Worth the Candle, Ch 232: Department

“Fenn,” I said again, not believing it. Fenn Fenn Fenn Fenn. She looked exactly like I remembered her, minus the yellow-fall all over her and the grim expression. If infernals had illusion or shapeshifting power, I might have questioned whether she was real, but outside of some unknown and powerful magic, always a remote possibility, the only explanation was that it was really her.

“I guess I should get the I-told-you-sos out of the way before we get tortured for all eternity,” said Fenn. She pointed a finger at me. “We should never have gone in for a meeting with those assholes.”

I stared at her. “You never said that,” I replied, trying to find my footing. I knew, almost soon enough to not say it, that it was the wrong tack to take.

“I did, Joon,” replied Fenn. “Or maybe not in so many words, but I did my part to raise doubts, and I got brushed aside, as usual. And now, unless I missed something very obvious, we’re dead.” She looked me over again. “Seems like I died after you did. Give me a cloak.”

I handed it over, and the knife as well, meager defense though it was. “They’re mounting a rescue effort,” I said, as my brain caught up with the situation. Fenn was the last person I would have expected to drop right next to me in the specific hell that I was already in, but if that was what was happening, then it was the hand of something or someone who was, presumably, on our side. I didn’t know how, or even who, but this was proof that something was happening. The last I’d checked, the bottle containing Fenn’s soul had been in Sable, but Amaryllis took it out whenever she went into the time chamber so that it wouldn’t run down faster. That had been at my request, just in case.

“A rescue effort?” asked Fenn, still walking through the snow. “Fucking who, because I’m pretty sure I watched us get our asses handed to us. We’re not stacked on allies.”

“You — you missed some stuff,” I said. “They’ll be looking for us with infernoscopes, I think, or maybe they already know where we are, but —” I stopped where I was, looking after her. “Where the fuck are you going?”

She stopped and turned to me. “I never wanted to end up in the hells,” she said. “Really, really, never. That said, I’m a clever girl, and I thought about it some, and I decided that if it ever happened, probably because someone royally fucked up, or I pushed the limits one too many times, I would have a plan. I would go do my best to find a cosy little hole somewhere, bury myself deep, and go as long as possible before the infernals got their hooks into me.” She turned back and began trudging again.

“Amaryllis is going to rescue us!” I shouted. “It won’t be another — I don’t know, half hour, less.” I had very little confidence in that estimate.

Fenn turned back to me. “Juniper, I know you have a fuckload of faith in her, and I do too, but she’s a fucking teenager, and besides that, I watched her get fucking drowned out just before we died. If she’s alive, how’s she going to manage a rescue from the hells in a half hour?”

“We didn’t die there,” I said. “Fenn, against those guys, we didn’t die, it was — it was only you. I’m sorry. It’s been … I don’t know. Months.”

Fenn stared at me. “Did you seriously plan a rescue mission to grab me from the hells?” she asked. Her eyes had gone wide.

“No,” I said, wishing that I had, if it turned out that there had been a way to do it. “I died fighting Fel Seed.”

She stared at me some more. “If you keep talking, is this going to get more confusing or less confusing?” she asked. “Also, what happened to your arm?”

“Stuck it in a devil’s mouth,” I said, glancing down at where the blood-soaked pant leg was painfully stuck to me. “Not actually important, I don’t think. Like I said, there’s some kind of rescue effort going on up top. That’s the only reason you’d be here right now.”

“I died and … you bottled me,” said Fenn, staring at me. “And then, months later, you went to go fight Fel Seed, because you’re obsessed with getting Uther back, and you died. So … someone took the bottle with my soul in it, and dumped it on the ground, and that’s why I’m here?”

“Probably,” I said. “It seems plausible.”

I heard a howl from in the distance, long and guttural. Fenn and I stared in the direction it came from.

“How’d we end up in the same hell?” asked Fenn. “In the same place in the same hell?”

“Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had a method,” I said. “Some way of injecting souls right where he wanted them to go, perfected as a means to sell souls to the infernals. Which means,” I frowned, trying to think.

“Wait, why’d —” she lowered her voice, “the zombie guy?” asked Fenn.

“A dragon made us,” I said. “Can you give me a second to think?”

“We’ve literally got eternity,” said Fenn. She looked in the direction of the howl. “Or about five minutes until we get captured.”

“There’s a rescue attempt,” I said. “Or there should be, unless — unless they sent you here to help me, and they don’t actually have a way out. If they were using soul injection, that means that it’s been a while, enough time for them to come up with a plan —”

“You think they’d just casually come up with a plan to do something that no one in history has ever done?” asked Fenn.

“No one we know of,” I said. “No one who’s publicized it. We might not be the first though.”

“So you’re saying we can’t split up?” she asked. “I can’t find my own corner of this hell, I have to be with you?”

I raised my hands, trying to verbalize my confusion. “That’s the part of being in hell that you don’t like?” I asked. “The fact that you’re with me?”

“Don’t make me sound like a child,” Fenn replied, folding her arms. She had started moving again, away from the howling, but it was hard to go very fast, and probably a bad idea given how likely we would be to step on something nasty. “I specifically and on multiple occasions asked that if I died, my soul would be bottled up until it went to oblivion. And now I’m here, and you’re saying that this is all part of some plan.”

“I’m not saying that,” I said. “I have no idea, Fenn, I died, and me dying wasn’t in our planning document. I’m just saying … if they did find some way to get me out of the hells, then obviously they would use it on other people as well, if that were possible. If it comes to people that Amaryllis wants brought back to life, you and I are at the top of the list.”

“And who else is dead?” asked Fenn. “Who else should we be looking for?”

“Uh,” I said, trying to think. “Gemma, I guess?” She had been bottled though.

 “The fox?” asked Fenn. “Was she … part of the team?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Pallida was too, and Heshnel, at least for a bit. Pallida died but is back already.”

“Fuck,” said Fenn. “You said it had only been what, a few months?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Hard to track time, since I’ve been in and out of a time chamber.”

“Seems like you got a lot done,” said Fenn. She cocked her head to the side. “Which of the girls are you sleeping with?”

Again we heard the howl off in the distance. It seemed closer than before.

“Maybe we should do something about that,” I said, summoning my spirit blade to my hand. I looked around for a better weapon for Fenn. The paring knife wasn’t quite worthless in a fight, but it was close. If I’d fought a devil, I didn’t like my chances against a demon.

“Stop avoiding the question,” said Fenn.

“Really?” I asked. “You understand that we probably need to stick together, right? That we also probably need to avoid dying? If we die, we go down to another hell, and there’s no guarantee that we go down to the same hell. We don’t know what form the rescue is going to take —”

“You know I’m smart, right?” asked Fenn. “Maybe not a genius, maybe not even that smart, but I’m not a dumb baby moron you need to explain everything to. I understand. I understood the first time you said it. I’m sticking with you. I also don’t know how you expect to outrun whatever that thing is, or how we’re going to fight it given that we’re both basically naked. So why don’t you just tell me who you’re fucking, and we rip off the band-aid while we wait to be mauled to death by something we can only hope is as puny as a wolf.”

I tried to understand where she was coming from. For her, it was a few days after we’d broken up, and less than an hour after the fight where she’d been killed. It made no sense to focus on the personal stuff, but I was doing my best to understand where she was coming from, and maybe it felt more real to her, or at least like it was easier to focus on than what she was assuming was a lifetime of being abused by infernals.

“Amaryllis and I got married,” I said.

“Lucky guy,” sighed Fenn. She was still looking at me as we trudged forward. “Whom else?”

I resisted the urge to correct her use of  ‘whom’, which I knew she had done just to needle me and divert me from the conversation. It was classic Fenn, even, or especially, in the middle of a serious conversation. Even, or especially, when we were both nearly naked and walking through hell while something that was hopefully just a kind of wolf was howling and getting closer.

“Bethel got handsy with me,” I said.

“Wait,” said Fenn. It took her a moment. “No shit?”

“No,” I said. “Not the kind of thing I would joke about.”

“Fuck,” said Fenn. Her face softened. “You okay?”

“I’m literally in hell,” I said. “Lost a fair bit of blood, though it seems to be a bit better. But as far as the Bethel stuff … it was a while ago. We needed her, for the big final battle against Fel Seed, and … we made peace, I guess.” I was never going to be her friend, but the sick feeling has faded, a little.

“There,” said Fenn, pointing off in the distance, back the way we’d been. The thing on the hilltop didn’t particularly look like a wolf. It had two legs and a long tail, with fluted horns, and even from a distance its exterior shell looked like it was made of glistening, crusty dirt. A long, narrow mouth was dripping ochre liquid onto the ground. On either side of him were large infernals, demons from the looks of them, and with all the trouble I’d had taking on a devil, I didn’t think that I was going to be able to beat both of them, not with the wolf thing too, not even with Fenn’s help.

“We should have run,” I said.

“With this shit?” asked Fenn, gesturing at what remained of the yellow-fall. “They’ll be on us.” She looked at my injured arm, then at the spirit blade. “You killed one?”

“Not one as strong as those,” I said. The wolf-thing was being held back by a long lead, and the demons were staring down at us. “And you can’t kill them.”

“You take the left one, I’ll take the right,” said Fenn.

“You think we can?” I asked, looking her over. She was still completely nude, save for the cloak, and smeared with the yellow-fall, same as me. She was holding the pen knife in her fist, its small blade sticking out two inches. A part of me couldn’t believe that she was really back. There were so many things about her that I had forgotten, or if not forgotten, that weren’t actively part of my memories of her. There were little features of her voice, a very slight accent that might have betrayed the alternating months at the Isle of Eversummer. There was the way her muscles tensed, and the way she stood so that the ritual scars on her arm stuck up from the surface.

“You’ve got your sword,” said Fenn, “And I’ve got mine.” She gestured with the little pen knife. She looked at the demons. “If all else fails, I’m going to bite them.”

I was worried she would run ahead and attack them, but she waited, the same as I did, tensed and ready for an attack. I didn’t actually know what they were waiting for.

Eventually, they let the wolf thing go, and as soon as his lead was unhooked, he bolted for us. I crouched down, trying to figure out a plan of attack, holding my spirit blade in front of me. When it came close enough, I rushed towards it, trying my best to slice up its face. The blade bounced off though, like hitting metal, and I skidded backward, trying to grab the wolf-thing by its horns as it attempted to bite me. A glance at the demons on the hill showed that they were still there, still watching. Maybe it was bloodsport for them.

I got bitten in the thigh, his long snout rubbing wet and rough against me, but I got a handle on first one horn, then the other, and maneuvered myself around so that I was behind him, out of the way of him. My cut up arm felt weak, and I was bleeding freely from the leg, but I was still really fucking strong, and I had fought all kinds of creatures before, including a week of clean-up in Li’o.

“Blind him!” I shouted, and Fenn moved forward, more tentative than I remembered her being. She grabbed the creature’s head as I held it down, then started stabbing her knife into various parts of his eye clusters. Once that was finished, I was able to situate myself on top of his back. I tried twisting the horns, but my hands were covered in both blood and the yellow-fall, making it too difficult to maneuver the head. I didn’t even know if this thing could be decapitated, or whether it had a nervous system, or veins we could puncture. It was thrashing around, trying to get me off, so I let it and tumbled to the side, getting freshly covered with yellow-fall and scrambling to pick my spirit blade back up.

The wolf-thing limped off away from us, badly wounded and whimpering.

“You go right, I go left?” I asked Fenn, looking at the two demons still standing on top of the hill. They could probably feel my pain, which was like ecstasy to them.

“Yeah,” said Fenn.

The demons descended down from the hill, moving slowly. They were wearing large cloaks that partially obscured their forms, but I could see large clawed feet beneath the one on the right, and something more like a chicken leg from the one that I was going to be after. I had never fought a bird before.

I glanced at Fenn. She seemed nervous.

“They’re impossible to kill,” I said. “But we should be able to hurt them enough that —”

The demon that I’d called dibs on launched himself off the side of the hill, leaving his cloak behind. He had barely any torso at all, just a long, sinuous spine with metal barbs coming out of the side of it that made a shape like a rib cage, all of which led up to a head like a baby’s. Instead of arms, it had a coiled tentacle in the center of the ‘ribs’. The other demon was chunky, with eyes on stalks that looked pretty vulnerable, and a thickness everywhere else that seemed like it was going to pose a problem.

I focused on my own demon though, trying to think of ways to hurt it given its unique physiology. It was faster than me, taller than me, and fairly likely to be stronger. The tentacle in the center of its chest looked vulnerable, like a prehensile tongue, but it was coiled up in there, and behind sharp bits of metal.

When he got within five feet of me, I held the spirit blade in front of me, waiting for an opening. The plan was to stab the tentacle and hope that I didn’t get too sliced up in the process. Whatever healing factor the hell provided — the one good upside, and only there to make the tortures endless — it didn’t seem to work very fast.

I lunged forward, and while I got my blade through the sharp bits of metal, I did nothing but give the tentacle a nick. Worse, the metal bars had a substantial difference from ribs, which was that they could move independently of each other. They clamped down on the blade, so hard that it felt like it was going to break, and I lost my grip.

The metal ribs opened up, save for the ones that held the spirit blade, and the tentacle snaked out. It was longer than I’d thought, long enough to wrap around my neck and start squeezing the life from me. I’d known that demons were strong, and exceptional fighters, but I hadn’t been prepared to have my ass handed to me quite so quickly. I tried kicking, hoping to bend one of the chicken legs the wrong way, and I had my hands free, but punching the appendage around my neck seemed to do nothing, and it was cutting off my blood flow.

I never really gave up, but at a certain point my body stopped cooperating. I looked over at Fenn and for a horrified second thought that she was dead, but it was an overreaction, because there was still some life left in her. Infernals didn’t kill people if it could at all be helped. We were valuable, so rare and precious that these two finding us would be like a person back on earth coming across a stack of gold bars.

I blacked out, and when I woke up, I was in a room with much better furnishing than the house I’d been in before. For the most part, it was all the same materials, but they were put together much more competently. I was mildly surprised to see straight lines and square edges, given that it must have been made by infernals, but I supposed some of that was practicality and engineering considerations that weren’t substantially different in this hell. It wasn’t clean though, and looking down, I could see a considerable amount of dried blood on the floor. Some of it was probably mine, but not all of it.

I was in a chair, bound with my hands behind my back, something metal in my mouth, and my legs affixed to the floor in some way that seemed quite firm and wasn’t visible to me. It was the third time I’d been in this kind of situation, and the last two times hadn’t been a cake walk. The room had a single door, a single overhead light of the same red variety as before, and no windows.

I’d been conscious for about five minutes when a devil slithered into the room and hunched himself across the table from me. He had small, presumably vestigial wings on his back, and a surprisingly human face with drooping skin and jowls like Richard Nixon. His forearms were thin and his hands were like claws, but they carried something that very much looked like a folder.

I kept my mouth shut. The longer it took for them to figure out what languages I spoke, the better. Clearly they had questions for me. I had read enough of Valencia’s reports on the state of the hells to know that they were checking over every mortal. What they didn’t know was that I was the one they were looking for, but that was only a matter of time. Eventually, I would crack and tell them about Valencia, or tell them enough that they would be able to figure it out on their own. Devils were very good at talking to prisoners.

“I’m here to extract answers from you,” the devil said, its speech perfect and strangely feminine. Infernals didn’t really have genders, since they had variable physiology and no need to reproduce.

I said nothing, of course. Silence was the best policy, because speaking would gain me nothing.

“You’re recent,” the devil said. “You’ve been here a day, most of that blacked out.”

I said nothing. I wondered what the purpose of letting me know what they knew was. A false sense of security? To read something on my face? They didn’t need to tell me how long I’d been out. It seemed to me like it would have been better not to say. Of course, it was also perfectly possible that it was a lie.

“You have a connection to the killings,” said the infernal. “How and why is unknown, for now. Speak, and be spared.”

I couldn’t speak, not with the metal thing in my mouth. I wondered why that was there, if they wanted information from me.

As though reading my mind, the devil moved around the table to me and undid a clasp that allowed it to pull the metal bit from my mouth. I contemplated trying to bite off and swallow my tongue, but I didn’t particularly think that would work, and most likely, the devil would just end up giving me a rapid and unpleasant tracheotomy to keep me from dying. Besides, Fenn had probably been brought in with me, and I wanted us to stay in the same hell.

“You are here for an eternity,” said the devil. “Your spirit is not yet broken. You understand that it will break, in time. This is as inevitable as your death itself. And when your spirit is broken, still you will continue on, without even the comfort of insanity or catatonia.”

“Okay,” I said. “I don’t really see how saying that helps you. As yet, my spirit is not broken.”

“Tell me what you were doing in the Fel Seed exclusion zone,” said the devil.

I was sorely tempted to quip, or at least be flippant, but I stayed quiet, because speaking gave me no advantage. Saying, ‘I’m not answering any questions without a lawyer’ or ‘I know my rights, I’m entitled to a phone call’ would have been fucking hilarious though.

“You think that there’s a chance of rescue,” said the devil, his beady eyes watching me. “You think that this is … false, the reality of your eternity here.”

“Where’s the woman I was with?” I asked. I was measuring my words carefully, trying not to give anything away. It was pretty clear that the infernal was doing its best to cold read me. But in order to cold read someone, it’s best if you test them, give them small scraps of information that they can respond to, and I was hoping to get the better of the deal.

“It’s unusual for mortals to know each other,” said the devil. “Even if they died at the same time — which you didn’t.”

“You know something about the killings,” said the devil. “There’s some unknown power, and you know enough to think that it will save you. It doesn’t work like that — or it does, and you know more than I’ve been told, or more than has been revealed.”

“Okay,” I said. “Sure. And those people, the ones responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands of infernals, they’re watching this right now —” it occurred to me that the devil could probably tell when I was lying. I wasn’t a very good liar. “Or if they’re not, then they’ll be able to get a report from me at some point in the future, because as you said, I’m here for eternity. You think that I have some relation to the weapon that’s been killing infernals, and you locked me up. Do you think that’s wise?”

“You want to offer me a deal,” the devil nodded. “You would not honor the deal. You hate me and would not spare my life.”

“I would,” I said. “I’ve spared the lives of people I hate.”

The devil stared at me for a moment, possibly weighing things. It was hard to say.

“What will you do once I release you?” it asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’ll hang tight in here for now, you’ll tell me some vital details, and then I’ll work out a way to get my friend out of wherever she’s being held.”

The devil nodded, then went over to where I was sitting and began undoing the restraints, but it took some time. I didn’t know whether this was a part of my plan or his, which worried me. Still, devils weren’t exactly known for their fanatical loyalty.

“What does your weapon need in order to kill?” asked the devil.

“I’m not going to answer that,” I said.

“How do you deliver it instructions?” asked the devil, rubbing its hands together.

“I’m not going to answer that either,” I said.

“You cannot instruct it unless they’re watching you by infernoscope,” said the devil. “How will you tell them not to kill me?”

“Oh,” I said. I’d thought that it was trying to pump me for information, or that releasing me had been part of the interrogation, and maybe it was, but that was a very valid point.

“There is a chance that I will die from the weapon,” said the devil. “Even if you keep your end of the bargain.”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess that’s for you to weigh. In the meantime, we don’t have to go anywhere. When are you expected to report to your superiors about the interrogation?”

“My superior is fifteen hells away,” replied the devil, rubbing its hands together even more. “I have complete authority.”

“And where are we?” I asked.

“By Anglish accounting, this is the 78th hell,” replied the devil. “We are in the Seam of Scars, south of the Putrid Pass, a small city of some eighty thousand infernals and a thousand mortals. The city is called Rezire Kilmeros.” The devil tapped its small claws together. “This does not help you in any way.”

“No,” I said. “Probably it doesn’t. Tell me something that does help me. And remember, I’m here for an eternity, and eventually the people with the weapon are going to find me. Better that I’m able to communicate with them so that they don’t just lay waste and get you caught in the middle of it.” I was trying to say ‘weapon’ in the way that I normally said the word, but I thought even a normal person would probably have picked up on the ‘weapon’ being a person.

I was talking too much, but fuck, I had him on the ropes, didn’t I? I really did have an all-powerful weapon, one which he wouldn’t have asked about if it wasn’t still steadily and randomly killing infernals. The whole plan to keep Valencia as unknown as possible was for her to kill a whole lot, using the time chamber to sleep so they wouldn’t know she needed sleep. Thousands might have been on the low side.

“You are in a fortress of the Prime Lochan, Thyrakir, Weaver of Tongues,” said the devil. “You were brought here when you were discovered among the fallen, and I was dispatched from elsewhere in the hell to question you before more damage was done to you. Your companion is still blood-choked, waiting for my attentions in the other room.”

I had to keep in mind that the devil could read me really well, above and beyond how bad I was at lying. I felt worse at lying, somehow, and I wondered whether it was because something had happened to Amaryllis, or if my death had affected the sharing of skills we were supposed to get. If I stopped believing that I would spare this devil, then the devil would probably know, and whatever tenuous leverage I had would be lost.

“You can stay in here with me indefinitely?” I asked. “No one will interrupt us?”

“No one who values their skin,” the devil replied.

“Good,” I said. I rubbed my wrists and ankles where the restraints had been, but stopped when skin started sloughing off. I was in better shape than I’d been before the fight, thanks to the low-level healing effect of the hell, but my skin was apparently fucked up from the yellow-fall. The 78th hell though … that was shallow, and I’d still barely been able to take on that first devil at what I thought of as being a farm. He must have been rich, to have a person, so maybe it was more like a gated community.

I tried to think. I wasn’t just in a hell, I was in a hell with Fenn, who had died months earlier. That pointed toward soul injection using Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle’s technology. In theory, that could have been done as soon as ten minutes after I’d died, if Amaryllis had been working on the tech with one of her clones, and she’d had Fenn’s soul in a bottle there. But to inject the soul would mean that they knew where I was, and if they knew where I was, then they should have been able to have Valencia clear the infernals around me. They wouldn’t have put Fenn in with me unless they had a plan, I was convinced of that, but they wouldn’t have been able to have a plan until I died, and it would take time.

All that left me with the question of what the next step was. I was hoping that it wasn’t something that I had to do, because even if this devil was taking my threat seriously, if it wasn’t just a ruse, I was seriously constrained.

“Alright,” I said. “Take me to see Fenn.”

“I cannot,” said the devil. “I have authority, but it is not ultimate. If —”

“Find a way to make it happen,” I said. “I need to speak with her, to … I don’t know.”

“You are expecting rescue,” said the devil. “Failing that, you are expecting your weapon to lay waste.”

“I am,” I said. “Your job is to make sure that you’re not killed by accident when the shooting starts. The best way of doing that is to make sure that I’m together with Fenn.”

The devil watched me for a moment, then gave a little head bob. “Stay here.”

I was hesitant to do that, but I didn’t really have a choice. I was fully aware that perhaps I was being manipulated, and that this ploy of threatening the devil might have the unintended consequence of revealing more — too much — about Valencia and her capabilities. I was more worried about my own situation though, and the unknowable conditions on Aerb that had led to Fenn being down here with me. I thought I had put together most of the puzzle pieces, but I couldn’t figure out why Valencia wasn’t helping, not unless she was dead, but if that were the case, then what was the plan? Actually, even with Valencia helping, what was the plan? It wasn’t like trying to pull someone from the hells was a new problem, but to my knowledge, it had never been done successfully, and I had searched after Fenn died, spent my time reading the literature, even talked to some of the librarians about it when I was there. It was well-trod ground, and nothing in the game system so much as hinted at a solution, not that the game system was making itself known.

The parts of my skin where the yellow-fall had been were now red, which meant virtually everywhere given that I’d fallen in the stuff and then trudged through it while it was falling. It was worse in some places than others, itchy on my legs, which had it thoroughly caked on, and I reached down to scratch while I thought about our situation. I stopped as soon as I realized that was a bad idea. Beneath the layers of skin I’d accidentally removed it was wet and red, stinging against the open air.

I was astonished by how high in the hells we were, given how terrible it already was.

The devil, whose name I hadn’t gotten and didn’t care about, came back into the room, carting Fenn on a dolly. He closed the door tightly behind him, then took something off from around her neck and undid the rest of her restraints.

The devil watched her, and me.

“How long is it going to take?” I asked.

“It is painful for me to be around you,” said the devil. “Hope, courage, and relief are anathema for a devil.”

“I know that,” I said. I also didn’t care.

“I need to stay here,” it said. “It is necessary for me to be in this room so they do not understand what has happened. Neither of you can leave, even under my supervision. They would see through you in an instant.”

“But you could convince them,” I said. “Convince them that I only thought I was in control of things.”

The devil gave a non-committal bob of its head.

“We,” said Fenn. “We got our asses handed to us, didn’t we?” She was blinking and looking around, until her eyes fixed on the devil. “The fuck is going on?”

“I told this devil we weren’t going to kill him,” I said. “They know that we have a method of killing infernals, and that the weapon would, ultimately, listen to me if I begged for a reprieve.”

Fenn watched me for a moment, then nodded.

“There is no escape from the hells,” said the devil.

“Yeah?” asked Fenn. “Then I guess we’ll just have to set up a little villa somewhere around here, get waited on hand and foot, and murder anything that comes within twenty miles of us.”

“The power does not work on beasts or magic,” the devil said. It was a probing statement, said not because he thought it was true, but because he wanted to see what we would reveal in our expressions.

“Is this fucking guy threatening us?” asked Fenn, looking at me.

“That, and gathering information,” I said. “Our leverage over him is limited and he’s planning for the future. Best way out of getting permanently obliterated for right now is for him to do the unpleasant work of listening to us, but I’m guessing that as an interrogator he’s got plenty of experience with that.”

“Huh?” asked Fenn.

“Interrogators can’t just rely on torture and tricks,” I said. “They need positive emotions from the people they have captured. Someone who’s in a haze of pain and discomfort won’t necessarily be as pliant, or not in the way you might want. But the emotions that it might need a person to feel aren’t necessarily ones that are pleasant for an infernal.”

I waited for the devil to nod in agreement, but it sat there, stoic. It probably didn’t want to give me the satisfaction.

“So we’re just sitting here?” asked Fenn. “Waiting for rescue? You’ve got that much faith in Amaryllis?”

My eyes moved to the devil. I wondered whether that name was familiar to him. So far as he’d told me, he was someone high up in the infernal hierarchy, tasked with this interrogation because it was important. There were a buttload of infernals, something like two and a half trillion of them, but most weren’t actually part of any grand organization, either ‘commoners’ who had no mortals of their own, or part of a small fiefdom in one way or another, answerable to each other only through threats of force or occasional taxes, but not actually ‘unified’ in any real way.

“I do,” I said, turning back to Fenn. “She wouldn’t have put you down here with me unless she had a damned good plan. She cares too much about you for that. And even if I didn’t think she was coming, what can we do? We’re stuck down here, unless there’s some secret way out of the hells that the infernals have kept hidden for thirty thousand years. Given that Aerb has had infernoscopes trained on the hells for a long time, it seems like we would have found it.”

“Infernoscopes don’t go all the way down,” said Fenn, crossing her arms.

“Okay?” I asked, shrugging. “I’m just saying — if you have a plan that you like better, let me know, and we can implement it, but we want to be highly visible and findable on the infernoscopes, if they don’t have eyes on us already.”

“We’re in a room with no windows,” said Fenn. “Not very visible.” Infernoscopes could look inside walls, but it was hinky work, and she was right.

“You’re right,” I said. “Better if we were clearly visible from an aerial view.” I looked at the devil.

“I cannot move you,” it said, shaking its head, wobbling its jowls. “I am not above suspicion.”

“It’s also not in your interests to help us,” I said. “And the only thing we can threaten you with is death.”

“Not true,” said Fenn. “I mean, we don’t just have threats. You could make him king of the devils,” she said. “Kill everyone in line ahead of him, or whatever,” she made a ‘yadda yadda yadda’ motion with her hands.

“Doable,” I said, frowning.

“You intend to kill every infernal to the last,” said the devil. “You intend to create nine thousand hells full of people with happy, comfortable lives.” His expression was impossible to read.

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I have no way of actually doing that right now, but —”

“You might,” the devil replied. “You have reason to think it is within your power.”

I nodded, not seeing the point in a deception he would see through. “But I wouldn’t actually need to kill the infernals, if I could make the hells into anti-hells. I don’t believe that retribution for the enormous crimes of the infernals is good or necessary. All I’d have to do is silo all two and a half trillion of you away, then change what you respond to so that you could, I don’t know, have some flourishing trade in cultural products or simulacra.” I wasn’t set on that, and in theory, a heaven, even for infernals, wouldn’t make either resource gathering, materials processing, or labor a necessity.

“So we’re seriously just waiting?” asked Fenn. “Just hanging out in a jail cell with this dude, hoping that they find us, that Amaryllis opens up an impossible door back to Aerb?”

“I guess,” I said. “Ideally, we’d paint some kind of sign on the roof.”

“Impossible,” said the devil. It might have been a lie, but I had no way to force him. “I need to step out. Do not leave under any circumstances.”

“Why do you need to step out?” I asked.

“The people who own this place will want an explanation,” said the devil. “They were promised they could have you after the interrogation was completed. The sooner the explanation happens, the longer I can keep you here.”

It sounded suspect, but I naturally distrusted everything this devil said, just by its nature. What was he going to do if he left though? What did keeping him here actually gain us? It would be nice to have a conversation in relative privacy, and if Valencia went in chewing through infernals, it was actually better that there be breadcrumbs for her to follow.

“Okay,” I said. “Go.”

It left the room, and I breathed out a bit.

“The fuck happened to your leg?” asked Fenn.

“Oh,” I said. “Don’t try to scratch where the yellow-fall is. Skin came off.” It was already glossy though, starting to slowly heal in a way I didn’t think would have happened up on Aerb, and the damage I’d done to my ankles and wrists was more or less undone, still itchy but not stinging. I couldn’t use bone magic even if I’d had bones to spare, so I was stuck with accelerated natural healing. It was the first time in a long time that an injury couldn’t just be wiped away with a thought.

“Fuck,” said Fenn.

“Do you want the chair?” I asked, standing up. “It’s probably marginally more comfortable than the floor.”

“Sure,” she said. We traded places, and I sat down on the floor.

“You were not kidding when you said ‘marginal’,” she said after a moment.

“I mean, they are infernals,” I replied. “The less comfortable we are, the more comfortable they are.”

“No clothes,” she said, looking down at herself, then at me.

“Not the sexy kind of nudity though,” I said. “And I guess they wouldn’t have all that much reason to have lots of human or elf clothes around.”

“Suppose not,” replied Fenn. She ran her tongue over her teeth. “I guess at some point I’m going to need you to tell me everything I missed.”

“Sure,” I said. I drummed my fingers against the floor. “Were you thinking now?”

“Not like we’re doing anything else,” she said. “You can give me the short version. Punch up the boring parts, please. Explain how you went from mourning my death to literally marrying Mary in like two months.”

“It was a sham marriage, at first,” I said. “We,” I thought for a minute. “There was some boring shit with Anglecynn about our supposed crimes and the best way out of it was to get married in the middle of a court session. I asked for a trial by combat, which was a whole thing. But after —”

“Wait,” said Fenn. “Did you … fight Onion?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Then it turns out that Hyacinth was —”

“Sorry,” said Fenn. “Onion Penndraig, the greatest swordsman alive, survivor of two separate trials by adversity, and the leader of the Host? That Onion?”

“That Onion,” I nodded.

“Using Bethel as one of your entads?” asked Fenn.

“Oh,” I said. “Uh, no. We were on the outs.”

“Shit,” said Fenn. “Right. Was that … bad?”

“Which?” I asked. “Things with Bethel, or fighting Onion?”

“Whichever you want to talk about, I guess,” said Fenn.

I sighed, trying to think. “Fighting Onion was … I don’t know,” I said. “I was nervous as hell, but I also hated him, and it felt like the fight went on forever. He had a ridiculous sword that could copy the powers of other swords, and an armor that kept bringing him back to life, and I had to break out a lot of tricks of my own. I was hopped up on a whole bunch of souls that were giving me advantages … if I’m being honest, and it makes me feel a little bad looking back on it, I loved it. I loved the mastery, the dominance, I loved clowning on him, the close calls, coming out on top … Raven talked to me afterward, saying that it wasn’t the kind of thing that Uther would have done, that he would have approached it with grace and dignity. I tend to agree.”

“Raven,” said Fenn. “Meaning … Uther’s knight, that Raven?”

“That Raven,” I nodded. “I guess you never met her. Weird to think about. She, uh, looks just like Maddie. Older though, I guess, not just because she’s an Ell. A bit morose, kind of humorless. I don’t think you’d like her very much. We get along though, in our way.”

“Onion was one of my favorite guys,” said Fenn. “Huh.”

“Favorite … why?” I asked. “I thought you had a healthy hatred for nobility.”

“Yeah, but you probably heard the stories about him,” she said. “I mean, I assume you talked to him enough to know his whole deal before you killed him. That wonderful fucker would go up to people, spit in their face, then murder them when they tried to fight him. I really envied that.”

I frowned. “I read your letter, by the way,” I said.

“Letter?” she asked.

“The one you wrote for if you died?” I asked. “Amaryllis gave it to me, once she knew I would accept that you really were dead.”

“Ah,” said Fenn. “I’m going to be honest, that was so long ago that I’ve got no idea what was in it. Maybe some sappy stuff about wanting to be your girlfriend forever, which, looking back —”

“I meant more stuff about you trying to be a better person,” I said. “Hearing you talk about Onion, that maybe you being a better person seems a bit more aspirational than I was thinking?”

“Ah,” said Fenn. “You know, good thought.” She nodded, then leaned forward onto the table, spreading out so she was flopped down against it. She looked at the door, as if weighing whether it was worth getting into, but we clearly had time. “Onion was a fantasy, I guess. I imagined myself as him, in those stories they told. There are stupid fucking pricks all around you, you don’t fit in with their uptight shit, you get the better of them through grit and determination. You can see how it would appeal, right? Especially to a teenage version of me? For a woman of a certain age, Onion was — and I hope you’ll forgive me — the sexiest thing on two legs. All the prestige and power of a noble, all the rebellious bad boy spirit you could ask for, strong and skilled. Just, really fuckable. And well hung, they said.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Now that you say it, I can see your perspective. Not the well hung bit, I guess.”

“Amaryllis never told you I had a thing for him?” asked Fenn.

“No,” I said. “I … I guess she always did know you better than I did. And maybe she knew I was going to end up facing him.”

Fenn shrugged, lifting her shoulders briefly from the table. “So you married Mary in order to kill Onion. Raven was, I assume, a companion?”

“We’re way out of order,” I said. “But yes. Uh, before that, I went to a place called the Infinite Library, which had every book ever published. That was not long after you died. Then we went to Li’o, to get me still magic and vibrational magic, and it turned out to be a ploy by Figaro Finch to get me to look into some conspiracy or something. We didn’t figure it out in time, so this giant antimemetic monster came down from the clouds and killed thousands of people before I murdered it.”

“You fought a kaiju?” asked Fenn. “Nice.” She was still laying across the table.

“Everything in Anglecynn was after that,” I said. “Oh, and after the fight with Onion, Hyacinth, if you remember her —”

“We killed her husband!” Fenn exclaimed, briefly raising a weak fist of triumph.

“She summoned the Cannibal,” I said.

Fenn sat up. “No shit? How’d that go?”

“Paper bag over the head,” I said. “Not before he punched out a dragon and killed hundreds of Penndraigs though. I got all the credit for that, somehow. The punching out a dragon, not the killing Penndraigs.”

“So you’re saying when we get back, we’re going to have a pissed off dragon?” asked Fenn.

“Nope,” I said. “I killed him. And the other one.” I smiled at her, feeling a little better, despite all the various pains I was in, and our general circumstances, and the fading horror of Fel Seed’s domain. There was a little part of my brain going Fenn Fenn Fenn. It was helping to distract from the hells, which was part of the point of talking. Rescue was taking longer than I’d thought.

“Shit,” said Fenn, raising an eyebrow. “So that’s why you thought you could take on Fel Seed.”

“No,” I said. “No, we thought we could take him on because it felt like … I don’t know. We had permission to do it, I guess, or like it wouldn’t actually get easier the more we put it off, or the exclusions we were racking up were going to kill the planet. It felt like you’d have to be a fucking moron to think that ‘more power’ was what was going to do it against Fel Seed. I still think that’s correct, it just didn’t pan out.” I thought about the ambiguous tilt of the head that the Dungeon Master had given me.

“Fucking exclusions!” said Fenn, flopping back down. “You said months, how much did I miss?”

“Lots,” I said. “I’ve got a ways to go, even with the punched up stuff. We met Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle, who was producing souls to be sold to the hells, among other things, and we met Doris Finch, who actually wasn’t so bad. I was a gold mage for a bit, and smashed my way through a few exclusions on the basis of raw might. I met a god, but he was useless.” I tried to think. “I missed you, a lot. Even with how we ended things, or maybe because of that, it felt like I had been dealt a devastating blow, or like I was never going to recover. You had this whole thing about me not putting you on a pedestal, and I tried my best, but … it was sometimes hard to remember.”

“It’s been two hours for me,” said Fenn. “So, you know. Glad to know I was missed and all that, but I feel like I never actually left. And all of a sudden you’re hooking up with Mary.”

“Is that the thing that gets to you the most?” I asked. “Not me killing two dragons?”

“It’s easier to focus on the stuff with Mary,” said Fenn. “Easier to grapple with something you saw coming a mile away. Did you fuck Valencia?”

“No,” I said.

“Grak?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Jesus, to think that I actually wanted you back.”

“I feel like there’s something you’re leaving out, and I’m going to get it out of you,” said Fenn. “Truly, this is your personal hell. Was it Solace? Please tell me it wasn’t Solace, not unless she was old lady Solace.”

“She was never an old lady,” I said.

“She felt like an old lady, being my point,” said Fenn. “Like an old lady who was up for anything. And that wasn’t a no.”

“No,” I said. “Oh, wait, I have bad news.”

“A change of subject, I see,” said Fenn, grinning at me.

“Guilty,” I replied, holding up my hand. “Do you want the bad news or not?”

“Oh, I love bad news,” said Fenn. “Pile it on, please.”

“Skin magic got excluded,” I said.

Fenn stared at me. “What the fuck?” she asked. “Scars too?” She gestured to her arms.

“Scars too,” I nodded.

She let out a little laugh. “Oh man, that’s going to piss off some elves.”

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “I haven’t really had much interaction with the elves at all, which I think is for the best. Oh, I did visit Celestar though.”

Fenn rolled her eyes, then looked at me. “You actually visited Celestar?”

“Yup,” I said. “While I was a gold mage.”

“I think you could tell me just about anything and I would believe it,” said Fenn. “Seems like you saved all the wild times for after I was dead though.”

“Hmm,” I said. “I had sex with the locus.”

Fenn laughed, then looked at me, then laughed some more. I gave her a faint smile, and then that set her off again, until she was clutching her sides and rocking from back and forth. Maybe it was the stress more than the humor, because I didn’t think it was that funny. In the process of grabbing her sides, she sloughed off skin that had been under the yellow-fall, and she held her hands up to me, halfway between screaming and laughing.

“Fenn,” I said. “Hey, Fenn, calm down, it’s going to be okay.”

“No,” she said. “No, no, Joon, no, it’s not, we’re in fucking hell, we’re going to be tortured forever and ever, they’re not coming for us, it’s all just a part of it. That’s what they do in the hells, you have these nice moments and they’re just so that the bad moments feel worse, they’re feeding us for the slaughter.” She was crying and holding her hands out in front of her, breathing too hard. I wished that I had something to offer her, something to say, but I was as helpless as she was.

“Amaryllis is coming,” I said, keeping my voice firm, hoping that this approach would work. “She wouldn’t have put you down here if she didn’t have a plan. There are plenty of reasons that she would bide her time, and we can chew her out about it when we see her. Okay?”

Fenn gave me a weak nod.

Five minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I got up from the floor and moved over to it, unsure who it could possibly be, or why they would be knocking. The earlier fight with the demons showed me that I wasn’t a match for them, at least not without some kind of weapon. If the devil had run off to tell someone, then we were in trouble, and maybe a lot of trouble, depending on the circumstances of the presumed rescue attempt.

The door creaked open, and it was, of course, Amaryllis Penndraig.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 232: Department

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