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February 1st, 2013

Freedom City, United States

Liberty Park

Late afternoon

Tona Baudin made her way through Liberty Park, choosing a path to avoid the few determined joggers and dog walkers. The boles of the leafless trees didn't provide much cover, but the young woman didn't want to be around people very much just now. It hadn't even been a month ago that an artificial duplicate of hers had a rampage just south of the river, attacking her friends and a group of young Terminus mutants, even killing a few. While most citizens didn't know to connect Blue Jay with Tona, she still felt a twinge of guilt at walking around free after something modeled after her skills had killed people while she was stuck an unimaginable distance, captive to an alien intelligence.

It didn't make a lot of sense. Tona knew that, admitted that it didn't make any sense. That didn't make her feel any less guilty.

In almost no time she came to the center of the park, near where the lake split into two tributaries. She hitched at the pack carrying her bow and quiver (Headmaster Summers had reminded her to bring her gear) and looked around. She had been told that she was to meet someone here, but she seemed virtually alone.

Edited by Raveled
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She wasn't left to wait and wonder for very long; within minutes, one of the trees nearby began to stir as though shaken by a wind that did not touch its fellows. Moments later, one of the branches began to unfurl green leaves, then sprouted an acorn which quickly grew all out of proportion to the branch it was hanging from. It grew to the size of a beach ball, then an earth ball,then quite improbably popped in a cloud of pollen and nutmeat. Out of the cloud stepped a woman, quite unscathed, who paused a moment to arrange herself after the trip without even bothering to look around and assess the situation for potential threats. She was a small, soft woman, one who looked like she'd be more at home teaching nursery school than saving the world, but she was certainly dressed like a hero. A closer look by Tona's practiced eye revealed that the costume was almost entirely brand-new, the green tunic and pants still stiff with starch, the brown hooded cowl not even a little broken in.

After brushing herself off, the woman finally thought to look around, and immediately noticed Tona waiting for her. "Hello!" she said cheerfully, stepping forward and offering her hand. "You must be Blue Jay. I'm Fleur de Joie. Duncan Summers assured me that you're an excellent tracker, and just the person to assist me with a problem I've been having. I hope I'm not putting you out?"

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"... D'accord. Yes, I am Blue Jay." She stepped forward and took the green-haired woman's hand, squeezing rather than shaking it. "I am Blue Jay, but only when I'm wearing my mask. Right now, you can just call me Tona. I do know a little bit about tracking, yes," she said. "I was raised as -- by a hunter. I spent most of my life bow-hunting, so I know more than most about tracking animals. And tracking machines isn't very different."

She looked past Fleur, to the plant she had stepped out of. "Headmaster Summers told me to bring anything I'd need for an overnight trip, but... you don't live in the tree, do you?"

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"Oh no," Fleur assured her. "I just use plants for travel. I live in an alternate dimension called Sanctuary, and that's where I'm having a bit of a problem. You see, it's a bit of a fixer-upper world, but I've got a nice chunk of it all set up and habitable by now. There's a refugee village there, but for the past couple of weeks, they've been losing livestock from the pens and fields at night. We haven't imported any predators, and the local dragon swears up and down that she hasn't been snacking, so I just don't know what it could be. I'm worried that there might be a life form on the planet that we don't know about yet, and if it could take a cow or goat, it could take a person eventually. I'm hoping that someone with a bit more survivalist skill can have a look and tell me what we're dealing with. I hope it won't take too long, and I'll have you back here tomorrow."

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"Local... dragon. D'accord." Tona had a feeling she'd be saying that a lot. "Well then. I can go and took a look at it, yes. I don't have to be back before Monday, so I can stay longer than a day or so if you need me." She glanced around at the bare trees and the city rising beyond them. In fact it might be good to be away for a few days. "If something is nearby your village, I'm sure I can find it and feather it. Um." She glanced back at the tree. "I don't think I can walk through plants, though."

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"That's not a problem, just take my hand." Fleur was as good as her word, and half a dozen steps later, Tona had the interesting experience of being swallowed up by a giant red nasturtium blossom. There was a moment of overwhelming greenness and the scent of fresh pine, and suddenly they were stepping out into a winter meadow on the edge of a dense forest. Not too far away, perhaps a quarter-mile, was a small village composed of equal parts prefabricated steel buildings and rough-hewn log cabins. Smoke rose from the chimneys and the air held a wintry bite, but Tona could spot a surprising number of growing green plants alongside the winter hibernators. The large garden next to the village, especially, seemed to be flourishing improbably well for the weather, as was the lush grass inside the pens that housed sheep, goats, and a handful of cows.

"Welcome to Sanctuary," Fleur told her, a hint of pride in her voice. "This is the human village, where we've been having all the trouble. Would you like to have the tour first, or would you rather take a moment to warm up? I could get you a cup of coffee or tea, some cookies. Have you had lunch yet?"

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Tona followed Fleur through the flower/portal/thing, holding her breath for whatever good it would do her. When they emerged on the other side, the first thing she noted was that it was cooler here, at least enough to chill her. Then she realized the skyline of Freedom City was, well, gone and most of the ground was covered in grass and flowering plants. She zipped her fleece jacket up to her chin as she turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. The young woman closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, instantly noting the lack of gas fumes, alcohol-based sprays, paint, garbage, and a thousand other stinks that had been a part of life in a city. Instead all she smelled was cold air and green, growing things. There wasn't even the distant sound or lights of the city over the horizon to intrude. She unconciously stood taller and easier, the knot of tension in her gut and shoulder loosening. For just a moment, she felt... at home.


Then she opened her eyes and saw the village, saw the people going about their business the big animals in the pen. "D'accord. I want to see where the missing animals were kept first, please. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to find them."

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"Sure, the barn and the night pens are right over here," Fleur said, leading the way across the field towards a large stone and wood building. Upon closer inspection, it seemed as though the stone portion had been hollowed out of a single massive stone block, fifteen feet tall and half the size of a football field. The loft area was made of widely separated wood planks, topped off by a shake shingle roof. We normally keep the sheep outdoors, but the grass means we're seeing some early lambs already. Whatever it was seems to have gotten right into the barn somehow. We don't lock it, but there's a latch. I'll have William and Jacen explain it to you, they're the experts." 


The ground was springy under Tona's feet as they crossed the field, her feet and Fleur's leaving faint impressions in the dead grass. It shouldn't be too difficult to follow a trail, except for all the other human and animal tracks that could confuse the matter. "So where did you learn to track?" Fleur asked casually. "It's not a very common skill anymore." 

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Tona followed a step or two behind Fleur, casting her eys around the little settlement. "Ma pere was an archer," she said. "He taught me how to shoot, and my mother's family taught me how to hunt." She stopped outside the building and ran her hand along the stone wall. It certainly wasn't broken, and the ground around the base of the sctructure seemed solid. It didn't seem like anything had tunneled into the building; she understood that wolves and foxes could do that, dig right a fence or wall and make off with anything they found inside, but that didn't seem to be the case here.


She followed Fleur in, peering into the other stalls and looking at the animals with honest curiosity. "Could the animals have gotten out on their own and wandered off? Or could another village have stolen them?"

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"There is no other village," Fleur said matter-of-factly. "This is the only one. Or if there is another one, it's not anywhere within a five hundred mile radius." She laughed. "The first group of survivors from this world was a total surprise to me, I hadn't realized there were any humans left on Sanctuary at all. After we set up the village, I conducted a very thorough search of the entire surrounding area, just to make sure I wasn't missing even more. The world beyond this cleaned area is really not at all fit for human habitation. Oh, and here are the men who can answer the rest of your questions." 


The green-clad heroine waved to two men down on the other end of the barn, both of whom seemed to be doing something with a cow's front hoof. One was a weather-roughened man in his mid-thirties, the other was lean and ascetic-looking, maybe early in his twenties at most. "Tona, this is William and Jacen, our animal husbandry specialists. William grew up on Sanctuary, so he's an expert on the area, and Jacen is a third year veterinary student interning from Freedom City. Guys, Tona was wondering if it's possible that the animals might have escaped and wandered further than our search." 


The older man, William, immediately shook his head. "Nope, not even a little," he replied, his voice accented in a way that was impossible to place. "Not unless a goat's got thumbs they're keepin' secret from us, so's they can work a latch and string. Not only that, but they'd have had to close the door behind 'em for this last one. The cow got taken from out the field, but this one last night went right out of the barn." 


"That nanny goat is heavily pregnant," Jacen added, frowning. "She wouldn't have wandered away from shelter at night, it's not natural. And if we lose her, that's a serious blow to the herd." 


"Every animal is precious here," Fleur explained, "they're all carefully selected for genetic diversity and specific hardiness factors. We have to figure out what's going on!" 

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Tona frowned and began walking around the room, staring at the floor. She didn't know much about animals and how they acted, so she was willing to take the men's word that the animal wasn't just straying from home. If Fleur was right, then there were no other people around to take it, but what did that leave? Someone who could've flown in, taken the beast, and flown back out again? Why would someone like that limit themselves to stealing foodstuffs and animals? If they wanted something, surely they would be able to take it without having to sneak around. It didn't make any sense to take something by stealth when you could take it by force, so why hadn't anyone seen anything?


Her thoughts were sidetracked when he eyes caught sight of something. It was hard to see on the ground with all the overlapping tracks, but there was one path through the dirt that didn't look like normal footprints or shoeprints, and it wasn't the straight, furrowed path of a wheel, either. It swayed back and forth, a sinuous curve that never lifted itself off the ground. Tona had seen such things before, but never that big. "Fleur," she called out. "How big do snakes get around here?"

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Fleur looked up from the conversation she was having with the men, seeming a bit confused. "Snakes?" she repeated. "We don't have any snakes here, at least none that I've seen or heard of." She looked at William, who nodded agreement. "There's just not enough of a rodent or large insect population to sustain them, and no reason to import them for husbandry. Did you find something?" The three came over to have a look at the track Tona had found. "I don't recognize that at all," Fleur admitted. "I would think it might be a wheelbarrow, but there are no treads or anything. It looks like it came right in the barn." 

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"A wheel would go straight," Tona pointed out. "And there's no bootprints behind it." She turned to follow the tracks further into the barn, but they quickly disappeared in the more heavily-trafficked area. Instead she followed them out again, and watched them disappear over the grass and into the distance. She sat on her heels for a minute, watching the horizon almost like she was waiting for the snake to poke its head up and announce itself.


Did she really want to do this? Track some thieving snake-monster all across an alien planet? It could take a day or more. On the other hand, she had no real desire to return to Freedom City anytime soon. And she had the entire weekend... It could almost be like a vacation, which she could sorely use after the Day of Wrath.


Tona shrugged her pack off and went to work; in moments the more incidental items were transferred to another bag and slung at her hip, while the backpack was tightened and filled with carbon-fiber arrows. She took her bow in hand and jerked it in just the proper way to release the locks, letting the compound bow unfold to its entire length. She settled the quiver on her back, and then the archer turned back to look at Fleur. "I don't know if you want to follow," she said. "I don't know how far away this thing is, but if it's still on the planet, I'll find it."

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"I'll be glad to come along if you want me to," Fleur told her. "I just don't want to get in the way of your tracking. I've got a connection to the planet that lets me feel things on it when I try, but that's a bit different from learning what's happened in the past. If you do want to go alone, I'd prefer that you at least take a radio along. We don't have cell towers here or anything, so we communicate by radios to stay in touch. I don't want you to get into trouble out there, especially if there's something we haven't seen and accounted for hanging out in the wild areas." 

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"I suppose it is your planet," Tona said. "As long as you don't walk too close behind me or in front of me, you shouldn't disturb any tracks before I find them." Without another word she set out towards the treeline, her pace steady and her eyes always on the move. Her bow hung loose in her grip, but she seemed constantly poised and on edge, ready to react in a heartbeat.

As they reached the first of the towering old growth hardwoods, Tona paused and rooted in the undergrowth with the toe of her boot. She looked up the trunk of one of the trees, folded away her bow, and began climbing. It was difficult to find a grip on the massive trunk, but she persevered and was soon thirty feet off the ground. There she found what she was looking for -- parts where the bark had been stripped off by something, leaving the paler wood underneath exposed. There was no sign of insect activity or broken-off branches, and none of the trees nearby were damaged so it likely wasn't storm damage. It looked like something had hung here, something that didn't climb with tools or even their bare hands like Tona, but simply by brute muscle strength. She had a sudden vision of a huge snake crawling up the tree like an epiphyte vine, crushing the bark with its sheer muscle mass.

Tona looked out towards the village to see what kind of a vantage point this tree was, and hand a sudden and powerful moment of deja vu. Her father had taught her how to climb on trees not too unlike this one, and many times she had climbed them to get a better view of the land. So much natural, virtually untouched green space reminded her powerfully of her home for a moment; if the sky had been red and the settlement full of toiling slaves, it would have been almost spot on for some of the Steel General's logging camps. As it was Tona had to clutch the tree and look down at the green-haired woman waiting for her on the ground, to get her bearings back.

She climbed back down and nodded to Fleur. "Someone climbed this tree," she said' "probably after dark, to watch the settlement. Someone with very good night vision, I'm guessing."

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"Really?" In a moment Fleur was up the tree as well, hoisted by a thick curl of green vine as easily as if she'd been riding a cherry-picker. "You think it was a person climbing the tree to watch the village?" Like Tona had, Fleur turned her head to look over the village, mismatched and somewhat haphazard, but clean and busy nonetheless. A group of older children were just being released from what was apparently the school building, making a beeline for the small clutch of playground equipment behind it, while a few younger children followed behind with a teacher. One of the children, Tona could see even from this distance, had a mop of curly green hair.


"If we have strangers around here, it could mean real trouble," Fleur said with concern. "We've had some problems with the Grue this past year, but I thought that was all cleared up. Maybe it's more refugees after all," she said hopefully, "and they're just terribly hungry and afraid. Can you tell where they went from here?" 

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Tona made a noncommittal noise. She didn't think it was such a good thing that there were other people on this planet willing to sneak around and steal from those humans trying to live quietly, but apparently Fleur had a more optimistic outlook. "They came from deeper in the forest," she said, "if they have anything like sense." And so the archer set off again, leading them deeper under the canopy.


She was quiet as she worked, occasionally pointing out a snapped branch or a patch of disturbed undergrowth, assuring Fleur that they were on the right path. After a little more than a hour of walking they came to a wide, rushing stream. Tona sighted up and down it, trying to ascertain if their quarry had crossed here, or upstream, or downstream. "Let me ask something," she said. "Just how many people are on this planet?"

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Fleur followed Tona without complaint, walking with seeming tirelessness through the thick forest. Out this far, the forest had been allowed to winter naturally, so the trees were bare and the leaf litter thick on the ground. Occasionally she used her radio to talk to different people, mostly about what seemed to be an anticipated shipment of vegetable seeds for spring planting. 


Tona's question took a moment of thought on Fleur's part. "Well, let's see, if you're only counting humans and close-to-humans, there's one hundred fifty-three in the village... no, wait, one hundred fifty-four since Eliza had her baby the other week, then there's me and Ammy, Gaian Knight, Teagan, Gabriel when he's in the neighborhood, and thirty monks at the monastery...so one hundred eighty-nine right now. We're growing!" she added, sounding rather proud of that. "And of course there's the giant bees, but I've stopped counting there because it seems like they're always hatching out some new youngsters. About two hundred there, I would guess. But they're strict vegetarians, and they'd have a hard time getting into and out of the barn even if they wanted to." 

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Tona didn't ask what Fleur meant by close-to-humans, and she had already encountered Queen Bee on campus so she knew what the giant bees were like. "I wasn't really thinking that they took it," she said. "I was just... I grew up in a, a very small town." She shrugged. "Living in Freedom City is a really weird experience. This place feels... more like home. It's relaxing." She spied something across the river and splashed over, making sure to hold her strung bow up over the water. She bent over and picked up a scrap of something shiny off the ground. It looked to be some kind of metal covering, like the energy bars Tona took on patrol were wrapped in. "That's a clue," she said to Fleur. "I don't think anyone from your village stole those animals."

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Fleur, obviously loathe to get wet in the cold weather, teleported across the river and examined the metal scrap. "You're right, that's nothing I recognize from around here," she agreed. "And it doesn't even seem like something that comes from Freedom City. I suppose it could mean we have a dimensional or space traveler running around, one who doesn't know better than to litter. But that raises the question of why! Nothing we have here is particularly valuable to a high tech civilization, not even the land. Everything I've rehabilitated is suitable for small-scale agrarian living, not for building cities or industrial planetary farming. What could have drawn anyone here in the first place?" 

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"For a vacation," Tona suggested, tucking the metal scrap into a handy pocket. "It's really very peaceful and lovely out here. But even if someone is here peacefully, they they shouldn't be poaching animals from your village." She raised and eyebrow and risked a smile. "That's just not neighborly."

They set out again, Tona's sharp eyes catching disturbed rocks, trampled bushes, and some place where a heavy, fallen branch had been moved aside. It seemed like the intruders were building a propose path between their camp and the village. "So how did you find this place, Fleur?" Tona asked. "Were you born on Sanctuary?"

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"Oh no, I'm from Earth Prime," Fleur explained, hopping nimbly over the fallen branch. "I found this world by accident when I was learning to use my dimensional teleportation powers. I can travel anywhere with plants, you see, but this one was a bit of a stretch because there was so little that was alive. It was obviously empty, or so I thought, so it seemed like a good place to practice some of my other powers that it's not easy to play with on Prime. People tend to frown on it if you try to raise a forest in the middle of the city!" she added with a laugh. "On Sanctuary, I had a place of my own away from the city noise and smoke, a place to practice, and a project. It's a world that needs some love, you understand? People did this, ruined the whole place, it seems only fair that I try and help patch it up." 


She paused again for a moment to check a text message, but seemed to decide it didn't need a response. "Then the Beekeeper released his giant bees on the city, and when he went to jail, they needed a place to live. I felt a bit responsible, since he was my archnemesis at the time and I was one of the reasons he created them, so I said they could come here. Sanctuary, right? Gaian Knight helped build their hive, and I make sure they have their giant flowers. Then we realized that there were actually some survivors on this world, living in terrible conditions, and of course I wasn't going to just sit here and not help them. Gabriel and his monks have been very good about that, they've been helping to teach agriculture and animal husbandry and so far it's all going very well." She was obviously quite proud to talk about her giant pet project. "Oh and Tona, you should go ahead and call me Stesha when we're on Sanctuary, most people do." 

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"Stesha. Right. Well if I ever have a reason to put my mask on, you should call me Blue Jay. Though I don't know why I should worry about anyone here knowing who I am back home." She knelt down and checked the base of a bush, coming up with a soggy white cylinder that looked uncannily like a cigarette butt. "Littering," she said conversationally, then shredded the cylinder and brushed her hands clean. "So you just... find people that need a home, and bring them to Sanctuary? Like, anyone?"

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Stesha laughed a little. "Ah, well no, I suppose not anyone. I mean, I don't think we could solve homelessness in Freedom City by dropping everyone here, or anything like that. It would be hard for people who've always lived in a city to adjust to suddenly being totally agrarian, and very light on the modern conveniences. But I suppose that if there was a refugee population who really needed a place to go, we could work it out. I do want to have more people on Sanctuary eventually, it's just not something I've made any move towards yet. Well, besides the monks and the people like Jacen who come out here to get experience and educate people. The space is certainly there, though. I don't know if you remember the Gorgon invasion? During that whole mess, we filled up acres and acres with sod houses, worried we were going to have to evacuate as many people as we could in the event that the Gorgon couldn't be stopped in time. Now they're just sitting empty, in case of another emergency." 


She frowned at the remains of the cylinder on the ground and waved a hand at them, whereupon they dissolved into dust. "Plant-based," she observed. "We'll definitely have to have words about cleaning up after oneself. Now you said that your father taught you how to hunt, yes?" she asked Tona. "Where are you from, originally?" 

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Tona's mouth went dry at the question. Her normal lie was 'Maine,' which wasn't exactly untrue; it just left out the much more important question of which dimension she grew up in. This time, though... she didn't want to lie to Stesha. This place really was almost exactly like home. It was like a dream come true, and she didn't want to antagonize its owner.


The question was taken out of her hands when the quiet of the forest was pushed out by a lilting song. It wasn't in any language Tona or Stesha recognized, but there was a definitely a melody and a rhythm to it. Tona slid forward, her movements suddenly liquid and predatory; she nocked an arrow but didn't draw it, preferring to use her agility to move noiselessly through the undergrowth.


In a few minutes she came to a break in the forest and settled into the shadows. In the clearing was a woman with short blonde hair, wearing a red dress with a gold shawl wrapping around it. She was singing in a strange, alien language as she examined the bushes and trees closely. Occasionally she would prune off a leaf or a branch and drop it into a clear jar, and then put the jar in a brown satchel. At one point an iridescent beetle buzzed across the clearing and she chased after it, eyes only on the insect.

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