Worth the Candle, Ch 118: Breaking Loose

We left Bethel behind again.

She and Amaryllis got in a fight about it, or at least as much of a fight as Amaryllis usually got into, which amounted to speaking a little more passionately and quickly than was necessary. The problem was, Bethel didn’t wholly care about us. The idea of being a mobile home, or worse, only technically a home by the definitions that her Anyhouse ability allowed, seemed somewhat abhorrent to her. To temporarily be a thick staff with a fairy house on top was, it seemed, an experience reserved for special occasions.

Valencia and Amaryllis got in their own fight when Amaryllis asked Valencia to kill a devil and assist in the conversation. Valencia objected strongly to the idea of using her abilities against another party member, because she knew as well as anyone that people could be talked into doing things that they didn’t really want to do, and would later regret. She had thousands of years of infernal experience with precisely those sorts of arrangements: it was one of the things that devils were known for. That led their conversation down a different track, with Amaryllis essentially arguing that there was a good chance we would die without Bethel there to help us in our time of need, and Valencia arguing that there ought to be some lines in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed, lest our web of relationships become degenerate.

I didn’t give my full attention over to these conversations. I thought that Bethel’s role in the group was pretty clear; she was our house. She wouldn’t always be at the Isle of Poran, but she had built herself up here, furnishing all the rooms and sculpting herself to the atmosphere and geography of the island. The east wing in particular had a slope that ran parallel to one of the tall, rocky hills. On a purely strategic level, yes, it would have been better for Bethel to come with us, held as a staff, but that wasn’t really what she’d signed on for.

My thoughts were on Fenn, who was sitting across the table. A night apart didn’t seem to have changed much. While Amaryllis was getting her argumentation in, Fenn was having a more pleasant sort of conversation with Solace and Grak, one that I was too far away to hear properly, in part because they were keeping their voices low. Fenn didn’t seem to be in her usual high spirits, but she wasn’t sitting there staring at me like I was glumly staring at her. I had thought that maybe we’d come to each other and say, ‘hey, we said some things, but on reflection, I want to work it out’, but that hadn’t happened. She wasn’t leaving, as I’d thought she might, but she was avoiding me as much as she could.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, voice a little bit louder than it had been while she’d been having her argument with Valencia. The other conversation died down a bit. “We’re going to return to the group to continue negotiations. After having read through Degenerate Cycles over the last few days and made some notes, I’m ready to engage with them on their level. Hopefully there’s not any critical information that they’ve left out, but I’m not counting on it. The primary argument that we’re going to go with is that Juniper and Uther were different in too many ways to be able to generalize Juniper’s circumstance from Uther’s. In particular, Uther posits that for what he terms a ‘degenerate cycle’ to end, it needs to be with a note of complete finality, but even then, he’s a bit ambivalent about whether that would actually work. The crux of the argument is that whatever Uther did, it succeeded, but it likely succeeded in accordance with Uther’s own thinking about narrative, which doesn’t apply to Juniper. Therefore, we need to apply a different metric to the situation, one which is fitted to Juniper.”

“That approach will work on most of them,” said Valencia. “Not all.”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “It’s possible that we can get a few of them separately in order to try different, tailored approaches to them, but we really don’t know much about them.”

“Why do they think nuking me would work?” I asked.

“Do you think it wouldn’t?” asked Grak.

“I think it would,” I said. “But given what they know about Uther … why would they think it would work against him?”

“It’s in the book,” said Amaryllis. “Uther spends a lot of time in Degenerate Cycles contemplating how a fictional character, or a real person in a fictional world, would escape from the cycles. He posits a few different methods, all of which should be of interest to us. The first was foisting narrative weight from himself to another. He gives the example of a main character who grows too old to carry on, which causes the story to continue with his son instead. But as he notes, that’s not actually something that solves the degenerate cycles of narrative, it just moves focus, and not having narrative weight on you would probably be pretty dangerous.”

“To be clear,” I said. “We’re only talking about this in the context of what Uther believed to be true?”

“If that would make you feel better, sure,” said Amaryllis. “It’s important in many regards. I don’t expect anyone to outright accept what Uther wrote as true.”

“Okay,” I said, shifting in my seat.

“The second solution, the one that I think he took, was closing all extant narrative cycles in the most final way possible. He lays out the possibility that every resolution is the inciting event for another narrative, even a narrative with the same central character. The young farmhand defeats the Dark Lord, bringing a close to the narrative that started with his family being slaughtered by the Dark Lord’s army … and the defeat of the Dark Lord becomes the fuel for other narratives, the starting point for the unification of neighboring kingdoms. Maybe the Dark Lord had some secret backers, or allies who move into position. The solution, then, is to find a way to bring the whole thing to a close. Either win forever, or resolve some ur-incident that closes the cycle of cycles.”

“That ur-incident would have been him coming to Aerb,” I said.

Amaryllis nodded. “Likely,” she said. “He speaks a lot in general terms, and when he dips into the specifics, they’re always hypotheticals, bland, boring examples meant to make a point. It’s not clear to me who he was writing this book for. At any rate, his thinking about what ‘win forever’ means transitions into his third solution, which we might broadly define as ‘lose’. He makes it clear that in theory, there might be a loss so overwhelming that it could never be bounced back from, and the degenerate cycles would have no available avenue of continuing. There’s some contemplation of what that would look like.”

“A nuclear weapon to the face,” I said. “Even that wouldn’t be enough to kill him, I wouldn’t think. Prince’s Invulnerability would save him, right, so long as he knew it was coming? But I guess that would depend on how long he was riding the shockwave.”

“It’s likely that they had backup plans,” said Valencia.

“It’s moot,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t want to step foot on their ship again, not if we know or assume they have a nuclear weapon prepped and waiting in Blue Fields. I do agree that these people might be allies, given the right lines of argument, but until we can confirm that, we should be careful. I would rather not be killed by a nuclear weapon.”

“Same,” I said. “I’m sure that things will go fine. Right Val?”

“Probably,” said Valencia. “Interestingly, different devils have slightly different reads on the situation. We also left them alone for roughly a day, and they have information not known to us, which makes thinking about their response when we arrive a little bit difficult. My ability to extrapolate from incomplete information isn’t as good as you think it is. I think that we’ll come back to find them ready to talk, perhaps with a few of them missing from the table.”

“If they have high explosives waiting for us?” asked Grak.

“Rigged to a hair trigger,” I said with a nod. “Yeah, that would be a problem.”

“Prince’s Invulnerability then?” asked Amaryllis. “We have the funds necessary for it, Skin Magic 20 should be high enough to cast it, and we have six people, approximately.” The spell probably wouldn’t cover Valencia, but her armor would, in theory, protect her.

“It wouldn’t hurt to have it in our back pocket anyway,” I said. “We’d be spending half a day on it. The problem is that if we activate it before the teleportation, we’re wasting a fair amount of money on paranoid precaution, and if we use it after, there’s a risk that we get blown away before I can activate it. Pushing speed through bone magic helps with response time, but I don’t know if it helps enough.”

“There are too many vectors of attack,” said Valencia. “We can’t protect against everything.”

“We can protect against the most likely,” said Grak.

“I think the point is that going adversarial is probably not a great use of our time,” I said. “Especially not when the field of things we need to protect against is so incredibly wide.”

“We’ll make some preparations,” said Amaryllis. “It’s just a shame that we can’t prepare for everything.”

Fenn, Amaryllis, and myself were all burning through bones as we came in, hoping to get an edge. The flash of pain that the teleportation key brought caused some disorientation, as did the sudden change in location, though we’d tried to match the expected lighting conditions as closely as possible. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, even the pain, and I looked across the horizon, scanning for threats or the unexpected.

There were no threats though, or at least no obvious ones, just the fort some distance away, the cobblestone houses around it, the ship resting like some alien thing in the center of it all. The only person around was Pallida, who was lounging in an armchair that she must have dragged over. She looked up from the book she was reading and smiled at us.

“What ho, friends!” she called. She stood up from her chair, tapped a page of the book, and then tapped the chair itself, which vanished. She took the book and put it into a bag, then picked up her barbed spear and jogged over to us. As she moved, the simple shirt and breeches she was wearing were covered by the oil slick armor that seemed to come from beneath her clothes. “We had some significant debate about whether you’d be back, or whether we’d need to track you down. Looks like I won.”

“You got stuck with watch?” I asked.

“Volunteered,” said Pallida. “I’m the friendliest face around these parts, aside from maybe Lyda.” She looked at Amaryllis, who had just finished undoing her helmet. “Kind of wanted to see you again, to be honest?”

“Me?” asked Amaryllis. A faint smile crossed her face. “Why?”

“No reason,” said Pallida. “The family resemblance. I don’t know what you knew about her, but thought you might want to hear about her.”

“I think I’d like that,” said Amaryllis. “Family’s never had great associations for me, which I guess you’d know if you did your research. It might be good to change that.” She looked toward the fort. “I suppose you’ve got your orders though?”

“Yeah,” said Pallida, grimacing slightly. “We talked late into the night, just like you probably did.” She took her eyes off Amaryllis and looked at me. “Seems like you and your Knights are probably going to get read in.”

“Good,” I said. “Great.”

“Not what you wanted?” asked Pallida.

“Saving the world is a big responsibility,” I said.

“Ah, weight of the world on your shoulders,” said Pallida with a nod. “I personally never knew how he bore it, but as it turns out, maybe he didn’t, at least at the end.”

Valencia’s read on Pallida was that she wasn’t quite so gung ho about things as any of the others. Renacim were essentially unknown to the denizens of hell, given that their souls refused to go there, but from what Valencia could read, Pallida was with this group more out of a sense of duty to her past lives than because she really believed that Uther needed to be stopped at all costs. At least according to Valencia, the pact had likely been made a long, long time ago, and while Pallida still felt bound to it, the connection wasn’t that strong. Whatever her specific gripes with Uther and however painful his leaving had been, that wasn’t a strong part of her internal being any longer. Her relationship to Dahlia, on the other hand, had left more of an impact. For that reason, Valencia had suggested that Amaryllis do her best to respond positively to any flirtation. We still didn’t have the whole story on Dahlia, not by a long shot, but she was apparently well-liked, and that was something we could use to our advantage.

We stopped at the fort, so that Grak could re-check the wards. This was paranoia, but that was expected of warders, and apparently not too much of a faux pas.

“So, can you tell us about Dahlia?” I asked.

“Ah,” said Pallida. She shifted slightly. “I wasn’t thinking that was going to be a public conversation.”

“I’m curious,” I said. “She’s not in the history books.”

“By choice,” said Pallida. “She went missing and it was a whole thing, then joined up with Uther under another identity, and by the time she was caught out … well, she’d already proven herself as Uther’s squire, and I suppose he liked the idea of having her around. She was the only one of his children that he really connected with, for various reasons. They were princes, with all that implies, but Dahlia was never really much of a princess. She was a hellion, truth be told. That’s where she took her name from, Helio.”

“Uther didn’t recognize his own child?” asked Amaryllis.

“She wore a belt,” said Pallida. “It was an entad that changed her gender. There was a familial resemblance, certainly, but Uther hadn’t expected his little girl to show up as a boy.”

Girdle of opposite gender. It had been removed from later editions of D&D as being either politically incorrect or, a little more charitably, because it marginalized gender dysphoria and made for too many jokes about gender roles in a game that didn’t encourage such notions. I didn’t actually know what the writers of the various editions had been thinking, but I had sat through a two hour long argument between Tiff and Arthur about it. I wondered what that would have been like for him, to see his daughter wearing it.

“What fate befell her?” I asked.

“She survived the Grand Finale,” said Pallida. “That was what we called it, when Uther left, though at the time it was uncertain whether or not we were just facing the end of the world. She remained a hellion after that, traveling, adventuring, and living a somewhat solitary life.”

“But she had no children?” asked Amaryllis. “If she had, we would have known. The entads lock to their bloodlines.”

“No children, no,” said Pallida. “She died at one hundred and twelve years old, having never married.” She shifted slightly. “She was always on her father’s side, even after he went missing.”

“But she had no special knowledge?” asked Grak. He had sheathed his wand; apparently the wards had passed muster.

“No,” said Pallida. “At least, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine that he would have told her and not his Knights.”

“That’s good background, thank you,” said Amaryllis.

“There’s some more I wanted to say,” said Pallida. “But it’s a bit private.”

“The wards haven’t been changed,” said Grak. “The fortress itself still shows the same signature.”

“You could trust us a little bit,” said Pallida.

“Trust, but verify,” I said.

“He used to say that,” said Pallida. “He only said it when he didn’t actually trust someone.”

“Sorry,” I said.

Pallida waved a hand. “Not a problem,” she replied. “We don’t really trust you either. But hey, you did come back, and that’s worth something. We just don’t want to always have these talks with metaphorical guns pointed at each other. Literal guns either.”

“No,” I said. “Not really what we want either. O’kald is going to cool it?”

“Maybe,” said Pallida with a shrug that I didn’t find at all reassuring.

We went back into the fortress and took our place at the round table. We had to wait for a bit for the others to arrive. They filtered in by ones and twos, coming from different directions. O’kald and Dehla came together, and he shot me a nasty look. I responded with a nod.

It might have been one thing if he’d been arguing that I needed to die because it was in the best interests of the world as a whole, a way of stopping the degenerate cycles that were going to continue escalating until something was done, but he’d given no sign of being dispassionate. Instead, there was real malice toward me, which must have been transferred from Uther. At least part of that was by Valencia’s design; she’d wanted him riled up to color his ‘side’ as unreasonable. There was nothing like an extremist to drive out moderates, at least according to her, and O’kald had already occupied that role before she’d revealed herself as non-anima. O’kald didn’t have the rhetorical chops necessary to convince anyone that he was actually right.

Everett was the last to come in, and once he sat down at the table, a silence descended on us. There were, mercifully, no new people whose names and quirks I would have to remember. Heshnel had placed the Monster Manual on the table after Everett sat down, and drummed his fingers on it as people stopped talking amongst themselves.

“I read this last night,” he said. “Interesting, if not terribly true to reality.”

“I came up with my own versions,” I said. “And Aerb came up with its own versions of what I’d made. It’s two steps removed.” Three or four, in some cases, and sometimes more, given how much D&D cribbed from fantasy literature.

“And that’s the nature of reality then?” asked Heshnel.

“It seems to be, from what we know,” I said. I wasn’t going to mention anything about the simulation hypothesis or computers, in part because of how long that would take to explain and how little it seemed to add to the conversation.

“Then the question remains,” said Heshnel. “We need to decide on what is to be done.”

“We?” I asked. “As a group?”

“Perhaps,” said Heshnel. “I imagine us to be similarly aligned in terms of goals, but perhaps not yet in sync in terms of how we might achieve those goals. In my experience, those differences of opinion are cause for a lot of friction.”

“Are you taking up his mantle?” asked Everett. He said it with effort, enunciating more clearly than I’d heard from him thus far. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with him, aside from age, but he was obviously infirm. Valencia thought that he probably wasn’t five hundred years old, but she hadn’t been able to give me much more beyond that. I could think of half a dozen things that could have sent him forward in time, the most likely of which was a bobbler that I’d adapted from Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime for a campaign.

“If I can stop the destruction of Aerb, then I will,” I said. “If I can prevent suffering and pain, I will. I’m not planning to do things the way Uther did though. I’ve already told you all more than he ever seemed to have. Uther was secretive, for his own reasons. Maybe he was justified, maybe he wasn’t, but I haven’t actually seen his justifications, and from what he said to me in the message he left, he might have just been keeping quiet because he was afraid.”

“He feared nothing,” said Gemma.

“With respect, I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “At least, it wasn’t true for Arthur, when I knew him as a teenager.”

“Regardless,” said Heshnel. “We need to discuss what it means to save Aerb. Did you read Degenerate Cycles?”

“I did,” said Amaryllis. “Uther wasn’t entirely clear on what it would mean to stop the narrative, so I doubt that you could be either. There are three primary cases. The first is that the cycles can’t be stopped, in which case we’re both doomed, because escalation is a natural consequence of perpetual narrative, and saved, because the resolution is always assured.”

“Unless it’s not,” said O’kald. It was the first thing he’d said. I’d forgotten how rough and grating his voice was.

“Unless it’s not,” nodded Amaryllis. “Also a problem, but there’s not much that we could actually do about it except give it our all every time, in the case that the cycles can’t be stopped. The second case is that the cycles can be stopped by putting the entire system into a no-win situation without a narrative resolution. Your plan to use nuclear weapons against us might have worked to do that, but I doubt that it would, since there’s some implication that Juniper would continue to possess a narrative in hell.”

“Oh?” asked Heshnel. “Do tell.”

“I get messages from the Dungeon Master,” I said. “Sometimes I can send them back. I was given an option to continue on after death, which I have selected.”

“And if your soul were captured?” asked O’kald.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“There’s also the third case,” said Amaryllis. “We might be able to manipulate the narrative into a position where it’s impossible for another cycle to start because all conflicts have been rendered trivial. I’ll put forth that given what we know, this is the single most likely favorable outcome. Juniper has been directly informed that it’s a possibility by the Dungeon Master.”

“So he says,” replied O’kald.

“Enough,” said Heshnel. “Your objections have been voiced.” He turned back to us. “And how do you propose to gain power?” he asked. “What would be needed?”

“We’re already working on it,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper has something like the Knack. Exposure to different magics will help him. Beyond that, training by professionals will give him the ability to increase his skills faster. And naturally, we need to learn everything that Uther was keeping secret, no matter what the reason was, so long as that knowledge won’t literally end the world or kill us. That’s what we asked for coming in here, and it’s a request we’re repeating now.”

“What happens if Juniper fails?” asked O’kald. “Can he?”

I glanced at Heshnel, who was sitting impassively, as though he wasn’t responsible for keeping order on their side. I didn’t like that; it might have been one thing for him to cede authority to O’kald, but this was an underhanded ‘well I can’t stop him’ maneuver that made me think they were playing good cop bad cop.

“The Dungeon Master has said that I can fail, yes,” I said. “He didn’t say what would happen if I died, beyond what I’m assuming is true about me going to the hells. I think Uther and I are being treated differently. He got strictly structured narratives. I got something a little more freeform.”

“Stop,” said Valencia. Her voice was sudden and sharp. “Whatever your plan is, put a halt to it right now. You can do more good as allies than enemies, and the costs if you’re wrong are astronomically high.”

“Wait, what plan?” asked Pallida, looking to the bellad with wide eyes. “What did you do?”

“O’kald,” Heshnel began.

“I’ve got nothing,” said Fenn, looking over to me with a raised eyebrow.

“Nor I,” said Grak. His eyes were narrowed and moving rapidly between the people at the other end of the table.

“Poison,” said Valencia, just before Everett let out a wet cough that left blood smeared on the inside of his hand.

We moved quickly after that. Valencia took the crown from her head and placed it on my own, and I took it right back off and put it on hers. There was a lot of yelling and commotion from the thirteen assembled people. I was up and out of my seat when a small hammer came flying my way. I didn’t have my sword fully drawn and took a hit to my chin that snapped my head to the side hard enough that I blacked out for a moment. When I came to I was in the middle of pulling myself up off the ground and healing the damage that had been done, using the wrong bones to do it. There was a white mark on my otherwise blue armor, a hit that I hadn’t seen or felt, but which had been absorbed anyway.

I was half-deaf from the thumping sound of Valencia’s guns, which were firing across the table to the other side. I saw Everett stagger backward, half out of his chair, as the bullets tore through his clothes, but there was no visible blood, and at his arm I could see tattoos moving over his wrinkled skin. Heshnel was down, either taking cover, wounded, or dead, which the game confirmed a moment later.

Heshnel Elec defeated!

I brought my blade up to parry another thrown weapon from O’kald, and registered that it was the same hammer from before only after I had knocked it aside and seen it vanish from mid-air. He hopped up on the table, which creaked beneath his weight, then began trudging toward me, moving about as fast as he could. I scrambled back, trying to keep eyes on my flanks at the same time. The thought of going toe-to-toe with someone who could tank a hit from a chain gun was terrifying, more so because I was almost certainly poisoned with something.

Amaryllis had been grabbed by the lenssi, enveloped in its liquid, with its skull butted up against her armor. She was holding her breath, but there were limits on how well that worked. Grak was on the ground and screaming, bleeding from a large wound that had gone down into his shoulder, the source unknown, and Solace was beside him, using her staff to trace a healing path through the injury. It was nearly impossible to hear anything, given the way the gunfire had made my ears ring.

I only had a vague idea who was friend and who was foe. A tattoo on Everett’s arm billowed outward like a flame licking in the wind, ephemeral and white, which caught the fox Animalia off-guard. Her hair went white all over her body and she dropped to the floor, either injured or dead, but I had no idea which side either of them was on.

Gemma Tails defeated!

(The game didn’t actually help clarify matters there.)

I didn’t have too much time to think about it before O’kald’s handaxe came toward me. I parried, but he had more weight behind his strike than I had expected, even given his sheer mass, and I was pushed back by the force of it, nearly taking the backside of my own sword to the face. O’kald was shorter than I was, and lacking in reach, but he was two or three times as dense, maybe more, which gave his hits much more of a punch than I could muster, even with the magical power at my disposal. I was used to employing haymaker attacks, but that wasn’t going to work here, not given how hard he was. I backed away again as he advanced, and again faced a hammer throw that I dodged with ease.

There were a limited number of abilities in our arsenal that could put the hurt on him, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Amaryllis slip to the floor under the lenssi’s assault. Fenn was firing her bow as fast as she could, trying to hit the skull in the lenssi’s center, but the liquid had a fair amount of stopping power to it, and I wasn’t sure that her bow was up to the task. The flickerblade was one of the few things I’d thought could get at the O’kald’s internals, but that was out of the picture until Amaryllis was back on her feet. I looked around for Solace but couldn’t find her. She was the other weapon suited to the task, but she was gone or missing, or maybe just ducked down behind a table making sure that someone important didn’t die.

Valencia joined up with me as I continued backing up, giving O’kald another target. I noticed the way he moved in jerks and how chips kept falling from him, the result of him taking damage through the soul link. It might have been because of the hit to the head, but I made the connection late, realizing only then that O’kald was still their brute. He must have known going in that he’d be taking all the damage, which was why Everett had used an attack that bypassed the physical contralocation of the soul link. The bellad had made himself the lynchpin of their defense, and he was toughing out the hits.

Everett Wolfe defeated!

Valencia came in from the side, flanking O’kald, and wrenched the handaxe from his grip with her borrowed expertise. O’kald used his other arm, swinging wildly with his hammer, and it struck her on the chest, sending her backwards but unharmed thanks to her armor. Her efforts were undone in an instant though, as the handaxe burst into flames. When she dropped it, it dipped low to the floor, then changed trajectory and landed back in O’kald’s outstretched hand. The flame that was apparently part of the entad’s magic didn’t go out. Instead, the axe grew to white-hot, so hot that I could see the waves of heat. It would surely have burnt his hand, if he weren’t made of rock.

It was around that time that I noticed the blood flowing freely from my nose. It was cascading down, a river of blood that was wetting my lips. Right, poison. Why did I give her back the crown of thorns? I took a brief moment to survey the battlefield and was shocked to see how many people were down. There had been thirteen people sitting around the table, but the only ones still standing were Pallida, Fenn, the lenssi, and our own little trio of combatants. Solace was laying on the floor, not moving, and Grak was beside her, moving his wand in the air and not looking like he had the strength to do much more than that. We needed Solace back up, she was our healer, without her the drowning that Amaryllis had received was going to be fatal.

I circled O’kald once and looked to Fenn, who was engaged with the lenssi. She’d been trying hit and run tactics, but she couldn’t seem to land a shot on the skull hard enough, and the poison was hitting her harder than it was hitting me. She was stumbling now, and even as I noted that, I misplaced a foot, which left me open for an attack from O’kald. His strike was weak, since he was still playing defense against Valencia’s sword, but he clipped me hard enough to send me to the ground. It struck a place that had been hit before, and I felt nearly the full weight of it.

I sprang to my feet and almost fell, staggering slightly under the weight of my body. I charged O’kald and activated my sword’s ability to move through metal, hoping against hope that the internal rules that governed it would count his rockflesh as being close enough. The sword passed cleanly through the axe he brought up to block me, but bounced off him hard enough to make my hands sting. Though the attack was ineffective, taking no more than a chip out of him, it gave Valencia room to go on the offensive, attacking him repeatedly, hitting his back. The pieces that she cut out from him got larger with every stroke of her sword, and O’kald seemed caught in a moment of confusion. Valencia’s Memory Blade was taking his memories and honing itself in the process, making him a worse fighter as it made her sword more deadly.

O’kald pushed her back, which she allowed, but that only gave her space for a forward thrust that caught him directly in the chest. He’d lost clothes in the fight, enough that I could see the crack that the memory blade made as it hit the other side of the interior rock face. O’kald stopped moving with a stunned look on his face, then backhanded Valencia hard enough to send her flying. The sword was still lodged within him, but whatever damage had been done to his internals, it apparently wasn’t enough.

Gur Dehla defeated!

I was feeling woozy. A quick glance showed Fenn down, but the lenssi was down too, just a puddle of fluid with the skull nowhere in sight, a feat accomplished by some miracle of combat from Fenn. When I looked back at O’kald, he was still coming toward me, even with the crack across his chest and the sword still stuck in him.

“Why?” I croaked out as I limped backward. My calf hit the edge of a chair, and I nearly fell over.

“My wife,” answered O’kald. He raised his hand to throw his hammer forward, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to dodge it. My armor could take the hit, if it landed in the right spot, but if I went down, I was probably going to die.

I was saved from having to make the dodge by a barbed spear covered in purple-black flames slicing through O’kald. Pallida was covered head-to-toe in her oil-black armor, making her face unreadable, but the exhaustion was clear from her stance. I had no idea what her part of the brawl had looked like, but she was worse for the wear. She was the only other person still on her feet, aside from myself and Valencia.

O’kald defeated!

There was no time lose though. I raced forward and picked up Solace, and Grak since he was beside her, slinging both of them on my shoulders with a boost from my few remaining bones. Solace was a featherweight, a member of a small race and a child at that, but Grak was heavier. My muscles complained, but I carried them away from the great hall, through the entry and out onto the grass a few dozen feet away. I had no idea what a safe distance was, or even how the poison had been administered, but getting them out was all my tired brain could focus on. We needed Solace alive so she could fix everyone, which made her the priority.

After I had laid them out, I went back in. Valencia was following my lead; she’d grabbed Amaryllis and was carrying the princess awkwardly. I grabbed Amaryllis and ran her out to set her down with the others. Blood was dripping out of her helm, but I tried not to think about that. My own blood was coming out of my nose and mouth so freely that I was almost choking on it. I yelled instructions to Valencia, then forgot what I’d said only a few moments after I’d said it.

I passed by Pallida, who was dragging Gemma, the fox’s hair still white from whatever Everett had done. She called for me to help, but I passed her by. There was only one more of my own people left in there, and I didn’t even know if I had the energy needed to get her out. I reached into my bandolier and shoved one of the fairies in my mouth, hoping that it would do something for me, but all I could taste was blood, and trying to swallow down the chewed fairy and thinned blood nearly made me gag.

I grabbed Fenn without really looking at her, slinging her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry. She was light, even as weak as I was feeling, and I carried her as quick as I could, stomping and stumbling, occasionally leaning up against walls for support so I could make the next step. I glanced at Fenn only once, enough to see that she was frighteningly pale and bleeding profusely, and continued on. The way out seemed longer than the way in had been.

Solace was just beginning to sit up with the crown of thorns around her head when I set Fenn down.

“Heal us,” I slurred. I just wanted to close my eyes and rest, that was all.

Solace swayed slightly and made a gesture with her closed fist. When she opened it, I didn’t feel any better. “Soul deep,” she said.

Valencia swooped forward and took the crown from Solace’s head, then placed it firmly on Amaryllis’, standing back slightly and giving every appearance of counting to herself. I couldn’t see her face, but she was radiating tension. After a few moments of the crown of thorns being in place, she took it from Amaryllis’ head and placed it on Grak’s. Valencia glanced at Fenn, just for a moment, then back to Grak.

“Working?” I asked, half-gasping at getting the words out.

“Not enough,” replied Valencia.

I closed my eyes and dove down into my own soul. I could immediately see what Solace had meant about the damage being soul deep. My physical form looked sickly, the hues of my skin nearly gray. Whatever the poison had done, it had impacted my soul, and though the crown of thorns might have removed the poison, it wasn’t going to fix the damage that had been done. I was trying my hardest not to slip into the soul trance, which would probably cost all of us our lives, but I was unfocused from the sickness, and I could feel the call of it, the need to look around and mull things over.

I went to my skills and began dumping points into Essentialism, just enough that I’d be able to access the backups we’d made of our bodies. It would also make the soul diving go faster, which was likely going to be an issue.

When I came back out, I realized there was a problem with that line of thought. The backups were in the glove, which was invested to Fenn by Amaryllis, and both of them were unconscious. The crown had been passed around, and hopefully that would mostly stop the damage, but they weren’t getting up like Solace had. More exposure to the poison? Less in the way of defenses against it? Variable biology? I needed to know the answer, but I had no way of figuring any of that out.

“I need a soul,” I said to Valencia. “One without poison.”

Valencia reached into the pouch at her side. She had a small handful of them, the most useful ones, in case she needed to engage in Plan Mountain Dew and take on a soul for a few minutes. I grabbed the bottle she offered to me, not even bothering to read the label, and emptied it into the palm of my hand. With Essentialism boosted, it was trivial to enter the soul, and equally trivial to swap my body with theirs. I healed myself as soon as I was out of the soul trance, feeling the changes to my body and a sudden relief from the pain. My skin had become a few shades darker, and I’d shrunk a few inches, but at least this body template hadn’t sustained damage. I’d pull my regular body from the backup I’d made once everyone was healed.

I went to Amaryllis, removing her helmet so I could place my hand against her skin, swapping her soul’s conception of her body, then healing her into the same form that I was using. Her armor shifted shape around her, adapting to her new form. Her eyes snapped open and she looked around, then stood up and drew her sword, falling into a fighting stance as she scanned for threats.

“What happened?” she asked as I moved to Grak. Her voice was much lower. I wasn’t sure that we’d have the same voice, but it would be close.

“Our souls were poisoned,” answered Solace.

I fixed Grak next, but the healing didn’t go quite right. His armor wasn’t magical, and didn’t conform to his new body, which meant that I was trying to reshape his body against the constraints of his armor. I stopped the process halfway through, and Amaryllis went to him to continue the process.

“Might need some of whatever you’re doing too,” said Pallida from where she was sprawled out on the grass. Her mouth was covered in cotton-candy pink blood, and she was lolling her head.

“Sure,” I replied, moving over to Fenn. “One sec.”

I was out of sorts, and I’d been doing things wrong without even thinking about it. I had wasted time taking off Amaryllis’ helmet, given the link between our souls, and though I needed to touch her to heal her, it would have been better to make the soul swap and let Solace handle the healing. For whatever reason, that was where my mind was going, to the inefficiency of the triage action. I’d been thinking quick and acting decisively, and we were going to make it through this with little damage to show for it, but I hadn’t been acting optimally, and in the future —

There had been four lines leading away from my soul, and now there were three. One was snipped and waving in the wind, the presentation that the game had chosen for Valencia’s soul. I raced down one of the other two lines, found Amaryllis, and went back to choose the other line. I arrived at Grak’s soul, and looked at his body, which I’d just swapped out.

Fenn’s soul was nowhere to be found.

I laid down next to her and pressed a shaky hand against her collarbone. Her skin was cold and pale. There was too much blood around her mouth. I felt for a pulse first, but my fingers just fumbled at her neck, and I didn’t really know how to take a pulse anyway. I tried to gain access to her soul, but the thread of Fenn wasn’t there anymore, not in her skin or the blood that wet my fingers.

I didn’t actually believe she was dead until I felt Solace’s hand on my shoulder, trying to comfort me.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 118: Breaking Loose

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