Chapter 6 - Breakfast Astrophysics

Colin sank deep into the warm water of the bathtub and quietly admitted that he'd been terribly uncharitable towards this entire world. He'd assumed, based only on an apparent reliance on beasts of burden and traditional melee weaponry, that the whole place was stuck in an ancient time period Earth Bet had long since left behind, mired in primitive mores. Alongside that view had come a truckload of other associated prejudices, many of which had already proven inaccurate, and all of which were rather patronizing and rude. His quick judgment made him rather uneasy, but at least he'd caught it early.

The truth was a lot more subtle than his rash assumptions, naturally. The world of Hydaelyn was a study in anachronism, bearing elements of various time periods without neatly fitting within any one of them. Its weirdly uneven development was a fascinating counterpoint to arguments made by various Aleph and Bet historians, who seemed convinced that the course of technology was largely fixed and predictable. By their logic, certain discoveries followed each other in lockstep, because they were each built upon one another. It was a sensible argument to make, at least until Tinkers had arrived to mess up all the neat and tidy charts, and Colin had long accepted the hypothesis as generally applicable. He'd never seen reason to consider the question in any detail before.

"Oy! Are you still soakin' in there?" a high-pitched voice suddenly called out from outside his room, followed by two sharp taps on the door. "If you don't get out of there soon, I'll eat your breakfast myself! Don't think that I won't!"

"I'll be right out," Colin called out to Momodi, though he was in no particular hurry to get up. It had been a very long time since he'd taken a real bath, and he meant to enjoy the luxury. Oh, he'd still employed his various cleanliness rituals, of course, but the presence of a host of prosthetics and implants in his body had made the prospect of submerging himself in water a little daunting. That, and sometimes a deluge of water brought back bad memories he'd rather forget.

With his body returned to human standard, and the Endbringers dead or off in some dimension on the other side of forever, Colin couldn't resist the minor indulgence. Truthfully, he hadn't felt this good in years. Dragon might have been right about the deleterious effects of his cerebral implants on his mental state - empirical data had always been too scant to substantiate her views on the subject, however. Curling the fingers of his regrown arm repeatedly, he wondered how long it would take before it felt like his own again - if his brain would readjust. He'd gotten so used to his prosthetic that the renewed organic sensations felt a little bizarre. Was this the first recorded case of reverse phantom limb syndrome, perhaps?

Colin spent another five minutes contentedly soaking in the heat before reluctantly dragging himself out of the water. He watched it drain away into an an anachronistic sewage system, and wondered how widespread that particular innovation really was. While he hadn't noticed storm drains in the streets, it was doubtful a desert city would need a means to deal with flooding anyway, so that wasn't much of an indication. The presence of indoor plumbing was just the latest bit of out-of-place technology he'd noticed on this world, and while electrical power and gunpowder weapons remained conspicuously absent, it was hard to dismiss the feeling that this world was primed for an industrial revolution any decade now. Perhaps the presence of aether had drawn the most brilliant minds of this world away from more mundane research, thus delaying key inventions, while accelerating others in their place?

He put on his smallclothes, and hesitated as he went to pick up the breastplate of his under-suit, which lay at the foot of his bed, stained with sweat and partially molten from the hits he'd taken against the Elezen thaumaturge. The outer shell had soaked up the heat without fuss and looked reasonably intact, but the inside was a pockmarked ruin - it was meant to be protected from unusual temperatures by active measures, most of which were housed in the exoskeleton that lay abandoned in the closet. He had no desire to put the suit back on until he'd washed, repaired, or replaced it - which left him few options for the moment.

Thus far he'd kept his identity a complete secret from everyone, eschewing the use of even his name and keeping his mask on as much as possible. He'd been following general practices when it came to finding oneself in a new and potentially volatile situation - but he had to face the reality of his situation sooner or later. He'd either have to put his costume back on, dirty and sweaty as it was, or wear the cotton garb that Momodi had provided, and pass as a native. The latter could be a decent way to ward off any more assassins gunning for his cape identity, but it would also entail revealing his face to people who only knew him as Defiant. The very idea of doing so rankled him. He'd barely even met these people, and he was supposed to trust them with his identity? It had taken him months to warm up to people at the Brockton Bay Protectorate and take his mask off around them, and they'd already known who he was!

"I could really use your advice at times like these," Colin murmured into the ether - or the aether, he supposed, to make the expression more apt. He imagined what Dragon might have suggested, but he couldn't decide where she'd land on the matter. On one hand she was keenly aware of the risks associated with having one's identity revealed. On the other hand, she'd been prodding him to make more acquaintances in his civilian persona for ages, and she would probably favor an actual solution over pushing the decision forward a few days without any indication that anything would change in the interim. What to do…?

Annoyed with his own indecision, Colin roughly grabbed the chest piece of his under-suit off the floor and watched in dismay as chips of rubber and stray components flaked off and rained to the floor, some pooling in deep cracks that had been carved into the armor by wild temperature differential of fireballs and frost. Reflexively he raised a hand to the two reddish spots on his chest, the only evidence of second- and third-degree burns which should have left him bedridden for days. He didn't really remember being healed, since he'd slipped into the beginnings of shock by the time he'd made it back to the tavern, but he couldn't deny the obvious efficacy of the treatment. He'd have to remember to thank whoever was responsible for that.

Letting out a long sigh, Colin finally made his decision. He put his costume away and grabbed some local cotton-weave clothes instead, helpfully provided by Momodi the evening before. They were a little narrow around the shoulders and hips, but aphorisms about horses and gifts came to mind. He briefly considered taking the spear he'd propped up against the wall, but its obvious draconic decorations would reveal an immediate connection between him and Defiant to any would-be assassins. Without the folding mechanisms he couldn't even hide it on his person, so he was forced to leave it behind with the rest of his belongings. No armor, no weapons, no backup. Fully clothed, and yet he still felt naked.

Colin paced down the halls of the Hourglass Inn towards the central room of the Quicksand, passing by a tall woman with bunny ears and a grim-faced Lalafell as he headed for Momodi's bar. Thancred was already present, nursing a drink of some description as he fiddled with the dials of the aetherometer that was mounted on his shoulder. His ash-blond hair obscured his eyes, and sheer contrast made the purple tattoos on his neck stand out against his pale skin. The moment Colin closed in he glanced up, blinked, and then a wry grin spread across his face.

"Ah! Who might you be, stranger?" Thancred asked laconically, leaning on the bar with one arm as he took up his drink with the other. Something non-alcoholic, hopefully, since the sun had barely even crept up past the horizon yet. "Can I interest you in a drink? It's on the house, as one might say." He looked across the bar. "Well… it will be, as soon as the proprietor returns."

Hesitating only a moment, Colin offered his hand. "I'm Colin. Colin Wallis."

"Ah, manners! How droll. I am Thancred Waters," he answered, shaking Colin's hand with a knowing smile. "Our dear patron is bringing breakfast to a pair of Conjurers that spent the night here - she and Miss Pottopa are taking care of their needs, I'm told." He winked. "She'll be along soon enough, I'm certain."

"I see." Colin pursed his lips. "I seem to be building up something of a debt with her. And that's after she explicitly warned me against getting into debt in this city." He could see the irony, even if he didn't care for the series of events which led here. "...Clearly I have to get better at taking her advice," he admitted.

Thancred snorted into his drink. "True. You should also stop pissing off thaumaturges if you want to avoid being set on fire again," he said smartly. The humor faded as he noticed Colin rubbing at his chest. "Seriously though, your armor did you no favors - I'm told the healers found part of it melted into your skin! Haven't seen them look that appalled since a man walked in here with one severed arm tucked under the other!"

Colin winced in sympathy at that scenario, a phantom itch spreading through his prosthetic arm. He paused, turning that thought over in his head. Since that arm was back, it was probably just an actual itch this time. He scratched it, and the feeling went away. Huh.

"So, mighty warrior, what are you going to next?" Thancred asked curiously. "Will you set out to beat up more thugs, so that I must swoop in to save you in the nick of time, again? I admit, I don't mind playing the hero on occasion, but I have a feeling it would get old quickly."

"I will not," Colin promised, glaring down at the bar, tracing rings left behind by the base of many, many mugs of ale. He knew he'd screwed up in that encounter. He'd rushed off without proper preparation, with most of his gear ruined, and without proper intel. He'd acted unworthy of himself, of the standard he'd set since the first day he'd put on a costume. It felt galling to be faced with his own inadequacy, and it could not be allowed to happen again. He felt rusty, out of practice, even though he'd been fighting Scion mere days ago - the aftermath of all that had happened, certainly. Before he threw himself into any more fights he'd need to get himself back into shape. Not physically - mentally.

Thancred took a long drink from his glass and sighed. "You know, these last few days have been… hectic. Surprisingly, you're not the only person I've dropped in on like that - just the other day I had to face off with a voidsent of all things, and then there was this golem…" He smiled ruefully at the memory. "I thought things had calmed down a little after that, but then a bunch of thugs decided to try and murder a newcomer on his first day in town - you never know in this place, do you?" He raised an eyebrow. "I hope you have no trouble with my presence for another day? I've nowhere else to be just yet, and Momodi has asked to keep an eye out for any… reprisals, shall we say."

"...I have no particular complaints," Colin said after a moment. Two sets of eyes were better than one, after all.

"Good!" Thancred was about to say something else when he glanced towards the Quicksand's entrance and stiffened, though he made no particular motion to reach for his weapons. Whatever he'd noticed was not a threat, then. Colin followed his gaze and saw nothing particularly surprising - just a pair of Lalafell making their way towards the bar.

One was a man in a leather suit of armor. He was reasonably old, judging by his coif of white hair and handlebar mustache, and he took a sharp-eyed interest in everything around him, betraying experience and a certain confidence. He was accompanied by a woman in pink wearing a similarly colored turban, her expression dour and her head hung low. Between the presence of a bodyguard and her flawless complexion it wasn't hard to guess she was someone rich - a noble, possibly, though he wasn't sure if the concept was presence in this apparent Sultanate.

"I wish you a very good morning, my Lady Lilira," Thancred announced softly, though his gaze was hard and flickered between the door and the woman, betraying a certain paranoia. "It is pleasant to see you again, though I have to wonder if it is wise to… wander the streets. Given what happened just a few days ago, I thought you would take more care."

"I have not left the city again," Lilira said sharply. "Still, I refuse to be cowed by a single incident. If I were to fold every time someone acted against me, surely I'd have been begging alms in the streets long ago!" She crossed her arms, and took a moment to size up Colin, at the same time that her bodyguard glowered in his direction. "I see you have picked up yet more strays. Is this one going to drop in a faint, too?"

"Hah!" Thancred chuckled. "Ah, my lady, let us not be so unkind to the one who saved you at the Sultantree. Especially as he is not even here to defend himself!" He shook his head. "Truthfully, Colin here was targeted by some… unsavory elements yesterday. Opponents of the Sultana, I'm sure, who were offended at this man's defense of one of their unfortunate targets." He looked to the bodyguard. "I have a feeling there may be some connection between that and… everything else that's going on. If not… well, assassins are a problem no matter who sends them."

"I understand," Lilira said, her expression darkening. "Is Momodi present? I was hoping to speak with her about related matters." Her cheeks colored. "And I had hoped to sample more of her foreign teas with some crumpets. She did promise to import the latest blends..."

"My lady…" the bodyguard said in a pained tone.

She huffed, rolling her eyes. "Oh, I know you don't care for tea, Papashan. You are the one who insists on sampling everything to test for poison, so I don't see why you're complaining about your own hangups. One of these days I'll finally convince you that Momodi of all people can be trusted to make me food, and maybe you will get over it!" She grimaced. "I suppose the attack the other day did nothing to dissuade you from your fears, did it? Even though it was a voidsent, and not poison!"

"To be fair, it may have been a poisonous monster," Thancred pointed out helpfully. "You never know with a voidsent!"

"Thank you, Thancred," Lilira replied dryly. "That horrifying thought will make Papashan calm right down, I'm sure."

Colin wondered if he should point out the difference between 'venom' and 'poison', but decided to hold his tongue when Thancred narrowed his eyes at him as if sensing the oncoming pedantry.

"It was a pleasure to meet you," Lilira said to Colin. "Pardon me, but what was your name?"

"Colin - or Defiant," he answered shortly.

"Colin the Defiant, then." She nodded sharply, a smile curling around her lips and a sparkle in her eye. "I'm certain we shall meet again." She gestured to her guard, Papashan. "Come - we will find a table and wait for Momodi's return. We shan't bother these fine gentlemen any longer - lest Thancred begin his obnoxious flirting, as he is wont to do…"

"Now that's just… uncalled for," the blond complained, though he didn't deny the accusation. After Lilira moved away, he turned to Colin. "You remember that I mentioned I'd jumped in on someone else recently? There was a spot of bother with those two a few days back. I fought off a voidsent that had been sent after Lilira alongside another person, and there was another similar attack a few days later. I'm not sure your own assault was connected, but all of them seem linked to certain subversive elements that seek to bring down the Sultana's rule, so it seems plausible…"

"I wouldn't know," Colin said. "I'm not sure I even know what a 'voidsent' might be. Some sort of monster?"

Thancred nodded sharply. "Quite. They are… creatures of the void, as the name implies. Nobody is quite sure where they come from, but it's definitely not Eorzea, or maybe even Hydaelyn." He lowered his voice. "If you ask my opinion, they're… starved things. Born from aether, perhaps, but then deprived of its sustenance for aeons. I presume that is why they assault whatever they come across so voraciously, as an attempt to satiate their endless hunger…" He shuddered. "They are unnatural things."

"Born from aether?" Colin wondered. The idea that lifeforms might develop from pure energy rather than some material basis was strange - but between Case 53s and finding out about Dragon's nature, his definition of what 'life' might include had stretched a fair amount. And who knew what bizarre qualities an alien element like aether possessed? "You mean to imply that living things spring from the aether fully formed?"

"It has been known to happen," Thancred said with a dark look in his eyes. "Elementals are the most obvious example - in places with enough ambient aether, the very environment can come alive according to its aspect. Elsewhere, monsters absorb the aether and use it for their own defense, expelling fire or such through channeling aspected aether from their body. And beyond that, there's more… primal… manifestations." He looked away, and it wasn't hard to see the pain in his expression. Memories of the 'Calamity', presumably. "Suffice to say there is reason to worry in any place rich with aether. This world can be a dangerous place, especially when people get desperate."

Colin inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I admit, this is all… new to me, so I'm trying to get a better picture of what's going on. You mentioned the Thaumaturge's Guild as experts when it comes to aether. Do you believe it's worth the risk going there, after I just got attacked by one of their number?"

"I wouldn't say there's any particular risk - thaumaturges aren't exactly a rarity around here," Thancred said ruefully. "Their standards have gotten rather lax in order to get their numbers up. And you shouldn't assume that the man I took down was educated there - criminal organizations usually have their own ways of doing things outside the law, after all." He glanced at Colin with a concerned frown. 'Why exactly do you want to know about aether so much? I know my motives for investigating the field, but they are esoteric to most people. Do you just want to throw fireballs around...?"

"No, I'm not really interested in that," Colin said frankly. "I just want to understand. When I went to that aetheryte out on the Steps…" He could still feel the connection, that possible Master effect that lingered in the back of his mind. It didn't appear to be doing anything to him, but that was hardly going to ease his mind. Simurgh bombs could go years without acting on the whim of their Master but eventually, inevitably, they exploded. "I don't know what aether really is, or how it works. That's not satisfactory. I need to know how to tell when it's dangerous or safe, and if it's responsible for..." He trailed off, not sure if he even knew exactly what he was looking for. "I just need to know."

"Seems like more than idle curiosity," the blond observed, his expression serious. "Aether is dangerous stuff, especially when approached with such intense… focus. It's a reactive, changeable substance. If you interact with too much of it, you will become quite ill - it could destroy your mental state and shred memories to ribbons. Sometimes it warps even the body, mutating it into terrible forms. Notorious beasts and monsters are formed that way. You ought to take care."

Colin nodded slowly. "Aether is analogous to radioactive materials, then - risk of contamination, possibly a mutagen of sorts," he mused. "It's supposed to be some sort of 'life-force', correct? What does that mean, exactly?" He peered at Thancred. "Look, I know how the human body works in some detail, and grasp the general mechanics of life itself. Consumption of resources, processing, replication, waste disposal… At no point is a mystical force necessary to catalyze any of it, to my knowledge. What does aether do that makes it life-force? After all, the realization that there was no fundamental difference between living and non-living was a major scientific breakthrough."

"It was?" Thancred asked, nonplussed.

"Yes." He rubbed his forehead. "Well, it was where I came from. It's… fairly fundamental to how I understand the world works. I'm not sure how there could possibly be a place where that's not true, and yet people exist anyway." He couldn't even begin to calculate the odds of humans evolving into the same form in a world that carried significant differences in its natural laws. "Aether should stop pissing in Friedrich Wöhler's soup," he added glumly.

"I… I'm sorry?" Thancred asked, staring. "I must not have heard you correctly. I thought you said -"

Colin rubbed his forehead. "Honestly, I can barely imagine how physics work when there's some ubiquitous magical substance changing all the rules around. Chemistry too. Aether probably accounts for the weird crystals, but what else is different there? Biology…" He smiled. "Just from what I've already seen - people with animal features, humanoid reptiles - I'm fairly certain Darwin would be miffed. And apparently Voidsent are born from the aether, like you said, which is just all sorts of different and crazy..." A smile found its way to his face. "What a mess."

Thancred started. "Uh. You're complaining about the way the world works, and now you're smiling about it? Did you hit your head?"

"No. Do you happen to have any paper?" he responded, barely acknowledging the question. "I should write some of this down, keep a record of laws that I can no longer rely on as inviolate. What temperature does water boil at, here? I suppose that's related to air pressure, actually. Do you have the same atmospheric distribution of gases…? Do gases even work the same here?" He paused. "Do you happen to know what the speed of light is? Actually, I should probably know if you recognize 'feet' or 'meters' - get my units straight."

Thancred blinked rapidly at the onslaught of questions. "...Light has a speed?"

"It still ain't fast enough to catch me on a good day!" Momodi announced as she appeared as if by magic behind the counter - perhaps it really was magic. "Mornin', toasty!" she declared merrily as she waved at Colin. "You slept off those potshots you took, huh?" She peered at his chest as if she could see right through the fabric of his shirt. "You ain't breathin' funny, so them conjurers must've done a good job. Means I won't charge 'em for the night. They earned their keep, I reckon." She raised an eyebrow. "And don't you dare start beatin' yourself up about my overflowin' goodwill! I take care of new adventurers, remember!"

"I… wouldn't dare complain," Colin answered, taken aback. "Also, my real name -"

"Your name is Colin, yes, I heard 'bout that." she winked, rubbing her pointy ear demonstratively. "We Lalafell might not look like much to big broad fellas like you two, but underestimate us at your peril!" She thumped herself on the chest. "Wouldn't be the first fool to try and kick a Lalafell 'cause of their size, and get their whole leg chopped off for their trouble!"

"Alright. This conversation went from absurd to violent rather quickly," Thancred muttered into his drink. "Admittedly, I am somewhat more familiar with violence than whatever nonsense Colin was going on about, so I might actually be able to contribute now. What joy!"

"I wasn't being absurd," he complained sullenly. "It's this world that's absurd!"

"Hear, hear!" Momodi agreed immediately as she put a tall glass of juice in front of Colin. "This world's crazy. We just have to roll with the punches and deal with one problem at a time. That's how I make it through the day!"

Colin inclined his head, quietly admitting to himself that at that very moment, that was exactly what he was doing as well. He sipped from his drink, and couldn't quite tell whether it was orange juice, grape juice, or some bizarre intermediate. Perhaps it was derived from local fruit, since there was no reason to conclude any food here was Earth-standard, even if the meal he'd been served the evening before had tasted like any well-cooked steak he'd ever eaten. Or perhaps he was overthinking things, and it was just a mixed drink. He was sitting at a bar, after all.

That stray thought just reminded him that he didn't know anything about this world. His ignorance went well beyond local customs or beverages, and all the way to basic features of reality. He'd spent endless hours studying scientific disciplines in the hope that knowledge of thermodynamics and electrical engineering would help augment his tinkering skills - and they had, though more so towards the start of his career. By the end he'd gone so far beyond conventional knowledge that there were few theoretical underpinnings to rely on, save those few Dragon had derived from her insights. The thought that all that hard-earned knowledge was now suspect felt painfully wasteful. It felt like someone had carved a chunk out of his life and declared it null and void, rendering it pointless.

And yet… that wasn't the crux of the situation, was it? Because the reason he was forced to throw out the old was because he'd discovered new science. Not some obscure little corner exception to an existing model which would have to be minorly tweaked, nor even a paradigm shift on some specific narrow topic. Those would have been interesting developments, but ultimately mundane. What he'd found instead was something that broke the way he understood the world. In one fell swoop someone had taken a bulldozer through the entirety of science, and replanted that well-plucked field with fresh seeds. There was ample room for new hypotheses, theories, maybe even whole fields of study. A cornucopia of new avenues to wander down with a magnifying glass. Wasn't that… fantastic?

The very thoughts made him feel strange, and a little jittery. He felt younger, like that chunk of his life that had been carved away had taken his grey hairs along with it. Before he'd been a soldier in an army at the end of the world he'd been a cape, but before even that he'd been a loner college student with dreams of grandeur - just a kid studying disparate fields at a whim, throwing himself from one interesting major to another with the youthful conviction that somehow, somewhere, he'd find a way to make his mark on the world. He'd dreamed to find something everyone else had missed, and eventually he had worked even his own life down to a science, focusing on efficient usage of time and eliminating all excess, paring himself down to bare essentials. He prided himself on living a spartan existence dedicated to personal pursuits to the exclusion of everything else, including even human connections. In retrospect he might have gone too far, but at the time it had all felt… necessary.

Then, after he gained his powers, Colin had thought he'd finally fulfilled his youthful dream of discovering his own little slice of reality. He started building the sort of impossible devices that science fiction authors only dreamed about, and thought the stunned and impressed looks from those around him were a just reward for his great discoveries. In truth, like most Tinkers, he'd never truly understood the underlying methods behind his creations. He hadn't internalized that fact until Dragon dissected a design he thought he understood, and picked apart nearly every component in ways that contradicted his own perceptions. He'd been deluding himself, and it took until he was Defiant before he accepted that fact, decades into his career. In the end, the only thing becoming a Tinker had done was distract him.

What if… what if…?

Colin blinked in surprise when he realized he was holding a writing implement - he had asked for a pen and paper at some point, hadn't he? He barely spared a moment on the question, and simply started writing. "Thanks," he murmured belatedly to whoever was nearby, while sketching the outlines of Thancred's aetherometer onto the paper. Next he started jotting down several physical laws he'd be able to test with relatively simple means - it would be imperative to make sure that he could still use the relevant mathematics for the more obviously similar features of the different universes. In the margins he listed acronyms for a dozen physical constants he could test after verifying that the previous relationships between forces still applied.

After he was done with that, he started including hypotheticals about their possible interaction with the aether, working off the few experiences he had with the substance. He only had a single use of the aetherometer to build on, but he already had a few ideas on how to pare down the structural material of the device without compromising function. He snatched the device from Thancred's shoulder and noted the settings on the various dials, ignoring its owner's complaints when he started turning them this and that way to see what happened. He'd put them all back the way he found them, of course, after he was done.

Colin's knowledge of terrestrial facts might be quite useless outside Terra, but that was not all he'd learned in college. Any good scientist knew that data was not what made science useful. Data by itself was just a collection of random facts gathered together by observers. Science was the method one used to derive knowledge from those facts, the way through which you brought structure to chaos. Whatever else had changed from one universe to the other, that method was surely still applicable here, so he'd make good use of it.

'How is an aetheryte made?' Colin wanted to ask, but he distinctly remembered someone mentioning that Sharlayan technology was private, so he would get no answers there. That was an annoying inconvenience, to be sure, but he had certainly worked around annoyingly strict patents before. The usual method he used was to simply to go a level deeper and deconstruct the base elements - reinvent the wheel, in a sense. "What is the relationship between aether and crystals?" he asked, a much more palatable and generic question. Considering the aetheryte was almost entirely a chunk of crystal, it was still highly relevant.

"Actually, I know that one!" Momodi piped up. "Too much aether makes crystals! It's why everywhere is crawlin' with the things since the Calamity!"

Thancred groaned, running a hand through his hair. "Highly oversimplified as summations go, but not entirely incorrect," he allowed warily, his brow furrowed. "You've heard of the Lifestream, I presume? It is commonly thought that aether can only cross over to the other side, to the aetherial plane, at a fixed rate. Any excess spills freely into our world, and that has consequences. It manifests physically as eerie glows and weather changes, or spiritual echoes of one description or another - elementals and the like." His expression became rather morose. "As for big crystal deposits? If there are a high number of deaths close together, or if they happen with extreme brutality, the resulting shock of released life-aspected aether will coalesce into crystalline form."

"Life-aspected?" Colin murmured. "As opposed to?"

"Astral and Umbral aspects… of the six elements of -" Thancred stopped himself, staring at Colin's notes warily while they expanded before his very eyes. "Alright, yes, this is getting a bit much for breakfast conversation, don't you think? Gods. We should have this conversation when I can responsibly get sloshed! Besides, I'm no theoretician, so you shall surely exhaust my meager knowledge before long." He stuffed some bread in his mouth with a mulish expression, then got up. "...I'm going to take my Nutkin for a walk."

"...Okay." Colin watched the man leave, not what he'd said to set him off - and he dearly hoped that he's interpreted his last remarks correctly. Some sort of local slang for a lavatory break, probably?

Momodi gave him an apologetic look. "Ah, he can be like that - bit flighty, on occasion. He'll come around," she promised. "By the by - didn't peg you for a scholar." She looked over the quickly expanding array of notes Colin had scrawled on every available piece of paper. "The way you were carryin' that pike around, I took you for the 'stab 'em with the pointy end' kind of person, if you pardon me sayin' it. Gettin' into theoretical aetherology at eight' bell is a bit... different."

"I know my way around fighting," he said. "Still, I'm a Tinker by trade - an artificer, a smith. I'll have to look around and see if I can get the necessary resources and tools together to build a few things." He gestured at his notes. "I'm not used to working with aether, that's why I'm trying to figure out how it works. Both to understand Hydaelyn better, and to reequip myself. My armor is ruined, and my spear little more than a pointy stick…" Her blank look suggested she had no idea what else a spear would be. "I expect I'll have to start from scratch, which will be… work-intensive. I'll also have to figure out how to implement aether-resistance. It's never been a concern before."

"No magic users where you're from, huh?" Momodi mused. "You're from Garlemald?"

"No," Colin said, and then he hesitated about what to say next. Not only would talking about other universes be unbelievable, but he couldn't prove himself on that claim, and he was reluctant to drag Hydaelyn's people into the problems of the larger multiverse. He had no desire to lure in Cauldron or other less than savory people by prodding their Thinkers from afar, especially since this world had already had to deal with one apocalypse in recent memory. "I'm… from further away than that," he finally said. Vague, nonspecific. "I don't like to talk about it."

"Ah, come on!" she complained. "Now you're just gettin' me more curious! You're infuriating', you know that? How 'bout you give me the answer in exchange for that healin' I got for you?"

"That 'overflowing goodwill' of yours sure ran out quickly," Colin responded dryly.

She instantly wilted. "Ah crud, now you're makin' me feel bad. Never mind, never mind! Keep your secrets!"

Colin smiled, and packed up his notes. "I'll go see if I can find Thancred before he wanders off without me. I believe you have some guests to entertain." He gestured towards Lilira and Papashan, who were still busy bickering at a nearby table. "She's been waiting for fifteen minutes."

Momodi blanched. "Right. Time to bust out the crumpets! Let's go!"

Colin watched her leave, and rubbed his forehead tiredly. Eight in the morning, and he was already tired. It was probably a Monday.

...Did this world even have Mondays? How long was a week, here?

Argh!