“Make the pun,” said Lisi.
“The what?” I asked.
“The pun,” said Lisi, looking at me with distaste.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s a hell-a-copter.”
It was only kind of a helicopter, but the basics of its flight were more or less right. The helicopter my dad had used to teach me the basics had been an R22, and it would suffice to say that the hellacopter had somewhat different controls, with everything written in a language I didn’t read. The seat was too large for me, but it was adjustable, because infernals came in all shapes and sizes. When I looked closely at the parts, including the helicopter blades, I could see that they were nothing at all like Earth (or Aerb, for that matter), sometimes including bits and pieces that looked organic. The function seemed right though, and as I tested various aspects of it, sticking my head out and talking to Lisi, I identified which flaps were moving, marking each of the levers. Eventually, our time for experimentation was up, and we had to get moving, because the Chaos Moon was rising.
“You’re sure this glass is safe?” I asked, briefly touching the glass of the cockpit. “The moonlight won’t get through?”
“I’m sure,” replied Lisi. “They use this for transporting people.” She gestured to the open area in the back. “It would be useless for that if their precious mortals cooked from the inside out.”
“Okay,” I said.
“We should get going,” she said. “We have a mission.”
“I know,” I said. I turned the power on and heard an engine behind me roar to life. I wondered how much of the similarities were convergence and how many were the machinations of the Dungeon Master, but it didn’t really bear thinking about.
With a lever pressed down, the engine engaged the rotor, and I slowly pushed the throttle up until the blades above us were spinning. Once they were going fast enough, the helicopter began to lift off the ground, and I held the control stick in a death grip, trying my best not to fuck things up. I still almost crashed it before we got anywhere at all, but after landing back down and testing a few things, I figured out the problem, which was that the collective pitch control wasn’t linked to the throttle. It was annoying, and made flying way more of a pain in the ass than it needed to be, but I got it under control, got us back in the air, fumbled a bit with the anti-torque, and finally had us flying straight. Lisi knew the lay of the land from infernoscopes and looking at maps, and directed me.
Once we were flying in a straight line and constant altitude toward our destination, there was finally some time to marginally relax.
“What’s everyone else doing?” I asked.
“Same thing,” Lisi replied.
“Flying helicopters?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I guess everyone took lessons then?” I asked.
“They did,” she answered. “You need to go faster.”
I increased the pitch while increasing the throttle, though it seemed to me that we were already going plenty fast. The ground was whipping by below us, and —
“I’m worried we’re going to hit bad weather,” I said. “I think I can keep us going the right direction, but fuck if I know where the fuel gauge even is, let alone how to refuel this thing.”
“It doesn’t take fuel,” said Lisi. “It’s powered by human suffering. There are four mortals trapped within the engine, and their nerve endings are stimulated to alter the amount of suffering generated, which is what you’re doing when you control the throttle.”
My hand instinctively went to the throttle, but I kept myself from throttling down and crashing us.
“It’s horrible,” said Lisi. “But it’s how things work in the Omega Hell. The Doom Sun and Chaos Moon kill, but they’re practically the only things. There’s a surplus of souls, which is what allows something like this to be built. Oh, and contrary to what you were saying before, there’s no weather, no clouds, just clear skies, which makes it ideal for this form of transportation.”
“Okay,” I said. I swallowed and looked at the throttle. I was going to have to touch it at some point, but knowing that it was literally hurting people to get me where I needed to go …
“Amaryllis still believes in you,” said Lisi. “She still thinks you’re the Chosen One.”
“And you don’t?” I asked.
“She claims you’ve had divine revelations,” said Lisi. “She talks about a prophecy that only you were privy to. The evidence is thin.”
“You came down here on thin evidence?” I asked.
“I did,” Lisi nodded. “The rewards are too great if she’s right. Besides, this mission should still work even if you’re just a normal man. I’ll return, and we’ll still get you back. Maybe that will be enough.”
“Sure,” I said. I tried to focus on the flight. It was bright beneath the Chaos Moon, almost bright enough that I could have been fooled into thinking that it was a second sun. There were no stars though, despite the clarity of the sky, which gave an eerie effect, like there was an eyeball looking down on us. It was made worse by knowing that if I were out in direct moonlight, I would end up burning from the inside.
“You haven’t asked about Reimer,” said Lisi.
“Reimer?” I asked. “Are you two still … together?”
“We are,” she nodded.
“And?” I asked. “How is he?”
“Good,” said Lisi. “Worried. Angry with me for doing this. The original plan didn’t require it, but this contingency did. We had a fight about it.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It … seems like a lot to go through for me.”
“It is,” nodded Lisi. “The world is dying.”
“Still slowly?” I asked. “Death of a thousand cuts?”
“Faster, these past three years,” said Lisi. She was looking out onto the moonlit hell, which was surprisingly normal, at least from high up. “The Void Beast can’t be stopped.”
“We’ll find a way,” I said, though I wasn’t sure if I believed it.
“The elemental plane of gold is gone,” said Lisi.
“That … is way ahead of schedule,” I said. “We shouldn’t have been at that point for decades, maybe more. The DFEZ was brought under control, wasn’t it?”
“They’re major allies,” said Lisi. “And yes, by some estimates they accounted for more than twenty percent of the void use on Aerb. They stopped virtually overnight. There was a major explosion at a processing plant for void crystals, a place that was subject to sane regulations due to their continued industrial use. It’s hard to tell how much damage that did, but we’re guessing a lot, given what we can tell of the Void Beast’s trajectory. There are stricter imperial bans now, but it’s too little, too late.”
“This mission is one of desperation,” I said. “A last chance to stop a world that’s winding down.”
“Infernal unification is a given,” said Lisi. “And they’re going to know who we are. Everyone at all connected with the mission will be under extraordinary danger. It’s another thing I fought with Reimer about. He was a part of it too though.”
“Our weapon’s not strong enough to kill them all?” I asked.
“No,” replied Lisi. “It’s close though. It might be able to kill their leaders fast enough that they can’t organize, but the infernals have known about it, at least in the abstract, and they’ve been planning for it.”
I nodded. She was painting a particularly grim picture, and I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of this was because of me. The rune magic exclusion seemed to have happened because of a risk they’d taken, and everything that the hells were going to throw at us was because Valencia needed to cut loose in order to make the mission work.
We flew in silence. I almost felt like Lisi wanted me to ask her more about Reimer, or their fight, or other personal things, but I didn’t know Lisi all that well, especially not after three years or so had passed. The Lisi I knew would have been direct with me, but maybe Reimer had slightly softened her edges, if they were still together after all this time.
The flight took ten hours, and by the end of it I was feeling incredibly claustrophobic, thirsty, hungry, and dirty.
By the time we got to the Fortress of the Gilded Behir, the Chaos Moon was setting and the Doom Sun was rising once more. Landing was an ordeal, and a part of me wanted to just jump out and smash into the ground, where I would naturally regenerate, but I did my best to land the helicopter, which was done with a lot of damage to the skids and a cracking sound that made me think it was probably not a great idea for us to take off again.
We covered ourselves as completely as we could, then got out and went through a rooftop door.
Fenn and Grak were waiting for us inside.
“Fenn,” I said. “You made it.” They were dressed in the same kinds of cloaks we were, shapeless things that hung loosely on the body and offered only basic protection. Grak’s was tied up so that it didn’t drag on the ground.
She nodded, then looked at Lisi. “Discount Amaryllis?” she asked.
“She’s dating Reimer,” I said.
“Wait, Reimer is on Aerb?” asked Fenn.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, forgot to mention that. There are expys of everyone.”
“Tiff?” asked Fenn, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m married to Reimer, actually,” said Lisi. “All that can wait. We need to make plans. Have you located the artifact?”
“We just arrived,” said Grak. “We saw your helicopter coming in and came to meet you.”
“How are you doing?” I asked him, using Groglir. I wanted — hoped — that would encourage him to be more forthcoming.
“Fine,” he replied, also in Groglir.
“I’m sorry for the trouble,” I said. “I know that dying is probably complicated for you.”
“Is there a reason that I’m not supposed to hear this?” asked Fenn. I held up a hand and hoped that she would understand that it was a polite request.
He watched me for a moment. “I did not enjoy watching you kill yourself,” he finally said. “It brought up uncomfortable feelings.”
“I know,” I said. “For me too. It wasn’t the same intended outcome, but it was attached to the same feelings.”
“Sorry I was gone,” I said. “Sorry that it didn’t work out. That I couldn’t be there for you.”
“We need to get moving,” said Lisi, apparently losing her patience for this. “Find the artifact, prepare for the arrival of Amaryllis, then get it done. You can talk when we’re back and dilated.”
“She’s right,” said Grak. “Follow me. We have already done the scouting.” He set off down the hallways of this huge place, moving swiftly. “We’re not that far away. Everyone here should be dead, and we have inside information.” He gave me a look. “So far as we’ve been able to determine, before today, all they knew is that someone was killing them at random intervals and in random locations. That’s changed. They were alerted by what happened in locations that correspond to Fel Seed’s zone.”
“My arrival?” I asked.
“The arrival of many,” said Grak. He glanced at Lisi, then turned back to focus on where he was walking. “When you were lost in Fel Seed’s domain, we searched the hells for you but could not find you. Eventually, we determined that it was probable that you were either alive or bottled. The bomb took care of both possibilities.”
“How big a bomb?” I asked.
“There’s a smoking crater where the City of a Thousand Brides used to be,” said Lisi.
“So we sent thousands of people to the hells?” I asked. “More?”
“Well, we didn’t do that, because you’ve been gone for three years,” said Lisi. “But yes. It made it hard to find you. By the time we did, information was already flowing and nearly impossible to stop. Allowing the interrogation was a calculated risk so that we could find out how much they knew.”
“Antimatter rune bomb?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Lisi.
“And you weren’t worried about the door?” I asked. “That you would permanently sever the connection to the Long Stairs?”
“We tried to get through that door,” said Grak. “I was not worried about its integrity.”
“We were more worried about exclusion,” said Lisi. “Which is what happened.”
“Rune magic is fucked?” asked Fenn. “Isn’t that kind of bad?”
“It’s a disaster,” said Grak. “The connection to the Long Stairs still exists. Doris could still get a faint trace of Uther.” He came to a stop. “We’re here.”
We’d reached a large metal door, one with heavy locks and obvious magic on it, the kind I generally hated, with purple runes all over the place and lines hovering away from the surface.
“Can you break through this?” I asked.
“I know the password,” said Grak. “Ning ye mupshung ndi nde shnaw fe fukseng.” He said the lines carefully and deliberately, and I wondered how long he’d practiced them.
“These bastards don’t use two factor, huh?” I asked, as the lines retracted and the runes spun around.
“Information security in the hells is lacking,” said Grak.
“What the fuck,” said Fenn as the doors opened up, and I was a little puzzled by that, because really, who would be surprised by seeing a hundred foot tall portal made out of thousands of bodies wired together?
“Let me guess,” I said. “It runs on human suffering?”
“No,” said Lisi. “From what we know, it runs on cognition. They could have used infernals, but humans were easier, and more pleasurable to work with. The origins of it are complicated though.” She stepped into the large room and moved over to a console, which had a number of dials and levers on it. To get to the actual portal required ascending a full flight of stairs, one which had been built in the oversized way that the rest of the place had.
“Please tell me we don’t need someone to stay down here and control this thing,” I said.
“It has two ends,” said Lisi. “If it’s working on this end, then it should fire when the other end connects.”
“And we control the other end, I hope?” I asked. “There’s not some ongoing operation there that I should be aware of?”
“No,” said Lisi. “It’s in the DFEZ.”
“And we control some part of the DFEZ?” asked Fenn.
“The whole thing,” said Grak. “There are no holdouts.”
“Blood God Doris?” I asked. “It’s … not a shitshow?”
“Utopia would be overstating it,” said Grak. “But it is pleasant and clean.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Who or what is Blood God Doris?” asked Fenn. “She sounds like either someone I really want to meet, or really never want to meet.”
“Long story,” I said. “And I apparently don’t know the ending to it.”
“Good to go,” said Lisi, who had been doing something with the controls. “Someone go stand in the center of the ring and we can test it. They should be monitoring us.” She gave a brief wave to an imagined person above us.
“I suppose you made some advancement in infernoscopes while I was gone?” I asked.
“No,” said Lisi. “You just didn’t know everything.”
“Star magic augmentation,” said Grak. “It was classified.”
I looked over to Fenn, wondering how she was handling this, and saw that she’d already taken off toward the stairs. “Fenn?” I asked.
“Getting the fuck out of here while I can,” she said. “See you on the other side, I’ve got shit to catch up on.”
“Better to have someone to test this before us,” Lisi said under her breath, quiet enough that Fenn didn’t hear. She looked over at me. “Ten minutes between resets.”
“I don’t understand why they did this,” I said, looking at the portal. “I don’t understand how, but I accept it, but the why … does it work on infernals?”
“No,” replied Grak. “It fails. Only mortals.”
“But in theory, now that we’re here, we can resurrect more people,” I said. “I mean, we can inject people to the Omega Hell, to this specific room, probably, and then shuttle them through? Anyone we have the soul of, that is.”
Grak shifted uncomfortably.
“What?” I asked. “There’s something that you haven’t told me.”
“Two things. First, the other end is simple,” said Grak. “It could be constructed anywhere. The problem is that it requires deaths.”
“Deaths?” I asked. “You fuel it through … killing people? People are going to have to die to bring us back?”
“Yes,” said Grak.
“Dorises,” said Lisi. “Fetuses as well, meaning that newborn souls are being sent to the hells, but only ten of them.”
“Ten?” I asked. “Sending us up condemns ten people to hell?”
“Ideally they’d have been spiked,” said Lisi. “The rune magic exclusion is unfortunate.” She was watching Fenn climb the stairs.
“Fuck,” I said. I looked at Grak. “I don’t —”
“We went through with this because we thought that it was in the balance of good,” said Grak. He had a grim look on his face. “It is not just for you, but for the future of Aerb.”
“How?” I asked. “Because we’re going after Fel Seed again, in the hope of getting Uther from the Long Stairs, and … what, the promised godhood? Grak, I was killed, Fel Seed cheated, and I don’t think that there was anything I could have done about it.”
“Amaryllis agrees,” Grak replied. “She thinks that the second time will work.”
“On what basis?” I asked.
“On the basis that if you had been given a second chance, you would have let the players win,” said Grak.
“And you believe that?” I asked.
“Options are thin,” said Grak. “Our choice is between laying down to accept our fate and giving it everything we have.”
I stopped myself from saying more and thought about that for a moment. I hadn’t expected to die, and hadn’t expected a timeskip either. I’d thought that if there were some kind of rescue, it would happen after months in the hells. I tried to think back on what the Dungeon Master said to me, and whether or not there was a chance that was right. He’d said that he hated me. He’d said that Fel Seed’s weakness was that there was an entity above him.
“We have to do the thirty-two miles again,” I said, groaning.
“No,” said Grak. “It’s part of our worldlines. We can teleport there. I can bypass my own strongest wards with wardproof. The definitions are permissive enough. If Fel Seed can do better, it is a sign we should not go.”
I let out a sigh. I was going to ask about downtime, but with rune magic excluded and mortals freely falling into the hells with no real way to stop it, the situation was dire. Infernal unification was a given, after this focused attack against the hells, and while we could fight back, it wasn’t clear to me that it was something we’d want to invest in for the long term.
“What was the second thing?” I asked. “About the portal?”
“It’s schloss,” said Grak, giving a glance at Lisi, who seemed not to hear him. “Amaryllis went to the Outer Reaches.”
“Shit,” I said. “And she … came up with this?”
“Apparently,” replied Grak.
“I need to talk to her,” I said. “All this, it’s something, but going after Fel Seed —”
“You won’t convince her,” said Grak. “You should try though.”
“She’s gone,” said Lisi, not really paying attention to us. “Juniper should be next.” She was looking at the center of the portal, and she was right, Fenn was gone. I’d thought there would be something interesting, or at least a flash of light or a whirring noise, but it was silent.
“How do we know it worked?” I asked.
“If it didn’t, they’ll send someone to tell us by the time you get up there,” said Lisi.
“I’m waiting for Amaryllis,” I said.
“She wanted you to go without her,” said Lisi. “She got unlucky falling through the hells, it’s going to take her some time to catch up, and there’s a chance that she dies to the Doom Sun, like we almost did. Go, now.”
“No,” I replied. “I won’t abandon her. I’m making sure she gets through safely. Besides, we’re not going against Fel Seed without her.”
Lisi rolled her eyes and turned to Grak. “Can you talk sense into this idiot?” she asked.
“No,” said Grak. He started off toward the stairs, then looked at Lisi. “Leave him to it.”
Lisi glared at me. “We risked our lives to bring you out of the hells,” she said. “Don’t fuck this up, don’t touch any of the controls.” She stalked off after Grak, and I watched them, then turned toward the door, waiting.
Lisi was right, in a way. It was useless to wait for Amaryllis. She would be making the same kind of journey I had made, flying a helicopter for a long, long time, hoping that she didn’t run into trouble, that there wasn’t a mechanical issue, and that the site would be secured and the artifact still functional. The only way I would even know she was in trouble was if she had a problem right in the last mile, and the only way I’d be able to do anything about it would be to run out there. I didn’t have any magic at my disposal, no weapons, no tools, no armor, no entads, so there were only very specific circumstances that I could provide aid.
Still, I waited. I didn’t know how long it would take her to reach the Omega Hell, nor how long it would take for her to get to where we were, but I waited all the same. The thought of going back up and leaving her to fend for herself down here, or learning that she’d died in a way I could potentially have prevented … after Arthur had died, I’d thought a lot about everything I could have done differently to have prevented it, even though I hadn’t known that it had happened. It had been worse when Fenn died, because there had been a lot of ways it could have gone differently, a lot of ways I could have had different priorities or reactions or just planned things out better, or listened to the voice I’d dismissed as paranoia. Maybe it was the wrong lesson to take from those experiences, but I wasn’t going to feel those same regrets.
It was about three hours later when I heard the distant rumbling of an explosion outside.
I ran, full-tilt, through the maze of corridors, doing my best to update my mental map of the place. The sound had echoed through the compound, and it was hard to tell where it had come from, but I pulled the hood of my cloak up and stepped out onto the first balcony I saw, looking for a plume of smoke, or some sign of trouble. I saw it, then ducked back inside, running along the corridors, hoping that I could get there in time. If she died … well, she would come back to life somewhere else in the Omega Hell, and be left to her own devices on her way back, but there was a chance she’d end up like Lisi had, torn apart and left that way, more food for other creatures or plants.
I kept running, and passed an infernal corpse as I ran and picked up a spear that was laying next to its body, went out onto another of the balconies, trying to see smoke and debris. This time I saw a plume of it, when I continued running, I changed my path, trying to go through the corridors and cut through rooms to get to where she was. Eventually, I reached one of the outer walls and looked out another window, careful to avoid the light of the Doom Sun.
I saw a crashed helicopter outside the walls, and flopped out of the shattered cockpit, a woman’s body. There was a screech, then a fluttering of leathery wings, and the wyvern, or whatever it was, dove down towards her, the claws of six limbs pointed forward and wings swept back. I lifted up the spear, thinking that I might be able to throw it far enough, but realized how absurd I was being before I actually tried to huck it through the window. I was up on the third floor, raced down a set of stairs I had passed earlier, taking them three at a time.
When I got to the ground floor, the windows were smaller, too small for me to fit through, if I’d been willing to brave the Doom Sun. I ran through more rooms, looking for the door that I’d seen when we were flying in, and hoping that I wasn’t too late. If it was the same thing that had gotten Lisi, and I had no idea whether it was, then it was going to rip her apart and spread her out, and it was going to do that in the Doom Sun, which would kill her after not all that long. Based on how tough to get through the infernal had been, I had no idea whether the spear I was carrying, and the strength with which I could throw it, would be enough to drive it away.
I kicked open the door, careful to stay out of the Doom Sun, lined up my shot at the flying creature, then hucked the spear as hard as I could. It went high, over both the creature and the helicopter, but to my surprise, it returned to my hand, glowing faintly green. I threw it again, adjusting my aim, and it sailed through the air, striking the creature right through the torso. It let out a loud shriek from a mouth with too many parts, violently shook its claws, spreading Amaryllis all over the place, then launched itself into the air with the spear still stuck in it.
I don’t know what it had planned to do next, but the spear inside it glowed a bright green, then the whole thing, spear and creature, exploded in a rain of gore across the surroundings. A second later, the spear re-appeared in my hand.
“Fuck,” I said, glad that it didn’t seem like we were fighting any actual infernals. (Or rather, we were fighting them, but fucking them so completely that none would ever know what had happened or get within visual range of us.) I tossed the spear to the side.
I ran out, even as the blood and gore were still raining down, and grabbed the various pieces of Amaryllis, or at least the ones I could see. The cloak I was wearing didn’t cover me enough, not when I was moving at speed, and I felt the sting of it eating away at my hands and feet. I ran regardless, depositing what I had, arms and legs, then went back, searching frantically for the torso and head. I finally found them, unscathed in the shadow of the helicopter, and grabbed them, sprinting as fast as I could. The Doom Sun was getting my feet too much, making each step slippery with my blood, and I cradled Amaryllis close to me, hoping that she wasn’t too far gone, that she wouldn’t die on me.
Once I was inside, I put Amaryllis back together. I was missing a leg, but I couldn’t see it out there, and it was taking some time for my skin to regenerate back to what it had been. The regeneration itself was painful, and I took in a sharp breath as I felt it knitting my fingers back together.
When Amaryllis was together enough that she could be carried in one piece, I lifted her up and started carrying her to the portal.
“Thank you,” she croaked, once her vocal cords were intact.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I sent Amaryllis first, though she tried to fight me about it. They must have been primed for it, because as soon as she stepped into the opening, she vanished, again with hardly any of the special effects I’d hoped for. I had some time to look at the portal, and all the bodies that were arranged to make it up. There were all kinds of species, connected by wires in their brains, and at the center of it, hidden from the base but very visible once I’d gone up the stairs, was a gilded staff decked out in gems. They didn’t have entads in the hells, or at least weren’t supposed to. I wondered about its provenance, and how it had been schlossed in.
I didn’t have too much time to wonder though, because the machine activated for me, and I was back on Aerb.