There was, as you might imagine, considerable argument about our next step.
There was one and only one quest which had a time limit, and that was the one that Perisev had set for us, which was to go murder Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. We had other quests, some of them that I’d had for a very, very long time, relatively speaking. And then we had Fel Seed.
With our current party, Grak was the only one prepared for Fel Seed. He could put up a ward against Fel Seed’s magic, which suffused every biological thing that Fel Seed had ever touched, and be safe against a wide variety of monsters and threats there. He would need other wards as well, particularly one against acceleration in order to prevent Fel Seed from simply throwing a rock at our faces. And even with those measures in place, there were a lot of things that simply couldn’t be warded against, like attacks that pinned us in place and deprived us of the things we needed to live, like air. Some of those weaknesses could be shored up, but still, it was pinning a lot on Grak. Grak could extend the wards anchored to his skin out a considerable distance, six feet, which meant that he could protect us, but it would still be damned scary.
The second issue, aside from our safety, was that we didn’t actually give a fuck about Fel Seed. What we were after was an extradimensional tunnel to parts unknown, a tunnel that was, according to classified reports from a Second Empire dimensional survey, located almost smack dab in the middle of the City of a Thousand Brides. It wasn’t certain that we would need anything special to go through it, but getting to the heart of the exclusion with millions if not billions of flesh beasts standing in our way, only to find a locked door we couldn’t get through, seemed like it was really something we wanted to avoid. We didn’t know where the tunnel led to, what conditions would be like inside the tunnel or at its destination, or what kinds of things might come out of left field.
I wanted to go down that tunnel. I wanted to find Uther. I had felt, for a long time, that Uther was at the end of it all, because if I were this world’s Dungeon Master, then that relationship would be at the heart of the story I was trying to tell. Uther hadn’t just made his mark on the world, he had put the world into a mold of his own design. And that world? It was my world, my ideas, my concepts, my style. Even my companions were marked by Uther, at least a little: Amaryllis, his descendant and the spitting image of his daughter; Raven, his one-time companion; and Bethel … well. I could conceive of some world where Uther wasn’t the end of the story, but if it had been my campaign, then after everything had wrapped up with Uther, that’s where I would have asked my players whether they were interested in running more things in that world, or whether they just wanted an epilogue session or e-mail laying out what the future looked like.
And that, really, was what I wanted. I wanted to be done with things.
We were all in agreement with that, the question was one of approach.
“It’s suicide by another name,” said Raven. “Every well-planned, intelligent attempt at Fel Seed has revealed a new trick up his sleeve. He’s been smart, he’s collected mages and entads over the last few hundred years. There are Fel Seed cultists to contend with, beyond just his flesh beasts. Aside from that, it seems likely that you’ll need star magic in order to get into the tunnel, which you don’t currently have.”
“So I’ll get it,” I said, keeping my voice level. “But I really doubt, from a design perspective, that we would be gated out because there was a skill that I didn’t have. You don’t require a single ability like that.”
“Fel Seed was poorly designed,” said Grak.
“Not poorly designed,” I said. “Antagonistically designed. There’s a difference. But yes, I concede the point.”
“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said Amaryllis. “We’ve had our first exclusion, and I think we’re right to be terrified of more. Exclusions in Uther’s day were gentler, the world wasn’t so cross-pollinated, and there were more magics in general. If we lose bone magic, there will be at least a million dead over the span of a year. If we lose rune magic, that means an end to bottling and millions in the hells. If we lose warding, that doesn’t just mean that thousands or hundreds of thousands instantly die, it means that warfare tips hard in the direction of offense. And that’s just talking about exclusions. The stakes are increasing as Juniper gets stronger, and that means that people are going to get hurt, even if we play perfectly from here on out.”
“Anglecynn was in no wise an escalation from Mome Rath,” said Raven, crossing her arms.
“Uther himself explains, in Degenerate Cycles, that escalation is inevitable,” said Amaryllis. “He knew narrative better than anyone else. On this matter, I think we should trust him.”
“We’re not strong enough,” said Grak.
“Then it’s a matter of becoming stronger,” I said. “Unlocking more magic is a no-brainer, as is entad acquisition. But for every quest we tackle, there are sure to be complications, and … I have to assume that there’s some amount of rubber-banding, since that was always how I played it, and I’ve found myself up against the ropes so hard without getting ground to a fine paste that I have to assume that it’s not just the anthropic principle. Right?”
“Anthropic?” asked Raven.
“Meaning … let’s say you flip a coin, and if it comes up tails, you shoot yourself in the head,” I said. “You flip three times, it’s heads every time, so you say, ‘wow, how lucky’, but in any world where you had flipped tails, you would have been dead and not able to make that observation.” I shrugged. “So maybe there are other worlds where I’m dead.”
“I don’t think the world works like that,” said Amaryllis.
“Wouldn’t you pick heads?” asked Grak. “Heads for a shot in the head?”
“We don’t know for certain how or if it works,” said Raven. “Escaping from danger twice doesn’t mean that you’ll escape the third.”
“This is you saying that?” I asked. “You, who were there while Uther escaped from danger hundreds of times?”
“He never acted like he was invincible,” said Raven.
“Sure,” I replied. “Walking into danger like you think the Dungeon Master wouldn’t dare hurt you, that’s a good way to set yourself up for a rude awakening. I’m just saying, so long as we have a workable plan, which we’re halfway to, we have to consider that there’s some level of balance in play. And like Amaryllis said, the longer we wait, the greater the costs are likely to be.”
“It’s a question of how much we do before we go,” said Amaryllis. “Are we at least agreed on that?”
She got a round of nods from everyone except Solace, who simply sat there. She had been silent for much of this discussion.
“No?” asked Amaryllis.
“If the locus wills it,” said Solace. She didn’t say how she would determine that. We sat in silence for a bit, chewing on that. The question was whether we would go ahead without Solace, and the answer, I was pretty sure, was yes.
“We need Bethel,” said Grak.
“Valencia too,” said Amaryllis. “To keep Bethel in check, if nothing else.”
I nodded. “Then we’ll add that to the list. We’ll get a report from Valencia about how she’s coming along.”
“It hasn’t been long enough,” said Raven. “If it’s possible to reform the house, I sincerely believe it will take more time than we’ve given it. And to go into this venture with bad blood between us would be disastrous.”
“Maybe,” said Amaryllis. She tapped her fingers against the table, and I could just tell that she was thinking about narrative. Hypothetically, if we were having intraparty squabbles and tension, that might take some narrative weight from whatever was happening with Fel Seed. It wasn’t a recipe for success, but I could see the angle.
“So let’s make a list,” I said. “We put down some checkboxes, then figure out the fastest and least dangerous way to check all of them off. Call them sub quests. We’ve got two already, one is grabbing Bethel, the other is acquiring star magic. What else?”
“Entad support,” said Amaryllis. “Anti-biologicals, methods for quick escape, clairvoyance, which will be tough, and probably a few others. I’ll set a clone to the Caledwich auction house next time I have ten minutes to spare, and put out some feelers. Grak, we can form a sub-committee.” I could see Grak found this slightly ridiculous. He did nod though.
“What else?” I asked. “Is that it?”
“Souls,” said Raven. “If we’re going to do this, then we’ll want to use the same method that you used against Onion. It risks exclusion, but soul magic has always had smaller exclusions. We’ll need souls from all kinds of mages, and in fairly large quantities, which will take some doing.”
“I’ll get in contact with Finch and the athenaeums,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “And I think that should be it. That’s equipment, personnel, and training. More knowledge would be nice, so I suppose we could make sure that everyone has read the relevant literature, and it’s possible that we could make our own surveys of the FSEZ … I’ll put another clone on it.”
“Good,” I nodded. “We’re not committing to it yet, I want to make that clear, but I want to put us in a position where we could enter the zone at a moment’s notice if we have to, instead of flying by the seat of our pants.”
“And in the meantime?” asked Raven. “We’re taking on Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll do our best to meet Perisev’s timeline. The faster, the better.” I resisted the urge to say ‘how hard could it be?’.
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had a dumb name, and if my experience with Onion was any indicator, that meant that he was ungodly powerful. He was the god-king of his exclusion zone, and commanded a rather large labor force of undead, their souls still trapped inside their bodies, having mouths but unable to use them for screaming, and if you were reading a book on the captain, that was what it would lead with.
Well, a sensible book, anyway. I read three different biographies of the man, and only two of them began by talking about the exclusion zone and the horrors that went on there. The third biography was a bit different, not taking things out of order, and instead presenting Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle as a child, then as a young man, and continuing on like that with no sense of foreshadowing. It was a more interesting read for it, but not really the most convenient or straightforward way to present the information.
He hadn’t been born Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, obviously, since most babies didn’t have a rank. Instead, he had a perfectly innocuous name, Elisha Blue, and so far as anyone knew, a perfectly normal childhood, though perhaps one with more money than had been good for him. His family had owned a recreational schooner, and he’d taken to it enough that he pursued a career as a sailor, one funded by his parents, who were necromancers.
(Technically speaking, ‘necromancy’ meant ‘death divination’, and more properly, you would have called the practice his parents engaged in ‘necrolurgy’ or something like that, but Aerb didn’t seem to care about being proper with its Greek or Latin, because it didn’t actually have those languages. The local Latin equivalent was originally the work of a small group of canine Animalia, which spread into academic and later popular usage long before Uther’s time.)
There were a lot of things you could do with necromancy, and Aerb had a few different traditions that involved animating the dead. As this particular field was practiced in Elisha Blue’s day, it involved taking a full skeleton and pumping energy into it, then having it animate in order to do crude but useful work. It was considered ghastly but not evil, and after the invention of the infernoscope (long before Elisha’s time), it had been confirmed that the dead didn’t mind it: they were being tortured for all eternity, or, if bottled, had presumably gone to oblivion. Contrary to how D&D usually framed necromancers, this variety of necromancy was almost exclusively used for utility, saving labor rather than with skeletons running rampant or being used in undead armies. If they were in armies at all, it was as pack mules or latrine diggers, their crude movements meaning that they required direct necromantic supervision.
Elisha Blue had become a sailor, but one that followed in his family’s trade, with a crew of skeletons to provide motive power across the seas of Aerb, their oars supplementing tall sails. Sailing was fucking ludicrously dangerous, given how little chance there was your soul would be recovered, and that meant that prices for shipping those things that needed to be shipped were relatively high. A better necromancer could get more from his thralls, and by all accounts, Elisha Blue had been a good necromancer, even going so far as to make some innovations in his particular field of magic. It was nothing that revolutionized shipping, but it lowered his costs and bought him a bit of respect. His ship was outfitted with entads that allowed it to carry more, as well as load and unload faster, and he became a force unto himself.
The biographies were at odds with one another in regards to that part of his life. It might have been that he was relatively unexceptional, a man making what progress he could, even if it was fairly similar to the other advancements of the Second Empire. Or it might have been that if you’d been watching him closely, you would have seen the seeds of malfeasance then, the ways that he treated his customers and employees. Maybe he was a cheat and a swindler, maybe he was just like any other shipper, headstrong and arrogant enough to think that he wouldn’t die and be sent to the hells. What he definitely became, the biographies agreed, was a fairly brilliant innovator, as far as necromancy went.
In the naive case, necromancy required the whole skeleton, and if you could preserve the body using mummification, brining, salting, or some other method, all the better, because that allowed for slightly more fine-grained control and considerably more power. So far as I could tell (nothing I’d read was technical), this brand of necromancy involved the soul inside the body, what Fallatehr would have called the anima ipsa, that part of your being that stayed behind on Aerb when you died, and could be accessed through bone magic in order to pull attributes from you, even when you were definitively in the hells.
While he was still a proper captain, Elisha Blue had made some minor contributions to the art of necromancy, particularly in the realm of miniaturization. The thing about corpses and skeletons was, if you needed them to do useful labor for you, there were some parts of them that really didn’t need to be functional, like their skull. The (rather minor) advancements that Elisha made mostly had to do with compacting skeletons and corpses, rearranging them or altering them so that only the parts you actually cared about were taking up space. This was especially important in his chosen profession of shipping, where less weight was a decided asset. Beyond his actual skill in necromancy, he had also made some advancements in engineering which allowed more undead to take up less space by virtue of the mechanisms they were powering being more efficient, rows of oars being replaced with cranks that fed into a drive train. He was powerful, but none of his work was terribly revolutionary. If you’d been a necromancer in those days, you’d have heard of Captain Blue. If you only knew one necromancer, there was a good chance it was him, though that was partly due to his penchant for advertising.
His real work, and real brilliance, began once he retired from shipping and inherited his parents’ fortune. He had a country estate, which had once belonged to a duke before a series of reforms in the Second Empire. There, he built a research laboratory, one that was intended to be world class. The intent, so far as it could be inferred, was not just to advance the state of the art, but to create novel methods of necromancy that could be monopolized and sold. It was hinted, though not in so many words, that Captain Blue intended to found his own athenaeum, perhaps with the backing of the Second Empire, one that focused not just on necromancy, but a few other death-related fields. With this concerted and well-funded effort in place, the field expanded by leaps and bounds, with Captain Blue at the forefront, always the most powerful. The work on miniaturization continued, and after five years, they had gone in new directions, allowing a necromancer to control his undead at a distance of miles, and see through their eyes, if they had eyes. Beyond that, the full-body requirement had been circumvented, allowing undead that were nothing more than a pair of legs, or an upper body with no head.
Twelve years in, this brand of necromancy failed everywhere on Aerb, save for that estate and an area roughly a hundred miles around it. Captain Blue was the only person able to practice it. He couldn’t leave the zone.
In the parlance of the Empire of Common Cause, this was an enpersoned exclusion, but more than that, it was a free exclusion, one that posed no particular harm to anyone living there, and which could be exploited freely. Elisha wasn’t some monster, he was just a normal man, an upstanding necromancer who had, at worst, pushed things too far, and who became an object lesson in the kinds of boundary pushing that could sometimes lead to exclusions happening. It wasn’t even entirely clear why necromancy had been excluded, because nothing extreme had happened, at least so far as people could ascertain. Captain Blue himself had no answers.
The planned athenaeum never happened, of course, but the research laboratory continued on, now working entirely to the whims of one man. Some fraction of the world’s necromancers moved to the estate, now only capable of working on theory or helping Captain Blue in some capacity or another, forever assistants.
Two years after the exclusion, the first of Elisha’s manufactories opened up. Unlike the necromantic manufactories that had come before it, it wasn’t simply a matter of undead driving cranks while complicated and expensive machinery did the real work, no, these new undead, christened ‘zombies’ were something else, barely even dead at all, perfectly preserved with only a slight pinkening of the skin, capable of complex (if rote) actions and some adjustments to correct for errors, techniques never before seen. There were a few limitations, like the fact that the candidate dead needed to die within the exclusion zone and ideally where Elisha could work on them, but the Second Empire was backing Elisha’s venture, which seemed to be a way to turn a waste product into a thing of value. If you knew you were going to die, and especially if you were a laborer of some kind, Elisha would pay to have you transported. If the Second Empire was going to execute someone, they would often send them to Elisha’s exclusion.
Elisha seemed to take some joy in branding and public relations, and it was during the time of the Second Empire that he took on the moniker of Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. His products were stamped ‘zombie made’, sometimes with a little drawing of a loveable, dim-witted undead, and he had his own logo and persona, a captain of a ship in a bottle, reference to his history as a world traveler, and his present as someone stuck inside an exclusion zone. There was some deliberate effort to make himself appear like a harmless eccentric, with the zombies as his mascots.
The Second Empire fell, but Captain Blue, in the metaphorical bottle, continued on. His zombies were slow to wear down, but they did need to be replaced eventually, and so he still paid dividends to people who were willing to come to his exclusion zone and join his undead workforce. Not too many people were fooled into thinking that becoming a walking corpse wasn’t macabre and ghastly, but if it paid … well, people would do a lot of things, if there was money attached, especially if they were dying.
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle himself didn’t die when he should have. He was human, but breezed past normal human lifespan without so much as a word of explanation about how he’d done it. Necromancy was, obviously, the easiest thing to imagine having helped him.
It wasn’t too long before the founding of the Empire of Common Cause that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was found out. His zombies weren’t undead in the way people had thought, they weren’t bodies being remotely piloted by the skilled and talented Captain, they were partway living, capable of feeling pain, pain which they experienced an immense amount of, owing to the ways in which their bodies broke down. A zombie set to knitting would wear away at their joints until bone rubbed against bone, until the outer layers of skin had been removed by abrasion and the nerves were rubbing directly against the needles. Their souls were still in there, and only when the body had been worked until it could work no more would Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle sunder soul from body, bottling it not out of compassion, but because he was worried that information would leak to the infernals.
Nowadays, shunned by the international community, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had become a much darker figure, an abusive dictator who ruled over those who still lived in his lands with an iron fist, backed by an army of his undead, some number of the laborers converted to use in warfare.
A few attempts had been made on his life, but it was a difficult thing, because he was holding all his zombies hostage. According to him, if he were killed, all his zombies would ‘die’ with him, and that meant between one hundred thousand and half a million souls would get unceremoniously dumped into the hells, where they would be eternally tortured as they had been on Aerb, but without any possible hope of rescue. Following his exposure, or possibly before, depending on who you asked, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had stopped retiring his zombies altogether, and instead buried them in mass graves that were then covered over, the zombies ‘living’ there in hidden caches so that if Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle died, it would come with a cost.
The funny thing about the exclusion zone was that aside from all the torture of the dead and the out of control dictator, it really wasn’t that bad. People still lived there, some of them brainwashed into thinking that this was all somehow okay, others staying before they were prohibited from leaving. There was nothing wrong with the zone, no inherent threats, and if you went past the imperial border guards and snuck inside, you might think that it was just like the rest of Aerb, if maybe a little parochial. It had been classified by the Empire as a minor exclusion, meaning that you could live there with a little adjustment, but that was at least partly a political designation.
It took us six days to get there, flying in our ship, almost perpendicular to the path we’d taken to get to Anglecynn. Without a dragon overhead, Captain Bonny was in high spirits, and because of Amaryllis’ clone merges, we could be kept abreast of everything that was happening in both Anglecynn and Poran. So far as Amaryllis told me, Poran was a bit of a slow grind, and would be for the foreseeable future, while in Anglecynn, she was barrelling through virtually unopposed. We’d tried to figure out some way to disguise the clones, but eventually had just settled on letting it be known what they were, their weaknesses obviously not broadcast. Amaryllis held seats on virtually every council or sub-council of importance, as the standard limits of ‘no more councils than you can handle’ were much higher for her.
If the locus had its domain extended, it wasn’t actually using that power. Over the six days in the airship, I saw neither hide nor hair of it. Solace wasn’t with us.
The ship landed in a field far outside the city-state of Necrolaborem, and then took off again once we had disembarked, moving back to a position where it could swoop in and rescue us on short notice, if for some reason the teleportation key didn’t work out, and if we had ten minutes for Amaryllis to update her clone that was staying back on the ship.
There were a few things that we didn’t have a plan for.
First and foremost, we didn’t have a plan for how to save all the souls inside the zombies from going to the hells. That wasn’t strictly necessary though: those people were being tortured, and it was entirely possible that if they got an upper hell, they would get something easier to handle than a combination of locked-in syndrome and a decaying body. I didn’t really know the calculus there, but it seemed like keeping Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle alive because of the threat of other people going to the hells wasn’t that good of a reason, given the circumstances. Beyond that, it seemed likely to me that we were going to deal with the hells, whether that was after I’d somehow achieved godhood, or at some point before that.
Second, we didn’t have a plan for killing the Captain, because we didn’t know what that would take. I figured that if he could be put down with a bullet to the head, someone would have done that, but there were surprisingly few attempts. We had information from two sources that should have known a lot, Finch and Raven, but neither had any real notes.
“He’s bad, obviously bad, but he’s not the literal end of the world,” Raven had explained. “So far as I know, the Library hasn’t put any effort into getting rid of him, and certainly wouldn’t have done so under my direction. If he was killed in some other timeline, I never heard about it. Pinno would have more information, but that would mean going back to the Library, which … is probably ill-advised, for a number of reasons.”
“The initial hope was to starve him out,” Finch had explained, in a separate conversation. “Legally, there’s a total embargo, nothing in, nothing out. All he’d have to do is stand down, release the undead from his grip and promise that no more would be created. Economic power didn’t work on him. There are a few concessions, minor deals, but nothing major.” He’d shrugged. “Technically speaking, there’s nothing to stop anyone from killing him, except that you’re not allowed in, and whatever surprises he’s got for you. People have tried. They don’t come back. Thankfully, if you try, then it’s a mess I don’t need to get involved with, so long as you don’t do anything too impossible.”
“And you’ll give us backup?” I asked. “Bring down some goons in shimmerplate, at least once he’s dead?”
“Exclusions aren’t really my department,” he replied with another shrug. “But there are already hundreds of people at the border.”
And that was basically where we were. We had Grak, myself, and Raven, plus Amaryllis as well, though she was feeling a bit inadequate as a fighter. Solace had said that she would be able to show up in our time of need, which she didn’t elaborate on, and probably had something to do with the moving bit of domain that I was radiating out from me.
Necrolaborem was an ugly city. Like a few industrialists back on Earth, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had formed a company town, a planned community that was devoted, heart and soul, to the enterprise that revolved around his necromancy. In its heyday, it hadn’t been a bad-looking place, though it was micromanaged and excessively curated, maybe because the Captain was concerned with presenting a front to the rest of the world, a happy, campy face on something that made people squeamish. Now, it was a mixture of two types of buildings: the first were old structures, like the grand train station, now missing pieces of its edifice and in desperate need of a paint job, and the second were tall, unadorned, magestone buildings, put up by a steel mage who had been building with only function in mind.
We were approached by guards when we got to the edge of the city, as we’d expected we might be. Two were human, but the other two were undead, their skin off-colored, more pink than it should have been. It was from carbon monoxide poisoning, I knew, the preferred method of death for the Captain. If I hadn’t known anything about the Captain, I would probably have missed the fact that these were zombies. Looking at them with my other senses, I could see that they were well and truly dead, not breathing, hearts not beating, still and silent when they stopped moving. They wore clothes like normal people though, uniforms with thick red bands around their arms, and looked straight ahead, slightly unfocused.
This was the endgame of necromancy, the dead made almost into people again, and inside them, people who had no control, experiencing only pain. They were better than people, in a lot of ways, they didn’t need sleep, they were strong, they had skills that went beyond what they had in life, making them ferocious soldiers.
“Announce yourselves,” said one of the guards. His rifle was raised and pointed at us.
“Juniper Smith, Amaryllis Smith, Raven Masters, and Grakhuil Leadbraids,” I said, gesturing at each of us in turn. “We’re here for a meeting with the Captain. We sent a letter ahead.”
The guard hesitated for a moment, then nodded and lowered his weapon. “Follow me. Don’t deviate.”
It was kind of funny. The easiest way to get up close and personal with a man who had been cut off from the outside world was just to send him a letter asking if we could visit.
The country estate had been (magically) bombed and rebuilt, then (non-magically) set on fire and rebuilt, and the current iteration was absolutely hideous, though clearly better maintained than the surrounding city of Necrolaborem. There were zombies everywhere I looked, with most of them doing complicated work that I wouldn’t have thought of zombies as being able to do, keeping the grounds, trimming hedges, raking up leaves, and generally engaging in semi-skilled and self-directed labor. Many of them were guards, standing there in partial armor, equipped with both a sword at their hip and a void rifle on their backs. One of the benefits of being a despot who was hated by the international community was that you didn’t really have to give a fuck about international bans or anything like that. Void was actually one of the minor concessions he had with the Empire: he had vowed to only use void for the purposes of defense, halfway cooperating with the imperial ban.
The guard led us into the main hall of the estate, which had an incredibly tall ceiling, with arches that made it feel like an inverted ship’s hull, though it was far too big for that. It served double duty as something like a museum. On display, largely behind glass cases, were a wide variety of necromantic contraptions and inventions, charting Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s rise to greatness. There were probably twenty corpses all told, some of them moving to show whatever detail was explained on their plaque, and mixed in among them were some other, less directly necromantic things, like news articles explaining some grand triumph, name plates from a few ships and a full figurehead, and further down, all kinds of artifacts from his product lines, boxes with their stamps on them, a logo that showed a ship in a bottle, and various things that he must have saved from hundreds of years ago.
“At this time, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle would like you to examine his collection while you wait for him to finish up with important work,” said a well-dressed man in spectacles who the guard handed us off to. “My name is Terrence, and I would be happy to answer any questions that you have about the displays.”
“Do you have an estimate for how long it will be?” I asked.
“Not at the moment,” Terrence said with a short bow. “I apologize, but the Captain can be quite busy at this time of year.”
That was fucking absurd, and I hoped we all knew it, but I wasn’t sure that Terrence hadn’t bought in on what the Captain was selling. It took a certain kind of man to create a monument to his own existence, and I was fairly certain that if it were at all possible, Elisha Blue would have brainwashed his ‘citizens’ into believing that he was a genius who had been unfairly maligned by the international community. Terrence seemed young.
“How long have you worked for the Captain?” asked Amaryllis.
“Since the age of fifteen,” replied Terrence. “Though in some sense, everyone within the EZ works for him from the moment they’re born until the moment their corpse gives out.” He attached no particular emotion to the term ‘corpse’, which was impressive, but maybe meant that he didn’t know the corpses still felt pain. It was hard to tell. “But please, enough about me, I would be remiss if I didn’t show you at least a few highlights of the collection.”
“Lead away,” I said.
It was almost certainly a power play, but I didn’t particularly mind, because at least it was a little bit interesting, and it would help to sell us as interested business partners, rather than a fireteam here to kill him. I could tell from the conversations we’d had that I had the least distaste for necromancy of the lot of us, though seeing corpses up close, including the mutilated ones that had been part of the Captain’s miniaturization efforts, still did make me a bit squeamish.
Eventually, as we were on the fifth display, this one just a leg that was in constant motion, pushing a pedal, a zombie came trotting down the steps and pulled Terrence to the side, delivering him a message on paper. Terrence read it, then folded it and put it in his pocket before returning to us. I was surprised at the sophistication the zombie had displayed, which was beyond what I had read about in my books. It was clear that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle hadn’t simply been at rest, he’d been working, making advancements in necromancy over the decades. Our intel was out of date.
“The Captain would like to know whether you intend to kill him,” said Terrence, keeping his chin high and his diction precise. I had, naturally, read the paper through Terrence’s eyes, so the question was no surprise.
“Our weapons are precautions,” said Amaryllis, the most accomplished liar among us. “It’s not unheard of for those who have been backed into a corner to resort to tactics like ransom, and the four of us would fetch a hefty price. Better to have thorns, and better to show them.”
“Very well,” said Terrence, nodding and letting out a breath. “But I must inquire as to the exact nature of this visit, beyond that which was covered in the inquiry you sent to the Captain.”
“Did he share it with you?” asked Amaryllis.
“Not at all,” Terrence responded. “But he said, in general terms, that you had a business proposition of an undefined nature, the sort that would be best communicated in person, given the delicate nature of our alliances with the outside.”
The wording there, ‘our alliances’ was either a slip or just part of the lies that the Captain told his people. Amaryllis and I had argued for a bit about whether or not the Empire of Common Cause had really stopped Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle from plying his trade. To hear her tell it, obviously he was right, people didn’t give a shit where and how their stuff was made, so long as they could claim the moral high ground, and maybe not even then. Obviously the zombie-made goods were being bulk teleported to a buyer (or shell company) on the outside and then sold as though made by mortal labor. She had no proof though, and I felt like it was needlessly cynical, since there were plenty of examples of people banding together in other circumstances so that they could stamp out, or at least shun, what they saw as evil.
“We represent the Republic of Miunun,” said Amaryllis. “We’re undergoing rapid expansion at the moment, fueled by a number of technological developments, and we have a bottleneck in terms of labor. What we need from the Captain is some kind of arrangement that will satisfy our needs at an agreeable cost, whether that means converting one or more of his manufactories, or dealing with a shortfall in labor here. The price per unit labor of his workforce is currently unclear, and he should know, upfront, that at this stage, we are engaged in fact-finding only.” At least some of that was true. We were going to need factories, and in an ideal world, all the labor would be done by, if not the undead, then at least people we could pay a pittance, which would allow us to reserve the tuung for things that actually mattered, like engineering, logistics, sales, and that kind of thing.
“I see,” Terrence said again, giving us a short bow. “I’ll go inform the Captain at once, and I apologize for any paranoia that he has displayed in making his request, as understandable as that paranoia might be.”
He left, and we were alone, save for the guards, who might as well have been wooden statues for all they were capable of hurting us. No, if we were going to get hurt, it would be with some novel weapon, or maybe with some novel truth. If it looked like we could steamroll him, which it did, then there was probably a catch.
“I’m muting us, if we need to talk,” I said.
“Nothing from me,” said Amaryllis. “It’s what I expected.”
“The state of the art is better than I thought,” said Raven.
“He’s faking half of it,” replied Grak.
“Faking?” asked Amaryllis.
“He stationed undead so we could see them,” replied Grak. “They were engaged in repetitive actions that looked like work. They were not performing labor.”
Amaryllis frowned. “Good catch,” she said. “Anything else unexpected?”
“I see nothing suspicious with my sight,” said Grak. “The wards are weak. The necromantic magic seems naively unconnected to him.” That was a good sign, since it meant that his zombies would probably continue on without him, giving more time for soul rescue operations.
“Be on your toes,” said Amaryllis. “Be prepared for sob stories and sweetheart deals.”
“That’s not the impression that I got of him from his biographies,” said Raven.
“The biographies are information that we were given before coming in,” said Amaryllis. “They’re propaganda by the Empire, and set dressing by the Dungeon Master. Don’t trust it.”
I agreed with her, but sometimes the catch was that there was no catch. Sometimes the unhinged multi-millionaire necromancer dictator really was just that, nothing more.
Our private discussion complete, I had time to look at one more exhibit before Terrence came back, and it was one that I was honestly a little surprised to see in his collection: placed between two panes of glass was a broadsheet containing Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s response to allegations about the pain and suffering of the zombies.
I’d read his rant in one of the biographies, skimming it the second time it showed up in the second biography, but I stood there and tried my best to focus on it, to place it into its proper context and read it as it would have been read by contemporary readers.
He admitted everything outright. Yes, his zombies had the capacity to feel pain, and yes, the slow decay of their bodies in the course of their work caused them considerable pain, on top of the suffering that they experienced by virtue of not being in control of their own bodies. All of this was made very clear in the first paragraph, laid out in simple terms. The remaining five paragraphs were devoted to explaining, in an increasingly sneering tone, that this simply did not matter in the scheme of things, and that this would do nothing to stop sales of his products except to those who wished to prove to their neighbors that they were fine, upstanding folk, and even then, no boycott would last. The primary argument, as I read it, was that labor was suffering, something people had always accepted, but this took a backseat to the insulting tone.
Even trying to place it in context, it didn’t make any damned sense. For a man who had done a lot of fairly innovative stuff with branding and public relations, it was a colossal misstep, and if he’d really believed that business would continue on as usual, what he should have done was to keep his mouth shut, or to issue a blanket denial, or at least give a mealy-mouthed explanation of why it wasn’t as bad as it appeared. Instead, he’d gone for explaining that it was exactly as bad as it appeared, maybe worse, and that he’d had full knowledge of it, and beyond that, his customers were complicit and such shitbags that they wouldn’t change anything. It was like if some Earth company’s history of abusive practices and wage theft was exposed, and the CEO’s response had been, ‘how’d you think we kept prices low, maybe you’re the ones that are the real monsters for buying our products’.
And if he’d done the smart, polished, PR thing, sent out the equivalent of a press release that said ‘we’re looking into these allegations and taking them very seriously’, maybe the exclusion zone would be considered a free exclusion, and the accusations would be treated as unpleasant rumors, or even just a blemish on his record.
He never did walk it back, even when it became clear that he was wrong, and as it turned out, people did care enough to boycott and embargo him. He was wrong about people, which cost him a lot, but he just kept doubling down on being horrible, which had led to the current state of affairs.
Terrence led us up a grand staircase, through some hallways and rooms that I was convinced were only there to impress us with their size and grandeur, and finally, to the study of Elisha Blue.
There were books on all the walls, wrapping the study in their covers, and I had to imagine that some of them were just for show, because even with the ladder on rollers, it would have been a pain and a half to get at some of them. Beneath the towering walls of books was a slab that was clearly sized for a corpse, and a desk that held a number of papers, behind which was sitting the man himself, Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. He looked younger than I’d thought he would, in his early fifties at the latest, and he didn’t look in the least bit dead, which was another surprise. He was, however, wearing a black captain’s hat and a buttoned up navy-blue coat that looked entirely like a costume. His face was thin and his forehead had the bulk of his wrinkles, but he didn’t look bad, for someone dressed as a mascot.
“Ah,” he said, looking up from his papers. “It’s not often that I have visitors.” He gestured at four chairs that had been carefully set out in front of his desk. “Please, have a seat, I was just going over some numbers in preparation.”
“Thank you,” said Amaryllis, taking the seat that was offered. It was kind of ridiculous to have a meeting like this with all of us in our armor, but he was wearing a captain’s outfit in a land-locked city, so I supposed we were just going to roll with it.
“Do you know, I don’t get the papers?” he asked. “They want me not just starved of creature comforts, but blinded to what’s happening in the world as well. For myself, it doesn’t matter terribly much, but for my citizens, it’s a terrible blow.”
“You aren’t allowed to give them news?” asked Amaryllis, furrowing her brow. “Why?”
“It’s by imperial decree,” said the Captain, giving us a shrug. “I assume that they didn’t think things through very well when they made that decision, which wouldn’t be uncharacteristic.” He gave us an avuncular smile. “This is by way of explaining that I don’t have any particular information on who you are or what’s going on in the wider world at the moment.” He paused and looked at Raven. “Obviously Raven is known to me, if you’re one and the same.”
“I am,” she replied with a nod.
“And how can Necrolaborem be of service to you, if you’re truly here in pursuit of mutual benefit by trading our comparative advantages?” asked the Captain.
“The four of us make up the Council of Arches on the Isle of Poran, which currently belongs to the Republic of Miunun, consisting almost entirely of a species called tuung,” said Amaryllis. “We’re currently embarking on a rapid industrialization plan, but at least some of the work will be unskilled, which was where we were hoping you could offer your services. We would need to know the costs involved in retrofitting one of your factories, what kind of production you can maintain, what timeframes we would need to be dealing with, and obviously there would be some logistical issues, because we would naturally want for this to be done without it being common knowledge. Miunun isn’t a member of the Empire, but it plans to be, at some point.”
The Captain nodded. “And I assume that you brought with you some plans and schematics? Or some engineering expertise?”
“I’ll be lead engineer,” nodded Amaryllis. She held her gloved hand out and a leather tube appeared in it, courtesy of Sable. “The preliminary diagrams and notes are there, but part of the reason a meeting is required is that I don’t know the specifications of your operations here.”
The Captain hesitated, then reached across the desk to take the tube from Amaryllis. He opened it cautiously, then took the papers out and unfurled them across his desk. He took a minute to look through the pages, frowning at them, before finally looking up at us.
“You’re not here to kill me,” he said.
“We were fairly clear on that,” said Amaryllis, giving him a little smile.
“And what about being found out?” asked the Captain. “If you intend to join the Empire, you’re likely thinking in terms of public perception. When that happens, will the contract be ended? And how do you intend to enforce this contract?”
“If the contract is beneficial to both parties, then it doesn’t matter that there’s no mechanism of enforcement,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll have our own factories on our end, producing precursors, and send parts to you for final assembly and packaging, then you’ll send them back to us so that they can be distributed for sales. Once sales are complete, we can send you whatever you need via bulk teleport, assuming that currency does little for you.” She frowned at him. “Surely that must be the arrangement you have with your other business partners.”
The Captain gave her a bewildered look. “What other business partners?” he asked.
Amaryllis rolled her eyes, just a bit. “Surely you don’t expect us to believe that no one has approached you before. There are strong incentives to break the embargo, and with bulk teleport, it would be relatively easy to hide. Entad communication is generally difficult if not impossible to intercept. I’m not asking you to name names, but we can’t possibly be the first people in decades that have elected to do business with you in defiance of imperial law.”
“Is that what you believe my life has been here?” he asked, sitting back slightly in his chair. “Do you think that I’ve been living a life of luxury, that the embargo hasn’t been a source of constant pain and suffering?”
“No,” said Amaryllis, “I just —”
“The exclusion robbed me of my athenaeum,” he said, leaning forward, hat slightly askew. “The embargo robbed me of my business. All I have is this land, which is only mine by the threat of damnation for hundreds of thousands, and you dare to suggest that I’ve been living a life without hardship?” His eyes were slightly wild.
“I meant no offense,” said Amaryllis. “I assumed wrong.” She looked to Grak, who gave her a slight nod, then to me. “Juniper?”
“I’d like to talk for a bit about ethics, if we could,” I said, looking at the Captain.
“Ethics?” he asked, frowning at me.
“I’ve read three biographies of you,” I said. “I read your initial response to the public in regard to the allegations. If we’re found out, I want to have had a discussion about the problem of pain, something that I can offer in my defense.”
Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle sighed. “How trite,” he said. “Very well, I will bring up the idea that pain and suffering are part and parcel of ordinary labor, and you will bring up the idea of consent, and I will respond that I have a number of manufactories where every zombie did, in fact, give meaningful consent to the procedure, knowing full well what it entails. You then will insist that people cannot give meaningful consent to what amounts to torture, or that consent is not eternal in that way, and an agreement made involving autonomy is effectively identical to selling oneself into a permanent slavery, which is similarly not allowed by the current regime. Can we skip past all that then? Or was that the extent of the conversation you wished to have?”
“I assume the problem of pain is intractable?” I asked. “It’s not something that you could fix by, say, causing antemortem nerve damage?”
“The problem,” he replied, “Is that your politicians want someone they can publically castigate, someone they can stand against, as a way of telling others that they are virtuous. Necrolaborem has a great quantity of skilled labor, but not so much that they can’t slight us. Labor abuses are rampant elsewhere in the Empire, but they are cloaked, and the result of poverty, exploitation, and carelessness. I, however, am a single man, a target of opportunity. I have tried to negotiate with the Empire in good faith, but the politicians benefit only from tightening the noose they have on me.”
He hadn’t answered the question, and I assumed that the answer was ‘no’, he wasn’t able to eliminate pain, not if he wanted to keep his current level of power and control over the zombies.
“You feel maligned,” I said. “You feel like the rules are different for you, or maybe that they’re only different because you’re openly saying what other people believe, but fervently deny.”
He nodded. “But from the way you say that, you don’t agree. And yet, you come here for my services, to use my manufactories, to benefit from the labor that I’ll be forced to sell you at low rates because there are no other buyers.”
“I’d hoped for more nuance,” I said. “I’d hoped that you had some better answers. Maybe you would tell some lies that would make you look better, but no, there’s just blame for others and an unwarranted cynicism about what the world is like, mixed with a base selfishness and unwillingness to change. It’s disappointing.”
I stood from my chair and began walking over to Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, who reached into his desk drawer and began to pull a void pistol, which I sliced through without breaking my stride. He got up and knocked over his chair, but I was far, far faster than him, and had him by the wrist before he could get away, not that it would have been possible for him to do that given I had Amaryllis and Raven right there, and that Grak had been building up wards the whole time we were talking.
“Are we good on wards?” I asked Grak.
Grak nodded to me. “Necromancy is difficult. It’s all or nothing at this point.” We could sever his connection to his undead, but it wasn’t clear what would happen then. Maybe they would all go still, ready to become animate once they had his orders, maybe they would continue on with whatever they had been tasked with, and maybe they would all ‘die’, which would give us thirty minutes or so to get souls out from hundreds of thousands of bodies, most of which were hidden. That last scenario was the one we were trying our hardest to avoid. Grak had been surreptitiously experimenting with warding against necromancy from the moment we’d touched down in the EZ, as had been the plan, but from the way he’d phrased it, I was pretty sure that he didn’t have a workable solution, or any idea what the end result would be.
I turned back to Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, who I had been stilling. “Alright,” I said. “Tell us what your contingencies are.”
“Beset by enemies,” he said, letting out a little moan. “On all sides.”
“We want the locations of all your zombies,” I said. “We want to know where the mass graves are. We’re going to spend the next month in this exclusion zone if we have to, removing souls and ensuring that everyone escapes damnation.”
While I was talking, I was trying to use the skin contact to probe for his soul, which wasn’t working well. He had a pulse, but the magic that should have been flowing through his blood wasn’t just weak, it didn’t seem to be present. I was hoping to avoid soulfucking him if I could, but if it meant keeping a half million people from being eternally tortured … well, I would do it, and then kill him afterward. The problem was, whatever necromantic magic had kept him alive long past his natural lifespan, it had fucked with my path into his soul.
“Never,” he said. “You would kill me.”
“We wouldn’t,” said Amaryllis. “We have no interest in your death, only in salvation.” On Aerb, that was a poetic term for oblivion of a soul.
“And what?” he asked. “You would keep me in a prison for the rest of my eternal life?” He spat at me, and I effortlessly dodged, still not letting go of his wrist.
“Let’s talk,” I said. “Let’s come to an arrangement.”
“An arrangement,” he squawked. “This — this violence against me, and you want an arrangement? For every minute you hold me, I’ll send a dozen souls to the hells.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “That’s a bullet that I’m willing to bite. I came in here intending to kill you, knowing that it would probably damn half a million people to the hells, and being content with that, because what you’re doing to them now is torture. When I say that we should make a deal, what I mean is that you can walk away from this with your life. You can start with a conversation.”
He spasmed once, kept from moving too much by how I held him, and I braced for the worst, but then he simply went limp and dropped to the ground, lifeless, with my grip on him released.
“That wasn’t him,” said Grak. “Enabling a full ward against necromancy dropped him.”
“Fair enough,” I said with a sigh. “Then we’re just going to have to find the real Captain.”
“That’s going to be difficult,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “He has six hundred square miles to hide in.”
“And he’ll know that we’re here, and that we’re coming for him,” said Raven. “There’s nothing to prevent him from amassing forces and retaliating against us.”
“I could make detection wards,” said Grak. “One attached to the hull of The Underline might serve.”
“It depends on what his next step is,” said Amaryllis. She clenched her fist. “So much for this being an easy in and out mission.”
“We have time before our deadline is up,” I said. “And there’s one obvious solution to finding him.”
“I don’t like it,” said Amaryllis.
“She’s a quest too,” I replied. “One that we’re going to have to do sooner or later.”
“I don’t like it either,” said Raven. “Quest update?”
“None,” I replied.
I was listening with vibration magic, because of course I was, so I heard the footsteps long before the servant, Terrence, got close enough that I could see through his eyes, and far before he opened the door. He looked in on us, and his face fell.
“The Captain would like me to inform you that he is no fool, and has contingencies in place,” he said, voice trembling slightly.
“Of course he does,” I replied. A lich couldn’t be killed just like that, if you destroyed his physical form, he would just emerge from his phylactery in 1d10 days, which meant that finding his phylactery was going to be our number one priority. “Do you happen to know where he is?”
Terrence shook his head, and I had half a mind to soulfuck him so that he would say everything that he knew. He really did seem to be just a part of the help though, and to do that to an innocent, especially when there were other options, wasn’t something that I was going to do, whether that was petty morality or not.
“Then we’re off,” I said to the others. “Terrence, thank you for showing us around. If you can, let the Captain know that we’ll be back, and we’d be perfectly willing to discuss the terms of his surrender. He can’t hide from us, and he can’t outlast us.”
Terrence nodded once.
“Now get the fuck out of here,” I said.
Five minutes and a poke through the wards later, we were back on the Isle of Poran, preparing to go to a different exclusion zone entirely: the one filled to the brim with Doris Finches.