I do not own Mythic Ocean. Paralune does.

This one took me much longer to get out than I would've liked, but mental health's been kinda spiraling out of control. I'm determined to see this through, though.

Chapter published March 29 2021.


"This is the place you love most."


Alita

"And so it was," Father Devin bellowed, standing atop the treestump altar, "that Great Amar ventured to the home of the twin gods, where they wished to play with them again. The gods took turns hiding amidst the brilliant coral, ducking beneath the schools of fish, and seeking each other out. At Great Amar's assurance, the twin gods extended their divine gifts into the environment around them. So it was that the twin gods controlled the bodies and minds of the fish, using them as scouts to locate Great Amar's hiding place among the reef.

Alita smiled from where she sat in the choir benches, her hands clasped together. This was always one of her favorite verses from the Book of Coral.

"... but Great Amar was not pleased, and had not expected the twin gods to subject others to their powers. They scolded the twins, warning them against causing harm to others. But the twins gods did not understand, thinking Great Amar simply wished to rob them of victory by invalidating it. Then so it was that the Historian, when he next met the twin gods, learned of these events, and sided with Great Amar. Together they taught the twins carefulness, and empathy, to be good to nature and to those around them, even if it may make them less likely to achieve victory.

"So too must we remember compassion, to set aside our needs for the needs of others. To remember that all children of the world face their own struggles and come from their own stories, to hear them out before assuming the worst. Be at peace." He flipped the Book of Coral's cover over, shutting it with a heft thump. With that sign, the congregation rose from their seats and began to leave in that sort of disorganized, half-leaving, half-gathering-in-groups-to-talk-with-friends way that a crowd with nowhere pressing to go often moved.

Her choirmates began shuffling towards the great wooden doors, and Father Devin began packing up the materials he'd brought to the altar. Alita began pushing her way towards the gates, chatting excitedly with her friends. Once outside, the light of the sun shone down on her, and a chorus of distant birds met her ears, bringing a smile to her face. The people were already going there separate ways into the dense jungle surrounding the temple, and with a wave to her friends, Alita began making her way to the back of the place.

The Temple of Amar was a great structure carved into a still-growing tree, broad and strong and as tall as the mountains, with a leafy canopy thick enough to provide shelter from any inclement weather. Its bark was like molten amber and as smooth as glass, with great windows and doors carved into it. The vast shadow cast by the tree's leaves kept anything from growing nearby except for a thick carpet of verdant moss, and kept the dense jungles at bay. As Alita walked around to the back of the tree, a hop and a skip in her jump, she kept her eyes on the sky, looking for her partner.

... there!

She spotted a shadow against the crisp blue skies, diving in and out of the wispy clouds dotting it. The shadow came closer and closer, fluttering its wings fiercely as it came to touch down gently on the moss beds.

"Hey there, Aonyx!" she said, shielding her face with an arm as its wingflaps kicked up dust into her face.

((This one greets partnered one!)) it said into her mind, with a deep rumbling voice. ((Was meeting of talking of furry god enjoyable?)) With a rustle, Aonyx set its wings onto its back.

"It was, thanks! Come on, let's get going." Aonyx lowered itself closer to the ground, and Alita jumped up onto its thorax. She grabbed fistfuls of its soft fur and pulled herself up and onto the saddle strapped around its body; it never minded her pulling the fur. Lutra's brood was tough. "Hear anything on the way here?" she asked, tying herself onto the saddle so she wouldn't fall off.

((This one heard nothing of interest,)) it said. ((Maybe more at meeting place. Anticipation.))

"Sounds like a plan." She leaned over and scratched Aonyx under its head, right at the crease between two of its shell plates. It felt like dragging her nails across a piece of pottery, but it leaned into her touch, chirping in a high pitch that was decidedly at odds with the deepness of its telepathy, and two of its right legs even began thumping against the ground. "Let's go!" she said, pulling away.

((Agreement!)) With that, Aonyx opened its wings up and took to the sky, fluttering them incredibly fast on either side of her. Alita huddled down, pressing herself flat against its body as it climbed into the air, up and up as it made circles around the Temple of Amar's tree to build up speed and height.

Once they were high enough to clear the rainforest's canopy, Aonyx took off and soared due south-by-southeast, and now that they weren't accelerating Alita could sit up and look around. It was the same wondrous flight as ever; the wind in her hair, the world hand-crafted by Great Amar all around them, the vast blue sky above.

The rainforest of the world spread off into the vast distance, but it was not so elsewhere. In her travels Alita had seen vast grasslands insulated by the forests, with great roaming beasts that would reach up to pluck the leaves from incredible heights. She'd seen rivers empty out into glistening, jewel-like oceans. All those things and more over the years; she smiled at the memories.

Aonyx continued to soar at incredible speed, sometimes playfully dipping down to the top of the canopy. They scared birds out of their perches, and if she looked behind her, Alita could see the rainbows of plumage taking off into the air.

Before too much longer they came across their destination, one of the stations of the Worldguard. Standing up from the treetops atop gleaming metal alloys was something like a plate hovering above the trees and casting a vast shadow, loaded with smaller buildings on it that she knew from personal experience ranged from armories, to billboards, to some of the goddess Alethea's new 'communications device'-es that were not much more than little rectangles she could hold in her hand.

They circled it a few times to burn off Aonyx's speed, and then he came in for a landing on one of the moth pads. With a flutter of his wings he came to a rest on the circular patch of moss. ((This one will wait for partnered one,)) it said, lowering itself and starting to rip up patches of moss to devour.

"I'll try not to take long," she said, getting herself out of the saddle and jumping from its side. She hit the ground with a grunt, brushed herself off, and walked off the pad.

All around her were other members of the Worldguard, some just arriving and still in civilian clothes like her, others fully dressed in their leather armor, with weapons strapped to their backs or in holsters along their belts. She greeted them as she walked by to the lockers, a smile on her face, and they greeted her back.

"Hey Alita!"

"Hey there."

"Nice to see you, Alita."

"Greetings, Alita."

Even one of the other moths resting on the platform greeted her. ((This one gives greetings.))

The lockers were arranged near the outer edge of the platform, taking up a good quarter of its perimeter. There were no doors to open to get there, no roof, just a couple of guards and cameras keeping watch to prevent theft. Honestly, who would have the nerve to try and steal from Great Amar's Worldguard?

She found her gear, and searched through for what she'd need for her next mission. She'd spent months memorizing the details, pouring over the evidence, the law, so she knew standard armor wasn't going to cut it. Instead she opted for a camouflage outfit, with some basic survival tools stowed in a bag. Alita quickly got changed, then headed back out.

With that done, she made tracks back for Aonyx's location, this time with heavier steps. She'd dressed to the nines in camo, and even her hat could be pulled down into a mask. On her back she carried a backpack of survival equipment; enough to keep her alive in the wilderness, but not so much that it'd weigh her down and draw attention. She also had one of those new, fancy 'tablets' in her hands. Her moth'd finished eating while she was getting her things, and now was fanning its wings out, opening and closing them rhythmically to absorb the sun's warmth.

"All set!" she called out.

Aonyx snapped its head to her. ((Understanding. This one takes partnered one now?))

"Yep! We're heading to..." She glanced down at her tablet. She had to squint a bit to bring the words into focus, because it was made of clear glass and her eyes kept wanting to look behind it. "... the greater Ambersnap River. Coordinates, uh..." She found them, and rattled them off. "Does that make any sense to you?"

((This one understands, this one knows where!)) Aonyx got up and did a happy little dance on its legs, then folded its wings down in preparation to let her mount it. She hopped up, a little less steadily thanks to the added weight she carried, and once she was properly in the saddle, Aonyx began flapping its wings. ((This one goes now!)) It took off, soaring into the air, angled towards where they were to go, and shot off like an arrow.


A journey that would have taken her weeks, even months, of hiking took Aonyx mere hours.

They soared away from the sun, such that by the time Aonyx descended onto the treetops and landed in the canopy, it was sundown. With its legs perched precariously on several branches, and the tree bending underneath the weight of the giant moth, Alita leaned over and gave it another scratch. "Alright, this is as far as you go. Don't want them seeing you."

It nodded. ((Understanding. Worry. Partnered one alone... unfavorable. Partnered one will be careful?))

"Very careful," she promised, already unhooking herself and looking around for a branch to leap to. "I can take care of myself, Aonee."

((This one leaves then. Returns when partnered one gives signal.)) With that, Aonyx fluttered its wings, took off into the air, and zipped away towards the sunset.

Alright, time to climb down. One foot... there. Another one... there. Good.

As Alita made her way down the giant rainforest tree, she reviewed her mission. The Worldguard had been keeping track of an organization researching the science of life, but their level of secrecy was... suspicious. As was how they kept moving from one place to another, and how species always seemed to go endangered or - Great Amar forbid - extinct in the places they'd just been. Alita's job was to investigate, and then report back her findings. Personally, she was confident she knew what was going on already; they were robbing plants and animals out of the environment and killing them in their experiments, in great numbers too. It seemed obvious.

But 'seeming obvious' wasn't proof, so that was how she ended up climbing down a tree and plopping onto the forest floor. Birds and bugs chirped and buzzed in the understory above her, and already, sweat pooled on her skin.

Great Amar, was it ever humid in the thick of it. Good thing she had supplies enough to not worry about water. Alright, where to?

Alita slung her pack off and held it in one hand - didn't want to drop it on the ground and have to brush the bugs off, no siree! - and found her compass inside. She stashed her tablet while she was at it, got her bearings, and headed off to the north.

Walking through the forest floor was rough. She had to avoid roots sticking up from the ground, as well as sharp rocks, in addition to the wildlife. There was no shortage of foul-tempered, poisonous, venomous, territorial little bugs and snakes and lizards living in the ground, and she had to keep a sharp eye out for their dwellings. The ground sloped up and down as it pleased, forcing her to either trudge upwards or carefully descend downwards.

It'd already been sunset when she arrived, so it wasn't long before nightfall, and moving at night was a terrible idea. So, with a cavernous stomach and with sweat pouring down her face, Alita made camp. Except her 'camp' was little more than a little raised platform on sticks, and a nearly skin-tight sleeping bag that would keep anything from crawling over her, while also keeping her warm and letting in fresh air.

Before she knew it, it was day. Time to get moving.

Alita broke camp, got her spear, and ran through one of the big centipedes crawling on the bark of a nearby tree. Breakfast. She found a puddle of muddy water too, and with her filter-straw, that was her waterskins refilled and then some.

The next few days went like that; marching forward, watching her step, eating and drinking what the land provided and sheltering at night to avoid being what the land provided to someone else, all while keeping an eye out for any disturbance. Using her tablet, she found a journal 'app' and kept records of what species she found. So far everything was okay, but she knew it wouldn't stay that way as she ventured close to the where the organization - Biocord - had made camp.

But she wasn't down! She loved this. Hiking out in the middle of nowhere, practicing her outdoorsmanship, fulfilling her duty to the Worldguard and keeping her skills trained. Even when her muscles burned with fatigue and the urge to sleep weighed on her like a ton of stone, she pressed on with a smile on her face. If she wasn't technically trying to be stealthy, Alita would've whistled.

After a week of hiking, she came across the greater Ambersnap River. The forest cleared away as she approached it, leaving her walking on unsteady rocks piled on top of one another in place of dirt or even a beach of sand. The water flowed at a brisk pace, not quite frothing but fast enough she could see the ways the waves distorted the light bumping off them, rising and falling in different places depending on what kind of rocks or logs were beneath the surface. It was amazingly wide, and it flowed from horizon to horizon.

Well, good a place as any to take a break. She'd have to swim across that, and she needed to get herself in a good frame of mind.

Splash!

She looked up with a smile, expecting to see some kind of bird coming in for a meal, or a fish hitting its tail against the surface. For a moment there was nothing, just a dark shadow underneath the river's wild surface.

Splash!

Splash!

SPLOOSH!

The water exploded into white froth as the dark shadow burst free, sailed into the air, did a spin midair, and came down onto the ground.

Alita's heart skipped a beat.

It was Great Amar. It was Great Amar! The god who had created the world! Who she had given prayers not a week ago! They were there, right there, standing on six legs and low to the ground like an otter, with their long and furry tail dragging on the stones without the slightest worry of being cut open, shaking their head left and right like a dog to fling water off.

"Whoo!" they said, startling Alita out of her reverie. "Hey there, friend! Sorry if I spooked you." They smiled, showing two nubby fangs. All three of Great Amar's eyes were upturned happily. "Was just in the area, saw you coming, thought I'd say hi." Amar brought their hind legs forward and sat up; she'd been a little taller than the god when they were on all fours - all sixes? - but sitting up made them tower over her. And that wasn't even factoring in the tail.

"Uuuuuhhhhhhhhh," she droned, starstruck.

Their eyes widened. "Oh! Right, it's happening to her." Great Amar lowered themselves to the ground, scurried closer, than raised themselves to Alita's eye level, so close they dominated her entire field of view. "Hello?" They waved a paw in front of her, where the orange fur faded to purple. She could make out every strand of the triangle-pattern around their neck. "Anybody home? Come on, it's me, Amar." They rolled their eyes. "Creator of the world, yada yada, all that stuff. No big deal. Hey, what's your name?"

Her lips moved. Alita didn't remember making them move, and she didn't remember making noise. But she still heard herself say, "Alita."

"Alita! Hey, nice to meet you, friend. Can we, uh, not do the whole 'amazed by being around Amar' thing? I mean don't get me wrong." They stuck out their tongue like a goofy child. "I am a pretty great crabber and all, but giving me the whole godly treatment just makes things weird, you know?"

"It's pretty weird for me too," she said in a daze.

Great Amar must've heard the weakness in her voice, because they frowned and waved another paw in front of her eyes. "Hello? Uh, okay." They reached out and -

"Ah!" she yelped as something sharp poked into her shoulder. On reflex she dodged backwards and to the side, arms coming up to guard her face, but then caught herself.

Alita shook herself. Great Amar had just poked her with their claw. Right. Right. Calm down. They said she was making things weird, right? Don't make things weird. "Sorry I made things weird," she said.

"Ha!" they said. "It's all good. Alita, right?" They followed to where she jumped and held out a paw - one of the middle pair of arms. "I'm Amar." They smiled cheekily. "But something tells me you already knew that, huh? Huh?"

"Uh, yeah." She laughed nervously. "Sorry about that. It's just." She gestured to them. "You know."

I'm leaving Great Amar hanging, she realized, and made to shake their paw. The fur was wet, oily even, like all the water Great Amar'd been swimming through had come right out of the river with them.

They nodded sagely. "Ha, yeah, I know. Anyway, it's nice to meet you, Alita. What brings you here?"

"I'm, uh, with the Worldguard." She gestured to her camo. "I'm here to look into what Biocord's up to."

Great Amar let go of her hand, found an especially large rock on the shore, and quickly padded to it. They curled up on the rock, raised their head with their forelegs, and looked to her. "Biocord, huh? Think I've heard of it." They looked off into the sky, then back at her. "Eh, I'm sure it'll come to me. What do you think they've been up to?"

"We don't have any proof yet, I'm here to get proof, but we think they've been experimenting on the local wildlife," she explained. "Any place Biocord leaves ends up suspiciously... barren."

Great Amar's eyes had been twinkling. They'd been full of humor and life and friendliness, and Alita hadn't noticed at all until their brows narrowed and that twinkle darkened. "Oh. I, uh, I see. Well, that's no good." They winked, mirth returning. "Then it's a good thing Captain Alita is on the case, right?"

"Um, sergeant," she corrected.

"Oh, sorry. Anyway, which way're you headed?"

She pointed to the river. "Right across here, actually. I just need to get my wetsuit on."

Great Amar gave her a thumbs up with, uh, with their top-right hand and middle-left. Alita found her eyes zig-zagging across their body to try and keep up with their body language. "Well, don't let me stop you! I'm just gonna bask a bit." They lowered their head onto the hot, sunbaked stone they'd climbed onto, then rolled over onto their back. "Ooooh yeah, there we go..." they groaned, eyes rolling up in bliss.

Well, as long as Great Amar wasn't looking. Alita quickly changed out of her sweaty camo outfit, and then into her solid black wetsuit. She put her old outfit into her bag, zipped it up tight so it was waterproof, and made for the river as the creator of the entire fucking universe sunbathed behind her.

Up close, the river was flowing quite a bit faster than it'd seemed from afar. She'd probably get swept downstream more than she'd thought. Oh well; she'd just have to do some extra walking once she was on the other side. Alita took a step in, feeling the cool water pouring around her toes. Better get in quick before the sun broiled her.

Another step, up to her knees. Another, her stomach.

"Actually, hey!" She whipped around to see Great Amar getting off the rock. "Mind if I tag along? If they're messing with nature, then it's kind of something I have to deal with. Lutra and I made the Worldguard to help me do this kind of stuff, not do it for me."

Before she knew it, Great Amar was wading into the river, the rushing water surging around them. "Well, if you insist. I mean, I'd definitely feel safer with you there."

The god was already next to her, up to their undercarriage in water, but Great Amar still gave her another thumbs-up. "Cool! See you on the other side, Alita!" Then they darted under the water and, just like that, all she could see was a dark shape swimming to the other side.

She stared at where they'd been, then at the far side where Great Amar was already getting out of the water, then shook herself. "Get a hold of yourself, Alita. You're a professional." Taking a deep breath, she began swimming across.

It was impossible to see underneath; even though the water had seemed clear from up top, the current had kicked up enough mud and sand to completely cloud it just a few feet in front of her. Alita stayed on the surface, breaststroking her way across. Occasionally she stopped and looked around to make sure the current wasn't pushing her towards a log or something equally awful. She was getting pushed pretty fast though, if the receding orange blob of Great Amar was anything to go by.

In the sun, it was hot. The rainforest was humid and every step of her hike had forced her to take overheating and dehydration into account. But even with a pure black wetsuit to absorb the rays, in the water she was downright freezing, and it felt like the river was sucking the heat out of her core. She didn't dawdle.

Before she knew it, she was on the other side. When the water grew shallow enough she gingerly touched her feet to the ground, and walked the rest of the way. On the riverbanks, she turned to check how far she'd been carried by the current, only to see Great Amar had vanished.

Splash!

Splash!

SPLOOSH!

... and there was Great Amar bursting out of the river next to her. "Hey, that was pretty good!" they said, up on two legs. "You're a pretty good swimmer. Well, for a mortal!" they said, winking playfully.

"Ha ha," she laughed nervously. "Thank you, Gr - " Don't call them Great, they just said not to make things weird. " - err, thanks, Amar. Let me get changed," she said, slinging her pack off onto the ground.

"Go ahead!" they said, turning straight away.

Alita changed quickly out of her wetsuit and back into her camo, panting heavily at the strain in her muscles. "Alright, I'm done." Great Amar turned back to face her. "You're, uh, sure you wish to tag along?"

"Mmhmm!" they said, nodding. "I mean, what'm I gonna do, just sit around and let you do all the work? Lead the way, Sergeant Alita," they said, gesturing to the forest.

She nodded. "Alright, thank you very much." She turned to the overgrowth, and set out.


Great Amar was very obviously more at home underwater, if she looked at them. For goodness' sake, they looked like a giant otter. But it became very clear, very quick, that Great Amar was just as capable on land. They clambered along the trees like a gecko and jumped from one to the other like a squirrel, sometimes jumping ahead of her and hanging upside down from the tree branches like a goofball. It always made her crack a smile.

They always seemed to know where every single living thing around them was, too.

"Oh! Burrowing spider."

"Hey, Alita, pit viper over there!"

"Hang on there, don't step on that!"

They continued the hike in ease, until the sun began to set and the forest plunged into darkness.

"Excuse me, Amar!" she shouted. They were currently on a raised boulder ahead of her, on all fours - all sixes? She still hadn't figured out what to call it - and turned their head back to look at her. "I need to make camp for the night."

"Oh, cool!" They jumped off, and padded back to her. "Anything I can do to help?"

She was already setting up her raised platform. "Well, I just need a quick dinner and - "

Great Amar raised a paw. "Say no more!"

WHOOSH!

She'd thought Great Amar could move fast before, but this was outright supernatural. One moment Great Amar was there, the next there was a long, blurry orange trail vanishing into the depths of the rainforest, and the wind sent fallen leaves blowing over her face.

WHOOSH!

And in the time it took her to notice how fast they'd moved, they were back already, down on all fours with an entire dead Tapir hanging from their jaws. "Mweh!" they said, dropping it onto the ground. "Alright, dinner, here you go!"

Alita blinked. "H-How'd - how did you move so - " she said, pointing a finger at Great Amar, before drooping it. "Actually, never mind. Kind of obvious."

"Ha! Yeah, I don't like to really show off about the whole, ya know." Great Amar sat, curling their long bushy tail around themselves for a cushion. "God thing. I don't really feel like a god, is the deal. For the longest time I didn't actually know I was one. Just." They shrugged. "Just, ya know, good at hunting." They smiled. "Heh, must be why the whole 'great creator' thing weirds me out so much."

"Um, yeah, I can see why that would be strange to hear so much of." She inspected the god closer. She'd never seen Great Amar before in her life. She always thought she'd be able to sort of... sense their godliness, the vast power of creation they held. Static along her hairs, or a weight in the air, but there was nothing. If it hadn't been for that display of speed, she'd never suspect a thing.

Her eyes dropped down to the tapir. The rhino-pig-thing had a bite mark on its stomach, and Great Amar had apparently killed it by snapping its neck. Poor critter probably didn't even feel a thing. But, there was one small problem. "Amar, not to be ungrateful, but I can't make a fire this close to Biocord. They'll see the smoke. And I can't eat this raw."

"Ah, ah, not a problem!" they said, lifting their two top paws. "I am not only an amazing swimmer and host, but I am also... a chef! Watch!" Great Amar brought their paws together and closed all three of their eyes.

Oh crap, she thought as something began to happen. There's the static, there's the weight.

Great Amar spread their arms apart, and where they did a great roiling orb of pure magic appeared, growing larger and larger until it was large enough to fit between Great Amar's paws fully outstretched. It shone its roaring pinkish-orange light on her like a campfire, and when Great Amar opened their eyes, they were a bright, burning-magnesium white.

Fwoosh!

From the orb, a channel of pure magic shot out at the speed of light, engulfing the tapir. It didn't even take an instant. It was skinned, it was cooked, it was sliced up into chunks and set on plates carved out of limestone.

The enormous orb of magic faded, collapsing inwards into a point and vanishing entirely. Great Amar's eyes returned to normal. The great, mystical aura surrounding them vanished. "Ta-dah!"

Alita's eyes were wide. "Uh."

She looked down at the cooked food. It smelled delicious.

She looked back up at Great Amar.

Don't make things weird.

"Thank you," she said. She lifted a haunch to her mouth.

Great Amar watched her intently, smiling eagerly.

She took a bite. It was delicious.

"Well?" they asked, leaning forward.

"It's amazing," she said, chewing and swallowing. She took another bite. It was so warm, as if it'd been cooking over a fire for hours, and as soft too. It was melting in her mouth. "Sorry if it's obvious, but when did you learn to cook like this? Or is it just the... whatever that was?"

"Oh, I actually learned it from you guys! Mortals, I mean!" Great Amar said, clapping with a pair of arms. "I actually didn't know about cooking back in the kelp forest. I mean, sometimes the twins talked about missing 'home cooked meals', whatever that meant, but I didn't really think anything about it." They shrugged. "What can I say? Kind of hard to start a fire underwater."

"Well, you're definitely a quick learner." She continued devouring for a while, then looked up at Great Amar, who'd turned to look at something in the trees. Maybe a bird she couldn't make out. "Um, should I... wait for you to eat?"

"Huh?" They turned to her. "Oh, right. I'll just get myself some mussels."

WHOOSH!

They were gone.

WHOOSH!

They were back, this time with a bunch of black, freshwater mussels in their arms. "Good thinking, Sergeant!" they said, laying down onto their back and starting to crack them open one by one before slurping up the meat inside.

Alita stared, then shook her head, smiled, and turned back to her food.


"Can you make yourself less noticeable?" she whispered to Amar. "You kind of stand out."

"Huh?" They looked down at themselves, bright orange against the dark rainforest. "Oh, yeah, hang on." That same godly aura of power filled the air, and Amar's eyes burned bright. A ripple of energy washed over their body, changing the color of their dense, perpetually wet fur to a moss green. The aura faded, leaving Amar entirely disguised. "How do I look?" they asked, raising a paw and turning it over in their sight.

"Like the jungle," she said. "Alright, let's go."

"Lead the way, Sergeant! Your mission."

She began creeping forward towards the base. They'd come across Biocord's location early in the morning, and now it was time for her camo to come into use. Her mission was simple; get in, get any evidence of environmental destruction, get out. Even if worst came to worst, she wasn't necessarily afraid for herself, not with Amar there. But if they were discovered, it could mean destroyed evidence.

The trees thinned out as they approached, opening into a grassy meadow dotted with thin, yellowing weeds. The Biocord camp wasn't any sort of great cement structure, but neither was it just a loose collection of tents with its employees going about their business in the open. A large log structure occupied the meadow, much too large to be a mere cabin, and strange generators hung just outside of its walls and doors, rattling and belching a strange, foul-smelling smoke into the air. There were a few doors leading into the place, and they all looked to have bolted locks.

That was fine. They didn't need to get inside.

"See anything?" she whispered.

Amar raised their head and took a few deep breaths through their large, broad nostrils. "Yeah, hang on, over here." Amar scurried across the perimeter of the meadow, their long tail waving up and down but never actually touching the ground, and she followed. They went around until they were at the back of the building. There, they hunkered behind a rotting log and peered closer.

Alita gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth in horror.

It was a grave. A mass grave, for all kinds of animals. A giant pit dug into the soil, and she could see bodies of all sorts of wildlife creatures rotting in the sun. Birds, snakes, beetles, butterflies. Next to the hole was a mound of dirt, no doubt awaiting the time when it would be packed back over the hole to hide all evidence.

She stared. Amar stared, too. They stared at the hole quietly, smile gone, their entire body frozen.

"Someone's coming," they whispered.

In a flash, Alita had gotten her tablet out. Evidence. She needed evidence. She held the tablet over their rotting log and took picture after picture of the grave. Then, when she heard footsteps in the brush, she found the approaching men and women and took their pictures too. Them, and the large white cloth box with various tranquilized animals in it.

They went inside. Minutes passed. The back door opened and she got pictures of them dumping fresh corpses into the hole.

Once done, she and Amar huddled back behind the log. "Alright, I've got the evidence," she whispered. "This... this is too much. It's proof that they're behind the damage being recorded. They can't hide behind the excuse of it being a coincidence." She glanced at her bag. There was a flare inside, a high-powered one that would go far into the air. "I can call my partner, Aonyx, here. We can get back to - "

"Well, uh, can I stop you there, friend?" Amar said, glancing up at her. "That's, uh, not really gonna be needed. I think I've seen enough." And then they came out from behind the log and started to approach Biocord's building, padding along on all six legs. Amar's body rippled with magic, dispelling their camouflaged fur and turning back to the regular bright orange.

Her eyes widened. "Whoa whoa whoa, what are you doing?" she hissed, following after the god.

They shrugged, but did not stop walking. "Well, I set up the Worldguard to stop this sort of thing, right? I mean, I'm here, so you don't need to bring those pictures back, ya know? It's never good to overcomplicate things, friend!"

"Well, I suppose, but - "

"Glad you agree!" Amar reached the back door and got up on two legs. They investigated the lock. "Let me see, how does..." They grasped the handle, pulled it down, and pushed. The door opened inwards with such a loud crack that Alita was certain that Amar had just broken the lock like it was nothing. "Hey, look at that, it was open!" they said with a smile, and then Amar was inside.

"Crap," she whispered, hurrying after them. "Wait! Shouldn't we call for backup if we're going in like this?"

"Eh, what for? I don't wanna drag too many people into this. Here, I'll get that." Once she was in, Amar closed the door behind her.

The inside of the building was refreshingly cool, making the sweat on her skin prickle icily. Electric lamps hung from the ceiling, glowing yellow. And a pair of guards, armed with crossbows and clad in some strange, dark armor that looked like some sort of plastic, turned the corner and spotted them immediately.

"Freeze!" the man on the left shouted, taking aim. "Intruders, sound the... sound the..." He seemed to notice who they were aiming at.

The woman on the right swallowed nervously and lowered her weapon. "... oh no."

"Hey there, friends!" Amar said, waving one of their upper paws. "Mind taking me to whoever's in charge around here?"

They stared up at Amar nervously. Their eyes flickered back to Alita, and she shuffled awkwardly. Should she... go? Amar certainly didn't need her here, did they? What did she do in this situation?

Whatever she should do, the guards obviously decided the smart thing to do was do what Amar said. "Right this way, G-Great Amar," the man said, gesturing down the hall with a trembling hand. "Should I let him know you're coming?"

"Oh, could you? That'd be great!"

"I'll run on ahead!" the woman volunteered suddenly, before bolting.

The three of them - Alita, guard, and Amar - sat in silence for a moment. Amar chuckled, looking to the side nervously. "Heh. Man, this is awkward, huh? Sorry about this, friend," they said, looking at the guard. "But if you bring us to whoever's in charge, we'll be out of your hair before you know it!"

That seemed to knock the man out of his stupor. "Um, right. I was going to lead you..." He turned and began walking at a brisk pace. Amar eagerly followed and, less certainly, Alita did too.

They passed a few more guards inside the hallways, but mostly they passed scientists of one kind or another. White coats, eyes buried in clipboards or tablets or in heated conversation with each other. Some of them pushed metal trays with dissected animals on them. As Amar approached, their eyes widened and they backed up out of the way, pressing themselves against the walls in a hurry. The atmosphere was tense; and everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing; Amar is here and even if they'd never, they could kill all of us in the blink of an eye. Don't piss Amar off. Just stay out of the way and be small.

Eventually the guard leading them stopped by a mahogany door and knocked. "Someone to see you, sir!" There was a click from inside and, without prompting, Amar swept in and shut the door behind them.

Alita looked at the Biocord guard. He looked back at her. He shifted his weight nervously. "So... Worldguard, huh?"

"That would be, um, yep."

She rocked on her heels.

He coughed.

She couldn't make out the words, but Amar was talking to someone on the other side of the door.

"They just kind of... showed up," she said, gesturing to the door. "I was just supposed to take pictures."

"Cool, cool."

Someone else was talking inside the room. He sounded thoroughly dressed-down.

After a few more minutes, the door opened and Amar slinked out. Through the crack, Alita caught sight of an old bearded man, hair as white as snow and face white as a sheet. "Alright, let's get going!" Amar said cheerfully. "Could you show us the way out, friend?" they asked the guard.

"Um, uh, of course, Great Amar."

A few minutes and a few more terrified guards later, Alita was back outside with Amar. They were on all fours now, so she looked down at them. "So, uh, did you have a good conversation with that... whoever that was?"

They nodded. "Yep! Director Alwin, good man. Apparently they're some kind of... uh, I dunno. Genome... putting in order thing? No, sequence, that was the word. I don't know, sounds more like Alethea's thing." Their head drooped. "I mean, they're all going to stop, and I'm going to go get some of my friends to make sure of that, but, uh, I'm kinda bummed out. They were getting funding from the twins' church."

She blinked. "Like, the godly twins? Ketri and Esti the twins?"

Amar sighed and closed all three of their eyes. "Yep, them. It's just, gah!" They clenched three of four paws. "It's frustrating, ya know? I tried with the twins, I really did! I tried to show them how to be good to people, to nature, and that just because they could do stuff doesn't mean they had to. But apparently they've been going behind my back with this stuff, and they know how I feel about the environment. I just." They sighed. "I don't know what I did wrong. And I can't just, you know, forget this." Amar looked up at her. "I'm gonna have to yell at them. I hate yelling at people, and Ketri and Esti really hate being yelled at, and ugh this is going to be the worst."

"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I hope it goes well."

"Ha! Yeah, me too. Um, speaking of being sorry, I think I should apologize too. You know, showing up on your mission and kind of." They gestured to the log structure. "Taking over like this."

"No!" she said hurriedly. "No, it's fine. It's been, uh, cool hanging out, Amar. And you are sort of my boss."

"Heh, guess I am! Anyway, we're done here, I think. You can call your moth buddy over here. Oh, right, you're probably not going to show back up with the pictures, huh? I'll get over and tell the folks over at the station about everything." They winked. "Not gonna leave you hanging. Take care, Alita!"

"You too, Amar."

They pointed a finger gun at her. "And hey, look me up next time you're in the north, got a whole bunch of holidays coming up and you do not want to miss the celebrations. See ya!"

WHOOSH!

And in the blink of an eye, Amar was gone.

She looked behind her, then at the treeline. "Guess I just... leave." She slung her pack off and found the flare she was to use to signal Aonyx. It was a little plastic tube, bright pink, with a cap on one end. She pointed it straight up, carefully unscrewed it, and braced.

Pewwww! A streak of light shot into the air, burning bright enough to block out even the sun as it soared higher and higher with a rising whistle. Higher, higher, and pop!

And now to wait.

...

...

... there! A little black speck in the distance. She waved to it as it grew larger and larger, resolving into Aonyx's big green body in a matter of minutes. Then she realized it wasn't slowing down for a landing, and backed up.

Aonyx came down like a meteor, kicking up dirt and looking back and forth frantically. Pink clouds of energy had gathered on the undersides of its wings. ((Partnered one! Where danger? Signal close to target! Danger!))

"Hey hey, shh, it's okay," she said, coming in closer and stroking its crown of fur. "It's, uh, it's a long story, but there's no danger."

((... no danger?)) they rumbled.

"Yeah, can we just get out of here?" Without further prompting Aonyx relaxed, dispelled its energy attack, and lowered itself so she could climb on. She did so promptly, and it rose up. "Alright, good to go!"

((Then this one leaves.)) Aonyx shot into the air. ((Back to great circle base.))

"Thanks! And man, Aonyx, you're not going to believe who I met out here..."


"Even if it's hard or scary, don't you want to protect it?"


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