I talked for what felt like hours, with relatively few interruptions.
There were a fair number of things that I had to leave out, and a fair number of things that didn’t make sense because I had to leave parts out. I didn’t want to tell them about the teleportation key, but without explaining that, how would I explain that a fireteam had been sent for it? I had to reframe that entire ordeal as revolving around an unspecified entad that belonged to Amaryllis, one locked to her so that the only person who would have been seeking after it was a close relative, which was close enough to the truth. That, in turn, opened up more questions, but thankfully, no one seemed inclined to poke holes in the story, not even O’kald.
It seemed safe enough to confine our story to what Uniquities knew, given that Uniquities knew it, and had already done most of the work necessary to either cover for us or get people to look the other way. We’d killed a unicorn, which there weren’t any laws against, and we’d killed Larkspur and his people, which was arguably self-defense if you squinted at it just right.
Everett spoke up once I began talking about the Boundless Pit.
“He spent weeks of his life there,” said Everett. There was no question who ‘he’ was. The way the ancient skin mage said it, he gave the pronoun a kingly weight. “The house was something special to him.”
“Yes,” I said. “The house was why we came.” I glanced at Solace. It wasn’t too hard to reframe the story without mentioning her, given that we had always had other interests in Kuum Doona, but it made us look more mercenary than we actually were.
“Oh, very well,” said Solace. She sat a little taller in her chair, which, given how small she was, wasn’t very tall at all. “I am the last living druid. My locus lies trapped in an entad, unable to expand into its fullness. Juniper was attempting to respect my wishes when he failed to mention that I had died.” I’d actually left out the whole part about Fallatehr, both because I didn’t want to reveal myself as a soul mage, and because I didn’t think it reflected that well on us. “Through a combination of magics, the rite of Yaxukasu Axud allowed me to be reborn, but the time without a druid would have been too long for the locus, given its state. They ventured to the house in order to use its time chamber. My rather youthful appearance is the result.”
“A druid?” asked Pallida with wide eyes. “How much raw power is your side of the table packing?”
“Juniper has gathered his Knights, then,” said Gemma.
“And one of them died,” said Heshnel.
“I got better,” said Solace.
“We’ve had our share of losses,” I said. “If there’s anything that I considered a strict loss, I would have mentioned it, but it hasn’t been uncommon for us to face setbacks and problems. From what I’ve seen, it falls within the same parameters of success and failure as happened for Uther, though there’s far more to his history than ever made it into his biographies.”
“It speaks to the question of whether Uther could fail,” said Heshnel. “You imagine that the rules were different for the two of you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I glanced at Everett and tried to weigh my words. “In these games that Arthur and I played, it wasn’t just the two of us, we had a circle of friends. Some of the people on Aerb, in Uther’s time, were patterned after those, ah, characters.”
“Me?” asked Everett.
“Yes,” I replied. “There are twists and reflections, and not everyone Uther met was ‘wearing the face of an old friend’, to use his words. Some of them were, though. For me, that hasn’t been true at all. And …” I tried to think about how to put this. “I think that I’m more beset by romantic complications than he ever was.” I very studiously didn’t look at any of the members of my party when I said that. It was true, and it was a valid data point I thought needed to be added to the conversation, but it also wasn’t the sort of thing that I liked to say out loud.
“You’ve done little to sway me,” said O’kald.
“I’m doing my best to report the facts as I know them,” I replied. “If I’m trying to sway you, it’s only because I think that you’re wrong, and if I think you’re wrong, that’s because I have evidence that you don’t, or because you’ve made some error in your thinking.” I turned to look at Amaryllis. “For whatever it’s worth, I really believe that if Amaryllis thought the world would be saved by eliminating me, she would do it herself.”
Amaryllis gave me a curt nod. “Looking to stop the generation of problems at its source is, I think, sensible, but that’s not the level we want to play on. We’re playing to get to the end, and eliminate every problem that everyone on Aerb might ever face.”
There was steel in her voice. She said it with more conviction than I had ever felt about anything. It felt weird, to hear all of that concrete hope be pinned on me, especially when I’d done nothing much to deserve it, especially of late. Looking into the infernoscope and seeing the hells in person rather than reading about them in an academic book … it was chilling to think that eliminating the hells was a responsibility that was going to fall on my shoulders. Valencia would be the one to do it, obviously, but I was pretty sure that if I ever got a quest, it wouldn’t just be something that she would decide to do on her own with no involvement on my part.
“Uther thought that the world existed in narrative,” I found myself saying. “I think that maybe that was his problem, or at least one of them. He was intent on playing a part. He focused his effort on shaping stories. I don’t really care about any of that, and I’m not going to bend to narrative conventions. All I really care about is winning.”
(Set aside for a moment that wasn’t actually true, and that I cared about other things, like good food, stimulating conversation, having fun, time with Fenn when she wasn’t trying to pick fights with me, and all sorts of other things that weren’t winning. It still sounded good, and summed up my attitude a bit better than saying that I could be distracted by shinies.)
“And what does winning look like, to you?’ asked Heshnel. “What is your great plan for Aerb?”
A glorious transmortal utopia, naturally. “We’ll eliminate the hells,” I said. “We’ll eliminate suffering. No one will ever feel pain again, unless they wish to. No one will feel hunger. Nothing will be scarce. You’ll be able to be whoever or whatever you want to be, without fear.”
“Dangerous talk,” said O’kald.
“Dangerous?” I asked, furrowing my brow.
Solace gave a small cough. “You came close to repeating the First Proclamation of the Second Empire,” she said. “The clarion call of progress is a seductive one, but if you speak of infinite riches, it becomes easy to justify any atrocity.” I watched her eyes move across the people seated at the other end of the table. “We all took different lessons from the Second Empire, I suppose.”
“What’s past is past,” said Heshnel.
“‘What’s past is prologue’,” said Everett, rolling the words out slowly. “Uther said that.”
“We should set it aside, for now,” I said. “Solace, I didn’t mean any offense, and you know that I don’t think that the Second Empire was correct, not when they made so many clearly visible mistakes, but –”
“What mistakes?” asked Pallida. “And how do you know? Was the Second Empire something that you dreamed up?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not a student of Aerb’s history, especially not about that time frame. Most of what I’ve read has been about either Uther or the more recent past. And I agree with Heshnel, it’s not time to talk about the mistakes of the past, nor to talk about how to avoid those mistakes in the future. That’s not why we’re here, is it?”
“It might be,” said Pallida. “Uther reshaped Aerb. He’s the one that made the athenaeums what they are today, and while the First Empire might have collapsed when he left, it laid the groundwork for the Second, and the Third. His fingerprints are all over Aerb, just like yours supposedly are.”
“We need to have some measure of you,” said O’kald. “Uther was less than perfect, in ways that only became apparent after he was gone.”
“I’ll need to know about those ways,” I said. “I still intend to find Uther.”
“You do?” asked Heshnel. “People have been searching for one reason or another for as long as he’s been gone.”
“And I might succeed where they failed,” I said. “I don’t think that’s fair, but it is what it is.”
“We should take a break,” said Amaryllis. “There are some things that we need to discuss as a group.”
“It’s been some time,” said Heshnel with a small nod. “We, as well, need to discuss. You’re free to use one of the houses, if you’d like, once your warder has checked things over.”
Grak grunted slightly at that.
“We’ll be taking our leave,” said Amaryllis. “There are others in our group that we’d be remiss if we didn’t speak with. If you mark off a spot for us, we’ll have a way to come back in.”
“They’re trying to escape,” said O’kald.
“We’re not,” I said. “We just want the safety and security of being behind our own defenses again, so that we can have a conversation in true privacy. Sorry, but we have the ability to return home for a day, and it makes sense to take it. You can’t keep us here against our will, not if you want to stay on good terms.” And not unless you want to have a fight about it.
“Very well,” said Heshnel with a wave of his hand. “I think we have some measure of you, at this point. If there’s a loss of contact, we know the pathways we’d need to follow to speak with you again.”
They knew about the Isle of Poran, and could find us there. I felt a little uncomfortable about having given that information away, but they’d probably already gotten it from talking to the receptionist, and if not him, then they might have gotten it from Masters. Still, the way that Heshnel said it didn’t sit right with me.
“They’ll be talking to a devil,” said O’kald, nodding to Valencia.
“That’s an open question,” said Heshnel to his rocky companion. “One of many. He’s right. We can’t reasonably expect to keep him here. I know that you don’t like this, and your objection is noted.”
O’kald grumbled at that, but let it stand.
“We’ll expect you back in twenty hours,” said Heshnel. “That should be enough time for both of us.”
We had to walk to the far edge of their encampment to get outside the wards that they’d placed against the teleportation key. We were giving something away by going outside the range of the wards, but it was hard to avoid. As I understood it, broad-spectrum wards against entads were too difficult for anyone to use, while wards against individual entads were quite easy. Grak hadn’t discussed it with us, not given the security concerns, but I thought it likely that Dehla hadn’t put that many wards up to prevent travel, which meant not all that many that we’d have to go ‘outside’ for, which meant we were narrowing down which method we were using. I was trying my best not to let paranoia flavor my interactions with this new group, but the flow of information to them seemed like something worth paying attention to, especially given all the things that we weren’t saying.
Grak put up wards to cloak what we were doing, just to be on the safe side, and then we were back home.
“A fruitful trip?” asked Bethel as the pain rapidly faded. We had arrived in her custom teleportation room, which was sequestered from the heavy wards that surrounded the rest of the house, allowing us to actually enter, and ensuring that anything that teleported in would still have to get through all the wards that protected the massive house.
“Juniper mutinied,” said Fenn.
“Give me a sec,” I said, as I tried to get my bearings.
“I agree, let’s take some time,” said Amaryllis. “But we are going to have to talk about it eventually.”
“I take it there were complications?” asked Bethel.
“Yeah,” I replied. “One after the other.”
“More of Uther’s baggage came to light,” said Valencia. “We met a number of his old allies. You would have fit right in with them.”
“Oh?” asked Bethel. She smiled slightly, and glowed a bit as she allowed her illusion a little bit of impossibility. “The man was not so wonderful as claimed?”
Ropey slipped down from my waist and to the floor, and slithered off into the house. I didn’t hate the idea of the two of them as a couple, but Ropey communicating to her in private was a little bit worrying. Bethel’s physical form disappeared once he was out the door, which I hoped meant that he would fill her in. She could hear us either way, and she had enough processing power to listen to two conversations at once, as unsettling as that was, especially without knowing how Ropey was going to cast things.
“We don’t know much more than when we started,” said Amaryllis. “Luckily, the people we met didn’t seem to know much either, at least, not as far as Uther was concerned.”
“You showed your desperation too much,” said Valencia.
Amaryllis cast her a critical eye. “Did I?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Valencia. “Pallida misread you, but I don’t think that Heshnel or Gemma did. You care about the threats, and want to know more, and that desire is something they’ll try to leverage against you, if they need to.”
“You were also a little too convincing in throwing me under the bus,” I said.
“Juniper, everyone at that table besides Fenn would have killed you to save Aerb,” said Valencia. “That includes you.”
“Back to your old self?” I asked.
Valencia gave me a pitying look. “It’s very sweet of you to have believed me,” she said.
“Wait, that was all fake?” asked Fenn. “You … you faked being traumatized?”
“I needed to set them at ease,” said Valencia. “I was going to be removed from the conversation one way or another, so I choose the path that would allow me some leeway to act.”
“But … your manipulations didn’t work on O’kald,” I said.
Valencia gave me another pitying look.
“What, that was part of the ploy too?” I asked.
“O’kald is the most dangerous one,” said Valencia. “He’s not likely to listen to reason, and that kind of poisonous viewpoint can be dangerous in a group setting. If I could engender sympathy from everyone else and dismissiveness from him, it would help to drive a wedge between them once we were away. It’s part of why I wanted to be revealed in the first place.”
“Do you know what they’ll decide?” I asked.
“They won’t decide,” said Valencia. “They’re too fractious to come to an agreement on anything. As a group, they were never set up to deal with you. They weren’t sitting around waiting on this kind of a development. If Uther had come back from the dead, they would act with unanimity. Now? At best, they might be heading toward a compromise, which will almost certainly not be an attempt to kill you. At worst, they might have a schism, in which case we’d have to fight off three or four of them, possibly on a different field of battle, depending on how everything falls out.”
“Which ones?” asked Amaryllis.
“O’kald, Dehla, Gemma, and Everett,” said Valencia. “Pallida is weak-willed, Heshnel is too easily seduced by the promises of power, and Thargox places an unreasonable amount of importance on the fact that Solace is with us, though I have less of a read on it, given the means of communication and the relative little speaking it did.”
“Val, you’re speaking too much like a devil,” said Amaryllis.
Valencia blinked. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s a bit draining, looking through that lens and seeing everyone’s faults.”
“So, wait, you could understand the lenssi the whole time?” asked Fenn.
“Yes,” said Valencia. “That was another benefit of being presumed powerless. The only thing that Dehla let slip was to imply that their other plan had been to take you to Blue Fields.”
“What?” I asked. “Blue Fields, as in, the exclusion zone with nuclear weapons? They were going to nuke me?”
“I believe so, yes,” said Valencia. “That’s consistent with the fatalism they presented when discussing that plan.”
“That implies a worrying level of commitment to the plan of killing me,” I said. “Like, really, really worrying.”
“I should point out they didn’t actually do that,” said Amaryllis. “Having a plan isn’t the same as enacting that plan.”
“Batman had a plan to kill all the members of the Justice League,” said Fenn.
“Batman doesn’t kill,” I said.
Fenn rolled her eyes.
“Valencia, do you have time for therapy?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t think any of us have time for that right now,” I said.
“Whether we have time depends on how long we want to wait before getting back to them,” said Valencia. “I don’t believe the friction between the two of them will prevent us from working properly as a team.”
“It already has,” said Grak.
“In what way?” I asked.
“You broke with the group,” said Grak. “Fenn went racing back for you. Both of you endangered all our lives.”
“They endangered their own lives,” Amaryllis clarified.
“Compromising one part of the party compromises all of it,” said Grak.
“That’s not how I would frame it,” said Amaryllis, pursing her lips. “I would call it blackmail.”
“That seems harsh,” I said.
“No, that’s exactly right,” said Fenn. “You stomped your foot down and said that you were going to kill yourself if we didn’t help.”
“I didn’t actually need your help, as it turned out,” I said.
“It’s time for therapy,” said Valencia. “Bethel, can I get a room prepared with three chairs, something gentle and soothing?” She turned her head slightly toward the ceiling, which had become standard protocol for making requests. Our house offered a soft bing-bong sound in response.
I wasn’t terribly happy. I had never particularly liked therapy.