Worth the Candle, Ch 158: OP

I was worried about Amaryllis, though I was pretty sure she wasn’t dead, at least based on the line to her soul. There wasn’t much to be done though, so instead, I focused on my new powers, their implications, and the ways that I could use them.

Meta Stilling was the capstone, and by implication, the best of the Still Magic virtues. The text was simple and short, at least as far as virtues went: “You can still any game effect with a duration.” As far as munchkinry, there were two big concerns. The first was sleep, or rather, a loss of consciousness, which was what allowed Meta Stilling to continually function via the Instinctive Halting virtue. As soon as I went to sleep, all the penalties that the sacrifice had given me would resume their function, which would lose me my current Still Magic. I was good on sleep, but kicking myself for not taking Kenner’s Eye from Amaryllis; it had been one of the tattoos that she’d managed to recover from Everett’s body before his skin had completely lost its magic. There were other, more permanent solutions to the question of sleep, including training with the Elon Gar, but all that would have to wait until later, when it was a point of actual concern. It was possible that I could get Kenner’s Eye from someone, or have it tattooed on me, but I would have time for that after the Harold thing was taken care of.

As for the effects with a duration, I would have to consult with both Amaryllis and Reimer on it, but a quick look through the game interface found only a few examples of explicit durations. The Icy Devil spell, which I always wore a copy of, could allow me to chill things indefinitely, which seemed neat. But as I looked at it, it dawned on me that there was a different tattoo with a very definite duration, one that I had used while Meta Stilling should have been in effect.

<Bethel, is Prince’s Invulnerability still active on me?> I asked, careful not to verbalize it with Finch still in the room with us.

<Yes,> said Bethel. <Intriguing.>

<Probably not permanent,> I said. <But it’s much more permanent than it normally is.>

The more I thought about it, the more I began to get worried.

“Cleregore,” I said, looking down at my note. “After you spend the short rest testing the abilities of your spear, you find that it allows you to teleport to it with a thought. Mechanically, you can do it as a reaction so long as you’re attuned. In addition to that, it can be collapsed to the size of a pencil, then expanded at will. Uh, expanded at will back to its original size, not as big as you want. Oh, and it’s got the returning property.” Giving out loot was one of my favorite parts of being a DM, mostly because it was the one thing that was guaranteed to actually make them happy, in a way that monsters or NPCs rarely did.

“That’s busted,” said Craig with a smile.

“At this level?” asked Tiff. “Seems like it. I thought that teleportation didn’t come until later on.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Reimer. “I think you took that discussion about power level too much to heart. Joon doesn’t give a fuck.”

“It’s true,” said Arthur. “We once got flying surfboards at third level.”

“In retrospect, it was kind of a nightmare,” I said.

“A nightmare for the one guy who fought in melee,” said Reimer. “Still pissed about it. Point being, it’s Mario Kart rules: if you get a bunch of neat stuff, you get maybe one encounter where you get to stomp face, and then the enemies start adapting to your tricks, or you start running into weird circumstances where your neat stuff doesn’t work, and you’re back at baseline.”

“I’m not really understanding the Mario Kart reference,” said Tiff.

“Motion to adjourn so we can play Mario Kart,” said Craig, raising his hand.

“Overruled,” I said. “Or denied, whichever.”

“That week of mock trial you did is really showing its worth,” said Arthur with a snort.

“The AI in Mario Kart is designed to adapt to how well you’re doing,” said Reimer, picking the thread back up. “You get in first, they’ll all speed up and be right on your tail, or zooming past you. You fall behind to the back of the pack, the leaders will slow down. Pretty simple to notice, if you’re looking for it. You can still win or lose, but the game does a bunch of stuff to keep it close no matter how you’re doing.”

“And Juniper does that?” asked Tiff, giving me a skeptical look.

“Worse than that,” said Craig. “Sometimes he breaks things if you abuse them.”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Coin of Fates,” said Reimer. I was pretty sure he’d been waiting to spring that one on me.

“Okay,” I said. “Fine, there have been one — or two, or three, I don’t want to get into it again — times when I’ve made some serious mistakes in either house rules, items, monsters, or whatever else, and I’ve had to take some corrective measures, and I usually do that in-game instead of just pulling you all aside and saying that I made a balancing mistake, because I tried that once, and it went terribly.”

“It’s better in-game,” said Arthur. “No need to break the suspension of disbelief if you can help it.”

“Sure,” I said. “And I tend to agree.”

“Sorry,” said Tiff. “Can someone regale me with the story of the Coins of Fate?”

“Just one coin,” said Reimer. “Coin of Fates. You could ask a question when you flipped it, and it would tell you weal or woe with 62.5% accuracy.”

“Ooookay,” said Tiff. “So you used it for everything? Or, uh, just flipped it a bunch of times and tried to do some math?”

“Joon wouldn’t let us use it on repeat,” said Reimer. “Though I’m 62.5% confident that he didn’t think of it beforehand. There were a bunch of rules.”

“It was annoying,” I said. “Literally every corridor they were going down, every NPC they met, every potential encounter –”

“So Joon made up this whole angelic superstructure that was getting really annoyed by us hogging their bandwidth,” said Reimer, which wasn’t actually the flavor I’d been going for, except that it was meant to be a tragedy of the commons. “They came down, told us off, and they didn’t take the coin, but it was throttled from then on.”

“It made sense in context,” I said.

“Kind of,” said Arthur.

“Point being, if Craig’s new spear looks overpowered, then either we get some situations that really challenge it, situations that make it worthless, or it gets stolen, lost, destroyed, confiscated, whatever,” said Reimer.

“So … why munchkin?” asked Tiff. “If it’s just all going to get you into hot water or worse situations?”

“Because that’s the fun of it,” said Reimer. “It’s, I don’t know, punching above your weight class, challenging the gods –”

“Literally, in some cases,” said Arthur.

“It’s pulling out the unexpected and seeing Juniper’s face fall,” said Reimer, grinning at me.

I turned to Tiff. “I think for me, a lot of the fun of the worldbuilding stuff is just setting up systems and seeing where they go, like, if you have a society who can’t have a person born without one dying, what does that look like, right? To me, that’s super interesting. Well, for the Reimers of the world, it’s probably sort of the same thing, looking at the extremes of the system through certain hypotheticals, it’s just more directed than anything I do. Honestly, the focus on optimization sometimes seems like it’s secondary to the whole thing, because sometimes he’s not even optimizing for being good.”

“Am too,” said Reimer.

“You had that whole build where you were trying to throw as many daggers in a round as possible,” I said. “Are you really going to say that was about being good, rather than just because you could?”

“Meh,” said Reimer.

“Anyway,” I said. “Cleregore, that’s your spear. For the record, I think it’s good but not overpowered. And if it leads to bigger, better challenges, or unique circumstances,” I shrugged. “That’s just how the game is played.”

I was terrified of the exclusionary principle, which seemed like it had been sitting in the background waiting to thwack me upside the head from basically the first moment I’d heard of it. The exclusions came in enough forms that I couldn’t know which one I would get smacked with, but at best, I would get some fraction of still magic excluded, with my new shiny toy taken away, and at worst, I would be trapped within a very small geographical region, unable to leave. Somewhere in the middle ground were outcomes like, for example, all of skin magic being excluded from Aerb, or all of still magic, or something insanely wide-reaching like that.

And if an exclusion didn’t happen, then what kind of things would I be facing down? Amaryllis and I got into narrative arguments with some frequency, but a lot of that was simply that I thought she was using the wrong standards, namely, the standards of prose, plays, and movies, rather than the standards of tabletop roleplaying games. For the most part, TTRPGs worked like real life, at least as I had played them, and if you ran toward danger because you thought that you were the invincible protagonist who couldn’t get hurt, you would probably get smacked down hard, because that was stupid.

Having so much power, even if it was only momentary, scared me simply because it meant that any reasonable DM would start throwing all kinds of terrible shit at me, things to test my new powers, then after that, things to circumvent them. So long as I had Still Magic 100 and Prince’s Invulnerability active, the number of things that could possibly hurt me was very, very small, but my mind was already racing ahead to expand that sliver of the pie chart and think about the kinds of things I would invent if I had to deal with a player with my current powerset.

  • Still soul seemed like it would make me functionally immune to most memetic agents, but it was a complication, because I could still be infected, which would mean that the whole not-going-unconscious thing would simply kill me, rather than just leave me depowered.
  • Still magic was, by its nature, hard to ward against, but it was still possible, and any enemy that knew my capabilities and had a capable warder would do that immediately. Grak was able to see wards, but I wasn’t, not yet, which meant that it would be vital to keep him by my side.
  • Debatably, poisons might work on me. I had given the Bracelet of Panacea over to Amaryllis before going down into the temple, on the theory that Bethel could use it for anyone in the house in a pinch, but we had other backups. It wasn’t clear whether Prince’s Invulnerability worked on poisons or not, given that the timescale was normally in the six second range; we were deep into uncharted territory.
  • I was really good at not being hurt, as well as stopping any attack that touched me, which meant that various forms of immobility were still entirely in play. Neither still magic nor Prince’s would help me get out from under a net, which was kind of hilarious to think about, given how godly powerful the combination otherwise was. More seriously, anything that could freeze me in place could potentially make me as good as dead, a time-tested method of dealing with otherwise immortal people (encased in a concrete block and thrown into the ocean was the standard, and I saw no reason that it wouldn’t work on me).
  • I still needed to breathe. Apparently, Prince’s didn’t handle that, which I’d tested by simply holding my breath until I came close to passing out. Someone could probably still drown me, or shove something down my throat, or replace the breathable air with helium, or something like that. Air mages were normally among the weakest magic users, but they were at the top of my threat list.
  • I could still run into problems where personal protection wasn’t really the name of the game. All the best Superman stories weren’t about whether or not Superman could punch a problem hard enough, they were about difficult choices and intellectual or philosophical issues. On a less pretentious level, it was very possible that either civilians or the people I knew and loved would be put in harm’s way.

As soon as that last thought occurred to me, I thought about two salient facts. First, Harold had somewhere in the neighborhood of thousands of civilians under his control, and there were millions of (relatively) innocent people in Li’o just trying to live their lives, something that a combination of Harold, Mome Rath, and all the various creatures that had been living on him probably weren’t going to allow.

Second, I still hadn’t heard back from Amaryllis.

“Mary,” I said, pressing my fingers against the tattoo. “We’re about to go make an assault on Harold, I’d really like to hear back from you. Not sure what kind of circumstances you’re in right now.”

It hadn’t been long since the explosion had knocked everyone apart, but I was getting increasingly antsy, and checked the soul line again, just to be sure. I did a quick check of her soul itself, then her spirit, making sure that nothing looked out of place. Wherever she was, at least she was internally fine, and physical damage was something that could be healed. The specific circumstances that would have either knocked her out or kept her from using Parson’s Voice … well, speculation wasn’t useful at this point. It hadn’t been long, not more than ten minutes, and I tried to tell myself that it was too soon to panic.

We had some time, and I used it. Grak was wearing his temporal plate, on loan from Pallida, which allowed him to manipulate time and give himself a weaker, localized version of the time chamber, but without the restriction of needing to be inside a room. Because the temporal plate was inside of Bethel, she could slow time down for us absent the time chamber, giving us three minutes for every one on the outside. Because that effect stacked with the time chamber, that meant we were looking at only five minutes on the outside for spin up and spin down, plus twenty seconds for a full day in the chamber. We weren’t going to do a full day, not before I’d solved the sleep problem, but a handful of hours would help tremendously.

“Is this how you people live?” asked Finch, when we were all (sans Bethel and Solace) inside the chamber.

“Pretty much,” I said. “I figured that you knew that, given that you seem to know everything else.”

“I knew about Bethel, more or less,” said Finch. “I got the slate by tracking the history of Kuum Doona. But from everything I’d read, she wasn’t so strong as she seems to be now. She seems like she’s teetering on the edge of exclusion and loaded up with a Penndraig’s vault worth of entads.”

“Well,” I said. “We’re keeping it to six hours here, in order to plan, nothing more.”

We kept to that, more or less. Bethel had made us a lavishly spacious room, by the standards of a designated time chamber, and I went to work doing the first thing I thought was necessary, which was combat testing still magic with Raven as my sparring partner. Finch watched distantly while in quiet conversation with Malus, who had knelt to get down to his level, and I took an opportunity to eavesdrop with vibrational magic.

“We’re way off the map,” said Malus. “I’m not sure what kind of paperwork is waiting for us when this is over, but we might be facing disavowal.”

“We’re doing what needs to be done,” said Finch.

“You know what they’ll say,” replied Malus. “A whole athenaeum taken out, with people on the ground who could have stopped it? Foul play isn’t so crazy to think about.”

“You’re letting your recent incarceration get to you,” said Finch.

“People like scapegoats,” said Malus.

“You know you weren’t just that,” said Finch. “You were clocked. That’s why they took you in. It’s just a matter of how much they know. Did any revision mage pay you a visit?”

“If they did, they could have wiped it from my mind,” said Malus. “I was keeping my eyes open for discontinuities, but you know the ways around that same as I do. I was kept in the dark anyway, right where you wanted me.”

“It’s going to be bad times if this is pinned on us,” said Finch.

“Agreed,” said Malus. Her tone was impassive. “And all this is your circus too? You brought a lot of power into Li’o.”

“Not power I control,” said Finch. “These people … they’re a cannon that you could vaguely aim in the right direction, if you had a deft enough touch. I’m fifty-fifty on whether or not they’ll turn on us.”

Raven clocked me upside the head, which instinctive stilling caught, but she gave me a look that let me know that she was well aware I wasn’t paying my full attention to her.

“You’re fighting sloppy,” said Raven.

“Sorry,” I said. “A lot on my mind right now.”

“Amaryllis?” asked Raven, raising an eyebrow.

“That too,” I replied.

“I was captured by enemies on twenty-six different occasions,” said Raven. She brandished her sword at me, its mirrored finish impeccably sharp. “Once a year, more or less.”

“If that’s what happened, it would be her third time,” I said, after thinking about it for a moment. Aumann, Fallatehr, and now Harold. “Four, if you count the pregnancy. Five, if you count the rat rot.”

Raven struck out at me, moving with unsurprising speed. I couldn’t burn bones to match her, because that only made her stronger, which left us fighting against each other on more or less even footing. Of course, with still magic being as high as it was, there was little chance of her actually hurting me, but she was still landing hits that I thought I should have been able to dodge or deflect.

“Alright,” said Raven, after she’d touched her blade to the side of my head again. “I want you to try stilling me.”

“Are you going to be okay?” I asked. “I mean, if I stop your heart …”

“Brain activity,” said Raven. “It should be faster. Uther could do it without hurting anyone.”

“Live fire exercises on your allies are idiotic,” said Pallida, stepping in from the side. “You know that, Raven.” Raven frowned at her. “I get it, it’s about keeping civilians safe, and not the kind of thing you want to do for the first time in the middle of heated combat, but you should leave martyrdom to those of us who can come back to life.”

“You’re volunteering?” I asked.

“Hells no,” said Pallida with a laugh. “But as I recall, there was an entad that was useful for combat testing, one that was helpfully donated to the Demonblooded Festival by a magus Oberlin. And after that, well, if it was stolen, ah, who could know where it ended up?”

“That would have been nice to know before we came in here,” I said. “Given the spin up and spin down time.”

“You’re not the only one who can do the teletalk with Bethel,” said Pallida with a smile. She went over to one of the cabinets that I’d assumed were just dressing and pulled out the mannequin. “Ta da!”

“Oberlin won’t see the humor in it,” said Finch, calling out to us. “That entad was hard won.”

“Yeah, well,” said Pallida. “Looks like Juniper is going to kill it a few times, and maybe if he’s still alive, Oberlin can complain about it later.”

“I’d bet on him,” said Finch. “He’s a tough old bastard.”

I was less sure. Not about the tough bastard part, which seemed true, but about his survival. Mome Rath had focused much of his efforts on the campus, and there was no particular reason that Oberlin’s skill as a vibration mage would allow him to survive an enormous claw to the face. Oberlin himself had said that vibrational magic was much more about offense than defense.

We set up the dummy, and after some fiddling, finally got it to mold itself into a person.

“Does it even have brain activity?” I asked, looking skeptically at the woman it had created.

“Yes,” said Finch. “It’s lifelike in every way, up until the moment it’s killed. Might even be able to fool your house.”

“I really doubt there’s an entad that can fool Bethel,” I said.

“She’s not a god,” said Pallida. “Please don’t let her know that I said that.”

I approached the entad-person. It was going through all the motions of being a person, breathing, blinking every once in a while. When I touched its neck, I could feel its pulse, though there was no trace of latent blood or skin magic, like there would have been in a real person.

(It was tempting, when faced with an entad like this, to try puzzling out what it was for, but conventional wisdom on entads was simply that they came from nothing, with no intent on the part of their forge-frenzied creator, instead originating from somewhere else, or through some other process. A part of me wondered what this entad was, from the perspective of the Dungeon Master, and another part of me wondered what I would have made such a thing for, aside from the obvious joy of creation.)

I could feel the motion in her body, and dimly, yes, electrical signals, the kind necessary to keep a person standing upright, to keep them breathing, to go through the motions. It occurred to me that it was entirely possible that the person here was a ‘real’ person, for some given value of ‘real’. Oberlin had been cavalier about killing them, but … well, the story of Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was one that tended to stick with people, myself included.

In brief, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was a powerful necromancer during the Second Empire, one who reached heights that no other necromancer ever had before, not even in Uther’s time. His particular brand of necromancy got excluded, leaving him as the sole practitioner, but as far as enpersoned exclusion zones went, he was pretty calm and relaxed, capable of making deals with those outside his realm. At the time, that included the Second Empire, and they invested money into the Captain’s lands, putting up factories which were staffed by zombies, the name given to special creations that would slowly decay over time, but could be directed toward simple work until that point, the pinnacle of mindless labor. The Captain’s realm took in raw goods and sent out finished ones, at a fraction of the price that anyone else could do the same work for, and he did it with branding and public relations, little stamps that said ‘zombie-made’ on plates, hammers, all kinds of things. The zombies were, per the Captain, ethically sourced, only taken from people who died naturally in his realm, which had a fair population of the living as well.

The only problem was, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had been lying, and the zombies weren’t fully dead at all. Instead, the person who died was locked into their body, fully able to feel everything that happened to them, but unable to take any action on their own. The ‘zombies’ would sit there doing assembly work, watching as their bodies slowly and inevitably decayed, unable to speak, unable to stop, watching their own demise at a remove.

Eventually, the truth came out, thanks to some investigative reporting and a few very specific entads that allowed the zombies to have a voice. It was a big, complicated mess, an atrocity committed almost entirely by one man, and it got tangled up in the burgeoning world economy and the complicated ethical positions of the Second Empire. The upshot was that ‘zombie’ became a dirty word, especially after Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle published a long screed about how people knew in their hearts, and didn’t care, and would continue to buy the products from his factories anyway. ‘Zombie’ had always been his word, with slightly cutesy connotations, pictured in his propaganda as dim-witted but loveable creatures. It was a lot less cute when you knew there were people trapped inside those bodies, forced into permanent labor as they watched their bodies degrade, feeling every single bit of their slow death. Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had been wrong about people: they’d stopped buying his stuff, mostly through coordinated action and a stringent ban by the Empire of Common Cause, and he’d been stuck in his exclusion zone for quite some time, increasingly unhinged and severely unhappy.

(I had a quest to kill him.)

Now, you’d think that the whole zombie thing would make people think twice about declaring that someone or something wasn’t a person, but there were so damned many rights and identity issues on Aerb, a lot of which were deeply ingrained or more complicated than they appeared on first blush. Entads and non-anima were notable (and obvious-to-me) holes in how most people defined personhood.

So I was left looking at this woman, the creation of an entad, and thinking that maybe she had some moral worth, or that maybe I shouldn’t be so cavalier about inflicting harm on her until Bethel had a chance to check it out.

And then I forced myself to realize that I was too much in my own head, and maybe just worried about all the puppets I was about to be fighting in relatively little time, some of which I might end up killing.

I backed up for a moment and then reached forward with one hand, applying still magic the moment that my fingertips touched her skin, focused entirely on the task. She dropped to the ground and laid there, motionless. After a few seconds, she reverted back to the mannequin.

“Huh,” said Pallida. “So, we’re saying that’s lethal?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Fast though,” she continued.

“Yeah,” I said. “Last resort, rather than first.”

“Not sure I agree with that,” said Pallida, “Given that my life will be on the line.”

Raven gave her a look.

“Uther would have saved everyone?” I guessed.

“Sorry,” said Finch, cutting over. “We haven’t been introduced.” He held his hand out to Raven. “Figaro Finch. I saw you at the wedding, but you left right after it finished. Figured we should at least know each other’s name, if we’re going to be working together.”

Raven raised an eyebrow at him, then slowly shook his hand. “Raven Masters.”

Finch stopped shaking her hand and just stared at her. “Bullshit,” he finally said.

“I don’t have much in the way of proof,” said Raven, not seeming apologetic at all.

“It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen,” I told him. “And you know it.”

“But where’s she been?” asked Finch, looking over at me.

“Cleaning up your messes,” said Raven, scowling at him.

“Pardon?” asked Finch.

“We’ve crossed paths before,” said Raven. “Four times, by my count.”

“You have?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Raven, staring down Finch. “521 FE, Litergo Province. There was a small portal that was increasing in size. Uniquities got called in, and they took control of the site. You ran the numbers and extrapolated the growth rate, and came to the conclusion that it was a threat to all of Aerb. Except instead of sounding the alarms far and wide, someone decided that Uniquities would handle it.”

Finch frowned. “It winked out after two weeks.”

“Yes,” said Raven. She pointed to herself. “That was me.”

“How?” asked Finch. He didn’t really look like he believed it.

“I used an entad to deal with it,” said Raven. “It had to be done early, because otherwise the portal would have grown out of control, beyond the ability to be contained. Tell me, was there someone on your end of things arguing that taking down a bigger threat might pull in more funding? Or someone arguing for exploitation?”

“Sorry,” said Finch, looking her over. “Who the hells are you again?”

“Raven Masters,” she replied. “The last of Uther’s Knights. My job was saving the world when you people fell flat on your faces.”

“Where?” asked Finch. I have to admit, it was satisfying to see him thrown off his feet. “How?”

“Raven, Finch, you have an hour to hash this out,” I said, making a decision. “We have things we need to do before we resume the fight. I’m going to be practicing on this entad, then pulling in more power if it’s warranted.”

“More power?” asked Raven.

“We’ll talk about it later,” I said. “Privately.”

There was one big trick left, one that I was hesitant to use. Soul Scaphism was the level 80 virtue for Essentialism, and the penalty for that had a duration, which I was pretty sure would be stilled by Meta Stilling. That meant that if I sacrificed enough skill points to get to 80, I would be able to scaph out some souls in order to boost all my other skills, which would then persist under the same conditions that Still Magic would. We had an inventory of souls, including all of the people that had died in the battle just outside Boastre Vino, and it was a certainty that they had skills that I could use to replace whatever I sacrificed, in addition to boosting me to higher heights, given that Soul Scaphism appeared to stack with itself. And if that power boost could effectively be made permanent by getting a foolproof method of dodging sleep … well, souls weren’t exactly valuable for anyone but me, even if the souls we’d be interested in were the souls of people who were reasonably competent at different things, rather than the natal souls used as a power source. We had a huge opportunity there.

I had no idea what the Dungeon Master would think about that, if anything. Having straight 100s in all 40 skills seemed like it was realistically possible from where I was standing (unlocks aside), but all the arguments I was having with myself about what the Dungeon Master might do were amplified the more I began breaking the system wide open. If I had straight 100s, or even higher, then what kind of ridiculous crap would come out of the woodwork against me? What kind of horrors were lurking out there, in a ‘break glass in emergency’ kind of way? It was scary shit, frankly.

After a half hour experimenting with the mannequin entad, I had finally settled on something I thought had a good balance between speed and non-lethality, which mostly involved partial stilling of bloodflow. It was difficult and precise work, but after only a small amount of practice I could do it quickly and reliably. Ideally, the upcoming fight would be one that was mostly about keeping collateral damage low, rather than truly fighting for my life. I had enough tricks up my sleeve that I was really hoping that I could save everyone and still manage to get Harold while also avoiding a second Mome Rath.

When I noticed Grak in conversation with one of the gimmal, I went over to them, because Grak was talking using one hand, which wasn’t a skill he’d had the last time I’d talked to him.

Skill increased: Language lvl 4!

“– civilian casualties?” The language was a fluid one, cheremes running into and altering each other, much more than phonemes did in any of the languages I had exposure to. I could retroactively understand some of what Finch had said, but it was hard to do that and keep track of the conversation at the same time. “Total obliteration?” They weren’t questions, more like inflected statements, typical of how the Gimb was spoken (the name appeared in my head as soon as I reached for it).

“I should be able to isolate it?” said Grak. “Calibrate for feedback, isolate spectral position, then apply against it?”

“Too slow?” replied the gimmal. “Too costly?”

“No,” said Grak.

“Are you magus?” asked the gimmal.

Grak hesitated for a moment. “Yes,” he replied. “Entad support as well.”

“What are you two talking about?” I asked/signed. “And how?”

“Translation tattoo,” said Grak, raising his non-wooden hand to show me a tattoo on the back of it. He didn’t question my own understanding of Gimb. “The gimmal only speak their own language. We are discussing Harold’s method of extraction.”

“Huh,” I said. “And it’s an entad?”

“Yes,” replied Grak with a nod. “This is their warder. He is unskilled. He does not have a signature of the entad used.”

“Then how do they know it’s an entad?” I asked.

“It is a guess,” said Grak.

“Alright,” I said, nodding slowly. “That sucks.”

“Yes,” nodded Grak. “I may be able to find it though.”

“By cycling through the entire spectrum of possibilities?” I asked, switching back to finger language and raising an eyebrow. I didn’t know much about warding, but I thought I had caught that much. I cast a look at the gimmal. No eyes and no mouth made it very hard to read expression. “I hadn’t heard of that technique.”

“It may be novel,” said Grak. “Niche, but novel.”

“I guess,” I said. I looked over at the gimmal. “Or is he selling himself short?”

“If it is accomplished it will mark him as a greater magus,” replied the gimmal.

“I see,” I replied.

“If it is accomplished,” replied Grak.

“I have faith in you,” I replied. “If you need more time in here, let me know. Chasing Harold away from his base of power in Li’o would be good, but catching him would be better.”

Grak gave me a brief nod, then returned to signing with the gimmal, going into technical detail of the scan he’d be doing that I was pretty sure was meant to signal to me that I wasn’t needed there. I was hopeful that his plan would work, both because it would mean that Harold wouldn’t get away at the last second, and because I wanted Grak to feel better about his annihilation weapon plan not having a chance to come to fruition.

Raven was talking to Finch, and from the way his arms were folded, I had a feeling that she was castigating him for failing to stop the end of the world. Pallida and Malus were in conversation too, though it was less clear about what, and from the playful expression on Pallida’s face, it seemed like she might be flirting. That left the rest of the gimmals, who were resting, and Valencia.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“Making the rounds?” she asked. Her helmet was off to one side, but she was still in the Red Armor of Arramor, sitting down with her head resting against the wall. She didn’t have the crown either, which was probably for the best, because that thing could be sharp.

“Kind of,” I said. “I also wanted to know if you were okay.”

“I am,” said Valencia. “You know, I can still feel down into the hells like this?”

“I wasn’t aware,” I replied. “I didn’t think that much of anything got past the border of the time chamber.”

“A few things do,” said Valencia. “Your soul link does, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Amaryllis still has a soul, so that’s good.”

“Hrm,” said Valencia. “You know, we’ve talked about using this time chamber as a way of helping to kill all the infernals.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “How are those calculations going?”

“Okay,” said Valencia with a shrug. “You leveled a few times. I have more tendrils now. I’m not great at math without a devil, but we’ll have to run the numbers again.”

“I’m not eager to fight the hells,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure that we’re going to, at some point.”

“Probably,” said Valencia. “They’re worried.”

“The infernals?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Valencia. She was being more quiet and withdrawn than I was used to.

“So I hate to ask a third time, but are you okay?” I asked.

“You saved my life,” she said. “You used a unicorn bone to do it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m hoping that you didn’t get the memories from it?”

“No,” said Valencia. “It was bad?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How many attempts?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Five or six.”

“I’m sorry that I was a burden,” replied Valencia. “I went down onto that monster’s back and didn’t accomplish anything.”

I frowned. “It’s not really like that,” I said. “I mean, I know that it wasn’t exactly a group effort, but –”

“It’s fine,” said Valencia. She let out a sigh. “That’s just what’s on my mind. You don’t need to spend time working through it with me.”

“Val,” I began.

“It’s fine,” Valencia repeated. “I have weaknesses. Even with the gifts that I’ve been given, there will be times when I’m a liability.”

“If it’s edge cases like not being affected by Prince’s,” I started.

“It’s not,” said Valencia. “That’s part of it, but it’s … I stayed in the house while you were at school. I sat here doing nothing because if the wrong person spotted me or I tripped up an entad there might be a manhunt for me. I left once, and then only helped a little.”

“Alright,” I said with a sigh. “I see it. You know you’re not the only one?”

“I know,” said Valencia. “When you rescue Amaryllis, I’ll talk to her about it.”

“I was thinking Grak,” I replied. “But Amaryllis too.”

“And Fenn, when she was alive,” said Valencia.

I made no response, but I could definitely see that too. I missed Fenn, but if she’d made it through to this point, I was pretty sure that she wouldn’t be happy. She would probably be complaining about how there was no way that she was going to be able to do a damned thing using just her bow and arrow, no matter how good she was. It made me feel terrible just thinking about it. I was sure that she would have said something to let me off the hook, but that was just how she was, most of the time, self-deprecating and ready to sacrifice a bit of herself so as not to be a bother.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 158: OP

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