Worth the Candle, Ch 221: Target of Opportunity

Quest Completed: Fleshsmith – Pendleham will have to find a new moniker, because it is the City of Flesh no more. What will replace it is unclear, but with time, some sense of normalcy will set in, and a new member polity might find entrance to the Empire of Common Cause.

Quest Progress: Slayer of Horrors (1/12)

Grak and I returned from the fleshsmith exclusion zone four days after we’d touched down there. I’d been a little disappointed with the whole thing: it was clearly a side quest, something that didn’t have all that much impact on the greater story. I’d been hoping that it would tie back in with the main quest somehow, or give me some kind of power up, but the actual benefits of being there were rather marginal, with just a few upgrades to my physical body thanks to a sympathetic group of resistance fighters, which was a whole thing. I didn’t even have a level to show for it, though that made sense, because with gold magic active, it had been a bit of a cakewalk.

I was glad that I hadn’t taken anyone but Grak, mostly because things got serious enough for me to unleash the full power of gold magic. Back when we’d been wee little adventurers in Barren Jewel, I had been pretty worried about Aumann, because he could fire off little bits of metal as fast as bullets, so many of them so fast that his only issue would be aiming a hose of metal and running out of ammo (and to be fair, the latter was a serious consideration).

I could fire off metal balls fast enough that they would tear themselves apart inches from my skin as they hit a solid wall of air. I’d sat down for a day and done some engineering work to try to make a long barrel that would allow rifling and spin bullet-shaped projectiles that had some aerodynamics to them, but even once I’d built a contraption that I could mount on my hand, I still couldn’t shoot as fast as I was physically capable of, given some insurmountable problems. In theory, with the right setup, I might even have been able to punch through dragonhide with the bullets, but it would take a lot of precision engineering and materials science, some of which was beyond what was feasible for me, which was a shame.

In a combat encounter, especially one that was taking place at relatively close range, I could cut loose and not give a shit about the fact that my projectiles couldn’t handle the stress of being fired, nor that velocity fell off sharply with distance. In a few of the fights, I would just grab whatever was nearby and blast it at the people around us, putting my full power on display. Once, I did a blood attack, spraying my blood around a room and then using the blood as a conduit for gold magic, tearing apart a building in the process and killing everyone but Grak and myself.

The fleshsmiths were, for the most part, not actually that bad. If all of the Thirteen Horrors were meant to be some kind of reflection of me, then the fleshsmiths probably had something to say about my relationship with my body. I was a transhumanist, and one of the things that had always attracted me about transhumanism was the idea that I was my own self, a person that happened to run on meat rather than silicon, though that was something that might some day change. The lesson of the fleshsmiths, if there was one, was that bodies weren’t just some inert, neutral hardware that the mind ran on, they were part and parcel of thinking and being itself. As lessons went, it wasn’t something that I thought that I needed, which made it hard to decide whether or not it actually was a lesson.

Maybe I had always felt a little uncomfortable in my own skin, in ways that were kind of normal, and maybe the transhumanist stuff was a way of saying ‘fuck that noise’ when it came to bodies. I hated getting acne, or scabs on my knees, or little scars that didn’t look cool or have a good story to them. There was a lot of upkeep that I didn’t particularly enjoy, things like cutting hair, cutting nails, shaving, brushing teeth, body stuff that you couldn’t just stop doing, but which I didn’t imagine anyone really enjoyed, except that there were weirdos out there. My stance on bodies was basically my stance on a lot of things, which was that it was a shame that we didn’t have a better way of doing things, and as soon as we did, I would be on board.

There were pustule mages there, which I’d have expected even if I’d been going in blind, rather than with a full dossier from Uniquities. On a purely mechanical level, pustule magic worked well with bodily manipulation, and on a thematic level, they were both variations on body horror and ugly biological reality. Pustule mages had come to me during a bad case of acne, I was pretty sure, and as such, represented one aspect of the general idea that Pendleham seemed to be pointing at.

The whole thing would have probably landed a bit better if my PHY hadn’t been so high. I was in better shape than I had ever been in my life, probably better shape than I would ever have been able to get in on Earth unless I fully devoted myself to strength training, bodybuilding, cardio, and a whole bunch of other stuff. There were, I was assuming, some fringe benefits of high END that changed a few things about how my body fundamentally regulated itself, because there were a lot of things that I just didn’t really need to think about anymore, like the aforementioned acne, the common cold, ingrown hairs, dry skin, and all kinds of other things. Given a few days (or a swing of Grak’s axe) I could have had a full beard, rather than something wispy and disappointing. My body had given me almost no trouble, and because of that, there was a bit of a disconnect when I looked at the fleshsmiths, and what I thought they were trying to ‘say’.

“There’s not really anything worth recounting,” I said. I looked at Grak for confirmation. “Right? I mean, no major clues that I missed?”

“They suggested that we go to a place called Sulid Isle to speak with an elf named Fallatehr,” said Grak.

“I’m starting to think that’s less in the way of bread crumbs leading back to something important and more a running joke,” I said.

“There were other bread crumbs,” said Grak. “There were hints that the secrets of their craft originated at a library that contained the knowledge of alternate futures. We also met a man who claimed to be dream skewered.”

“Which he wasn’t,” I said quickly. “He was, however, quite off his rocker. He had a very detailed fanfic version of Earth which bore pretty much no resemblance to the real thing. I made a few notes about his rambling, if anyone wants to look, and I’m sure that he would talk to you, but I don’t think that there was really a point to him.”

“He had his own troubled life,” said Grak.

“And was a powerful pustule mage,” I said. “But other than that, nothing much to report.”

“That’s good,” said Amaryllis, though there was a note of caution in her voice. She believed me, I was sure, but she wasn’t so sloppy that she would take it all at face value.

“Second generation of tuung should be done now, right?” I asked.

“It is,” said Amaryllis. “So far as I’ve been able to tell, it was a complete success. I need some time in the chamber myself in order to get a handle on the reports that were generated, but that’s all afterbirth, and at the moment, almost all my effort is going into coordination. In theory, we’re a week away from a kind of new normal.”

“The Captain’s been behaving?” I asked.

“So far,” replied Amaryllis. “If we didn’t have Valencia … well, we do have her, and she’s been a godsend.” I was fairly sure that she meant that literally. “She’s ferreted out the other backups, and we discovered the mechanism for their creation, which is thankfully intensive and visible. Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle is in the dark for the time being, which should make it easier to handle him. There was a bit of a heated discussion between the two of us, but I’m sure she’ll talk to you more about it, and I don’t want to prejudice you.”

“Heated discussion about him?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No, lower stakes than that,” said Amaryllis. “About his non-anima. But again, I just want you to be aware, because she’ll bring it up, and I don’t want to treat it as a non-issue.”

“Okay,” I said. “I guess I’ll hear more about that later. And all the other balls you’re juggling?”

“You’d have heard about it if it were urgent, or even particularly important,” said Amaryllis. “Poran is secure, Anglecynn is secure, and the dragons are laying low. Very little rumblings from the hells, both from the imperial reports and our usual sources. As I believe I predicted, we’ve seen two separate incidents where major soul mages were uncovered, but both were fairly minor in the scheme of things, neither the kind of far-reaching conspiracy that would have caused some real international ripples.”

“So what you’re saying is that I can be gone for a handful of days and the world will be fine?” I asked. “Sounds good to me. That might mean that there’s time to bang out a few of these other quests, right? We’re netting a ton of money off closing the exclusion in Pendleham.” Flesh magic had been removed from everyone there, though a good number of them had been left alive, and many people who lived in the zone hadn’t been practitioners.

“We’re netting money, which is going to be translated to gold,” said Amaryllis. “So in essence, we’re netting almost nothing but the good that’s done by closing the exclusions, which is arguable depending on the case. How has the call of the gold been?”

“Fine,” I said. “No direct input for pretty much the whole period, actually, which was a little weird, but I still have the power and I was in the middle of accomplishing a goal that it had set for me.” Based on past records of how things went for gold mages, it would probably get less reasonable over time, asking more of me. In theory, we were still in the honeymoon phase. I hadn’t been pushed too hard, aside from the demand to fly to the moon to stash gold.

“Juniper is of the opinion that we should make a run at Fel Seed as soon as possible,” said Grak.

“And depend on the gold magic?” asked Amaryllis. “That’s dangerous.”

“We wouldn’t actually be making a run at Fel Seed,” I said. “We’d be trying our best to sidle past him without a confrontation. You were working on mapping the zone, right?”

“It’s been done,” said Amaryllis. “But I don’t see a way we could possibly accomplish anything aside from our deaths in Fel Seed’s zone unless we have Bethel.”

“Ah,” I said. “How has she, uh, been? You’ve talked?”

“She’s making the right noises,” said Amaryllis. “It’s apparent that Valencia has been putting in some work.” She frowned. “I have my concerns, but they’re rooted in the past, not in the present. The risk of future interpersonal problems seems low, but I can’t be confident that she’s as stable as I would like her to be, especially not in a combat situation. And then there’s the matter of how you feel.”

“If we were on Earth, and this was all mundane, I would give it more time, and I certainly wouldn’t put myself in a situation where we had to interact, let alone trust each other,” I said. “Given the circumstances, I think that I need to race through my misgivings and get this done.”

“I want Valencia there when you meet, and probably as much as possible after that,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s foolish,” said Grak. “We should wait. There is more to do across Aerb before we finally embark. Another level would be preferable.”

“Grak doesn’t want to die,” I said. “And seems to think that we won’t all make it through Fel Seed’s zone alive.” Grak and I had a lot of time to talk in Pendleham, which was good, in a way, but also a little maddening, because when we disagreed, he could really commit himself to not giving an inch. “It’s unlikely that only one of us would die,” I said. “Much more likely that if something in our defenses fails, it fails for everyone.”

“This is true,” said Grak. “It is also not comforting.”

“We’ll have to game it out ahead of time,” said Amaryllis. “Given Fel Seed’s known capabilities, compared with his suspected capabilities, we can do a risk assessment.”

“And you haven’t already done that?” I asked.

“I have,” Amaryllis replied. “But I’m not so full of myself that I’m willing to state the risks without having first had a consultation with everyone involved. Consider my risk assessment preliminary, if you want to.”

“But it doesn’t matter, because Fel Seed can do anything,” I said. “There would just be some bullshit to justify it.”

“You’ve said that before,” replied Amaryllis. “You can understand how that would be very concerning, right?”

“I think it’s the opposite,” I said. “If there’s always going to be some bullshit, then there’s no amount of power we can attain that will make us safe. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about trying to stack up as many buffs and abilities as we possibly can.”

It was pretty clear that Amaryllis and Grak didn’t find this terribly convincing, but it was also a conversation that we were better off having in another time and place, with more of the main team present. We moved on to other subjects, namely how things were going in the two halves of Poran.

Ask her what arrangements are in place for the other exclusions.

The command had come from seemingly nowhere, not prompted by anything we were saying, and not at a natural transition point.

“Gold bug wants to know the status of the other exclusions,” I said. “Whether we can get money from them, I’m guessing.”

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “We have a firmer offer for Celestar, and a much better offer for Rove,” said Amaryllis. “Word of who and what you are is spreading, and I took the liberty of insinuating to the general public that we’re looking at closing down or otherwise solving as many exclusion zones as we can, especially if there’s some material interest in doing so.”

Tell her to give specific amounts.

I sighed. “Not that I personally think you’re avoiding the question, but the call of the gold wants hard numbers.”

“Twenty-five million for Celestar, ten million for Rove,” said Amaryllis. “The former comes through ongoing discussion with the elves, which would probably go better if I felt like I were able to negotiate in terms of in-kind exchanges, rather than just money. The latter comes from direct sale of the rights to whatever can be extracted from Rove’s territory. He as good as swallowed a city and its outlying areas, and it’s speculated that he’s keeping entads and other valuables close to him. In my opinion, it’s an overbid, but the contract was signed yesterday.”

“That’s good, I guess,” I said. “I have to admit, the numbers are so large that they might as well be made up.” Amaryllis was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion obols, so ten million obols would represent a single percent of that. Because so much of that wealth was tied up in money-making enterprises, it was all a little ephemeral. At a certain level of wealth, things became unbearably abstracted, the actual dollar amounts fluid and ever-changing. Gold magic didn’t really care about any of that, except for when that wealth was, in some way, translated into gold.

Tell her to liquidate assets and acquire another twenty pounds of gold. Then kill Rove while she does that.

“Alright,” I said. “Looks like I’m going after Rove. Amaryllis, the call wants another twenty pounds.”

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “You just got back.”

“Yeah, but the gains in gold haven’t been realized yet, there’s been nothing for me to mark.”

“I meant in terms of missions,” said Amaryllis. “It’s one of the reasons that we can’t depend on the power against Fel Seed, it’s going to ask for things at bad times.”

“Well I’m fresh and ready to go,” I said. “Pendleham wasn’t the kind of thing that I think I need a week of destressing after. It was gross, but the DFEZ was far worse. And once I’m done with Rove, if he takes me longer than a day, then Bethel should be out of Necrolaborem, and at least that won’t be a pain point.”


Quest Completed: Everything Eater – The corpse he left behind was small, but the crypt is immense and dangerous, a countryside shaped into a messy ball that will remain his tomb for as long as it takes the scavengers to remove everything of worth.

Quest Progress: Slayer of Horrors (2/12)

I didn’t know how one was supposed to go about killing Rove, but the way I did it was to crash right into the enormous mound of junk as fast as I could go without killing myself, while burning a unicorn bone. The first time I died because I was going too fast, and the second and third time I fumbled my way around some enormous internal boulders that were too hard to get through at a reasonable speed. The fourth time I had somewhat of a straight shot to the core though, where I began breaking through layers of wood and the occasional sheet of metal, not actually able to see much of anything except by the light that I was casting. I was flying (or more properly, burrowing) blind, right up until the point when I came within fifty feet of a withered old man’s eyes. It wasn’t that hard to find him, once I could see what he saw, and as soon as I’d crashed through an internal wall of junk, I delivered a decapitating strike, moving fast enough that I accomplished everything right as the unicorn bone was at its limits. His head exploded onto the walls as my fist went through his skull.

I started burning a second one exactly as soon as the first was done, wanting to have extra chances to escape, or to react to whatever shenanigans he had waiting for me. There was nothing though, just his death and my own presence. I spiked and bottled that soul, just as quickly as I could, because without him there, his roving ball of stuff was starting to collapse, its coherence lost.

Rove was a hoarder, I was pretty sure, in addition to taking some inspiration from Katamari. Back before he’d come along, the magic had been one of those sedate and low-powered one, the kind that took too much work and yielded too little for anyone to pursue. D&D was littered with prestige classes that no one took, flavorsome little bits of character and worldbuilding that nevertheless never graced a table; Rove was what you got when someone stuck their fingers in a seam and pulled too hard at it. He’d killed tens of thousands in the initial calamity, and while you could probably have blamed that on an accident, the subsequent deaths could not. Not a lot was known about him, but the dominant thought was that he was simply mentally ill, and the exclusion zone was what you got when someone unwell and focused on accumulation got all that power, all at once.

I felt bad about killing him, especially with profit as the primary motive. I had little doubt that he would have killed me, since that was what he usually did to people who came into his zone, but still, it probably would have been possible to leave him alone.

I did my best to shake off the feeling. Maybe if I’d actually met him, he would have been like Doris Finch, a fatally flawed but relatable and redeemable person. Or maybe he would have been like Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, someone who just got worse the more you looked at him. It was hard to say, with these people, and even if I did buy that they were a part of me in some way or another, that didn’t mean that they deserved to live.

(I wasn’t a hoarder, back on Earth, unless you counted digital files. There were things that I held onto, and things that I threw away, but I didn’t have huge stacks of anything but gaming books and all the various papers that I’d drawn up for campaign settings or notes. I had a few things that I liked, but I wasn’t wildly sentimental about anything, except maybe after Arthur died, when I was keenly aware that the physical things he’d left behind were all of him that existed in the world. When I’d come to Aerb, I had left everything behind, and while I missed my laptop and phone, it was because they had a bunch of useful functions, not because I was particularly attached to them as earthly goods.)

The whole of Rove’s domain would be excavated by whoever we’d sold the contract to, and the matter of whether or not it was profitable would be essentially irrelevant to us. If there was something valuable to be had in there, like an entad or two that had a high i-factor, we would have to buy it back from whoever it ended up with, but it seemed unlikely to me that there’d be something worth millions.


I felt like I imagined Uther must have felt, solving problems with the application of prodigious amounts of power, strong enough that there were a lot of quests that simply couldn’t stand up to me. Granted, the power was temporary, but I was still kind of hoping that I would be able to make it last through a mad dash into Fel Seed’s territory.

It felt good, but also a little bit rote, like we all knew that this was just what was going to happen before the end. It didn’t even need to happen, not really, because it wasn’t like we were getting all that much in the way of new resources or extra powers. I was hoping that rushing through would level me up, but it seemed like a bit of a long shot, especially when I was crushing people in my path. It was pretty standard for both tabletop games and videogames for enemies to stop giving you benefits when you were too high of level above them.


Quest Completed: A Door Into The Soul – The Gatesmith is dead, but his magic lives on without him, the portals with their infinitely sharp edges making the exclusion zone uninhabitable, except for those whose lives are worth the risk.

Quest Progress: Slayer of Horrors (3/12)

That was another one accomplished over the course of a day. Gatesmith was a problem, because he could step from one end of his domain to another in the blink of an eye, make extremely sharp portals nearly instantly, and could (and did) spy on both the exclusion and what he could see from the edges of it through the use of microportals. Beyond just the portals themselves, he was known to weaponize gravity, putting objects into a vacuum and then accelerating them to ludicrous speeds as a way of firing projectiles up to several miles outside the exclusion zone itself.

Thankfully, there was a trump card when it came to magic, and that trump card’s name was warding. Normal wards wouldn’t have helped that much, unless you wanted to try to creep forward with them, for which Gatesmith was likely to find some kind of answer, like drowning you in a sea’s worth of water, or shooting you with hundreds of hypersonic rocks. I had a secret weapon though, and his name was Grak. So long as he was with me, we had portal immunity, which was the only reason that I was willing to make a run at Gatesmith at all.

The second major problem with Gatesmith, as encounters went, was that if he was outclassed, he could simply leave to anywhere else in the exclusion zone. Even if he couldn’t somehow win by thinking with portals, there was nothing that said he had to stick around, or engage with the fight, and given that he had portal surveillance, he could watch and see where intruders were.

The obvious solution was to go in really, really blisteringly fast, so fast that he wouldn’t have a chance to relocate. That left only the problem of finding him the first time, but I knew a couple women named Doris Finch who could pinpoint him fairly easily.

We came crashing down at several thousand miles an hour from straight above, and killed Caldwell Gatesmith on impact. It would have been pretty hard to identify him after the fact, given how pulped he was, but the game dutifully gave me a notification that he’d been defeated, and just after that, marked the quest as done.


“Alright, I want to steal the recipe,” said Reimer.

“Okay, you do that,” I replied. “You have the recipe.”

“Just like that?” asked Reimer.

“Yeah,” I said.

“But isn’t that … I mean, something could go wrong,” he said, frowning.

“I understand your character pretty well, mechanically,” I said. “Did you want me to give it some narration? Belivus goes down to city hall in a disguise, looks up the floor plans that have been filed with the city commissioner’s office, talks to a clerk from the company and finds out the shifts their guards are on, waits until the witching hour, then phases through a wall, molds the steel of the safe, and writes down his own copy of the recipe before putting everything exactly where it was, leaving not even the slightest trace that he was ever there.”

“Not how I would do it,” said Reimer.

“Right, sure,” I said. “But that said, no matter how you decide to do it, as soon as you decided that you were going to do it, it was basically always going to happen. Belivus is too careful, too sneaky, and more to the point, has too much in the way of magical power, especially compared with these guys.”

“It also would have meant splitting the party,” said Arthur.

“True,” I said. “Though technically it would have just been a side adventure. Even if it hadn’t though, it’s just … if you want to do something that you’re almost certainly not going to fail at, I don’t see why we should go through the motions.”

“Because it’s fun?” asked Tiff. “For what it’s worth, I would have loved to help plan a heist.”

“If you guys want to do a heist, we can do a heist,” I said. “But this is not that. The stakes are low, the defenses are minimal. Look, if this is what the party wants, we can make a retcon that this unassuming company is like … a front for some larger organization that has the means and motive for keeping their stuff under a heavier lock and key. I’ve got ideas. But within the context of the world-as-presented, it should be absolutely trivial for pretty much any member of the group, but especially Belivus.” I could feel myself at odds with the group, an uncomfortable feeling, and the worst part of being a Dungeon Master. “Okay, let’s take a little break, Reimer, if you want to, when we’re off the break, you can tell us your brilliant plan for stealing this recipe that I’ve already told you is basically free. Deal?”

“Sure,” he nodded. “But that means that I don’t get a break. And I have questions that I’ll probably need to ask.”

“Fine by me,” I said, though it really wasn’t, because I just wanted the stupid plot thread I’d spun up to be done with.


Two full weeks and a number of trivialized quests after I’d killed Perisev, I walked into Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s throne room, hoping that it was the last time. We had installed a chair opposite his, at Valencia’s insistence, though we weren’t often in conversation with him, and I had been out of the picture for quite some time, more focused on squeezing utility from gold magic and knocking out quests for hire at a fairly rapid pace. Bethel was back in Poran, the portal to the plane of flesh had been created faster than anyone had thought possible, and the second generation of tuung were working hard to extract everyone from the underground cities.

“So,” I said to Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “We’re in the process of winding down.”

“You are,” he nodded. “Impressively fast, so far as I can tell. You’ve deprived me of my eyes in a number of places, which I don’t appreciate, and the lines of communication have been somewhat lacking, except for that girl.”

Valencia was the one who talked to him most often, communicating in a friendly but slightly adversarial way, like old friends of the Second Empire playing some grand game. It was, according to her, the best way to get him talking and position us as someone he could deal with. He would be dismissive and manipulative to a sycophant, guarded around a moralist, but with someone he saw as an equal, he would engage. In this dynamic she’d set up, she was the equal, not me, and not Amaryllis. I was mostly talking to him in order to be the one to deliver him some grim news.

“You’ve been cooperative,” I said. “We appreciate that.”

“Do you now?” asked Blue-in-the-Bottle. “I conceded, and I stay true to my word.”

“You have seven backups around Necrolaborem, people whose essence you’ve manipulated through necromancy, we believe through subjecting them to near-death experiences,” I said. We had evidence for most of those, and thankfully, it didn’t seem like a process he could or did employ with impunity. “As of thirty minutes ago, all of them have been isolated. We don’t know the precise nature of the changes that you’ve made to them, but we know that they offer you something of a second chance, if you were to die.”

The face of the zombie he was speaking through fell. “Ah,” he said. “And I suppose this is the precursor to my death, is it? I had hoped there was too much utility in the zombies, but you are moralists, aren’t you?”

“We’re not killing you,” I said. “We said that we wouldn’t, so we aren’t. In the past two weeks I’ve killed a lot of people. I cleared out the fleshsmiths of Pendleham, either murdering them or taking their ability to practice the magic. I swooped down and killed Rove. I blasted Gatesmith. You, I want alive, mostly to signal to other people that I’m willing to make concessions.” This was a lie. I didn’t want him alive at all, and I was perfectly prepared to murder him at the drop of a hat, if only someone could convince me that it would be a good thing to do.

“Why tell me?” he asked. “You have me dead to rights, my last plans scuttled. Why not let me believe that I could keep things going forever?”

“Because we didn’t want you scheming,” I said. “We want you to know that you have no outs left, so that you won’t try to screw us over, or run some gambit in the shadows.” I’d let Valencia make the call on whether to have this confrontation, and that was, in essence, her reasoning. “If you help us with tearing down what you’ve built here, there’s a path forward for you. The older method of necromancy, the one that allows the soul to be bottled, is still useful. There are voices of dissent on the matter of whether we should keep you alive, but right now, from where we’re sitting, it seems better to reach some understanding.”

“I see,” replied Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. “By my calculations, it will take you five months at the earliest to remove everyone from the underground cities. You need to secure my cooperation for at least that long.”

“It would be better if we did,” I said. “If we can’t have it, if we think that you’re going to betray us, we have contingencies in place. They’re worse for us though.” It would be a scramble and a logistical problem, but we hadn’t sat down for this without making sure that we could stop a catastrophe.

“And you’ve been knocking out my own contingencies, as I’d thought you might,” said Blue. “Tell me, how did you find the backups?”

“It was a combination of things,” I said. “Methods that you’d have no way of foreseeing. It probably doesn’t feel good to be beaten in that way.”

“Not particularly, no,” replied Blue. “You do seem to have me firmly pinned in place.”

I nodded. “In our ideal world — you’re already a prisoner to the exclusion zone, and you would remain a prisoner here, with some of our members as wardens.” I glanced over at Valencia, who was out of view, watching the proceedings to see whether she could pick up anything from him. He was much tougher than a baseline human, she’d said, because he was operating through a zombie, which affected her ability to read microexpressions and body language, only some of which translated through.

“Very well,” said Blue. “Will I operate in secret, or openly?”

“Openly,” I said. “It’s not just because of the utility you can bring, but because it sends a message, which is that we’re willing to work with despicable people and seek redemption. Hopefully we can get some people to come in from the cold.”

“It’ll be a public relations problem for you, so far as I understand the current mood of the world,” said Blue.

“Yes,” I replied. “We can spin it as hard labor for you, but my guess is that people will still be clamoring for your head on a pike and your soul sent down to the furthest hells.” I shrugged. “Nothing much that we can do about that, because we’re not going to give in to those particular demands. But what we need from you is a guarantee that you won’t try to fight like a caged animal, won’t set things up to be harder for us, that you’ll actually work with us. Can you guarantee that?”

“I can,” replied Blue. “I said, the second time you came to me, that I conceded without preconditions.”

I nodded, then glanced at Valencia. She hesitated for a moment, then gave a very slight shake of her head.

“Okay,” I said. I looked at Grak and gave him a nod. He immediately began moving his hand.

“What have you done?” asked Blue, a moment later.

“Cut off contact with your zombies,” I said. “We’ve done it before.”

“No,” said Blue. “This is different.”

“We’re going to give it a bit, to see if you’ve hidden any surprise counter measures,” I said.

“Was my answer not satisfactory?” asked Blue, gazing at me both with his own withered eyes and the more intact ones of the zombie he spoke through.

“It wasn’t,” said Valencia, coming forward, into his view. “My guess is that your remaining contingency is to set up a new laboratory away from our prying eyes, but it might also involve contact with your infernal allies.”

“You,” he said, looking her over. “How do you know such things?”

“Entads and a long life,” said Valencia.

“No,” said Blue. “No, you’re something else, not a person at all. You’re a curiously proficient liar.”

Valencia shrugged. “Well, I don’t mind what you think of me, because you’ll be dead in roughly a half hour.” She looked at me. “I’m not seeing any active countermeasures, but we can wait until there’s a report from the tuung.”

“Sure,” I said. I looked at Blue. “We’re done here, for now, I’ll check back in a half hour from now.”

“Wait,” said Valencia, looking at Blue. “Stop him.”

I darted forward and laid my hand on him, stilling him completely, and I saw Grak moving to do the same with a ward, cutting down his ability to act. Grak had already cleared him of entads, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be hiding some other magic, or something mechanical that we couldn’t sense.

“Oh,” said Valencia. “He was planning to kill himself and go to the hells, I think. Maybe.”

“Fucker,” I said, hand still on Blue’s withered skin as he sat there, motionless. “What now?” I asked the question at Valencia, but it wasn’t really the kind of question that she was qualified to answer.

“Disarm or kill him,” said Amaryllis.

“Get me a report from the tuung,” I said. They had been on standby for a general shutdown. Our understanding of the zombies was that most of them would continue on doing what they were ‘programmed’ to do, but we needed to make sure that they hadn’t been programmed into becoming a ravening horde.

It was a tense five minutes as we got reports in from the rest of the exclusion zone, most of them through entads. When they came back clean, I pulled my sword from its interdimensional pocket and sliced cleanly through Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, separating his head from his neck, then cutting him further, dissecting his body. For good measure, Grak finished a necromancy ward, just in case he had a way to come back to life that didn’t involve taking over those seven we’d identified.

Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle defeated!

Quest Completed: The Z-word – With Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle dead, his zombies will linger on, going through their rote actions until someone comes through to put them out of their misery. The human workforce will be a bigger issue, one that will linger for much longer, a trauma that will never fully be made right, not without godlike power.

Quest Updated: Slayer of Horrors (4/12)

“Alright,” I said with a sigh. “Quest completed. That fucking guy.”

“Not how I’d have asked for it to be handled,” said Amaryllis.

“He was going to work against us,” said Valencia. “It was a matter of time, and you were the one that said we need to stop devoting our time to this.”

“Well, we do,” said Amaryllis. “The tuung can handle it from here, now that food and water have been sorted.” Food was through the portal I had helped to make with a squadron of star mages, but water had been entirely Grak, who had provided the critical wards for a hastily built filtration station at what was soon going to become a metropolis. There were steel mages on site, a whole cadre of them brought in through an arrangement with the Athenaeum of Steel and Sweat, and they had been putting up buildings almost non-stop. “This is a setback though. I’m not entirely convinced that we couldn’t have wrung more utility from him before he had to go.”

“We tried,” I said. “We made an effort.”

“It’s hard to fundamentally change someone,” said Valencia. “Much easier to coerce them into acts they wouldn’t normally do. I could have stayed on top of him, but that would mean that I would have to stay here, watching over him, talking to him, instead of doing anything else.”

She left unspoken what she would be working on instead, who she was working on fundamentally changing. I knew Valencia’s take on things, more or less. Reconciliation would be easier in a month or two, with more groundwork laid, when time had done its work at helping to heal wounds.

“We need to get going,” I said. “The end of gold magic isn’t in sight, not yet, but if we want it available for the endgame, we’re going to have to move fast.”

“There are limits on how fast it can be moved along,” said Valencia. “I’m sorry, but if you want it done properly, that’s how it has to be done. Rushing things … there are lots of ways that it could go wrong, some of which might end with death.”

“And if we use time manipulation?” I asked.

“We don’t have time manipulation,” said Valencia. “Do we?”

“Technically,” I said, trying to think things through. “I’m not sure how the call of the gold would work with the time loop exclusion, but we could maybe do something workable that way.”

“No,” said Grak. “We don’t have a way out of the exclusion, once we’re inside.”

“We would find one,” I said. “With warding?”

“I went there on my own to observe the magic,” said Grak. “From what I could see at the boundary, the resets cannot be stopped.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“Three of the disjoint planes have some kind of time-slowing effect,” said Amaryllis. “They’re only reachable through the elemental planes, but we already have a standing portal open to the plane of flesh, so in theory the cost is already dramatically lowered. There’s also a standing portal to the elemental plane of blood open in the DFEZ.”

“That’s doable, then,” I said.

“I don’t know what we’re going to find when we go into Fel Seed’s zone,” said Valencia. “But I’m skeptical about our group dynamics.”

“You’ll be there,” I said. “You don’t think that you can hold things together?”

“Maybe,” said Valencia. “But if going into the most dangerous place on Aerb …” she let that dangle.

“How much time do you need?” I asked. “Minimum?”

“Two weeks,” said Valencia. “Give me two weeks, and I probably won’t feel like we’re heading toward disaster.”

“I might not have gold magic in two weeks,” I said.

“We have reserves, and I’ve been liquidating assets that we don’t need,” said Amaryllis. “We might be able to swing it. The question is what those two weeks have in store for us. There are plot threads that need wrapping up, but I’m not taking it for granted that we really can just waltz into what should have been important quests and resolve them in a few hours, not if they’re the kinds of things that aren’t especially amenable to punching.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. I turned to Valencia. “And you’ll work on Bethel?”

“I will,” said Valencia. “But … some of it isn’t her. I’ll need to work on you too.”

“Work on me how?” I asked.

“Work on helping you through it, on preparing for the reconciliation,” said Valencia.

“Oh,” I replied. “Well, sure, makes sense. So … how do we do that?”

“It’s something that you need to talk about and work through,” said Valencia. “You’ve been shying away from it, which is understandable, but when you have to face her, it shouldn’t be with no mental and social preparation.”

“And you’ll help me?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Valencia. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea to use a devil’s power, so it would just be me.”

“Okay,” I sighed.

“It might also be good for you to face some problems that you’ve been choosing not to engage with,” said Valencia.

“Meaning?” I asked.

“Speak to your father,” Valencia replied. “Sit down for a conversation with Tiff. You have good reasons for avoiding those conversations, but it’s part of a bad pattern, one that I’m hoping you can break yourself of. I’m not optimistic that it can be done in two weeks without my help, but … it would make me more comfortable.”

“It’s a suicide mission either way,” said Grak.

“Yes, it is,” replied Valencia. “But if we’re all going to die, then I don’t want it to be because of something that I personally could have prevented.”

“Likewise, the wards will be as sound as they can be,” replied Grak, with a bit more of a grumble than usual.

“We’re not going to die,” I said. “We’re not going against him, just passing through his territory.”

“There’s a good chance that we actually do die,” said Amaryllis. She looked at Valencia. “I think there’s an argument for keeping you out, just in case there’s some kind of pathway through the afterlife that has, somehow, never been used before.”

“I need to be there,” said Valencia. “Not for Fel Seed, but for the meeting with Uther. There’s a strong chance that Bethel will attempt to kill him the moment it’s clear that it’s him.”

“And you can keep her on a leash?” asked Amaryllis.

“You know that I can’t, and you know that’s exactly the kind of language that she hates,” Valencia replied. “Aside from just hoping that the groundwork I’ve done is enough, it’s possible that I can intervene at the critical moment.”

I left the conversation feeling off-kilter. Raven hadn’t been there, and neither had Solace, but we’d need their input too. Two weeks wasn’t a lot of time, but it would mean more to keep the gold bug sated, and more in the way of preparation.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 221: Target of Opportunity

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