Worth the Candle, Ch 182: Painless

More time passed. Pallida was propped up in one corner of the room, still gagged, and the flow of blood from Solace’s head eventually stopped. I had no idea whether it was as much blood as I should have expected to come from the head of a ten year old crantek girl, but suspected that it was only enough to look convincing. I wanted her to wink again, to confirm that I hadn’t imagined it, but as much as I stared at her, there was nothing. If she was waiting for her moment to act, it apparently hadn’t come yet. Fucking fake outs.

I wondered where Amaryllis and Grak were. After more than five hours, or however long it had actually been, they surely would have finished with Hyacinth, then come back to see who knew what in the Prince’s Room. Maybe the room would be empty and pristine, exactly as it had been when we’d entered it, or maybe there would be some signs of a struggle. I hadn’t seen Raven yet, and I had no idea whether or not the pipe would even have worked on her, given that she didn’t sleep. In her case, that was because of something the Lord of Dreams had done to her to keep her from the plane of dreams, but she’d never been explicit about whether or not it offered protection from magical sleep. I hoped that she had escaped, or failing that, that she was okay.

It took some time for Zinnia to wheel Yarrow in. He was strapped to a dolly with his hands and feet bound, the armor he’d been wearing removed and replaced with a hospital gown. I had no idea whether he was a secret soul mage or a registered one, but the only way he would have gotten fucked over by that meme was if he’d been looking around in my soul. I had no sympathy for him.

The only contact that Zinnia allowed me was to push the dolly forward so that Yarrow’s head was pressed against my chest, which wasn’t how I was used to doing things. Further complicating matters was whatever effect was stopping me from using my magic, which deadened a whole lot of my senses. Still, I was an extremely powerful soul mage by the standards of the Empire of Common Cause, even with my powers down to baseline, and the only living spirit mage, and it wasn’t too much more work to get inside.

It was foolish of Zinnia to let me try, in the same way that it was foolish to listen to a single damned thing that a (normal) non-anima said. I couldn’t be trusted, and that meant that whatever I was allowed to do to Yarrow, he couldn’t be trusted either. Because soul magic would revert over time, they could test that he was no longer catatonic and then stick him in isolation for a few months in the hopes that whatever changes I made would undo themselves, which I supposed was probably their best case scenario. Unknown to them, I had a handle on why souls reverted, which was that the spiritual structure that ran in parallel to the soul would cause a lot of that revision.

If the soul was the database and the spirit was a program interfacing with that database, then the mechanism of reversion was that in its natural state, the soul and spirit were in equilibrium with each other, and when something got out of whack, there were negative feedback loops that got them into rough agreement with each other. If a soul mage went in and did the obvious, naive method of control, boosting a single value into the stratosphere, then every time the spirit interacted with that value, which it would probably do a lot, it would bump it down. For the most part, soul values weren’t where they were because that was innate to the person, they were where they were because of complex thoughts and messy intellectual/emotional wires crossing at various points. That was especially the case for the single-value-raising, because there was absolutely nothing backing that valuation, and anyone with even the smallest sliver of introspection would get that feeling like they’d recognized a false epiphany.

If I had to explain it to a five-year-old, or more likely, if I had to give a concise explanation to a jury or judge who were trying me for the crimes I was about to commit, I would say that the soul and spirit ‘talked’ to each other, and when the spirit asked the soul a question, it would naturally do some due diligence on the answer, whether a person had been soulfucked or not. Your opinion of people improved the more they did good things for you, and the more you focused on those good things, but if you had this single sky-high value that was backed by nothing, then every thought would bring that value down as your mind consciously and unconsciously grappled with the fact that there was no support structure.

There were more complex and effective ways of soulfucking, if you were an enterprising soul mage who was trying to create an army of loyal slaves. I hadn’t talked to him much about it, but my best guess at what my former instructor Fallatehr had done with his prison army was that he’d worked hard to alter all the values, as well as to micromanage the soul, and adapt it to the individual spirit, which he could only see through the shadow that it cast. He made not-quite-clones of himself, as perfectly aligned with him as they could be, by attempting to rejigger things over and over again until he had something in the soul that the spirit wouldn’t dash against the rocks through its own native processes. (Some of that was admittedly guesswork on my part.)

I was a spirit mage though, and more than that, I was a multimage. I had more options at my fingertips than anyone in the history of Aerb, excepting Uther, who reportedly hated those manipulations with a burning passion (though who knew whether or not that was true). I’d revealed the existence of the spirit to Zinnia and whoever else was watching, but only in brief. If they’d known what I could do, they probably would have decided that it wasn’t worth the risk.

Looking through memories was a hell of a thing for a soul mage, because memories were in their own difficult system that varied widely from person to person, and no coherent way of traversing through the dense cluster aside from diving right in and marking where everything was. Soul mages could look at and extract memories, but the process was so arduous that almost no one ever did it, especially not when you could just soulfuck your target and have them tell you whatever you wanted to know. For me though, searching memories was a bit easier, because memories in the soul were connected to threads in the spirit, and because of the necessary interrelations between the two systems, it was possible to look at any given ranked value, then find the threads that led out from it, then isolate the threads that led back into the network of memories, and then, finally, look at the mess of memories, trying to find the important ones. It was still time consuming, but not so much so that it might as well have been impossible, especially because I could judge by the nature of the threads which memories were likely to be important. Each thread wasn’t only and exactly one memory, but there was some correlation between them, with the threads being ‘thoughts’ about those people that interfaced with the stored memories in the soul, tied into the social modeling aspect of the soul, looping toward values.

I found Hyacinth in his list of values, higher than I expected her to be but still outside the top hundred, and tried tracing that back, but there were too many threads, and more than that, too many that looked important. The spirit wasn’t just conscious thought, it was subconscious too, and things that we might not even recognize as thoughts, background processes of the mind. I stared at the threads for a moment, trying to untangle them and what they were responsible for, if they could be said to be responsible for anything. I changed nothing at all in the soul, but slowly changed things in the spirit, threads for Hyacinth, for Zinnia, for Amaryllis, and for what scraps of myself I could see, not the full throttling that I normally did to squeeze out some harmful effect, or the widening that I might do to make something overwhelmingly important, but small and subtle things.

The goal wasn’t to convert him then and there, it was to do the opposite of what normally happens with a soul mage, to set up feedback loops and processes that would push his soul into the configuration that I actually wanted. If I’d done things right, when he thought about me, or even when I was subconsciously on his mind, his value for me would slowly rise. If they put him into isolation for a month, he would come out with his loyalties changed, rather than returned to baseline.

I’d never done anything like it, and delicate manipulations of a person were probably not best experimented with while under gunpoint. Obviously, they probably weren’t best done at all, but I didn’t have too much of a choice, because Zinnia was trigger happy enough to shoot Solace just to teach me a lesson. Once the manipulations were more or less done, I went to the work of making the meme dormant, which was what I was ostensibly there for. That work I’d already done twice before, so I had practice, and it went quickly in the timeless view of the spirit.

When I opened my eyes, Zinnia was gone and the door was closed. Solace was still lifeless, but she’d been moved next to the mirror, her body leaving a trail of dark green blood. Pallida was still where she’d been before, having not moved much, maybe just a wriggle.

“It’s done,” I replied, my tongue feeling thick in my mouth. “And I need to pee.”

I felt colder than I remembered. Something had been applied to my chest, a paste of some kind, but it wasn’t proper healing, and though I still had plenty of blood to spare until I was no longer hypertensive, I had lost a lot. It was dried and caked to me, having soaked through my underwear when it dripped down and then coagulated on my legs, sticking the hairs together. When this was all over, I was going to take a long shower.

Yarrow moved against his restraint. His head was still pressed against my bloody chest, and when he pulled away, he pulled away sticky, semi-solid blood, unplugging places where the small cuts had sealed, letting them weep blood again. I was sure that if I were able to feel pain, it would have been incredibly painful.

“What happened?” asked Yarrow, looking around for a moment. He was bound in the dolly, and twisted his head around to see Pallida and Solace’s ‘corpse’. “What happened?” he asked again, voice rising. “Zin! Onion!”

“You looked at my soul,” I said. “You really shouldn’t have done that.”

“What the fuck?” he asked. “Zin!” he shouted.

Zinnia came into the room, passing through the black doorway, fully cleaned off but still wearing the same bodysuit. She had the pain stick in one rubber-gloved hand.

“He had some kind of memetic effect within his soul,” said Zinnia. “You ran into it headfirst. We couldn’t risk another soul mage or an anolia to confirm, so he administered the cure himself, which means that he had full, unfettered access to your soul.”

“How long has it been?” asked Yarrow, relaxing slightly with her explanation. I didn’t have a good enough handle on him to know what was going through his mind.

“Since the initial capture,” she glanced at me, “Ten hours,” said Zinnia. She was standing on her side of the red line, not yet moving over to get her brother. “Linear protocol is in effect. Don’t say anything compromising in front of the prisoners.”

“I don’t feel any different,” said Yarrow, briefly looking up at me. “Can you get me away from him? Restraints on, I understand that.”

Zinnia once again made the same hand signal, then waited a beat before stepping across the red line and grabbing the dolly to wheel her brother back with one hand, the other still holding the pain stick. She made no move to loosen his restraints.

“I really don’t feel any different,” said Yarrow. He looked down at the pain stick and licked his lips once. “Please, I know what it’s —”

She touched him with the pain stick, keeping the touch light and brief, and he screamed, mouth open wide.

“Fuck!” he yelled. “Fuck, I was going to say I know what it’s like, you don’t need to touch me with it you dumb fucking cunt.”

“It’s more effective if it’s used once to demonstrate,” said Zinnia. “Do you feel any positive disposition toward Juniper, Amaryllis, or anyone in their party? Linear protocol.”

Yarrow stopped and thought for a moment. “Nothing suspect,” he replied. He was shaking slightly, and gave a glance at the pain stick. “I never hated Amaryllis and I still don’t hate her now. Juniper …” he paused and looked at me. “I have feelings of envy and a few layers of regret, but I believe those to be roughly the same as I had before.”

“Regret?” I asked.

“Be quiet, or I’ll torture your friend,” said Zinnia.

“I regretted using the pipe before I did it because you didn’t seem like a bad person,” said Yarrow. “I felt enormous regret when I woke up, because it meant that a mistake was made at some point.” He looked at Zinnia again. “But Zin, it’s nothing suspect. You know that I was always good at linear protocol, and you know that I’m responsive to the pain stick.”

“Are you arguing for your release?” she asked.

“No,” said Yarrow. “No, of course not. I’m looking at the entad in your hand and trying to think of what I can possibly say to keep you from using it on me, even if I could agree that using it would be justified. You know what it does to people.”

Zinnia frowned, then made the hand signal again and stepped over the red line. She was on my side for just long enough that she could prod me with the stick. Again, I felt nothing.

“Why doesn’t it work?” asked Zinnia.

“I don’t know,” said Yarrow. “Would it be safe to venture a guess in front of him?”

“Presumably not,” said Zinnia.

“Wheel me out then and we can continue this conversation,” said Yarrow.

“No,” replied Zinnia. “You were afflicted with some manner of memetic warfare which poisoned your soul and put you into a catatonic state. Juniper claims to have made that meme dormant but still contagious. That means that you now have access to his soul.”

“Hang on a moment,” said Yarrow. He looked at me, then back at her. “Can you please wheel me out, so you can at least hear my argument?”

“Fine,” said Zinnia. She left for a moment and returned with her rubber glove and pain stick missing, then grabbed the handles of the dolly and wheeled him into the black void of the doorway, closing the door behind her.

“I still need to pee!” I called after her.

While they were gone, I tried to think of what their next steps would be. I had altered Yarrow’s soul by way of his spirit, and if they didn’t know the truth of what I had done, general precautions about soul mages dictated that they not let him go until they had waited a considerable time for him to normalize. That meant that whatever changes I had made, they weren’t going to be a lot of help in the near term. But now that I had fixed Yarrow, what did they actually want? Obviously they would want to keep me alive, because if I was the only one who would interact with Yarrow’s soul besides Yarrow, then I was the only one who could make changes. Obviously they would also need to have some kind of leverage over me, which meant keeping either Pallida or Raven alive. But beyond that, what they would want from me, aside from just keeping me off the board, was information. I was worried that I would have to just allow Pallida to be tortured, because if I gave in to it, then they would know that I would give in again and again. Still, I wasn’t sure that I could hold out forever, and if they weren’t using my friends against me, then I was pretty sure that they would come up with something against a man who couldn’t feel pain.

What, then, was I hoping for? Solace was ‘dead’, but would eventually make a move, though I didn’t know what she was biding her time for. Pallida was unlikely to escape if she hadn’t done so already, unless she was feigning weakness too. I certainly wasn’t going to get out of the predicament that I’d been placed in, because whoever had built the box that I was in, they’d been pretty damned paranoid about it. Water magic wasn’t even working, and it would be pretty damned hard to kill someone with water magic. I did have to pee, but I imagined that they would let me piss myself, given that my underwear was already soaked with blood, so it wasn’t like I would get a chance to escape.

What I had was soul and spirit, along with the game interface, which seemed like it might be enough.

One of the most powerful aspects of soul magic, aside from making slaves, was the ability to move around skill points and temporarily boost my skills, especially since it let me get virtues that I would otherwise have to grind for a long time to ever see. I had one, twenty points away, that seemed right for the job, at least if I had a little leeway in terms of definitions, which I did. One of the clauses in the Essentialism 60 virtue was, ‘You may retract your soul from your extremities for the purposes of bypassing wards,’ and my guess was that whatever magic the manacles were working on, they were interacting with my soul in some way. If I could retract my soul from my extremities, it was possible that I could fool them enough to make them let me go. It wouldn’t work by the strict rules as written, but I had Six-Eyed to give me some leeway. My only hesitation, aside from the points I would have to shift over, was that I had no idea if someone was watching me, what crossing the red line meant, what the manacles did, or what was beyond the door. There was, no doubt, a lot of uncertainty.

My big concern was that Zinnia would ask Yarrow to do what I would ask him to do in her place, which would be to permanently mangle my soul. I’d cleared Yarrow of the meme, which meant that he could go in and do the thing that he’d likely been angling to do when he’d been struck down by the meme’s power. I had only a very general idea of what would happen if I went toe-to-toe with him in a match of soul mage against soul mage, but it wouldn’t need to come to that, since he had his pipe and could just put me to sleep. There were good reasons not to completely trash my soul, but they could trash parts of it, and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible.

I went into my soul and scooped the points from Heavy Armor, my designated emergency stash for just such an occasion, putting them into Essentialism. When I opened my eyes back up, I tested the strength of the manacles, just in case they’d somehow lost their power, then tried my best to adjust myself so that all my weight was suspended from a single arm. With the other arm, I began pulling back my soul, trying to go slowly but not too slowly.

The manacle unclicked once my soul was retracted down past my elbow, leaving no sensation whatsoever in my hand or forearm. I let up the pressure and allowed my soul to rush back in, which caused the manacle to click back shut. I was hoping that no one noticed, but if someone had come rushing into the room following that proof of concept, I probably would have needed to act fast and drop down.

But waiting until Zinnia came back didn’t seem optimal, especially if she was going to have her pistol with her, and with the Skilled Trade debuff slowly ticking down my Essentialism, time was decidedly not on my side. It wasn’t now or never, but it was now or later with worse odds, which I’d known when I started in on this plan.

I took a breath and retracted my soul from my extremities, feeling them deaden. The manacles released a moment later, dropping me unceremoniously to the floor. As I let my soul flood back into my arms and legs, the manacles moved toward me, and I had to dodge out of the way as they strained against their mounts to reach for me. Thankfully, they seemed to have a set range, and the room was large enough that I could move out of that range without crossing the red line.

Wasting no time, I moved toward the red line and stuck my pinky out to cross it, holding my breath as I waited for the feeling of bone and blood being vaporized by an annihilation ward, or for my pinky to be bent backward by a velocity ward. Instead, I felt what I hoped I would feel, which was the blood being pressed backward down my veins and the bone of my last knuckle being stopped in place. It was surprisingly painless, until I remembered that I had shut off pain.

I retracted my soul from my arm and pushed my arm through the ward with ease, then let my soul rush back into my arm, just to confirm that my soul could pass through the barrier without any problems. The wards were (probably) against latent blood and bone magic, but without the connection to the soul, there was no magic to speak of, just organic matter.

Being halfway through the ward wasn’t something that I could have held, as the ward was dividing my tibula and fibula and holding them in place in mid-air, and my veins and arteries were bisected by a hard barrier, but I was moving as fast as I safely could.

The next step was harder though, because I was going to try to manipulate myself across the barrier. It had to be done in fits and starts, retracting my soul and pushing myself across, then when I was halfway through, pushing my soul across the barrier entirely and dragging the ‘dead’ pieces of myself through. I went temporarily blind when my soul left my head, and prayed that I wouldn’t be possessed by a demon in the split second that my brain was without its soul, if such a thing was even possible. It was a good proof of concept for being able to control my body after decapitation, and as soon as I had the thought, I prayed that I would never have to endure that.

All told, it took twenty seconds from when I’d dropped down onto the floor to when I was through the ward.

When I had my vision back, I rushed over to Solace, which put me out of line of sight from both the doorway and the window. The bonds were whipvine, a ‘mundane’ plant whose material properties were ideally suited to binding someone, and I had no easy way of cutting through them, because I didn’t have access to cold iron.

“Solace,” I said to her corpse. “Now’s the time.” I said a silent prayer for her to not really be dead, that the wink I’d seen had been meant for me, not just a trick of the light or final spasm of facial muscles.

She blinked a few times, then sat up and let her bonds fall away. Rather than falling to the floor, they twisted in the air and combined with each other, floating around like playful spirits until they made a solid length of rope in Solace’s hand. She crossed the room over to Pallida, moving quickly on bare feet, and with a smooth motion, Pallida’s bonds became a part of the rope that Solace was holding.

“They’re waiting outside that door to kill us,” said Pallida once she’d taken her gag out.

“Or they haven’t noticed anything is wrong,” I replied. I looked down at my chest, which was freely bleeding from all the small cuts again, a result of the rapid movement. “I need to get to a place where my magic works.”

“You have a way past that door?” asked Pallida, gesturing at the thick metal barrier that separated us from what I assumed was the hallway. “I can get through a whole lot of locks with not a lot of tools, but if there’s a lock on this door, it’s not facing us, and the hinges are on the other side. That’s not as dire as it sounds, but a properly machined and maintained deadbolt would be murder even if I had special tools, and I have no tools at all.” She spotted the small knife that Zinnia had left on the floor. “Unless you can grab that for me?”

“Sure,” I said. I went to the red line, frowned at it for a moment, and wormed my way across it, going faster the second time. I wasn’t quite trying techniques on the fly, because I’d known that this was theoretically possible, but I hadn’t had the training time to devote to this specific scenario. It was also theoretically possible, with the right amount of control, to retract my soul from my bones and blood but only my bones and blood, leaving me with sensation, but the initial test run of that was a lot more difficult than I could do fluidly, and I was on a time limit as the debuff kept ticking away. I grabbed the knife and gave it to Pallida, then moved back across the ward. “Done,” I said.

“Alright,” replied Pallida. “Now we hope that their doors are shitty.”

“It’s an entad building,” I replied, not that it was a point one way or another. It wasn’t clear to me whether this was an entad prison or some other kind of building that had been appropriated for that purpose. “Hurry though, we don’t know when they’ll be back.”

Pallida took some time, slipping the knife into the edges of the doorframe. I kept waiting for someone to come through the expanse of black that was the window, or to kick the door open, but there was nothing but silence. I missed vibration magic, because I wanted to listen in on what was happening in the hallway. Nothing good, I imagined.

“Got it,” said Pallida, standing up and breathing out. “I’ll impress you with the technical details some other time.” She opened the door, and we were left staring at the black doorway which no light could cross.

“Alright,” I replied, taking a breath. “Wish me luck.”

After a quick test that the wards weren’t likely to kill me, I launched myself forward through the doorway, ready to use bone magic and still magic the moment I could feel them again. I’d had more unicorn bones implanted inside me, the last three that would actually fit without being horrendously uncomfortable, and I was prepared to use one here, if I needed to. Thankfully whatever scan they’d used to find my gem, they hadn’t found the foreign bones.

Instead of foes, I found myself at one end of a hallway that was devoid of people. It was the same gray of the room I’d left, a material that wasn’t quite concrete or the ubiquitous magestone that was used all over Aerb. It was the same entad shading that the room had, but whatever magic it held, that wasn’t obvious to me yet. I poked my head back in the room, through the black void.

“We’re clear to move,” I said. “No enemies.”

I started down the hallway without waiting for either of them, hoping that if there was someone hostile, I would be able to deal with them before Pallida or Solace were put in danger. A quick check showed me that a few of my magics were back online, but they were the least combat-oriented ones, water magic, ink magic, and air magic, all of them traditional utility magic. Anything that I would normally want to use to maim or kill a person was still locked out.

“Where was Raven?” I asked, turning back to look at the others.

“We were blindfolded,” replied Solace.

“I memorized the route as best I could,” said Pallida. “If you want to go back to my room, it’s down this hall and then two lefts. Less security than your room though. I’m not sure what they would use for Raven, given her pedigree.”

I moved along quickly, quite conscious that I was in my underwear and without most of my magic. Ink magic used magical inks to do its thing, and they hadn’t pumped my stomach, but I just didn’t think that we had the time for me to create something and put it on, even something small like a bracelet or amulet. Whatever facility we were in, my guess was that it would be heavily guarded, and if they hadn’t yet noticed our escape, then they would soon.

We reached the door Pallida thought was hers without seeing anyone. If every one of the doors we’d passed were for prisoners, then this was a black site capable of holding hundreds of people. The scale was unsettling, as was the complete lack of guards.

“We’re not going to be able to find her unless she’s making noise,” said Pallida. “Nothing to say that she’s even awake to call out, if she’s not gagged.”

“You’re saying we leave her,” I replied.

“We regroup,” said Pallida. “We come back with gear and information, the rest of the team, Grak to break the wards.”

“Guards are finally coming,” said Solace. She had her hand against one wall and her eyes closed. “Moving slowly, unaware. North-east.”

“I don’t know my cardinals right now,” I replied. I assumed that we were still in Anglecynn, but the water outside didn’t feel right. Caledwich was a port city, with a thick river running out toward the docks, and my water magic was strong enough that I should have been able to feel the rough geography. The sense of water I was getting was only a vague impression, but it was completely wrong, a dotting of lakes and large rivers, if I had to guess.

“That way,” said Solace. “I’ll deal with them.” She clapped her hands together and pulled them apart like they were stuck together with glue. I could see sparks of electricity in the gap between her hands.

“Save your juice,” I replied, trotting down the hallway to where she’d pointed. I was still trying to get my bearings, making an internal map of this place. I was expecting either Solace or Pallida to object, but neither of them did, and I rounded the corner to face two guards all by myself.

They were surprised to see me. Both of them were lightly armored, with silvered breastplates and truncheons at their hips, none of it entadic, or at least, none that had been invested. Neither was ready for me: they were holding coffee cups, large, steaming mugs that I assumed they’d gotten from a breakroom somewhere.

I attacked as they reached for their weapons, punching one of them squarely in the face and then quickly kicking the other in the crotch. They were, if I’m being honest, no real match for me, and I probably didn’t need to use the level of violence that I’d used, but I had been chained up and threatened enough that I wasn’t in a terribly charitable mood, to put it mildly. I delivered a chop to one guard’s throat, which dropped him to the floor, then grabbed the other’s arm as he brought up his truncheon and flipped him over me, stomping down on his head with a bare foot once he was on the floor. Once I had one of the truncheons, I smashed one of them in the head with a satisfying crunch. I turned to his partner and smashed him across the side of the face as he tried to get to his feet, thinking just after it was over that it would have been better to interrogate him instead.

Pedro Riart defeated!

Warren Liff defeated!

This had all made a fair amount of noise, but in the silence that followed I didn’t hear any shouting or running footsteps. I held still for a moment, holding my newly acquired truncheon and feeling the sting of the strikes in my hand, waiting for the next threat, but it never came.

“Here,” I said, tossing the other truncheon to Pallida as she came around the corner. “So far so good.”

“Do you need healing?” asked Solace. She was looking me up and down.

“I’m losing blood off and on,” I replied. “But I’m still at least an hour away from being impeded. I’ll take it if you can spare it.”

“Your leg?” asked Solace, pointing.

I looked down and saw that my left leg was an angry red and wet with scalding hot coffee. I wasn’t sure when it had happened, but some of the coffee they’d been carrying had been splashed on me in the altercation, and I hadn’t even noticed, because I wasn’t feeling the pain that was surely there.

“I turned off pain,” I said. “You know better than I do if I need healing. Our goal right now is getting out.”

“Schlubs,” said Pallida, kicking the guards. “This is a place that runs itself, you don’t hire your best. We should be able to make it out.”

“Minor healing then,” said Solace. She came up to me and poked at my chest, which caused all of the small cuts that Zinnia had left to heal closed. I looked down at my leg and saw that it was less of an angry color, instead looking like a mild sunburn.

“Alright,” I said. “Based on what I can sense of the water, we’re not in Caledwich, we’re inland, next to a deep lake, and we’re underground, probably two stories.”

“If these assholes were getting coffee, then that means they didn’t expect Zinnia back anytime soon,” said Pallida. “We might have some leeway.”

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Pallida. “Set a trap for the prince and the princess, steal some clothes, do something else like that. We’re under strength, in a facility that’s not designed to let us out. The only upside is that the rank and file aren’t mages,” she gestured to the bodies, “But I very much doubt that’s going to be true of the rest of them.”

“Not your first jail break?” asked Solace.

“No,” replied Pallida. “But I haven’t broken out of jail as many times as you might imagine, because I’ve never made a habit of getting caught.”

“I can make ink armor for us,” I said. “I still have the inks in my stomach, they weren’t voided. I could probably do something serviceable in five minutes or so.”

“Something to get us out of here?” asked Pallida.

“The i-factor would be too high,” I replied. “Armor I could do, but I would be putting most of the power into making it deployable, less into utility.” That was just basic item creation rules from D&D; you couldn’t have something that was easy to put on and ultra-durable unless it was really high level.

“Well stop talking and get on it,” said Pallida. She looked down at the bodies. “I’d steal the uniform, but the pink skin would be a giveaway anyway.”

I started creating a suit of armor from the ether, splitting threads so that I could focus on how much danger we were in with the half of my mind that wasn’t busy creating the armor from nothing.

“You can’t magic us out of here?” Pallida asked Solace.

“They have the locus,” said Solace. “Even if I could make a conduit for us, I couldn’t leave the locus behind. If we’re lucky, they won’t understand the nature of the entad, but we were captured by two entad specialists. It’s possible they’re trying things that aren’t to be tried.”

“We have no idea how big this place is,” said Pallida. “And we have no guarantee that the locus is even here.”

“We’re close,” said Solace. “I can feel it.”

“If you’re not going to get us out of here, can you conjure up some magic for me?” asked Pallida. “Something to leave me a little less naked?” She wasn’t fully naked, just dressed in a mismatched bra and underwear that I assumed were what she’d been wearing beneath her armor. It was odd to me that they’d left us our underwear, given how cavalier they were about depriving us of our dignity in every other way, along with their casual use of both violence and soul magic. (Maybe they were trying to toe the line between a PG-13 and a hard R.)

“You’re worried about modesty at a time like this?” asked Solace.

“Modesty?” asked Pallida, looking down, as if only just noticing that her clothes were gone. “I meant weapons and armor.”

Solace leaned down to one of the bodies and spoke a few nonsense words before slamming her hand down against his armored chest. When she lifted her hand up, his clothing and armor rent and collapsed, allowing his bones to cleanly rise through the cuts that had been made. She stood and pulled them higher through the air, which brought more of his skeleton with him, until eventually the whole of it had been pulled from his body, a process that had been completely bloodless, aside from how the blood flowed out of his boneless corpse.

“What the actual shit,” said Pallida.

“Hush,” said Solace. “Stand right where you are, and,” she thrust the whole thing sideways at Pallida, and the bones struck her as she made herself rigid, twisting and wrapping around her with no apparent effort from Solace whatsoever. When they were finished, Pallida was wrapped in bones, though the bones of a single person weren’t enough to cover much more than her vital organs. In places, the bones had split or warped, and the skull especially was in so many different pieces that I could barely tell where it was. Altogether it was horrifically ugly and wouldn’t work for shit unless it had a lot of magic to it, which I assumed it did. It didn’t even cover all her underwear.

“Necromancy?” asked Pallida, looking down at it.

“Yes,” replied Solace. “Of a sort. It’s what material I have to work with. I’ll need less bones for myself, so I can use a femur for a sword for you. It needs to be done quickly though, while the soul is still there.” She moved over to the other body, and I turned away, focusing on the armor that I was working with.

“I never knew that druids could do that,” said Pallida.

“You’ve seen Grak’s hand,” replied Solace. “It was made from a stick.”

“You’re talking about using people though,” said Pallida.

“You’re thirty thousand years old,” I said. “Surely that can’t be a surprise to you.”

“But she’s a druid, they’re supposed to be — well, not ripping skeletons from bodies to wear as armor,” said Pallida. “It’s not using the body like that I’m surprised by, it’s who’s using it.”

“A body is a body,” said Solace. When I looked up, she was dressed all in bone as well, which covered her considerably more and was much more well-crafted of a piece, if no less terrifying. “We don’t bury our bodies, we leave them to be eaten, first the animals, then the insects, and finally the soil itself.”

“Druids … are aware of bacteria, aren’t they?” I asked.

“We are,” said Solace. “I was speaking metaphorically.”

“I’m done with the first armor,” I said. I held it up in my hand. It was the size and approximate shape of a hockey puck, laced through with several metallic lines. I tossed it into the air, and it spun around once before stopping in place and then bursting outward into a thousand small lines that wrapped themselves around me. I braced myself and tried not to flinch; eventually you had to trust in ink magic, but DIY entads weren’t without their risks, and I hadn’t had the magic for that long, nor did I have a competent teacher. When the pseudo-entad was finished, it had wrapped me up, with a thin film between the lines that covered me. It was form-fitting and felt incredibly light, not really by design so much as an outgrowth of the general principles I’d been working along. If I was hit, the lines would snap as though under tension, providing defense for me and acting as a weapon as well. “I could make a weapon for myself, but I think the truncheon will do. I want to save juice for if we really need it. Solace, do you have a bead on which direction we should head in to get to the locus?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” said Solace. “We’re close, but I don’t know how close.”

“Fine,” I replied. “I didn’t expect that it would, because that would be too convenient. Can you turn the rest of their bodies into something useful?” I asked. “Smear their blood on me, wear their skins, eat their flesh and take their powers?”

“Their souls are mangled now,” said Solace. “These armors are powered and shaped by pieces of them, with less strain on the locus. If you were to ingest a preparation of their hearts, you would become ill. Trust me to know my own way best.”

“I will,” I replied. “I have just enough time for —” and I’d been going to say, “something else of ink,” but the words were cut short by a sound that didn’t belong in the silence of the hallway.

“Company,” Pallida whispered. We’d been keeping our voices low, and she’d stationed herself near the corner that the guards had come around. “Shit, they’re gone.”

“Calling in more troops, do you think?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Pallida. “Ready?”

I knew, roughly speaking, that normal prisons back on Earth had a prisoner to guard ratio of five or six to one. Based on the number of doors we’d passed, my best guess at the size of the place was that it could hold a thousand. How many of the cells were actually filled was an open question, but if this was an entad prison, or at least an entad building, then it was entirely possible they could cut way back on staff. How many people could we be facing? Ten? A hundred? And how many mages, and of which varieties? The guards with truncheons would have had numerous advantages against anyone who wasn’t me, given the wards that seemed to cover the building, but you’d be a fool not to keep at least one mage on-site at all times, no matter how small a site it was.

“Ready,” I said. I was, frankly, ready to bash some heads. We had been kidnapped and put into an Anglecynn black site, and so far as I was concerned, that meant that my normal affection for the guards of the world was no longer in play.

We went quickly down the hallway, with me in the lead. I held my hand out in front of me, in a position that Grak had taught me called the warder’s march, a way of walking designed to injure or amputate the fingers of your non-dominant hand first in order to save the rest of you. It was a bit like running forward like you were heiling Hitler, but it was supposedly effective against everything but what Grak called ‘death wards’, those wards designed not to keep anyone out, but to kill as effectively as possible. Making bone annihilation wards as thin as razorwire that stretched to cover hallways wasn’t possible for all but a master warder, but you could make other, similar contraptions that were purely meant to kill or maim, and Zinnia was a warder, if anything I’d learned about her was actually true. She was young, and that meant she couldn’t be at the top tier, but I also didn’t want to count out the possibility that this place had its own native warders.

My estimation of the size of the place went up with every door that we passed, and my estimation of how many of the cells held prisoners went down. Aside from those two guards, we’d seen no one. Some of those doors might have led to observation rooms, with guards inside them, but it was just too massive for it to be filled and fully staffed. The wards that were suppressing me, if that’s what they were, extended so far and so wide that it had to be a magical effect. Grak had told me there were some magical interactions that allowed a ward to cover a huge amount of space if extradimensional effects were in play.

There were twists and turns in the hallway, places where there were choices about where to go, and when we needed to make a decision, either Pallida would stoop to the ground and look for tracks or wear patterns, or Solace would pull out some fresh bit of druidic magic, always with some hesitation. Solace was shy about using magic, for reasons that she wasn’t entirely clear on, not a mana bar or spells per day or anything like that, but an ineffable something that could run out, or need repair, or something that probably defied an easy metaphor, just because that was how druidic magic normally worked (except when it didn’t, because druidic magic loved its exceptions).

Eventually we came to a turn in the corridors, and I pulled back the moment I saw what was waiting for me: five people had set up there, rifles drawn and pointed our way. I managed to not be hit mostly by virtue of quick reflexes, and ducked behind a part of the wall until the firing stopped. It was deafeningly loud in the confines of these hallways, echoing for a long time after it was over.

The five people had all been guards, the same as the ones before, wearing breastplate that might have been magical but not entadic, all close together.

“Bone blade,” I said to Pallida, holding out my hand. She gave me a skeptical look, but handed it over. I held the sword in one hand and the truncheon in the other.

“I can deal with them,” said Solace.

“No,” I replied. “Save it for when we really, desperately need it.”

“If there’s a mage?” asked Pallida. “And they’re not moving, if there’s a ward?”

“I’ll be fine,” I replied. Without another word, I slipped back around the corner and ran at full speed toward the weapons.

I’d thrown my truncheon before the first shot was fired, and began parrying the bullets as they came in. I hadn’t known for sure whether or not the sword would break if stuck by a bullet, but whatever magic Solace had conjured into it, it held through two deflections. A few of the bullets did hit me though, and that was what I was counting on.

The wires that made up my armor started snapping, their tension releasing in an absurdly destructive way that would have been physically impossible if magic weren’t involved. The angle of the wires snapping wasn’t quite right though, and all but one of them scored marks in the walls and on the doors. The last of them was a winner though, and got two of them in one blow, slashing into their faces ( defeated! ), with a third being struck across the breastplate and suffering a wound on his arm. I had gotten another one with the truncheon throw ( defeated! ), cracking his skull by way of his face, which meant that there were only two, and one of them was injured. The one who’d taken an injury stumbled back and began to run, and that left only one of them, who kept firing on me.

I swung the sword back and forth as I bore down on him, parrying the bullets as they came in. It was difficult work, but I was multithreading, splitting my focus on different parts of the combat in a way that only I could, and with only a single rifle, it was easy to deflect the shots. A lucky hit to my face would have killed me, but he was aiming for center mass.

I nearly stepped into the ward in front of me, noticing only just in time that the tip of my bone sword had vanished. I stopped short and moved the sword through the air, seeing more of it eaten away at a certain point down the hallway, not ten feet from where the guard was picking up one of the other rifles. I beat a hasty retreat, running as fast as I could back down to where Pallida and Solace were, hearing gunfire at my back and feeling another wire explode off just before I was around the corner.

“Fuck,” I said. “Bone annihilation ward. Killed three, or at least put them out for a bit.” One of the guards who’d gotten snapped with a wire to the face was still screaming. I looked to Pallida. “Knife?”

She handed me the knife that Zinnia had left behind in my cell. “Really not sure what we’re going to do if you get yourself killed.”

“I’ll be fine,” I replied. I went back around the corner, knife in one hand, bone blade in the other, only to find that the one remaining guard was gone. “Fucker,” I spat. “We’re clear,” I called to the others. “Or as clear as I think we’re going to be. There’s a bone annihilation ward, so be careful.”

“Fuck,” said Pallida as she came around the corner to look at the results of my brief encounter. “Is our plan to murder every guard in this place?” The guy who had been screaming had stopped, and no one was moving anymore ( defeated! ).

“If we have to,” I replied. “We should hurry, that was a retreating action on their part. They’ll be setting up better defenses later, and better that we get to them before they have a proper killzone set up.” On the plus side, the fact that they hadn’t used mages against us yet was a very good sign, as it meant that whatever blanket wards were over this place, they were preventing them from sending in a whole lot of mages against us. I was in my element with a sword, but without magic I wasn’t entirely clear on how I was meant to take on a revision mage. “Fuck, I think I need to use the last of my ink.”

“You just said we need to get going before they set up a killzone,” said Pallida.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I just don’t want to get fucked by a revision mage. I assume they would have one on hand for interrogation.” I turned to Solace. “Unless you could handle it?”

“I’m not sure,” said Solace. “I’ve never fought one before.”

I set to work, eyeing the bone ward. “Pallida, can you find a way around the ward for the two of you? I’m pretty sure that I can jump through it if I retract my soul.” I’d have to put another skill on the chopping block to get it done though, probably a utility skill. There was an argument for pushing Still Magic back up to 100 again, but I was loathe to do it, especially since I was worried about round two with the Pipe of Dreams.

Pallida took the bone sword and went forward, not looking too pleased as she scoped out the extent of the annihilation ward, which covered the entire area in front of us in a plane.

“You could have told me the bone sword would be a ward detector,” I said to Solace.

“I didn’t know,” she replied. “Juniper, you’re being reckless.”

“They shot you in the head,” I replied. “They have the locus. They tortured us.” I could hear the obvious objections that I would make to what I was saying, that just because they had marked themselves as enemies, just because they were assholes who deserved it, didn’t mean that the problem shouldn’t be approached calmly and reasonably, with due consideration of blah blah blah. My emotions were running hot, and multithreading wasn’t really helping. What Solace was saying was probably accurate: my decision-making was compromised.

“It’s only an observation,” said Solace. “Do with it what you will.”

Pallida returned by the time I had my teleporting chakram finished. It wasn’t shoddy work by any means, but I was asking a lot from ink magic, and it was a hard problem with tight bounds. If I threw the chakram at anyone, it would teleport right up to them, crossing the intervening distance in the blink of an eye. I could feel that it wasn’t very sturdy, maybe not even capable of lasting for more than a single shot. On a better day, I might have been able to come up with a better design, something that felt like it was an elegant sideways approach to the problem of a revision mage.

“Ward’s down,” she said. “Disappeared on its own. Warder probably didn’t want to use much juice on it, which means power banked for the killzone.”

“Then let’s go,” I said, looking over the corpses. “Looks like there are rifles for the taking.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 182: Painless

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