone, but the machinery still churned. It was well-designed salvage, Leveticus thought with a bit too much pride. The artifacts milled about, still trying to set the machinery right. One particularly ancient piece of machinery tore across the field along a gust of dirty wind, and choked out a once-giggling Neveborn creature in the form of a pale and frightening infant. The woman screamed at the infant's loss. She scooped up the infant and drifted back into the forest along the green mists. Everyone was departed, one way or another. The machinery churned on, pumping aether through the crossroads to its true and secret destination. The river waters rose and washed away the corpses, and in time they would run dry again. Fate's purpose was served. Everything would be alright.
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