I was almost out the door by the time the afterglow started fading and I came to my senses. I’d been acting on half-formed ideas and baked-in instinct, not actually thinking about what I was doing. Without any thought applied to the matter, I would have left Raven’s home with sword in hand and commenced with the slaughter of the librarians one by one, taking them as they came, then going after the stragglers and those who fled before my bloodlust.
That would be idiotic, of course, and counter to my actual goals.
I wanted to level up, more than anything. I wanted to feel that feeling of transcendent, universal bliss flowing through my veins again. Immediately going to kill all the librarians wasn’t likely to accomplish that, just as killing tuung hadn’t given me a level either. At the end of slaughtering them, I would be left with a bloodied sword and only incremental progress toward my goal, having burned through resources that were likely necessary toward completing the quests I had available to me.
I would get the book or books that would let me pull the locus from its bottle, learn the method for exiting the Library on my own, and then I would slaughter the librarians. That made much more sense.
I sheathed my sword and went to go find Raven.
“Done?” she asked. Her eyes went to the sword at my hip, which I’d brought with me. I was wearing the bandolier too, the one with bones and fairies in it, but unarmored, both of which were normal for how I spent my days in the Library.
“Yes,” I replied. “How close are you to finding the information on the locus?”
She was giving me an odd look. “Why?” she asked.
“It’s the last thing I need before I leave,” I said. “You’ve made copies of all the relevant information on Fel Seed, copies of everything Amaryllis wrote, and I’ve acquired the Spirit skill. That’s everything that I expected to get from the Library. I’m also ready to learn how to get out, though I can already tell that it has something to do with the universality of schemata.”
“Are you okay?” she asked. Some of the librarians around her were giving me odd looks.
“Fine,” I said. The word came out too fast, too clipped and precise. I wanted to get through his conversation as quickly as possible, and it was showing. “Ready to go.” It dawned on me that I might not have the social specialization necessary to maintain the charade for very long, which would mean that it would be better to abandon the locus quest and kill them all sooner than later.
“We have time left before the shift change,” said Raven. “You can’t leave early.”
“I know,” I replied, making an effort to sound pleasant and carefree. “I just want everything to be in order so that I can leave when the time is right.”
“And you’re okay?” asked Raven. She was looking me over.
I smiled at her, forcing the smile to reach my eyes. “Fine,” I said. “I was able to fix the issues I was having.”
“Alright,” said Raven, frowning a bit. “I’ll go talk to the team I assigned to that. Trawling through the Second Empire indices is a bit of a niche skill, but last I checked they thought they were on the right path.”
“I’ll come with,” I said.
“You’re acting strange,” said Raven. She took a half step back from me. “I’m enacting Puppet Protocol. Stay where you are.”
This was going to burn time, even if I could convince them that I was completely normal, but I was pretty sure that I couldn’t, which would mean that they would tie me up, ward me, and gag me. From there … I knew that they had counter-memetic programming, the equivalent of chemotherapy or radiation, a cure that was almost as bad as the disease, or if they couldn’t identify the vector, Raven might bring me to Amaryllis to have a look at my soul. They would put me to sleep, so I couldn’t overpower her with my superior Essentialism, she would immediately see the problem, and I would be turned back into a Juniper that didn’t care about chasing the pure bliss of the next level.
They didn’t know about the soul connection though. I could alter Amaryllis from a distance and remove her as a threat, so long as I did it before I was put to sleep. Valencia might be a problem, but she wasn’t a problem that I could do much about, at least not immediately. Unfortunately, the lines to my companion’s souls were blocked to me while I was in the Library, whether because it was across a planar boundary or because the Library was blocked off from the rest of the world, and I wasn’t guaranteed to have time inside my soul to make the changes that I needed to.
“What does Puppet Protocol look like inside the Library?” I asked. “Pallida told me about it, but I don’t know your procedures. You think I’m compromised?”
“First, disarm,” said Raven. We were out in the open, and it was still light out in the vestibule. She made a gesture for people to come closer. “Unbuckle your sheath and let it drop to the ground. After that, we’ll bring the warder over and wrap you in wards, then go through the most obvious tests and look over the book you were reading for memetic signatures.”
“Seems –” I began.
“Don’t speak until then,” said Raven. “There are relatively few threats that travel by spoken word, but I’m not about to break memetic hygiene until you’re confirmed clear.”
“This is –” I started.
“I’m serious,” said Raven. “I need dead silence from you. Anything else will be treated as the act of a hostile agent working with your mind and body as its tool.”
I kept my mouth shut. This was a problem. I tried to work out what they would do. The truth was, it wasn’t memetic in nature, and aside from looking at my soul (or presumably, spirit), they wouldn’t actually be able to find anything, but that wouldn’t necessarily keep them from understanding that there was something “wrong” about me. The only way that they would be able to tell is with a soul mage, which I was pretty sure they didn’t have (though that was the kind of thing you’d leave up your sleeve if at all possible), or with one of the anolia, the species that had given me a once-over in Parsmont, which they definitely didn’t have. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t necessarily stop them from knocking me out and taking me to Amaryllis, warding me in completely, or deploying their memetic counter-programming.
I had until the warder arrived and started wrapping wards around me. At that point, I would lose a significant amount of control over the situation, and my strike potential would begin to drop to nothing. I still had tricks up my sleeve, but a skilled warder could eliminate them one by one as I was divested of entads and my various magical abilities were shut down. If there was a time to strike, then it was now, and if there was a way out by saying something clever, I didn’t know it.
I reached up and touched one of the unicorn bones that sat in my bandolier. I saw Raven’s eyes start to go wide, which was natural, as it was as clear a sign that a bone mage was about to start something as someone reaching for the gun at their hip.
I wished that I’d had more practice with unicorn bones. As predicted, it was the ability granted to me by level 30 Bone Magic, but I had only a single test run with it, back before my conversion, out of a desire not to run through what was a terribly limited supply.
(I had a lot of regrets. I wished that I had a better build, one more suited to straight combat. I wished that I had redone my character sheet in order to prioritize useful magics and potential synergies, along the lines of the character sheet that Amaryllis had laid out for me. I regretted not holding Raven down and soul fucking her into compliance, which would have sped up my time in the Library and allowed me to get back into the field all the sooner. As soon as I was done killing all the librarians, soul fucking was going to be my default method of handling anyone I needed to. I had let moral strictures keep me weak for far too long.)
As I reached inside the unicorn’s bone for its magic, Raven went into combat mode. Banded armor appeared around her, three seafoam-green orbs appeared in the air around her head, and her mirrored blade sprang to life in her hands. Despite that, she was retreating, moving back and yelling at everyone else to do the same.
I ducked down for my sword and tapped my femur for SPD. It was difficult to pull two different attributes from two bones at once, but as Raven threw one of the orbs and I dodged it by inches, I was grateful that I’d thought to do it. Bethel had seen the orbs spring to life from some entad that Raven controlled, but hadn’t known their function, aside from the fact that they were obviously offensive in nature. The moment I touched my hand to my sword on the ground, I was racing forward, drawing it and discarding the sheath with one hand, boosted by the pulse of my blood. My mind was already on the blade and the command I would speak to make it pass through her armor.
A second orb flew toward me, aimed right for center mass, and I slammed my foot down, pushing myself off the straight path toward her and over to one side, narrowly avoiding contact with the orb. She seemed to have expected that though, because the third orb came right after the first, and I was left without any opportunity to dodge. The orb hit me in the center of my forehead —
Achievement Unlocked: Grande Mort
And I was back where I’d been, burning through the unicorn magic, watching Raven’s eyes go wide, watching her activate her entads as quickly as she could, with threat responsiveness that would have been admirable if it weren’t so potentially lethal. She had no awareness that we’d done this before, not yet. Our local loop was invisible to her until it reached its conclusion, which was a point in my favor, and now I knew not just what the orbs did, but how she would behave.
I reached down for the sword again, and charged forward again, this time fractions of a second ahead of where I’d been in the past. The sea-foam green orb that came toward me was off-center, and my grip on my sword was firmer. I parried the orb on instinct, but it passed straight through my sword and then on through my chest, removing pieces of my ribs and a good chunk of my lung without any immediate sensation of pain.
Skill increased: Unarmored lvl 21! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat SPD.)
The tip of my sword fell to the ground as I kept moving forward, and I could feel the magic rush out of it, the mental connection to it going dead in the space of a rapid heartbeat.
I released my sword and drew my dagger, throwing it hard, directly at Raven’s face, and dodging another of the orbs at the same time. I heard, rather than saw, the dagger striking solid air in front of her nose and bouncing off wildly. The dagger’s tumble through the air was arrested almost immediately, and it homed in right back to my hand, where I caught it with a familiar sting of its grip hitting my palm at speed. I raced in toward Raven, driving the dagger toward her chest, and I had enough time to see it glance off the banded metal with no apparent harm when the third orb came down at a steep angle and trace a line straight through my body, starting at the top of my head.
And then I was standing there, watching her eyes widen, as I contemplated my next move. I was drawing on the magic of the unicorn’s bone, and it seemed diminished by the fact that I had, from my perspective, moved backward in time.
I was getting better as we fought, and I was gaining new information, but I had no idea how many times I would be able to attempt this fight. A single hit from the orb was enough to grievously wound me past the point my healing could recover from, if it didn’t kill me outright, and my sword was the only thing that could get through her armor, and then only with the single charge that let it pass through metal, if that would even work. It grated at me that even with unicorn magic as my trump card, I might still lose this fight.
My dagger moved around my body to stay hidden, and if I didn’t focus on it, it seemed to disappear entirely, probabilistically located somewhere out of sight. I reached into my pocket and pulled it out as quickly as I could, burning SPD and throwing it directly at Raven’s unprotected face as her bands of armor encircled her. There was a shimmer in the air in front of her, followed by an audible click, which seemed to happen concurrently with the dagger striking the invisible surface of whatever magic was protecting her. The dagger glanced off, and was back in my hand in half a second, ready for another throw. I couldn’t tell whether her shield was reactive, or whether she was just that fast, but either way, I didn’t seem to be able to stab her in the face even in full-draw SPD bullet time mode.
I didn’t have time to be cautious, not with the unicorn’s bone gradually running down. I threw the dagger again, more as covering fire than attack, and ducked down to pick up my sword from the ground. Raven was fully armed and defended, with her cloak billowing out behind her. My sword was out as she shot one of the orbs at me, and I felt the instinct to parry, but I twirled away and dodged instead, feeling cool air where the sleeve of my shirt had been vaporized. It was possible that I could simply outlast the orbs, if she had only three of them, staying at a distance from her until she had spent her payload, then closing the distance with my sword.
Unfortunately, there were people all around us, and while I had written most of them off as being soft and weak librarians, an analysis I’d made long ago in the dining hall, it wasn’t entirely accurate. A man and a goblin were approaching from the houses, both of them with rifles. I recognized the goblin as Xorbus. They hadn’t been part of how I’d modeled this scenario, but as they raised their rifles, I realized that attempting to stall would be met with rifle fire, and me without my armor. I could parry the bullets, I was fairly sure, but that would leave me open to Raven, and parrying two firing in tandem was likely at the limits of my ability.
I should have taken the time to get into my armor when I left the house, I realized that now, I should have taken the time to think and plan, I should have put my two points from the level up into something, but in the moment it had seemed like I needed to do something concrete to get me closer to my goal. Values had a metric for time sensitivity, and it was clear, now, that ‘Level Up’ had a perilously high time sensitivity, so high that it had compromised my decision-making.
I could feel the unicorn magic slipping away, the last of it draining, which would force a reset or bring the loop to an end, but I hadn’t put myself in a more advantageous position, let alone won. I opted to reset.
Raven’s eyes were widening as she looked at me. I glanced at the man and goblin coming out of the houses, each carrying a rifle, then around at the other librarians, the distant ones jogging closer and the close ones backing away. No other elements in play that I had missed then.
I wanted to pull my hand away from the bone and try to buy time, to say soothing words and explain that I hadn’t meant anything by touching it, but as soon as the magic was up, the timelines would come crashing back together, solidified, and Maddie would remember me trying to kill her.
In another life, I would have marveled at her ability to go into full combat mode at the drop of a hat, or at the way she seemed to prioritize the activation of her entads. Perhaps I’d just forgotten that she’d traveled with Uther for so long.
I tried gem magic, though I worried that the effects would carry over from one timeline to the next. I had a sapphire on a bracelet, pressed tight against my skin, for emergencies only. As soon as I was at the beginning of the loop, as I saw her eyes widening, I fired off the blue beams of light. They were weaker, not coming from the palm of my hand, something having to do with the position of the end-point of my soul, but they came as a surprise to the people around me, and went in all directions as they sought their targets.
Franklin Nho defeated!
Xentrus Sharptooth defeated!
Lollis Hentra defeated!
Skill increased: Gem Magic lvl 21!
They weren’t the messages that I wanted to see, just bystanders hit hard enough by the auto-homing gem-light to bring them down, whether lethally or otherwise. Three hit Raven against whatever invisible field was protecting her head. Automatically, reactively deployed then? Another four hit her on her body, arms, and legs, pushing her backward and staggering her just before her armor closed around her. It was the first solid hit I’d gotten.
I could feel the drain of the gem though, which was especially potent against a mind trying to suck down SPD and maintain a hold on unicorn magic. I could see that a second volley wasn’t going to do any good against Raven, so I grabbed my sword up from the floor again, pulling it from its sheath, and hoped that whatever injuries I’d managed to give Raven, they would slow her down enough that I could land a killing blow.
It might have been easy to miss, given the circumstances, but the magic I was pulling from the unicorn bones was definitely getting weaker. I wouldn’t be able to keep trying indefinitely.
I said the word to activate my sword and swung it at Raven, though I was too far away, and she ducked backward. My second strike landed though, passing cleanly through her armor to sink into her flesh beneath it, but I had gotten too close, and her orbs came down faithfully, all three of them at once, ending me at the same time I ended her.
Raven Masters defeated!
Achievement Unlocked: Coup de Companion
And then I was staring at her eyes widening again, even as I knew, with grim inevitability, that she would be in full combat mode within half a second.
I fired off the gem magic again, that meter having been thankfully refilled on reset, and watched as messages flashed across my HUD. Four hits to Raven this time, plus those that went to her head, which was entirely protected by whatever entad was springing to life to aid her. The mental fatigue didn’t appear to carry over, but it was still draining in the moment. With Raven injured I stepped back, trying to bide my time and hoping that I could pursue a strategy of distance. I drew and threw the dagger at her, aiming for her unprotected hands, which managed to score a hit that drew blood. She cried out, and I took the opportunity to pick my sword up from the floor and unsheath it while she was distracted.
Perhaps I wouldn’t need the sword, if I could dodge the three orbs and then cut off her hands.
I dodged first one orb, then another, feinting to bait her into using them, dodging with practiced ease, as though it was every day that I moved out of the way of projectiles that could instantly kill me. That left one remaining, the one she often held in reserve, but unicorn time was running short.
I darted forward, preparing to dodge the last one and speaking the word that would activate my sword. From the corner of my eye, I saw a rifle raised and aimed at me, and when the gun fired, I was already moving to parry it away, hoping that I wouldn’t die to the orb.
The bullet passed straight through the sword and struck me in the chest like a hard punch, and when I staggered back, the third orb hit me, wiping away bone and flesh to make a circular hole in me. I tried to shift my blood around within my body to prevent myself from fainting, but the unicorn magic was near its end, so I slipped backward in time instead of trying to salvage the timeline.
(It might have been painfully embarrassing to get shot like that, but my ego was the last thing on my mind in the midst of battle and with the need for the next level pushing away other thoughts.)
I didn’t know how many times through I had left, but from the feel of the bone, it was in the low single digits. The plan then, since the others had been abject failures, would be to put myself in a better starting position, or possibly to kill as many of the surrounding librarians as possible and then retreat to set up an ambush. It was all going to take more time than I’d wanted it to, hours that I was never going to get back.
I watched as Raven’s eyes widened, and reached down to pick up the sword as her defenses slammed into place. This time, I didn’t go for her, and instead dashed backward as I drew my sword. I grabbed one of the librarians by his collar and spun him around, putting him between Raven and myself, a human shield that would hopefully —
One of the seafoam-green orbs flew from its position above Raven’s head, aimed directly at me, and by consequence, my hostage. I pushed him away with inhuman strength, watching as the orb simply removed the matter in the way, a hole that he wasn’t going to recover from, and I narrowly avoided being caught by the orb as it continued on.
Franklin Nho defeated!
She’d done it with hardly a moment of hesitation, and again, I had to remind myself that she was more dangerous than she looked.
I said the word to turn my blade to smoke, and threw it at her, more out of frustration than any actual hope that it would work. To my surprise, it struck true, passing straight through her armor and presumably delivering a wound that either hit hard enough or cut deep enough that she fell backward.
I rushed forward, dagger drawn, not wanting to waste my opportunity.
The librarians with the rifles began firing on me. I parried one of the bullets and took a hit to the shoulder from the other, but that didn’t stop me from throwing the dagger and taking one of them down.
Alyx Gallens defeated!
Another shot came my way when I was temporarily unarmed, but I brought my hand up by reflex. The bullet passed through my wrist and pelted me in the neck, with no more force than if it had been fired from a slingshot. The dagger returned to my hand and I wasted no time throwing it again, then kept moving toward Raven.
Xorbus Longclaw defeated!
My sword’s charge was used up, but if I was able to dodge the two remaining orbs, I might be able to grab Raven’s sword from her, though that was a slim hope given that it had appeared from nowhere and could probably return there.
A faint awareness of my augmented fighting abilities caused me to drop the dagger when it returned. When I was unarmed and unarmored, I was twice as good at dodging, and that was enough for me slip through the two orbs that spun toward me at high speed and close range. Once they were past, a feral grin slipped onto my face, because she was still scrambling to her feet and with her most dangerous weapon completely used up.
I kicked the sword from her hand as she was standing up, sending it spinning through the air. It gouged the tile floor of the vestibule with every rotation, then disappeared. When I looked back at Raven, she was holding it in her hand again.
I fell into a fighting stance, one hand still clutching the unicorn bone and depriving it of magic. I had single-digit seconds left before I would have to either collapse the timeline or reset again, and this was as much as I had been able to accomplish through all my attempts.
I released my hold on the magic, and saw understanding dawn on Raven’s face as the memories of all that had happened came crashing into her at the same time. It could be disorienting, I knew, and I was counting on that as my hand moved down to the second unicorn bone. They were a precious resource, but I still didn’t know what her sword did, and she had killed me enough times that I had to assume that she would attack me with lethal intent. I would get myself into a better position before I used it, ideally collecting my bloodied sword from Raven’s feet.
Instead, a book appeared in her left hand, opened to a page with a curious fractal diagram on it.
I stopped where I was and stared at it, unable to do otherwise, even as the image burned itself into my brain. Every attempt to think of something else looped back to the image, and it became an obsession that crowded out all thoughts, even those of survival, even those of leveling. Whatever training I had during mealtimes in the Library simply wasn’t enough, because the image was the source of all insight and the destination of all trains of thought. Even when Raven closed the book, I held the image in my mind’s eye, in rapt attention.