I had no idea what the fuck Tommul would make of this particular scene, but one thing was very clear, which was that we were a mile up in the air. It had been a while since I’d done any serious math, but I was pretty sure that a mile was higher than the three hundred feet that the Sky Treaty said I was supposed to stay under.
“Go away!” I screamed at Tommul, amplified by vibration magic. He was approaching very, very fast. Dragons had best-in-class abilities, which included vision, and I had known that Tommul had been in the area, but still, it felt so fucking unfair. “Go away!” I screamed again, putting the full force of my magic into it, “Go away, he’ll kill you!” but fuck, I wouldn’t have believed me either.
Even with how fast he was approaching, I had thought that Tommul would stop and talk, but no, he let loose with dragonfire as soon as he was within range.
The Space Plate I was wearing was supposed to protect against environmental effects, but whatever it would have done in a hot desert, it did very little against the dragonfire, even with my using still magic, even with a blast of vibration to try to disperse it. It wasn’t just screaming hot, but also clung to whatever it touched, like a worse version of napalm. I was covered in the stuff, the pain faint from my modifications but present, and did the only thing that I could do, which was to draw healing from my bones and then slap at Alvion’s Vambrace to get a change of armor. All at once I was in the Gardener’s Plate, an ink magic sword at my hip along with a shield that I had borrowed from Rosemallow, but the Vambrace itself was still coated in dragonfire, and it was searing hot. I used the sword to cut the straps, cutting my own skin in the process, and let the melting pieces of red-hot metal fall. It had burned my arm, on top of all the other burns that I’d suffered inside the armor. Whatever protection the Space Plate had offered me, it hadn’t been enough.
Unfortunately, paper bags are flammable, even when exposed to completely normal fire.
The Cannibal had fallen when I’d stopped supporting him, but he’d grabbed onto my foot at the last second, and used it to launch himself up, climbing me. I tried to still him, but of course that didn’t work, and he reared back for a punch at my kneecap. I used the Ring of Partial Incorporeality, part of the new set of gear, and made my whole leg incorporeal, which lost him his grip and made the punch whiff. He began falling again, and I wondered whether that was a legitimate weakness, whether he actually couldn’t fly. But I supposed there were hundreds of people down there to kill, thousands, depending on how large his range would end up being.
Tommul came back for a second pass, his three hundred feet of wingspan the biggest thing in the air. I wasn’t confident that incorporeality would actually protect me, because it worked through interaction with the ethereal plane, not just by making me intangible. Could dragonfire extend into the ethereal? I had no idea.
I had no real way of killing a dragon. The best bet would be a blood spear that gave me access to his bones, which I would burn to weaken him and power myself, the same trick I’d used against Mome Rath, but dragons had some natural magic resistances and immunities, and fuck if I thought a blood spear would actually be able to penetrate him even if that wasn’t the case.
Scratch that, I did have one thing that could kill the dragon, and he was falling away from me.
I stopped stilling myself and began to drop, which happened really really fast given that there was no air in the ethereal plane (I was holding my breath), and no friction to slow me. Tommul went into a dive, and as fast as I was dropping, like a stone in a vacuum, he was moving faster. I was sure to out-accelerate him given time, but I didn’t have that time.
I passed the Cannibal after about ten seconds had passed, a little less than halfway to the ground. I tried to twist around and see what was happening, mostly so I could defend against it, but it was nearly impossible with my body fully incorporeal, until I managed to still only part of my body, which sent me spinning. From there, trying to orient myself was a struggle, and I caught only glimpses of the battle happening above me, a gout of gold fire so fierce and so bright that it nearly blinded me, far more intense than before.
When my eyes started functioning again, I brought myself to a complete stop, hoping that the two of them would fall right past me and impact somewhere in the city, allowing me to get as far away as possible. Instead, I turned to look from my awkward angle and saw them above me, Tommul flapping his wings erratically to keep at a constant altitude.
Shia LaBeouf was on fire and punching a gold dragon in the face.
Tommul let out another gout of golden flame, and I squeezed my eyes shut tight and turned away. The dragonfire had done nothing, because the Cannibal was on top of Tommul’s head, his arm up to the shoulder in Tommul’s eye. Tommul screamed in pain, and clawed frantically at the Cannibal, opening up wounds, but not as deep as they should have been, given that Tommul’s claws were fucking enormous, each of them twice the size of the Cannibal. Having completely fucked up Tommul’s eye, the Cannibal landed a single solid punch to his head, and the frantic flapping of wings half as large as a football field suddenly stopped as Tommul began to fall from the sky. The Cannibal rode him for a few seconds, then kicked off with incredible superhuman power, sailing through the air, right at me.
I dropped, trying to move out of his way, wishing that I still had the Ring of Upward Bliss, but it was part of the other outfit, and that was tucked away inside Alvion’s Vambrace, which last I’d seen was falling half a mile to the ground while soaked in dragonfire. (So much fucking lost if it really was gone for good, but not remotely the time to think about it.) I kept myself fully incorporeal and prayed that it would be enough.
For a moment, I really thought that it would be. The Cannibal went straight through me, but when he wasn’t overlapping me anymore, he grabbed me by the wrist. I pulled out my sword with my other hand and began whacking away at him. It was an ink magic creation, one that was supposed to build in power with every hit, but it was fucking worthless, because every wound on the Cannibal was a surface wound.
He grappled with me, twisted the arm that he was holding onto, and bit down on my wrist, chomping right through the metal of the Gardener’s Plate as though it weren’t even there. It was a sacrifice that I was willing to make, if it would keep him busy for even a few seconds.
“I liked Holes!” I screamed at him, not really out of any plan, but because it was what came to mind. He continued on eating my wrist, and I decided to play what cards I had.
I let us drop, completely incorporeal. Without drag, there was no terminal velocity, just pure acceleration, and in a matter of seconds, as he ate my arm, we were going really fucking fast. I waited until we were perilously close to the ground, flung out the tendrils of Gardener’s Plate to help put him facing the ground, then put us back to corporeality. We slammed into a wall of air, which dislodged him, and I pushed still magic as hard as I could. He lost his grip and fell to the ground at speed, surprising me with a crack of bones as he hit. But he wasn’t there for more than half a second before he got up and limped away with the same intense determination that he’d shown before.
Quite a bit of my right hand was missing, much of the meat around my wrist completely gone, and my fingers only staying on by a little bit. The Ring of Incorporeality was missing. I pushed healing into the wound as I got to my feet, but I was missing bone, and huge missing chunks of flesh would take too much time and resources, so I just did enough to stop the bleeding.
I landed on top of the building we’d fallen on, which as it turned out was Greychapel. As I looked over, I saw that a huge portion of the building was caved in, because Tommul had dropped like a rock and smashed right into the building. Normally that kind of thing wouldn’t be a problem, because velocity wards would stop something going that hard and fast, the same way they would stop other kinds of aerial bombardment, but dragons had powerful magic resistance, and that applied to wards as much as it did to anything else.
And normally caving in a building would be pretty terrible, but caving in one that was packed to the gills with extradimensional space? That was on a different level of urban calamity. Where Greychapel had crunched in, whole rooms had spilled out the sides, and the internal wreckage of the primary legislative building of Anglecynn had barfed out into the surrounding streets, filling them up with walls, floors, tables, chairs, cabinets, and (I was sure) bodies. Tommul himself was visible as a wing sticking up out of hole he’d made when he slammed into the building.
The Cannibal’s modus operandi was becoming more clear: attack, eat, get fought off, go find other prey, except that some people would just die from his first attack, because not everyone could survive losing a limb. It wasn’t quite horror movie logic, but it was close, and by that reckoning, I had a bit of time, minutes, let’s say, maybe more given the sheer number of victims that the Cannibal was likely to go after. With everything that Amaryllis had told me, it would probably be everyone in the War Room when his name had been invoked, and maybe everyone in Greychapel.
If I was being really cynical, that might give me more time.
Unfortunately, ‘time for what’ was a complete fucking mystery. Time to find another paper bag, time to heal my wounds, time to reset my bones, or to regroup with the others. They had all been in the upper half of the War Room, or maybe coming down the stairs, which meant that they were potential targets.
I tried ink magic and then gave up. What I needed was a magic item that could manipulate a paper bag onto someone’s head, but ink magic worked best when you approached a problem from the side, making items that could solve your intended problems as though they weren’t designed to do that. If you needed a wooden stake to kill a vampire, then a gun that fired wooden stakes was an incredibly lame and uncreative way to do that, and in ink magic terms, that meant a crappy product that would last you a single use before crumpling, if that. And to make an entad that could accomplish ‘put a paper bag on a specific someone’s head’ was really, really hard to approach from the side. I gave up after about a minute, not wanting to waste time when I didn’t know how much time I had. I was sure that it would come to me later, the perfect elegant entad to design that would only obviously be the solution in context.
I took off across the roof, trying to formulate a plan. The paper bag thing had fucking worked, as idiotic as it was, all I needed was to do it a second time and not have a fucking dragon appear from nowhere to ruin everything. (But ‘from nowhere’ in the sense that every report of Tommul being overhead was now obvious foreshadowing for that single moment.)
I didn’t have a firm grasp on the layout of Greychapel, so I simply ran over to the hole that Tommul had made and jumped down, using still magic to keep from breaking a leg. I ended up in a room that had been half pushed out when the star magic had failed and the extradimensional stuff had come undone, but after I’d gone past the door, everything looked more or less fine. I started running, looking into various rooms I passed, hoping that I would find a paper bag somewhere, hoping that wherever the Cannibal was, there would be some screaming that I could use to find him. Vibration magic was dialed up, but I heard nothing.
I saw a door with frosted glass, and stopped to open it when a thought occurred to me. I was hoping that there would be a trash can. Aerb didn’t have plastics, which meant no plastic bags, which meant that people used paper liners or paper bags instead, and I was praying that it would be close enough by whatever standards the Cannibal operated under.
Unfortunately, standing behind the door was former child actor Shia LaBeouf, breathing hard and with blood smeared around his mouth (the other blood that had soaked him before, mysteriously missing). We stared at each other for a fraction of a second, and then he went for me, moving in low and trying to bite. I had exhausted every attack I had, and lost my sword in the fall, so I tried to go over him, hoping that I could get into the room and find some salvation there.
He tried to grab me by the leg as I jumped over his lunge, and I tried passion magic to give me extra speed and avoid his grip, but this time it didn’t work, and he clutched my left knee, bringing me to the ground. With a squeeze, he shattered my kneecap, the armor there, the muscles, and everything else, shearing the leg entirely with the force of his grip, and I was hoping that would give me the time I needed. I flopped into the office, leaving my leg behind, and went under the desk that was just inside, hoping against hope that there was a trash can there.
There was, and I grabbed it, heart hammering in my chest. I dumped out the papers inside and grabbed the bag, barely able to hold onto it with my wounded hand, turning back toward the Cannibal and praying that he wouldn’t just tear it from me, because if he did, then I was fucked. My bad hand went to the mome bone on my bandolier, praying that it would work, that I could maneuver the bag with only one hand.
Instead, I turned back toward the door and saw nothing. He was gone, and my leg with him, nothing but a mess of blood where he’d handicapped me. I couldn’t hear him, and my hearing was really good.
Twenty seconds later saw me limping along down the hallway of Greychapel, using a vine from the Gardner’s Plate as a makeshift prosthetic that wasn’t going to last me very long. I had a paper bag in hand, and another one that was folded up and tucked into the belt that held my sheath. From what I had seen, there were literally paper bags in every single room of Greychapel, but I knew that the Cannibal would be back for me, because that was how these things worked. Eventually I wouldn’t have enough body parts to keep going, or I would run out of bones for healing, and then I would die.
Eventually I did hear screaming. I had figured out a strategy of rotating the vines from the Gardner’s Plate, keeping them fresh by only using one at a time, and it was a mostly functional way to walk. I tried to keep in mind the horror movie rules, how every door could contain him, how he would jump out from the shadows when I least expected it. That was built into the game of ACSLB as a fundamental rule. The Cannibal being right behind the door I opened? That was a classic Shia Surprise.
I reached the room with all the screaming through a side door, and saw a concentrated offensive being torn apart by the Cannibal, piece by piece. It was an enormous room, and eventually I realized that it was the titular chapel of Greychapel, a place used for public assemblies and grand speeches rather than any religious observations. It would have been a dizzyingly large room, at a certain point in my life, but I had spent quite a bit of time in a house with a flair for the grandiose.
There were dozens of people involved in the fight, and dozens dead. Specialists must have been brought in, because there were way more people in armor than there had been in the War Room, and I hadn’t had a good view of the upper balcony, but I was pretty sure that it hadn’t been composed of specialists. I had no idea what the fuck they thought they were going to do about it, but it was very possible that they didn’t know what they were going up against, because they might have been pointed at the problem without proper intel. The Cannibal was ripping through them, tanking all the fancy entads and high-powered magic that Anglecynn could bring to bear. Some of them momentarily worked, but they would stop after a moment, just enough to let someone escape with a grievous wound, or as a distraction. There was at least one revision mage at work, undoing damage, but there were limits. The Cannibal could shrug off any damage, blow through any ward, and fully negate anything from still magic to revision.
I watched a woman in shimmering, inky black armor slip forward. It was Pallida, wielding her trident in one hand, a brown paper bag in the other. I couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t operating on her own, but I hoped it meant that the others were alive and well somewhere in the melee. I saw Pallida move on the Cannibal, using someone else’s attack as a distraction. She almost managed to slip the bag over his head, but he ducked down, moving blisteringly fast, and elbowed her in the stomach, which sent her flying backward. There wasn’t even a moment’s pause before he launched himself across the room to where a cluster of people had been aiming ranged weapons at him.
“Use the fucking paper bags!” I heard Amaryllis scream at the top of her lungs, her voice amplified so hard that I hoped she wasn’t deafening the people next to her. She was unarmed (and still missing an arm), but trying to direct forces that she had no business directing was going about as well as you’d expect, especially when the thing she was trying to get them to do was so clearly stupid. It was actually so stupid that I probably would have listened to her, on the theory that no one would say something so stupid unless there was a good reason, but maybe I would have been like everyone else and ignored her.
I rushed forward, limping, trying ineffectually to use blood magic to speed along my steps, which didn’t work so well with only one leg, since the vine I was using as my left leg couldn’t quite keep up. I had three of the mome bones on my backup bandolier, and that would allow me a brief window of time, assuming that the first time it had worked wasn’t just because it was novel. My working theory was that because the Cannibal was a meme, then maybe he was especially vulnerable to an antimeme, because that was just stupid enough to make sense within the framework of this whole stupid thing.
Anglecynn was bringing out the big guns, I had to give them that. I saw someone holding what I thought was probably one of the portal rings from that time my group had killed Dracula, and it was rapidly pushing out a wide variety of magic, from what I assumed was a well-prepared site some miles away. It was all worthless, naturally, and in some cases, completely at odds with what I knew to be the winning approach, because those pulses of magic that came out of the portals meant that melee only got their chance when there was a break in firing.
I waited until just such a break, one caused by the Cannibal launching himself at a massed group of people who were clearly trying their best to act as support or artillery, and pushed myself harder to get there.
Amaryllis had been among the crowd that the Cannibal landed in, and she caught sight of me as she ran from him. She was still dressed for Court, rather than for battle, her dress bloodied, her body much worse for the wear. She must have caught a head wound at some point, because half of her face was covered in blood, and one of her eyes was shut.
“Get him,” she shouted to me as I hobbled my way over.
I waited until I thought I was close enough, then started burning a unicorn bone, touching it in the bandolier with my maimed hand. I had no idea whether it would actually provide any benefit, but fuck if I didn’t have to try.
The amount of firepower being directed on the Cannibal was way, way too much, and it was stopping him from feeding, which was one of the only things that actually slowed him down. In a perfect world, they would only have been trying new attacks after seeing certain approaches fail, but we were far from a perfect world.
I did my best to see the attacks coming and get out of the way, but everyone was getting as lethal as they could get, and when the Cannibal killed a rune mage that had been powering up a green beam weapon, it lanced through the air, slicing through me and a few others.
Dying wasn’t quite an old hat, but I’d been burning my way through the unicorn’s bones for quite a while now, and I was used to utterly failing and having to reset.
What I wasn’t used to was things being different. No, this time when things reset, the Cannibal stopped what he was doing and looked at me. It all went differently from there, because he didn’t go for the rune mage, he went for me.
I had the bag ready, unfolded, and waited until the last possible moment to start burning the mome bone (my hand positioned so that one finger was on the unicorn bone, one on the mome bone, with the fingers I had left). All at once, the Cannibal stopped what he was doing, and there wasn’t a moment of hesitation before he moved on to the next person in his field of view. I bounded after him, hampered by the vine leg, and was just about to slide the paper bag down over his head with my free hand when I got blasted with a beam of green.
That fucking rune mage had killed me, though in some sense I couldn’t blame him, because he literally couldn’t have known I was there. I tried the same route again, waiting for the Cannibal to approach me, this time circling to the left in order to get him closer to his eventual target. I burned the same mome bone again, and this time, held the paper bag in my mouth for just long enough that I could pull out my returning dagger and chuck it right at the rune mage, bonking him in the head hard enough to give him second thoughts about the attack he was charging up.
As soon as I slipped the bag over the Cannibal’s head, he stopped what he was doing. I took my finger off the mome bone, but kept burning the unicorn bone, trying to squeak one last second out of it in case someone fucked this up for me. I yelled for good measure, “Stop! He’s contained!”, knowing that it was ridiculous.
The unicorn bone had reached its limit, and I let the loop end. Memories of parallel timelines came rushing back to everyone around me, and I prayed that no one would shoot at the Cannibal, that no one had explosives ready and waiting to go, that nothing would fuck this up. But by the rule of three —
Two things happened in quick succession. The first was that twenty people in Imperial-standard matte grey shimmerplate appeared around the chapel, each of them fully armed. The second was that the side of the chapel crashed open, stained glass raining down, as an enormous one-eyed gold dragon stuck his head in. For just a moment I could see a golden flame at the back of his throat, but he stopped, closing his mouth and simply staring.
Compared to the earlier roar of battle, there was relative silence, just pieces of building falling down, the cries of the injured, and people speaking quickly to each other.
“It’s stupid,” I said, amplifying my voice as much as I could. “It’s really fucking stupid, but if the bag comes off his head, he’ll kill every fucking person here, whether you teleport out or hide in extradimensional space. This is literally the only way, it is very, very dumb, but I swear that it’s true.”
Tommul looked like he was going to roast me, or to make some threat, but after a huff of air from his nose, which swept warm air over all of us, he retracted his head and took off, the sound and wind of his wings rattling the windows.
“Finch!” I yelled, looking around, trying to see the gnome that I was certain had come in with the shimmerplate goons.
Figaro Finch stepped out from behind a pew, with none of the dust, blood, and gore that everyone else had on them. “How sure are you that this will hold?” he asked me.
“Eighty percent,” I replied. “Maybe less.”
“And how in the holy fuck did you know it would work?” asked Finch. He was giving me the stink eye, like this whole thing was my fault. I heard murmurs from the crowd, which with every passing minute looked less and less like they would fuck this up.
“We have this guy back on Earth,” I said, gesturing at Shia LaBeouf. “If I thought some asshole would be dumb enough to summon him, I would have been shouting it loud and wide. Not that anyone would have believed me.” Not that I’d had any confidence in this particular solution.
“We’ll take him,” said Finch.
“Who are you?” asked a voice from among the fighters. It was a guy that I recognized almost entirely from his bucket of shurikens, and whose name I had forgotten, but it was either Basil, Heath, or Aster.
“Imperial Affairs, Uniquities Division,” said Finch. “And we’ll be taking him for containment.”
“By the hells you will,” said Shuriken Bucket, stepping forward. It didn’t look like the Cannibal had gotten him, because he still had all his parts. “This isn’t an imperial matter.”
I was getting nervous. I’d gotten a quest — albeit one with no text — and then no update. That meant there was still a chance this could go sour, a way for someone to let the cat out of the bag, as it were.
“If he ever gets out, we’re fucked,” I said. “Best guess, he’s got a list of people who need killing, and the more time passes, the further those people get from each other, which means expected fatalities increase, because other people get in the way. Almost all of the people he wants to kill are Anglish, and a fair number are nobles.” I looked at Finch. “Have you ever contained anything like this before?”
“No,” he replied. “It’s still our jurisdiction.”
“Then you exercise caution and trap him in the deepest, darkest hole that you can find,” I said. “You put on extra bags for protection, you trap him in quickset goo,” I was hoping that was a thing, “you send him into the future, you do everything in your power to keep him from ever having that bag taken off his head.”
“The Empire doesn’t have jurisdiction here,” said Shuriken Bucket, moving toward me, then taking a look at the naked man with a bag over his head that was standing next to me, and coming up short. “It’s Anglecynn that’s at risk. It’s Anglecynn that should handle containment.”
Fuck off, I thought. “Did Amaryllis tell you proper protocol?” I asked.
Shuriken Bucket (who I was thinking was probably Heath) hesitated. “She did, but —”
“And did you see people running straight at the hyperviolent, invincible cannibal with a paper bag, trying to get one on his head?” I asked. I changed out which vine was holding me up, trying not to let that break my momentum.
“Yes,” he said, gritting his teeth. I didn’t know if he was in charge, if there was anyone in charge, but he certainly seemed to be speaking for the others.
“But you weren’t making a concerted effort to do what you were told,” I said. “The reason that I’m giving this force of pure destruction over to Uniquities instead of to anyone in this government is that I can trust Uniquities to do what it’s told and to take threats seriously,” I said. “Right now, you don’t have that trust.”
“You’re a member of this Court,” said Shuriken Bucket taking another step toward me. “We aren’t losing control of this weapon. We aren’t putting the safety of what remains of the War Council into the hands of the Empire.”
“Hyacinth did this,” I spat at him, “If it’s in the hands of the councils, you know that there’s still risk. Someone will look at a manifest of everyone who was in the vicinity and think about whether or not to pull the trigger. That’s how the Court works, Heath,” really hoping that I wasn’t wrong about which cousin he was, “People make their calculations based on their personal interests, and fuck anyone who gets in the way. Say what you want about the Empire, but at least it makes an effort to stick to its principles.”
Part of that was just fueled by misplaced anger, and I wasn’t wholly convinced that anything I’d said about the Empire was actually true, especially given the things that Raven had said to Finch, and the covert shit that I knew for a fact Uniquities got up to. But Heath didn’t call me out on it, he only shrank back slowly, and gave a slow nod to Figaro Finch.
The men and women in shimmerplate took some time in approaching. I was sure that some or all of them were mages, and I was also sure that it was no coincidence that they showed up after all the fighting was done. They handled the Cannibal gingerly, double-bagged him, and then warped him out, leaving only Figaro Finch behind.
Quest Complete: Where’s the Beef? – You have successfully captured Emmy award winner Shia LaBeouf in a paper bag, from which he will never escape, unless he does.
“This is a shitshow,” he said to me, speaking under his breath.
“We need to start bottling the dead,” said Amaryllis, her voice raised and amplified. “We need search and rescue, and we need medical. Anyone able-bodied should be helping with those efforts. Heath, you’re in charge of the bottling, Grak —” there was a moment of honest fear as she looked around, trying to find him, but Grak stepped out from a doorway, quite some distance from where the action was, “— Grak, you’re coordinating search and rescue, and Aster, you’re on medical.”
For a moment, I really thought that someone was going to ask her who had put her in charge, but no one spoke up, and after a brief pause, everyone who hadn’t already been dealing with the dead or wounded began to move into action.