The second time was a lot different from the first. For one thing, we weren’t flying in, we were teleporting in. For another, we had more experience after that first round, and three additional years of planning. And this time, there was a chance that the Dungeon Master would elect not to totally fuck us.
The one drawback, aside from trying to fight fucking Fel Seed, was that we’d lost a fair number of entads. Everything I’d been wearing was gone, left in the FSEZ and then presumably completely annihilated. I counted us lucky, very lucky that Amaryllis hadn’t lost all her inherited entads when she’d died, since there was no known precedent for what happened when you brought someone back from the dead. There was some kind of entad magic which tracked inheritance, and I wouldn’t have blamed it for saying ‘hey, I only recalculate when someone dies or is born, you’re shit out of luck’. Amaryllis had been confident that she’d get them back, but looking at the same data she’d had access to, I felt like at least some of that confidence was coming from her particular brand of faith.
We arrived with Bethel acting as the teleportation key, taking five of us, minus Amaryllis, who arrived a split second later: there was an entad statue, inherited from Rosemallow, that she could teleport to, and it was inside Bethel. We were at maximum dilation, only for long enough that we could get some sense of what conditions were like given the extremely large explosion three days prior. It was an enormous crater, completely devoid of life or features, with only three exceptions. The first exception was the door, which was as perfectly intact as ever, untouched by the explosion. The second was a bone-white platform that had been built up from the bottom of the crater, forming a platform some fifty feet around the door. And the third was Fel Seed, standing in front of the door with his hands folded on top of the hilt of the vorpal blade, which was stuck in the ground. There was plenty of room to fight, but unlike the previous throne room, it felt relatively barren.
“It’s extremely rare for someone to escape me,” said Fel Seed as soon as Bethel spit us out. “I allow it, at times, mostly for sport, and especially for the fanatics that come to me. I arm them, equip them, give them instructions, then send them out past the various guards and defenses at the border so that they might work my will by proxy. But even beyond those, there have been some who have escaped. Three, I believe. They come to the borders, dressed in wards, and flee like little mice at a moment’s notice. This too, I allow. It makes others braver and bolder, and them I kill.”
“You allowed us to escape,” I said. “Magnanimous of you.” I was willing to put up with the monologuing. With a stage prepared like this, it wasn’t like he was buying time, and there was a chance that he’d reveal something critical.
“No, it was that god you brought with,” said Fel Seed. “I don’t see her about.” He craned his neck around, like he could possibly have missed a giant six-eyed doe. I had talked to the locus before we’d come, as one of the only things I had done outside of extreme time dilation, but naturally, I hadn’t gotten a response to any of my questions, nor a commitment that she would be there for the fight.
Fel Seed glared at me. “I seem to recall you being here, before the unceremonious explosion of my city. You were in a sorry state.”
“I got better,” I said. He knew the answer about what had happened to me over those three years, whether I’d been tortured and had the memories erased by a merciful Dungeon Master, or been bottled in a plan to send me to oblivion, or something else, but I really didn’t give a shit.
“I’ve never seen someone die twice,” said Fel Seed. “I’m always forced to bring people to the mere brink of death, as close as I can without killing them, which as it turns out, is quite close. If I take you apart, will I find out how you returned?”
“No,” I said. I was gripping my sword. It was better to let him talk, but it was trying my patience.
“The deal still stands,” said Fel Seed. “If you give me all of them, you’re allowed through this door.” His eyes settled on Fenn. “And a new one too.”
“We were planning to just kill you instead,” said Amaryllis.
“That didn’t work out so well for you last time, did it?” asked Fel Seed. “I wonder what you think has changed.” He had the vorpal blade in front of him. Its tip was embedded in the bone surface, and his fingers danced on the hilt, threatening to pick it up at any moment. The door was behind him.
“Things have been going badly for the outside world,” said Fel Seed. “I should have thought that would take some heat from me. Am I really so important?”
“No,” I said. “You’re not. You’re just in the way.”
I gave Fenn the signal. She drew in an instant and loosed an arrow, which zipped through the air at impossible speeds, cracking the sound barrier from the sounds of it. Putting that much power into an arrow should have snapped the bow and ripped off her arm, but she was completely fine. Fel Seed’s head exploded where the arrow struck, more from the shockwave than the arrow itself, and he slumped slightly before starting to regrow. She fired more arrows, and they left her bow one after the other, just slightly slower than a machine gun. Still, he regrew, but I gave it a bit.
“Fine, it’s not working,” said Fenn in disgust. We’d let her try, because it was entirely possible that it might have worked, as the funny kind of joke that the Dungeon Master seemed fond of.
We attacked, coordinated, blasting him with everything we had. His body ripped apart and reformed, burnt and regrew, and through it all he stood there, smiling at us, even as his lips and teeth were being ripped off and broken. Eventually, when it became clear that nothing was working, nothing would be allowed to work, we stopped.
I was getting nervous. The Dungeon Master hadn’t said that he’d make the second fight fair, nor had he said that I would win, or that it would be possible for me to win. It was entirely possible that he was, true to his word, actually gone, letting all this play out as a coda. I wouldn’t put it past him.
“Oh, are we starting?” he asked. He lifted the vorpal blade from the ground and spun it around, then looked over our group, contemplating us.
He went after Raven first, leaping through the air, and I used one of our secret weapons, tapping a bone. It wasn’t just any bone though, it was one that I was touching through a star magic construct that had been specially built for exactly that purpose at great expense.
The bone belonged to Mome Rath.
It was an exhilarating rush of strength and speed, and I moved considerably faster than the wind, sending my sword screaming through the air so fast I was worried it would snap or tear apart. The blade tore through him like butter, with the shockwave destroying more of his flesh.
Raven’s attack came right after mine, and she cut through him with her blade of stopped time, down through his head, the speed and force of it vaporizing everything there.
He reformed, of course he did, but it seemed slower, and in the meantime, the doorbreak team of Bethel, Grak, and Pallida had moved to the door. It was hard not to notice that the door itself was completely intact, even after being hit with the equivalent of a nuclear blast.
Raven and I kept up the assault as the Mome Rath bone burned down, each slice bringing him down into smaller and more spread out chunks. This was just the avatar, but at the same time, the nigh-infinite power we were using was from Mome Rath. There was a chance that channeling the power of someone at his level would be enough, conceptually if not logically.
Eventually, the bone burned down, and I began burning a unicorn bone, hoping to give us more time at the door. We didn’t need to beat Fel Seed, we just needed to get through to the Long Stairs and leave him behind. I called out the loop number to the doorbreak team, amplifying my voice, so they could try different pre-arranged tactics. The password was going to be the sticking point, but it wasn’t clear that Bethel doing a dictionary attack would work, because different kinds of magic had different requirements, and not all of them would allow the words of an entad to count. There might also be a rate limit to password ‘attempts’, or any other kind of security feature, we just didn’t know, and the last time we’d been there, Grak hadn’t been able to gather enough information to say for sure what the constraints were.
When Fel Seed regrew, he grew back as multiple bodies, each of them having regenerated from a different part of him. It seemed like a cheat, as there was no way to have done that with just biomanipulation, not with how much mass seemed to have come from nowhere, but I supposed it was technically possible if pulling from the bone below us. The copies meant that it would be harder to protect against his attacks.
He avoided me and Raven, maybe because he knew there was a second Mome Rath bone for me to burn, and attacked Amaryllis and Fenn instead. Fenn shot an arrow at a whip of flesh that came her way, and her arrow sliced through, causing it to thump to the ground instead of touching her. She was firing her arrows at full speed, one after the other, seeming never to pause in her motion, and it might have been a thing of beauty if I weren’t so worried that she was going to die. Mixed in with the arrows was some of her magic, though Fenn hadn’t had as much time to train in everything new as we might have liked. Her archery was augmented by magic, and her quiver would never empty, but she was just barely keeping up on defense, and I could see a swirl of passion magic around her, fear driving up the speed of her motion to a blur I could barely follow.
Amaryllis was faring worse, perhaps because she was getting the brunt of the attacks. She had the same wide variety of magic, but in most cases it just wasn’t strong enough, or only strong enough to let her narrowly escape. The vorpal blade flung through the air and sliced her personal wards apart. She took hard hits, one of them nearly sending her off the platform before she could use still magic, but she soldiered on, even after a second hit blasted away part of her armor and took a chunk from her arm. Open flesh, exposed to the air — I was worried that Fel Seed was going to infect her, that we’d get the door open and be forced to leave her behind.
Pallida was the first casualty. She’d been frantically working at the lock, trying to figure out something, and I had been too busy trying to protect Amaryllis and Fenn to realize that she was a target. The vorpal blade casually cut her wards, then a fist from Fel Seed caught her squarely in the back of her head and continued on, crunching it directly against the door. Bethel shot at Fel Seed, hitting him with a supercharged cannonball that blasted flesh apart, then picked up Pallida, tucking her into extradimensional space, where I hoped she would live.
I was worried we would be picked off one by one. I was worried that in the end, if I really was the Chosen One, if any of that still applied, it would be just me going down the Long Stairs. I didn’t want to face it alone. It didn’t seem right or fair.
I went for Fel Seed’s sword, the vorpal blade. I had used it last time, in the first round, but I had only given it a part of myself. That had been in the FSP, a part of protocol I was following, but the revised version called for it to be used in full, with all of my life force behind a singular hit. There was a good chance that it would kill me.
He had been using it to break wards, but he’d only used it for direct attacks a few times, and we’d been able to block or dodge. Amaryllis had tried to parry it, and the vorpal blade had sliced straight through her entad sword and then would have taken her life, if not for a short range teleport at the last moment.
Fenn saw what I was doing and fired off an arrow, severing the arm Fel Seed had been holding the vorpal blade with. As I dashed forward and reached for the sword, Fel Seed snatched it away, firing one of his tentacle hands to grab it before I could pick it up. Raven went forward to cut off his hand, but he parried her slice of frozen time with the vorpal blade, broke her wards with a follow-up attack, then hit her in the stomach with a fist, hard enough that I could see the sizable dent in her banded armor. She went sailing off away, slowed by her magical cloak and otherwise limp.
“Bethel!” I shouted. “Grab the blade.”
Bethel moved away from the door in a flash of lightning, appearing next to Fel Seed before the afterglow had faded from my eyes. She tried what she’d done before, wrapping herself around the blade, not to eat it, but to send it to me. Fel Seed could move at arbitrary speeds if he wanted to, and in this case it was apparently important to him. He formed a hand of jagged bone and made a grab for her, and she flew backward, dodging away before taking another jabbing run at the vorpal blade. This time he struck her with the blade, cleaving halfway into her, trumping her inviolability with, I was assuming, bullshit.
“Copy!” I shouted, and held out my hand. Bethel flew to it, forming a sword even as she healed through the cut.
In addition to the Mome Rath bones, we had another thing we hadn’t had in the last fight: after much trial and tribulation, Amaryllis had been able to acquire Onion’s sword, the one which could copy the abilities of any other sword.
I burned the second Mome Rath bone as she assumed the power of the vorpal blade, which was stacked with as many other powers as she had, adding speed, power, sharpness, and raw momentum. Time slowed down as I wound up for a giant swing. Fel Seed’s corporeal body didn’t actually matter, save for the fact that he could kill us using it, but it was a part of him. The lore of the vorpal blade, at least as I had written it, was that it could sever anything, even things that weren’t strictly real.
He tried to move out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough, and he seemed surprised by that.
When my sword struck him, time stopped, and I put every last ounce of myself into the hit, not just my own natural strength, but everything I could muster from the bone of Mome Rath. I didn’t know whether that would be enough, or if it mattered that this was only a copy of the vorpal blade, but it was the play we had available.
The last thing I registered on his face was shock, in that moment of frozen time. Then the hit happened, and it was meteoric. Fel Seed was blasted apart into a cone of vaporized pieces a mile long, and if anyone had been standing behind him, I was sure they would have been killed. The sound was enough to deafen and the shockwave nearly knocked me to my feet, leaving my hands stinging from the vibration. I had felt the cut go deeper than the body, feel it carve into something metaphysical, or maybe several somethings. They gave a slight resistance before they too were sliced.
And then I dropped Bethel and clutched at my heart, which was hammering arrhythmically in my chest. My armor felt too heavy, and I sunk to my knees, trying to think, trying to breathe.
“What are you doing?” asked Amaryllis. “We need to get through the door.”
“He,” I said. “I was just —” It was already slipping out of my mind. There were, for some reason, piles of meat sitting on the bone platform around us. And there was something that I had been doing, something that had been vitally important. Whatever was in my brain that had felt so important moments ago now felt like it had been sliced apart into unrecognizable pieces.
“What?” asked Fenn, still holding her bow taut. She was looking around wildly and not seeing anything to shoot at. She had been shooting at something, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Antimeme,” I said, feeling weak. I had used the vorpal blade, or at least Bethel copying it, but I couldn’t recall on whom. Presumably it was the piles of flesh sitting on the ground, each of them torn to ribbons. The bone platform was marked with a cone of red leading away from me. Next to it, there was the vorpal blade, stuck into the bone and reflecting death, but otherwise inert.
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “Fuck, we don’t need this, we came here with a —” She stopped. Grak was still trying to get through the door, and Bethel had resumed her dictionary attack. “The antimeme is enormous.”
“How can you tell?” asked Fenn, slowly lowering her bow. We had been in danger, maybe we were still in danger, but whatever it was, we couldn’t sense it and had no knowledge of it.
“I don’t think it’s an antimeme,” I said, coughing. “Not a proper one.” I was feeling incredibly weak, but not dead. In game terms, it felt like I’d hit zero in every single attribute, but that hadn’t killed me. If I could have seen my HUD, my guess was that I was sitting there with a single hit point left. I pointed at the piles of meat. “I think that was it. That was the — the danger.”
“Bethel, side bar,” said Amaryllis. Bethel zipped over, and Amaryllis disappeared, reappearing slightly later.
I groaned and laid down on the ground. What I wanted was to sleep. I’d used the vorpal blade against something, someone, and it had taken a lot out of me. I had a brain fog to go with it, but that might have been from whatever had happened when the vorpal blade had made contact with whoever it was. I hoped that it had been the right thing to do, but it was hard to remember. We were in an exclusion zone, one where a lot of innocent people had died. It had been a bad place, before Amaryllis had detonated a bomb there. The bad thing, it was something I had created. I could remember the session, too, just not the details.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “From what I can find, and the lack of active combat, I think you killed the entity. The document that we’ve been working from is called the FSP, and the exclusion zone we’re in is referenced as the FSEZ, so I think it’s safe to refer to the entity,” she gestured at the piles of meat. “As FS. There’s no surviving name.”
“Okay?” I asked. “And I … hit him hard enough to … what?” I looked over at Raven’s body. “We need to heal her.”
“She has a mild concussion,” said Bethel, momentarily appearing in humanish form. It was the first time I’d seen her since I’d come back from the dead. She had changed again, and I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance to Valencia. She wasn’t cowed and groveling, but had a quiet, unassuming, and professional look. “I’ll take her.” She zipped over and Raven’s body vanished. A few seconds later, Raven popped back out.
“Something happened,” said Raven.
“I think I killed FS,” I said. “A bad guy.” I was still laid out on the ground.
“Is he going to be okay?” asked Fenn, looking at me. She had stored her bow.
“The FSP is heavily redacted,” said Amaryllis. “Whatever happened left a hole. There are pages that should have more information, and headings left over. Parts are missing, left blank. There are conversations I can’t remember all of.”
With the state of alert over, Grak had stopped what he was doing and gone over to us. “Something happened,” he said.
“Antimemetic effect,” said Amaryllis. “But … one that appears to have originated from us.” She looked at Bethel. “You have no idea?”
Bethel shook her head. “The vorpal blade,” she said, looking over to where it was sitting. “Valencia suggests that you should pick it up.”
“Me?” I asked. I was feeling so weak, barely able to move, but I summoned the necessary scrap of will to get to my feet. “Are we sure this won’t kill me?” Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remembered the vorpal blade. It was not lightly drawn.
“No,” said Bethel.
I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why, but I went over to the vorpal blade and picked it up.
The effect was slow, but I could feel it. My life force was being returned to me, and the fog gradually lifted from my brain. The vorpal blade didn’t suck at my being like it had before, instead feeling calm and natural in my hand. It had been someone’s blade before. He had used it without being drained, but the more I thought about it, the more the thought seemed slippery, like something falling through fingers that were desperately trying to grasp it.
“What was that?” I asked, turning to look at Bethel.
“Valencia believed that having defeated its master, you might become its bearer,” said Bethel.
I stared at her, hoping that Valencia would get a look of my face by proxy. “Fine,” I finally said. “If it’s stupid and it works, then it’s still fucking stupid.” Valencia had no doubt gotten the idea from the Elder Wand in Harry Potter.
“Continue the dictionary attack,” said Amaryllis.
“Wait,” I said. I was feeling better, but still not completely back to my old self, and I held the vorpal blade, letting it seep life back into me. I walked over to the door. “What’s the dumbest password this door can possibly take?”
“You already said ‘password’,” said Amaryllis. “That was the first thing you tried. Besides, I had plenty of stupid passwords in the dictionary attack, or dumb references.” She turned to face the door. “Swordfish, hunter2, mellon, friend, friend and enter, pedo mellon a minno, annon edhellen edro hi ammen, admin, Joshua, tiger, correct horse battery staple, Mickey Minnie Pluto Huey Louie Dewey Donald Goofy Sacramento,12345, —”
“I’ve got the same combination on my luggage!” shouted Fenn as she walked over.
“Are we in danger?” asked Amaryllis, looking at Fenn. “Luck sense?”
“I think we’re fine,” she replied, shrugging. “I wouldn’t be joking if I thought it wasn’t safe.”
“Yes you would,” I replied.
Amaryllis turned to me. “Fine,” she said. “Then let’s have it, what do you think it is?”
“Password wasn’t dumb enough,” I replied. I stared at the door, then looked over at Grak. “Did Pallida finish her part of things before she died?” I asked. “Did you … do magic?”
“Pallida did what she could,” said Grak. “She described it as priming.” He pointed at the door. “I did magic.”
“So then if I understand correctly, two of the three locks are gone,” I said. “And all that’s left is the last part, the password?”
“It is not three locks,” said Grak. “It is all one cohesive lock. But yes.”
“Alright,” I said. I looked at Amaryllis. “You’re right that ‘password’ was dumb, but that would have been really insecure. It should have been more secure, and something Arthur could have guessed. ‘Password1’.”
As soon as I said it, the door slowly swung open.
Amaryllis stared at the open door.
“Was that just a lucky guess?” asked Fenn.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” said Amaryllis. “It’s the will of the Dungeon Master.” She seemed mildly disgruntled by it, upset that something so dumb had worked, or maybe that the other dumb stuff hadn’t.
“We should go through,” said Grak. “It may close on its own. I am not convinced that we could reopen it without Pallida.”
“She lives, sedated,” said Bethel. “My healing was enough.”
Pallida popped out and swayed slightly on her feet. Her face looked like it had been smashed against a wall and then hastily reconstructed before a few years of healing and repair, though that was just the effect of accelerated healing.
“I’m out,” she said. “Fuck this.”
“Understood,” I said.
Beyond the door was a corridor of hewn stone, the marks of its working clearly visible to the naked eye. There were torches on the walls at regular intervals, all of them burning, with no sign of who had lit them or why. There were no tracks of any kind, and aside from the torches, no sign that the corridor had been used. It went on for perhaps a hundred feet, then terminated at a secondary door, this one of much simpler make. If not for the fact that this corridor was extending into some other dimension, it might have looked perfectly ordinary.
There was something else odd about it though, the more I looked at it. I had all kinds of heightened senses, and while they seemed to be working across the boundary, they couldn’t extend past the walls of the corridor. There were no vibrations, there was no water, no chemical reactions, nothing that should have been there.
I went forward, trying to breathe normally. After all this time, we were here, on the final approach.
I crossed the threshold. I don’t know why, but I was expecting an achievement to pop up. I had gotten used to them, but the game layer seemed to have died when I did, and unlike me, it hadn’t been brought back. So long as the benefits were there, it didn’t actually matter, but it still felt like a loss somehow.
“Okay,” I said, looking back at the others. “Once we’re in, this will probably be the only way back out. This is the last chance to back out. I wouldn’t blame anyone.”
Amaryllis went in right away, and Bethel went after her, keeping her humanoid form for the moment. I wasn’t necessarily judging them based on how fast they crossed over, but maybe I did take some of their slowness for hesitance. I think in Raven’s case, the slow, measured walk might have been the knowledge that this was the end, or perhaps just the lingering effects of having magically recovered from a concussion. Grak definitely took the time to think it over, though it was impossible to tell what he was thinking under his helmet. Eventually he moved forward, passing through. I knew that he didn’t really want to come, that this was more of an obligation for him. He knew there was a good chance we would need him.
Pallida stayed back, and after a brief check to confirm it wouldn’t work in this new dimension, Amaryllis tossed her the teleportation key. There were half a dozen entads that would have allowed Pallida to leave the zone, but I was pretty sure that Amaryllis had chosen that one for symbolic reasons.
That left Fenn.
“Coming?” I asked. “I wouldn’t blame you, at all.”
“I’m thinking,” she said. “I already died once, you know?”
“I know,” I said.
“You’ll need me though, right?” she asked.
“Probably,” I said.
She nodded, but stayed where she was. I waited patiently. Whoever or whatever FS was, I didn’t think that it was coming back. Every second meant that more souls were ending up in the hells, more people were experiencing pain, there were things that I could fix, if I had the ability to. It was important not to rush her though, to allow her to make a decision on her own terms.
The door began to slowly swing closed. I stepped forward to hold it open, but immediately found that I couldn’t do anything to stop it, not through force and not with magic.
Fenn stood there for a moment, but at the last possible moment, she cursed and dashed forward, slipping between the doors just before the opening was too narrow for her.
Just after her, something followed, a white toad that I almost didn’t spot. I knelt down and picked it up, looking at the greenery on its back. There were mosses, tiny flowers, and some microgreens there, giving him a bit of a jaunty look.
“Huh,” I said. I turned to Amaryllis. “Is this the other locus?”
Amaryllis stared at the toad in my hand. “Likely,” she said. “He was supposed to be … bigger. The size of a house, at least.”
I looked him over for a bit, then set him on my shoulder. “I guess he’s coming with,” I said.
“But where’s his domain?” asked Fenn. “He shouldn’t be, uh.”
“Don’t think about it too hard,” I said. “He’s very small, and it might hurt him.” I didn’t know whether that was true or not, but it was good practice when around a locus.
I turned to face the other door, and the path to the Long Stairs. Somewhere in there, Uther lay ahead of us.