Worth the Candle, Ch 163: Level Heads

“Something else the matter?” asked Raven.

I really didn’t want to get into it. What I wanted was to ignore the entire conversation and continue on as I’d been before, and I knew that if I said something, there would be an endless analysis of the specific phrasing the Dungeon Master had used, as well as its implications for our future. It wasn’t irrelevant, per se, but I could see the guessing and second-guessing coming, how everything might look like a clue, and I just really didn’t care. I’d suspected that the Dungeon Master wouldn’t let virtual invulnerability stand, and I was right, and I would rather have just dealt with it without having to have a huge thing about it. Unfortunately, there was no way that I could keep it from the others, as agonizing as I was sure it would be.

“I just got a visit from the Dungeon Master,” I said. I turned to Bethel. “Did you sense anything?” She shook her head. “Also, can I have a pen and paper? I want to write down what I can remember.”

To my surprise, there was silence around the room as I wrote down what I could pull out of my brain. It was quiet enough that I looked up just to make sure that everyone hadn’t gone still again. I was a little surprised to find that people were waiting for me to be done.

“Okay,” I said. “The upshot is that he excluded skin magic because he thought it wouldn’t be interesting going forward. There was something about me going off the rails, but I had no idea where the rails even were, which I guess, when I think about it, was usually the fastest way for any campaign of mine to go off the rails. Supposedly Kenner’s Eye was too easy for his tastes, or I didn’t do enough to earn it, but I don’t think it would have escaped his notice that Prince’s Invulnerability is also a tattoo, and also a source of power.”

“Seems a bit of a hammer to take to the world,” said Pallida. “Skin magic was one of the big ones.”

“There will be repercussions,” said Raven.

“And benefits,” said Valencia.

I turned to look at her. She was out of the Red Armor of Arramor, instead wearing a tasteful cream-colored dress that screamed professionalism. She’d been talking to people nearly non-stop since we’d gotten Harold from the annex, convincing them to let me touch them for long enough that I could check over their spirit.

“Grak?” I asked, looking over to him. He was already staring at Valencia.

“It’s hard to say,” he replied. “It is true that skin magic was always what gave her away. Without that, only blood would be visible, but the skin blocks it to my sight. She would still be vulnerable to entads and other magics.”

“But she could go out without having to worry as much about a warder?” I asked. “And with a bit more magic gone from the world, there’s one fewer method of checking her.”

“Yes,” said Grak.

“Which is a boon for any other of the non-anima,” said Pallida. “Pretty slim upside, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t,” I replied. I looked around the room. “Nothing much from the Dungeon Master, really, just hints at things I already knew, some explanation, threats that he was totally serious about killing me, which I’m not sure is actually true but I’m never going to deliberately test, and — Raven, he had a book called Worth the Candle, which had Juniper Smith listed as the author. Any ideas on that?”

“None,” she replied. “We scoured the library for books with that author.” I raised an eyebrow. “Twice, actually. Once when I read the list that Uther gave to my father, the second time when you were in the Library with me. Sorry. Neither time got any results.”

“And the title?” I asked.

“I could make a list of very tangential connections,” said Raven. She shrugged. “I will, I suppose, but I don’t think there’s anything that will bear fruit.”

“It’s an expression, back on Earth,” I said.

“Here too,” replied Raven.

“I actually think that I might have said it to him, before, in a prayer,” I said with a frown. “Might be nothing, but he was tapping the book like it was important.”

“Back,” said Amaryllis, appearing next to her chair. “The exclusion is for skin magic, though it might be localized to tattoo magic, since I don’t have the proper scars to test on. At a best approximation the radius is one hundred miles from the center of Li’o, though I only tested in three directions. It’s the subtype suppressive, not deadening or annihilation.”

“Annihilation?” I asked. “You were worried that all skin outside the zone would be removed from existence?” I was a little incredulous, given that she must have moved through the boundary going incredibly fast.

“More likely all magical tattoos,” said Amaryllis. “There’s no precedent for an exclusion killing everything on Aerb.” That was dry humor on her part, the kind I’d grown to appreciate from her. “But tattoos that are brought into Li’o should still function: they won’t be directly rendered non-functional, which is good, because that means that translation tattoos still have somewhere to function. I don’t think I can overstate how important they are for the international community.”

“Juniper spoke to the Dungeon Master,” said Solace. Her tone was flat.

“What?” asked Amaryllis, freezing in place. “When I was gone?”

“He stopped time,” I said. “I was going to ask him your questions, but he gave me nonsense in return.”

“Do you remember what his response was, exactly?” asked Amaryllis.

“‘Yes, yes, no, yes, maybe, it depends on my mood, yes, no, and I’d have to look it up’,” I replied, looking down at my notes. That one I had made sure to commit to memory.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Amaryllis with a frown.

“He rattled it off in a string, I think he just wanted to make a bad joke,” I replied. “I’ve been writing down everything that I could remember, you’re welcome to pore over it.” I stood up from my seat. “In the meantime, I’m not actually sure that anything has changed. Prince’s Invulnerability will fail as soon as I leave Li’o and its environs, Kenner’s Eye will keep me awake for the next month or until I leave, though I’d obviously prefer not to pay it down, and I’m going to need some other method of staying awake in the long-term. Still magic isn’t excluded, and I really do think that I would like to keep it at a hundred for as long as I possibly can. But all that can come later, because there are still people to save, and still people to check over, though if we haven’t found a sleeper agent by now, I’m skeptical that our current methods are going to do it.”

“You’re going to brush off a visit from the Dungeon Master and a new exclusion?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I replied. “But time is short right now, and these are problems and conversations that seem to me like they’ll keep. There are implications to skin magic being lost, shifts in global power, if it took scar magic too, the elves are losing a lot of power, and you talked about the translation problems already. What else are we losing?”

“Or gaining?” asked Valencia.

Amaryllis looked at her for a moment. “It’s a serious blow to Steel and Sweat, the kind of thing that every athenaeum dreads. I don’t think there’s any way to leverage that though, not in the near term. And it’s going to be harder to get into a person’s soul, which is a more immediate problem.”

“Not so long as we’re in Li’o,” I said. “And there’s still blood magic, which I’ve always found to be a little easier, personally. And anyway, I’m off to clear more people, or maybe take the first crack at some of the people who are stuck in a coma state, because I’m becoming convinced that there weren’t any sleeper agents set up at all.”

I spent a long time doing things that needed to be done. I had been finding people Harold had touched, but none of them looked like I would have expected a sleeper to look, and as I cut through all the slack lines that connected them to him, I couldn’t see anything that looked like it was a time bomb waiting to explode, and I didn’t wager that Harold really had the planning capacity necessary to both rig up a sleeper unit, and that he would have made it invisible to a lost art that I was the foremost practitioner of (the other being Amaryllis).

Eventually I moved on to the people who we’d found sitting in their pews, waiting for an activation that would never come. They were all comatose, or something like it, not responding in any way more complicated than having their pupils contract when I shone a bright light on their face. When I went inside the spirit of the first of them, my heart sank; it was an utter wasteland, threads snipped all over the place, and some new structure built in their place, Harold’s lines leading off from it. I still had no real clue what the summoning was, and Ellio hadn’t known much, which was a good indication that I should use another sacrifice in order to boost Spirit up to its max level. That was a lot more palatable, given that I would probably have it available for a much longer time, and with the level ups and Reimer’s work, a respec was coming soon, meaning that the sacrifice and the way it slowed future skill ups wouldn’t sting so much.

New Virtue: Multithreading

Multithreading: Your thread utilization capacity is twice as high, though this cannot act as a flat increase on thread speed. Thread allocation works as before and is automatic.

It took me a little bit to puzzle this out, but it seemed to be saying that I could focus on multiple things at once, but that it didn’t actually give me any extra ability to think about things more quickly. A little more thinking and I realized that this was actually really, really good, given how many damned things I had to think about in combat, including pulse timing for blood magic and burning abilities with bone magic. More than that, it allowed me to do something that I had been wanting to do for a long time: burning MEN abilities from bone while still carrying on a conversation, something that hadn’t really worked well in the past. For a level 30 virtue, it was pretty fantastic, especially since it wasn’t a buff to Spirit itself, which I wasn’t planning on using too much. Initial testing showed that I couldn’t really cross the streams, so to speak, which was a bit wonky if I was trying to think about two related things at once, rather than something like singing the alphabet while doing sums.

New Virtue: Thread Priority

Thread Priority: You may designate certain threads as high priority threads, which will be utilized first, taking precedence over competing threads. Rampant threads will automatically be set to low priority. Thread allocation otherwise works as before and is automatic.

It seemed like the second half of the level 50 virtue related to memetic or antimemetic threats, or possibly also to runaway emotional things, since those were a part of Spirit’s domain. The first part though … I wondered whether it could be used as a concentration aid, if you isolated the thread that was going during study or something like that, but I didn’t have enough actual legitimate experience with Spirit to know if that could be done.

New Virtue: Spirituality

Spirituality: You gain supernatural control of your spirit, giving you a number of benefits to a wide variety of magic. Emotions can be initiated and stopped at-will for the purposes of passion magic with no associated qualia. Amount of mental strain is divided by your skill in Gem Magic for the purposes of gem magic. Branches receive a bonus to their Wilson score prior to rank calculation for the purposes of Tree Magic. When doing Accounting, you can hold any number of numbers in your head simultaneously (though you are still limited as usual for the purposes of calculation). Connections (Horticulture, Pustule Magic, etc.) have their decay halved and gains doubled. More benefits apply in specific exclusion zones: consult the manual for more detail.

The only thing that interested me was the benefit for Gem Magic, which seemed like it might suddenly make the whole thing usable, or like Gem Magic in its entirety had been balanced around me eventually getting it. Everything else was a smorgasbord of minor or possibly major benefits, none of which was entirely appealing given how little I knew of the actual rules. I would look over Reimer’s notes with Amaryllis, and maybe bring him in on it, but I wasn’t thinking that anything in there was a game-changer except for, again, gem magic.

New Virtue: Spiritual Amplification

Spiritual Amplification: When using any skill, treat your effective skill as being ten percent higher, rounded down, before any other modifiers. This applies only to raw skill, not including environmental modifiers, circumstance bonuses, entad bonuses, magical or pseudo-magical enhancement, or other bonuses or modifiers.

Knowing now that this system was in whole or in part designed by the Aerb version of myself, a lot of the idiosyncrasies of the wording and systems made a bit more sense. Some of the clarifications in the virtues I could see as being proactive defenses against munchkinry, or in some cases, at least according to Reimer, reactive defenses after he’d broken something. The rules-as-intended were clear enough, and a bonus to all skills was amazing, even if it was a rich-get-richer type of bonus, one that I felt would probably have been better off as a lower virtue. But one of the other things this understanding of the system allowed me was that a lot of these virtues seemed like something that I would come up with, some of them surely spat out because one was needed in the moment, others deeply considered as cool evolutions of what was core to the skill.

New Virtue: The Loom

The Loom: You have a full understanding of the history of any and all spirits you view, including historic changes to those spirits. You may alter a person’s spirit to any state its has been in before. You are completely immune to memes and antimemes that only affect the spirit, and are immune to the spirit effects of memes and antimemes that affect multiple aspects of your being.

With all that, fixing the people in their pews was nearly trivial, especially because I didn’t have to worry about undoing anything beneficial. Mucking about with spirit couldn’t affect memories, except insofar as the spirit interfaced with memories, but the spirit affected itself, threads weaving into each other, and at least some of those effects were beneficial, representing how people had changed and grown over time. Still, hacking away a few months of spiritual growth was worth it, if it could remove all traces of what Harold had done to the more compromised of the people he’d touched.

We found the ruling council of Li’o at around four in the morning, hidden in a secret bunker whose wards Grak had only been able to overcome by spending four weeks in the time chamber to build up concordance, and even then it was apparently a close thing.

The ruling council was all dead, to the last, along with many of their closest advisors, killed in what looked like it must have been a ritual suicide. Ellio helpfully explained to me that this had been one of his ideas, not just that the ruling council should be the first targets (even if that carried some risks), but that they should all die as soon as the summoning was in motion. He hadn’t actually known whether Harold had been able to get them, given that the entity didn’t like to reveal much of his plans, but after what Ellio had said, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Harold had followed the advice, at least in this circumstance. The fact that the ruling council was dead had left Li’o in the lurch as far as imperial support, and it meant that unless Article 86 was invoked, it would probably be weeks or months before the empire could come in.

But as we’d already established with Finch, Article 86 was going to be invoked by daybreak, only a few hours in the future, which would cause the biggest political shitfest that the Empire of Common Cause had seen in its entire history. The empire’s forces would come in, onto a member polity’s sovereign land, without so much as a token request from their ruler, and effectively take the place over. Worse, it was an athenaeum city-state. The thinking of everyone who opposed this was pretty clear to me: this set precedent for the empire to come in and act against a member polity. The thinking of everyone in favor was that this was one of the larger humanitarian problems since the Risen Lands exclusion, and the ruling council had been completely subverted and then killed, though it would be hard to say that definitively. These people were hypothetical, obviously. The imperial mail system was fast, which meant that news went around the empire pretty quickly, but it would take time for things to get untangled, especially because the biggest presence on the ground, the Council of Arches, didn’t have a proper PR department.

I was on the side of intervention. Hells, I was on the side of a single world government, so long as I could pick and choose who was sitting at the top. The Empire of Common Cause had worked to shrink down the world. It was pretty far from a monoculture, but cross-pollination had happened so far and wide that the polities had a lot more commonalities than differences. Pretending that there weren’t enormous economies of scale to harvest, and a lot of pretty horrible human rights abuses by the worst members, seemed like it was dumb. It would all work better if it was more closely knit. Then again, I wasn’t from Aerb, and I had formed most of my opinions by listening to how Amaryllis described things.

“What are you going to do with Ellio?” asked Amaryllis, breaking me out of my thoughts.

“Finch thinks I should kill him,” I said. We were standing just outside the bunker. We probably didn’t have to come in person, but I had wanted to be there for Grak as he cycled in and out of the time chamber, one week at a time to build up and then expend his concordance.

“I concur,” replied Amaryllis. “Kill him, then never let anyone find out what you did.”

“It was necessary,” I said, frowning at her.

“I know it was,” said Amaryllis. She softened slightly. “I’m not arguing that at all. I’m arguing that it would be better if your existence as an unregistered soul mage were something that we could pretend was more innocuous than it really is.”

“Finch thinks that he can backdate authorization,” I said.

“He told me that too,” said Amaryllis. “But ‘thinks’ is the operative word here, and we’re already operating in extremely murky waters. We’re an independent republic making a sojourn into a member polity of the Empire of Common Cause, in what will soon be declared an exclusion zone, with nothing even approaching approval by anyone who matters.”

“Pretty sure we’re heroes in all this,” I replied.

“Of course we are,” Amaryllis said. She gave me a little laugh. “Do you think that being a hero actually stops people from being pilloried? From sanctions, from broken alliances, from every horrible thing that our opponents will want to bring down on our heads?”

“I’d think that it would be at least a little bit of a shield,” I said. “Not a big one, but … in the court of public opinion, which seems like it would have some impact on what the politicians are willing to spend in terms of political capital.”

Amaryllis looked me over. “You put all those points into MEN?”

“I said I did,” I replied. “I don’t even think that was a particularly SOC worthy observation, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I’m just surprised,” replied Amaryllis. “But the point stands that we can’t keep Ellio around, not when he’s proof that you’re willing to soulfuck anyone when it’s convenient.”

“That’s unfair,” I said. I held up a hand. “And yes, yes, I know you’re making a point, that’s how it’s going to be framed. But killing a man just like that, in cold blood, when you have him dead to rights, when you could do all the reforms you wanted to him … it doesn’t sit well with me.”

“That was what the Second Empire did,” said Amaryllis, giving me a dark look. “It’s what Fallatehr did. You have a raw ingredient, there’s no victim because he’s a self-confessed accomplice to mass murder and no one will miss him, and you want to turn him into something useful.”

“Isn’t the fact that no one would miss him exactly why it doesn’t really matter?” I asked. “Or … wait, are you arguing from a strict utility standpoint, or are you just creeped out by it? Or you just think that it’s wrong, regardless of utility?”

That stopped Amaryllis dead in her tracks. “I’m thinking,” she finally said. “I might have biases because of what happened with Fallatehr.”

“Okay,” I said. “Or it’s a slippery slope thing?”

“We’d have to establish that the slope is, in fact, slippery,” said Amaryllis. “I do think that if you continued altering Ellio, you might wear away some of your instinctive revulsion at the idea, which might make you more likely to create a problem in the future, even on a strict utility level.”

“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t intend to ever do it again unless I have to.” I added the ‘unless I have to’ on reflex, because I didn’t want to make myself a liar, but as I said it I could hear how flimsy it sounded. “Anyway, killing him just because he might deserve it, or because he might be a personal problem for me reeks of the kind of thinking that I’d also not want to get comfortable with.” I sighed. “I missed you, but this part, I’m not so sure that I missed.”

“I didn’t either, for what it’s worth,” said Amaryllis. “And you know I missed you too.”

“I think I might surrender him to Finch,” I said, after a moment has passed. “Kick the can down the road, pretend that I don’t know Finch’s opinion, pretend that the man who gives the order doesn’t have to swing the sword.” I paused, weighing that. “Or, shit, I might have to give it a day to see what I think.”

“That might be best,” replied Amaryllis. “Talk to me though, before you do anything rash.”

“I always do,” I replied.

“You climbed up the leg of an enormous creature from beyond time and space,” said Amaryllis.

“True,” I said. “I’ll count that as a point against myself.”

“At any rate, it looks like Article 86 is going to get invoked, unless Finch thinks that he should do something insane like forging a distress call and the requisite authorization,” said Amaryllis. She covered her mouth with her hand and gave out a long yawn. “You know, I really liked having Kenner’s Eye. It was good insurance. If you’d gotten it when you should have, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” She had sworn off the tattoo, because it would almost certainly knock her out if she tried to leave the exclusion zone. (The search for a cure for sleep was ongoing; the entad within the temple was an obvious one, but I would have to keep it on me at all times, and we would also have to steal it, which was a non-starter given how delicate things already were.)

“Depends on which mess you’re talking about,” I said. I looked her over. It was nearly daybreak. “Maybe you should take a half day in the chamber? My guess is that Article 86 is going to mean all hell breaking loose. Not that we need to be around for it.”

“We do,” said Amaryllis. “There’s no possible way to deny that we were here. Most people won’t have ever seen a tuung before, so maybe it would be hours before anyone figured it out and made the connection to the Republic of Miunun, but it would happen eventually, especially because our tuung speak perfect Anglish. We haven’t been telling the civilians much, but I think it’s probably time to start. We can claim credit for all the good we’ve done, and hope that helps when the reckoning comes.”

I nodded. “Go get some sleep. I’ll keep watch and you’ll be back out before anything of significance has happened. Maybe spend an hour or two preparing, but I know you tend to overplan, and who the hell knows what the empire coming in will actually be like.”

“Finch has some idea,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll talk more with him, but I think he’s getting ready to pull out and pretend that he was never here, because Uniquities sure as hell looks suspicious, and my guess is that his department doesn’t shield him from criticism as much as he might have wished it did.”

“Go on then,” I said. “I’ll be helping as much as I can.”

Article 86 was invoked for the first time in history just after daybreak, when the sun began shining over the P’emp’te Valley. Bethel was stationary, the better not to spook anyone, but she’d included a spire in her design, and was giving us a bird’s eye view of the proceedings through the telescopes that she’d placed on the spire’s tips.

I should probably point out that she had access to a smorgasbord of entads, because people tended to take their entads with them, especially in emergencies. I was a bit worried about that, both because the Dungeon Master had recently shown himself willing to fire off the exclusion gun, and because the right entad or combination of entads might have made her more powerful than was probably good. I liked Bethel, I did, but she was scary sometimes, and probably as close to chaotic evil as someone could get and still be my friend. In the meantime, I was trying to be happy with her incredible powers.

A portal opened up in a small park not far from where Mome Rath had fallen, as wide as a four-lane highway, and immediately began to disgorge hundreds of people, all of them moving quickly. They multiplied as they came out, as extradimensional entads allowed even more people to exit from being temporarily carried. A few vehicles came too, large, ruggedized ones, a few with treads instead of tires, all of them carrying more people. A beachhead was quickly being established by the first people who had made it through, and that included a handful of buildings springing into existence wherever they could be fit, most of them with the bespoke look of entad buildings. Almost everyone I could see was wearing shimmerplate or something better, decked out in the kinds of magic items that people liked to complain about their taxes paying for.

From the bird’s eye view it was impressive, an operation carried out like clockwork, albeit one that would have been a lot more useful if it had come about sixteen hours before it did.

We got a knock on our door about half an hour later. I hated that Bethel was sitting still, but it wasn’t just that we didn’t want her to spook the imperials, it was also that she needed a break from being the most important entity in a thousand mile radius, especially when that was butting heads with both her personality and her core values. We were going to get as many people out of her as quickly as possible, once the imperials had a field hospital set up that could take them all, but who knew how long that would take. My initial estimate of a day, maybe more, had been really, really optimistic. A lot of the people that Bethel had inside of her were perfectly fine, either injured people that had been healed and couldn’t in good conscience be put back out on the street, or people who had never been injured at all.

“It’s like I imagine holding in feces,” Bethel had said to me. “Or eating a food you find repulsive. Or biting off a leg that’s stuck in a trap.”

“It’ll be over soon,” I said. “You can shit out all the people, you can vomit up the food, and you can limp away from the trap.”

Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 18!

“Thank you for understanding,” said Bethel. “I’m supposing that we’ll make an attempt at getting things back to normal? Rather than just allowing this to be interminable?”

“We’re trying,” I said. “We’ll see how this all shakes out.” That was about as much as I could give her.

Maybe it’s best that I talk for a bit about the Office of Imperial Disaster Relief. Part of the impetus for the Empire of Common Cause was to get everyone on the same page as much as possible, especially with regards to trade and disputes between nations. A standing army was not, at all, on the table; member polities would have their own standing armies, thank you very much, and while mutual defense had become a core part of the Empire, it was still mutual defense on an individual basis, polities going to help each other out within a framework provided by the Empire, rather than the Empire doing anything on its own. There had been a time when disaster response had been handled in the same way, with a member polity making a plea to the other member polities of the Empire, and individual members responding with what they could, sometimes headed by an ad hoc subcommittee.

This was, naturally, horrifically inefficient and generally unjust, with disaster response being provided on the basis of how politically appealing it was. A great number of backdoor deals happened in the days or week following a disaster, and the general outcome was the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It was with that sorry state of things in mind that legislation was drafted to create an imperial organization that would be funded by the member polities in relation to their ability to pay, constituting a standing response force for rapid assistance in times of disaster. The Office of Imperial Disaster Relief, the OIDR, got its inaugural call from the Kingdom of Perelanth when a star fell from the skies and caused severe destruction to one of their major cities.

(It probably comes as no surprise that the multi-colored stars that dotted Aerb’s night sky worked differently than stars did back on Earth. Aerbian stars weren’t stars at all, they were enormous balls with skins as thin as a Christmas ornaments which drifted around very, very slowly out past Celestar. Every once in a while one would pop, and more rarely, one would plummet down to Aerb, through the complicated dimensional fuckery that allowed a static sky to be overhead a tessellating Aerb, and usually it would cause a humanitarian disaster of some kind, if it was unfortunate enough to land anywhere near where people lived. The starstuff was harvested for a few specialty uses, and everyone else tried to pick up the more metaphorical pieces.)

OIDR (usually pronounced Oy-der) had been a controversial organization at the time it was founded, but a few decades had been enough to allow it to prove itself. There were still detractors, obviously, people who thought that they shouldn’t have to pay for disaster relief that went to far-off areas, or people who saw it as imperial overreach, but they were the typical anti-imperial crowd whose opinions the Empire tried their best to work around. OIDR only moved in at the behest of a member polity, only when a standing imperial committee had found that there was cause, and they placed a heavy focus on doing as much as it could within its budget, which many of its detractors said had been bloated when it was first created and had become a corpulent monster in the time since then.

Someone, somewhere, or more likely a big group of people, had decided that OIDR was going to be the face of the Article 86 invocation, most likely because there were a lot of people who thought well of the organization, and because it put a humanitarian spin on what was, effectively, the Empire ignoring the sovereignty of a member polity.

Captain Elias Satyr had been chosen as the face of the face. He was half-Animalia, half-human, a literal satyr, though for all the Aerb seemed to have every single fucking fantasy race and monster in existence, they didn’t have satyrs, and the name was just a “coincidence” of the sort that the Dungeon Master was fond of (and which brought to mind what he’d said about how difficult it was to set up anagrams). Satyr had been on the frontlines of OIDR when it had helped deal with the aftermath of the starfall in Perelanth and shot up the ranks through what mostly seemed to be a powerful natural charisma. He was also a musician of note: people were often surprised to hear his songs on the radio and learn that not only was he a very rare half-Animalia, half-human, he was also pretty highly ranked within the Empire.

Physically, he was almost exactly my mental image of a satyr, with curled horns like a goat, hooves, and the weird back-and-forth joints on his legs. He was wearing entad armor of some kind, adorned with curled blue waves and shifting whenever you weren’t looking straight at it, and a helm that left his slightly-animal face exposed except at the place where a strip of metal protected his nose.

<It’s not him,> said Bethel. <Some kind of shell of him, Grak confirms, likely entad, though I don’t have a handle on the exact nature of the power. He’s visibly wearing entads, but they’re not showing up.>

<Smart, if you have a tool like that,> I replied. <Best not to walk into the unknown if you can help it.> I’d have done the same, if I were going up against Bethel and I knew even a tenth of what she was capable of.

<Shows a lack of trust,> said Amaryllis. I hadn’t realized that Bethel had put us on the equivalent of a group call, but that made sense. It was just a little jarring, given that I’d thought we were speaking in confidence.

<I wouldn’t trust us either,> I said.

<The issue is that he’s openly displaying that lack of trust,> said Amaryllis. <He had to have known that we had a warder.>

<Calm yourself,> said Bethel.

Amaryllis had no response to that, other than to look slightly chagrined.

“Captain Elias Satyr of the Office of Imperial Disaster Relief,” he said, introducing himself as we came through the doors. Bethel had made a grand entryway for us to have this little meeting in, with no chairs or tables that would serve as an invitation for an extended talk. “I’m to understand that you’re independent citizens conducting disaster relief?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. She was standing beside me, as were Grak and Valencia. “We’re not citizens of Li’o, we’re citizens of the Republic of Miunun, which isn’t a member polity of the Empire. We were here in Li’o because a member of our government was undergoing training at the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence. When the monster came down from the clouds, we engaged with it using every tool at our disposal, and when it was dead, we conducted as much disaster relief as possible.”

“I see,” replied Satyr with a frown. Maybe he was trying to parse how that was different from ‘independent citizens’. “Your presence was authorized by the government of Li’o?”

“No,” replied Amaryllis. “We acted independently.”

“I see. Article 86 of the Imperial Charter was activated forty minutes ago,” said Satyr. “Disaster relief operations will be handled by OIDR from here on out. Given your status as a non-member polity, operating under unclear jurisdiction to put it extremely favorably, you will immediately stand down and vacate as quickly as possible, along evacuation routes that are being established as we speak.”

“There are monsters around here,” I said. “Six varieties we’ve encountered so far.” More things had been fleeing from Mome Rath’s corpse, all of them dangerous. I was pretty sure if that I killed any of them, they would have equally stupid names to the Mome Bats and Mome Rats, but I had been busy with the bigger picture and hadn’t actually defeated any of them. “We also have fairly powerful entads and a number of trained personnel.”

“I appreciate that,” said Satyr. “And candidly, the work that you’ve done here, if it’s even a tenth as impressive as I’ve been led to believe, should be enough to have you branded heroes throughout the Empire. But from a legal standpoint, you had no business being here. If you’re lucky, there will be no one to hold you accountable, but I doubt that you can remain that lucky for long, not when we’re dealing with a new exclusion.”

“A new exclusion?” I asked. Enough time had passed for him to know about that, but this was something that Amaryllis had said we should probably play dumb on. If it came out that I was solely responsible for getting skin magic excluded … well, who knew, but it probably wouldn’t be good, even if it wasn’t really that much my fault.

“Skin magic,” replied Satyr. “You’re standing in the hex’s newest exclusion zone. We don’t know what might have caused it, but the end result is fairly clear. We don’t know whether it’s repeatable or not, but from prior experience, it’s better to assume that it is. All the more reason for you to leave.”

“Candidly,” said Valencia. “What are they saying about us, up the chain of command?”

Satyr looked her over, trying to get the measure of her. She was radiating calm collectedness, and just a touch of innocence. It helped that she wasn’t wearing the Red Armor of Arramor.

“Information came through backchannels,” said Satyr. “That means that you already had the ear of someone with at least a little power within the Empire, maybe a lot. You’re a new polity supported by staunch imperialists with one or more of the highest tier entads, operating on foreign soil and achieving a frankly astonishing success.”

“They’re suspicious,” said Valencia. “The term ‘false flag’ has been floated.”

“You didn’t hear it from me,” said Satyr, nodding at her. “It’s above my pay grade, frankly. And I can’t say that my own sphere of contacts reflects what popular opinion will land on.”

“Thank you,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll leave then. We do have a number of people we’ve provided healing and rescue to, as well as a large number of corpses and souls that we’d like you to take possession of, if we’re leaving the area.”

“The souls can be sent to our forward operating base,” said Satyr. “The people can leave here with me. Some of my men are outside to give us defensive support and transportation.”

“I’ll take you to them,” said Amaryllis. I might have imagined it, but I thought I saw a slight gleam in her eye.

We walked as a group toward a set of doors at the back wall, not a terribly far walk, but enough to build anticipation. My opinion of Satyr had risen as we’d spoken to him, but this little bit of theater was something that we’d planned out just in case whoever we’d spoken to ended up being belligerent.

I opened the doors for him, and led him out to the balcony that Bethel had created. He set a foot on the balcony, then stopped in place, looking out at the room Bethel had made to serve as a field hospital. It had started big and then grown bigger over hours of search and rescue, until it was near the limits of her ability to stretch internal space. There were four thousand beds, enough for everyone that we’d picked up, some of them still awaiting treatment, but the bulk of them cured and awaiting an all clear signal from outside that I didn’t think Satyr would realistically be able to provide for weeks or even months. The really mind-boggling thing about seeing it like this, aside from the dimensions of the room, was how much stuff there was in there, how many beds, blankets, pillows, how much food was being eaten, how many people were reading books, how many children were playing with toys, all of it clearly provided by us.

<We should have done branding,> said Amaryllis. <Many of these people have lost their homes and will have only the things we’ve given them.>

<Couldn’t be too gauche,> I replied. I was watching Satyr, who was taking it all in.

<No, of course not,> replied Amaryllis. <Something tasteful, a logo or a monogram, nothing more.>

“I,” he said. “I hadn’t realized how many people you had.”

“You don’t have room for them all,” said Valencia.

“We’re mobile,” I said. “If you have a refugee center, we can let them all out there. And I do mean mobile: we could land outside Caledwich within the hour. But we don’t have to, if you want them to remain in Li’o. Some have lost their homes, but some haven’t, and if it’s going to be possible to rebuild Li’o, then taking people far away isn’t advised.”

“I’m going to have to make some phone calls,” said Satyr. “I’m going to have to … I’d thought dozens. The death count is probably a fraction of what we’d been predicting.”

“We can stay as long as we need to,” I said. “We’re not members of the Empire, but we do want to help.”

Satyr stared out at the masses. “Give me time to find a place for all these people,” he said.

“I’ll try to give you as much time as you need,” I replied.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Worth the Candle, Ch 163: Level Heads

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: