It was a bit of a waiting game. We had to wait for Amaryllis to sync with a clone, we had to wait for reports to come through the Fourfold Flask, and we had to wait for some kind of secondary deal with the Dorises. When we’d finally negotiated with them, we were able to use the compass to find Perisev, who was streaking toward Poran at insane speeds.
We teleported over as soon as we had the information on her destination, which put us in the basement of one of the bigger buildings that had been constructed to house the tuung. Many of them were there, hunkered down, since the call had gone out that there might be an attack that they could do little about. I tried not to be too affected by the way they looked at us, like everything would be alright now that we were there. I doubted my ability to protect them.
We went to the surface and made a beeline for the domain of the locus, where Solace was waiting for us. The locus itself was nowhere to be seen.
“You’ve invited danger,” said Solace.
“No,” I replied. “Danger is coming to us through no real fault of our own. We were well within the time limit that Perisev proposed. The only thing that I would have done differently would be to kill her right then and there, but I didn’t have a way of doing that.”
“And you have a way now?” asked Solace, folding her arms across her chest.
“Maybe,” I said. “We’ll try.”
“Good,” replied Solace. “I was never particularly fond of dragons. If they threaten us, slay them.”
“It would be better if we could use the domain,” I said. “I’m stronger here. Not a druid, not by a long shot, but if the battle can be here, then that might give me an edge.”
“Of course,” nodded Solace. “Just be warned that plants don’t particularly appreciate dragonfire. You would probably do well to ensure that as little of the domain catches fire as possible.”
“Understood,” I replied. “And thank you.”
“I am on your side, Juniper,” replied Solace. “Even if I’m called to serve a higher purpose.”
I nodded. I didn’t see her as an adversary, just someone who wasn’t fully aligned with the party’s goals. Maybe I had been deluding myself for too long that we were ever pointed in the exact same direction.
“Can the locus fight?” I asked.
“Can, yes,” answered Solace. “Whether that will happen, I can’t say. We’ve been at cross-purposes lately. The freedom from the bottle … it hasn’t been the success that I had hoped it would be.”
I could see the domain through Soul Sight, and it hadn’t moved at all. The transition between the lushness of the land that had once been bottled and the Isle of Poran wasn’t so stark anymore, as a lot of work had been done to smooth it out, but the domain itself didn’t seem to have expanded so much as a foot. At least it hadn’t shrunk.
We took off through the woods, walking quickly until we eventually came to the tree at the center. I was mildly surprised to see that there were people there, a small collection of very diverse species who were looking uncertain, anxious, and in one case, pretty pissed off. I hadn’t known that Solace had started bringing people in as potential druids. They were all pretty useless to us, since none of them were druids, just hopefuls, and I decided that I would ask about their backstories later on. It was the kind of thought that I immediately chided myself for, but the thought did still pass through my head.
Amaryllis made introductions, and I ignored basically all of it. No one mentioned that they were secretly ultraplusgood magi, or that they had a 99.99th percentile entad, or anything else that was relevant to the situation at hand. I hadn’t gone into the day thinking that I was going to be fighting a dragon, and even this small bit of socialization, this C-plot that was surely going to simmer in the background, was setting me on edge even more than getting blasted by dragonfire. It felt like the Dungeon Master promising me that there were more plots ready and waiting in the wings. Once Perisev was dead, once we went through the months of effort cleaning up Blue-in-the-Bottle’s crimes against the mortal species, there would be more things waiting, another cast of characters to meet, more battles to fight, sub-plots and side-plots and character arcs of one kind or another.
“We have about an hour,” I said as I looked down at the compass. “That’s a guess, based on her current speeds.” She was traveling more than twice the speed of sound, which was faster than dragons were supposed to be able to go. It made no fucking sense, given that dragons propeled themselves through the air using their wings, but draconic flight was magical as well as physical. It did give me pause though, because it was really, really fast.
“Start in on the souls then,” said Amaryllis. “Try to go faster than you went at the arena. Once she’s here, we should assume there are seconds between when she comes into our range and when the fight begins.”
I nodded, and went into my soul to make the appropriate sacrifices to increase Essentialism high enough that I could get the virtue. We had a single soul mage’s soul left intact in our possession, Yarrow’s, and his would be the soul that I scaphed to keep Essentialism high enough that I wouldn’t have to worry about it running down due to the maluses involved.
I felt like a miser as I spent hard-earned skill points, knowing that it would take more training and more downtime to get them higher. The cost was one that only I could pay, and ever since the respec, I didn’t have skills that I didn’t care about losing. I settled on dumping Alchemy, which I’d gotten quite high in the process of creating the chlorine trifluoride, and which we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of until after this was all over anyway. Thrown Weapons also got sacrificed, which was the second time for it, and while I would be able to get it back up with Scaphism, it was going to be more effort than it was worth to train it up again.
Once that was done, I scooped out Yarrow’s soul, then went through the process of eating other souls, each of them handed to me by Amaryllis. I was fairly indiscriminate this time, taking anything that might even remotely have a combat application, including every magic that I came across, and every once in a while, I checked the virtues that I was unlocking. All the souls went back into bottles when we were done with them, occasionally with notes about what was left in them, if it had been something that I couldn’t scaph (like a skill I hadn’t unlocked, or something not currently on my character sheet). We had a disproportionate number of vibration and still mages, a grim reminder of how many innocent people I’d ended up having to kill in Li’o.
We’d tried to time things so that I was finished right before Perisev showed up, but she had slowed slightly on the approach, and that gave plenty of leeway.
“I’m still not equipped for aerial battle,” I said, after looking over the new list of virtues for the second time. “There’s nothing to stop her from making a few passes and laying on the dragonfire. Grak’s ward will probably hold, but that only protects us, not the locus, not the domain, and not everyone else.”
“The best option might be to throw me,” said Grak.
I stared at him. “Seriously?” I asked.
“I can annihilate blood and bone,” he replied. “Dragons are resistant to magic, but not invulnerable. Throw me, then throw yourself.”
The Thrown Weapons 100 virtue was called Throw Anything, and we were in the domain of the locus, where I had extra ability to fudge the rules a bit.
“I don’t think it will work,” said Amaryllis. “Reimer and I have been sending letters back and forth, and his interpretation is that Grak wouldn’t count as a weapon, not without more degrees of reasonableness than we have access to. Further, there are some penalties for throwing that aren’t dealt with by any of the virtues. I’m not saying that it won’t work, only that there’s a good chance that it would fail, and shouldn’t be our first plan of action.”
“I could burn bones to increase strength,” I said, frowning.
“We have a different problem,” said Raven, who had been looking at the mapping entad. “Perisev has come to a stop.”
“A stop?” I asked. “She was moving at twice the speed of sound.”
“And now she’s not,” said Raven.
“Well, I just sacrificed a bunch of skill points and used up a bunch of souls, so she had better fucking show up.” We’d been taking a risk, we knew that, but if she’d been making such an effort to move so quickly across Aerb, why was she stopping now? “Fuck,” I said. “If she stays stopped, she can make all our prep time a waste.”
“We need a backup plan,” said Amaryllis. “The clock is ticking. We’re at one point lost every two minutes. We could take the Egress to her.”
“We can’t properly control the Egress, so I’m doubtful that’s wise,” said Raven. “She could knock us out of the sky. I could take Juniper alone with my personal travel entad, but that would mean leaving Grak behind.”
“Where is she, precisely?” I asked.
Raven grimaced as she zoomed in the map. “She’s in the heart of a city,” said Raven. “Nels Bilo, which isn’t a large one, maybe a quarter million people in the metro area.” She looked over at me. “If we bring the fight to her, then we’re going to a battlefield of her choosing, one with civilians.”
“That’s irrelevant,” said Amaryllis. “Not wholly, but we need to get back to Necrolaborem to deal with things there, which we can’t do with Perisev breathing dragonfire down our necks. A quarter million in the metro area means much less in the central business district, and even a large-scale fight will result in the deaths of hundreds, thousands at most. When compared against the millions of people in Necrolaborem — don’t give me that look, Raven.”
“You’re talking about the deaths of innocents,” she replied.
“Amaryllis is right,” I said. “We’ve burned through limited resources that we can’t spare. Get me there, and I’ll take the fight to Perisev. Collateral damage will be high, but —” I stopped, listening to myself. “Shit. I’m pretty sure that this is the reason that Perisev moved against us. How you feel about the chosen one depends on what you think they’re chosen to do. She didn’t just send us against Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle in order to fuck with us, she did it because she wanted to get a judge of my character. She knew that it would show my values, one way or another. Or maybe just the limit of my capabilities.” I sighed. “I should have told her that once Blue had served his function, we would send him to the deepest hell to be tortured for eternity.”
“There are opsec reasons that we shouldn’t do that,” said Amaryllis.
“I was never planning to,” I said. “I want him to suffer, but that suffering wouldn’t actually accomplish anything. You shouldn’t want your enemies to suffer, you should want them to reform. But look, I lost a point off all the skills talking about this, so it can wait for another day. Raven, are you ready to go?” I wished that we could have brought Grak with, but Sable wasn’t a workaround for the teleportation key’s limits, and I was sure that asking whether there were workarounds for Raven’s entad would just be insulting.
“We need a way back,” said Raven. “Especially if she chooses not to engage.”
“Teleportation key is still on cooldown,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t have anything that could move the Egress, though we could bring it there separately after the fight is over, or if she runs.”
“It’s not possible to use the Egress without violating the Sky Treaty,” I said. “But I guess we’re talking about killing a dragon, which probably overshadows that violation in the eyes of the Draconic Confederacy.” The consequences of this whole thing would probably echo for months, if not years, and I simply didn’t have the time to worry about it. “Raven, ready?”
“Okay,” she said after a moment of hesitation and another look at the compass.
She grabbed me by the arm, gave me a brief questioning look to make sure that I was ready, which I answered with a nod, and then we rose together in the air as the world warped around us, becoming a thing of magic and light together. That only lasted a brief moment before we were above the ground again, slowly falling down between a pair of buildings, into an alleyway. I hadn’t seen Perisev through my own eyes, but I had seen her through the eyes of others: she was sitting in the center of a park, upright and looking quite calm. Almost everyone in the fifty-foot range of the Crown of Eyes was looking at her, or if not looking, then hiding.
“She’s not far,” said Raven.
“I know,” I replied. I took a deep breath. Heightened as I was, I was inviolable, and even if I weren’t inviolable, I had more than maxed out enough skills that I could defend against dragonfire, and likely her melee attacks, along with whatever magics she had mastered. I was feeling that intoxicating raw power that I’d had against Onion, and while it was fading, with five different penalties working against me, it wasn’t fading that fast. I halfway wished that I had kept going with Still Magic, but I had stopped at a skill of exactly 99, which kept me from Meta Stilling. Halting all of my skills from decaying sounded great, but it also sounded like exclusion bait. If I was going to accept the Dungeon Master as a dungeon master, then I couldn’t just be like Reimer, freely pushing the game to its very limits, not when I didn’t absolutely have to.
Perisev saw me as soon as I came around the corner, and her stance changed in a moment, from imperious to something cat-like, down on all fours with her back arched, wings spread, and tail sticking straight up in the air. I ran at her anyway, going full speed, every step boosted with blood magic, draining my bones for power. When I was halfway there, she let loose with a gout of pure black dragonfire, and I parried it away from myself, the wash of heat stopped by still magic before it could touch my skin.
Almost as soon as that was over, Perisev pushed off the ground, springing into the air with unnatural grace and speed, flapping heavily and accelerating in a way that should never have been possible for a winged creature. I grabbed myself by the collar of my armor and threw myself after her, but Riemer had been right, because while I could ignore how physically impossible that was, I wasn’t able to make it more than perhaps a hundred feet in the air before the air resistance and generally poor aerodynamics of my body robbed me of my momentum. I wished that I had the Ring of Incorporeality, which had been lost during a scuffle in Anglecynn, presumably eaten by the Cannibal.
“Come back here!” I shouted after Perisev, and though I doubted that it would do much good, I let loose with a volley of gem magic, as well as an attempt at vibration magic, and finally, threw my sword after her as hard as I could.
She wasn’t coming back.
The sword returned to my hand, boomeranging backward in utter disregard for the laws of physics, and I let myself drop from the air toward the ground. The park where we’d had our brief and unsatisfying fight was on fire, and would probably burn for quite some time. I used what air magic I had to starve the fires of oxygen, but it was dragonfire, which was, naturally, better than normal fire at keeping a flame going in the face of having the air sucked out.
“She ran!” I called to Raven, who was making her way over, fully armored up.
“I saw,” she replied. “The compass hasn’t updated yet, but I watched her until she was just a speck. With the speeds she can move at, we’re never going to catch up. On top of that, if she’s moving at speed, she can strike at us before we have a proper warning.”
“She shouldn’t have picked a fight if she wasn’t willing to finish it,” I said.
“She’s using hit-and-run tactics in order to assess your capabilities,” Raven replied. “She also probably knows that you used prep time in one way or another.”
“Fucking Onion,” I said. “I blame him.”
“Blame the fact that you demonstrated new capabilities in that fight that didn’t transfer over into subsequent ones,” said Raven. “Or blame the careful inquiries that Amaryllis made when she was trying to get souls. Tommul was watching us the whole time we were in Anglecynn, but it would be foolish to think that Perisev wasn’t watching too.”
“Time is ticking away,” I said, careful to keep the sound from leaving our area. “If she’s on the run —”
“Then you should accept that the costs are sunk,” replied Raven. “You have some time until you’re back down to normal, we can guard until then, but we’re going to have to find different strategies.”
“Or I could go higher,” I said. “Meta Stilling.”
“Was that a part of the deal you attempted to make with the Dungeon Master?” asked Raven.
“No,” I said. “And if it would risk getting still magic excluded … well, it’s not a lynchpin magic, but it would be one of the worse ones for me personally to lose. Sunk costs or not, powering up was a significant investment.”
“What you need is a way to fly,” said Raven.
“Yes,” I replied. “There’s a silvered surfboard at the castle in Glassy Fields, but even that wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with Perisev. Hit and run is a viable tactic for her pretty much no matter what.” I had always hated flying monsters in D&D, both because three-dimensional fights were hard to conceptualize and represent, and because air superiority invalidated huge chunks of the normal game experience, leaving a guy with a sword sitting on the ground staring up at the sky with a scowl and no possible recourse. Perisev’s sheer impossible speed in the air compounded that problem: she could move just close enough to launch a ranged attack, then zip away to safety.
It was frustrating. I’d been prepared for her to come in swinging, for us to have a minutes-long epic battle that would have ended with one of us dead. Instead, it looked like she was going to try to wear me down. The first blast of dragonfire back in Necrolaborem had shown her that Grak could put up a moving ward against it, while the second blast had shown her that I could parry it. Beyond that, she’d tested my ability to find her: she’d been waiting in this small city for me.
She didn’t know that the clock was ticking, but she was being cautious about how she attacked, and that was going to eat time. It was smart, but I hated it.
“Alright,” I said as I chewed on my thoughts, trying not to stress about getting weaker with every passing moment. “I’m putting on Meta Stilling, may the Dungeon Master have mercy on my soul.”
Raven nodded, and I took a bottle from within my bandolier, pulling out the soul of a still mage I’d killed back in Li’o. It was the work of only a moment to scrape out his skill and take it for my own, which put a stop to all five of the skill decay afflictions currently affecting me.
I wondered if this was how religious people felt when they transgressed against their gods. Absolve me of my sins, o lord. Or let me pay penance. Something, anything, just don’t strike me down.
“Okay,” I said.
“Keeping skills high is not actually a plan,” said Raven. She was looking at the compass. “She moved in the direction of Anglecynn, but appears to be stopped for now, with her probability distribution spread out over a wide area near the Achrish Grass Desert.”
“I think it’s time to go back to Poran,” I said. “We can still wait for her there. We don’t have a large enough collection of fast travel entads to chase her, not at the speeds she’s going.” There were a number of travel entads included in the collection that Amaryllis had gotten from Anglecynn, but most of those were relatively slow or otherwise limited, and for that reason had largely been left in circulation, acting as crucial parts of the Warrens.
“Did you want to call in the Egress now?” asked Raven. “We have less than an hour to wait on the teleportation key.”
“Hrm,” I said. “We’ll call it in. Let me draft a note.” I took the Fourfold Flask from my bandolier, then a pencil and paper, and after a quick moment, put it into the slot that Primaryllis would be checking. (The Fourfold Flask was cool: I didn’t really like using it as a glorified international cubby hole, but now was not the time to be raising that objection again.)
“No movement.” said Raven, after fiddling with the compass for a bit. We were waiting in silence, still tensed.
There were people around us, and they were starting to move. I saw some of them running between buildings, taking cover. I don’t know what they made of us, but I had switched my armor over to the element of fire, in anticipation of the dragonfire somehow getting the better of me, and I hadn’t yet switched back to something that was a little less eye-catching.
“It would have been good for us to get an open line of communication with her,” I said. “Then we could at least talk about our problems and try to work out some solution that works for both of us.”
“She thinks you’re an inadequate protagonist,” said Raven.
“Well, if that’s true, fuck her,” I said. I frowned, with my hand on the cup, waiting for the telltale feeling of the note being grabbed. Amaryllis was taking her sweet time. I looked over at Raven, who was still fiddling with the compass, not that it was showing anything new. The Dorises didn’t actually give updates in real-time, which we’d been warned about. “We didn’t leave Necrolaborem in the best of shape. If this cat and mouse stuff goes on much longer, there will be problems there. We kind of decapitated their dictatorship without leaving anything in place.”
“That’s true,” said Raven. She was staring at the compass, and I was watching through her eyes, seeing that there was nothing to see, just a blob of probability marked on the map for where Perisev was likely to be.
“I do wonder whether this subversion bullshit is a result of how things went with the Dorises,” I said. “We went into the big scary abandoned blood facility and made friends with the boss monster there, so for Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, instead of a giant fight against hordes of zombies, or zombie mages, or whatever horrible creations he might have had, he concedes to us and then tells us about a lot of the problems that have been quietly festering for hundreds of years and need to be dealt with because we stuck our noses in it. Or, not because of it, but because we’re the ones who might be able to. And then Perisev doesn’t come in for a straightforward fight, one-on-one, or better, her against the party, she’s doing this bullshit.” I waved my hand in the air, gesturing vaguely at all the bullshit.
“You think that the Dungeon Master is responding to you?” asked Raven, looking up at me.
I felt the note I’d left slip from its compartment in the flask. It would take some time for her to write a response. “I don’t know,” I said. “Yes. I just don’t know whether it’s retribution or something else. Not that I would have preferred a giant fight through hundreds of zombies, but it would have been a lot cleaner, and the efforts to get souls bottled, and to find homes for all those children, that would have come afterward, with some catharsis.”
“We’re not going to find homes for all those children,” said Raven. “The world simply doesn’t have the will, even if it technically has the means, which it might not.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, it occurs to me that there’s a parallel to Uther and his mass dracocide. There were lots of them, too many mouths to feed, more than the world could handle. So he just killed them all.”
“That was different,” said Raven. “You know that.”
“I know,” I said. “Probably one of the worst things that Uther did though, and he escaped with the moral high ground.”
“No one knew about it,” said Raven. “It was a secret that he kept. Whether it was moral to kill those dragons or not … There was no containing them. He thought about trying to educate them, but they were dragons, notoriously independent and willful creatures.” That got an internal ‘yikes’ from me, which I decided it wasn’t the time to verbalize. “But there were worse things that Uther did, depending on how you’re counting. His treatment of the orcs gets him lambasted in certain circles.”
“Well,” I said. “From my perspective, he took a lot from how the United States and Canada treated the natives. Removing orcs from their families, deliberately erasing their history, all these methods of cultural destruction, changing their ways of life through force — I mean, he had to have been thinking about that, right? He knew his history as well as I did, probably better.” I was still waiting on a message back from Amaryllis. Sections of the flask were getting used, those set aside for other channels of communication. “Whatever,” I said. “I’m still going to kill Perisev.”
“I didn’t say you shouldn’t,” replied Raven.
“And I’m still going to kill Blue,” I said. “But I’m going to wait until after we’ve figured out how we’re going to deal with all the people he’s got under his thumb, rather than killing him and then dealing with the mess afterward. Call me an incrementalist, I guess.”
“It was a slur in Uther’s Court,” said Raven, wincing slightly. “Not literally, but it was one of the worst things that he could call you when you opposed one of his reforms.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said. I was going to explain some of his high-school age philosophical outlook, but I got the message back from Amaryllis, and opened it up to look at it. “The locus is getting skittish,” I said, reading directly from the note. “Amaryllis doesn’t know why that should be the case, and Solace doesn’t know either. There’s no sign of any dragons so far. Amaryllis is worried that while we have eyes on Perisev, we’re open to other attacks.”
“Tommul?” asked Raven.
“Unclear,” I said. “Tommul lost an eye, and he backed down in Anglecynn, though maybe that was the imminent threat of the Cannibal keeping him at bay, rather than common sense. I’m not sure where a dragon gets a replacement eye from, or if he’ll just be permanently maimed.” Dragons had generalized magic resistance, which didn’t always work in their favor. “And I imagine that he’s pretty pissed off about people thinking that it was me who took out his eye.”
“She’s on the move,” said Raven. “Distribution is skewed, but it looks like she’s moving in the direction of Poran, ETA is an hour.”
“The Egress is faster than that,” I said. “I’ll have Amaryllis send it, we’ll be on our way back, I guess. No idea whether she actually means to hit it, or if she’s just baiting us again.” I looked at the map through her eyes, and had a strangely familiar sensation that took me a bit to place: it was like watching someone else use a computer while wanting to snatch it away from them so I could be in control.
I wrote out the note, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake of some kind, and was thankful that the note was grabbed from the flask almost as soon as I’d put it inside.