After I was done talking to Val, the only bit of business left was to go over our plans, which we did around a simulacrum of the targeted building and its environs, which Bethel had helpfully provided for us before locking us in. Finch seemed impressed, but I was certain that if Bethel were with us to give commentary, she would point out how crude it really was, given how limited her sensorium was out past a hundred feet. Still, it was enough for rough planning, and we decided to go with a rooftop landing where Grak could try his scanning technique.
And a short five hours after we’d gone in, we were ready to go back out again.
“This is the sort of entad that would go for billions of obols to a wealthy nation,” said Finch as we waited for the chamber to spin back down. That waiting period was awkward in the best of times.
“She’s a person,” I said.
“Unconventional politics you have there,” said Finch.
“She would kill anyone who tried to sell her,” said Pallida. “And that’s whether they had standing to sell her or not.”
“And I doubt that I’ve seen the full depths of her power,” said Finch, nodding slightly. “Only a fraction is being used by or for your little republic.”
“She’s not really interested in being worth billions of obols to the right person,” I said. “There aren’t many things she wants that she could buy with money.”
“Entads?” asked Finch.
“Easier and cheaper to steal them,” said Pallida with a smile.
“You realize that I’m law enforcement, of a sort?” asked Finch, looking her up and down.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have said it otherwise,” replied Pallida. “You think that in thirty thousand years of life I’ve never worn a badge?” She snorted. “Believe me, there have been times I’ve been on the straight and narrow, way more than you seem to be.”
“No stealing,” said Finch.
“I think technically it would be looting, given the circumstances,” said Pallida.
“No looting,” said Finch.
“But maybe just a little bit of looting,” said Pallida, nodding toward him. She smiled at me. “This is fun, we should have the police over more often.”
For once, I was happy to have Pallida with us, because she was helping to distract me, and so long as she wasn’t trying to seduce Amaryllis or fight with Raven, she could be fun. I was anxious about the fight ahead of us, both because I was worried it would be scaled to my power or working to subvert it in some way, and because there were a lot of innocents involved.
“Alright, we’re ready to go,” I said once we were out. “You’ll stay close by? And keep an eye out for Amaryllis?”
“Yes,” nodded Bethel. “There are also people I should be helping. I may do that.”
“As opposed to what?” asked Finch, frowning at her. “Sitting by while they die?”
“Don’t antagonize her, Finch,” I said. “I’d thought if you knew her nature you would understand that.”
Finch had a sour look on his face, but said nothing. I wasn’t sure whether or not he’d made the connection between Mome Rath’s death and Bethel, or how much he’d seen of her capabilities, but he’d gotten the other half of the sending slate from somewhere, and it was clear to me that he knew more about Bethel than we generally preferred people to know. He had been at the wedding, but I had no idea what he’d made of it.
“Bethel,” I said. “We’re ready. Rooftop entrance, if you can do it clean and fast.”
She didn’t need to be told twice. With how fast she could move, and her ability to effectively teleport us using Sable, there wasn’t much more than half a minute between me asking and us being placed on the roof.
The building was one of the big domed ones that sat around Li’o, most of them historic landmarks, with a few built in the modern era in the old style. The one that had been so helpfully marked for us by Doris Finch was one of the newer ones, built fifty years ago rather than a few hundred. There was no one sitting there, and hopefully no one that had seen Bethel’s small form come in. Grak got to work at once, moving his wand using careful, precise motions as the gimmal warder looked on.
(I wondered about the gimmal. Clearly they were athenaeum trained, which would probably have required some rather significant accommodations, but from my experience at S&S that wasn’t too unusual. But why they had all been trained up as operatives was a bit of a question, since it obviously represented a coordinated effort and a serious investment of time and capital. The gravity manipulation that was unique to the gimmals was a fairly good one, as was their gravity sense, but I got the feeling that it was their lack of other senses that had led to them being drafted by Uniquities. That alone would make them immune to a pretty wide range of infohazards, though in the present situation it seemed a bit worthless.)
“Sixteen entads in the building,” said Grak, after a moment.
“Really?” asked Finch.
“He is a master,” the gimmal signed.
“Which is their teleportation one?” asked Finch.
“I don’t know,” said Grak, pursing his lips. He was still moving his wand. “This method is untested. Extracting information is hard.”
“Well, we need to isolate and ward against it,” said Finch, crossing his arms. “A singular entad ward shouldn’t be too difficult, I don’t –”
“I can set up wards against all of them,” said Grak. “Mixed with a velocity ward around the structure so that they can’t be moved outside it. I’ve gotten good at expansion warding, so I shouldn’t need to circle the building.” He looked at Finch. “It will give us away.”
“That’s fine,” said Finch.
“It won’t be foolproof,” Grak began.
“I’ve spoken with warders enough to know that you’ll be wasting my time saying more,” said Finch.
“I cannot ward against every possibility,” said Grak.
“We don’t expect you to,” I replied. “Can you use your technique to monitor the building?” I asked. “Give us some rough numbers?”
“It would take time,” said Grak, frowning. “It would cost concordance. Presence or absence of specific magic would give very little information. I could cycle through species specific magic though.”
“Do,” I replied with a nod. “Let us know.”
“Not sure we have the time,” said Finch, looking grim. “We don’t know how much longer the clock is going to run until the singing starts up again.”
“My hunch is not long,” I replied. I looked around at the small team we had. I didn’t know how many people were in the building below us, but it was possible that it was in the hundreds. I turned to Grak. “Set up the entad wards,” I said. “We’ll move in as you’re finishing, because suddenly stopping the effects of all the entads might tip them off, and I really don’t want to see what plans and contingencies they have in place.”
“I should follow after?” asked Grak, raising a thick eyebrow in my direction.
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe. Your expertise is invaluable, and I don’t want to put you in harm’s way.”
“I can handle myself,” said Grak. “You will need me if they have wards of their own.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t doubt that. I just want you to be safe.”
“We’ll keep him toward the back,” said Raven. “That’s where I always was, in situations like this.”
And how often did you get injured or kidnapped?
We went to the roof access door, leaving Grak to weave his wards. Wards only activated the moment you completed them, and we wanted as much time as possible before they were alerted. The tactics of it were Finch’s show more than mine, given that he had years of experience taking down cults, and even though we were facing something distinct from a cult, it was at least a little similar. His suggestion was that we go in fast and hard, taking as many of them out before they had time to raise an alarm or get into better defensive positioning, and that seemed smart enough to me.
Pallida unlocked the door and then I went first, moving fast. The warder gimmal was right after me, and I kept glancing back at him; his gravitational sense was good enough that he could effectively see through walls, and his warder’s sight would allow him to see any wards before I ran smack into them. I wasn’t concerned with annihilation wards, since Prince’s would leave me intact, but a ward against skin magic would stop Prince’s, and I had no way to get it back, not in a hurry.
(The gimmal all had names and identities, but they were all dressed virtually identically, and they looked the same to my eyes, because I didn’t share their ability to sense gravity, which was their primary form of differentiation. I’d made an effort to talk to them when I was, as Valencia said, ‘making the rounds’, but it was mostly just smalltalk about the upcoming mission, because I didn’t want to ask a bunch of probing questions about their upbringing, education, and employment. They took it in stride that I spoke their language, and they seemed nice enough, for being part of a Uniquities anti-meme fireteam. Note: “anti-meme” meant that they were trained to fight memes, not that they were trained to fight antimemes. They called themselves the Meme Squad, which was so cringeworthy that I wished I hadn’t heard it; their motto was ‘ignorance is strength’.)
We first encountered resistance two floors down, when I opened up a door into a big room with a dozen people in it, which the gimmal had warned me about beforehand. Most of them were armed, but it didn’t seem like they were expecting anyone from my direction, so I raced forward to get in the middle of them, burning SPD. I grabbed two of them, putting into practice the brief training I’d done on using still magic to knock people out, and they were both down by the time weapons were being pointed at me. They had rifles and pistols for the most part, but one was carrying a sword, and he had a stance that let me know he was proficient. Blade-bound were relatively common, and his sword had the look of an entad, and my mind went to my sword, wanting to draw it so that I would have something to defend myself. Instead, I let him hit me in the neck and used still magic to stop it in place, then reached down to grab his hand and still the flow of his blood until he lost consciousness.
There was nothing that they could do against me. They shot me, of course, but I had still magic on my side, and even if I hadn’t, Prince’s would have protected me. They cottoned on to the fact that I was bulletproof fairly quickly, but by that time I had positioned myself at the other exit to the large room, and it was just a matter of grabbing them one by one, just long enough to still them into unconsciousness.
The last one turned his gun on himself, holding the rifle in an awkward way so that the tip of it was positioned under his chin.
“Juniper,” he said. “Smith.” Each word came out slowly, unnaturally.
I stopped in my tracks. “Assuming direct control?” I asked.
“You, have, seeeeeeeeeeeeen, a, World, Lord,” said the man. The words were coming just a bit wrong. For all that Harold seemed capable of fine manipulation, speaking directly through one of the people he’d captured didn’t appear to be a smooth process.
“I killed a World Lord,” I said. I wasn’t fully listening to Harold; I was thinking about how to save the man in front of me. I didn’t know how much of a hair trigger Harold would use, how many pounds of force were already on the trigger, but I had to assume that an individual life meant nothing to him. I thought that maybe I could slice off the man’s hand with a thrown dagger, fast and hard enough that he wouldn’t be able to get the shot off, but it would be a hell of a trick, and it wasn’t one that I was in a position to do.
“The, Second, Calling, Will, Be, More, Powerful,” said Harold through his puppet.
“It’s not going to happen,” I replied. “If you could do it, you’d have done it by now, and –”
A shot came in from the side of the room, and the man crumpled over with blood pouring from the side of his head. I turned and looked in time to see Figaro Finch holstering his pistol.
“It was a diversion,” he said. “Classic stalling behavior. Let’s go.”
I looked at the body. I wondered who that man had been, whether he was a student who had been grabbed in the temple, or someone taken through other means. Finch was right though; I had known that we might run into this kind of situation, and I had been more sentimental than planned. It was a stalling tactic.
We continued on. The gunfire had alerted the rest of the building, which made subsequent floors more difficult. When I went into the next room, down a flight of stairs, there were four people with their guns already drawn. It was a concerning number of rifles, one which implied heavier armaments through the building. One of them took a few shots at me as I came in through the door, and the bullets were stopped before they could smash themselves against my invulnerable skin. The others had turned their guns on themselves.
“Juniper,” a tall man said. “Oblivion, Calls. The, End, Is, Better.”
I reached into my bandolier and pulled out a scroll that Bethel had made for me. I wasn’t sure that now was the time to use it, but it didn’t seem like something that I could keep saving. With a fast motion I unfurled it and pointed it toward the people who were standing there. In theory, the image that Raven had used on me back in the Library, the one that was inert inside my mind even now, should have put them all into a quick and safe coma that I would eventually be able to bring them out of.
In practice, there was no change.
“You, Have, Exposed, That, Scripture, To, Me, Already,” said Harold, through the tall man. “Such, Divine, Horrors, Of, This, World.”
“Joon!” called Finch. “Stalling.”
“Right,” I said, quickly lowering the scroll and folding it up so that no one could see it. “Harold, you absolute fuck.”
I moved on the people he had in the firing circle, and they all shot in quick sequence (and accompanying defeated messages). I rushed to the nearest one and began burning a bone to try to heal her, but she’d been shot in the brain with a large caliber round, and the level of healing magic you could get from a huge boost to END wasn’t enough to make the difference.
“Time,” said Finch as he came in, pushing past me. “We’re working against time. Stop chatting.”
I gave a soft growl, then got to my feet, trying to get the images out of my brain, or at least not let them get imprinted there. It was stomach-churning, but I’d been desensitized to death, and in the context of everything else that had happened today, all the people who had died from Mome Rath’s assault, watching Valencia be vaporized so many times, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t even going to have nightmares, not unless I saw something much worse. Maybe I would get out of having nightmares by simply never sleeping again.
We went down another flight of stairs and went down a long hallway, trying to move fast, because Finch was right, it wasn’t the time for talking to Harold, and it wasn’t the time for maudlin sentimentality for people that I had never known. The game gave them names, but they were just mooks. That wasn’t the way that I wanted to think about it, but it was probably saner, or at least might result in better outcomes.
As I moved to open the next door, I felt a hand on my shoulder and came to an abrupt stop. When I turned back to look at him, the warder gimmal began a rapid series of signs that bled together so quickly I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t have understood anything if I weren’t as proficient as a native speaker.
“Large room ahead. Many people. Area is warded,” he signed.
“Grak?” I asked, looking back at the train of people that was following behind me.
“Yes,” Grak replied, pushing forward. “If he’s just said that it’s warded, he’s right. Sloppy work.”
“Which wards?” I asked.
“Several,” said Grak, narrowing his eyes. “Non-lethal. Active and passive skin magic, yes. I can subvert it.”
I saw the gimmal make a quick sign, “Incoming”, and I just barely had time to get in front of Grak to still the force of the explosion and keep him intact with a hand placed on him and my still magic protecting him. I sapped the explosion of the brunt of its force, but it still carried through, down the hallway, bouncing off shimmerplate and knocking people off balance. I stayed back from where the wards were, but as the dust settled I could see the room in front of us was a large one, the inner part of the domed building where the dome was on full display overhead. There were, by my estimation, thirty or forty people in there, most of them hunkered down and waiting for us. Some of them had guns, but there were mages among them too, some identifiable by their implements, others by their appearance. The door had been blown open by a pustule mage, who was readying another of his growths to pop.
“Down!” I shouted to the others, but when I looked back at them I realized they were undergoing a different kind of attack. Malus was on the ground, gripping her head in her hands, and the others members of Uniquities didn’t seem to be in much better shape. I had seen this before, in Oberlin’s class: it was a resonance attack by one or more vibration mages. Pallida, Raven, and Grak were all fine; I had soul-linked them, out of sight of Finch, and the transference effect was apparently solid enough to stop the vibration. Valencia had no soul, but the Red Armor of Arramor seemed to hold, which I was thankful of given that I hadn’t known beforehand whether or not it would stop her from being vibrated to death.
I did my best to still the air around me, to deprive the vibration mages in the room ahead of us of the ability to affect the members of my team. Still magic was touch ranged though, and “touch” wasn’t such a fuzzy concept that the Layman would allow me leeway to freeze entire sections of solid air. The best I could do was about a foot out from me, which was more than any other still mage could manage. (If the vibration mages were targeting me, I hadn’t noticed.)
The second fireball came in hot after the first once, and I wasn’t able to stop it all, not with still magic, and not with my weaker vibration magic attempting to collapse the pressure wave as it went by me.
“Grak!” I shouted. I was sure that my ears would have been ringing if Prince’s Invulnerability hadn’t dealt with that. “Get that ward down!”
He didn’t need to be told twice, and moved forward with his wand out, attempting the world’s fastest subversion of an active ward. I kept a hand on him so that I could defensively still him, just in case there was a niche attack that got past all my defenses, and he used his temporal plate to speed himself up. I wasn’t willing to give up Prince’s Invulnerability, not to the ward ahead of us.
I heard Grak grunt, but he kept his wand steady, and I thought nothing of it, given that I had him completely stilled, and I was in front of him, guarding him as best I could while still allowing him access to the ward. The assembled army in the next room were taking potshots at me from behind cover, and I was letting the bullets strike me, because there was little reason not to. As soon as Grak gave me the word —
“Done,” he said. I looked back at him and the strange raspiness of his voice, and saw that he was bleeding from a hole just above his left eye. I wasn’t sure when or how he had been hit, but it was the telltale mark of a void weapon.
I left him behind and raced forward, into the big domed room, rushing past the blown-open door. It was four stories tall, with balconies all around looking down into the central area, and I ran, heedless of any danger, toward the nearest group. They were hiding behind pillars that supported the upper floors, and I tore through them with my blade in hand, no longer trying to go gently and delicately. The pustule mage was among them, a woman, now that I was close enough to look, covered in boils and growths. As she brought her hand up to manipulate one of them, I sliced with the probability blade, and the gray blur became a thin line of solid steel for the brief moment it took to pass through her body.
Jessica Pendle defeated!
When the six people I’d gotten in the middle of were dead or incapacitated, I moved back into the domed room and made a blood-boosted leap up to the next story, landing next to a man with a void rifle. I swept my probability blade at him before he could aim at me.
Oliver Leister defeated!
“He’s on the second floor!” I heard someone call from above.
The voice shocked me out of what I was doing. Why were they talking to each other? Surely everyone here was under Harold’s influence. But from what Finch had said, and what I had seen, Harold could only do one at a time, which meant that they weren’t a hivemind, they were just people, not even people who had their values changed like a soul mage might have, but people who had some different idea about what was going on and why they had to be fighting me.
I had no time to stop though, not when these people would do their best to kill us all, not when Harold was threatening another summoning. Besides that, more people were coming at me. I brandished my sword and let them come; they had probably seen that I was soaking up gunfire like it was nothing, and decided on different tactics.
A man and a woman came at me, lunging for me in a way that seemed like pure suicide until my sword connected with the man’s midsection and was instantly stilled, leaving him unharmed. The woman touched me, and stopped me in place, and the man came soon after, gripping me by the neck. One of the traditional methods for a still mage was to stop a person in place, then stop their heart, something that the body would naturally fight against. Being a still mage didn’t give any defense against this: we were good at stopping things, not preventing them from being stopped.
Unfortunately for those two, Prince’s Invulnerability was the last word in invulnerability, and it meant it in a way that other spells or effects might not have. And also unfortunately for them, I was at least temporarily one of the best still mages in the world, and they didn’t have my same defenses. I stopped the man’s brain, then the woman’s, and both fell to the ground as twin messages popped up at the bottom of my vision to confirm them as defeated. In the meantime, there were more people on the second floor balcony with me, people who I had distantly heard thundering down the stairs. I wasn’t sure whether or not I could take them all, but so far it didn’t seem like anyone was stopping me.
They circled me as I held my sword out in front of me. I was waiting for the next trick. Harold was surely watching, he had to be building a profile of me, and even if these people were autonomous, he could pick one of them to act through, if he wanted to directly use their hands.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” said a woman with gray hair and her lips drawn into a thin frown. She was of a humanoid race, with bird claws for hands, maybe a harpy, not that it was important.
“Sure doesn’t seem that way,” I replied. More stalling, I was sure, but she wasn’t speaking with Harold’s voice, not in that same inhuman boldness.
“He can talk,” said one of the men standing next to her. He had his rifle drawn and pointed at me, which seemed pretty useless.
“Look,” I said, “You’re all infected by an agent, compromised, I don’t want to hurt you and you don’t want to hurt me, if we could just –”
Someone was coming toward me with a metal net, the links of it clearly from some high quality source. Li’o was a city full of still mages, and short of a void gun, a net was the next best weapon against them. I should have figured that they would have one on hand, as the kind of tool that could level the playing field against that particular kind of magic.
“You can come quietly,” she said.
Except that they still presumably had a warder somewhere, maybe even more than one, and a ward against skin magic would lose me Prince’s Invulnerability, which would mean that they could just shoot me with a void rifle.
I burned a bone and spun into motion, moving straight toward the circle of people. To my surprise, I saw a stutter as everyone seemed to change places around me, the telltale sign of a revision mage at work, and the discontinuity happened again, this time with more shifting around. I had no good defenses against a revision mage, not even the probability blade would work to kill them, and a brief jump cut later, the net was down on top of me. I couldn’t even tell which one of them was the revision mage, not that it would have helped that much unless I could overload their capacity for revision. I fought against the net, but there was another discontinuity as the revision mage must have undone my efforts, a sign that I might have been successful.
It was after that last discontinuity that I saw Finch, creeping up the same stairs everyone else had come thundering down. He was still unarmored, with nothing but a gun in hand. I had no idea what he thought he was going to do when faced with those kind of forces, but when he pulled two grenades from his inside his vest, my eyes went wide. He pulled the pin from the grenade, then waited quietly, his lips moving slightly as he counted down. He threw them at the last possible second, one just after the other, and the frag grenades exploded in mid-air, right in the middle of the group of people. One of those people moved preternaturally quickly, without even looking at the grenades, but he was caught in the blast all the same, as was I, and as was Finch. The fragments sliced through everyone there and stopped dead when they hit my armor. I threw the net off as fast as I could, trying to get myself untangled before any other complication could descend down on me.
“Juniper, Smith,” croaked a voice from the floor. “You, Will, Not, Win.”
I ignored it and cast the net free. I had no idea what kind of high-powered grenades Figaro Finch had used, but the killing power had been immense. A still mage could have withstood it, but apparently the two that had tried to grab me were the only ones that they had on hand. As for the revision mage, I assumed he must have been overloaded, undoing his death and the explosion too many times as he tried to avoid them. I glanced over at the stairs, where Finch had been standing when the grenade had gone off, and saw blood there, but no gnome. There were more adversaries in this building, ones on the upper floors, but we needed Finch, or at least the entad that he was using to get information. The goal wasn’t to take out everyone here, that was a distraction and a moral hazard, we needed to get Harold himself.
I jumped from the balcony and went back to the door we’d come in through. The others were there, sans Finch, recovering. Raven looked a bit worse for the wear.
“Got them?” she asked.
“Some,” I said. “Whoever is left didn’t make themselves known. Finch came to the rescue, but I’m not sure he made it. Grak?” He was halfway through a room off to the side, laying on the ground, but he sat up when he heard me.
“Fine,” he said. “Fairies.”
“He’s not fine,” said Pallida. “He got shot in the face. There’s a hole in his skull and I think it voided some brain.”
“I am fine,” said Grak.
“Good,” I said. “I was worried.”
“You need me to find the entad,” said Grak, slowly getting to his feet. “I can scan for it.”
“He lost brain, Juniper,” said Pallida. “Not so great for a person. Healing that is always a crapshoot.”
“How many hostiles are left?” asked a voice from the door. I turned around to see Figaro Finch, standing there with his pistol in hand, not only unharmed, but without any blood or trace of damage to his clothes.
“How did you survive?” I asked.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” said Finch. “Not that you couldn’t have gotten yourself out of a bind, from what I know of you.”
“How?” I asked again, looking him over carefully. “You’re keeping something from us.”
“Top secret,” replied Finch. “Grak, you said you can sweep for the entad?”
“Possibly,” said Grak, nodding slightly. He was swaying, just a bit, even after having eaten a few fairies, which was a very bad sign. Healing magic should have cured him, given that there was nothing magical about the brain, but it was possible that the injury had lingered for long enough, or been serious enough, that it had made a mark on the soul. I was going to have to go in and check him, but we simply didn’t have the time for it. Grak saw me looking and straightened. “Single entad wards are simple. I already have active wards against all of the presumed hostile ones. It will take time. I can make the time.”
He pulled out his wand and began using the temporal plate to warp time around him, his unsteady movements made more obvious as I watched him move at triple speed.
“Finch, does your contact have something more specific?” I asked.
“Down,” said Finch. “Probably this place has a basement. Unusual, in this city, but possible.”
I watched Grak for a moment. “Harold knows we’re here. He knows that we’re coming for him. He probably knows that we’re stronger than him. What’s his next play?”
“If the ward keeps his entad here, then he’s trapped,” said Finch. “Maybe he tries to leave without it, but we can track him, and so long as he doesn’t have a backup waiting for him, he’s smoked.” There was a slight gleam in his eyes as he said that.
“Then the gimmals can do mapping and Grak will lead us where we need to go, in conjunction with your source,” I said.
“Should do,” said Finch.
“I have it,” said Grak, coming out of his temporal plate enhanced scanning. “Two floors down, beneath the floor of the room we were just in.”
From the corner of my eye I saw the warder gimmal signing to the others. “He is a grandmaster.”
I didn’t know warding well enough to know how impossible what Grak had done was, but my guess was that it was at the upper edges of what a warder could possibly do, or maybe just a bit beyond that. Grak was a dwarf of many talents, from axe-throwing to being a midwife, and the few times I’d looked into his soul had confirmed that he had an extremely wide skillset, but warding had always been far and away his specialty. With another three level ups, I imagined that he was in the high 90s, if not completely capped out. When he was in better shape, and we had time, I was going to have to compliment him on the work he was doing, which I only had the barest understanding of. I was sure it would be like one of the unwashed masses telling a violin virtuoso that they played well.
“Alright Finch, you’re invincible, you lead the way,” I said.
I expected him to object, but he said nothing, and after he spent a moment peeking out the doorway with his gun raised, he began walking with purpose. I didn’t think that he was invincible, that would have been insane, and surely whatever magic was accomplishing it could be picked up by Bethel, but he wasn’t wearing any armor, and I’d seen him survive a grenade that he should never have been able to survive.
We made our way through the hallways, turning where Finch told us to turn, down first one flight of stairs, then a second. The big room, the one directly below the dome, had been ornate, the centerpiece of the building, with pillars and tiered balconies. The basement floors, by contrast, were much more utilitarian. Whatever this place had been before it was taken over, it was dark and foreboding now, with very little light along the way. I was frankly pretty shocked that there was still power to the building, since back on Earth, power was one of the first things to go in an emergency. On Aerb, that didn’t appear to be the case.
Eventually we came to a door, and Finch gave me a nod. I signed to him in the gimmal language.
“Is this the place?”
“Yes?” he said, with a mild inflection to the movement of his fingers.
“Three people there,” one of the gimmal replied.
“Finch, you first,” I signed to him.
Again, I waited for him to object, but he hesitated for only a fraction of a second and placed his hand on the door, looking at me for confirmation. I readied myself, then nodded once, and followed quickly after Finch as he rushed inside.
One of the three people was holding a shotgun, aimed and ready, and he fired on Finch as we breached. I had no idea what to expect, but Finch grunted and collapsed, his face and chest marred and bloody. I went on ahead, stepping over him, and grabbed the shotgun just as the second blast struck me harmlessly in the chest. I used my stilling technique, stopping the flow of blood, and let the man drop to the ground.
“Let me do the talking,” said a woman who was watching me impassively. She spoke loudly, which I thought was probably because she was trying to talk over some hearing damage of a gun going off in a small room, as much as I’d tried to use magic to make it quiet. The words were so incongruous and so nonchalantly delivered that I hesitated for a moment, the kind of hesitation that might have cost me my life, if I weren’t currently invincible.
Neither of the other two were armed. The woman had thick-rimmed glasses and wore her hair tied back in a neat ponytail, with a few piercings that I vaguely recognized as being culturally significant rather than fashionable, though I couldn’t remember anything beyond that. She wore a semi-formal dress, but it was nothing special, and overall she struck me as being incredibly plain.
The man beside her was tall, also human, or at least close enough. He had on a boiler suit that was worn and stained with grease or dirt. He was a thick man, bald but with stubble showing, and he was gazing at me with a dumb look on his face, like he wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.
“Juniper, Smith,” he intoned as I looked at him.
“I said let me do the talking,” said the woman. She looked me over. “You’re in the wrong place.”
“Wrong place?” I asked, momentarily befuddled.
“You want him,” she said, pointing a finger at the large man that Harold had spoken through. “But you’re in the wrong place. You were tracking me?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Who are you?”
“You don’t know?” she asked, looking only mildly surprised. Her voice had lowered back down to normal volume, whatever after effects of the gunfire had faded enough that she wasn’t so troubled.
“I was –” I looked back at where Finch had been hit, where he’d been lying on the ground, and saw that he had disappeared. The door was partway open, and Pallida was standing there looking in but not moving to follow, which was pretty much my preference. “I wasn’t the one in charge. Who are you?” I repeated.
“Darri,” she said. “And you’re Juniper, aren’t you?”
“He, Is,” said Harold, from the body next to her. I wondered whether he was even his own person, or whether Harold had used his pithing needle. I didn’t particularly like either answer.
“I said let me do the talking,” said Darri. Her voice was mild, but I could tell she was strained. There was tension in her muscles and a slight bit of visible sweat, even though the room was fairly cool.
“You’re one of Harold’s people,” I said.
“We call him Quee Shepak,” said Darri. “Harold is the name that Uniquities gave him.”
“Why?” I asked. “No, forget it, I don’t care. Tell me where he is.”
“No, I’ll answer the why,” she replied. “There are a trillion people in the hells, maybe more. If we can end the world, we should. There’s nothing that can change the fundamental reality of eternal torture, not when the exclusionary principle has cut off so many promising avenues of research. Maybe you only care about yourself, but there are thousands of people sent to the hells every single day, because people just don’t care about them, not like they should. I’m sure that what you want right now isn’t someone telling you things that you’ve been hearing your entire life, fringe opinions that you can easily dismiss, but this world shouldn’t exist, not if there’s no way for us to fix it.” She forced all that out quickly, her voice slightly shaky.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“I think that’s the first time you’ve lied to me,” I said.
She shrugged, again with the nonchalance seeming incredibly forced. “We were tracked before,” she said. “I’ve been off-site. When this one was coming to fruition, it was important that most of the main players weren’t around.”
I looked back toward the door. She was making me uneasy. “Grak, Val, I need you.”
Valencia strode in, looking around the room, and Grak followed after.
“She has a weapon,” said Valencia, looking Darri up and down. “She’s afraid to use it.”
“Grak, analysis?” I asked.
“Nothing to warder’s sight,” he said, frowning. “Still no trace of Harold.”
“Juniper,” said Valencia, looking at me. “Do you remember the swordsman from Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
I looked at her with a raised eyebrow. Just shoot her?
“Yes,” said Valencia. “Now.”
“I’d rather hear what she has to say,” I replied, utterly confused by the exchange. Valencia wanted me to kill this woman, that was clear, but if she was a link to Harold, someone with information — and what could she do?
“She’s stalling,” said Finch. I looked back to see the source of his voice, and saw him coming into the room with a look of consternation on his face. He was apparently unharmed, even as he stepped past what was clearly his blood on the floor. He raised his pistol and pointed it at Darri. “Where is he?”
“Not here,” said Darri. She was trembling slightly, looking between us.
“Gag her,” said Valencia. “Bind her. Now.”
“She knows something,” I replied. “Probably a lot.” I looked at Grak. “Put up wards, to be on the safe side.”
I really had no idea what Valencia thought this woman was going to do. I believed her judge of character, really, I did, but it would be strange for this woman to have a weapon that I couldn’t respond to in some way.
“Tell me about him,” I said. I looked over at the large man that Harold was using. He was still standing there, docile. “He doesn’t speak like a person.”
“He’s not,” said Darri. “He’s not a person. He’s something else. But he can bring about the end of the world, and wants it with every fiber of his being. That’s the only thing that anyone really needs to know about him.”
“But you’re working for him,” I said.
“She’s stalling,” said Finch. “That means it’s a matter of minutes, not hours. She’s keeping us here because Harold is going to try again, or try something different.”
“This is dangerous,” said Valencia. “I don’t know how, but it is. Some exotic weapon. Be ready to kill her.”
“Why are you working for him?” I asked. I was hoping that she would let something slip, because as it stood, Finch was right, we were getting nothing.
“Because he wants to end the world,” she replied. “Have you looked through an infernoscope? Have you seen what they’re like? Have you thought about a trillion people down there, being tortured forever?” She raised a hand and wiped the sweat from her brow, and as she did, I watched the others around me react by raising their weapons.
“We’re less than a year away from fixing it all,” I said. “We have a method of depopulating the hells of infernals. We’ll rescue everyone down there.”
Darri looked momentarily uncertain. “Lies,” she said. “More lies from Uniquities.”
“Look,” I said. “Listen to me. We’re not from Uniquities, we’re — Val, can you explain?”
“There are things you don’t know,” said Valencia. She was less convincing, with the armor covering her face, but she was gentle and imploring. “There’s a way to erase all suffering from the world, to save everyone from harm for all time, to undo millenia of torture. We have the key to it all, we just need more time, months, not years. The forces of the universe are conspiring against us, and this, right here, right now, is part of it. Quee Shepak is part and parcel with the exclusionary principle, it’s not the only thing holding mortals back.”
“False, Hope,” spoke the man standing next to her. I stepped to him and touched him on the chest, stilling him so that he would drop unconscious. Raven helped me lower him to the floor, not that I needed it, then she began putting on handcuffs.
“He’s not principled,” said Valencia. “He doesn’t care about suffering. He just wants it to end, for his own ineffable reasons. You’ve been with him long enough to know that. I know you’re skeptical, because we’re promising the thing that you always wanted to be true, but I swear that it’s the truth.”
The corners of Darri’s mouth turned down. Valencia had told me that a pure cold read against an unknown quantity was incredibly difficult, and based on my understanding of the rules and what Reimer had said, Valencia was getting the skill levels of the infernals, not their actual attributes, which meant that she was more fallible than she should have been. I was still hoping that she would find some success here, that she had said the right words to unlock this woman’s mind.
She opened her mouth, then closed it, and looked at Harold’s avatar again.
“The temple,” she said, and then crumpled to the ground.
I stooped down and touched her, aiming for her soul as quickly as I could, but before I could get in, I felt her go cold and dead, her skin no longer connected to her soul, her blood no longer pumping with vitality.
“He killed her,” I said, frowning.
“Why would he do that?” asked Finch.
“Because I can disconnect them, and he knows that,” I replied. “Shit, the temple?”
“This was all a distraction,” said Finch. “All stalling. A decoy.”
I felt my heart sink, because I knew that he was right.
“Okay,” I said, as we made our way back outside. “Tell me how you survived.”
“Classified,” replied Finch.
“Finch, I don’t know what you know about Bethel, but she would happily kill you as many times as it took to figure out how your power works,” I replied. “All I know is that it’s probably not magic, because otherwise our warders would have picked up on it.”
“Seven years ago there was an incident,” said Finch. He was almost running to keep pace with me, given that his little gnome legs weren’t quite up to the task of being fast. I thought about asking him whether he wanted to be picked up in the name of expediency, but that seemed like it would be insulting to him. “I interrupted a ritual, one that was meant to summon something terrible. The thing they brought through only came halfway. Wrong place, wrong time, and it stuck to me, made me a part of it. Only it wasn’t so much a thing as a bit of information, and I co-opted it, made myself a part of it.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I’m not Figaro Finch,” he replied. “I’m the idea of Figaro Finch. Flesh and blood, to all appearance, but really something more.”
“You’re saying that you’re a meme?” I asked. “And … that somehow makes you immortal?”
He cast a quick look at me. “You can’t kill an idea.”