Worth the Candle, Ch 124: Fight Club

“I wanted to talk about,” I began, before Amaryllis raised a hand.

“Ten minutes,” she said.

She’d led me to the room we’d been using as a time chamber, and had a brief conversation with Bethel along the way. Bethel understood the purpose of us going off together like this was so we could get as close to true privacy as there was inside Bethel, but she didn’t seem to mind terribly much. It was very hard to tell with our house, but I thought that she was pleased with me.

“Tell me when the time is up,” I said.

“I will,” replied Amaryllis. “I’m going to take off this armor, turn around if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“Okay,” I said. It didn’t really make me uncomfortable in the sense that it might have in the past. Anhedonia was a part of depression for me, and it was definitely in full effect. Watching her undress seemed rude and disrespectful though, so I turned away, went into the ‘bedroom’ and pulled out a book that I’d left in the chamber, a dwarven legend written in Groglir about a brave dwarf who bucked her mother’s wishes and set off to found a new dwarfhold. It was one of Grak’s favorites, and while I wasn’t taking much pleasure from it, I was pretty sure that with Fenn on my mind, I wasn’t going to find much enjoyment from anything I read. I sat on the bottom bunk, trying not to think about how our conversation was going to go.

“I want to punch something,” said Amaryllis. “Are you available?” She was standing in the doorway, leaning slightly against it, with her mouth set. She was dressed down, in nothing more than a tank top and loose-fitting pants.

“You want to punch me?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I want to beat the shit out of you. Not you, specifically, but apparently the mental disorder lottery gave me aggression, and then the universe saw fit to shit in my cereal, so yes, I would very much like to inflict pain and damage on someone. You’re durable and you can heal.”

“Okay,” I said. I set my book aside and got up. I practically towered over her. Sometimes I forgot how short she was. She wasn’t overly short, but she was shorter than Fenn (than Fenn had been, I mentally corrected with a wince) and I had gotten taller.

“Lay on the ground,” said Amaryllis. She gestured behind her. “In the common room.” She had removed the table and chairs.

“Is this what we came in here for?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “But it’s going to be easier to talk when I’ve had a chance to vent the affliction a bit.”

I walked into the common room. “One request?” I asked as I lay down on the ground.

“Sure,” said Amaryllis. She was stretching out, limbering up, which I thought was probably important if you were going to give someone a beating.

“Can I tell you something first?” I asked. “It’s kind of bad. And then you can be beating the shit out of me for that thing, which is what I’m going to imagine is happening anyway.”

Amaryllis pinched the bridge of her nose. “Jesus fucking Christ Juniper, what did you do?”

“I slept with Maddie,” I said.

Amaryllis lowered her hand from her face and stared at me. “Why in the fuck would you not tell me that?” she asked.

“It makes me feel like a piece of shit,” I said. “Aerb was supposed to be a fresh start.”

Amaryllis stared at me like she was willing lasers to come from her eyes and incinerate me. “Lay on the ground, please.”

I laid down on the ground. “Try not to kill me on accident,” I said. “There’s a lot I can heal back from, but –”

Amaryllis climbed on top of me, so she was straddling my chest. She reached forward and grabbed my chin in her hand. She’d dropped all pretense of being calm.

“A fresh start?” she asked, leaning in toward me.

She punched me in the face, right around my left cheekbone, and I let out a gasp of pain.

“Tell me things you fucking asshole!” she screamed. She punched me in the face again, and she must have been using some of her magic, because even with my enhanced durability it cracked bone. “It’s all your fucking bullshit we’re going through,” she continued, but I was having trouble fighting through the pain enough to hear her.

I got beat on for a while. It really, really hurt, and took just about everything I had not to fight back. I burned bones for END, which healed and, at the same time, helped to dull the pain, but Amaryllis was still hitting me really hard, and repeated blows to the head left me feeling out of sorts even as I continued to repair the damage. I was barely listening to her as she went at it, but so far as I could tell, she got through telling me off pretty quickly before moving on to other subjects and using me as a stand-in for other people. The Dungeon Master was an obvious one, as were Bethel and Valencia, then Grak, then Fallatehr and Larkspur, and from there, to other members of her family, including Uther himself. I laid there and took it, fighting back only enough that she could feel like she was actually dominating me. It was easy to take the hits when I felt like I deserved them.

When she started crying, I stopped her. She’d been going on about a weak little girl who was never going to amount to anything, and my mind caught up only after the fact to make the connection. She was talking about herself.

She pushed away from me and sat with her back against the wall. Her hands were covered in blood and her clothes would probably have to be thrown away, because they were splattered with blood too. Looking at them, I thought that had probably been the plan, in the same way that people dressed down when they were going to paint a house. I was sure that I was as much of a mess, if not more. I barely had the bones left for healing myself back up, and I’d lost almost a tenth of my blood, most of which was in a slick pool beneath where I’d been laying. According to the HUD, she hadn’t taken me down past three-quarters of my health, but it didn’t seem like that was for lack of trying.

“Feel better?” she asked me. She wiped a tear from her face, leaving her cheek streaked with blood.

“Yeah,” I said. “Less of a shitbag, anyway. Not that I actually am. You?”

Amaryllis shrugged. “Less angry now.”

“Wanna talk?” I asked.

Amaryllis closed her eyes and let out a breath. “Give me another second?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “When you’re ready.”

Amaryllis kept her eyes closed and leaned back against the wall. I looked around the room. We were going to have to clean up, which I wasn’t really looking forward to. In retrospect, we should have put down a tarp. Also in retrospect, I should have declared a safeword. I had blacked out for part of it, I was pretty sure.

“If I had known that you’d had sex with Maddie, I would have been able to make a stronger prediction that Raven was going to show up,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said. “I just … I didn’t want you to think less of me for something that’s … it’s not the person I am anymore.” Knock on wood.

“Culture gap,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “I was put into an arranged marriage when I was twelve.” Her eyes moved to me as she furrowed her brow. “With Maddie, was it … consensual?”

“Yes,” I said quickly. “Yes, god, sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression — I mean, there are maybe some questions about power dynamics, or maturity, but –”

“I was twelve years old,” said Amaryllis. “My aunt Rosemallow was the one who set it up, and so it fell to her to give me the talk. I told her that I wasn’t really interested in Larkspur, so she told me that he was a perfectly handsome man, only eight years older than me. I was told not to make things hard for him, not to cry out if it was painful, all these other things I’m sure would make your blood curdle, knowing you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Blegh.”

“It fell through,” said Amaryllis. “I mean, obviously you know that, you helped kill him. So you can understand where I’m not the least bit fazed by you having sex with someone two years younger than you. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable for you to feel bad, but if you had told me before, I would have just tried to puzzle through your cultural understandings to figure out why you felt that way. Whereas now, I’m upset with you for hiding information that I could really have used when making my plans.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I just … I never knew how to bring it up.” I paused slightly. “Can we just burn the Lost King’s Court to the ground some day?” I asked. “Because so far, I know of exactly one prince or princess worth saving.”

“If it would prevent you from throwing yourself at Fel Seed, I would agree with doing whatever side quests you wanted,” replied Amaryllis.

“And that’s what we came in here to talk about?” I asked. “Aside from me getting the shit kicked out of me and you finally getting to blow off some steam?”

“There are a lot of things we need to talk about,” said Amaryllis, looking down at her bloodied hands. “Val, Bethel, and Grak would be a good start. Fenn, maybe.” The name stung.

“I miss her,” I said. “A week wasn’t long enough.”

“She was my best friend,” said Amaryllis. “No offense.”

“Mine too,” I said. “Also no offense.”

“And now,” said Amaryllis, slowly. “It kind of feels like we should be each other’s best friends, but we’re not.”

“Yeah,” I said, as I mulled that over. I was definitely close to her, we’d spent two months together in the chamber, but it seemed like there was more distance between us than there ever had been in the past. “You and Valencia …” I began, then trailed off.

“She’s out of control,” said Amaryllis, hanging her head. “It’s my fault. I pushed her when she shouldn’t have been pushed, asked her to do things — told her to do things that she wasn’t ready for. She’s a railgun being held by a toddler. We’re friends in one sense, but in another sense she’s like my daughter.”

“A daughter you kissed,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“She kissed me,” said Amaryllis. “I won’t say that it was unpleasant, but it wasn’t an ideal thing to have happened. Fenn told you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “On our date. She had a lot to get off her chest, and … I don’t know, I think back and I think I should have listened to her more.”

“A lot of what she said was nonsense,” said Amaryllis with a shrug.

“A lot of it wasn’t,” I said. “There were a lot of times she was just saying things I dismissed because she was Fenn.” I reached up and touched my face. It was still tender. I hadn’t quite had the bone power to finish the job, not without crossing over into the bones that I couldn’t easily replenish. I would need to retreat into my soul for more healing power. “I really deserved to get hit in the face.”

“Valencia got in your head,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at me with her glacial blue eyes, unwavering.

“She was right,” I said, looking away. “I mean, even if I accept that everything she said was suspect, when I turn it over in my head and look at the evidence, she was right. I’m just glad she didn’t hand me more hard truths than she did.”

“You know human psychology better than that,” said Amaryllis. “I know you do. A reframing on the facts can create an emotional impression that doesn’t actually fit with those facts. Even facts themselves can lie, if you select them with biased intent, or frame them in ways that play on psychological flaws.”

“Yeah,” I said. I prodded at my face some more.

“Need a fairy?” asked Amaryllis. She had set the glove off to one side, and gestured toward it.

“Nah,” I said. “Sometimes it feels good to be a little bit hurt.”

“I really don’t think you did anything wrong,” said Amaryllis. “Not with Maddie, not with Fenn. She loved you, you know that, right? She just … needed some time and space. It’s hard, when we’re all together all the time.”

“Even for you?” I asked.

Amaryllis let out a low laugh. “I’m alone more than most. Hasn’t really helped me. The Dungeon Master keeps spitting in my face. I wish I could blame everything on him, but … meh.” It was the most dejected ‘meh’ I had ever heard.

“Did you want some time to vent?” I asked. “Is that part of why we’re here?”

“A bit,” said Amaryllis. “I worked off most of the feelings I was having trouble with, but the sources … the soul goes back to the way it was, not because there’s something inherent to that state, but because all the pieces work together. Same with the mind, and with feelings, I suppose. Same with relationships. I do need someone to talk to, and you’re basically it.”

“Not Solace?” I asked.

“It’s awkward between us,” said Amaryllis. “In the weeks after she was born, she slept on me almost constantly, and … I don’t know. I don’t think it would make sense to you. She was this soft, green baby, my baby, and she was suckling at me, and it was everything that I had ever wanted motherhood to be. And then the locus just fast forwarded through to the point where she was Solace again, in a smaller form. And now my body’s been reset to what it was a year ago, and Solace is a grown adult man, and I can’t even have the illusion of any of it being real.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I would endorse making alterations to your soul, in this instance, for what it’s worth.”

“Thanks,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know how to do it though, on a mechanical level. Otherwise I would have petitioned the Council ages ago.”

Ages ago. “You’ve been using the time chamber more than you let on,” I said. “A year and a half, you said.”

Amaryllis sighed. “I wasn’t aware that I’d made any agreements not to. I take almost every scrap that Bethel gives me.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Speaking as your friend, I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis. She slumped back against the wall. “Are you more worried about the social isolation, the drift, or something else?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “You’re off doing your own thing, but –”

“But that’s not how the game is played,” said Amaryllis. “No, I know that. I just thought that if I had this project going, something longer term, I would be able to have an open plot thread. And if it actually worked, then I could do a lot of good, not to mention make the money that would get us the pricier entads and tattoos we need.” She sighed, and I thought about what Raven had said. “You know, it’s not so much the thought that there are setbacks, it’s this insidious idea that no matter what I do, I’m going to hit some unforeseeable roadblock somewhere. I can’t do television because there’s a hypnotizing monster somewhere? I could have dealt with that. I can’t put our chemical processes into action because synthetic polymers have some horrible innate magic? Again, fine, it can be dealt with. But if it’s going to be like that for everything that I try to do, then maybe we should just follow the quests in front of us and do what the Dungeon Master wants.”

I frowned at that. “It’s not my style,” I said.

“Not so kindred spirits?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.

“No, we’re not,” I said. “But I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, if it were me, I wouldn’t have stopped you. And whatever you learn from Raven about the specifics of the threats, if I were DM I wouldn’t mean that as a blanket ‘no’ either.” I leaned forward slightly. “Look, you had the backpack land in your lap, right? I’m not about to suggest that everything you’ve done up to this point wasn’t real effort on your part, but when I was DMing, I would always throw curveballs at the players when it looked like they had a straight path in front of them.”

“The path was far from straight,” said Amaryllis. “But you’re saying that there’s a chance this isn’t the end?”

“Yeah,” I said. “My read on the Library is that the librarians are an inherently conservative bunch, probably because they had a lot of bad experiences in the past, or maybe because a lot of them are from older races that can remember bad times, or … something. M–Raven came on after the fall of the Second Empire, which implies something about how their views have shifted. My guess is that their mandate is for saving the world, which is a laudable goal, but they’ve been acting as the Dungeon Master’s agents, helping to keep the world a bit more stagnant than it should be. You remember saying that to me, don’t you? That it seemed like something was missing from the equation, when you were trying to figure out why no one had come up with television before?”

“I should have known a thumb was on the scale,” said Amaryllis, frowning. “I just didn’t think being erased from existence was on the table.”

“You’re too important to retroactively erase from existence,” I said with a weak smile that Amaryllis didn’t return.

“Fenn,” said Amaryllis, before sucking in a breath. “I told her not to write that godsdamned letter.”

“I don’t think it was the letter that did it,” I said.

“No,” sighed Amaryllis. “But it didn’t help.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think about it a lot, whether there was a cause. Narrative, or if not that, then maybe just the Dungeon Master’s whims.”

“Fuck him,” spat Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said, but it was weaker, because so much of Aerb had my fingerprints on it, and so many of the decisions that had been made in its creation were the decisions I would have made. It felt like telling me to go fuck myself.

“I feel like I’m teetering on the edge,” said Amaryllis. “So much of my effort is going into fighting against the group, which doesn’t have a cohesive identity, and everyone wants different things, and it’s just …” she threw up her hands. “Bethel is cutting off fingers, Valencia is manipulating us, Grak is going to leave as soon as we pay him what he’s owed, and Solace is focusing more and more on the locus, pushing for us to do some unidentifiable something with it. You’re the only one that I can count on.”

“If I didn’t know you better, I would swear that was sarcasm,” I said. “I’m forgiven for going rogue at Speculation and Scrutiny already?”

“You wanted to save Val,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “It wasn’t the right choice, but you were at least trying to be a moral person and save one of the members of our party. That’s what I mean when I say that I can count on you. You don’t always do the right things, but usually you’re fumbling in the direction of following your own moral code.”

“… thanks?” I asked.

Amaryllis nodded. “I could probably have phrased that better, but if you wanted me to beat you up so you could feel like less of an asshole, I thought you probably wouldn’t care if I left the sugar off my words.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Incidentally, I don’t really feel much better. It just felt like I deserved it.”

“For Fenn, or Maddie, or Tiff?” asked Amaryllis. “Or someone else?”

“All of it,” I said. “Mostly Maddie. Raven isn’t her, but there are things they have in common. Looks, for one, but some mannerisms too, the way she speaks. I just think back to it, and hate myself a little more.”

“She was two years younger than you?” asked Amaryllis.

“It wasn’t that,” I said. “I mean, it was partly that, but she was Craig’s sister too, and I didn’t really like her, I was just looking for a life raft.” I paused. “It was like I was trying to rebuild my life in the dumbest possible way, at the expense of her emotional wellbeing.”

“You’re not really that person anymore,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah?” I asked. “Even in the last two weeks there are a lot of things I would have done differently. All the fights I had with Fenn, before the end … just little, unthinking things.”

“Was your relationship with Maddie unthinking?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “I thought it was shitty of me, and I did it anyway.”

“Well, there you go,” said Amaryllis. “You went from hurting people deliberately to hurting them accidentally. Next step is not hurting them at all, and the step beyond that is actually helping them.”

“I missed your dry wit,” I said.

Amaryllis gave me a weak smile. “I didn’t actually go anywhere.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “I was working on nation building and Val, though the results of both those ventures don’t say much to my credit.”

I gave that some thought. “What Val did … it was a very Amaryllis thing to do,” I said. “Meddling, I mean.”

“You’re right,” said Amaryllis, letting out a breath. She was still leaned back against the wall. Some of the blood had dried, and flaked away when she scratched the back of her hand. “You’re thinking of the void arrow?”

“I was thinking about you pushing yourself to fall in love with me,” I said.

“Right,” said Amaryllis, slamming her head back against the wall. “That. I get a nice reminder every morning when I undo the damage.”

“Still creeps up?” I asked. My ‘Level Up’ value still did, though it was getting slower as the memory of pure bliss faded with time.

“Still creeps up,” said Amaryllis. She shifted her position, leaned up against the wall.

There was an oppressively large elephant in the room, and it seemed like neither of us really wanted to talk about it. I didn’t want Amaryllis like that, not now, not when I needed friends more than anything. I didn’t want to dictate to her what to do with her soul though, and I didn’t want to ruminate on the idea that maybe, someday in the distant future … just thinking about it made my heart sink.

“I miss her too,” said Amaryllis. I looked up, and she had her eyes closed.

“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to say something about how things were between us, now that Fenn was gone, something that would express that a week wasn’t nearly enough time, that I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of ever moving on, but no formulation of the words sounded remotely right in the confines of my mind, and I didn’t think they’d sound better when expressed out loud. “There’s a hole in the group,” I said instead. “Things have always been kind of heavy, and the last bit of levity is finally gone.” I paused slightly. “Grak is planning to kill himself, I’m pretty sure. Seventy percent sure.” Amaryllis stayed silent, still with her head against the wall and her eyes closed. “Some kind of ritual suicide, I’m guessing.”

“Sounds about right,” said Amaryllis with a sigh.

“I attempted suicide,” I said.

Amaryllis’ eyes flew open. “Joon, please, I can’t lose you too, you’re –”

“No,” I said, “No, no, shit, sorry, this was a few weeks before I came to Aerb, no, I didn’t mean recently, I just meant to tell you, because I hadn’t told you, and I didn’t want it to be a thing that you felt I was hiding from you, or not telling you.” I was speaking quickly, trying to talk her down. “I should have thought about what I was saying, I didn’t mean … I wouldn’t do it again.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. She relaxed back against the wall, but there was a new tension in her shoulders. “A few weeks before you met me? Which would be a few weeks after the Fel Seed thing?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll have to update your timeline.” It came out more bitter than I’d intended it to.

“Don’t say it like that,” said Amaryllis. “Don’t say it like you think I don’t care about you.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Just … me being shitty again.”

“No,” said Amaryllis, waving her hand. “I understand it. You don’t want to look at your life like it’s the key to unlocking mysteries. It’s your life, adding layers on top of it feels like it diminishes your experience of living it. The problem is, I think there’s real predictive power in knowing your past, and if the Dungeon Master is playing on that, then we need to pay attention.”

“Yeah,” I said. I twisted my mouth into a frown. “Do you think that’s … do you think that’s why Fenn died?”

“Mirroring?” asked Amaryllis.

I nodded.

“I have no idea,” said Amaryllis. “Maybe. Maybe it’s the Bond girl thing, but up close it’s so monstrous that it’s hard to credit. We’re going to have to ask Raven and the others more about that. It might be a test of how you deal with loss. There are a lot of things that it could be.” Her eyes were downcast. “In the games you ran, what was your narrative like?”

“You’ve asked me that before,” I said with a hollow smile. Besides, she had also experienced it, albeit not in full campaign mode.

“You always brushed me off,” said Amaryllis. “You told me that your games weren’t really like that, you were adaptive, responding to the players, picking things up and dropping them when people got bored or forgot. But if you could control all the players –”

“You can’t,” I said. “That’s the nature of it. Players derail you, if you’re foolish enough to put up rails.”

“If you could guide them?” asked Amaryllis.

I sighed. I knew exactly what she was getting at, and fundamentally disagreed with the question, at least as it applied to our situation. “I guess I like structure,” I said. “I like mirroring, physical manifestation of internal problems, or anthropomorphizing abstract concepts that are part of character growth. I like when things end right where they started, when places and sets get reused a second or third time. Does that help?”

Amaryllis shrugged. “It was just something that had been bothering me.” She looked down at her bloody hands. “If the Dungeon Master is running our game like that, then you’re right that we’re going to have to fight Fel Seed at some point. I’m just really not looking forward to it, for obvious reasons. Can we try to work something out? Some compromise, so we don’t make a beeline for him?”

“If I can ever get to the Dungeon Master’s level of power, I can bring her back,” I said. So far as I was concerned, that was argument enough.

“And when players ran into high level encounters because they wanted to get to the logical end of the campaign?” asked Amaryllis. “What would you do, in that position?”

I grimaced, because the answer was that I would either divert them or kill them, neither of which were especially attractive at the present moment. “Point taken.”

We talked a lot, then took showers (her first, because I was a gentleman), then talked some more, like we hadn’t done in a long time. It had been longer for her than it had been for me, thanks to her abuse of the time chamber. It was weird to realize that someone who had once been my closest friend had grown so distant from me, so fast. Worse, I hadn’t even really noticed it. I was glad that I wasn’t keeping score, because that would go firmly in the ‘Juniper Sucks’ column.

“So do you think it’s safe for us to watch movies?” I asked. “What with the Couch Potato out there?”

“Couch Potato?” asked Amaryllis. “Seriously, that’s what you’re going with?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We weren’t given a name.”

“I’m six hundred hours in at this point,” said Amaryllis. “But if I had to guess, I would say that the time chamber provides something of a barrier. The Couch Potato — is that really what we’re going with?”

“Yes,” I replied with a faint smile. Fenn would have loved it.

“But he’s the one controlling the television, not the one watching — you know what, not important.” Amaryllis shook her head. “Time is accelerated within the time chamber, and anything that can get around the barrier of warped time might still have some problems interacting with what’s in the chamber.” She looked over to where the television was sitting. “We should probably still not use it, just like we should probably not bring in anything from Earth. We’re at risk of tripping across infohazards, and even if we don’t, there are other things that go bump in the night.”

“So you don’t want to do movie night?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned. “It seems like tempting fate,” she said.

“It seems like playing Russian Roulette, but the trigger hit on empty six hundred times before, which makes me a lot more relaxed than I would be,” I said.

“Which one is that?” asked Amaryllis. “I know Russia, obviously, and we have roulette, but together?”

“You take a revolver, put a single bullet in it, spin it, and then take turns pulling the trigger and respinning until someone dies,” I said. “Or maybe you just keep going without spinning again? But that seems like it would lead to situations where you know you’re going to die, so I don’t know.”

Amaryllis nodded along to that explanation. “How did you try to kill yourself?” she asked.

I flinched at that. “Ahrm,” I said. “That’s, uh.” I paused. “That’s not really how I want to talk about it, if we’re going to have that talk.”

“We’re here to have talks,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at me with her ice-blue eyes. One of the things that I thought about a lot, with other people, was that they had imperfections, and when I was looking at them, I had to be careful not to stare at a mole, or their acne, or the way their eyebrows were overgroomed, or something like that. It distracted me from talking to them, because I was overly conscious of where my eyes were. Amaryllis had no imperfections, and it was a little eerie to look at her face and see only thoughts and emotions. In this particular case, a sort of detached, wry, assessment of me. “How would you like to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Can I … can I talk to Grak first?”

Amaryllis frowned, brows knit. “Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just … I think I understand him a bit better than I did, and the thing we share in common is a degree of self-loathing. He told me all about his thing, and I should have told him about mine, either when we were getting the cursed items from Bethel’s pit, or when we were in the chamber together, but I was a chickenshit about it.” I took a breath. “And I feel like if I tell you first, it sort of means less when I tell him, if you understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t want him to be the last into that circle of trust, because it would minimize his role in the group,” said Amaryllis with a nod.

“That’s a better way of putting it,” I said. “Except you somehow make it sound calculated.”

“God forbid that anyone do any calculations,” said Amaryllis with a roll of her eyes. She smiled at me after though. It was a smile that was quick to fall. “And Grak’s ‘thing’?” she asked. “He told you?”

“Ah,” I said. “I’m not sure how much I should say.” Though I mentioned it in passing to Valencia when we were in therapy, which means Bethel overheard too, and —

“I already know,” said Amaryllis. “I found out a week ago. Without your biography of him, I doubt we would ever have heard the name Darili Irid, but the name gave me something to go on, and I have resources now, so … I know as much as there was to know from secondhand sources.”

“You didn’t tell me?” I asked.

“I really don’t mean any offense by this,” said Amaryllis. “But I was worried that you would bungle it.”

“I might have,” I shrugged.

“Do you think talking to Grak about your suicide attempt is smart?” asked Amaryllis.

“Attempts,” I said. “I mean, there are distinctions between suicidal ideation, suicidal gestures, and actual suicide attempts, but — sorry, tangent.” I tried to think about how it would go with Grak. “I don’t know. I think that he’s really resistant to getting help, because the thing in his past is so incredibly big, and accepting help is an admission that he wants to get over it. And … yeah, I think that I might be able to help him.” I frowned slightly. “Valencia would probably be better.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis with a small nod.

“If we trust her,” I continued.

“Which we don’t,” said Amaryllis with another small nod.

“You don’t?” I asked.

“There are different levels of trust,” said Amaryllis. “I trust that she could help Grak. I don’t necessarily trust that she will always choose to do what she believes is the right thing, nor do I trust that she’ll correctly pick the right thing when presented with all the options, even if she was trying to be good.”

“It worries me to hear you say that,” I replied, after a moment to think.

“When we found her, she was sitting in a cage, inside a prison, being cared for by a man whose outlook on life was ethically, morally, and strategically questionable, and that’s not to mention the fact that she underwent a fairly routine process of being possessed by creatures intent on harming living beings,” said Amaryllis. She leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “I shouldn’t have pushed her as hard as I did.”

“So … that’s a no on getting her to talk to Grak?” I asked. “I think I should talk to him either way, for what that’s worth, but I would defer to your judgement.”

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. She snapped her head down from the ceiling and looked at me. “I’ve had too many wrong calls.”

“We both have,” I said. I felt a stab of grief for Fenn.

“True,” replied Amaryllis. She shook her head. “If talking to him is what you want, then do it, so long as it’s not faked. He’s on the lookout for that, not just from you but from everyone else. We probably shouldn’t even be having this conversation, and we certainly shouldn’t tell him about it. He’d see it as collusion and meddling, which is debatably true, even if it’s just meant to help him.”

“Shit, I didn’t even think of that,” I said.

Amaryllis sat in silence for a moment, then started drumming her fingers on the table. “What movie do you want to watch tonight?” she asked.

“Seriously?” I asked. “You’re willing to take the risk?”

Amaryllis sat in her chair, staring off into the distance for a bit, frowning. “I’m running the numbers,” she said after a bit. “I think if we get hit by something from beyond space and time, then that’s just the Dungeon Master being a complete fuck to us, and if that’s how he feels like doing things, then not watching the movie doesn’t help much.”

“Okay,” I said. “Then I guess I’d like to watch something that Fenn would have liked.”

“How about Kiki’s Delivery Service ?” asked Amaryllis. “She wanted me to watch it.”

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve seen that one.”

So we had ourselves a movie night, with popcorn and hot chocolate, more or less how we’d done them when we’d been in the chamber together for two months. Amaryllis was on edge for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, waiting for a flash of something unexpected on the screen, but eventually she relaxed, which let me relax too. I found myself getting into it, and eventually broke into tears.

Amaryllis paused the movie and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. “It’s okay,” said Amaryllis. She was trying to keep her voice soothing. “It’s okay.”

“Just miss her,” I said. “That’s all.”

“Me too,” said Amaryllis.

I leaned back and pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to will the tears to stop. There wasn’t anything in particular that had set me off, it was just the feeling of watching something that Fenn would have enjoyed and knowing that we’d never get to watch it together, or at least not until after the end of everything. I wasn’t holding out hope for a resurrection, not with how clearly the game was signaling that it wasn’t going to happen.

“Is this how you did movie nights with her?” I asked, trying to get my mind somewhere better. We’d done movie nights as a group, every few days since we’d made the cold, bleak Isle of Poran our home, but those were substantially different.

“More snacks, more sugar,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was distant and sad. “More cuddling.”

“Cuddling?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. My moment of sadness was mostly gone.

“She fell asleep on me more than once,” said Amaryllis with a faint smile. She was watching me. “I hope that doesn’t upset you. It wasn’t romantic, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Nah,” I said. “I knew you shared a bed. She liked to cuddle. I’m just jealous that you got so much of it. If the Dungeon Master appeared to me and asked me give something up in exchange for two months in the chamber with Fenn …” I trailed off.

“I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” said Amaryllis.

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “I like knowing more about her. I was talking to Grak, and he had a lot more to say than I’d expected. It was food for thought. I’ve been trying to be less self-centered, more aware of what’s going on with the people around me. More forgiving, or at least understanding, I guess.”

“Pallida pledged herself to you,” Amaryllis began.

“I already planned to apologize to her,” I said.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She shifted on the couch. “Well, good.” She looked at the television. “Ready to start back up again? Or …”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was getting good.”

We hadn’t really discussed how long we were going to stay in the chamber. I could see how it might be a little addictive, if you could get used to the near-complete isolation. While we were in the chamber, the outside world was on pause, and the upcoming meeting with Pallida and Heshnel could be postponed indefinitely, as could any decisions about what our next steps would be. If I’d had a time chamber like this in high school, I would have spent every other day in it so I could get more time to myself and procrastinate until the last minute had stretched out for a week.

(Was I technically a high school dropout? Probably, right? I certainly had no credentials worth speaking of, aside from being the Advisor on Culture in the Council of Arches, which was a made up position with no actual responsibilities to speak of. I was pretty sure that I would qualify as a magus in a number of disciplines if I could take the relevant tests, but you didn’t get the title of magus just from that, you got it from schooling at the athenaeums. My off-grid training was verboten, so certification was never going to happen, not that it would actually do me any good, given that I was operating so far outside the normal systems. It still made me feel a little weird to know that I was never going to graduate.)

In the end, our little unplanned vacation ended up being three days long. Amaryllis was still working off her aggression, which she thought was clouding her judgment, and she was probably right about that. She beat me up two more times with my express consent, though it was never as raw and primal as the first time, and she did a lot less damage. I got the sense that it was less satisfying for her the second and third time, but didn’t really have a good sense of why that would be the case. For my part, I didn’t get any further catharsis.

“We need to talk about Bethel,” said Amaryllis at the end of the third ‘day’.

I’d been waiting for that. We’d talked about Grak and Valencia, and to a lesser extent, Solace, but Bethel had been a topic that we were skirting.

“Do you understand her compulsion toward violence a little better now?” I asked.

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “It was a blunt lesson, but maybe one that helped me empathize with her a bit better, in the same way that you seem to.” She pursed her lips. “With that said, she’s completely out of our control, and given how powerful she is, and the fact that we literally live inside her, it’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Bethel had never given any indication of being able to hear or see us when the time chamber was engaged, and in fact, had complained about that limitation a number of times. It was still entirely possible that she was just concealing abilities from us. We had, in the past, used the glove to hide in, which was almost certainly beyond her view, but that was an enormous hassle. I was operating under the assumption that Bethel would hear the conversation about her, and assumed that Amaryllis was doing the same.

“She’s angry, with good reason,” I said. “She never wanted much from life, and because she was powerful, she was used and abused by people who didn’t care about her. She’s … kind of the opposite of Valencia?”

“How so?” asked Amaryllis, narrowing her eyes.

“Valencia spent most of her life being weak,” I said. “She was used and abused because she was powerless, both powerless to stop the infernals from occupying her body, and powerless to stop Fallatehr from doing whatever experiments he did on her. Powerless to forge herself a better life. She was … was viewed as trash. For Bethel, it was the opposite, right? She was too valuable to be anyone’s home, because she was a weapon. Uther’s big crime, from her perspective, was that he acquired her and then did the equivalent of putting her in a vault, never to be used again, and all your other ancestors brought her out like she was the good silverware that’s only for special occasions. Right?”

“I think that framing is a bit lacking,” said Amaryllis. “I would show you my notes on theories of party composition, dualities, and specialization, but they didn’t end up amounting to much. It would suffice to say that viewing us as standing on opposite sides of various coins doesn’t really get at the truth.”

“Huh,” I said. “It was just a thought, a framing that maybe helps to understand who Bethel is and where she’s coming from. For what it’s worth, I think at least some of her behavior is antagonistic because she doesn’t trust that we’ll stay. Same thing Fenn used to do, actually. She would needle people and rub them the wrong way so that when they told her to fuck off, she would be able to pretend that she’d never wanted them around in the first place.” I paused. “I think, anyway. I obviously didn’t have a great read on her.”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “That sounds about right. Her affectations were partly about putting distance between her and others. But with Bethel, those affectations, if that’s what they are, include cutting off the fingers of our house guests.”

“More severe, yes,” I said. “But I think Raven was a special case. Raven is at least a little culpable for what Uther did, and she’s the entire reason that your ancestor Tansy came to live in Bethel. My guess is there’s only one person that Bethel would have a worse reaction to.”

“And you intend to bring him to her?” asked Amaryllis.

“I want him to answer for it,” I said. “I think that healing, for Bethel, probably means finding some way for her to make peace with her life up to this point. I don’t know what she would consider justice, but I do think that what he did was shitty, and I think he should have to face something in the way of consequences.”

“Not if Uther is the key to saving the world,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head. “Aren’t you a self-described utilitarian?”

“I am,” I said. “And yes, if it comes down to Aerb on the one hand, and Uther getting a bit of comeuppance on the other, then yes, I’ll choose Aerb.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” said Amaryllis, holding up a hand. “And we still haven’t heard his side of things.”

“I don’t want to go down that road,” I said.

“What road?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t want to question her account and suggest that she’s mistaken or lying,” I said. “There’s some reasonable doubt, sure, but if I began questioning her, it would probably be because what she’s saying is inconvenient to what I want to be true.”

“So what are we going to do about her?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t really know,” I said. “She kind of hates you, because you’re Utherspawn.”

“I’ve been trying not to confront her,” said Amaryllis. “We really, really could have used her when we went in for the meeting with Heshnel. If she had expanded next to their camp, or enveloped their keep, or even if she’d just been held as a staff … you’ve been very quick to forgive her.”

“She’s got her own shit going on,” I said.

“So does Valencia,” replied Amaryllis. “We all do.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know. Probably I’m just not very good at empathy, and it’s easier for me to empathize with Bethel, because she’s feeling a lot of things that I felt before.”

“You’d have cut off someone’s fingers?” asked Amaryllis.

“If I had the power to?” I asked. “And if I knew that the problem could be fixed with no lasting damage? Probably. I’d probably have done a lot worse.”

“Worse than torturing people to death?” asked Amaryllis.

“Alright, maybe not that,” I replied. “I just — Valencia was manipulating me, she admitted to that, and that I can’t empathize with, because it’s not really something that I do, at least not intentionally. And if I have done it intentionally, then I’ve felt horrible about it. Snapping at people who have wronged me is a much more Juniper thing to do. Same with being depressed. Manipulation? Maybe I just never learned the skill for it. Maybe that’s why I dislike it so much.”

“Hrm,” murmured Amaryllis. “It’s not that I like it,” she said.

“I didn’t say you liked it,” I replied.

“Yes, well, were you thinking that it was one of the biggest differences between us?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I was,” I admitted. “The thought didn’t come until the tail end of what I was saying though. I wasn’t thinking about you, per se, just in general, and if that’s the natural connection my mind makes …” I shrugged.

“I was born into it,” said Amaryllis. “My mother trained me, until she died, and after that, it was a series of cousins, aunts, and uncles who thought that I could be used as a pawn, given the wealth and magic I had been born into. I don’t like manipulation, but it’s part of the toolbox, and the mindset can be poisonous.”

“I really wouldn’t have expected to hear you say that,” I replied with a frown. “You’ve tried manipulation on me, uh,” I did a little internal count in my head as I tried to put a number on it.

“Too much,” said Amaryllis. “In Anglecynn, at least among the nobility, there’s this expectation that alliances are ephemeral and promises are only good for as long as they’re feasible to keep. When the going got tough, people would drop their supposed friends like a hot rock.” She slumped slightly as she said it. “And that’s sort of how I am. It’s sensible, but it always makes people think less of you, because they know your love isn’t eternal, and your promises are breakable if circumstances mean you’re willing to eat the cost to reputation.”

I sat back and watched her for a bit. She seemed like she was mostly talking to herself. “You okay?” I asked.

“Just thinking,” she said, shaking her head. “Thinking that it would be nice if people treated those conditionals in the spirit in which they were intended, and didn’t have such ridiculous notions about what we should mean to each other.” She shrugged. “But maybe I’m just a heinous bitch who can’t actually commit myself to a person.”

“Where’s this coming from?” I asked. The things she was saying were a little concerning. Amaryllis was supposed to be the rock that the group was moored to, the compass that would help us find our direction, or at least that was how I had come to think of her.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Amaryllis. “I just feel the difference between myself and the other members of the party a little keenly sometimes. We all have our different priorities, and sometimes I just want to go to each of you and scream in your faces about how the entirety of Aerb is more important than whatever your individual little things are.”

“Pretty dismissive, to call them little things,” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “I’m trying to get Fenn back.”

Amaryllis closed her eyes and took a breath. “You’re right, I’m sorry.” She opened one eye. “I was going to ask you whether that took priority over getting everyone out of the hells and creating a paradise on Aerb, but from your perspective, those are one in the same, at least for the time being.”

“Amaryllis, I promise you that if I ever have to decide between Fenn and all of Aerb, I’ll choose Aerb,” I said. “I won’t want to, but sometimes morality is about doing the thing you really don’t want to do because you know it’s right. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis.

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 22!

“What does it feel like, internally, for your loyalty to go up?” I asked.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She sat and thought about that. “It feels like learning something important about you in a way that makes me like you more. I’m trying to think of all the times you told me it happened … usually there’s some element of surprise, even if it’s affirming something that I already thought about you. Sometimes it’s a reminder about the sort of person you are.”

“In a good way though,” I said.

Amaryllis smiled at that. “Yes, in a good way. I know you’re down on yourself, especially with the arrival of Raven, but you’re really not that bad.”

“Do you have the expression ‘damning with faint praise’ here?” I asked.

“I’m allowed some gentle ribbing,” said Amaryllis. She was still smiling at me.

“With Fenn gone,” I said, and then it felt like the air had been sucked from the room. “Someone has to,” I finished. I hated the reminder that she was gone, but I had no one to blame but myself.

“Are you going to be ready for some meetings?” asked Amaryllis.

“I guess,” I replied. “You? Do you need to get out some anger again? Break my nose, snap my fingers, something like that? You haven’t stabbed me yet.”

“The first time was satisfying,” said Amaryllis with a shake of her head. “After that, it helped, but not as much.”

“Well, if you ever need that again, just let me know,” I replied. “It’s a service I’m happy to provide.”

“How are your dreams?” asked Amaryllis. “Better?”

“Last night we were putting on a play in the Boundless Library,” I said. “We were all playing our own parts, except for Solace, who was being played by the locus for some reason, and all the other players, everyone outside the party, was being played by the same man.”

“The Dungeon Master?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I replied. “The Dungeon Master was in the audience, in his own little box, with people all around him, none of them that I recognized. No, the guy who was on stage was just some guy.” I shrugged. “But the play was a play about us, and our adventures, and eventually we got to the part where Fenn died, and it was just so melodramatic. She had a whole final speech and everything as she was dying in my arms. And she was really overacting. She was having fun with it.” I smiled a bit. It was a dream, and I could only remember it in bits and pieces, or in the general impression it had left.

“Then what happened?” asked Amaryllis.

“The lights went down, she was taken off stage, and she blew me a kiss from the wings,” I said. “And then the play went on for a very long time, until we had finished, and we all took a bow.” I shrugged. “That was about when I woke up.”

“Do you remember anything of what came ahead?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I replied. “It’s all right on the tip of my tongue. I think that’s the sense in which it was a bad dream, since Fenn exiting stage left was … almost nice, I guess, because she was there, and she was in on it, as much as that wasn’t how it was in the real world. But if there was anything prophetic in the dreams, I wasn’t allowed to hang onto it. All I got was a nagging sense of things forgotten.”

“Which would be just like the Dungeon Master,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. “I’m really starting to dislike him.”

“I don’t think there’s anything important to conclude from the dreams,” I said. “I’ll keep telling you about them if you want, but eventually they’re going to just be dreams. They don’t really trouble me anymore. If anything, they might be helping.” Maybe that’s the point. “You’re right, we have some meetings to prepare for. We should probably get on that.”

“Right,” nodded Amaryllis.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 124: Fight Club

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