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  1. “This way,” Darion said. ‘This way’ involved a great deal more complexity than you’d expect for a corridor. Sclader had been renovating. “Where are we?” “Believe it or not, the entrance corridor,” Darion said, standing upon a stair that climbed towards a balcony which in turn descended toward another. “Welcome to the Court of Mirrors, Chang’s latest, greatest offering to the world of Novas.” “It’s incredible. Where’s the way out?” “That’s the hard part,” Darion said. “Maybe you can find it. I’ve never been able to.” Some of the Anavasi were referring to this as ‘an entrance exam’. Sclader, since been afforded the honour of having his work displayed as the very first thing someone would see on entrance, had been tweaking and twisting and altering his creation ever since. Now it was a thing of beauty, not just mathematically perfect, but incorporating precise visual elements as well. Light sources were positioned so as to be warped on the fractal edge of reality, where the hidden numbers did their thing and caused the wrap around effect that made it all so confusing. Sakura’s face lit up and she ran past Darion to follow the stairs and balconies, seeking the solution to the puzzle. Darion followed, smiling. It was good to see her relax. Since returning from captivity she had been taut as a bowstring, ready to snap. Many people didn’t see it, but he did. That kept him hovering just outside touching distance, never quite sure where he ought to be. She wanted contact, he knew. Sakura was one of those people who liked to be hugged. But hugs and simple closeness were not enough when it came to matters of the soul. Her illusions had been ripped away with brutal force. Few Novas emerged from that crucible unscathed. In this case it did no good that Sakura had been through this before. If anything that made things worse, because she had erroneously believed that unpleasant, unwanted past was behind her. Darion never felt that security. The past was a track and field expert. No matter what hurdles you put in its path, no matter how long the track, it would always be racing up behind, ready to overtake and unmake you in an eyeblink. They wandered through Sclader’s madhouse for nearly ten minutes before Sakura found the way out. More precisely she found the necessary steps to open the way out. It took a precise movement between the balconies, a physical re-enactment of the mathematical formulae on which the entire work was based. Ingenious, really. “That was the entrance?” Sakura asked when they emerged from the corridor. “Uh-huh.” She smiled. “This is the house that Chang built. I can believe it. I hope it does better than mine.” “It will,” Darion said, without thinking. “Oh, uh. That was insensitive. What I meant to say is, we have a rather more cynical outlook than other Novas. The Court of Mirrors shines, but the Court of Shadows lurks below. Anybody attacks this place they’ll have horrors boiling up from the depths that’ll make their eyes boil to look on them.” Such talk did not make Sakura comfortable, he knew, but it was what it was. No point pretending. The number one rule was ‘do not fuck with the Teragen’. It was right next door to ‘do not fuck with the Congo’. Unlike the Storm King the Teragen did not have to play nice, did not have to worry about politics, and would indeed murder your family and everyone you knew if you called their bluff. Darion did not know the precise fate of Sakura’s kidnapper. He knew that Snow managed to her hands on him. That meant he would die eventually. Eaten, most likely, once she got into a monstrous mood and decided to re-enact one of Meh’Lindi’s past-times. It would be a slow death, though. She took the whole incident personally. It was not a good idea to make an enemy of a girl who could read a hundred torture manuals in an hour to aid in brainstorming a proper punishment. He brushed the thoughts away. They weren’t nice, and he did not want them on his mind while Sakura was around. If anyone needed to see some smiles it was her. Though that did raise the question of why he was taking her to see Chang. She had never been known for smiling much. “So where is she?” Sakura asked. “Oh, you’ll see. This place brings the artist out of everyone.” He gave her a wink and linked arms. “Come on.” He guided her to the heart of the Court of Mirrors, to the enormous and normally empty chamber around which all the other rooms, corridors and amenities were constructed. It was not empty now. The entirety of the interior was filled with mirrors. The floor war mirrors, the walls, the roof over their heads. A corridor opened up into many corridors. Sakura and Darion were reflected a thousand thousand times, caught on angles designed at times to make it seem they stretched out into infinity, and at others to distort their images in queer ways. “Is this…” “Chang, yes,” Darion said. “All of it’s her.” He could not keep the awe from his voice. “Other people use their bodies to make art; she makes her body into art.” And art it was. More than just a simple conglomeration of parts, a mere exercise in position and composition, there were sources of light there within the Mirror Queen’s body, fixtures and torches that sent refractive ripples through entire mirrored swaths. The maze extended vertically, too, but accessing the higher levels required negotiating the lowers in certain ways, passing through nigh-invisible doors, coming face to face with one’s own twisted image. “Chang?” Sakura called out. “She won’t answer,” Darion said, looking at one of a thousand-thousand reflections of Sakura and quite unsure where she was now. “She only talks to someone who gets to the centre and finds her. She can hear everything, but won’t interact. She’s like that a lot these days.” It took an hour to navigate the mirror maze, even with Sakura and Darion working in unison. Chang’s body wove into more and more complex mirrored landscapes as they neared the centre, no longer obeying the mundane laws that governed the shape of glass. At one point they passed through an entire separate chamber within Chang’s maze-body, an open area where short mirrored blades of glass crunched underfoot and a reflective liquid pool beckoned them to swim with half-formed arms. Chang awaited in the centre of the maze, in a simple squared chamber formed of six mirrored surfaces. She sat in a mirrored chair, but she did not wear her ‘regal’ garb. The queen within the maze was the Chang of days past, punkish, hooded, with her hair shaped short beneath the wool, her white rain eyedrop prominent, and other tattoos snaking across her skin. A sign of the woman she had become was evident, though, for her fingers were laced and steepled in a meditative posture. She looked up as they entered. “Hello, Sakura. It feels like it has been a long time.” With a soft glassy slither, a couch and chair formed for Sakura and Darion respectively. Darion settled upon the chair, wondering how he should even address Chang. He could not be easy and relaxed the way Sakura was when she flopped down gratefully on the couch. He looked at Chang and saw a being an order of magnitude different to himself. She was at a point where even the most basic thought was a mystery to him. He leaned back to let the two friends catch up.
  2. Date: April 17th, roughly a week post-Rain In a Place of Sin It was in the Exalt! restaurant that Darrik was sitting at, waiting for Puck and Infinity to show up. After the strange yet wondrous party of Sin-Eater's, he'd been sparked an idea. But before bringing it up to his mentor, it was best he decided, to share with Puck- one who had more experience in such matters, and Infinity to. Of course, he admitted that was not the only reason for his presence, or at minimum, that was not the only thing he wanted to get done while with them. But in the meantime, the Italian food served here was excellent, and Darrik could taste in exacting detail how tender and well cooked the veal was. They'd baked on the parmesan so well too with a light and smooth texture. He would have to pass on an extra tip for the cooks. Of course, since the staff had sufficient knowledge of Shadowheart to know that he was a one of Puck's playmates, they'd felt it uncalled for to demand such a thing as a charge for the food. Darrik had politely demurred, though they'd basically insisted on 50% off. Well, so be it. And the free refills of linguine was flattering, though he honestly ate for pleasure than anything else. Well, this one would be the next to last. He did want to see about their seafood dishes...
  3. Saturday April 24th, 2027 Puck paced down one of the hallways on the second floor of the Exalt! building near the testing centers, his usual smile replaced by an annoyed grimace as he spoke into his new OpPhone. "Thanks, Teith, really. Because a plane will really get me there in time. I know you're going anyways. Lotti's been sending out reminders to everyone that she wants a night out with all of us." There was a pause as voice spoke on the other end. Puck rolled his eyes, "I am not treating you like a damned taxi service! Everyone else is either with Solaire off-planet doing who knows what for the week, or actually doing something a bit more important than spending the night partying." The voice buzzed again and Puck cut in, "Because you're going and it's a three second hop for you to come pick me up on your way there. You know I can't-" Puck dropped the phone down from his ear and glared at it. "Dick. Just because I'm better looking than you now..." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, trying to think of anyone else he could call. Teithwyr really had been his last viable option, though. Anyone else he hadn't called was because it really would have been beneath them to cart him to Europe just for a night of hanging out at the Rainbow Room with some of the other Nursery kids. Besh'tan. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, his head falling to his chest, looking uncharacteristically morose. "Well...damn."
  4. May 20th, Morning Though Darrik was the Outreach and Charities Lead, the fact that Exalt! was currently limited to New York (Starseed's Exalt! Japan buildup not having yet quite made substantial progress) technically made his position redundant mostly, since Christian and Amelia still handled a large body of the work, and their 'boss' was currently serving as their assistant while he learned to handle the ins and outs of the organization's management. At the moment, pouring over some spreadsheets of donations, Darrik felt a hint of... unease. It was one he'd been feeling for a couple days now, but it seemed too vague for a source, rhyme or reason to be identified. Nevertheless, he diligently let his quantum-enhanced brain focus on and sort through the material in front of him. Apparently, the quantum powered lessons from Puck's experiments were helping even more so in this regard. The mundane work was over in a few minutes- but Darrik found himself mulling on that word he'd chosen. Mundane. It wasn't an offended feeling by his work. It was worthwhile and helped get things done, as it had since he'd settled into Exalt... How long ago was that? And then Darrik found a mental puzzle piece fitting into place. It had been roughly two months since he'd joined the Teragen as Chang's student... yet all he'd really started to learn and discern about Teras was the rudimentary pieces of those few prior talks. Before he'd joined. Two months long enough. He was new, he ought to be giving it some more consideration. He slipped out his phone and dialed. The voice that answered was Shiv's, which suited Darrik just fine. It wasn't as if he was in that much a hurry. "It's Darrik. Can you inform me if Chang is available for an evening chat in the next few days?" "I will confer with Her Grace. One moment." There was a pause, for a half-minute, Darrik scratched out a note advising Christian against the new so-called food bank's request for charitable monies during that wait. "Her Grace will be available tonight in the Rainbow Room, if you wish it." Shiv's voice came back over the other end. Darrik smiled quietly. "Thank you Shiv, I would. Tell Chang thanks- and I'll see her then."
  5. May 7th, 2027 Sakura wiped sweat from her brow and stood slowly back from where she'd been squatting over an plot soil, an artificially created microcosm of the carbon cycle that she had been tinkering with as a template for the gardens to be set in lower levels of the creche. Several of the Lucrezia's bustling around the underground complex were immediately at her side, helping her stand up and then coaxing her over to the couch in the "experiment room", where they were testing out ideas for how to fit everything together in minature as the creche itself slowly started coming together. She looked up at her helpers and gave them a grateful smile, one hand curled over her already large belly. "Thanks," she panted out, chuckled. "I feel a little ridiculous. Isn't the whale stage supposed to be later on?" Two of the Lucrezia's settled down on either side of her, one of them rubbing her hand over Sakura's womb. "Well, you are carrying triplets. I think the whale stage got a bit of a head start. Let's just hope you still fit through the doors in a few months," she teased. Sakrura grabbed one of the decorative pillows and swiped at Lucrezia with it, "Oh. thanks!" The the dissolved into giggles while Sakura rested for a minute. In the background the interview with the Count and Chang could be heard from the TV they'd left on in another room just to listen in on while they worked. "....your last album, Days of Being Wild, was released a year ago to incredibly positive reception. Is another album in the works?" "Perhaps. I have several different pursuits at the moment. Another album will come when it is ready." Something had already annoyed Chang and could be heard in the low buzz of one of her voices, while three others remained cool and professional. They should have known not to bring up the incident with Shenti Shen-Zhan, stupid little poser that couldn't take no for no, the Lucrezia actually watching the interview mused. Some men. Lesbian, hello. Not just a weekend title. "Count Orziaz," the interviewer, a perky brunette that looked ten years to young for her job, continued, "you've been a public fan of White Rain's artistic creations. Have you ever thought about trying..." Sakura glanced up at one of the Lucrezia's with her. "She really does hate doing this, doesn't she?" she asked quietly. Lucrezia kissed her on her forehead. "She wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't worth it to her." At Sakura's look she sighed and nodded, "But yeah, she hates it." A wicked grin snuck onto the latex shifter's lips, "Don't worry, I'll make it up to her when she gets home." Sakura chuckled and then sighed, "Time to get back to work. I have some ideas on altering some different types of phosphorescent fungi to put off different spectrums of light until we have a combination that replicates the spectrum of the sun. Then we'll have a way of generating light for the trees and gardens without having to use those lamps. And a life cycle that can mimic the day and night...." She sighed again, thinking it all over, but Lucrezia had learned over the past few weeks how to read the flowering nova - she was loving every moment of this. The two Lucrezia's helped her stand again and one left to go help another one that was working with Shiv and Cindi on one of the lower levels, directing their contractors in getting the walls into place with the reinforced metals The Alchemist had created for them. Things were actually coming together, which made the Mirror Queen's wifes stomachs flutter; what they were doing was more dangerous, more important, and more intricate than any political maneuver than Chang had ever tried to pull off before. Even Lucrezia was working herself to the edges of her capabilities to keep their movements and ripples in the world as small as possible. Maybe that's part of the point. I haven't pushed this much for some time; it's probably doing me good. Chang would think so, she's always wanting all of us to push more and farther. The thought made her smile and several of her selves began humming as they worked in different places around the creche. Things were coming together, and Sakura would have a place to give birth to her children in safety and the company of friends who understood. What more could a mother ask for? In the background, the interview continued, tensing and relaxing as the Mirror Queen and Count Orziaz dazzled their baseline audience. Whether they cared or were trying to or not.
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