It was a beautiful…morning.
Yes, definitely morning. South could see the bright star on the eastern horizon, bathing Vega in distant sunlight that left the sky in perpetual twilight. A world this far flung from its parent sun should have frozen over eons ago. Maybe such eccentric planetary physics was what had attracted her here in the first place.
South strode down the quiet streets of Alphonsus, listening to the pleasant lapping of water beneath the bridgeways. If this was a strange world to inhabit, this was a stranger city to build. The shallow bay extended inland several kilometers, leaving fertile farmland in the surrounding countryside. Perhaps to hold onto such precious land, the city builders had moved progress outward into the bay. Now the tightly packed buildings and roads stood on stonework stilts and foundations, reaching up out of the murky water.
In all of her travels across the Deep, South had never visited a Realm with such a city. There were plenty of platform and sea cities, to be sure, especially in the more advanced Realms where the technology was available. But these people in Vega were much more rustic—centuries behind the progress of artful city building on water. So while South had seen cities set on watery foundations, this was the first Realm to do it so simply and naturally with the world around them.
It helped that the stonework and bedrock within the bay were contusive of such construction. Perhaps a unique detail not found anywhere else in the Deep.
That, or she hadn't searched far enough yet.
The meeting place South had outlined was actually on the outskirts of Alphonsus, inland near the shore and agriculture. She had walked these streets already once before—had surveyed Vega in detail when the bright blue nebula in the sky first caught her attention. Ultimately, it was safer to stick to previous conveyance threads, lest she leave a trail for enemies to follow. And South couldn't deny the special beauty of this city and its world.
There was a familiarity here. A simplicity she hadn't seen since Delford…
South walked quietly past the darkened homes and buildings. She passed no individuals, though the hour wasn't horribly early. Perhaps the perpetual twilight lit skies made for different societal schedules in waking and sleep. South could have easily lost herself in this Realm, settling down for a century or two to soak it all in. Too bad the war would probably visit this Realm much sooner.
As the building thinned out, so did the wider streets. Here a few side paths made from wood bridges jutted off into empty swaths of open water. They diverged at several intersecting paths, stretching into the dry farmland beyond the bay. South could imagine farmers and ranchers walking these paths daily to and from work. Right now, they were devoid of life.
The perfect place to speak without being overheard.
South felt as a new thread of time opened up, an Entry Potential appearing on the mainland no more than a kilometer from where she stood. Chris had arrived, then. And judging by the silence in the threads, he had done well keeping enemies off his tail. But that was Chris and Arden's specialty these days, it seemed. Cloak and dagger games.
When had the universe forced them to take up such responsibilities?
South found a comfortable place along the wooden bridgeway to lean against the rail, gazing eastward at the rising sun. The distant starlight was dimmer than the deep blue nebula beaming in the heavens above. Combined with the faint morning light, a soft glow permeated across the bay, leaving the still waters shimmering with unearthly light. It was dim enough that without her inner sight, South would have missed Chris' approach until he was a few scant meters away.
His armored boots thudded on the wooden path with a degree of careful silence. Yet there was weight in them. It seemed even he was trying to embrace the peace of the moment, as much as possible.
A moment later, he stood beside her, gazing out across the calm waterfront. She heard the soft whir of machinery on his armor, his left arm guard retracting. Then, free from the bulky protective armor, he placed a gentle arm around her shoulder, hugging close to her side.
"Old friend, we meet on strange worlds."
South smirked. "So you noticed."
She felt him nod. "I've never been out this way in the Deep before. I suppose we'll scout all sorts of unique places to meet as the war unfolds."
For a time, South was content to let the two of them stand in silence, enjoying the peace of the moment. When was the last time Chris had held her this close? Surely the war hadn't dragged on for more than a decade or so of Realtime. Yet it felt as though another eternity had passed since their times in Delford.
Eternity was a strange matter for someone immortal.
"Y'know," Chris began, "I was just thinking how much this place reminds me of Delford."
South finally turned to face him properly. It was hard to contain the grin on her face. "I felt the exact same way. Didn't recognize it my first time here, though."
Chris nodded, his electric blue eyes focusing in on hers. Damn, this was a hard time to get sentimental. He reached out, briefly caressing her cheek.
"I was in Delford, recently."
South felt a storm cloud descend on her, and she looked down away from his gaze. It seemed to ruin the perfectness of the moment. Chris must have sensed this, because he retracted his hand.
"Still burnt to ashes?" South asked bitterly.
"More so, if it is possible. But the Andolasians keep a garrison there. In my mission to root out their secrets, I found an opportunity to walk down nostalgic roads."
South huffed. She turned away from the bay, leaning against the railing and folding her arms. Chris seemed unfazed, continuing to gaze eastward towards dawn.
"It's hard to find nostalgia in the cinders of this war," she spat. "Those bastards burned down our home. How could you have steeled yourself to walk such roads?"
Chris exhaled wearily. "Let's walk."
The two turned, heading further inland. South could already sense ahead to the end of the bridge, where the path turned to dirt and the only company was wooden fences and rows of fields. Chris set a gentle pace, clearly in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. He had always shared their talks during a walk somewhere. Perhaps a trait he carried with him from his time with Arden and Shade. It seemed some things never changed.
"I followed an enemy agent," he began. "They maintain the Delford garrison in case more Deian such as ourselves should manifest in that Realm."
South chuckled bitterly. "If the Deian had an origin in Delford, we'll never know now."
"Nevertheless, the Andolasians assigned an agent to oversee their affairs. I tracked his movement into the Deep, behind enemy lines to a Realm they call Deviant. I believe it's a critical staging area."
South nodded. She wondered just how often Chris, Arden, and their little Special Forces operation on Lethis backtracked behind enemy lines. They seemed to work outside the ARR these days, keeping to the shadows and cloaking their movements. Avon would appreciate the Intel.
"It's not their Capitol, but there is a force guiding their work there. Whispers of a central leader; someone they call the Mikado."
South froze, turning to face Chris.
Chris searched her face, his eyes blank for a moment. "You overheard this title as well," he said, finally understanding.
South glanced down, the memory of her previous jaunt. The farthest she had ever traveled. If ever a center of the Deep seemed possible—an origin to all things in the universe—then this had to be it.
"I followed an agent likewise," she began. "There is a Realm within the Deep unlike anything I've ever seen. It's massive. Trillions of quartic lightyears in size. And the enemy is planning a meeting there with a high level individual called the Mikado."
South glanced up again. Chris' jaw set and he nodded. "Then whatever the Andolasians want, it must be there. Something that they would send their leader to find."
Suddenly a plan took shape in South's mind. "It is clear now that we must trade places. You must track down this Mikado—find out what they want with this central Realm. And I must follow the agent you tracked into enemy territory."
Chris cocked his head. "I understand my part in the plan. But what do you hope to achieve by going to Deviant?"
South grinned, feeling as mischievous as she ever had in the times before. "Why, I'm going to sow chaos, my dear Chris. Have you forgotten my specialties?"
Chris laughed quietly, shaking his head. Then he pulled her into a tender embrace. South rested her head against his shoulder, sighing as memories washed over her. It did seem like an eternity ago since they had held each other like this. In a time when such things had seemed possible.
"This place reminds me of Delford more and more," she whispered.
She felt Chris run his hand down through her sandy white hair, resting on her back. "South, I have sensed a lot of bitterness in you about our home."
"Don't you hold such bitterness?"
"I try not to. I know how much you miss it. We all miss it, and I am no exception. There are some days where it hurts so badly. We weren't meant to be gods of war. And now look at what the Andolasians have thrown upon us. But please understand something, South."
He broke apart from their embrace, their faces close. He gazed down into her aquamarine eyes, his own fierce and emotion filled.
"We were called when no others would rise. And even amidst strife, we can find the peace we once knew." He chuckled. "Just look for moments like this, and remember the goodness."
South sighed, leaning against his shoulder again. "I wish we didn't have to be apart for so long."
"Our enemies would have it destroy us."
But it can't, South didn't say aloud. Because Chris was right. Even in the darkness of this war, they would find peace. They had each other, even as they scattered across the multitude of worlds to halt their enemy's aggression.
Breaking apart once more, Chris leaned down and kissed South on the cheek. South closed her eyes, savoring in the warmth that flowed from the touch. When she blinked them open again, Chris had stepped back; virtual energy already shimmering off his person as he prepared to convey.
"I will seek the Mikado. Try to find some possible end to this war. And as for you, my lovely little prankster." He winked. "Give 'em hell."
South grinned as her friend disappeared out of time and space, winking off into the Deep. She turned, sparing one last glance over Vega.
It was such a peaceful, happy world. Much like Delford had been in the eternities past. And if South had any power in this war, she would make sure that worlds like these could continue on as havens in the conflict.
For now, she noted silently as she winked off into the Deep, it was time to bring mayhem to her enemies.