Worth the Candle, Ch 134: Safe Mode






The veil lifted, and I could think again, in a manner of speaking.

I could feel a train of thought that was focused on the image, running alongside my normal thoughts, which were painfully unfocused. It was like playing a videogame and paying the minimal amount of attention to what my mom was saying to me, except the videogame was an image, and in place of my mom talking about dinner was everything in the universe. I was a cognitive cripple. It was worse than the worst strain that gem magic had ever placed on me, but the qualia was distinctly different, like a buzzing in my brain or a fire alarm screeching in the next room over.

Maddie was saying something to the other librarians, but I couldn’t focus on what she was saying. Someone was circling me with a wand in hand, and it took me some time to understand the significance of. Warding.

I realized, with vague concern, that I needed to extricate myself from this situation, and that I might not have the tools to do so given how much of my attention the image was still taking up in the back of my mind, and how crowded out my consciousness was.

I knew that their go-to solution for memetic infection was one of a class of counter-memes, the destructive kind that would chew through my brain and hopefully root out the infection before it burned itself up. I couldn’t think about much, but I knew that I needed to prevent that.

The warder circling me was constraining my options by the minute. It was so hard to think though, so hard to maintain a proper train of thought. I would be useless in combat, even if I could pull from another of my unicorn bones. A ward against bone magic might already be encircling me.

I dove into my soul, hoping to find a solution there, some way to lift the curse that Maddie had put on me. No, not Maddie, Raven, just Maddie’s doppelganger, a person that Maddie would have liked to be. Raven had a purpose, where Maddie had none, intellect and drive where Maddie was hopelessly adrift and unable to figure out her place in the world. Even their fathers were a symptom of it, a doting, overly involved father for Raven where Maddie’s had skipped town when she was little.

I’d lost my train of thought. I was inside my soul, but there was nothing obvious to indicate the meme was even there. I had expected a crater, or some clear sign of impact. I pushed into my memories, looking around, and found part of the infection right away, because the complex three-dimensional graph was warped, with too many lines all leading to the same place. It was simplicity to trace them back to their source, and the image whose chittering was still occupying most of my brain. It was a cluster of memories and memories of memories, with more of them spawning with every moment, and more connections being drawn.

I tried to rip them out. I had never removed a memory before, given how difficult they were to make sense of and how central to my being they seemed. It was like pulling out kudzu that was multiplying too fast, or cutting the head off a hydra, a monumental task whose growth and spread I couldn’t keep up with.

I stopped when I seemed to be making no progress and backed away. The infection was in the soul, but the soul and spirit moved in concert. The spirit was a set of interconnected function calls that depended on data from the soul, and if trying to hit one wasn’t working, then I would have to try the other.

I ascended into the spirit, and stared at a pulsing green mass whose tendrils seemed to reach into every aspect of both soul and spirit. Function calls that were calling other functions? Whatever was actually happening at the object level, all I had access to was the metaphor, the pathways of action that I could see.

The green mass had a backbone, and I yanked on it with as much intent as my muddled mind could manage. It evaporated in an instant, taking every tendril with it, then returned just as quickly as it had been erased. I frowned, then tried to still my face, lest that frown had shown up outside my body and given something away. The soul and spirit were having similar issues. I couldn’t get rid of the base data in the soul without the process within the spirit making more, and I couldn’t get rid of the process in the spirit, because it would be restarted from the data in the soul. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get rid of both at the same time.

I changed my tactic, and instead of trying to get rid of the bludging green vein on my spirit, I tried squeezing it instead, mentally gripping it so that I could constrain its size. As I did, I saw bits and pieces of my spirit return to vibrancy, some kind of indicator that whatever those pathways were, they were being used. I could feel my mind being given room as I squeezed out the invader, which made the process of squeezing easier. Every ounce of mental pressure made the next step easier, until eventually the green pipe was thin as a hair and barely visible amongst the rest of my spirit. The subsidiary branches were even less visible, and I knew where they were because I could sense them, more than because I could actually see them in what passed for a GUI.

I slowly backed away and watched, hoping that it wouldn’t resurface, and breathed an internal sigh of relief when it didn’t. A quick check of my memories revealed that they were the same tangle as before, with the image taking prominence, but when I thought about things, the image didn’t come to mind, and to all appearances, whatever enormous fraction of my mind the image had been taking up, it had dwindled down to nothing.

I resurfaced to the real world, triumphant, only to realize that I was stuck behind a large number of wards and surrounded by a group of hostile librarians.

I still wanted to kill them all. That hadn’t changed. I didn’t think that I was in a position to do so though. Raven was speaking to the other librarians in a huddle, occasionally glancing my way. I tried to make my eyes go vacant, but mostly relied on the fact that I was far enough away that any changes in expression wouldn’t be noticeable. One of the wards must have been against sound, because I couldn’t hear anything.

I had been saved from the meme by the game or whatever sat on top of it, that much was clear, but it had put me in an absolutely dreadful position. Raven knew that I had tried to kill her. I had seriously injured two of the librarians, if not outright killed them. She also likely knew that I had been taken by the so-called affliction that accompanied leveling up, and if she hadn’t figured that out, then she knew something was wrong with me. I wasn’t sure what weapons or scalpels would be leveled against me, but I was certain that tools would be brought to bear. I still had hope that I would be taken to Aerb so I could convert Amaryllis to my cause before she touched my soul, but having tangled with Raven, I didn’t think she would be so incautious as to take me across the border between worlds without knocking me out first.

I could summon the Cannibal, if he would come to the Library. That was certainly a thought worth considering.

The truth was, I was stuck, with only one good way out.

In my current state of devotion to the ‘Level Up’, I would be dependent on my social graces and ability to act innocent in order to convince Raven to let me out. To be blunt, that wasn’t going to happen. However, if I was going to be subjected to their ministrations and be forced back into my old state anyway, that would likely put me back weeks or even months from the next level. The easiest way to pass the tests wasn’t to lie, it was to really pass them, because I was who I claimed to be. If I actually wanted to level up, which I desperately did, then the most logical thing to do was to alter the core of my being. Future self, you must put real, meaningful effort into leveling up, or if I ever gain power again, I will destroy the things you love. I stepped back into my soul and lowered the ‘Level Up’ value back down to rock bottom.

The first feeling was of horror at what I had done. I had died a few times, killed Raven once, and there were three dead librarians that were entirely my fault. I tried to put distance between who I had been then and who I was now, but the decision hadn’t felt too different from my normal mode of operation in a crisis, where people became inconvenient meat that needed to stop moving.

I went back through the thought process that I’d gone through to get back to normal. Had that really been my other self thinking that? Had ‘I’ had some hand in the argument, swaying myself away from evil? Or had I really just thought that the fastest way to level up was to go back to normal and tossed my values in the garbage to get it done? I had no real way of knowing. The idea that I would sacrifice something so essential with almost no thought put into it was frightening. The threat … I wasn’t sure how to take that.

I stood up and waved to Raven. She stopped where she was and stared at me. She was still fully armored, and her sword was in her hand the second she saw me moving. She walked over to me, slowly and cautiously, as the rest of the librarians cleared out. She shouted something inaudible and a book appeared in her hand, with her finger between a specific set of pages. Another meme, I suspected, which meant the shout was for people to look away.

I held up a hand, then said ‘watermelon’ a few times, gesturing to my mouth, to show that there was a sound barrier between us. I wasn’t sure whether or not she knew that. She said something to the side, and we waited while one of the librarians, their warder, came over and slowly undid the sound ward.

“I fixed myself,” I said.

“Why were you saying watermelon?” she asked, still holding the book so she could open it at a moment’s notice. I’d seen now how fast she could move; she was almost as fast as I was with a full dose of SPD.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s just … something people on Earth say when they want their mouth to look like they’re talking.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the sound barrier would be one way. “Weren’t you concerned I knew a spoken meme?”

“The ward was two-way,” said Raven. “I can read lips.”

“Ah,” I replied. “Are you okay?” I asked. There was dried blood between the bands of her armor. It must have been wiped away but not removed from the cracks. I still had a vivid memory of throwing my sword at her.

“I stole two of your fairies,” she replied. “You cut halfway through my breast.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I — I wasn’t in my right mind. You were right to call Puppet Protocol. That was — it was admirable.” I wanted to say more, to say that it hadn’t been me, it had been this other version of me, a horrible killer obsessed with chasing the next high, but that was exactly what he would have said. He seemed to think that I would be able to dig myself out from this hole with authenticity, but making the exact pleas that he had wanted me to make made my skin crawl.

“You killed one of our librarians and seriously wounded another,” said Raven. There was nothing in her voice or expression that gave it away, but I didn’t think she believed me. “What happened?”

“I learned Spirit from the book and then leveled up when the quest completed, before I could do anything with it,” I said. “After that, I — I was going to kill you and everyone else here, and then I decided that I wanted that last book I needed before I killed you. Fortunately, you were harder to kill than I’d thought you would be.” I hesitated. “You have really impressive reflexes.”

“You were burning bone,” said Raven. “Speed, right?”

I nodded, slightly confused. “How did you know?”

“I have an entad,” said Raven. “One that gives me a benefit when someone is boosting their own abilities. It didn’t allow me any of the magic, unfortunately, or I would have been able to end that on more favorable terms. As it stands, we have two librarians dead and another five catatonic.”

“Catatonic?” I asked. “Oh. Friendly fire?”

Raven nodded. “I had to stop you, and it was the only way I could think of. People were watching us. I couldn’t warn them without warning you. Some of them saw the image.”

“I can fix them,” I said. “Probably. I can probably fix them.”

“How?” asked Raven. “How did you just shrug off one of the most powerful memetic kill agents we have on record?”

“I was protected,” I said. I tapped the side of my head. “It’s still there, just strangled.” Which probably means that I have a weapon that I can deploy against other soul mages, should it come to that. I might even be immune to that one.

“And your other problem?” asked Raven. “The desire to kill me?”

“I fixed that too,” I said. “I think I was thinking that it was the fastest way to get me out of here so I could go level up again. And I think that I also know how to solve that problem for the future.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Her finger was still between the pages. I was very consciously not looking at the book. If she didn’t believe me, I was probably fucked.

“You tried to kill me,” said Raven.

“I know,” I said. “It wasn’t me. I mean, it was, that’s the horrible thing, it was me, it was how I thought with all empathy and morality stripped away, but I can’t even call that the same person. Or, I don’t want to. I’m not going to say that you have to believe me, because you don’t have to, but I’m glad that I wasn’t able to kill you, and I hope you can understand the way things are.”

“I spent thirty years with Uther. Trust me when I say that I understand. Per protocols, I can’t clear you,” said Raven. “We have mandatory forty-eight hour quarantine, which unfortunately overlaps with the next shift change. Protocol is that we knock you out and keep you knocked out until after the reset, because the reset would put you back in the personnel grid, unrestrained.”

“Shit,” I said. “That’s … I understand it. So long as no one kills me.”

“That might also be a problem,” said Raven. “You shouldn’t have been able to shrug off the meme, but now that you have, Majom is going to argue for counter-programming. Do you think you could weather that too?”

“It depends on how long it takes to work, and the precise mechanism,” I said.

“Seconds,” replied Raven.

“Then no,” I said, frowning. “Even if I was allowed to prepare, I think it would probably just tear through me. The agent you used to paralyze me was relatively benign. It wasn’t trying to kill me, it was just trying to make me think about it as much as possible.” I touched my fingers to my temple, trying to focus. “I’d prefer not to have my personality nuked because someone was being overly cautious.”

“There are dozens of witnesses to everything you did using unicorn magic,” said Raven. She was staring at me. “If I didn’t have some inkling of your place in the universe, I would issue the counter-programming myself.”

“But you do know what I’m here for,” I said. “You know me.”

“No,” said Raven, shaking her head. “We’re practically strangers, for all the familiarity you treat me with.”

“Sorry,” I said.

Raven eyed me. “I don’t have the authority to release you,” she said. “Given our protocols, if I acted unilaterally, it would be taken as a sign that I had been infected with something, and rightfully so. And even if we quarantine you, I’m not sure that someone wouldn’t slip you the counter-programming just to be safe. I’m not sure that I have enough control here, not when everyone knows that I’m on the way out, not when there are rumors swirling about us.”

“Rumors?” I asked.

Raven waved a hand. “Impropriety.”

“Ah,” I replied. I tried to move past that as swiftly as possible. “So you’re saying that if you don’t break me out, I might be doomed?”

“Yes,” said Raven with a nod. She was staring at me. “Convince me.”

“I …” I didn’t know where to begin. “I haven’t told you about Maddie.”

“Maddie?” asked Raven. “The one I look like?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “She was … she wore cat ears around school. That was why I asked you about it. I think she was the inspiration for you, similar in some ways and opposite in others.” I thought about what Fenn had said about the relationship of Japanese culture to the elves. “And I’ve been starting to think, more and more, that there’s purpose to the world, and to the people I’ve met, even if it’s not always obvious. You? For Arthur, I think you were his moral compass, the person that kept him grounded and reminded him of home, except that he didn’t tell you everything, and it didn’t always work. For me, the purpose is probably just to show me who Maddie could have been, I think. I wasn’t very nice to her, even though she was nice to me, and our relationship was dysfunctional, but … I don’t know, if I were a better person, maybe I could have made things work. So maybe this is my chance to be a better person.” I sighed. “Except that I don’t think it’s that simple, because maybe I’m supposed to be something to you too. I just don’t know what. Maybe I’m supposed to be the opposite of Uther, or at least opposite in some ways, trusting where he was secretive, taking advice where he ignored it, working together instead of charging ahead. I don’t know. I just think that my role is to be someone to you, and I probably won’t be able to do that if I get smacked in the brain with your counter-memes.”

Raven watched me for a moment, not making a move. “Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll get you out.”

Loyalty increased: Raven lvl 1!

That had been a long time coming. Because she was Ell, or because she was slow to trust? Or because I hadn’t done or said the right things until now?

“I’m going to need that last book,” I said. “The one that will tell us what the Second Empire knows about the locus. I’m sorry, I know that’s going to be tough, but –”

“It’s fine,” said Raven. Her face was set. “I’ll get it done.”

I was left to wait behind the wards until the warder came back, but instead of dropping them and letting me out, she put up a new one, blocking out the light entirely. I lit up my finger as a makeshift candle, but there was nothing to see, and it was really more to preserve my day vision when the ward inevitably dropped. I stopped when I’d lost too much heat and began to feel a chill.

Hours passed. I needed to pee.

Then in an instant, the wards all dropped, and I was momentarily blinded by the light. Raven was there, and she grabbed me by the hand, pulling me along as she ran toward the stacks. There were librarians behind her, and two bodies on the ground either wounded or dead.

“Don’t look back,” she said, voice tight.

I took her advice and ran after her, until we finally reached the first shelf of books, which parted way to display a dizzying kaleidoscope of shelves. It made my eyes water and stomach lurch, until I closed my eyes and let Raven lead me.

We came out in other shelves, and my body was jerked into position with my arms at the side for just a moment before I was blinking and rubbing eyes, trying to recover.

“So,” asked Bethel. “How did it go?”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 134: Safe Mode

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