Worth the Candle, Ch 201: The Aviary

Going into Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s exclusion zone was a legal gray zone. Amaryllis and I were dual citizens, with one country being an imperial non-member and the other being a full member in good standing. It wasn’t strictly illegal to cross into the Necrolaborem EZ, but it was illegal to provide aid and comfort, to engage in trade, or to do a whole bunch of other things, which we arguably had done prior to our assassination attempt. There was some hope among the Empire that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle would eventually see the error of his ways, kill and bottle his zombies, and then become a regular trading partner using the older, less problematic methods of necromancy in order to keep his factories running, though there were other sides on that issue, particularly people who thought that what the Captain had done could not be forgiven. I could see both sides, but so long as there was a threat of death, the Captain just didn’t have the incentive to stand down from his threat of sending half a million souls to the hells.

The Doris Finch situation was something else entirely, not just because it was treated so differently by the Empire, but because we really were attempting to engage in trade of some kind with her. She had found some way of tracking people and sold it to Larkspur, then Uniquities: now, we were going to her in the hopes that we could have her sell it to us.

Even if the Captain hadn’t been in the picture, we probably still would have ended up coming to Doris at some point or another. The ability to paint a probabilistic picture of where things were was golden, the kind of thing that everyone wanted, and if both Larkspur and Uniquities had traded with her in order to get things found, that meant that others probably had too. Clairvoyance was rare on Aerb, and this was, apparently, repeatable, reusable clairvoyance of a sort, one which no one had the knowledge necessary to ward against. Once it became common knowledge that the Finches had that ability, Amaryllis expected there to be a loosening of restrictions, unless control of the ability could be wrested from the Finches, in which case the world would change in a major way.

It wasn’t just trade with Doris Finch that was prohibited, it was everything. No one was allowed into the EZ, and anyone who got out of it was kept out and in quarantine for a period of fourteen days, then given a once over by an anolia, along with a full sweep with wards to make sure that nothing was being smuggled out, wittingly or otherwise.

Here was the problem with Doris Finch: she defected.

If you made an agreement with her, you had to expect that she would break it unless she had overwhelming incentives to cooperate or expected wildly disproportionate retribution. She defected to a degree that I would have said was absolutely inhuman, but I knew humans well enough to know that some, when shown kindness or offered a good deal, would stab you in the back all the same. Doris Finch would lie, cheat, and steal, just as a matter of habit, sometimes even when she should have known that she wouldn’t get away with it. She had poor impulse control and used violence and subjugation as a first resort. She wasn’t insane, she was just really the worst person ever, and popular opinion was that what really pushed her over the edge was that her duplication power meant that her primary influences were other divergent versions of herself. That was the picture presented from the outside, anyway, and especially, the picture presented by Amaryllis.

It was about six days after our brief, ill-fated excursion to see Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle that we landed our ship outside the Doris Finch EZ, between the walls and the range of the Dorises. You could tell where the magic of the Dorises started: past that point, almost nothing grew, as the grounds had been salted with blood and the Dorises had stripped off anything of worth. There were no trees, just ugly, squat buildings in the distance, with a few built right up to the edge, a defensive measure, as one wall of the structure couldn’t be assaulted by other Dorises. The open ‘field’ was our target: we thought it better to have a meeting that was as much in the open as it could be, with a safe retreat back out of the zone.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” said Captain Bonny. “You know I’m not going in there, right?”

“We know,” I replied.

“And you said that you were going to kill Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, but didn’t,” she said, frowning at me.

“He was a tiny bit harder to kill than planned,” I said. “But it wasn’t a lack of firepower, it was a lack of intelligence.”

“So get smarter,” Captain Bonny said with a shrug and a smile. “And look, if I get so much as a whiff that you’re working with Blue —” she hesitated, seeming to remember who she was about to make a threat against, and her upright finger curled down. “I’ll resign as your captain, and the crew would call it quits too.”

“We’re not doing a deal with him,” I said.

“Doing one with the Finches though?” asked Bonny, raising an eyebrow.

“Them we’re not aiming to kill,” said Amaryllis. “Or at least, not kill too many. The risks of dealing with her aren’t the same. They’re not moral risks. They’re risks that you get stabbed in the back.”

“Well, armor plates on your back, that’s what I would suggest,” said Captain Bonny with a snort. “And we’ll stay well back.”

The DFEZ was surrounded by tall walls a few hundred feet from where the exclusion itself started. The walls had been put up by imperial steel mages mostly because it was an easy thing to do, rather than because it was actually effective at keeping people out or harmful effects in. I was pretty sure that, as with other exclusion zones, there had been discussions on how to ‘close’ the exclusion, in this case meaning to kill every single one of the Finches, but as with Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, no one had actually done it. The easiest solution, and the one that I had thought of right away, was to simply soulfuck her, but the status of her soul was complicated, and it had been tried, only to meet with failure.

We were about thirty feet in when we met with a contingent of Dorises. This wasn’t a surprise: we were coming for a meeting, and hoping that all it would take was some diplomacy in order to get her working for us. You never could tell with the Dorises though, at least from what I’d heard.

There were about thirty of them all told, all variations on the same woman, in her thirties, maybe a bit younger. When she’d made her breakthrough and the exclusion happened, she’d been fourteen, and for quite some time she’d aged normally, all of her, which made people think that her exclusion zone would someday solve itself. Then, maybe fifteen or twenty years after the exclusion, she’d stopped aging entirely, all of her, for reasons that, if they were known, weren’t known to us, but probably had something to do with her cloning ability.

At her base, she didn’t look like much, the kind of woman that I could imagine running a struggling bakery or working as a waitress. She looked like she never smiled, and I knew from reading her biography that she was, in fact, a crazy bitch (not to be too gendered about it), but there was nothing all that surprising or unique about her. She had dark hair, was generally fairly thin, and had a narrow face with high cheekbones. If you saw her, I was pretty sure you would forget about her right away.

There were, of course, variations. To start with, their clothes were all different from one another, though there were commonalities in textiles. Maybe half of them were dressed in either leather or a rough fiber, which I knew to be skin and hair, respectively, taken from some Doris who had likely been cloned for the express purpose of being skinned and shaved. Beyond the clothes, there were differences in hair styles, tattoos, and piercings, most of them crude and extreme, with the tattoos in particular being what I thought of as ‘prison quality’. Altogether, they looked like a band of post-apocalyptic biker chicks, but without the bikes.

The one notable exception to their look was their weaponry, which came in the form of polished swords and void rifles. Doris Finch, naturally, did not respect the ban on void weapons, and at some point or another, possibly before the ban and possibly after, a shipment had come in. Because of the unique magic of Doris Finch, virtually anything could be multiplied so long as they could hold it, though there were limits on shelf-life for the cloned items, and naturally, they couldn’t leave the zone.

“You’re in our zone,” called the Doris in the center of the group as we approached. She was slightly higher status than the others, which in Dorisland meant that other Dorises thought she was too tough to fuck with, at least until she could take a shank to the guts in her sleep. She was wearing blue, not the human colors of her lessers, though I saw other bits of blue around, which might have come from the same dress, multiplied a few times. “State the deal.”

“We need tracking,” called Amaryllis. “Five or six candidates to track, entads and supplies to give in return. I have a list of fifty investables, plus the supplies we can get for you. Starting offer is a quarter million obols in supplies, teleported by bulk to wherever you want.” This was one of the things that Cypress, the alternate timeline of Amaryllis, had written was key to dealing with the Dorises: it was best to be completely disproportionate, offering immense rewards or incredibly severe punishments, both backed up as much as possible as being credible. The other key, she’d said, was to deal with as few of them at a time as you could.

“Payment now, results later,” said the central Doris, which I guess was her way of seeing whether we were idiots.

“Can you do it?” asked Amaryllis. “No payment without some guarantee of actual results.” A guarantee wasn’t that valuable of a thing among Dorises, but still.

“We can’t personally, but we’re part of the group that can. We’ll forward the request on,” replied Doris. “We’ll get our cut.”

“That’s not good enough,” said Amaryllis. “We give you funds now, there’s a risk you cut and run. We give you nothing, you have no incentive to pass it along to the people who can actually help us.”

“They’ll pay us a finder’s fee,” said Doris. “The upfront is just proof of payment.”

“We can do a fraction now,” said Amaryllis. “Then no more than a tenth at each step of the way, that gives both of us incentives to keep going. If we need longer, then payouts get spread more.”

“You’ll be eating the costs of the teleports,” said the Doris.

“I’m fine with that,” shrugged Amaryllis.

“Exchange happens now,” said the Doris. “We give you the location for the teleport, you give us the names and descriptions. Photograph or painting works better. We send it along, they’ll contact you. Dead drop at the zone edge works best for you getting your information, unless you have an entad that can talk to us.”

“We do,” nodded Amaryllis. She looked at me. “Juniper.”

Amaryllis handed me an envelope of papers, and I stepped forward, walking cautiously, my hackles raised. Doris Finch was insane, and you couldn’t trust her. I had a lot of void rifles pointed at me. One of my hands was on a mome bone in my bandolier, and I was ready to disappear from their attention, if it came to that. Amaryllis had a scroll that she’d rigged so she could pull down on a string on her own bandolier and hit them with the meme that the two of us were immune to. We were expecting a double cross. You had to, when Doris Finch was involved.

The attack came when I was ten feet away, but it wasn’t the attack I expected, not an attack against us, but an attack against them, Doris against Doris. The void guns began their thwips and thunks at once, along with the sound of more conventional weaponry, and I drew my sword, shifted my elemental plate to iron, and tried my best to stay out of the way, so long as I wasn’t the one being attacked. Through the Crown of Eyes, I could see everyone within fifty feet of me, which meant that when a Doris did eventually take aim at me, I was able to dodge out of the way and counterattack with a dagger pulled from my magical bandolier.

The Dorises didn’t seem to have it out for me though. This was an internal matter, and so long as I stayed where I was, sword drawn, the fighting that went on didn’t touch me, a few pot shots aside. As I watched, I could see the Dorises multiplying, splitting in two, both with the same equipment as the first. When the exclusion had first happened, these splits took five minutes of concentration, but now, it was down to half a second, little enough that it could be done in the midst of combat. Of course, the clones had no loyalty to each other, which was the whole problem with the Dorises, and which made the whole thing into a horrible clusterfuck, because a Doris could only work with herself for a limited time.

The battle went on for quite some time. Grak, Amaryllis, and Raven were bunkered down behind thick steel shielding, plus, I was sure, some wards, and eventually, as no one was really putting effort into attacking me, I walked over to join them.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I said as I turned down the din of battle with vibration magic. “How long do you think this is going to take to sort out?”

“No idea,” said Amaryllis. “I’m not a veteran of this zone.”

“To be clear, they’re killing each other over who is going to get the contract with us?” I asked.

“‘Contract’,” Amaryllis laughed. “Most likely they’ll just steal the down payment and then do nothing for us. This fucking bitch.”

Amaryllis hated Doris Finch, maybe more than she hated any other enpersoned exclusion. If it was Amaryllis who had that power, she would have brought the world to heel with it, exclusion or not. I was pretty sure that I’d heard her rant about it at least twice before coming to the EZ was even on the table.

“Alright,” said Amaryllis after the movie was over. It had been The Prestige, which got her gears turning, for obvious reasons. This was day twenty-three of being cooped up in the time chamber together, unable to leave, with only each other for company. “Imagine this. You gain the ability to split in two. There are two of you. What’s the first thing you do?”

“I shoot my other self,” I said.

“Because you’re a fucking idiot, right,” said Amaryllis, nodding.

“If you’re talking about the movie —” I began. Normally this was one of my favorite parts of movie night, talking to Amaryllis and seeing what she thought about what we’d watched. If I’d had any foreign friends in Bumblefuck, I probably would have tried cultural exchanges with them, just to see what they thought of Americana and American culture, not that America didn’t export a ton of movies and television shows. This was even better though. Most of the time, anyway.

“No, I understand it in the movie,” said Amaryllis. “Caldlow was an obsessive, and had his own history with a double, which went poorly for him. It was commentary on him and his mindset. The whole movie tells a story about three madmen. And maybe we can make some leeway for there being no magic on Earth, and this unprecedented thing being frightening. But I’m not talking about that, or at least not directly. So do you want to try answering the question seriously?”

“I guess if I found out I had a clone, we’d have sex,” I said.

Amaryllis stared at me, waiting.

I sighed. “Alright, fine, it really depends on how the duplication happened, but we would try to work together, do some research, figure out if there are differences, yadda yadda, try to figure out how it’s going to work with one of us going to school and the other staying home, how we’re going to pay for food, that kind of thing.”

“You’re assuming that you’re on Earth in this scenario?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I guess I was.”

“Either way,” said Amaryllis, waving a hand. “You and I are normal people, sane people. Even if you scale the hypothetical up, I’m fairly confident that a million of you would be able to form a powerful nation, even if you had only your normal abilities as a mostly regular teenager.”

“Mostly?” I asked.

Amaryllis waggled a hand. “No offense intended, but you have your quirks.”

“Sure,” I said. “Honestly, I’m not sure that I would scale up. You’re saying that some of me would be firefighters, some would be doctors, I guess we … wouldn’t need police?”

“Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t,” said Amaryllis. “We have similar theories of personhood, thankfully, but after the point of divergence, maybe some of you would fall into the usual traps, and police would be necessary. But it wouldn’t all fall apart. You would have a completely shared culture, shared values, shared ways of thinking, and there’s no way that the nation of Junipers would end up as a failed state.”

“That’s the kind of thing that you always tell me never to say,” I replied. “Because it could be ironic foreshadowing.”

“I’m talking about Doris Finch,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, go on then. Wolverine had his hangups about being the one in the spotlight, and an obsession with what it would take in order to do an impossible trick. He knew that he could never share the one thing that he loved, which was fame. What’s Doris Finch’s damage?”

“I have no idea, if you’re asking why she is the way she is,” said Amaryllis. “But in terms of who she is, she’s the person who ruins everything. She is the tragedy of the commons. She’s the reason that places have ‘limit one per customer’ signs, why laws have to explicitly spell out everything that the vast majority of people figure out for themselves. People like Doris Finch are the reason that you have to have laws in place for common decency. The Republic of Doris Finch doesn’t have police, because if those police were Doris Finch, they would take bribes and operate shake-downs, then shirk any work that didn’t personally benefit them. The stupidest thing about it is that she’s not dumb, she couldn’t be and still have as much faculty with magic as she does, but when it comes to placing an ounce of trust into other people, even if it’s herself — or even absent trust, if you ask her to just not fuck over anyone,” Amaryllis threw up her hands. “Almost anyone else, in her shoes, would have done better.”

“And this colors your opinion on Hugh Jackman’s character?” I asked.

“On Caldlow,” said Amaryllis. “And yes.” She crossed her arms. “It’s implied that the technology was one of a kind, never to be recreated, and it was his fault. He was a monster. Watching that movie is like if I showed you a movie about someone who was obviously supposed to be Pol Pot, except it was presented as a tragedy and a commentary on the nature of art. No. Fuck him. And Caldlow is worse than Doris, because at least Doris has the excuse that her brand of magic doesn’t work for anyone else, not that she would have given it up willingly if it did.”

I nodded, desperately trying to remember who Pol Pot was and drawing a blank. Cambodia, right? Probably genocide? Regardless, the movie seemed to touch a rare sore spot for Amaryllis, got a thumbs down in terms of ever bringing it to Aerb, and we did a rare doubleheader in order for her to get the taste of that film out of her mouth: she was much more a fan of A Fish Called Wanda.

After some time had passed, the gunfire and fighting died down. Pretty much none of it was directed our way, behind our steel shielding and Grak’s wards.

“Alright,” a Doris finally said, speaking to us. “That’s settled.”

I popped my head out. It was roughly the same number of them as before, but they were standing in a field of corpses from their fallen enemies, allies, and clones. I saw a few Dorises who were definitely from the same stock, wearing all the same gear and with the same tattoos and hairstyles, but, presumably, having switched ‘sides’. The only significant change, beyond the wounds some of them had and the marks of battle, was that most of them were wearing red instead of blue.

(There was a quite interesting phenomenon within the DFEZ called the ‘Conservation of Dorises’. The upshot was that there would only ever be as many Dorises as necessary, because if there were more than that, resource scarcity and general incentives would mean that the Dorises would kill each other. Therefore, if thirty Dorises were needed for talking to us and getting a cut, there would always be thirty Dorises, because any more than that, they would backstab for a position, and any less than that, and they would make clones.)

“What was that?” asked Amaryllis, standing up.

“Internal fighting,” Doris replied. “Nothing for you to worry about. We’re not interested in killing you.” This was bullshit. They would have killed us if they thought that they could, because they would get our stuff.

“Do we have a deal or not?” asked Amaryllis.

The Doris shifted in place. “You’re not talking to the same people. We don’t have access to the same magic.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” said Amaryllis. “Then what are we doing here?”

“We can take you to them and ransom you off,” said Doris. “They’ll pay us a fee.”

“Any reason we shouldn’t just kill you all?” asked Amaryllis. “Any reason not to cut through you like a scythe and try to find them on our own?” She was saying this with rather a lot of void rifles in the vicinity, against thirty women who could make duplicates of themselves in half a second. But we knew Doris well enough to know that they were shit at coordination, and they knew it.

“It would take you longer and be more dangerous,” said Doris. “The only reason to kill us would be retribution for the inconvenience and whatever pleasure you’d get from it.”

For a moment, I really thought that Amaryllis was going to take her up on it, but whatever anger she was feeling at the situation, she didn’t let it get the best of her. I was worried about a double or triple cross, obviously, considering that it was Doris Finch we were talking about, but if it was a specific faction of Dorises that had the magic we needed, then bumbling around the EZ trying to find them seemed like it was a fool’s errand.

“You understand force and you understand power,” said Amaryllis. “If you try to move against us, we’ll end you.”

“Of course,” nodded Doris. “It’s just business.”

“A few of you tried to shoot me,” I said.

Doris shrugged. “We had to try. You seem like you’re strong enough that it won’t happen again.” She turned to Amaryllis. “But you should know that if we think we’re going to get fucked, we’ll throw our lives at you.”

Amaryllis nodded, but I think we all knew it was a bluff. Doris wasn’t self-sacrificing. Amaryllis, now there was a woman who would be able to make a suicide bomber clone. If Doris Finch tried it, her clone would, at best, start up an argument about which of them should be the one to do it, or try to spawn another clone to do the work for her. At worst, the clone would attack the original, or vice versa, not that they knew which was a clone and which wasn’t. That said, a Doris Finch would, if she thought that her life was about to end, try to take as many people down with her as she possibly could, especially other Dorises.

There was only a little bit of looting before we got going. One of the ways that Doris’s power was busted was that it cloned over her equipment too, but the big drawback was that the clone’s gear would disappear after twenty-four hours. The loophole was that if a clone with an hour left on the clock for their equipment made a clone, that new clone would have their clock reset. The answer then, at least some of the time, was to just make a clone, kill it, and take its stuff, keeping both sets of equipment until the timer was up, when you would find out which one had the longer timer. The clone would naturally resist that, but the Dorises had methods of clone production that would put the clone in a position to be easily murdered. Most of the equipment that was laying on the ground, if looted, would simply disappear by the next day.

We walked, traveling slightly behind the Dorises, because no way were we going to be willingly flanked by them. If it did come down to a fight, I was worried that we might not be able to kill them all before they simply swarmed us, especially since they had void rifles. My boots were soaked in blood from the firefight they’d had, and as a demonstration of their combat abilities, it was a little bit frightening, because they were above the level of your average cannon fodder, and there were just so damned many of them. If even one of them escaped, you could be met with a (dysfunctional) army a minute later.

They had incentive to kill us, naturally, especially since we were visibly carrying a rather large number of entads, and those entads, in the hands of a Doris, could be multiplied many times over, abusing the twenty-four hour rule (though the copies couldn’t leave the EZ, just like Doris). This was one of the reasons that travel into the EZ was so heavily restricted: with the wrong entad, the entire zone might get a whole lot worse, not just for the Dorises, but for people on the outside. Void weapons aside, a few of the Dorises were carrying obvious entads, a pistol made of slate and a sword whose surface reflected a false reality among them, all copied many times over. I’d been watching the battle, and neither was terribly special: the pistol fired off small stones instead of normal ammunition and could burst into shards, while the sword had some kind of parry and attack reflection assist.

We were in a relatively uninhabited part of the EZ, away from the big city, but it didn’t take us too long to reach a settlement, which consisted of some of the ugliest steel mage buildings I had ever seen. I’d thought that the ones in Necrolaborem were ugly, and they were, but they were ugliness with craft to them, focused entirely on functionality rather than looking good. These, which I presumed some breed of Doris had made herself, weren’t just ugly in the sense of not even trying to be pretty, they were ugly by virtue of being poorly made. The windows were misshapen, not that they had any glass to go in them, and the structure wasn’t square, instead listing to one side. All the buildings were like that, without any seeming craft or care, which wasn’t a surprise, because Doris would shirk work wherever she could.

“How far are we traveling?” asked Amaryllis.

“Not far,” replied Doris.

“Specifically,” said Amaryllis.

“Another mile,” said Doris. “They have a camp.”

The further into the zone we got, the less green there was, and there hadn’t been much to begin with. The Dorises weren’t great stewards of their land, and even if they had been, the sheer number of corpses around wasn’t good for most varieties of plants. Here and there we saw white fungal mushroom looking things, tall stalks and button caps, which I was pretty sure were growing where corpses had been dumped, based on the bones I occasionally saw at their base. There were vines with red leaves growing on a few of the buildings, plants that I knew fed on the plentiful blood in the zone. Small blue motes flitted around and settled down from time to time, another part of the ecology. It gave the place an unearthly feeling.

We saw other Dorises as well, though usually only briefly, or peeking out through windows. My crown let me see through the eyes of those holed up in their ugly buildings, and I regretted looking, because I saw a Doris going about the process of butchering her clone, and another in the middle of eating raw chunks of flesh. It was no secret that this was how the Dorises kept themselves fed, but it was still disturbing to see. A few of those rooms had tiny closet-like structures, the entrances so small that you couldn’t get out. Those, I knew, were used for clone killing.

The ‘camp’ we were heading to was bristling with armed Dorises, many of them in blue, and our little group stayed back, with our own opposite-faction Dorises in front.

“What now?” asked Amaryllis.

“They’ll send out a messenger,” said the lead Doris. “We’ll send one out too. They’ll negotiate, then we’ll hand you off when they pay us.”

The process for sending a messenger was to have one of our Dorises make a clone of themselves, which was done after she’d been deprived of her weapons, and while a fair number of guns were trained on her. It let me see the process of ‘cloning’ up close and without the frantic energy of battle going on. It was nothing more than a brief blurring, followed by a split, the whole process incredibly brief for what it was. When it was done, one of the clones was grabbed at gunpoint and made to march toward the camp, where a different Doris was following the same procedure.

“What happens to her when you’re done?” I asked.

“If she does a good job, she can live,” said Doris. “That’s her incentive.”

“And if they try to take her?” I asked. “Or she tries to defect?”

“We can hit her from this range,” Doris replied. I watched as a few of them raised rifles, aiming them squarely at the negotiating party. “It happens.”

We were, as a matter of fact, almost exactly at the proper distance from the camp so that we weren’t in much danger from their weapons, but so that the midway point could be struck from both sides. This was, apparently, the kind of thing that Dorises engaged in with some frequency, often enough that they had procedures for it. It was insane, because Doris Finch was insane. I wondered whether they would actually let the negotiating Doris go free, but figured that they must, because if they didn’t, the Doris would know that and bolt.

“What’s the difference between factions?” I asked.

The main Doris looked at me, and I could feel the others looking too.

“You’re red, they’re blue, what the difference?” I asked. “Just curious.” I wondered where they got the dyes, but I wasn’t going to ask.

“Resources,” said Doris, then turned back to watch the two Dorises who were negotiating with each other. I kept looking at her though, and eventually she continued. “Information, skills, and materials. Blues have most of the magics, hoard most of the entads, and control most of the city. Reds are more outskirts, better skills with materials. Greens are agriculture and food prep. Oranges are pustule mages. Purples are star mages and steel mages.” She looked between us. “How much of that did you know?”

“Some,” said Amaryllis.

“You people are supposed to believe in tit for tat,” said Doris. “We want to know what the outside world knows about the EZ.”

“Almost everything,” said Amaryllis. “There are regular forays into the EZ to capture a Doris for questioning.”

“That mostly gets Reds,” replied Doris. “You have better surveillance than that.”

“We don’t personally, no,” replied Amaryllis. “But we would know if there had been a substantial change in abilities. If a Doris has trained in a new discipline, it probably wouldn’t take long for it to be, if not public knowledge, then at least known to people with our clearances.”

“You have news from outside?” asked Doris.

“Skin magic was excluded,” said Amaryllis.

Doris nodded. “How bad?”

“Lots of deaths,” said Amaryllis. “Less than usual for a metro area. Not enpersoned. And it’s a free exclusion now.”

“No heat off us then,” said Doris. “But that’s another athenaeum down.”

“Two,” said Amaryllis. “It happened in Li’o.” Li’o would recover, naturally, but it would take some time.

“Huh,” said Doris. She squinted in the direction of the meeting. “Looks like they’re done,” said Doris, raising her own rifle and pointing it at their negotiator, who was walking back.

“They’re willing to trade,” said the negotiating Doris when she came back. “They’re offering three entad copies and four slaves, two Green, two Purple.”

“Distinct slaves?” asked Doris.

“Yes,” Doris nodded.

The leader Doris, as I was thinking of her, nodded, then looked at us. “You’re going to be transferred now,” she said. “They’ll stab us in the back if they have the chance. You walk, slowly, until you get to the midway point. There’s a kill zone there. We’ll send the negotiator out to confirm the function of the entads and the condition of slaves, they’ll send one out to make sure you’re who you say you are, and then we’ll all go on our way. If anything goes wrong, odds are both sides open fire, so you make sure that nothing goes wrong.”

“Understood,” I nodded. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

We went through the whole procedure as outlined, tensed up the whole time. I was really worried that as soon as we were on our way past the midpoint, the Reds we’d left would start taking potshots at us, but to my surprise and relief, they didn’t, maybe because the odds of hitting us were so low, maybe because they worried about an escalation. A Doris would put effort into depriving a different Doris of resources, but not too much effort. The way you had to look at Doris, at least from what I had heard, was that she would fuck people over only so long as it had some marginal benefit for her. In this case, it helped that the Doris slaves they were taking were in the way of the line of fire.

The Blues were organized, their camp in a bit better condition than the buildings we’d seen on the way in. At its center was a magestone building, maybe one that their captive steel mage had built, and that was where we were led, past armed Dorises that served as guards. Once inside, we were led to a big room with a table, where three Dorises, all cleaner and in better clothes, were waiting for us. The style differences were wild, with one of them in a vest and pants, the other in a full dress, and the third under a cloak with her shaved head covered.

“Welcome,” said the one on the right. She gestured to where four chairs were arranged in front of them. ‘Chair’ was being really generous, because they were made of lumps of magestone. I assumed that one of the steel mages had made them, and now that they were in place, they couldn’t be easily moved. “Take a seat. We apologize for the unpleasantness.”

“We just want to make a deal,” said Amaryllis. “All we want is tracking, because there are people we want to find. We’ll split up installments, so there’s back and forth. Please.”

“Things have become complicated,” said the shaved Doris.

“Are you fucking kidding me,” said Amaryllis. “Complicated in a way that means you can’t take payment for services rendered?”

“They need a service from us,” I said, staring at the Dorises. “Let me guess, you either need us to put down something that you conjured up, or you need us to be your hands outside the zone.” It was the kind of thing that I would have done, if I were the Dungeon Master.

“The former,” nodded the shaved Doris. “There was a research project in Dorisopolis that went sideways. It’s beyond our ability to contain. Do that, and we’ll be able to help you with whatever you need tracked. We’re senior within the organization, direct copies of leadership overseeing this sector.”

“Except that you would just stab us in the back,” said Amaryllis. “A Doris doesn’t do things out of gratitude, she does things because of expected reward. So if we dealt with this problem for you, we’d still have to pay, and I would rather skip to the part where we pay. We know, for a fact, that you were doing tracking as late as two months ago.”

“The problem happened a month ago and has been uncontained since then,” said Doris. “If we do the tracking for you, we’ll have a week, maybe less, before it grows out of control. Even if we could do the tracking you needed before then, it wouldn’t matter, because we couldn’t use whatever you gave us, because we would be dead.”

“I see,” said Amaryllis. “And everyone outside the zone?”

“It’s unclear,” replied Doris.

“Can we have a sidebar for a moment?” asked Raven.

“Go ahead,” nodded the middle Doris. She had three piercings through her left nostril, and I wondered who had done them for her. The information I’d taken in about the EZ hadn’t mentioned the mundane stuff like that, whether there was some Doris who plied her trade as a piercing or tattoo artist.

“Grak, ward please?” asked Raven.

Grak looked at her for a moment, then got out his now-useless wand and circled around where we were sitting, frowning in concentration and muttering a children’s poem in Groglir while he put on a show of erecting a ward that would give us silence.

“I don’t think we need to hide our abilities from them,” said Grak once he was finished.

“It’s a precaution,” said Raven.

“A sensible one,” said Amaryllis. “If they really do have a slow-motion calamity, I can see the upsides of letting it wipe out all life in the EZ, for what it’s worth. We could find a different way to get what we need. Maybe there are some quests that complete themselves.”

“The Library never banked on exclusions,” said Raven. “Every timeline where some calamity destroyed or otherwise permanently and irrevocably altered the world, we would send our best to go stop or divert it. I’m of the opinion that should be the policy of our group as well. Even if you think that killing nine million of this woman is a good thing, there’s a good chance that the stakes are there for a reason. Exclusions never allowed Uther to circumvent an adventure.”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “I wasn’t actually suggesting it, just saying that it’s very tempting for obvious reasons.”

“We’re going to work with a woman like her?” asked Grak. “We should expect to be betrayed.”

“Right,” I said. “And if we help, we should expect that they’re going to give us nothing in return. Best we can do is ask for an up-front payment or something like it.” I rubbed my face a bit. “You know, I was kind of hoping that they would send us to a third EZ. It would be kind of funny to have a quest chain that required visiting all of the thirteen.” I looked at their faces. “Not laugh-out-loud funny.”

“I really thought that we were good on our timeline with Perisev,” said Amaryllis, ignoring me, as she rightly should have. “If this can’t be done in a week or less, we’re going to need to start worrying about her, given that we need to get back to the Captain.”

“It’ll be fine, one way or another,” I said.

Grak made a show of dropping the ward, and we resumed our discussion with the Dorises.

“So,” said Amaryllis. “My guess is that you were violating imperial research bans.”

“The Empire of Common Cause has been emphatic that we’re not a part of it,” said Doris. “We Blues made an offer to abide by a few of their laws and were rejected.”

“So that’s a yes,” said Amaryllis. “Yes, you were basically trying to do things that would result in, if not an exclusion, then the kind of situation that you currently find yourself facing.”

The Dorises looked at each other, then nodded.

“Tell us then,” said Raven. “What kind of magic?”

“Blood magic,” said shaved-head Doris. “A contingent of Dorises have trained in blood magic, and we Blues have been trying to find some way to exploit it.” I knew enough to read between the lines there. The Dorises didn’t go off and train in magic on their own, because something like blood magic was an uphill battle even if you lived in a stable society and had decently optimized institutions of learning. No, what happened with the Dorises was that those with relative resources and power would lock their lessers in dungeons and demand that they learn magic Or Else, and sometimes this worked. That was supposedly how they’d gotten steel magic, star magic, bone magic, and pustule magic.

“We have the same blood,” said the vested Doris. “Blood has power, and we were able to gather more of that power in one place than anyone before through all human history.” This was where you were supposed to say ‘mortal history’, but my understanding was that humanocentric language had been in vogue up until not that long ago. “It was showing promising results, until it wasn’t.”

“And what’s the specific problem?” asked Raven. “You were playing around with vast quantities of extensible blood, which failure condition did you run into?”

“We’re not sure,” said the vested Doris. “We used star mages to open a portal to the elemental plane of blood, just large enough for one of us to fit through. We sent a blood mage there. Something happened, something foul, and through the portal came a monster. Now they’re here, and growing. Nothing we’ve tried has been able to kill them.”

“A worm, about this big around?” asked Raven, holding up her hands to make a circle, thumb touching thumb and index finger touching index finger.

“That’s part of it,” said the vested Doris, not seeming terribly surprised. “The information leaked?”

“Not as such,” replied Raven. “But it’s something that I’ve dealt with before. We should be able to handle it.” She looked at Amaryllis. “I’ll leave it to my party members to negotiate terms.”

“We’ll deal with the problem,” said Amaryllis. “In exchange, you’ll get one of your slaves to teach star magic to my husband.” It took me a moment to realize that she meant me. It was still pretty new.

“We don’t have the time for that,” said shaved-head Doris. “The worms have already infested the research building. If they get out, we’re not confident in being able to stop them. They feed on blood. It’s not something that we can throw bodies at. And there’s something else in there, an unknown, if the reports are correct. We need that portal brought down and the problem dealt with. We don’t have time to give an education.”

“He’s a fast learner,” said Amaryllis. “Five hours of extended education, and in return, we’ll deal with the problem. On top of that, before we go in, I want the first tracking done. It’s not one that we’re hopeful about, but it’s one that you’ve almost certainly done, even if it was just because you wanted to know. Uther Penndraig.” We really weren’t expecting results on that one, because it was very likely that Uther was wearing the amulet of nondetection, an absurdly powerful bit of kit that was meant to no-sell almost any attempts at detection.

“He’s in the Fel Seed EZ,” said the shaved-head Doris. “Halfway down a dimensional tube. We can give you the location, once you’re finished with your work.”

“That shouldn’t be possible,” said Raven, leaning forward. “You shouldn’t be able to know where he is. He’s got an entad on, an incredibly powerful one. It blocks any attempt at divination.”

“That would explain why it was so faint,” replied the Doris.

Raven was staring with an intensity that I rarely saw from her. I knew that she had done damned near everything she could in order to find Uther, and that the amulet of nondetection had stymied quite a bit of her searching. It was probably disheartening, to come into a place like this, where they had a novel magic, and to have it simply work without many problems. It made sense to me though: the Dungeon Master wouldn’t leave only one path to follow, he would leave several.

“Your detection is probabilistic,” said Grak. “It was faint because you only detected those times he lost or removed the entad.”

“Maybe,” replied Doris.

“That would imply that he’s not dead,” said Raven.

“It would,” nodded Doris. “More information will have to wait until we’re not under threat of death. We can run it again. We’ll get your husband a room with a star mage, and then you’ll work with us on making sure that the EZ stays intact.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 201: The Aviary

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