Six seconds was an eternity in any kind of combat scenario, but it still wasn’t long enough. She hadn’t seen Prince’s Invulnerability happen, and she hadn’t seen the explosion coming, and it was only while she was in the air that she was able to put the pieces of the simple puzzle together. She was spinning, rapidly, the result of the explosion’s wavefront hitting her unequally, but the solution to that certainly wasn’t instinctual, because all of her training in the immobility plate had been in their training gym, either with aerial maneuvers five feet off the ground, or turning it on and off as a part of sparring. So by the time it occurred to her to stop both her fall and the spinning, Prince’s Invulnerability was no longer providing its protection, and her inner ear was basically fucked, the centripetal force acting on her in viscerally unpleasant ways.
The immobility plate had some protections built into it so that coming to a complete stop from full speed wouldn’t kill the wearer or turn them into a chunky paste inside of a suit. These protections weren’t all-encompassing though, and rotation was one of the things that they were particularly bad at. When Amaryllis used the immobility plate to bring her to a stop, her brain slapped itself against the inside of her skull, and she blacked out a thousand feet up in the air, suspended there by the plate as pieces of Mome Rath rained down around Li’o, so high that she was in the low-hanging clouds.
She was confused and disoriented when she woke up, and fell without meaning to as she groped her way back to consciousness. Her head felt full of fog. She’d only been hungover once in her life, after a night of too much drinking with Fenn, and this was like a worse version of that. She hoped that she didn’t have permanent damage; the brain was a notoriously difficult thing to fix, and affected the soul more quickly than any other injury.
She fell through the air in fits and starts, turning the immobility plate on and then off again, unfocused and knowing that this was dangerous, but seeing no other clear option.
“Juniper?” she asked through Parson’s Voice, speaking with a tongue that felt swollen and uncoordinated. Pumping END didn’t seem to help much. “Juniper?” she asked again. There was no response.
People saw her slow, awkward fall, and came to greet her.
“Are you okay?” one of them asked, a tall, handsome man whose features suggested he was a quarter-elf. He had a small badge secured around his neck that marked him as ‘Emergency Operations’. A few of the others did as well.
“No,” said Amaryllis. She had no idea how long she had been hanging in the cloud, suspended there, and she suspected that she had at least some mild brain damage that bone magic wasn’t doing enough for.
“Come on,” said the man. “We’re going to get you to shelter.”
“I have friends,” said Amaryllis. She was in no position for elaborate lies, so she left it at that. Had Bethel not been able to find her? Was Bethel even still alive? She’d seen the corpse of Mome Rath laying across the ground, covering large parts of Li’o, crushing so many things beneath it. The finger-hair was still writhing, somehow, with unpleasant and barely visible undulations.
“We’ll get you to shelter,” repeated the man. “We have plans in place for something like this.”
“For something like this?” Amaryllis asked.
“Disasters,” he clarified. “Exclusions. The temple is the safest place for a hundred miles around.”
Amaryllis nodded, slowly, and regretted it, because her head hurt, more than it had ever hurt before. She tried to think. It was strictly untrue that the temple was the safest place around, the safest place was Bethel, but if Juniper wasn’t responding, then there was no way to meet back up. Hadn’t they looked for her? Hadn’t they wondered where she was? They had beaten Mome Rath, without her, and then what had happened? She wanted to meet back up with them, to spend a week in the chamber recuperating, but maybe the temple really was the best place for her to be. The hair on Mome Rath was still moving, that couldn’t be a good sign, but what could one person do about it, even one like Amaryllis?
“Okay,” she finally said. “Take me there.” She tried one more time to reach Juniper, sotte voce, but there was no response.
(((As it would turn out, both the time out and the time chamber interfered with Parson’s Voice. That was expected, but also really, really unfortunate for us, and partly just down to unfortunate timing.)))
Amaryllis walked with one of the people wearing a badge, toward a nondescript building that had lots of people buzzing around it.
“We’re going down?” asked Amaryllis. She was starting to feel a little bit better. She couldn’t remember what the symptoms of concussion were, and wasn’t sure whether or not she had ever known. It felt like something she should have read about. “Standard protocol for something of this magnitude is evacuation.”
“It’s not an exclusion,” replied the girl. “Not that we can tell, anyway. And the thing is dead.”
“There are creatures on it,” said Amaryllis.
“They’re being handled,” replied the girl. She pointed out at the campus, where mages were gathered, forming a defensive perimeter. “People are being taken care of.” She kept up her brisk walk, but gave a noticeable pause in her speech. “You’re a soldier?”
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “Here by chance, not deployed.”
“You fell from the sky,” said the girl. She had to have been fairly young. Athenaeums often offered spots to younger students, especially those with money or connections, but this girl didn’t look like she was too far into her teens.
“I tried fighting,” replied Amaryllis. “It didn’t work out so well.”
“We’re here,” said the girl. “The elevator is constantly running, but it has a few cars, you’ll just have to wait.” She hesitated. “Do you need medical attention?”
“No,” replied Amaryllis, which was a lie. “I’ll be fine.” She was low on trust at the moment, and someone laying hands on her was the last thing she wanted, not unless it was Juniper.
The girl left her, and then Amaryllis got into line. She tried her best to listen to the conversations around her, to see what other people were saying. Some of them were surprised by the underground shelters, which was entirely fair, given that the secondary facility definitely hadn’t been marked as that on the floor plans they had, and from what Bethel could tell from the outside, it was much more of an expansion to the temple than anything else. It was a mystery that they didn’t know the answer to, one that had been lingering since Grak had first reported back on the construction. There was a thin corridor between the two, but it was heavily guarded with a surfeit of wards. Confusion, that was what Amaryllis was feeling, and what she heard in the conversations around her. Was confusion a symptom of concussion? Amaryllis felt like it was, but it was hard to tell whether that was just because it sounded reasonable.
It had already occurred to her that going down into the ground wasn’t a good idea. Mome Rath was apparently dead, and Juniper was who-knew-where doing who-knew-what with everyone else, if their party wasn’t simply scattered to the winds. Even if that hadn’t been true, going to a secure location wasn’t common practice for something like this, because extraction was so expensive and unlikely that it was rare that it would ever happen, not when there were so many people who needed to be saved. When the cavalry came in, if it did, you wanted to be as close to the surface as you could be. You didn’t want to be sequestered somewhere far away, not unless there was a compelling reason.
From the perspective of the narrative? If she was meant to be a damsel in distress, it seemed that was likely to happen no matter what. But if that wasn’t what this was, then it was a chance to do more work behind the scenes, to produce real, concrete results that would provide measurable benefits without having narrative impact. In the last twenty-four hours, Amaryllis had seen the fruits of similar endeavors, both with Bethel fighting on their side for once, and with the tuung finally coming out from their long sequestration to help save lives. She wasn’t going to take full credit for either of those, but she had been putting in work while Juniper had been gone, especially with Bethel, and it was hard not to see recent events as the culmination of that. What did it matter if it was mostly in the background? It wasn’t like she cared about credit.
She had no idea what she might find once she went down the elevator. An attack was certainly possible, and a death … well, not off-screen, that seemed unlikely, simply on the face of it, but that was still possible, Raven had told that horrible story about drinking from a cask only to find out that a woman had been killed and placed inside it. That had been a punishment directed at Arthur though, hadn’t it? A missive penned by an angry god who didn’t want his hero subverting the love interests so thoroughly? It was hard to say. In theory, the Dungeon Master’s disposition would be different in this scenario. Amaryllis had done a few things that might have raised the Dungeon Master’s ire, from what they knew of him, but nothing that should warrant her death.
Still, it was always risky to do things because the narrative demanded them. Juniper had been clear on that point. Do things because of narrative immunity, and the Dungeon Master will come down with sword in hand, cleanly slit your throat, and retreat to his mountaintop palace to watch the rest of the show in peace. But it did seem that the Dungeon Master was directing her downward, into the shelter with all the others, for some purpose of his own. Going down was, in some sense, narratively motivated, but skepticism toward going down was also narratively motivated, so it was difficult to make sense of.
Either way, she was going down into the temple to see what was there.
The elevator ride was jam packed and uneventful. Many of the people around Amaryllis were students, and most of them were repeating rumors about what had happened. Her head was starting to feel better, and she listened closely, trying to file some of it away for later. No one knew that the Council of Arches was involved, naturally. If they had seen anything, it was an enormous skyship going toe-to-toe with a beast who could have straddled most small towns. That same ‘skyship’ had apparently gotten the killing blow. There was no mention of Juniper, not that she expected there to be. No mention of people being taken in by that same ship either, though most of Bethel’s work had been in the worst affected areas. Mostly, there was talk of the destruction, of buildings that simply weren’t there anymore, and people who might not have made it. There was also talk of what came after, how or whether classes would start up again, what would happen to the campus, and whether the things coming off the enormous creature’s body would turn the whole valley unlivable. No one liked the way the hair was moving. Amaryllis supposed they would like it even less if they knew it was made of fingers.
After the elevator ride was over, they were all guided to a holding area. Amaryllis drew some looks, but that was hard to help given the obvious entad armor. There was nothing particularly suspicious about anyone, or anything that they were doing, save for the fact that they were deep underground, not at all where they should have been given that evacuation should have been of paramount importance. The elevator in particular was suspect, given how fallible those things were, how limited their capacity, and how little robustness they displayed.
Amaryllis was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She kept her helmet on, even though the armor had grown moderately uncomfortable, and all its magical breathability couldn’t disguise the fact that she’d been through hell. Very few of the others around her looked like they had been in battle, or anything other than simply displaced. A woman had her arm in a makeshift sling, and a boy had blood on his brow, but it was nothing more than that. Amaryllis had been at ground-zero for a massive explosion that had rained blood and gore down on the whole city.
“We’ll be bringing everyone here into the next room,” said one of the attendants. “There are entads used within the temple that will be relocated so that everyone is provided with food and water for the duration.”
“How big is this place?” one of a group of girls near Amaryllis whispered.
“Dimensional reinforcement,” replied another in a knowing voice.
(Amaryllis suspected that he didn’t know what the hells he was talking about. A skilled star mage could make a room that was bigger on the inside than the outside, but it was hellishly expensive, and the failure modes weren’t pretty. Nothing in the schematics had indicated the kind of reinforcement that you would expect, if there really were extradimensional spaces in play.)
Amaryllis followed the group, still waiting for whatever was yet to reveal itself. She didn’t have her flickerblade: it had been out when the explosion happened, and had no native ability to return to her hand. Perhaps it would find its way back to her, but it was entirely possible that it was buried in the rubble somewhere, never to be found, which would be a terrible loss. She was armed only with her martial skills (and her magics, though most of those were under active suppression at the moment). A quick test let her know the immobility plate was still working, as the full entad ward was only for the temple proper, not the annex, likely due to the cost, or maybe because the annex was obviously unfinished. Her tattoos weren’t moving though, which was a good indicator that Parson’s Voice was out of commission. Come to think of it, it was entirely possible that Juniper was within these same wards, which was why he hadn’t responded.
The new room was larger than the old one, with tall ceilings and better ventilation. It wasn’t clear how many people this space was designed to hold. There was nowhere to sit, but some people found spots on the floor. Amaryllis found herself frowning at the arrangement. They hadn’t been told why they were being moved, but maybe that was because there were lots of people, and the reasons for the logistical decisions wouldn’t be clear to anyone at the end of the chain of command, that wasn’t how you ran an evacuation program, nor how you fought a war. Still.
Amaryllis was the first to see the gas coming through the vents. It was subtle, off-white and thin, but it was there, and she could smell it a moment later. She was wearing the Bracelet of Panacea, which had been given to her back when they’d been getting ready to send Juniper down into the temple for meditation, and prayed that it would work.
The effects were slow and more subtle than Amaryllis would have expected. It wasn’t a gas meant to kill people, or at least not one meant to kill them quickly. The conversations grew louder, more intense, and with more people involved. A few of the people were slurring their words slightly. Amaryllis wasn’t talking, and wasn’t feeling the effects.
People began to droop and slump, and Amaryllis drooped and slumped with them, doing her best to copy them and not stand out.
Harold had been using the temple, which had an entad that could induce a forced meditative state, one which he could presumably exploit. It was a reliable five hundred captive people every week, and given that he’d shown up at the meditation classes, his capacity was greater than that. Other means were being employed, to gather up more people. From everything they knew of Harold, as filtered through Oberlin, there were a somewhat wide variety of altered states that could be taken advantage of, and drugs were likely one of them.
Eventually almost everyone was laying on the ground, some of them sprawled out. Most were still talking though, the words barely coherent as words, all trains of thought horribly derailed. Amaryllis chose to be one of the silent ones.
Harold would know.
Harold might know, but if this were an operation to get as many people converted and ready for the choir as quickly as possible, then perhaps he would miss one person sitting in the middle, immune. Perhaps he was most aware of those he had access to, and could see through the eyes of the people he’d snagged in the way a human would, one at a time, rather than like an insect with a thousand facets to his eye. It was possible that Amaryllis would get lucky, or that Harold would be sloppy.
After ten minutes had passed, the far door opened up, and more attendants began to move in, these ones wearing thick gas masks with rubber hoses leading to heavy tanks. They were big and strong, members of the mortal species who were strongest, aboria, broshe, and Ha-lunde. They picked up the people that were laying there, no one dead or even asleep, but all completely out of it, unable to resist as they were lifted up and carried out. It wasn’t a terribly fast process, but it was done with efficiency.
Eventually they got to Amaryllis and removed her too. She made herself dead weight and watched with half-lidded eyes through the helm of her armor. The immobility plate didn’t restrict vision as much as it seemed like it should have, but as she was unable to move her head without giving herself away, there was little she could see.
The room they brought her to was packed with tall pews, so tall that a person could rest their head against the back. It was a massive room, and filling up fast, with most of the people packed in together so tightly you could barely tell how many of them were slumped there. Amaryllis was carried past row after row, more and more people who must have come down as part of the disaster response, then been drugged out of their minds so that Harold could get to them. What was his conversion rate like, that he could do this? Or, no, he had been covering his tracks back then, this was just a field of people who were obviously compromised, something that he wouldn’t be able to hide for longer than a day. Maybe he could go faster this way.
Mome Rath was dead, but for how long?
The attendants pushed her into place in one of the pews, then more attendants came with another person, and another, pushed in like sacks of meat. Amaryllis kept playing dead.
This was what she had come down here to find, but her tattoo was still shorted out, and getting back up was … well, daunting to say the least, especially when there were only three ways of getting back to the surface that didn’t involve magic (not that she had magic that could cross the distance). The Spelunker’s Stroll and the primary elevator were both past what the floorplans had indicated was a secured passage, and the secondary elevator she’d come down was teeming with people, many of whom were compromised agents of Harold.
A different person might have been a ball of anxiety at the thought of being down there, surrounded by enemies who clearly had a plan, with help decidedly not on the way. Instead, Amaryllis felt exhilarated.
Oh, it was certainly a nightmare, that much was true, but there were plans to be made and then executed, a concrete direction, and that much she was good at. If she had simply gone down into the makeshift shelter and then stayed there until someone had given the all-clear, meeting up with the others hours or days later, that would have been a blow to her very being.
She stood up from the pew and moved past the insensate people laying there, edging her way to the end of the row. When more attendants went by, carrying more bodies, she stayed stock still, not wanting to make any movements that would catch their eyes, not even to duck down out of sight. They were, fortunately, carrying a body, and not paying attention to anything but the work they had apparently been carrying out for the last half hour.
Once they had gone by, there was nothing for it but to exit the pews and start walking. Someone would surely notice her, but walking with purpose was a skill that a person could learn, and as a princess, you simply couldn’t walk around like you were lost and confused, even when you were. Amaryllis prayed to a higher power that whatever Harold had done to make these attendants, he hadn’t given them the intelligence to question her presence, nor the wherewithal to raise an alarm.
As she walked, she saw two more attendants carrying a body between the pews. One of them looked at her briefly, then continued on, as though she were nothing.
Amaryllis didn’t know the layout of the secondary temple well enough. She had seen the floorplans, which they had stolen a week ago, but there was no guarantee that those told the whole story, and she had gotten twisted around between coming down from the secondary elevator, being led into the gassing room, and being carried into the room with the pews. Obviously going back through the gassing room was infeasible for a number of reasons, but that meant trying to work out a safe path back to the elevator that would route around it.
How long had this plan been in place? Months, at the least, maybe since even before the first death that had begun to bring heat down on the administration. Was this what Harold had planned all along? And with Mome Rath summoned … well, more bodies for the choir seemed to imply that Harold was going to try again. There were limits to how many people you could pack into a large room like that, but even after it was entirely filled, the rest of the complex could be filled as well. How many could Harold need?
Perhaps the original plan had been to do this once there was a critical mass of people converted, rather than in a time of crisis. That made a bit more sense, at least to Amaryllis’ eyes. The summoning of Mome Rath had something to do with the choir he’d assembled, people singing out a layered tone, but it hadn’t just included people in the temple complex, there were people on the surface too, and if someone had been prepared to take that step, or if it had been general information, then the singers could have been killed before they finished their contribution. Who knew whether or not that would have worked, but it might have been worth a try. Mass conversion underground, under some believable pretense (like an expansion of temple capacity) would allow a final push to a choir that couldn’t be stopped.
It wasn’t entirely academic. Figuring out Harold’s plan was the first step to stopping it. Amaryllis had frustratingly little information about what had happened with Juniper down in the temple, but it was entirely possible that Harold had acted early, in response to his encounter with Juniper, and now that Mome Rath was laying dead, the original plan was being quickly adapted into a different form.
Amaryllis passed a few people as she walked out of the hallway, but if any of them recognized her as being out of place, they showed no indication of it. She took a left, then a right, which should have gotten her into a room that was on an alternate path to the elevator. Instead, she had her first encounter with someone who recognized her as not belonging.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” said the woman with a frown. She was wearing an outfit that showed a lot of skin, but she wasn’t a tattoo mage, because there was nothing visible on her dark skin. It was the beads circling one wrist and the small box she was clutching that gave her away; Aumann had something similar, a collection of projectiles that marked her as a gold mage. The room was small, with just a table and a few chairs, a place that might have been a break room if the cabinets had been finished.
“No, I’m not,” replied Amaryllis. “I was trying to get back to the surface.” Lying was one of the things that she was good at, and she’d gotten better over the months with Juniper.
The woman nonetheless stood up from where she was sitting. Amaryllis had been holding out hope that gold magic was warded against in the annex, as she knew it was in the main temple, but she saw the beads rotate around the woman’s wrist with no outside force.
“On whose orders?” the woman asked.
The problem was, there just wasn’t enough information to bluff. Amaryllis didn’t even know Harold’s actual name, if people around here knew of him at all.
“No one’s orders,” said Amaryllis. “I’m not in the chain of command.”
“I see,” said the woman with a slight frown. She moved her hand slightly, to a more combat-ready stance. “Stay here for a moment.”
Amaryllis moved as fast as she could. Blood was still working, but bone wasn’t. Conventional wisdom, when facing down a gold mage, was that you needed to create as much distance as possible, then assault them with non-kinetics. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option here, and the non-kinetics that Amaryllis had on hand were extremely limited, especially without the flickerblade at her disposal. She rushed forward instead. It was a tactic that was, at least, a surprise to a gold mage, in part because it would normally be suicidal.
Amaryllis ducked down and slipped under the gold mage’s arm, then spun and came around from behind, wrapping her in a hug. As soon as that was done, she activated the immobility plate. Then she began focusing on the kill.
Gold magic and still magic were mirrors of each other in some respects, in terms of physical power, not their sources. A gold mage’s tactile telekinesis had no limitations aside from power output, which was tied to their marked gold, while a still mage had no limitations aside from their stilling ability, which was normally limited by how intensively they had trained and how deep their ability ran. In the game mechanical terms as laid out by Reimer, it would probably be a contested roll, skill check against skill check, and nothing more. In physical reality, it was force applied against counterforce, which in a way was even simpler.
(A small but significant difference was that a gold mage could act only on things that were within a fraction of an inch of their skin, while a still mage could act through sufficiently close or linked objects. It was one of those tidbits that you read about in a book and then filed away for later, then suddenly needed to take into consideration in a crucial moment.)
The gold mage was pushing back against the immobility plate, budging it, but not by much. Amaryllis held the gold mage in a hug that didn’t do enough to restrict her arms. Gold mages could turn anything that they touched into a projectile, one that could be as powerful as a bullet, and that was exactly what the gold mage was trying to do, pushing hard against the armor in short jabs, without the need for any projectiles. The immobility plate was a good armor, and it didn’t succumb to the force, but as Amaryllis tried to still the gold mage’s heart, the fear was starting to run through her. Catching the enemy off-guard was one thing, but if the woman wasn’t fighting at a blind panic, she might try other, more effective strategies.
Amaryllis almost had it when the woman tried to scream. Vibration magic, even so weak as it was, was enough to silence the scream before it even left the woman’s throat, helped in part by the way Amaryllis’ extra senses extended beyond her. The gold mage’s heart was weakened, almost giving out against the force tamping down on it and forcing it not to pump blood.
That was when Amaryllis felt, through still magic, the beads from the bracelet rolling over the woman’s skin. The immobility plate was full plate, with gloves, gauntlets, and a full helm, completely encasing its wearer. Amaryllis had been hoping that the second tactic the woman would try was going for the head or hands, traditional weak spots of entad armor, weak points that the immobility plate decidedly lacked. Instead, the woman began flinging the beads at the wall, puncturing them through with small holes as she kept trying to scream. She got six of them out, traveling almost fast enough to be bullets, a dangerous and indiscriminate attempt at getting any help.
And then the gold mage tried something else, something that might not have been tried in the history of Aerb; she tried to use her tactile telekinesis to pump blood through her own body. Amaryllis could feel it, and first tried to still it, then allowed it through. Gold mages could put an enormous amount of power into pushing things around, but it wasn’t fine-grained, and as soon as Amaryllis was no longer stilling the blood, the gold mage was slamming blood through her own body, bursting arteries and veins, and popping her heart at the seams of the muscle.
After she’d gone limp, Amaryllis spent an extra second, just to be sure, then stopped the immobility and dropped the gold mage to the floor. Amaryllis grabbed the woman’s head and jerked it upward, hoping to sever the spinal cord, just in case, a move she added the pulse of blood magic to for extra power. There was a cracking sound, but not much else, and Amaryllis hoped the woman was dead for good.
It was pathetic, to spend so much effort to kill so minor a foe. How many mages did Harold have at his disposal? Still mages and vibration mages in abundance, that much was clear, but if he was willing to drug people with abandon, then he could have captured so many more, and exotic species too, ones with their own bespoke magics and abilities. There were mages that Amaryllis would have no chance at beating, entads that would stop her dead in her tracks.
And if the holes the gold mage had poked in the wall had done any good, Amaryllis was likely going to have to face them, with her tattoos non-functional, her bones blocked, and her strongest available magic, still magic, one that she’d had precious little time to train with. She didn’t have her flickerblade either, nor any other useful weapon.
She needed Juniper. She shouldn’t have come down here without him. If it took waiting outside and waving her arms, she should have done that instead, rather than trying to go off on her own and getting stuck.
When no one immediately burst into the room, Amaryllis checked the body. The woman was confirmed dead, and Amaryllis had no method of saving her soul within the next thirty minutes, not when she was surrounded by hostiles. She winced at that, then stole the woman’s dagger, which was either an entad or made to look like one (too stylized to be utilitarian), though three quick slashes through the air revealed nothing in particular, and it was entirely possible that if it was an entad, it had either been invested by someone else, or was hereditary rather than unbound. Amaryllis took it anyway, finally securing herself a weapon, even if it wasn’t what she would have asked for. There was nothing else of value in the room.
Amaryllis hefted the knife, looking it over one last time, then opened the door to the next room. She had cause to use her new weapon almost immediately, as soon as she saw the barrel of a rifle pointed her way.
It was a good time to find out that she was bulletproof. In testing back inside Bethel, before Juniper had gotten out of the temple, before Mome Rath had shown up, and before the biggest explosion Amaryllis ever hoped to experience, Juniper’s skill with Still Magic hadn’t been high enough that Amaryllis could actually bring a small caliber round to a dead stop. Now, the rifle’s bullet stopped against her skin with no more than the briefest of warnings to direct stilling power that way.
She stabbed the man holding the rifle in the hand, and he screamed, dropping it. Amaryllis snatched it up with her left hand before it could hit the floor.
There were others behind him though, and they wrenched the door open. Amaryllis threw the dagger at one of them, whipping it around as quickly as she could.
The dagger lit up brighter than the sun for a brief moment, etching itself in her vision before she could screw her eyes shut. When she opened her eyes again, after she could only see the dagger as an afterimage rather than visible through her eyelids, she saw her three assailants clutching their faces — or, no, one of them had a vertical hole through his chest, singed on both sides, a hole almost exactly as wide as the dagger. On top of that, the dagger was back in Amaryllis’ hand.
She went after the two men while they were stunned, slicing cleanly through their throats before they even had their eyes uncovered, then she stepped out into the hallway and flung the dagger as hard as she could at the first people she saw. She had preparation this time though, and turned away with her eyes closed just after the dagger had left her hand, spinning back into the room for whatever protection it might provide her from the incoming firepower of the people bearing down on her. When the dagger returned to her hand, blinking into existence there, Amaryllis stabbed it into the wall and raised her rifle instead, then leaned out of the room just enough to see down the hallway. On one end, two people were dead, but on another, seen through a quick change in angle, there were two men walking forward, one behind the other. Amaryllis recognized the one in back, but it would have been hard not to: he had four arms, constrained in a tight shirt and with a set look on his face.
Amaryllis fired off a shot, aiming for Oberlin, but didn’t wait to hear whether or not it connected before ducking back into the room. She pulled the knife from the wall and took a steadying breath, then threw it hard toward Oberlin and the other man, screwing her eyes shut so that they wouldn’t be seared by the light it was putting out, and once again ducking behind the doorframe.
Her head started to vibrate just after that, slow and subtle at first, and then faster, as Oberlin locked in on the resonant frequency and began to vibrate her to death. It almost instantly became harder to think, harder to do anything, and Amaryllis knew that she was about to die, was probably seconds away from it. She turned the immobility plate on, locking herself in place, but that did nothing for the vibration. She used still magic on her own head, holding her skull in place against the vibration, but that was a stopgap measure, and even more than the immobility plate, she was pinning herself down. The worst part was that Oberlin didn’t have to come closer at all, this power was something that he could use around a corner, which meant that her ability to fight back with the meager tools at her disposal was gone. Vibration mages were limited by what they held in reserve, if she could just hold out —
The vibration let up, all at once, and Amaryllis stood up, shouldering her stolen rifle. Whatever had happened to the dagger, it hadn’t returned to her hand. She waited, listening to silent footsteps, aiming at the doorway. She was a mediocre vibration mage, barely able to do anything with the power, with a pitifully small pool of breath, but she tried to enhance her hearing anyway, which only made the footsteps sound more like death.
At the first small hint of something moving past the door frame, she fired her rifle.
The bullet struck Juniper in the head, stopping instantly and then falling. He caught it and looked it over for a moment before looking up at her.
“Nice to see you too,” he said with a widening smile.
“Harold is building up a choir,” said Amaryllis. “Gassing people into an altered state, then taking them over. He’s going to try again.”
“I thought you might be dead,” said Juniper. He was still smiling.
“Focus, Juniper,” said a familiar voice, and Figaro Finch stepped into view. He glanced into the room. “Oh, good, you found Amaryllis. Let’s go.”
“What the fuck is Finch doing here?” asked Amaryllis, staring at the gnome.
“Saving the world,” said Finch as he kept moving down the hallway.
“That’s actually not Figaro Finch,” said Juniper. “It’s the idea of Figaro Finch.”
Amaryllis gave him a bewildered look that the helmet hid and stepped out of the room.
“Sorry,” said Juniper. “I’m just really, really happy to see you.”
“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis, though she was finally feeling warmth and relief flowing through her. He was like a giddy puppy sometimes. “What’s the plan?”
“Find Harold,” said Juniper. “Kill or subdue him. Get to work fixing everyone left alive.” He looked backward, to where Oberlin was laid out. “I think he’ll be fine. There are others that won’t.”
“We think Harold is here?” asked Amaryllis. “Physically present?”
“Might be,” said Juniper. He hesitated for a moment and looked like he was going to go for a hug, or to offer her his hand. “Come on, Finch is right, time is wasting.”
Amaryllis came out into the hallway and saw the others, Raven and Pallida, Grak and Valencia, and for whatever reason, Juniper’s ethics professor, who was in imperial-standard shimmerplate. There were others too, one-armed humanoids that took her a moment: gimmals. Valencia was divesting the bodies of their souls, moving quickly and efficiently, and Amaryllis let out a sigh of relief.
They went through the facility together, with Juniper at the front, and Finch just behind him. Amaryllis had the rifle, one that was useless against the still mages that surely made up the bulk of Harold’s rank and file, but she held onto it tightly, because it was as much offense as she had available to her. The situation was new and confusing, the reunion fast and missing too much catharsis, because the threat was still out there, and they were still on the enemy’s home ground.
“He’s strong,” said Pallida, walking alongside Amaryllis and speaking under her breath. “Really strong right now.”
“Leveled up?” asked Amaryllis.
“Three times,” said Pallida.
“Three?” asked Amaryllis, eyes widening.
“Three,” said Grak.
But before Amaryllis could ask questions, they were into the next room, and Juniper was moving so fast that he was practically a blur of motion, and he wasn’t even a velocity mage, not yet. The sound of gunfire echoed through the halls, loud and imposing, and Juniper didn’t so much as shrug it off. This was what still magic had promised, it was why Sound and Silence had been one of their goals from early on, but it was still startling to see in action. Amaryllis had only a foggy understanding of the annex, but it seemed as though they were moving toward the center of it, if her reckoning of where they were was correct.
There were certainly more mages of many varieties stationed here, for all the good it did them. Rapid identification of magic was part and parcel of training for fighting in all conditions, and as Juniper tore through the room, she could barely decide which school his opponents belonged to before he struck them down. A rune mage in glowing runic armor had a powerhouse punch stopped instantly, and Juniper brought him down in seconds. A flower mage unleashed an arsenal of racing branches, perhaps hoping to capture or ensnare, and Juniper whipped his probability blade around, neatly severing it all before it could get close to him, then advanced on the woman.
It was a one-man massacre, and all Amaryllis could do was stand there with her rifle raised, hoping that she would be able to help, or at least to take a clean shot. After half a minute, it was over, and Juniper was looking over the bodies.
“Still magic one hundred,” said Grak from beside Amaryllis.
“Oh,” she said. “Sacrifice?”
“To save me,” said Valencia.
“He doesn’t have much time left then,” said Amaryllis. Given the rate of decay, not much time left at all.
“The capstone allows any effect with a duration to be stilled,” said Grak.
“Oh,” Amaryllis said again. “Wait, Prince’s –”
“He’s under the effect,” said Grak. “Until the next time he sleeps.”
Amaryllis was stunned by that, and then the gears started turning as fast as they ever had before, her earlier head trauma making it slightly hard to think. Anything with a duration? Bone magic was unfortunately out, because it relied on transfers of quantities and expenditure of resources rather than being timed, and if that had worked, then Juniper would still be charged with all the manifold powers of Mome Rath, and that didn’t seem like it was the case, because he wasn’t that fast. Everything else though? There were options, so many options that it was nearly dizzying, a whole world of entads, various spells available to tattoo mages, nothing that would match the heights of Prince’s Invulnerability, but —
“Wait,” said Amaryllis, turning to Grak. “The wards –”
“Subverted for him,” replied Grak. “This can wait.”
But Amaryllis was getting fidgety, because something else had occurred to her, which was that from a narrative perspective, this meant there was sure to be a rapid escalation of threats. Worse, they would be threats that only Juniper could face, not threats that his family, his team, would be able to help him with. The way Raven had described it, that was what it had been like living with Uther, most of the time. There were specialties for each of them, little areas that they had carved out, but there were many threats that Uther simply handled on his own, without help or consultation. Even before he disappeared for good, there had been times that he would simply vanish for a week or two, sometimes giving brief notice, sometimes just disappearing and pretending that it wasn’t cause for alarm when he returned. It had been like that at the Boundless Pit, but that was only one of many.
Fenn had complained about it often, before it had really been a problem, or even a glimmer of one. She had been their archer and self-professed slink-thief, but there was very little call for that most of the time, and after she and Juniper had started their courtship, she had sometimes felt relegated to the role of love interest, especially because there were times when she was trying to give input, in her own way, input which was ignored more often than not. Hells, even from the very start, Fenn had been worried about being locked out of power, an outsider in their little group of three, and then she had become so marginalized as to be practically a footnote in their story, the death that no one talked about anymore.
Amaryllis put herself toward the rear of the party, moving so as to provide support against any attempt to pin them in or attack from behind, but there was nothing. Juniper had cut through the annex like a scythe.
They came into a large room, this one even less finished than the rest, with only glowing glyphs for lighting, the kind that were often used around Aerb but here cast a sinister pall over everything. A man sat in a simple chair at the other end of the large room and beside him, the only other thing in this hollow, hidden place at the heart of the annex, was a jar with something that gave a suggestion of flesh.
“On your guard,” said Juniper, which might as well have gone without saying. “Grak?”
“Give me a moment,” said Grak. He held out his wand with his good hand, and spread the fingers of his wooden hand wide. “I think that is Harold.”
“Sitting, or in the jar?” asked Juniper.
“In the jar,” replied Grak. “I can ward.”
“Do that,” replied Juniper. “Clear of wards here?”
“Yes,” replied Grak, frown visible in the darkness.
“It’s over!” called the man who was sitting beside the jar. “We lost! You won!”
“Careful,” murmured Amaryllis.
“Four entads,” said Grak. “All of them warded against since we left the elevator.”
Juniper began walking forward, crossing the distance, and Amaryllis fell into step behind him. He looked back at her briefly, as if surprised to see that she was following, then continued on. The only other person to approach was Finch, or rather, the idea of Figaro Finch, whatever that meant.
“Hi,” said the man on the seat. “Sorry, give me a moment, just coming down off the high. For a moment, I really thought that we would pull it out there.” He looked a little bit sick, and confirmed that impression a moment later. “I feel like I might throw up, just because of the nerves.”
“That’s Harold,” said Finch, pointing at the bottle of flesh. “I’d bet my ass. You trust your warder?”
“Yes,” said Juniper, without so much as a look backward at Grak. “I’d lay my life in his hands without a second thought.”
“Well, you have,” said Finch.
“Harold?” asked the man who was sitting. He was sweating slightly, and clutching his pants where they covered his knees. “That’s the name Uniquities gave him. You’re them?”
Finch raised his pistol and Juniper, moving fast, blocked the shot with his hand. The shot rang out through the small room, and Amaryllis was thankful that she had just enough skill with vibration magic that she’d been able to keep her ears from ringing.
“Useless to talk to him,” said Finch. “Dangerous too.”
“There are threats he could deploy,” said Amaryllis. “He’s not harmless, sitting there, warding or no. Juniper, some of those threats are known to you.” The Cannibal was one, though Amaryllis didn’t even want to say that much, because it would give information away to the enemy.
“I know,” said Juniper. He raised his sword and advanced, slowly. “This isn’t how this battle ends though, not with me killing these two and then being done with it.”
“How this battle ends?” asked Finch. “There’s no romance here, no climax, just kill the fucking guy and hack through the mass of flesh there, then let’s start in on the paperwork.”
“I want answers,” said Juniper, his voice surprisingly firm. “Harold came from somewhere. He has a goal. There might be more of him, or more of his kind.” Some of this was directed to Finch, but some was also, obviously, directed to the man sitting in front of them. “What’s your name?”
“Ellio,” he said, looking up at Juniper. “And you’re Juniper Smith.”
(Amaryllis was tensed and ready, ready to slit the man’s throat as soon as the wrong syllables came out. The risk wasn’t really the Cannibal, she could kill him before there was any real danger that he could complete the sequence of phonemes, the danger was something else, the great unknown, not something that was in a foreign language or required the twisting of a tongue, because they would expect that, and so the weapon that Juniper would have designed would be different, more subtle. An innocuous phrase that called down hellfire? Nothing someone could say by accident. Maybe two or three words, spoken within minutes of each other, so rare that it could be a trigger to something, unknown to the world.)
“Harold told you my name,” said Juniper. “Who are you to him?”
“I’m his advisor,” said Ellio. “One of them.”
“One of many,” said Juniper.
Ellio nodded. He was still fidgeting. “You have to see the world,” said Ellio. “Not the world how it pretends to be, how you want it to be, how you think you can reshape it, but the world how it is. The world is shit.”
“Garden variety cultist,” said Finch.
“No,” said Ellio. He didn’t take his eyes from Juniper. “There are sixty-two exclusion zones, places of unimaginable horrors, places that are, at best, inhospitable to life. Those exclusion zones come at the expense of useful magics, and every effort put forward to stop the exclusions from happening has failed. The world is getting worse, everyone knows it and no one talks about it, the world is hostile to our very existence just as a matter of course, and grows more hostile every year. We’re getting ground down, and no one is doing anything about it, because there’s nothing to be done.”
“That’s your premise?” asked Juniper, raising an eyebrow. “That the world is getting worse? And that justifies,” he tightened his grip on his sword, “the end of the world?”
“No,” said Ellio, shaking his head. “No, I should have started with the hells, but everyone knows about the hells, they’ve grown up knowing about the hells, and if you start talking about infinite torture then they tune you out, so you talk about the world and how it’s getting worse.” He took a breath. “Our society strives for oblivion, we makes laws encouraging it, mandating it, but we manufacture souls by the thousands, knowing there’s a chance they’ll wind up in the hells, gestating there under infernal control until they’re capable of feeling the same infinite pain that every other resident is subject to. You speak out against it and people don’t care, they content themselves with delusions and ignore the cold reality, the same as they do when they walk past a homeless man on the way to work, the way they justify their sins to themselves, it’s … it’s pain and suffering, as far as the eye can see, and Aerb, the world as we know it, is just the tip of it.”
“Are you getting anything from this?” asked Finch.
“Maybe,” said Juniper. He nodded to Ellio. “Go on, finish your rant.”
“I realized it all when I was a teenager,” said Ellio, seeming grateful that he would get to talk. “I realized how cold and cruel it all was, how people would delude themselves into thinking that it wasn’t. I was afraid of dying then, afraid of the hells after I saw what was there, and when I looked around me, other people weren’t, they didn’t act like they should have if eternity were on the line. They did stupid, risky things like leaving their house without a bottle and a spike hanging from their hip. They slept without someone watching over them, or worse, alone. They didn’t act like eternal torture was on the line. They acted like it would sort itself out. Do you know what the enbottling rate is?”
“Through the Empire it’s ninety-two percent,” said Amaryllis. “Though only one study was commissioned, so far as I know.”
“Yes,” said Ellio, finally looking at her. “Eight percent of the population winds up in the hells, and that’s without even accounting for the fact that the Empire would never admit how often nascent souls go there.” He was fidgeting again, and directed his attention back to Juniper. “It took me a long time to understand that people live in the now, that they put on blinders to the cruelty and horror of the world. And after that, I –”
“You decided that you were going to end the world,” said Juniper.
“No,” said Ellio. “No, I tried to improve it, I tried to open eyes, I joined the Anti-Natal League, I went on marches, but it was lonely, and progress was slow, and all around me, people kept going to the hells, they kept dying. We prepared reports on known incidents, tried to force hospitals into compliance, lobbied for changes to the laws … and it slowly became obvious that none of this effort was really doing anything.”
“And it was then that you decided to destroy the world,” said Juniper. He sounded flippant, Amaryllis noted with relief. This sort of talk could be seductive, she knew.
“I decided that I would destroy the hells,” said Ellio. “An impossible task for a single person, but the world is large, and eventually I found others, people that I could work with. Not people who wanted to destroy the world, no, people who wanted to destroy the hells, as impossible as that might have seemed. But you don’t care about me, I know that, you’re content to kill me if I don’t tell you what you want to know, I’m just –” He balled up his hands into fists. “Our minds rebel against it, they reduce trillions down to nothing, worse than nothing, abstraction, but any rational person would see that the hells are of paramount importance, their destruction should be the one and only driving goal of mortals,” he began shaking his head. “There ought to be a horrible weight of responsibility felt by every person in this whole world.”
“Harold doesn’t care about that,” said Juniper. “He’s using you, like he’s used others before.”
“Of course he’s using us!” shouted Ellio. “He uses everyone, it’s what he does. But his goal aligned with our own, and — he was going to end it. He was going to bring an end to the pain.”
Juniper frowned at that, then glanced at Amaryllis. “Thoughts?” he asked.
Amaryllis gave a small laugh. “It’s insanity.” That felt like the proper amount of flippancy to treat the subject with, the right level of dismissal.
“You don’t really believe that,” said Juniper.
Amaryllis felt her face fall. Had something happened within the game mechanics somewhere that had allowed him to notice, two opposed dice rolls that had been extremely unlucky for her? Or was it simply that he knew her too well for such deceptions to work?
“I think it’s something we all think, once in a while,” said Amaryllis. “Not the whole world, but … that urge, to raze it all down and leave nothing but ash in its place. And if the only tool you have is ending the world, if you have to look at whether the world is worth it, then it’s possible to do your sums and decide that if you can’t fix everything that’s broken, maybe it would be better that nothing existed at all.” That was as close as she was going to get to saying what she really felt, at least in the here and now.
“Hrm,” replied Juniper, frowning for a moment and then looking away from her, back to Ellio, and briefly to the jar of flesh.
“You feel it too,” said Ellio, staring down Juniper. “He saw you, he got the measure of you, he knew that you felt it, the need to do something about the world, to erase it all.”
“That assumes that it’s immutable,” said Juniper. “It’s not.” He pointed at the jar. “Are there others like him, do you know?”
“Not immutable?” asked Ellio, ignoring the question. “You’d have me believe there’s some way to deal with the hells? Some way to save everyone from torment? Some way to fix all our terrestrial problems, to halt the inevitable spiral toward collapse?”
“I don’t really care what you believe,” replied Juniper. “But yes, I have it on good authority that there’s a way.”
“How much faith do you have?” asked Ellio. The muscles of his neck were straining. “How much more likely is it that you listened to a deception, that it was a pretty lie?”
Juniper hesitated and seemed to think about that. “Even if it were,” he replied. “If it were a grand and elaborate lie with fabricated evidence, or some delusion on my part, even then, I would still want to strive for better, instead of just giving up. If –”
“Giving up?” asked Ellio, incredulous. “Is that what you think –”
Juniper moved forward, so fast he must have been using magic for it, and touched Ellio on his throat. The man froze in place.
“I don’t want you to make a mistake here,” said Juniper. “I’ve been suffering you to speak. Maybe you were some normal person who decided that the rational thing to do was to blow up the world, and you were enabled and used by Harold and whoever else was part of your cult. Or maybe Harold grabbed a hold of you and decided that he needed someone to serve as his mouthpiece, which would mean that none of this is your fault. I’ve been trying to be nice and pleasant, because I thought that it would make things easier. The thing is, Mome Rath killed thousands, maybe more, and what I need from you now is information about contingencies, information about whether there are other threats, or booby-traps, or anything else that you wouldn’t want me to know.”
“He won’t talk,” said Finch.
Juniper didn’t respond, and only stood there, gripping Ellio’s throat, likely using still magic, engaging in some kind of intimidation tactic. It lasted for a long moment, so long that the silence grew uncomfortable. It took longer than she would have liked to admit to realize what Juniper was doing.
“Oh,” said Ellio. His eyes went slightly wide.
“Tell us everything,” said Juniper.
“I,” said Ellio, looking momentarily confused. “Yes.” He looked over at the jar of flesh. “He’ll kill me.”
“Can he?” asked Juniper.
“No,” replied Ellio. He let out a breath. “We always knew that warding would work. It was one of the things that we tried our best to prepare against. No warder could be allowed to see him unless he had his teeth in them, we were meant to post up in places that a warder couldn’t encompass, and we were always prepared to leave without a trace.”
“So what made this time different?” asked Juniper.
“He thought he was close,” said Ellio. “Closer than ever before. He had a bigger base in Li’o, more people collected, and it was changing him.”
“You can’t trust these answers,” said Finch.
“I’m an unregistered soul mage,” said Juniper, as though that were a casual thing. His voice was slightly clipped; he knew the gravity of revealing that, but he’d made his choice, and sometimes when he did that, he would add this air of false nonchalance.
“What’s going to happen to me?” asked Ellio, true concern on his face for the first time, replacing anxiety.
“I have no idea,” replied Juniper. He glanced at Finch. “Probably not a trial. Probably just confirmation that you weren’t a pawn, then execution.”
“Oh,” said Ellio.
“Where does he come from?” asked Amaryllis, stepping closer to Ellio. “Are there more of him? What was your plan here, once you knew we were coming?”
(The soul magic was frightening, and she was trying to ignore that fear, but it was a watershed moment, the first time their group had forcibly converted someone, the first time they’d breached that particular moral boundary. Logically, it was better than killing the man, and on balance it was probably the right thing to do, but a decade of indoctrination had primed her to think that it was something that was Not Done, and that was hard to shake.)
“We never knew where he came from,” said Ellio. “We had theories, but he never said. Maybe he didn’t know. The plan was to have me here, to talk with you, and maybe convince you, if you tore through everyone else. It was a long shot. If that failed, I was meant to kill you. There’s a word I was supposed to say, one that would kill me too.” He shook his head. “It was likely to kill him too, but if you were going to kill him anyway, we thought it was better to use it than let this all crumble.”
“So that’s it then?” asked Finch. “It’s over?”
“Looks like,” said Juniper, nodding. “Just got confirmation.”
“What does that mean?” asked Finch.
“Nothing,” replied Juniper. He glanced at Amaryllis. “Can we talk privately?”
Amaryllis gave him a nod.
Grak made a ward for us, one that would make it difficult for us to be overheard. I had knocked out Ellio, and it seemed like the threat of Harold had passed without a final showdown. I’d even gotten a quest completion notice for it.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m feeling dumb. I don’t get it.”
“Get what?” asked Amaryllis. She had removed her helmet so we could speak a little more clearly, which I appreciated.
“The showdown with Mome Rath made sense,” I replied. “It’s a big giant kaiju, and it’s one that I designed. This though, was a fight trivialized by the recent upgrades, and at the end of it was a man making the strongest possible argument for ending the world, which in my opinion wasn’t all that strong, not knowing what I know, anyway. So what’s going on here?”
Amaryllis cleared her throat. “I think that it might have been meant for me.”
“You want to destroy the world?” asked Juniper, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “Not really.” She took a breath. “I used to have fantasies about ending the Lost King’s Court, just wiping everything out.”
“And installing yourself as dictator?” I asked, giving her a grin that she didn’t return.
“No,” she replied. “I was twelve, and I hated them all. I just wanted it all burnt to the ground, and I didn’t care what, if anything would take its place. They killed my father and poisoned my mother, Juniper. Allegedly. Nothing proved, but I’ve never really doubted it. And I just thought … it would be better if all this was gone. I wasn’t angry, I was just … it made sense to end it all, because I didn’t then have the ambition to save whatever was worth saving.”
“Huh,” I replied. “I get the impulse, I do, but without the component of putting something better in its place, it feels so alien.”
Amaryllis paused. “Where did you think you would go when you killed yourself?” she asked.
“Ah,” I replied. “Oblivion.” I took a moment to try to see things through that lens. “Okay, I am dumb, this was all a suicide metaphor.”
“I don’t think it was just that,” said Amaryllis. “It was that, but not just that. Harold was his own entity, a malevolent one that only wanted death and pain to the people of Aerb, but the people like Ellio that he surrounded himself with, people that are still, unfortunately, out there, they were following him because they sought a way to end it all. Maybe for some it’s a manifestation of depression and anger at the world, like suicide was for you, but for others, it’s just basic logic. If Uther is on one end, standing fast against incredible odds with a sword in his hand to protect a single innocent, then these people are on the other, taking the measure of the world and finding it so lacking that it’s better the world doesn’t exist.”
“They think Aerb was a mistake,” I replied. “Which I guess I’d argue is correct, given that it was the creation of an amoral monster who decided that sixty odd years of life and then eternal torture was a balance he was willing to strike in order to … I guess to give me something to fight against. And if I didn’t think that there was a way forward, if I thought that it was all going to end in tears and despair, I guess I would try my best to find a way to fix everything — no, sorry, I don’t know who I’m kidding, I would probably just ignore it all and pretend that it didn’t matter, just like all the people that Ellio was complaining about. Or I would opt out for myself without caring about anyone else, which I guess on Aerb means killing yourself in a way that allows you to ensure your soul will be recovered and stored until it decays. Taking everyone with you, that’s a level of dedication that I would never have.”
“I would,” said Amaryllis. “There was a time when I thought about it. Never to the point where I put anything into motion, but I did think about it.”
“Huh,” I replied. “But just the Lost King’s Court? Not the whole world.”
“The whole world … for a bit,” replied Amaryllis. “After I first looked in an infernoscope, when I saw the magnitude of the hells, I did have those same thoughts. That if there was a way to end the hells, I would give my life to do it, and I would give the lives of others too, whether they were willing or not, and when I sat down to do the math, a trillion souls, give or take, measured against five billion alive, it couldn’t possibly be the case that a single person’s life was worth two hundred people rotting in the hells for eternity. And if you factored in that some of those people would wind up in the hells themselves … I would never have done what these people did, but there was a time when, if you’d put a button in front of me and laid out the consequences, I would have pressed the button that erased everyone from existence.”
“I really wouldn’t have seen you as the type,” I said, after a moment had passed. “I’d have thought that you would just reject the math, when the numbers came out like that, or you would make a new formula.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Amaryllis. “If I’m being honest, I was worried that he would sway you, but it seems like I was more susceptible to the attack than you were.” She fidgeted with her armor. “You know, he did raise a good point about the Dungeon Master. I believe that he exists, and that you spoke to him, but there are good odds that the game is rigged against you, or that even if it’s not, that you have low odds of success.”
“Wait, are you thinking of ending it?” I asked. “Of just releasing Harold and going along with this World Lord plan?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “But I’m scared to run the numbers. I think if I was faced with following through on what my beliefs about the world said to be true, I would become a coward, just like you.”
“Ouch,” I replied.
“Coward, in this context, means not going down the path of darkness,” said Amaryllis. “You don’t think it was cowardice that saved you from killing yourself?”
“I’d rather not talk about it so bluntly,” I replied. “It’s awkward.” I cleared my throat. “But, maybe. I don’t know.” I tried to think for a moment. “I think it was more, when faced with the reality, I just didn’t want to do it. There was some primal part of me that wanted life, and I’d just been ignoring it. Or maybe it makes less sense than that, because human psychology is weird, especially when we’re talking about the failure states.”
Amaryllis frowned slightly. “And it’s all over?” she asked. “There was never a risk that you would be a convert? After Fenn died, you were in a bad place.”
“If someone had given me that talk then, instead of now,” I replied. “Probably still not. But it becomes a probably.” I looked down at my armor, which needed cleaning. The quest completion message had been heartening, but I mostly wasn’t feeling it. Taking out Mome Rath had felt good, but Harold … not so much. I had torn through his forces like paper, and only put myself in any actual danger once or twice. At the end of it, there was just a pathetic minion trying to convince me to join their side and a jar of flesh.
“I’m sorry that college didn’t work out,” said Amaryllis.
“It’s an athenaeum,” I replied, giving her a weak smile.
“Do you think the theme is future?” asked Amaryllis. “Reflections of your future on Earth?”
“I think that’s overfitting,” I replied. “Maybe not so much of an overfit as Hogwarts is, but still an overfit.”
“I’m worried Anglecynn is next,” said Amaryllis. “Lisi showing up is a flag that it’s going to come back. And like it or not, this is probably going to be a major international incident, especially if you’re going to be reversing all of the damage that Harold did to those people.”
“I am,” I replied. “And yes, it would be hard to disguise our involvement, though maybe we could scale back on the scope of it. I don’t want to be seen as the next Uther.”
Amaryllis looked out, beyond the bounds of the ward we were in. There was work to be done, obviously, but I had wanted this break, and I was apparently at the point now where if I thought my time was best spent talking to Amaryllis, then I got what time I needed.
“People are probably dying out there,” I said. “People we could be saving. And after that, clean up. Lots and lots of clean up.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis, standing up. “Thank you for saving me, by the way.”
“Anytime,” I replied.