Worth the Candle, Ch 186: Paladin

There was a fair bit of mopping up to do. I sent one of the guards down into the expansive site in order to bottle the souls of the other guards I killed, hoping that by the time he got there, the timer wouldn’t have run down. You were supposed to have thirty minutes from the time of death, but that was the guideline that everyone went by, and I had no idea whether that was an overly cautious lower bound to ensure that people moved quickly in a time of crisis, an overly conservative upper bound to make sure that people would keep trying even after hope should rightfully have been lost, or just where the average happened to sit. I had little conception of how much time had actually passed, except that it was probably too late for the first set of guards, but probably not for the second. I was hoping that whatever druidic fuckery Solace had done when she’d pulled out their bones would keep them from the hells, but she wasn’t awake to ask.

This wasn’t simply a matter of compassion or professional courtesy. Aside from the natal souls, new people in the hells were a rarity, enough that if there were sufficient levels of unification, it might be possible for them to interrogate anyone who fell within certain criteria, which a guard from an Anglecynn blacksite definitely did. The guards hadn’t seen all that much, I didn’t think, but it was information leaked to the enemy, which would be good to avoid if at all possible. I was hoping to stay off the hells’ radar for as long as possible.

The rest of the guards we stripped of their weapons and shoved into an empty cell, which we locked them in. One of them had a lot of questions about food and water, which I didn’t have any good answers for, because there was no way that I was planning on keeping them as prisoners in the long term, and I didn’t know if I could release them.

The last thing left to do was to sweep through their secondary building, the one outside of the entad structure, mostly to make sure that we’d rounded up everyone and wouldn’t be blindsided. That took a half hour or so, and netted us three more guards, who promptly got thrown into a different cell, along with the guard who had gathered up the souls for us (in time for the second group, not for the first, as I’d feared).

A quick trip topside confirmed that we were in the middle of fucking nowhere. The whole complex was underground, with the only things poking up top being ventilation, a single access door that was hidden beneath a fake tree, and a very small stable that was, for some reason, filled with dire guinea pigs. The Tentar Territory was quite large, and we were somewhere in the middle of it, in a place only accessible by magic. It was the middle of the night, and I looked up at the stars for a moment, wishing that I knew enough about astronomy to do some celestial navigation, and also wishing that astronomy worked like that on Aerb, which it did not.

The last thing to do before interrogating Zinnia was to try to reestablish communications with Amaryllis and Grak, which I did through the link between our souls, pushing up values for just long enough that they would notice and understand. It wasn’t a very good form of communication, and I got nothing in return from them, which might have been because they were sleeping or otherwise occupied. I was at least able to confirm that they were safe, though that wasn’t terribly much comfort, because ‘safe’ only applied to their souls. We had other methods of soul communication, but I wanted to try other, less laborious and error-prone methods of communication before I resorted to that. If Amaryllis and Grak were safe, then any message was mostly to give them peace-of-mind and make sure they didn’t try to mount a rescue effort that wasn’t needed, and if they were in danger, then I was too far away to help. At best, Amaryllis would have a worldline that went to the black site and could pick us up with the teleportation key, but I was skeptical of that.

I worked with Pallida to strip and check over Zinnia, making sure that she didn’t have any hidden entads, then dressed her up in a hospital gown we grabbed from a bin near the front of the large room. Our final step was to put her in manacles, hands and feet, with the chains running through each other behind her back, then heal her. She wasn’t unconscious through this whole time, just drifting in and out of awareness, mostly out, with slurred speech and eyes not really focusing. Doing it this way, waiting so long, was a bit dangerous, because the soul responded to the body, and for our purposes, I didn’t really want her permanently brain damaged. There was a chance that had already happened, and if that was the case, I wasn’t sure what our options were: we couldn’t get anything out of her handbag, and I was pretty sure that was where our entads were.

It took some time for Zinnia to surface from whatever fuckery was going on in her head. When she finally did, she took a moment to look around, then assumed a placid expression.

“I have questions,” I said.

She gave no response.

“My first is where my stuff is,” I said. “So, where’s my stuff?”

She didn’t so much as look at me, and I rolled my eyes.

“Alright, so here’s the thing: we put all the guards into one of the cells, and the only witnesses to what’s happening here are me, you, and this woman here,” I said, pointing at Pallida, “And she doesn’t actually give a fuck what happens to you.”

Still there was no response.

“Someone sent you here,” I said. “My guess is that after a long enough time without a report back, they’ll send someone to see what’s happened here. That’s my best guess about what the fuck you think you’re doing here. I’m not asking for state secrets here, I’m just asking for my things back so I can get on my way. Heck, I’m not even asking who sent you in to tangle with us.”

Zinnia looked at me. “I already told you it was Hyacinth,” she said.

“And why did you tell us that?” asked Pallida.

Zinnia stayed silent. I was glad that she’d at least proven that she could speak, because that meant she hadn’t been too badly injured when I’d rattled her skull.

“Accountability?” I guessed. “Setting her up for the fall if something went sideways?”

There was no expression on Zinnia’s face whatsoever. It was like talking to a brick wall.

“Alright,” said Pallida, “Here’s where I think you could maybe justify fucking her soul.”

“Not legally,” said Zinnia, looking at Pallida.

“Legally?” I asked with a laugh. “We’re in a fucking government black site, do you think that I give a goat’s shit about what’s legal? You tried to fuck my soul.”

“You have no proof of that,” replied Zinnia.

“Yeah?” I asked. “And how the fuck else do you explain that your brother ended up smacked in the face by a meme which literally only exists in my head?” And by literally, I meant figuratively.

“He was looking for evidence of soul manipulation, not trying to make any changes,” replied Zinnia.

“Are you fucking serious right now?” I asked. I looked over at Pallida, then back at Zinnia. “Alright, I’m willing to accept that all this was somehow legal,” I said, gesturing to the black site. “Or if not legal, then at least capable of surviving some level of scrutiny that ends with some ‘bad apples’ being put in prison or otherwise scapegoated. There’s plausible deniability for your fuckwit brother to look at my soul, given that he’s got some kind of registration, which means that he can make some changes and then make some other changes to set them back later, without anyone as a witness and a revision mage to make sure that not even memories are left. You’re playing it cool because you somehow think that this is still about legality, or the politics of Anglecynn, or something like that. Well, it’s not, and I don’t really care that I don’t have the legal authority here. Heck, I wouldn’t even care if I didn’t have moral authority, but of course, I do. So this is your last chance to do it the easy way and just answer a few questions that won’t break classification or reveal anything you don’t want revealed.”

Zinnia didn’t reply, didn’t make eye contact, just stared to the side, avoiding looking at me.

“Alright,” I said.

I pushed her from her knees down onto the ground and sat on top of her, pinning her down, while I breached into her soul. She struggled a bit, but she didn’t scream for help, and it was all over pretty quickly. My alterations weren’t clever or subtle, they were just a matter of pushing up a single value, ‘Juniper Smith’ into the stratosphere. I pulled her back to her feet and came around to look at her. The change was immediately noticeable: she was looking at me, watching me, no longer cold.

“Tell me where my stuff is,” I said.

“I can’t,” she replied, sounding pained.

I frowned. “Why not?”

“Because I can’t,” she replied.

“Can you tell me why you can’t tell me?” I asked.

“I just … I can’t tell you anything,” she said. She looked uncomfortable, and glanced at Pallida more than once.

“Are you under some magical compulsion or memetic effect?” I asked, knowing that the answer would probably be ‘I can’t tell you’.

“I’m not allowed to say,” she replied.

“Allowed by who?” I asked.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I can’t say anything else about it.”

I looked over at Pallida. “Well, what the fuck is this?” I asked.

Pallida frowned. “Not sure,” she replied.

“Alright,” I said, turning back to Zinnia. “You’re perfectly capable of answering questions, so tell me which questions you can answer.”

“I can’t,” she replied.

“Hold on a sec,” I replied. “You answered questions before, why aren’t you doing it now?”

“I — I can’t say,” she replied.

I was getting frustrated, but more than that, I was confused. As Amaryllis had described it to me, being soulfucked in this crude way was a change in perspective. From everything I knew, Zinnia should have been talking, answering questions.

“What’s linear protocol?” I asked.

“I can’t say,” she replied.

“Yarrow mentioned it when you were questioning him to see whether I’d done anything to him,” I said. “You pressed him, and he said that he had always been good at linear protocol. What is it?”

“I can’t,” replied Zinnia.

“It would make me very happy if you replied,” I said. “If you don’t answer me, if I don’t find out, then my options might start to run out. You know that if there aren’t already people on the way, then they’ll eventually get here. If you keep this up, there’s a good chance that I die, either against whatever forces get sent in, or trying to make my way through the wilderness to civilization. So please, if you can’t tell me where my entads are, then at least tell me what linear protocol is?”

Zinnia watched me for a moment and then took a breath. “It’s training,” she said. “You don’t try to resist the compulsion, you ignore it. You just follow the script.”

“That seems like it wouldn’t work,” I replied. “You depend on your values to decide on what to do.”

“No,” replied Zinnia. “You don’t. Or you don’t have to. You just … act.”

I was inherently skeptical of this idea. “Alright,” I replied. “So you’re just saying that you can’t … on instinct? Like some swordsman who’s trained for a dozen years to get to the point where everything is automatic, nothing passes through his head?”

Zinnia nodded slowly.

“And what’s the penalty for not following linear protocol?” I asked. “What do you get out of it?”

“Nothing,” replied Zinnia. “It wouldn’t work if I was doing it for something. It’s not about that. It’s about doing for no reason, even when you feel — when you know that it’s not going to get you what you want.”

“Neat trick,” said Pallida. “How long did that take to master?”

“Years,” replied Zinnia.

“Too bad I’m going to blow through it in five seconds,” I replied. “Or you could just tell me what I want to know and skip me having to come up with some novel and unforeseeable attack on the protocol.”

“I can’t,” said Zinnia. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, I believe that you’re sorry,” I said. “But it’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t, because you trained to operate against your own self-interest.”

Zinnia nodded.

“Ask her questions, it will help with calibration,” I said to Pallida, then got to work pinning Zinnia back down and getting into her soul, not stopping for long before going into her spirit. From what she said, I was pretty sure that I was looking for active threads that bypassed her values, and it didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for.

It was a mess, frankly, a fugly construction that must have taken … well, lots of training, I supposed. Zinnia was masquerading as an entad specialist and a warder, but my guess was that a fair bit of her time had been spent on preparing for something else. Not soul modification, necessarily, but something, because if you could continue on through things that should be warping your motivations and desires, then you would be an asset against all kinds of threats.

I snapped the threads I saw one by one, leaving all those that connected to values, where I saw them. It was clear from her demeanor that she was thinking highly of me, and I needed connections in place in part because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. Pulling threads at random wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing, even if Zinnia could go fuck herself for all I cared. For her to be a useful asset, I wanted her as close to her base self as I could get.

When I felt like my work was done, I popped back out and got up off her.

“Tell me where my stuff is,” I said.

“In my handbag,” she replied. “If you uncuff me, I can get it out for you.”

I let out a sigh. “Thank fuck.”

“Joon, be careful,” said Pallida.

“Yeah, I will be,” I replied. “Zinnia, if anything comes out of that handbag that I don’t expect — you know what, I’m not even going to make the threat, because threats haven’t really been working out for me that much lately.”

“My brother is being kept in a nearby cell,” said Zinnia. “There’s no one coming, but we were supposed to check back in at sunrise when Yarrow’s entad recharged, which is soon, and use the teleportation room to send transcripts and notes about the interrogations. If you can get Yarrow out of his soul and do the same thing to him as you did to me, then you can have him use the entad to give back a report. We don’t have the means to leave ourselves, but Onion can call in a return for us as soon as you need.” She was speaking fast, trying to get herself up to speed on the new world order while spitting out vital information.

“Thanks,” I said with a sigh.

“We weren’t ordered to kidnap you, we were just supposed to put you to sleep and root around in your heads,” said Zinnia. “Not even that, if negotiations had gone well, which they didn’t. It was a complete clusterfuck that escalated out of control when Raven didn’t fall asleep. Is she really the real Raven?”

“None of your godsdamned business,” I said.

“I want to know so I can help you,” said Zinnia. “I can give you a full list of everyone involved and what was communicated to me in briefings. It was suspected that Amaryllis was setting up a Returned King gambit for unclear reasons. Actually, I should give you all the actionable intelligence first, so that you can be properly forewarned. You should know that I have a number of dangerous entads in that handbag, and that I know a magical word which, when spoken, will unleash a monster that would kill us all. I considered using it before you turned me, and there’s a decent chance that I would do it if I’m reverted back to normal. I can’t tell you the word, not even through code —”

“I already know it,” I replied.

Zinnia nodded. I don’t know why, but I expected her to be disappointed that she couldn’t be of service, or taken aback, or ready to challenge me. Instead, she just barreled on ahead, talking at length about all the major players on her side of things, the plans that they’d had in motion, what they knew about us and how we operated, on and on. It was pretty clear that she didn’t know everything, but I wasn’t certain whether that was because she hadn’t been told, or because no one knew. It was all so simple and easy, in a way that left me both pleased and a little aghast. It was seductive, to have an enemy turn to your side so completely, and I could see where that power in the wrong hands could be horrifying enough that they would institute a worldwide ban and a deep taboo.

“You should kill me,” said Zinnia. “I’ll take all the things out of my handbag, then you should kill me. Manipulate Yarrow’s soul, get him to check in, then kill him too. We weren’t able to figure out all your entads, because we tried to get in your soul first, but if you have a way to leave on your own, do that so you can avoid the fireteams.”

“Advocating for your own death?” I asked. “That’s bold.”

“It’s really not,” replied Zinnia. “Yarrow and I are worthless except as hostages, and the moment they know that you manipulated my soul, we’re worthless as even that. If I were my old self, I would argue that I could be your warder and serve you in secret, but those arguments hold no water. Kill me, kill Yarrow, and kill the guards, once you’ve extracted everything you can and ensured that you can get away with it.”

“You’re worried about retaliation,” I said.

“I am,” she nodded. “You’re a rogue soul mage. Yarrow is at least registered —”

“I’m registered,” I replied.

“Then it’s not about registration, it’s about what you’ve done. Yarrow was always careful to be subtle and to cover his tracks, to do everything with deniability and caution,” said Zinnia. She had been speaking fast, trying to get the information out as quickly as possible. “If he ever did to someone what you’ve done to me, he killed them afterward and bottled their soul so that the hells wouldn’t know about it. If the Empire or Anglecynn finds out, they’ll send death squads after you. Rogue soul mages are treated with as much firepower and seriousness as a rogue nation. You know that my priority is to protect you.”

“She’s got a point,” said Pallida. “It’s cold-blooded, but it’s not the kind of thing that you get forgiven for outside of … well, end of the world scenarios, I guess, which this really isn’t.”

“I’m not going to kill a dozen people in cold blood because there’s some minor political expediency in it,” I replied.

“Major, not minor,” said Zinnia. “You’re obviously out of your depth here, but almost everything that was done to you was with legal authorization of some kind. What you’ve done in response are a collection of high crimes, even if you have people like Rosemallow working to smooth them over. You can’t alter the soul of a princess of Anglecynn without her consent in order to obtain classified material.”

“Looks like I can,” I replied, but I waved my hand before she went on. “I get your meaning, it’s the kind of thing that has repercussions.”

“But you’re not going to kill her,” said Pallida.

“No,” I replied. “Not even if it made sense to do it. We can deal with the fallout. I don’t really want to keep her in this state either, since that’s far more unconscionable than flipping the switches back.”

“Joon,” said Pallida, sounding pained. “You’re going to put her back? Letting it run down would be one thing, but you can’t seriously be talking about deliberately creating an enemy for yourself, except that by your face, I see that you are.”

“Changing someone to be a willing slave is recognized as evil throughout Aerb,” I said. “Surely putting someone back at least makes it less bad, and you know what, I really don’t want to get into a debate about personhood and which instance of Zinnia deserves to exist in this world.”

“That’s not even remotely what I was going to say,” replied Pallida.

“You’d be killing me, if you undid the changes,” said Zinnia. “It would be my life for hers.”

“You’re just saying that because you want to do what you think is best for me,” I replied. “I’m not taking arguments on this. What I say goes. The first step is to get our stuff back though, because I really don’t want to be caught flatfooted if someone decides to mobilize against us.”

I was expecting more arguments from Zinnia, but she only nodded, and I moved around and undid her manacles, then handed her the handbag. I was ready to stop her at a moment’s notice, though if this had all been some masterful ploy that got around my manipulation of her soul and I’d somehow fucked up removing linear protocol, I was almost willing to say that she deserved the win.

Our things came out of the handbag one by one, and Pallida let out a sigh of relief as she stripped off the bones around her and let her inky black armor spread across her skin again. She likewise took her trident and gave it a spin with a hum of satisfaction. For my part, I took the time to get into my armor, then latched my vambrace into place, returned the rings to my fingers, and finally, slipped my sword back into its sheath. My leg was feeling a little funny where Solace had regrown the bone (or whatever she’d done), but I was mostly back to fighting shape, other than being low on blood.

“Much better,” I sighed. “We’re going to rebind you now.”

“Please,” said Zinnia. “I don’t want to die, changing back, it’s death, you know that, it’s — it’s as bad as what you did before. And there are things that I need to tell you about, countermeasures that —”

“Nice try,” I replied. “Really, it’s a nice try. But I know for a fact that you don’t care about your own life, and if there really were countermeasures, you would have mentioned them. You just got done telling me that I should kill you.”

The whole time I was putting her back in manacles, Pallida was giving me a foul look.

“Yes?” I asked once I was done.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Pallida. “You know that I’m not kill-happy, but in this case, yes, cold-blooded murder seems like the only sensible option. You even agree with that, you’re just set on not being sensible. If we believe her, then this was all legal, or legal enough. You, on the other hand, have done a bunch of things that aren’t just illegal, but so super illegal that you’ll probably be kill-on-sight if it gets out, which it might, because even if she doesn’t know about the countermeasures they might use, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there.”

“So we keep her as a prisoner forever?” I asked. “Or keep her in this state forever, which is basically the same thing?”

“Yes!” shouted Pallida. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying, if you don’t have the stomach for killing her, which you really should. Tracking entads are rare, but they fucking exist, same for remote communication, and this is Anglecynn we’re talking about.”

“You could have her kill me,” said Zinnia.

“Have you told us everything we need to know?” I asked Zinnia, ignoring both of them. “Or if not everything, then at least the top 80% by importance?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Wait, I released a skent before I left. I think that’s the last that wouldn’t take more time than you have.”

“A skent?” I asked, looking at Pallida.

“A fucking skent?” asked Pallida, staring at Zinnia. “You get how dangerous that is?”

“It was a calculation,” replied Zinnia. “We needed a weapon to either take out Raven or keep her away from us. In the best case scenario, it would have killed her, then been killed by the authorities with single-digit casualties.”

“Sorry, what’s a skent?” I asked.

“Horrible creature that the Second Empire managed to wipe out,” said Pallida. “If someone dies within range of it, a second person dies. It’s death multiplication.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Yeah, I remember now, Jesus, ‘skent’, that’s a lazy name.” It was probably something that I had come up with when someone had succeeded on a Knowledge check and I had to make something up on the spot. “So it turns out that they’re not actually extinct, and you bonded to one or something?”

Zinnia nodded. “If you find a way back, bring snakes. Aside from the mortal species, they’re one of the only things that the death effect counts as alive. The range of the death effect is five hundred yards, targeting the living entity at the same radius as the creature to die.”

“Sounds like a blast,” I replied. “Also sounds like someone probably made, oh, I don’t know, a snake bomb of some kind that would kill a bunch of snakes over a wide area to up the kill count.”

“The skent is deadly enough by itself,” replied Zinnia. “The area denial research project was shut down.”

“Got it,” I replied. “Now, I’m going to change you back, remember that I wasn’t a total dick to you about all this.”

“No!” shouted Zinnia. “No, it’s a mistake!” She wriggled, trying to get away from me. “Kill me instead!”

“Look,” I replied. “Once you’re regular old Zinnia again, are there any plans for how to deal with me? What’s her game plan look like?”

Zinnia paused for a moment. “She’ll wait for rescue from Anglecynn,” she said. “Or some kind of magic that we assume must exist. Pallida is right.”

“She’s got no methods of communicating with the outside world?” I asked.

“No,” said Zinnia. “Not unless you make a mistake, or they have a magic you don’t know about, which they probably do. Yarrow has the entad that can communicate with Onion, it’s a marble I mentioned, stuck in his ear, that only he can remove. She would try to figure out some way of getting a message out through him, but if you’ve altered his soul, none of them will work, especially because you have a bypass for linear protocol. Listen, if you’re thinking about ambushing the rescue party, or taking a ride back with us, you should keep me how I am, if you’re not going to kill me. Don’t you agree?”

“Not particularly,” I replied. “If I wait, then I might be forced to change you back under duress, which isn’t a good look. But I’m done talking to you now, bye.” I stilled her, preventing her from talking, and looked over at Pallida. “I appreciate that you’re worried about consequences, and that you know more than I do about what’s considered okay, but I’m doing this my way.”

“Well, it’s fucking stupid,” said Pallida.

“Be that as it may,” I replied.

“If she gets released, she’s going to the authorities and telling them what you did to her,” said Pallida. “Actually, can we talk in private?”

I sighed. “Sure.”

We walked away, leaving Zinnia where she was. She called after us, but I used what little vibration magic had trickled back after the fight to keep from having to listen to her. A normal person might have respect for a private conversation, but social mores went out the window when you had been soulfucked, except as a tool to be weaponized.

“If you’re going to try to talk me into —” I began.

“Nah,” replied Pallida. “We could have had that conversation in front of her, that way I would at least have had backup. I’m thinking next steps. I really don’t want to set up an ambush, and I think at best, we use the entad that Yarrow has to buy us some time. There are mounts up top, and once the druid wakes up, we have some other options. Swallows, right?”

“Probably something else, knowing the locus,” I replied. “But yes. We have the mounts up top, which we could definitely use to get us to civilization, but there wasn’t a map that I saw, and I don’t want to take days to get there, nor do I want to be tracked.”

“They’ve got to have a map,” said Pallida. “I know it’s magic to get in and out, but they’ve got a teleportation room here, and it might have what you need. Once we have that, we can plot a little better, and once the druid is up, we can see what options are. You’re planning to leave her here?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We could potentially stick her in the bottle, but keeping her prisoner … I don’t know how long we could realistically continue that. Indefinitely? And there’s obviously the question of some ridiculous means of saving her. Fuck, they could use another deal with Doris Finch to track her, I almost forgot about that. But if we were going to imprison her, there wouldn’t be much difference in just killing her, except what we could still get out of her.” Most of what she’d said wasn’t that much help, presumably because of compartmentalization.

“And just killing her is off the table,” said Pallida with a raised eyebrow.

“If I was going to kill her, then it should have been in combat,” I said.

“Except that might have just stranded us with a handbag we couldn’t access,” said Pallida. “And we got some good stuff out of her. But now you feel like there’s some moral thing. Got it.”

“We can split the difference,” I said. “Revert her, then imprison her in the bottle, but only for as long as the rest of this shit takes to sort out.”

Pallida laughed. “Only to have everything reignite?”

“I was kind of hoping that Amaryllis would end up on the top of the heap,” I replied.

“It’s imperial law, you doof,” said Pallida. “Not only that — what aren’t you getting about public sentiment here? Wasn’t there some evil empire on Earth?” She started snapping her fingers. “Fuck, I know this, the, the … blind guys?”

I stared at her. “… the Nazis?” I asked.

“Yeah, the Not-Sees,” said Pallida. She didn’t say this like it was a joke. “They did some horrible shit that no one has ever forgiven, right? Some beyond-the-pale thing that you can’t even mention in polite company unless you make it really clear that you don’t personally support it?”

“Sure,” I replied. Eugenics and genocide, mostly.

“So imagine that soul fucking is that thing,” said Pallida. “Treat it like that. Speak of it like that. Put all of your conceptions in the context of that. Do you start to get it now?”

“I’m not some enormous fan of soul fucking,” I replied. “I am, in fact, against it. And I know that’s not a defense, really, because that doesn’t erase the crime, but I’m still not — I do ‘get’ it, you know? I understand that it’s really, really bad. But doing something worse because of the bad thing that I did seems, to me, like it’s the kind of thing you should never engage in.”

“Alright,” said Pallida. “Fine, fine. Can you go upstairs to grab the map or the coordinates from the teleport room, if it’s there?”

“Sure,” I replied with a nod, thankful that this conversation was over. I was worried that it was a prelude to a similar dressing down I might get from Amaryllis when we met back up. From a strict utility standpoint, weighing the pros and cons, I should probably kill Zinnia. I had wanted to kill her, when I’d seen that my blood hold on her was slipping, and if I had done it then, it would have been defensible enough that I wouldn’t have felt bad.

I was turning that thought over in my head as I went through the wide doors and into the dorm area, and it was still turning over in my head when I came back with the papers I found in the teleportation room.

“No,” said Arthur. “I can’t let you do that.”

“Ugh,” said Reimer. “But why? He’s a baddie. We kill baddies.”

“Lawful good,” replied Arthur.

“Alignment is not justification,” I said with a sigh. It had become one of my refrains.

“Alignment is shorthand,” Arthur replied. “I’m a paladin, I follow a code of rules which I abide by even when they’re stupid and inconvenient, and I don’t kill unarmed men who I have at my mercy. I mean, I didn’t write up an oath for nothing.”

“Aren’t you training to be a lawyer?” asked Craig. “How could you not see this coming when you wrote your contract?”

“Mock trial isn’t lawyer training,” snorted Arthur. “And part of the point of being a paladin is an outlook on the world where things are black and white. Adding in a whole bunch of caveats to the oath is beside the point. Also, let me write that down, ‘The Paladin of a Thousand Caveats’, that’s good shit.”

“Are we still doing vetos?” asked Reimer. “Can I veto alignment discussion?”

“This is a character discussion,” I replied. “And I think Cristo’s explanation of his character’s motivation was appropriate here. You can substitute in some of what was said for in-character talk.”

“Nah,” said Arthur. He turned to Reimer and shifted his face a bit. One of the keys to a different voice, he’d always said, was changing the shape of your mouth. “Wizard, I took an oath that I would harm no man unless it was demanded by the tides of combat. This man is our prisoner, and so long as he is, he is under our protection, at least until we can bring him to justice.”

“We could bring him to justice now,” said Craig. “Justice is the name of my sword.”

“I won’t allow it,” said Arthur.

“Alright,” sighed Reimer. “Then can you at least lend me a hand with setting up camp? We’re going to need to fill our cooking pot with water, and I’m eighty-years-old with 7 Strength.”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Insight check.”

“I never said it was deception,” replied Reimer, holding up his hands.

“Come on,” I replied. “Let’s not do this. Was it?”

“I mean, sure,” replied Reimer. He rolled a twenty-sider and smiled at the result. “Twenty-three.”

“Nine,” replied Arthur when he rolled his own. “Alright, I’ve never shirked my duty, and it’s true that you’re a weakling. Lead the way.”

“As soon as they’re out of earshot, I knife the prisoner,” said Craig.

I sighed. “Okay, are you applying any stealth or trickery to this?”

“He’s tied up,” replied Craig.

“I mean for when Cristo comes back and sees a dead prisoner,” I replied. “Or do you want to let those chips fall where they may?”

“You are a rogue,” said Reimer.

“Fine, fine,” said Craig. “I’ll make it look like an accident.”

“Come on man, work with me here,” I said. “How are you going to make it look like an accident? In what way are you going to say that this prisoner fell onto a sword and died or whatever?”

Craig groaned. “But I don’t care, I just want him to be dead.” When it was clear that wasn’t going to fly, he sighed and squared his shoulders. “I’ll make it look like he escaped the ropes that have his hands bound. He attacks me, we grapple for a bit, I stab him. I’ll just … I don’t know, smear some blood on myself, untie his hands, make sure that I knife him in the right spot, whatever.”

“Roll the best of Stealth or Investigation,” I said.

“Why Investigation?” asked Craig.

“Understanding of evidence,” I replied. “And then you’re going to have to roll Deception when they get back to see if your story sticks.”

But as it happened, Craig was rolling hot, and we played out the dismay at the unfortunate accident, and soon after finished up with the downtime.

“Good,” said Arthur. “Out of character, I didn’t really want to be lugging around a prisoner.”

“Pallida!” I called. She was nowhere to be seen. Zinnia was clearly dead, blood spilled out through a gash in her neck and gathered in a puddle around her. If that hadn’t been enough, there was a hole in her head, and unless I was way off the mark, her soul had been removed. As I moved closer, I saw that her soul was in a small bottle sitting next to her, and written on the floor in blood was the word ‘Sorry’. “Pallida!” I yelled again, amplifying the shout.

I started off down the large hallway, immediately feeling my magic dampened away, though my entads were still, thankfully, active. I was certain that she was going to kill the others, but I wasn’t sure whether she was going to the guards or Yarrow. So far as the guards were concerned, we hadn’t manipulated anyone’s soul, and I doubted that they’d been let in on what had happened between me and Yarrow. I weighed my options and then decided on the rooms we’d stashed the guards in, hoping to catch her there, but when I got there, I saw that the two doors had been left open, and there were tracks of blood leading away for a few steps. Inside, all the guards were dead, some of them shot, others with puncture wounds from her trident, and a handful who had been sliced clean through.

Sitting in the middle of the room, right next to the door, was a collection of empty glass bottles and a runed spike.

“Fuck,” I said. She hadn’t spiked them, probably hadn’t had time, but if I went after her, there was a decent chance that some or all of them would end up in the hells. I wasn’t sure whether the bottles had been left because she intended to come back, or whether she’d only meant to give herself some more time. I wasn’t even sure that I could catch up to her at a dead sprint, not when blood magic was cut off and preventing me from going full-tilt.

So instead of following my emotions, I set down to do the grisly work of removing souls, stabbing holes in hearts and using the spike to take them out and bottle them. I willed myself to cool down and not be so pissed off, but after the kidnapping, torture, and the big battle, all I had wanted was to get the fuck out of the black site and rejoin the team. All that talking with Zinnia and Pallida about what the best move was? I’d wanted to skip it, in part because I knew that we had different viewpoints going in. Pallida had started with saying that I should kill everyone, and given the time when I was away, she was just taking matters into her own hands.

When I was finished bottling the souls, I left them where they were and walked down the hallway toward where Zinnia had said she’d stashed Yarrow. I tried to slow down my heartbeat and regulate my breathing, but I was used to doing that with magical assistance. Mostly I was trying to think about the next steps. The plan would still be to get back to Anglecynn, but without Zinnia and Yarrow … well, that helped to simplify things, I was willing to admit that.

When I finally reached Pallida, slightly out of breath from running at a sprint, she had already killed Yarrow, and for a moment I thought she might have mutilated his body for no reason, until I realized that she was trying to break his head open to get the entad out of his ear.

“Yeah, I know,” said Pallida when I came in. She didn’t stop working. A trident wasn’t really the kind of tool you wanted to use to remove flesh from around the ear canal.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“I said I was sorry,” replied Pallida with a shrug. “Look, it’s over, we can have a fight about this later.” With a squelching sound, the small marble that she’d been excavating around slipped free. “Finally,” she said, holding it up. “Or, I guess, we can have the fight now, if you want.”

I scowled at her. “Later is fine,” I said.

She seemed surprised by that.

“We need to get out of here,” I replied. I was trying to keep from clenching my teeth. “What’s done is done. There was more information we could have milked from them, especially Yarrow, and they could have been witnesses of wrongdoing higher up the chain, if not directly, then through parallel construction. But it’s done, it’s over. We’ll gather up the bodies and the souls, stick them into the bottle, ride the guinea pigs out of here, and meet back up with the others.”

“You’re relieved,” said Pallida, looking me over. “You wanted me to.”

“No,” I replied. “I definitely didn’t want you to.”

“But I did it, and you’re relieved,” said Pallida. “Because you have clean hands and mine,” she held up her pink hands, which were red with blood. “Look, I don’t really mind killing, if it’s pricks like this. I’m a thief, but that’s got a lot of overlap with assassin, and I’ve taken up that mantle a few times, usually when the world was especially full of pricks. But what I don’t like is killing a bunch of people who needed killing and then getting a holier-than-thou attitude from the guy whose crimes I’m helping to cover up. Uther did that shit all the time.”

I frowned at her. “In what sense?”

“In the sense of — I was a thief, you understand that, right? I made it my business to get things that no one else could get.” She looked down at the marble in her bloody hands for a moment. “You’ve read a ton of Uther’s stuff, which I guess all started out from Earth, so you know how it is when there’s a dashing thief who steals things, right? It’s all a game, toys and tricks, misdirection, disguises, no one gets hurt, and either insurance pays for everything, or the guy deserved it. Yeah, not really like that in the real world. Sure, best case scenario, you get in and then get out, but people don’t like having their stuff stolen, and there’s not always a clever scheme that leaves everyone involved only minorly humiliated.”

“So you killed people on his orders,” I said.

“No,” said Pallida. “That was the thing that pissed me off, and what’s pissing me off now. I was given orders that would require killing people, sometimes innocent, sometimes not, and then, when I killed people in order to do the thing I had been sent to do, I would get scolded, just enough so that Uther could put up this paper-thin pretense.”

“Fine,” I said. “It simplifies things. I’m angry with you for taking the initiative, but I’m glad that they’re dead and I can pretend that I’m a great guy. Happy?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Pallida. She stepped closer to me and handed me the marble. “You’re the one who wants to handle this, yes Mister Protagonist?”

“Want is a strong word,” I replied, taking the marble from her and trying to clean the rest of the blood from it. When I was satisfied, I pressed it against my right ear, pushing hard until it popped inside. Once it was in, it was really in, probably pressed up against my eardrum, though my hearing was still fine. I didn’t know how many hours it was until sunrise, nor exactly when Onion might be in contact, but from everything Zinnia had told us, and what she’d implored me to do, the call could be intercepted.

When we got back to the main room, Solace was sitting cross-legged next to Zinnia’s corpse with a mild expression. “So,” she asked. “What did I miss?”

We took the bodies with us, piled up next to what would eventually be a mass grave in the domain of the locus. We had all the entads that Zinnia had pulled from the handbag, including all our own stuff, plus a large number that had belonged to the brother and sister, though there were none that were usable to us. They were still valuable, in that they could be ransomed back to their rightful owners, a common enough occurrence that there were systems in place for it. There was also a bit of risk in holding onto them, but it was a risk that I was willing to take in the short term.

It wasn’t quite daybreak when we headed out, stealing two of the dire guinea pigs and heading off to the south, where we would be able to find a city and make our way back, or if not back, then maybe catch back up with the others through some other method. I hadn’t tried a pulse of values again, nor the more involved method of laboriously writing on Amaryllis’ skin, partly because of the lack of time, partly because I was hoping that we could connect in a faster and more reliable way, such as a priority letter sent through the mail network.

Solace seemed to be recovered from fainting, though she seemed reluctant to push her power, for obvious reasons. When I asked her whether she could whip up some kind of long-range teleportation spell, or sufficiently fast travel to get us to something resembling a city, she only rolled her eyes, which was about what I’d expected.

I had, to date, one disastrous horse ride and a bit of time on the back of a locus. It was safe to say that I had no skill with riding dire guinea pigs, so Solace steered the beast and I sat just behind her, holding onto bits of leather that I’m sure had names.

Dire wolves were a real thing back on Earth, the dog equivalent to a sabertooth cat, and in D&D, everything had a dire equivalent, bigger, tougher, and meaner. You weren’t actually supposed to use every splat book ever to make a single setting, but that was sort of how Aerb was, and so there were my own oversized versions of creatures, ones that did a little less pretending that the square-cube law didn’t exist. Dire guinea pigs were close enough to the real thing, except that their feet were more clawlike and adapted to holding a ton of weight, and hair that was proportionally shorter. They’d seemed like a stupid idea to me when I first saw them, but as we rode, I marveled at how easily they moved through and around obstacles with their little feet. They were still pretty stupid, but at least they were functional, in a way that I grudgingly accepted was a justification for their existence. I was worried about wards, and pulsed my fake warder’s sight frequently, but as we got farther from the black site, and the potential perimeter expanded, I started to relax a little bit.

The sun had just crested the hill when I got my first message from Onion.

«Reply location status here clear Raven complication reply interrogation focus crimes focus capabilities teleport transcript» came the voice in my head. According to Zinnia, we had four messages, two for each of us, each of fifteen words or less, which had to be used in the next hour. It was all delivered as a monotone with no indications about punctuation. There wasn’t even any audible capitalization, but I had to assume that he was talking about Raven, my companion, rather than a bird. (The Sending spell in D&D allowed for a communication of twenty-five words or less, and obviously the endgame of that was either code words that linked to phrases from a big book, or if you didn’t have that, stripping the message of every single unnecessary word and hoping that the meanings could be inferred. Onion hadn’t gone as far as Reimer used to go in stripping out words.)

I spent some time thinking and repeatedly counting words. I wasn’t sure that replying at all was a good idea, but I figured that it was better than nothing, which would definitely provoke a response. All I had to go on was what Zinnia had spilled and what I knew to be true, which wasn’t much, and the compressed nature of the communication meant there wasn’t going to be much room for bullshit. «Charon clear three prisoners Juniper multimage unknown origin Solace unclear magical effect subspecies Pallida thief» I replied. I was trying to give him as little (and as false) of information as I could. Was this how Yarrow would have actually replied? I didn’t know. I was hoping that if it was odd, it wasn’t odd enough to trigger an identity test or a full-scale hunt for us, at least not yet.

The reply back was some time coming, and I tried to wait patiently as we went through the forests on our guinea pigs.

«Political fallout stay bunkered continue interrogation focus Amaryllis focus Raven request crimes Barren Jewel Boundless» and I felt my cheek twitch as he continued. He wanted Yarrow to stay where he was, which was good, and he’d tipped that Amaryllis and Raven were still alive and well, which was also good. I wasn’t sure how to respond though. His first message had been asking for a sitrep and what information Yarrow had gotten, but the second had been giving information and instruction. I wasn’t sure what to follow it with, especially because I didn’t want to give anything away. (Also, it bugged me how many words he was using. Did he think that he needed to say ‘focus’ twice because I wouldn’t be able to parse ‘focus Amaryllis Raven’? Why use many word when few word do trick?)

«Raven responsible Manifest Anglecynn treason Arches killed hundreds tuung backed by Athenaeums attempt civil war» I replied after thinking it through. Half of it was bullshit, and at least some of it was an attempt to put us in a better position. If Onion and the others thought that Amaryllis was hiding something from the tuung, that was to our benefit, but the fight that had happened in the Boundless Pit was well-known to our tuung, for exactly the reason that keeping it a secret from them might have blown up in our faces. I was less sanguine about the other accusations, but hoped that it would result in time and effort spent trying to track down false leads.

“That would have been a lot easier with Yarrow,” I replied. “I have no idea whether or not he bought it, and won’t know until either tomorrow morning or someone comes after us. He’ll probably know in a few hours that something’s not right, because no way are we sending him a transcript.”

“I’m sure you did fine,” replied Solace as she guided the dire guinea pig over the rough terrain.

“We’ll know that I did fine if we get to the town without Hellfire missiles raining down on us,” I replied. I was being glib, but if missiles did come down on us, I was pretty sure that Pallida would be toast but I would survive. I could use the Ring of Upward Bliss to grab Solace and send us up, so long as I wasn’t completely blindsided, and it would have been hard to blindside me with vibration magic doing the work of greatly expanding what I could hear. Of course, missile technology on Aerb was nearly non-existent, so it seemed likely that if we were remotely attacked, it would be by something different. Between the skents and the Actual Cannibal, along with all the secret and forbidden research stations, it was clear that the Lost King’s Court had all kinds of nasty stuff ready to go.

It took until noon to get to civilization, which constituted a long dirt road with no structures to be seen. The Tentar Territory was pretty much empty, pristine wilderness, a haven for dangerous creatures until the Second Empire put serious effort into clearing it. Their plan had been for resource exploitation, as the region had more than its fair share of magical flora and fauna that couldn’t be easily rehomed, some useful for tattoo magic and ink magic, others with industrial, medical, or personal uses. They accomplished the extermination of the major threats, but population was in decline for a variety of reasons, and the forcible settlement of the Tentar Territory never really took off, especially once the Second Empire came to an abrupt end.

After another hour, and with some guidance from Solace, we finally reached a small town. Solace put the guinea pigs into the bottle by giving them temporary wings so they could survive the descent, and we ventured forth to find out what kind of options we had for getting back to Caledwich, assuming that I still wasn’t able to reach Amaryllis and get some kind of a faster extraction that way. Before we got in view of anyone, I took five minutes to do the soul boosting thing with Amaryllis and Grak, but again, Amaryllis didn’t do the prearranged response, which meant that they were either too busy or weren’t getting the message, which should have been pretty fucking hard to miss.

The town of Nopeming had a giant factory or mill in it, a huge industrial building that loomed over the single-story buildings that made up the town. It reminded me of a few towns I’d been through in Kansas, the kinds that had big grain silos and a gas station, but at most a single diner, and sometimes not even that. It was different in Nopeming, because so far as I could tell, the industry was tree harvest instead of farming, and Aerb had much different economics and transportation at work that meant they wouldn’t necessarily be so stifled for choice. I assumed that they went about things the way that Grak had described Darili Irid, where people could order from catalogs and get virtually anything by bulk teleport once enough orders had been built up.

We drew stares when we walked into town, which was reasonable. My plan had been to make a beeline to the diner, which had one of the only visible signs, but we were stopped before we could get there by a woman so tall and muscular that she had to have been broshe, a warrior race that I hadn’t encountered too much before.

“Now where did you all come from?” she asked. She was, I noted, armed, with an oversized rifle slung across her back, nothing that I was too worried about.

“Entad mishap,” I said. “We were going through the Warrens and supposed to travel on foot for a mile, but we never ended up finding our destination. I … think we might be stranded. Do you have some way we could get to a city? Or send off a letter, if we can’t reach them by phone?”

“Hrm,” she replied. “Follow me.”

What followed was a brief history of Nopeming, whose name literally meant ‘a place in the woods’. The giant building I’d seen was a factory for processing bloodwood trees, which had four or five different uses if you had the machinery necessary to deal with them. Notably, if you wrung the blood from the wood, you could make a blood substitute that was usable by a few of the mortal species. That all seemed like a shaggy dog story to me, until our guide told us that the blood was one component that couldn’t be sent by bulk teleport, because that would kill the blood.

“The blood is shelf stable, which is good, because distribution is a nightmare,” she said. “There’s a truck — entad truck — that comes through here once a week to pick it up, filled to the brim before it scuttles on over to Sampers, which is a bit bigger and has train service. Truck was supposed to come yesterday, but it got delayed, so you’re in luck, if you have something to barter for the ride.”

“A rifle?” I asked, unslinging it from my back and holding it out.

She laughed. “Doesn’t go to me, goes to Bertie, but I’m sure he’ll accept.”

And so it went, with us slowly making our way steadily towards bigger and bigger settlements. Even without being picked up, it seemed like it would only have taken a few days to get back to Caledwich, assuming that we could scrape together enough money for travel through the Warrens, or the more expensive option, teleportation. I left letters, one at Nopeming, the other at Sampers, and we decided to spend the night there while we waited for a train.

I sent the values pulse again around sunset, and it was then that I finally got a response.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 186: Paladin

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