“Is it done?” asked Perisev. Her voice carried on the winds, silky and smooth but also quite loud. I hadn’t remembered quite how big she was, nor the strange way she moved, as though unbothered by physics.
“No,” I replied back, amplifying my own voice with vibration magic. “We have everything under control.”
“I did not task you with bringing everything under control,” replied Perisev. She slinked closer, though that didn’t really matter, since we were already within range of her dragonfire. “I tasked you with killing the necromancer.”
“We have plenty of time left to do that,” I replied. “You gave us two months, and it’s barely been one.”
She came closer once more, close enough to look us over. “You made a deal with him.”
“A temporary one,” I said. “He’s got cities down there, multiple cities, and untangling everything that he’s done, that’s going to take some time. There are innocents in all this. We need to create a new order.”
“And after that, I suppose that you’ll kill him? On the sixtieth day, perhaps?” asked Perisev, raising a scaled brow. Her claws were massive, just like everything else about her, and they were sharp enough to slice straight through steel.
“That depends,” I replied.
“On what, little one?” asked Perisev, seeming honestly curious about my answer.
“On how much we need him,” I said. “We’re talking about a migration of people that’s unprecedented in mortal history, at least so far as I know. And if another month passes and we still need him, then you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do about us failing your quest.”
“You would defy me?” asked Perisev. I stared at her, willing my face not to move a muscle. The answer was yes. “I’ve spoken to Tommul. There are persistent rumors that you cost him an eye, through magical means or otherwise. He’s none too happy about that, but it would seem that your legend, such as it is, greatly exceeds reality. Do you have a plan for killing one of our kind?”
“Uther managed it,” I said. “I’m sure that I could find a way, if I had to.” We had workshopped it. There wasn’t much that I could bring to bear against a dragon, save for memetics (maybe) and chlorine trifluoride, though the latter was so dangerous that we weren’t keeping any in Sable, and burning a dragon to death seemed like a crazy plan just on the face of it. There were other tricks, but I expected them to be more costly.
“Hmmm,” said Perisev, looking us over. “Has Elisha told you what he does down there?”
“Yes,” I replied. “He raises children until the age of eight, then kills them and sends their souls directly to the hells for devils and demons that have contracted with him.”
“Not always the age of eight,” replied Perisev. “There is more money in raising a child to the specifications of the purchaser.”
“That’s not something that’s going to be continuing,” I said.
“Do you know how many he’s personally damned?” asked Perisev.
“No,” I replied. “Tens of millions, at a guess, maybe higher.”
“Yet you suffer him to live,” said Perisev. “You met with him, and made a deal.”
“Not much of a deal,” I replied, frowning at her. “It’s going to be a complete dismantling of everything that he’s built. It’s a deal only in the sense that he knows we won’t respond to leverage, and isn’t so much of a sociopath that he wants his legacy to end in total calamity.”
“Is that your measure of him?” asked Perisev. “I always wondered, of Uther, whether he was as naive as the stories made him out to be. It was hard to tell. In his reforms, he could be mercenary, in his laws, he understood people and their deviancies. But in his personal dealings, there was a lack of cynicism that people found startling.”
“It’s not a lack of cynicism toward Blue,” I said. “No matter what his motivation, it would be catastrophic for us to lose him, because he’s made himself the glue that holds the EZ together, and because of imperial incompetence, he’s been left to grow in peace. We’ve got a month left, per our deal with you. That’s just enough time for us to take this from catastrophic to being very bad. I’ll kill him myself on the last day.”
“No,” said Perisev. “Kill him now. Elisha Blue is a man who is so afraid of his own death and so apathetic about others that he would damn a hundred million souls to the hells in order to squeeze another handful of years from this world. Every bit of honesty and compassion he’s shown you has been because he decided that was his best chance at winning your mercy. You may be willing to allow him life, but I am not. You must kill him.”
“I refuse,” I replied.
Somehow, I had thought that I would win this standoff by planting my feet and refusing to be intimidated. Maybe the most likely outcome, from my perspective, had been that she would go do it herself, and I would have to decide in short order whether or how I was going to stop her.
Instead, she opened her maw and spat a gout of jet black flame at us.
We were standing within six feet of Grak, which was the only reason that we survived. He’d put up all kinds of wards, anchored to himself, and dragonfire had been at the top of my wishlist. The ward had been costly, requiring time in a rented time chamber just so that he would be able to build up enough concordance. The dragonfire was annihilated on contact in the irregularly-shaped bubble around him that followed the contours of his skin, but there was enough of it that all we saw was black, and as soon as she was finished, we were witness to the destruction it had caused beyond what was warded.
The manor behind us was on fire, and the ground just beyond where we were standing was molten, the heat from it blocked by a different ward. The ground was shifting beneath our feet though, because the dragonfire was burning our surroundings, and the ward didn’t extend all that deep.
I felt a hand on me, then a brief moment of blinding pain, and then we were standing elsewhere, the heat that had seeped in completely vanished.
“Fuck,” I said. “She actually tried to kill us.”
“You shouldn’t have said you would work on a way to kill her,” said Amaryllis, scowling at me. “You basically told her that we couldn’t fight back. Remember that for next time.”
“We’re on war footing now,” said Raven. “Dragons rarely back down.”
“Tell the Underline to clear the area,” said Grak.
“Give me ten minutes and I’ll send word to one of the clones,” said Amaryllis. “I assume she knows about the ship.”
“She’ll be coming for us,” said Raven. “We don’t have the firepower to kill her or the defensive abilities to keep her out.” She looked at Grak, who had been the one to use the teleport key: the temporal plate made him much faster when time was short, and I was pretty sure that if we’d stayed even a fraction of a second longer, we would have been facing down claws and teeth. You could ward against dragonfire, but as I’d seen firsthand when Tommul crashed into Greychapel, dragons were resistant to wards. The wards offered no guarantee of safety, no matter how good they were.
“Where are we?” I asked. We were in a small room, one whose windows were closed. I could smell salt in the air and hear a breeze. When I used the Crown of Eyes, I could see through dozens of viewpoints, most of them in small, modest, well-worn rooms dominated by stone, ceramics, and rough textiles, with little wood. The species were varied, but trended human. No one was looking outside though.
“Extraction point twelve,” said Amaryllis, looking around. “Cidium.”
“Chosen as it was far away,” said Grak.
“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Give me ten minutes, I need to update one of the clones on the ship, if they’re still alive in ten minutes. Juniper, use the flask to send a message please.” She popped pencil, paper, and the Fourfold flask from Sable in short order, then immediately began concentrating on the merge.
“On it,” I said, needlessly. My blood was pumping fast, and I was sure that my brain had dumped all kinds of chemicals in response to the attack, though what I needed was a cool head, not twitch reflexes.
“What’s the plan?” asked Raven after I’d rolled the paper up tight and given the short version of things to the clones.
“We have three bases to defend,” I said. “I assume she’s going to come after us, possibly after having gone down into the bowels of Necrolaborem and murdered Blue herself, though I don’t know how well she can dig. Anglecynn would be able to bring a lot of firepower to defend us, so my guess is she’ll make for the Isle of Poran.” It had taken us six days to get from Poran to the NLEZ: a dragon moving at top speed could do it in half a day instead, though there was nothing to say that Perisev didn’t have her own forms of fast travel.
“Then we defend Poran,” said Grak.
“Maybe if we can get her into the domain of the locus,” I began.
“It would be putting both the domain and the locus at risk,” said Raven.
“What do you suggest?” I asked. “We pull in Uniquities or Anglecynn, get them to bring their expertise to bear?” I was keenly aware of the figure that Pallida had given me, that the cost to kill a dragon was twenty billion obols, and I was certain that it was higher if you had to do it in uncertain conditions on short notice. Those weren’t the kind of resources that the Empire would shell out without asking a lot of questions, and I didn’t really think that we had the time for that. Amaryllis had at least partial control over Anglecynn, but not enough that she could bring forward an immediate response to a rogue dragon at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. If Perisev were to come after us while we were in Caledwich, that would be a different story, but I didn’t know what the state of Caledwich’s anti-dragon planning was, and the civilian and military deaths following from that would be hard to stomach.
“We fight,” said Raven.
“We could,” I said. “Another boost of skills from drinking souls and I could see what there is to uncover in the fields of magic I have, supplemented with bladebound stuff.” I turned to look at Amarylis, who was still in the middle of concentrating. “Souls of exceptionally skilled mages aren’t easy to come by though, and it’ll require yet another sacrifice to get up to the virtue that lets me take from souls.” I tapped my foot and gave Amaryllis an impatient look. It wasn’t her fault that her power took ten minutes, that was just anti-cheese from the Dungeon Master, but I really wanted her advice, or at least support.
“Do you think it would work?” asked Grak.
“What?” I asked, looking back at him. He’d set up wards around the room, basic protections that went beyond what he carried with him, and now he was watching me.
“Enacting the same plan you did with Onion,” he replied. He went over to the window and opened the shutters, which gave a view of how dizzyingly high we were. Cidium was built into a cliff; it was a city that should have been logistically and logically impossible, except that it had been around for long enough to have adaptations. The air was noticeably thin, not quite enough that we were going to suffer for it, but enough that I wouldn’t have wanted to have a full-on fight, or run a marathon. We were all breathing a little harder than normal, especially Grak. “Do you believe that using a gimmick twice would be allowed?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You think it would get patched or excluded?” But I repeat myself. “It’s not the kind of thing that I would allow in a tabletop game more than once, but if scaphism gets cut — it’s a virtue, not some unintended consequence of the system.”
“You use Skilled Trade to get Scaphism,” said Grak. “In combination, you are using one scarce resource to power your way into a second scarce resource. In the language of your games, you are using a fourth level power in order to gain a thirteenth level power, which you are using to go epic level.”
I winced at that logic, because it was exactly the sort of thing that I would have shut down, if not right away, then eventually, once the novelty had worn off. If it had been Reimer, because it was always Reimer, I probably would have asked him to sunset the character, and if he didn’t go for that, then I’d have gotten heavy-handed with some rule changes. Or, fuck it, if the problem seemed really intractable, I hadn’t been above just starting a new campaign with different characters, depending on how far my plans had already gone off the rail.
We had actually gotten to that point, where I was worried that god would shut the universe off because he was upset with me.
“Alright,” I said. “Hang on for a moment, I’m going to pray.”
“You’re what?” asked Raven.
“We’re operating under the assumption that there’s a god of Aerb,” I said. “Not these —” I caught myself before I called them ‘piddly’, because the gods of Aerb were still gods. “Not the kinds of gods like the others, a fully omnipotent and omnipresent god. I won’t say that it’s undeniable, especially since most of the weight of evidence is from what you would probably just describe as visions, but … I’m going to pray to the Dungeon Master to allow maxing out everything to work just one more time.”
“Okay,” said Raven, frowning at me. “Be tactful.”
“Sure,” I replied. I turned to Grak, who was looking out the window at Cidium, partly to watch for threats, but from the way his eyes were moving, also because he was interested in the view. He’d been here once before, to acquire the site, but hadn’t spent any actual time in the city. “Anything I should tell the Dungeon Master?” I asked him.
“We have our own conversations,” replied Grak, still looking out at the cliffside city.
“Alright,” I replied.
I settled myself down and faced away from the others as Raven opened up a book from the entad on her wrist and began looking for something, perhaps ways to kill dragons. We already knew everything in those books, but I got the sense that Raven liked books for the comfort that they gave her in uncertain times.
“Are you there god?” I asked. “It’s me, Juniper.” I was keeping the party from hearing me, naturally, because it would have been too embarrassing. “We haven’t really spoken since you excluded skin magic in Li’o, apart from a few stray thoughts here and there. Since then, I haven’t been having such a good time. I have to say, it’s really taking its toll. Some of that shit, if it had been done at the gaming table, by me as a dungeon master … the players would have gotten up and walked away. Tom would have taken me aside and asked me if something was wrong, Reimer would have called me a shit, Arthur — I don’t know, because I never did that egregious of a violation with him. Sorry for being vague, but you should know my grievances, and talking about them … that shit with Bethel? It sucked. It sucks more because she’s such a vital tool. I don’t want to reconcile with her. I don’t want to forgive her. In a just world, that would never be asked of me, no matter how much she reformed. This isn’t really about that though, nor is it about that shit with the pipe dream, which I still hold against you. Everything else, I hate, but I understand. Some of it was almost — not fun, but there was satisfaction to be had, at points. And some of it was fun, but mostly that came down to the other players, not anything you did.” That was wishful thinking on my part, but I couldn’t not believe that my companions had minds and agency of their own. That way lie madness.
I swallowed. I was getting off track. I should have gone into the prayer with a plan, but this wasn’t exactly prayer, it was more making a plea with an incredibly powerful entity for leniency, or with promises in exchange for rewards. Maybe that was what prayer was, at its base.
“I’m planning to kill Perisev,” I said. “She breathed fire on me, because she thought I was vulnerable, so fuck her, she’s dead to me, and hopefully literally dead as well. She sent me on a dumb quest, but when I neutralized Blue-in-the-Bottle, she just threw the quest out the window, so again, fuck her, she’s dead. Maybe there are people you don’t want me to kill, or to learn a lesson from, like Doris, but if Perisev was one of those people, then she should have come at us without so many threats and overt acts against us, even before the attempted roasting.”
I took a breath. “So with that said, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to kill her without going all-out. That means that I need to pull whatever dirty bullshit I can. You punished that, at Li’o, but you let it work before you nixed it. You could have stopped me before I killed Mome Rath, but you stopped me after. I get that. But there’s been this feeling of trying to keep things in my back pocket, holding onto them for a time of need, rather than because it makes sense on the object level. I’m worried that I have to pull my punches with Perisev because if I don’t, then there’s another exclusion coming, and I’m going to need everything I’ve got to make a run past Fel Seed. Something something ludonarrative dissonance.” If he was a kindred spirit, he would get what I meant.
I sighed. “I don’t know what you want. I can guess, and infer from what you’ve said, or from what I’ve seen of the game, but you’ve got this sense of humor that makes it hard to know when you’re being straightforward. Probably the implied existence of a Hitler achievement doesn’t imply that you want me to kill six million people. I’m a little more confused about the point of the Seven Locks one. But, look, the whole reason that I’m talking to you is that I want to be able to cut loose in the coming fight and not get punished for it because it’s the same trick a second time, or because it’s not ‘fair’, or not what you want. So … if that’s at all a consideration, then I guess I’m asking for this to be the last hurrah. And if you hate the tools you’ve given me, or I found a trick that you’re not liking anymore, then let it be after this fight. If you could, maybe give me a sign?”
There was nothing. I wasn’t sure what I had expected. The ancients, and to a lesser extent, modern religious people, seemed to read signs into everything. After an animal was sacrificed, they would cut it apart and see whether any organs were malformed. They would watch the clouds and the winds. So far as I could tell, nothing in the room had changed, and everyone was right where I had left them.
“I think The Underline is clear,” said Amaryllis, coming out of her trance. “Are things good here? Nothing on fire?”
“Not yet,” replied Grak.
“We should expect her to have entads,” said Raven. “We should also expect some facility with at least one magic, maybe more, at least magus tier, maybe in the top one percent in the world.”
We already knew all that. Raven had a habit of filling silence with information. Maybe it was reassuring to her, or maybe that was just the way she was. Maddie had been the same way, though it had always been about things I didn’t care much about, like k-pop or Minecraft. I had sympathized with the impulse, if not the subjects.
“She’s going to be the one to pick the battlefield,” I said. “That is, unless we have a way to pick one for her.”
“She can only pick a battlefield to the extent that we have things we need to protect,” said Amaryllis. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of things we need to protect. Poran is the worst case. We should be ready to move there at a moment’s notice. I’ll check in with the other versions of myself and set us up with a protocol to ensure that we can pass messages quickly with the Fourfold Flask.”
“I made the mistake of thinking that one damned person in this whole world would be sensible,” I said, shaking my head. “She’s just lucky that she’s right.”
“She’s right?” asked Raven.
“I’m fallible,” I said. “I can be beaten. Throw enough force my way, and I’m toast. Unless I’m grossly mistaken, I’m not playing by normal narrative rules, I’m playing by tabletop rules. Being able to suffer loss is part of the game, which means it’s probably the nature of reality. It’s actually super inconvenient to have people thinking that I can’t lose, because some of them are just going to rage against what they see as fate. They’ll come at me with everything they have, not leaving anything to chance, and I don’t even know if there will necessarily be a way out. I’m glad that we didn’t get to see what else Perisev had prepared, but worried that we’re going to find out in short order.”
“I need to sync with the others,” said Amaryllis. “But it would be good for us to have a plan in place so that I can propagate it.”
“Do we have a bearing from The Underline on where Perisev was going?” I asked.
“None,” said Amaryllis. “They never even saw her.”
“Then can we make a new contract with the Dorises?” I asked. “Track her?”
“Maybe,” winced Amaryllis. “The faction that controls the search capability isn’t fully appraised of Blood God Doris, and they don’t know that I’m there. It’s a possibility though.”
“The results of that tracking determine what we end up doing,” I said. “If she’s going to Anglecynn, we set up in Anglecynn with cooperation from the military there. If she’s going to Poran, then we defend the locus with the help of the tuung. Can you get on it?”
“Sure. But the tuung are going to do fuck all against a dragon,” said Amaryllis. “There are capable fighters among them, but even with as much entad support as we can give them, they’re not going to so much as make a dent.”
“What does our stock of souls look like?” I asked. “How many ink mages do we have?”
“Not enough,” replied Amaryllis. “There isn’t some stockpile of souls that we can draw from. Most of them go into large, secure tanks, where they get mixed around. It’s a similar problem with soul mages, whose souls aren’t saved and labeled. I’ve been trying, but the infrastructure doesn’t exist. For those people who do have souls in neatly labeled bottles, there are ceremonial aspects to it, and it’s not like there’s a centralized repository. The data isn’t collated, and procurement can’t go through a central authority, because that central authority doesn’t yet exist.”
This had been one of those tasks that Amaryllis had taken for herself, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that it hadn’t yet borne fruit. For the Onion fight, I had been taking common skills, mostly gathered from the mooks we’d killed, members of the Golden Cete we’d killed outside Boastre Vino, the guards at the blacksite, or during our sweep through Li’o. Getting Ink Magic to 100 would take four magus-tier ink mages, and we hadn’t even fought one of them, at least so far as I knew. Aerb was not set up for the collection and exploitation of useful souls. Soul scaphism was like having a car in a place that didn’t have roads.
“Okay,” I said. I took in a breath. “And someone should contact Bethel.”
“Seriously?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe not for this encounter, if Valencia doesn’t okay it, but if we’re having trouble figuring out what kind of possible solution there might be to Perisev, that’s a sign that we need the firepower she can bring to the table.”
“Doing that before either of you are ready is a recipe for disaster,” said Amaryllis. “And I want to hold off on being around Bethel for long enough that I don’t have to work at keeping a cool head.”
“Do you have to work at it?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a curt nod.
“We will hold off,” said Grak. He looked at me. “What were the results of your prayer, if any?”
“You prayed?” asked Amaryllis. She seemed worried.
“I did,” I said. “And I didn’t get anything much out of it. Nothing concrete.”
“Were you respectful?” asked Amaryllis.
“He’s not some authoritarian thug,” I said. “Why do I have to defend your god to you?”
“He’s not my god,” Amaryllis replied. “He’s everyone’s god, whether they want him to be or not.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And you’ve been taught deference to gods, because they’re big and strong, and if they want to, they’ve slapped people down before, usually not for petty stuff, but —”
“But sometimes for petty things,” said Raven. She had a dour look.
“Sure,” I said. “But I don’t think that applies for the Dungeon Master. I don’t think he’s driven by ego.”
“The gods are not driven by ego,” said Amaryllis.
“Mostly not,” replied Raven.
“Okay, you know what, we have a dragon to kill,” I said. “We can talk about theology later. I treated the Dungeon Master how I thought he probably wanted to be treated, which was as a dungeon master. I tried to put things in that frame, like I was stepping outside the frame of the game to have a chat.”
“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll debrief later.”
“In the meantime, we need to procure souls and wait to see where she strikes,” I said. “We should have some time before she closes the distance to either Poran or Anglecynn.”