The School of the Unwilling

Chapter 2: The School of the Unwilling

Some of the children just looked sullen. Others began to cry and some looked merely upset. One, a small girl no bigger than eight or so, didn’t even bother to react. This was the part Prairie had always had trouble with. Her personality didn’t usually offer itself to empathy. Parts of her were too darkened to let her get that close to anyone, even if she never had troubles in conversation. But here she was reminded of the lessons she had learned from her predecessor. She was the same way when she arrived, despite her own age. She brought her hands up and clapped once, quite loudly to catch the kids attention.

“No time for tears!” she declared in a manner that made her sound like a school teacher. “The next part of the lesson is about a Queen and monster.” she said, turning on her storytelling voice. “About an evil noble.” She added, twirling a fake mustache. The kids were starting to catch on. “And a happy ending!”

The kids were starting to get a hold of themselves, and Prairie did look sympathizing. Most of the children had already come to the realization they had perished before they’d even stepped into this room. Some likely even had gruesome memories. Giving it to them straight just made the matter clear as day. Making it clear, then making it irrelevant almost always worked, after all, the people of Cie had little to fight over. If she could distract them, they would come to terms with it quickly. So clearing her throat she sat herself down in front of them again, resting on the steps leading to her throne and closest to the crowd. “A long long time ago in this very city, one day appeared a beast. Great and black, its hair aflame and with great long arms that could snatch a man up and toss him a hundred yards. It’s anger and eyes were the same color, red as crimsons and the leftover bones of its victims.” Prairie leaned in towards the kids, exaggerating the story even more. “It would walk the city speaking the words of dread that struck fear into its enemies. No bone, no blood, no ash, I devour all and all seeks my maw. And it would repeat itself. Repeat itself until all heard it and scurried to hide, lest it catch them!” she said, lunging at a young boy next to her and making a few of the girls squeal in surprise. She let the boy go and rubbed his head.

“One day the beast appeared in this very city, and angry that it wasn’t where it thought it was, and for no reason better it began to tear stone and man down, its roars rattling the windows of the whole city. It punched great holes into the floors and turned stores to rubble. Its appearance was so abrupt it was fast to catch the attention of the most wicked man in the city.” She played with her imaginary mustache again and narrowed her eyes at the kids. “This man saw the beast not as a problem, but a tool. Why, place a collar on anything and eventually it will obey you, right?” she asked, getting a lot of shaking heads from the kids. “But he didn’t know he was wrong. And so he and his henchmen awayed into the city. To find and catch the beast. Outnumbered and out fought the beast was eventually beaten down, and around its neck was placed a great steel collar.” She wrapped her hands firmly around her own neck and drew them to the back, describing it in great detail.

“But then after the commotion had stopped one man said to the noble, “But what if we cannot control such a thing?” And in his pride the corrupt man simply laughed and said “If it will not obey, then it will not eat.” And so, chained to the very spot it had been captured, the noble man would starve the beast. No one would stand against him in his own home.” The kids were absorbed into the story now. Prairie didn’t occupy her time with much more than reading until official business was at hand. And the tales of beasts and heroes and fair maidens were her favorite. “So the one’s who answered to the corrupt man would visit the beast once a day. The first man stated “If you give in and obey us, we shall give you this meat to feast upon.” The beast growled and spoke back. “I shall eat the flesh of your body, and leave not a bone to be spared. Chosen between hunger, and your chains, my appetite only grows when I look upon you.” The first man left that day in fear. Then a second man showed up. “You suffer needlessly. The smallest amount of obedience will lift the chains from your body. I offer too this meat to sate your hunger. Will you not see reason? Freedom?” But the beast again growled and replied. “Had I need for reason, my only reasoning would be these chains cannot hold me forever. Either I shall die here, or I shall eat until nothing is left of you.” And so the second man left.” The children were scooting closer by this point, and thankfully there weren’t any wet eyes any more. Prairie settled back.

“But then the Queen appeared. Wreathed in black and fur just like the beast she knelt down in front of it and watched it. She was not one of the nobles men. When finally its patience for her silence waned, the beast growled wanting her to speak. “Do you not hunger?” she asked. The beast growled again. “And what offer in return? Freedom? Obedience? For what price would you ask of one such as I?” it replied, knowing there had to be something. The Queen considered the words carefully. So she asked once more, clearly. “Do you not hunger?” The beast, impatient, responded. “Yes, I hunger!” it snapped. The Queen considered her next words again, taking her time. She waited until the beast stopped breathing heavily, when it’s growl subsided. “Then what is it you wish to eat?” This time the beast did not growl. Something in her words, her calm, made the beast believe for the smallest of moments she was genuine. But it could be a trick. So it once again growled. “Had I an apple from my homeland it could sate me.”

Prairie leaned back where she sat and crossed her arms. “The Queen thought hard about what the beast had asked. From her person she pulled instead a pear. “I have no apples to offer, but if this will do in its place I will tell you the magic this pear holds.” she offered the beast, holding the not apple close to its mouth. Taking it into its teeth the beast chewed until nothing was left. The beast, a creature of magic itself, felt nothing from it. “What magic?” it asked. The crowd began to part with shouting as the corrupt man approached. The Queen offered nothing and turned to meet him.

But as the corrupt man approached he demanded attention. “You, you are known to me. But what do you do here with my beast? Away with you.” But the remains of the pear gave the Queen’s actions away. “You fed the beast? What did you feed it?” he demanded, moving closer. “What did she offer you beast? Did she offer you meat? I shall fill your bowl from this day forwards.” The beast growled and replied. “Sooner the flesh from your bones.” The corrupt man huffed. “You cannot escape me. Obedience is the only answer left to you.” The beast growled, but this time it was confident. “Chains break and so do feeble bonds. Were I to break free who now would stand at your side to stop me?” And looking around the crowd, the man realized no one was offering, not even his helpers. “Folly.” he said, waving his hand. “No offer this woman could give you would measure up to what I can offer you. I shall grant you comfort and wealth. If your rage can only be contained.”

But the beast was tired of such things. Its back arched, its legs pushed and strained, and its great arms pulled against the chains. Even though the beast was so tired, it rose. And as the chains slowly broke around it and the beast had arisen, it once again stared at the man who had chained it so. “Who stands beside you?” it asked again. The man was defeated by his own fear, but the queen had not backed down. She had felt the creature’s pain and eased it. “You offer before being offered. Such a thing I have never been given. What price must I pay?” But the Queen never again offered her such a price. Though the beast would follow and beg her for one. Eventually the question settled out of the beasts mind. It would question less the price it paid every day it spent with the Queen.” Prairie held up her hands to the kids. “And they all lived happily ever after.” she added at the end, shrugging.

The children all applauded Prairie’s story and began talking to each other about it. “I think the bad man should have gotten punished.” But Prairie shook her head. “A good hero always makes sure people come out of the story happy. Even the bad guys. It’s not right to judge one life by its appearances and actions when its potential to do good is much better. And nothing is more satisfying than watching them be forced to live in a new, better world they never thought you could create. Why do you think the Queen offered before being offered? That evil man needed to learn his own lesson. Even with great ability to act, if one doesn’t act well then it becomes meaningless.” The kids looked around at one another for a bit but didn’t seem to be coming to believe it. Prairie chuckled under her breath. “Because good comes from good comes from good. And it will always manage to be that way. If you keep your chin up. That man may have all the things in the world, even a loving family, but he was dark to others, and thus couldn’t reach his goal. The beast chose to stay on the ground until its power was of no use. The Queen asked for nothing, and saved the beast from solitude. She had given it trust.” It was a fine lesson if she judged it for herself. But after letting the kids discuss things on their own for a few minutes Prairie’s mind started to travel back a bit.

The story was just a pleasant retelling of how Prairie made her appearance in the city. To be honest it made a better story than personal history lesson, and it did help turn things around when you needed people distracted. She just liked the fact she changed it so her own embarrassing statements weren’t apparent. The red king Solomon had been the one to capture her, and as a trophy of his conquest, more so to keep Prairie from more chaos, he had chained her to the ground in the red district and waited for her to comply. She was never starved, maybe for destruction, but her mind had changed. Where she had come from, there weren’t people like this. She could only tell children the story these days though, as they were the only ones impressed and hadn’t heard it before. A tired old story, but a good one in it’s own right. Ariadne, the last king of the gray manor, had taken Prairie free from the control of the red king and shown her what it was like to be part of something. To have friends and allies, and to yearn for things she could obtain. She had never felt so welcome. Ariadne had healed Prairie’s mind, and better, had made her worry less about what her own life had done to her. She couldn’t describe all the things Ariadne had accomplished. But even though that anger and rage still boiled underneath Prairie’s skin, she knew she could make it work for her now. That beast was sound asleep.

But when she arrived at the gray manor her mind had changed as quickly as her demeanor did. It was a place unlike any other she’d stepped in. She hated the regal buildings that her life had shown her in her hometown. She was free to roam outside to her heart’s content when she was young, when her mother was alive. The open plains that surrounded her colorful cities were what she liked best, but nothing beat the sound of the machines churning energy out of the air. The smell of rubber being molded in the factories. The sounds of hundreds of feet planting themselves firmly on the sidewalks up and down the streets every single day. The arguments over money between children and store keeps over the constantly changing value of money. She didn’t remember it then, but at that time she was in love with capitalism, the very fiber of her civilization. Not for the gain to be made, but the audacity and knowledge needed to capitalize on every move. And if that failed, simply finding artifacts to sell. The technology her kind had achieved not only balanced the world but made it stronger. The inspiration from it could bring fire to a heart no matter the reason or goal. The gray district was very much alike to where she had come from. All it took was...

“... stubbornness in day dreaming that you put into effort you would get into less trouble. Honestly I never understand what can make your mind just checkOOMPH!”

“Out like that, yeah yeah yeah.” replied Prairie, her hand stuffed roughly over Jessie’s mouth and roughing up his face a bit. Yeah, he’d struggle, but the moment he calmed down she let him go, letting him glare at her with her precocious grin. It was just the only way to get those rants of his to stop. Give Jessie credit for one thing he had a stellar way of grinding affairs into order. Especially around Prairie. If it weren’t for him and Riley sticking to her like glue she’d probably have gone off again more than once by this point in her kingship. She could always tear the building down, the house capable of rebuilding itself infinitely, but it was still a pain straight up her neck to deal with all the work involved when she came back a few days later. She couldn’t simply keep it demolished. It was just a hollow reminder she would also get one hell of a lecturing from Jessie after it happened too, adding insult to injury. There was no time to imagine that though.

“I assume this means it’s time to move on?” she asked, going back to being polite with Jessie. They would never have the same sense of humor, but they were lost without each other. Jessie was just good at hiding his smiles by now. “Correct.” he replied. “They will be waiting by this time.” After straightening his jacket he would offer his hand to her. She snorted at the gesture and got to her own feet, waving her hands at the children. “Alright alright! Run along. Time the gray beast got back to work.” she said, ushering them out towards the front door. Prairie herself was smiling, watching them run and laugh with cries “The beast! Run!”

Prairie shrugged. “Oops. Secrets out.” she commented to Jessie as he produced her king’s raiment. A coat of fine gray fur was draped around her shoulders, large and soft. It felt like it was filled with the feelings Ariadne had when she wore it. When the coat was belted loosely around the front of her waist she took a deep breath. “I never tell anyone the real ending to that story, do I Jessie?” she asked, feeling over the fur on the coats cuffs. Jessie stayed quiet to humor her.

“The part where among the people, the beast’s hide gets covered in their dirt. Their scent. Its ears no longer ring at the sound of laughter. It no longer fears the dark.” she trailed off for a moment. “And its fur, covered by the sun and all the colors around it, turns gray, and the beast grows old.” she took another deep breath. “Do you think they’ll resent their time here? The children, I mean.” she asked, barely above a whisper. “A place so strange, where they won’t age a day ever again.” She shook her head. “How can we ever expose them to something like this world? I had lived and imagined and endeavored before I died. They had barely a moment’s contemplation before coming here. I don’t want their days to be filled with chaos. But if we don’t succeed then more will get trapped here. Every kind of person.”

Jessie pulled at her cuffs and collar. “Then we’d best succeed. And quickly. It’s the only answer that makes sense to me. Then again, your plans never make sense, so clearly I’m just being driven insane. Besides, you weren’t too old yourself when you got here.” he offered kindly. Prairie’s heart had grown a lot around Jessie. Amongst the population of the city, there were people who had remained a very long time. Someone uncontrollable needed an anchor like that she supposed. “It isn’t hard, nor is it unworthy to try and make things as simple and orderly as possible sometimes. But when what works doesn’t work for everybody it’s time for revolution. So unhand my pocket watch.” he added, then unhanding her clothes to step back. Coiled around one finger was a fine silver chain leading to an elegant pocket watch, which just so happened to be dangling from Prairie’s hand. She just puckered her lips a bit. “Boo on your schedules. Never tell a cat when it should sleep.” she replied, putting the watch back into his hand before sweeping ahead towards the door. Jessie merely called after her with “Cats are far too behaved to be insulted like that! And who knows what you’ll even do with it. Probably just fast forward through your meeting and skip it all.” and dusted his watch off carefully before pocketing it. “How unlucky am I my king is a pilfering hero type.” he muttered, exiting the room himself well after Prairie had run down the stairs and departed. The idealism almost made him sick, but for some reason he couldn’t help grinning ear to ear. Prairie knew the people she was going to be dealing with, and a little time travel would likely end the meeting the same way as it was going to go anyway. If there was a good fight to be fought in the city, he was glad he was on her side before anyone else’s. Even if he had to put up her childish abuses. That’s why he collected liquor.

Outside Prairie swept into the street on the main road through her section of the city. The levels of the manor districts were split into two, one above and one below the surface, but only surrounding the manors. This stone had been carved out from the side, and into that section doors and windows were built, shaded from the sun and the upper district. The stained glass windows that had been put up cast the underside in hundreds of colors, while the areas above enjoyed the sun. If certain people accustomed to living underground or in low light came along, they usually found their way to living there, or in the rural district where the shade was more plentiful from the higher districts. The manor had entrances to both, one just happened to come out inside a hollow lower section. They put businesses and homes here wherever they felt like being placed, and looking down from the upper side where she was walking she reminded herself that this city was magic in itself. Looking up she saw the great statue of one manner of snake or another. No one could be bothered to identify it when odds are, if you had snake like creatures where you came from, they weren’t anything like what you were looking at now. It was a pleasing feeling to argue over it sometimes though.

What was more interesting was it hung in mid air without a single string or chain to hold it, and water falling from the top district always managed to pour down through the hole above and below to the other sections of the city, coating the statues body. It looked long and large enough to actually move one day, if such a thing were possible. You could view it in the shade below or the sun above and experience two different things entirely. Speaking of, the upper section of the city had a bit more going for it. With the city’s population only ever being counted at among twenty five thousand people at its best it felt stretched out and too large. But it meant people never fought over housing, and so long as you could tolerate your neighbors it gave it a greater level of vibrancy. You only ran the occasional risk of having it demolished for a few days. How uncanny and yet necessary the whole concept was after you considered it. She herself had demolished quite a bit in the past.

But it was the smells, the scents on the air and on the people that made it unique. It was the part that Prairie felt was the most essential part of being here. Down the main street alone nearly a hundred buildings lined its sides, the stairs to higher levels, and the alleys that led behind them. The commerce square housed over fifty alone. Everything stayed as clean as it had stayed repaired over the years, but it all looked worn out, ancient, lived in. With cultures of all kinds making their way into the city just walking down this one street in the gray district, home of the oddities and nobodies, the strange or too energetic, the too different, and your imagination could go wild.

People were everywhere, busy or lazy, tired or loud. They had skin and clothes and manners and anatomy that expressed their worlds, their lives, their demeanors. Be what they may though, they always had hands. They had all experienced civilization. All of them were thinking and acting beings. Here, they weren’t what they used to be and somehow that made sense to them. It was a reminder to Prairie what her home was like. Everyone in one place. Everyone with their own sense of motivation. These people were protected.

Whoever had started this city had been right in their choosing. This place was a prison. If the people didn’t find a way to coexist, despite the fact many residents knew the benefits of their fighting or who had too much energy to waste, then no one would know peace at all. And whoever had decided that had been powerful. The citizenry of the city, aside from their occasional troubles, were free to live in peace where they chose. The manors would go on fighting, fitting in where they could and then playing their parts in the cogs of the city while the people who would have nothing of it, didn’t have to. Regular citizens were never dragged into the fighting. Try as you might, there are some things you learn the hard way. The smells might be different, but the street was exactly the same as it had been the first time she walked down it free. Nothing had changed since the last banquet. And now, on her way to a meeting between kings, she reminded herself bitterly the people she disliked hadn’t changed either, and found herself falling into her memories.

“That’s wrong!” came the demanding reply, Prairie’s fist slamming into the stone that made her seat and cracking it. The room had been unsettled from the outburst. All Solomon did was laugh at her from across the room. But just as she was ready to show him what kind of monster she could really be, a hand placed itself gently on her shoulder. Ariadne looked down at her with the same simple kindness she had all those months before this point. Prairie’s face fell, seething, desperate to cause some damage. But eventually she sat herself down again, slowly. She had her own problems to deal with on the inside. This wasn’t the place for it.

Ariadne however stepped forwards and held out her hands, gathering the attention of those gathered in the throne chamber below the two central thrones of the city, the Pearl thrones. Prairie’s memory of the event was very clear. Here in the past they were discussing the upcoming banquet and the outcome. Little in these meetings ever ended short of violence, but it was the sense of tradition that kept them coming back into the room to kick the hell out of each other. First with words, then with their skills. This wasn’t a place for normal people.

“Lieutenants. Kings.” she started, regarding the men accompanying their kings. Aside from Prairie, Riley served Ariadne as her second lieutenant. She kicked her feet idly, gripping the front part of her seat and humming very quietly to herself while her eyes darted to whomever was speaking. She wasn’t going to be arguing. Across the room from her on her right sat Solomon, the red king. At his side were his aides, not fighters or gladiators of any sort. Solomon believed his own strength was sufficient in his throne, and though his house was put in their place, their fierce loyalty and strength was well known. Red attracted the fighter. The person who wanted to feel the rush and rings of blades in battle but didn’t care where those orders came from. A place where the truest warrior remained king.

To Ariadne’s left, an equal distance away sat the king of the green manor, Postma. To say he was the reasonable one in the room would be easy, if it weren’t for the fact he was a zealot. True, his beliefs led him to believe violence was the last resort. You could control, manipulate, or have people indebted to you faster and more effectively than threatening them. The thing that made it scary, naturally, was the way he wielded it and his presence in a room, even now. Postma never sat down when he believed he should be working, unlike the other two kings who were sitting across from him.

“Putting aside Solomon’s accusations of my wards actions, we came here to discuss who will be taking the black throne.” she patted Prairie’s shoulder one more time. “That being said, her existence isn’t going to turn into a bargaining chip. I stand at the head of House Grey. Your estimations that she would destroy the city are no more based on fact than my own opinion. And here, I stand beside Prairie. I have for many years now.” Her words were always level and trying to be charming. Some folks saw it as disingenuous before they got to know her. Really it was just part of who she was, without a motive. A truly cunning woman. Prairie already looked a little happier with her statement.

“We both know what she’s capable of. Of course you would bring her here.” Solomon replied, getting to his feet. He rose to the full height of eight feet tall. Solomon was dressed in heavy plated armor, his raiment hanging off his back as an afterthought. At the side of his throne rested his favored sword, and on his back he carried more blades than an armory, all of varying shape, size, and gigantic weight. Solomon wielded the sword of Damocles from his world, and that was the shape it had taken. Many blades with the weight of a king hanging over the heads of the ones who defied him. “It was your intent to anger me Ariadne. I can’t stay mad at you for being clever like this, but with you and that beast in the ring...” Solomon left his statement unfinished for the moment and rolled his shoulders the sound of metal sliding past itself and the many chains and belts around the swords making their number more apparent from the front. His eyes came back to Ariadne, stern, open, entertained. “I might have a bad run of things.”

Postma was laughing to himself. “Your penchant for war never ceases to make me laugh, Solomon.” he said. Like Ariadne, his words too were charming and friendly. Only you knew who in the room was full of it the second that man’s rat like eyes opened. He could grin all he wanted, those eyes weren’t of a man who had many good intentions towards his enemies, maybe even his friends. “Green has already withdrawn from this. We’ve no political means to take the black throne this time. Still it is rather entertaining. All I have to do is show up and watch the fireworks. We both know neither of you wants to end this without a brawl, but she has you Solomon.” Postma’s eyes turned to Ariadne in a clash of the pleasant smiles. “And you’ve already answered my question.” he huffed and turned for his seat, planting his rear end into it and beginning to lounge. “Green cannot acquire the throne from Grey either. It might be a simple show of strength, but it’s effective.” he smirked, then relenting to speak any further, admitting to his defeat. Though everyone in the room knew he wouldn’t stay dormant for long.

Solomon wasn’t going to be helped either then. After a few minutes thinking of the possibilities in calling for the right to arms, he simply looked at Ariadne again. “Then we too, for now, will walk away. The Red House relinquishes this one. But we’ll be back for the next one.” He then chuckled and turned around to exit the building, his aides falling in behind him quickly. He already had the white throne anyways. “Don’t expect me to back down from the little beast next time either.” he added, then laughing as his presence escaped the room. He knew the only reason he couldn’t outfight them this time was combining the talents of both Prairie’s vicious might and Ariadne’s frankly terrifying strength.

In front of Ariadne, in a place that it hadn’t moved since the creation of the city, a cup rose from a pedestal as if the stone it was made from simply leaked it out. Her hand reached out to it and ran her finger along the lip of this stone chalice, and from her finger into the cup poured a golden and shining liquid. Light wine was the privilege of the kings. It empowered them, healed them, gave them higher clarity. It gave them a shorter route to their way out of this city. She took her time letting her finger travel as the fine liquid filled the cup. Ariadne lifted the drink to her mouth and delicately drank it until it was empty, and then returned the cup to its place.

Then the black throne descended.

Prairie awakened from her day dream when she ran into a tree. She’d already reached the tower proper it seemed, and after she began rubbing her nose and correcting her course, she had to remind herself. Ariadne had accomplished so much of what she did with words alone. Prairie knew the circumstances in the city hadn’t changed, and that her place in all of this was that of some kind of leader. No one could say kings in this city were actually royalty. When Ariadne had resorted to violence no one questioned her again. To put it simply, she had been terrifying, even with that smile eternally plastered on her visage.

Prairie shook her head. It wasn’t that they never questioned her. She just made it easy to never reach that point. It silently made Prairie grin at the thought. For all the problems the city had at this time, they were only going to get worse. Prairie sniffed a few times to make sure her nose wasn’t bleeding before continuing up the grand stairs towards the central tower. She’d been so lost in the past she hadn’t even bothered looking at the scenery as she usually did. Once she reached the top of the stairs and took a moment to catch her breath, she turned around to look over the grey district. Up here, flying between the gaps reality decided were unimportant, and watching the evening sun over that part, her part, of the city filled up her heart in a way she couldn’t describe. She remembered this view as well, ever since the first time. Or the last...

Rushing out of the tower proper a few days after their meeting Ariadne stared towards her district, painted in red light from floating fires sent above it. In the setting sun the fires painted the city like blood. Running alongside the tower she saw that the other districts were similarly lit. “Solomon, what are you doing?” But then she turned as she heard footsteps rushing towards her. She was almost ready to battle when the familiar yell came to her ears.

“Ariadne!” Prairie screamed, getting closer very quickly. If it were any time to marvel at her speed that is. “Solomon’s reds are everywhere in the city. They’re destroying anything they can get in reach of, and they’re not stopping for any reason.” Prairie was clutching a wound on her arm. The blood dripped to the ground, then turned to smoke and vanished into the air. The same smoke was coming from Prairies cut as it healed. It amazed her that no matter how bad her wounds got, they were all superficial to the girl thanks to the power of the city.

“And the earthquake I felt?” Ariadne asked, not hesitating and beginning to rush down the steps towards the grey district. Prairie kept up right beside her. “Their destroying everything. Including the deity statues. They might be after the tower next, because there are reports of them heading to the rural district. What the hell is Solomon thinking doing this? He already relinquished the throne!” Ariadne didn’t know. The throne already recognized her as the rightful person to be seated there. He couldn’t perform a coup without directly attacking her and breaking the taboo. So what was he plotting? He couldn’t even acquire it by defeating her at this point.

“Then something is wrong with Solomon.” she concluded. Stopping at the base of the stairs she grabbed a hold of Prairie. “We split here. Protect our home and our citizens.” Another earthquake rumbled under their feet, getting stronger. Prairie shook her head. “I don’t leave your side.” she pleaded. She’d been at Ariadne’s call this entire time, ever since being rescued, but Ariadne shook her head. “Do what you can. You’re strong. Every piece the makings of a hero, Prairie.” she said, reassuring the girl who was now clearly upset. “I need to find Solomon. I need to know why. My strengths can’t stop them from destroying the city but you know what you are capable of.” she then smiled kindly. “What we are capable of. Believe in us.” And letting Prairie go where she was, she turned to run into the city. Prairie, tears in her eyes, stood still only for moments before violently wiping away her tears and tearing her way into the grey district once more, heading the opposite direction.

Ariadne arrived at the red district to find it empty. But the unsettling part of this wasn’t that the king had the power to move all these people. Simply that without a trace, they had all seemingly vanished into thin air. Not only their persons, but the items that filled the shops and homes on the street had been left barren. She didn’t hesitate as she ran, but a small part of her hurt with every empty house and shop, filled with people’s memories, but undeniably emptied by some act of villainy. The faster she got to the red manor, the better. Only when she arrived the gate too was open. Gritting her teeth, Ariadne knew Solomon expected at least someone to come for him.

The throne room of the red house was darkened, barely lit by the medieval torches Solomon had decided made his chamber look more impressive. But it also offered the two distinct advantages. Ariadne warped the dark. Solomon controlled the room. She entered without hesitation anyways. Solomon sat on his throne, relaxing and resting his cheek on his fist, elbow firmly planted on the thrones arm. He hadn’t stopped laughing quietly since she’d entered the room.

“Solomon, why? What is this?” Ariadne asked, pleading with him as well. “You’re strong, you’re noble. No matter how warlike you are, you were the only actual king among us! Why are you attacking the city?” But Solomon simply kept laughing, his face mostly hidden by the dark and the bright window looming behind him. But what Ariadne saw next shocked her visibly. She snapped her arms upwards and the shadows leaped onto Solomon, strapping him down as hard as she could. The red king stood despite this, and from behind his throne came several individuals that struck a chord of terror in Ariadne’s heart as he tore the shadows apart without even a moment’s hesitation. Her calm receded, replaced by shock, knowing exactly who these people were.

“Solomon, how?”

Later, the meeting in the tower was going as expected. After a short time hearing the other two posturing Prairie decided it wasn’t going to be anything new. Postma had long since disappeared from the realm. He’d been replaced by one of his lieutenants, a man named Byron. He was the sort of person you could genuinely expect to get along with. Byron had been a fisherman in his world, but his fleet of ships had high numbers. Sitting in on one of his stories about his ship, the Jolly Butcher, was a night time affair for some people. To be honest having him as king of the house that managed the civilian population and the gathering was such a perfect fit for him he never questioned it.

Across from him however, sat the enigma. Solomon himself. Prairie had listened to their paired droning and arguing for the past several hours. He and Solomon were good friends when they weren’t on the clock. Rumor was, if you could even call these observations that, was that they both frequented a bar together in the gray district. It was apparent they showed up more than once a week. Prairie was lost in her own memories of this place so she barely paid attention to their posturing. With none of her own memories to make the action more worthwhile, her head filled with thoughts of the old city. Particularly, the mystery of how Solomon was still alive.

Prairie was hurt again, but she was fighting and this time they didn’t have the jump on her allies. Rallied and reorganized against the assault of the red house, they had gathered around the gates of the gray manor to thin out their foes as citizens filtered into the halls to seek shelter. A long, slender metal pole was in Prairie’s hand ending in the crossguard of a sword, and the remnants of what used to be a blade. To be honest to most, it looked like the beginning of a spear, but Prairie had always assured them the blade was there beyond what their eyes could see.

“The earthquakes are getting worse. I don’t think it’s the fighting that’s causing them anymore.” Riley yelled over the din hammering in on their ears. Jessie was right beside her. Both of them weren’t too used to combat in mass and the red army was up against the gray barricades. Riley’s powers weren’t very strong without help or time, and Jessie’s powers were better when they were focused on a single target. But here, they could watch and make orders as the fire, lightning, screams and blood, even hunks of their city were tossed around by various combatants from every house. The noise was incredible.

“They think they can cause something with brute force. I won’t argue, but if their intent is to do anything but eradicate us all I don’t think they will succeed. Something is wrong with them.” Checking his pocket watch, he ran his free hand over it and stretched his arm out towards a group of their allies. The watch pulsated like a heartbeat, and the same effect entered the people he was pointing at through the stone of the gray manor. Their speeds increased dramatically as they rushed for the front line, a new fervor overtaking them.

“Ariadne said to fight to the last, and keep ourselves from dying. We protect and shelter the sane to keep them from harm. She said something has to be wrong. Why would the reds turn on us otherwise? Let’s believe in her.” Riley replied. Prairie landed on the ground next to the pair and started catching her breath. “I believe in her order.” Jessie and Riley looked at her and reaffirmed their resolve. “She’s right. And something about their eyes is off.” Jessie said, smiling and pocketing his watch again while he looked to Riley, who was ecstatic. “You’ve grown Prairie!” she declared excitedly. Hardly the type of tone for a battle ground. Prairie had to hide her embarrassment.

Another earthquake rattled everyone in the area however. Enemy and ally alike were jumbled this way and that as the ground shook, many toppling right off their feet. Riley landed square on her butt with a childish whine. Jessie and Prairie didn’t seem to notice it, braced for the shaking the moment it had happened. Jessie offered a hand to help Riley up.

“Just keep going until we can stop. Either we fall or they do.” Prairie took a deep breath, the fog finally vanishing from her clothes as her wounds mended, leaving her back in tip top condition. “They already did wrong by this beast. Now I’ve no reason not to devour them.” She gave Riley and Jessie a look of confidence, nodded, then in a flash she practically flew down the stairs until she reached the bottom. With a crunch and a rumble, the ground at the base of the stairs cracked and caved in, and she took off like a bullet, right into the fray, sending bodies flying into the air.

Riley was smiling again. She was Prairie’s number one fan despite the fact they were polar opposites in personality. But Jessie broke in. “That’s not good.” He was staring at the tower, and in the start of dawn’s light it was apparent as Riley drew her eyes toward it. The perfectly formed, smooth exterior of the center tower had a crack in it longer than the city, reaching into the sky, and starting to crumble and get larger. Screams of “The tower!” came from nearly everyone after the sound of such a thunderous crack reached their ears, and another line appeared. The tower sheared through the middle sideways this time, and started to come down with a massive din. The voices of the war began to get muffled. The shouts and screams of those fighting were slowly being bled out by a deep humming, yet the red soldiers didn’t seem to notice or care. They continued to relentlessly attack. The world started to flicker and blank out in white light. Then inky dark tendrils seethed forth in people’s minds, encompassing everything in mere moments until nothing remained but the unknown.

There it was again. Another blank spot in her memory. A throbbing blot of black ink on the surface of her brain. The feeling was always the same. The piercing headache, the quickening of her heart, the inability to show even one bit of that suffering on her face. All of it was like that darkness. A slow sinking feeling into the depths that took her with it.

“I said, we haven’t heard from our third member yet.” Solomon’s voice found its way into her ears and and a little color came back to Prairie’s eye, ushering her back into reality from that abyss. Prairie’s head came off from resting on her hand and she stared at the pair gathered. They both looked as simple as they ever had. Solomon itching for a fight, Byron looking helpless like always. Were they experiencing the same blank spots in their memories she wondered? Solomon’s memory had stopped well before the attack on the city had ever begun. Others had made sure of that. And lastly, none of them knew what happened to the city during that time. Whatever amount of time it had been between the calamity and now had been enough to wipe all trace of it from the city. And Solomon, still in the red throne, had passed several tests. He truly had forgotten it all. Prairie had to hold onto the idea that Ariadne trusted Solomon, but it didn’t explain how he had survived as the source of it all.

“Solomon, do you remember when we first appeared in this city?” she asked, raising her voice enough to travel across the room. His memory had been stricken so hard he didn’t even remember half the things he’d learned since he came back. Give him credit as a fast learner, but... “The first thing we did when we awoke, is we awoke in this room alongside our lieutenants. The entire city and its population, their possessions, their clothes, any and every trace of them had disappeared when we came back. That’s my first concern. Why do you ask?”

Prairie got to her feet and crossed her arms, taking a defiant stance, though she just didn’t know what for. She would have expected him to mention her appearance instead. Her grasp of the conversation was meaninglessly lost by this point. He would never remember. “If the city goes through another cataclysm there’s no telling how many of us will survive this time. Maybe we’d manage to obliterate everything once and for all.” she looked upwards towards the ceiling in the chamber, and the light coming down from the ceiling onto the central thrones, suspended in the air as they were. “But I lost friends during that time. You may not remember Solomon, but you can probably estimate how you would feel based on who allied themselves with you now. Whatever managed to happen can’t be allowed to happen again. So we have to play by the rules. At least until we know what can be done otherwise.”

Prairies eye closed for a moment to allow her to think, but when she opened it, it focused with intensity, down to the very core of her gaze. “So the banquet will go as planned. There’s no point avoiding the fight if all it will cause is more problems for the people we look after. Besides, me and Solomon both enjoy the contest. And if the world wants us to feed it that energy, I’ve got more than enough to spare.” The other two considered her words, looking at each other. Byron, a large man in his own right simply shrugged and smiled. “Well then. I suppose House Green withdraws from the banquet. But then, I’ll ask my lieutenants if they’re feeling like a fight.”

Solomon laughed. “I would call that cowardice.” he commented, already rolling his shoulders, his signature sign he was getting ready for a fight. Byron would laugh back just as boisterously. “Well I can’t help it. My hands were meant to feed folks, not beat ‘em into submission. I save that for the fish. But the two I have in mind would enjoy it. And we both know the advantage of stretching our legs now and then.” he commented, shooting a look to Solomon telling him their own rivalries were at an end for the day. Byron smiled after a moment. “But that being said we’re getting a lot of people into the city that need to be told what’s what. I’d rather concentrate on making the next gathering bigger. That, and maybe figuring out a printing press or two for Cardinal to work with.” So with a large shrug, Byron grinned ear to ear. He had other things to concentrate on.

“Then House Gray fights in three days to uphold the traditions of the city. Gentlemen, make sure to keep your minds looking forwards. I’m the only one left who has the privileges of a keeper. Solomon, I know yours is trying. If we end up destroying each other again there’s no telling if the red and green vaults will ever open again. Your vaults are without use or sealed.” She looked at them both evenly. In the circumstances her own opinion held a lot of weight after a crisis like that. “Until we rediscover the secret to making new keepers, we may be in danger. My own vault’s library has become so sparse, and I fear the same has happened to yours.”

Solomon stared at Prairie with only one of his eyes, his arms crossed tight against his chest. When he closed that eye his head began to hang, letting him think it over as well. Byron, as always, seemed placid but concerned. “If we lose all we know we’ll be back at square one.” he agreed. “Cooperation helps us all right now.”

But Prairie began shaking her head, making sure to catch the attention of the two. “I don’t think it’s that simple. Despite the fact we need to begin educating people again immediately, think about it. Why were we the only ones left? Every citizen. Every single person who was right beside us either in the fight or not completely vanished, and yet we ourselves were left here. It’s too-- Clean. Not to mention how few actually made it back. We don’t know how they did it.”

Byron looked at Solomon, who shrugged. But Byron turned back and asked “Clean?” Prairie nodded her head. “When you’re trying to clean something up you usually leave the worst parts for the last, right? I suppose it differs with your personality.” Prairie’s arms came uncrossed and she rubbed the sore spot next to her eye patch. “But that’s the most efficient method. It’s like the city was cleaned out of all it’s easier problems. Assuming the city sees us as problems, and with the malarkey we’re forced through it wouldn’t surprise me. We’re literally dancing to the tune of other beings.”

The thought had Byron worried, and Solomon had gone back to thinking. This time however, he was the one who spoke up. “You mean we’re the last survivors. Why, because we’re more powerful? Did we know more? Because we were kings? It’s not something I want to accept. Part of me thinks it’s better to just do away with this place.” Prairie was thinking it as well, but for different reasons considering who the point came from. “That makes sense. The third one anyways. Maybe the second as well. Remember, Ariadne was in the throne, not me. Riley was still here as well, so the thrones have to be involved somehow.” After a few moments Prairie snapped her fingers. “The others were used as collateral.” she said, nodding. “They were obliterated because they were worth the least out of us.” She then shook her head and turned around, spitting curses under her breath. “But I don’t like that. Like we’re numbers? No, maybe it had to do with the population.” After all her time in this city she believed it too. The limitations of cruelty in this realm weren’t ever explained, but always heavy up until this point.

“Then that means, if that’s correct, we’re left here to maintain and rebuild.” Byron added. “I know it’s a dead horse by now, but don’t you guys think we’re here for a reason? That this city itself has that purpose? It survived what we all considered to be the end of the world. Maybe it’s just our lot.” Prairie laughed at that. “It really is purgatory once you think of it that way. Maybe if we just give up and accept it all we’ll disappear like the rest.” But her bitterness subsided and she took a deep breath to calm her nerves. “We’ve been discussing this for months alone like this. We’ll give in. To the normality of it all. For now. But I don’t like it.”

Prairie turned to look at the men looking back at her. “We’re already assigned our jobs by something we can’t question. So we’ll play along.” Solomon shook his head. “Just like that?” Prairie finally began smiling for the first time in hours. “Just like that. Because as far as I’m concerned the second I’m looking in the face of the one responsible for the disappearances of my friends, I’ll have a lot more on my mind then.” Her clothes were moving, and her head was hung low. Slowly the stone around her feet began to crack and turn from a polished white into an emotionless gray. Then with one thunderous crunch all the ground but the pieces supporting her feet sundered and crushed downwards as her power exhumed itself. “They will not enjoy what I have to say.”

Prairies head turned around to view her associates, the tiniest amount of glaring red showing in her beautiful blue eye. Byron looked helpless again. What a gentle giant he was. Solomon simply looked as confident and determined as ever. “Get ready for a good fight Solomon. Fate of the world rests on it like always.” She grinned after her statement, then turned for the exits. The floor of the tower was already repairing itself rapidly. And that was the stigma Prairie carried. For all the power in this place, for all the magic that could be felt in the air even amongst the emptiness of this world, Prairie, for all her power had failed to preserve the lives and dignity of the people she called her own. And she wasn’t the only one. A city that never stayed crumbled, but never stayed filled either.

“Every piece the makings of a hero.” Those were the words that Ariadne handed down to her before she left in Prairie’s last memory. But as she exited the tower and thought on it, hadn’t she inevitably failed Ariadne too? Was it worth it to cling to her past like this when the needs of the now and the future were so much closer to being realized by the mere fact of heading towards them? She stared down at the town she’d been welcomed to, knowing full well there were other parts of the city that had seen her powers, that dark eating at her mind and body. Her powers, so similar and so different from Ariadne’s, consumed the things around her. And yet Ariadne had chosen to praise, hold, and appreciate her. Her memory was a lot worse than everyone here regardless. She couldn’t remember her past even as her powers grew here. Everything eventually blurred itself out in the darkness while others slowly worked their way to catharsis.

“Every piece the makings of a hero.” Prairie spoke the words, looking down at her gloved hands. Those were the words Ariadne had handed down to her, and Ariadne had been a hero to everyone she tried to meet. She was so flawless at it she even took a chained beast and taught it the meaning of those chains. A smile crept onto Prairie’s face. Never in her entire life, as far as she could remember, had she ever had a sense of calm. She didn’t know if that was a part of her condition, or her powers, but it was the one good feeling she knew she could hold on to. A small hope. She looked down the stairs to her district, and the people walking around the city, smiling and cheerful, even if their lives are sometimes thrown into chaos and misery. She seemed to be collecting small hopes like this every day. What a bad equation it all was. Not a single part of it made sense. To smile when you were trapped. The laugh when you were miserable. Or to be like her, right now in this place, and give in to the silence peace offers you.

“The beast was dyed gray. By their dirt. Their smells. Her ears no longer ring at their laughter. And she no longer fears the dark.” Prairie smiled at the thought of it. The only calm she knew was a result given to her by someone who stopped her from fearing her own heart. A person who told her she was a hero. Well, she could become one. No, that she would have to become one.

“What a stupid way to live.” she said, laughing at the fact people could take such idealism seriously. But as she began down the steps to her part of the city, thinking about where she would go next with her schedule free of Jessie’s tyranny, she reminded herself, ideals built whatever peace this city had. And a person who wanted to defend that peace, for friend and foe alike, was a hero. But a smirk hit her face as she walked through the gate, back into the smells and noise of the evening in the market district.

“No, that’s not right.” she muttered to herself, and thinking of the right words for it, she looked back up and spoke out loud to overwrite her thoughts. “I think maybe that’s what a king is.” She only held it in for a few moments before she bent over forwards and stuffed her hands into her pockets, laughing to herself and drawing looks from the locals, all too used to her antics by now. “What a stupid way to live.” she repeated.

But it made sure the flame in the little beasts heart was still lit.

Next Chapter: When Talking Isn’t Enough