Worth the Candle, Ch 57: Place Your Figs

We entered into Anglecynn by teleportation key, fully armored and geared up for a fight, but we were in the woods that the Penndraig clan sometimes used as hunting grounds, far out of season, and the only creature that marked our arrival was a very surprised bluejay. I spent some time putting a tattoo on the back of Amaryllis’ hand for the teleportation key to go in, placed so that she could pull it out swiftly. When she put her leather gloves on, there was no way to tell she was hiding something so valuable on her person. From there Solace turned us into seagulls, and we flew in a loose formation toward the nearby sea, out to the line of tall islands on the horizon.

Our conversation on next steps earlier in the day had mostly consisted of Amaryllis giving as much information as she had, and everyone agreeing that the prison break was going to be our next step, largely because I was (perceived as) deteriorating. More than that, Solace wasn’t convinced that a registered imperial soul mage would be capable of doing what we needed, especially with regards to the expertise necessary to manipulate the locus. Her two conditions were that we attempt to barter with him first before springing him, and that he not be allowed in the bottle or informed that she was a druid, both of which I thought were perfectly reasonable.

The five main Zorish Isles stuck up from the Bryllyg Sea. To say that they weren’t natural would be a severe understatement; each was the tip of an enormous finger sticking up from the perpetually cold, dark water. When I’d drawn them up, they had been inviolable, stone so hard that not even diamond could scratch it, ancient things that suggested an entity of supreme power, dead and buried beneath the waves. I’d come up with them when I was sitting in a bathtub, sticking my fingertips up from the water just enough to have them be exposed to the air. But very few things I’d created survived contact with Aerb, and the Zorish Isles had been at least partially excavated using voidtools before the imperial ban. None of that was visible from a distance; instead, it was greenery, most of it cultivated, and cities built into the side of the isles, largely confined to the whorls of the fingerprints to maximize arable land on top.

Sulid Isle wasn’t technically part of the Zorish Isles, it was just close enough to them that they had control over it. On first hearing about it, I thought that it was inspired by Alcatraz, but it was far bigger than that, with less development, and probably took more inspiration from one of the islands of exile. It was mostly barren, but there were spots of green, and at the center of it all, an enormous compound with high walls and a singular building that looked, to me, like a mansion. No one ever came to this place, according to Amaryllis, and the vast majority of the prisoners would probably be dead from old age, because the sentient, magical penitentiary hadn’t been used for that purpose in at least a hundred years, if not more.

The day was dark and gray, and the winds were uncomfortable on my wings, so I was happy to land at the island’s edge and turn back into a person with armor and a fur cloak against the chilly wind.

We were at least a mile away from the penitentiary, but it still loomed large, rising ten stories high and built with what seemed like a very surprising amount of glass, given that it was a prison. The glass looked dark blue in the diffuse light of the cloudy sky, but the ribbing was brass or something like it, which gave the building a grandiose cast. It had dozens of domes, with a large one at the center that dominated the entire structure. Even the walls that surrounded the compound were ornate, with sculptures topping regularly-spaced towers.

Grak raised his warder’s monocle to his eye for a moment, then set it back down. “The building is magical,” he said. After a moment, Fenn began to laugh, and while I didn’t find it funny at all, a slight smile crossed Grak’s lips, so he must have meant it as a joke.

It had been built by an architect in a forge frenzy, a man possessed by the urgent need to build this thing he didn’t necessarily understand, and given funds to do so by a government that was all too willing to pour money into a frenzy if they could reap the results. The building was sentient, to a higher level than Ropey was, but there were other bits of magic as well, defenses and systems that kept its prisoners in, not all of which were known to us.

I looked at the grass around us, and could just barely see the areas where foundations had once stood. This place had been lived in, once, though it had little in the way of natural resources, and aside from the prison, there wasn’t much point to anyone living on it. With the prison abandoned and entirely autonomous, my guess was that there was a feedback loop of people leaving, which caused a collapse in services, which caused more people to leave, until everyone had gone back to either Anglecynn or the Zorish Isles.

Solace tapped her staff once on the ground and over the course of half a minute, various small birds began to flock to her. She didn’t send them out at once, but instead turned her staff sideways and rested it on her shoulders, where the birds patiently waited.

“We’ll fall back to here if this doesn’t go to plan and we get separated,” said Amaryllis. She was dressed in her immobility plate, with her helmet held in one arm. Her emotional mask was as firmly in place as it had been before our vacation, hiding tension, doubt, and fear, leaving only serene, iron will. I still didn’t have a good model of what it was like to be Amaryllis, whether she was forcing everything down, whether she was just acting like she was forcing it down, or whether those emotions were like cloaks to be worn if needed.

“I don’t want to run at the first sign of things going south,” I said. “We might have to fight, but so long as it’s a winnable, recoverable fight, I don’t want retreat to be our watchword.”

“Sometimes you don’t know the fight is unwinnable until you’ve lost it,” said Fenn. Most entads had some minor ability to repair and restore themselves, but her armor had been a total loss, and she was in the same fatigues she’d been wearing when we first met. Save for the glove, and slightly longer hair, she looked almost the same. It was weird to feel nostalgia about something that had only happened a month ago, especially since it was at an objectively awful point in my life, but that was what I felt.

“We’ll hope that it doesn’t come to a fight,” said Amaryllis. “The penitentiary should be reasonable. It didn’t allow much in the way of outside influence over its interior space, but it did allow visitors, and some level of negotiation was possible.”

So far as we knew, it wouldn’t allow visitors with weapons; those we had mostly because the penitentiary had a reputation for being unruly even when it was being used as a functional prison, and it wasn’t clear what more than a century of isolation would have done in terms of changes in personality or drift in alignment, both apparently real concerns when it came to sentient magic items (or buildings). That made this whole mission dangerous, but in theory it could be as simple as walking in, sitting down to have a visit with Fallatehr, and getting enough information that I could unlock some kind of soul magic skill without actually having to break him out.

So we approached, walking slowly, stopping every once in awhile so that Grak could check for unseen magic, and then continuing on. The statues at the top of the tower walls all had their heads turned toward us, and as we approached, they tracked us with open mouths. Based on that, I assumed that these were some kind of active defense, though this was one of the areas where our knowledge was thin. I wasn’t counting on the game to throw us level-appropriate encounters, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t just perfectly set us up to walk into a TPK. The penitentiary was supposed to have a strong preference toward less-lethal means. (I don’t want to play the politically-correct-semantics game too much, but there’s a huge difference between the implications of ‘non-lethal’ and ‘less-lethal’ when you’re staring down a thirty-foot tall golem.)

We found ourselves staring down a thirty-foot tall golem with metallic eyes, who stood as the gate of the enormous wall around the penitentiary. Not at the gate, as the gate; there was a simple gap in the tall, decorated wall, and the golem sat there with his two giant fists pressed against the earth, perfectly blocking the entrance. The wall had overlapping metal scales, not in a set pattern, but with curves, coils, and flourishes. The whole thing looked like it had taken thousands of man-hours to finish. By contrast, the golem was simple, with the kind of detail you’d expect on something carved out of wood in an afternoon. Unless my eyes were deceiving me, I was pretty sure that it was made of tightly-packed dirt, held together by who-knows-what magical energy. The eyes were the only thing different, giant, perfectly-reflective orbs that spun to follow us. We stopped a hundred feet away.

“Friendly-looking chap,” muttered Fenn. “Grak, is he magical?”

Grak raised his monocle quickly and lowered it. “Same base magic as the walls and building,” he said. “It’s part of this place.”

“You were supposed to deadpan it and tell us that it’s magical,” said Fenn.

“Sorry,” said Grak. He turned to Amaryllis. “I was given the impression that autonomy did not include fully mobile agents. It was supposed to accomplish its goals through internal systems.”

“We don’t know if it’s fully mobile,” said Amaryllis. “That’s a good guess though. If so, this wasn’t what we expected. Do we need to re-evaluate?”

“I’m in favor of continuing on,” I said.

“Second,” said Fenn.

“Third,” said Solace.

“Grak?” asked Amaryllis.

“Amaryllis,” answered Grak.

“Keep going, or re-evaluate?” asked Amaryllis.

“We’ve already got a majority,” said Fenn. “Let’s not undermine our democracy.”

“Grak is the expert in defenses,” said Amaryllis. “That also means that he’s the expert in threat analysis. I want to hear what he has to say, rather than just taking a vote and not thinking.”

I felt a little bit of sheepishness at that. I thought that I had been thinking. We’d assumed there might be some amount of drift, and the information that we had was rather thin, so this wasn’t very suspect as yet.

“What do the winds and birds tell you?” Grak asked Solace.

Solace squinted. “Not much lives in there,” she said. “It’s hard to get a sense of it. I could ask one of my bird friends to take a look,” she nodded to the small birds that lined her staff, “But I wouldn’t want to anger this place.”

“Do it,” nodded Amaryllis. This, I noted, she did not put to a vote. She had been trying, but her default state was one of command, and it was, for her, a hard habit to break — not that I had any objections, in this case.

Without any visible sign of having been told to, one of the tiny birds flitted off from Solace’s staff and zipped across the distance, up and over the wall. One of the statues on top of the walls spun its head whip-fast, paused for a second while making a high-pitched whine, then shot a thin green laser from its mouth, which pierced the bird through and sent its flaming body tumbling down. The statue turned back to face us, mouth aimed right at us, as all the statues had been since we’d been close enough to see them.

Fenn coughed politely. “Is it too early to make a joke about that bird’s place in the pecking order?” she asked. I could see her eyes moving quickly from statue to statue, and the way she held her gloved hand, open just wide enough that she could have her artillery bow in it at a moment’s notice.

“Hopefully that will be interpreted as a test,” said Amaryllis.

“That was a test!” Fenn called to the gate-golem. It showed no response.

“We could fly to the Zorish Isles and try to get more information there,” said Amaryllis. “I know that Joon is in failing health, but we took the time we needed for research before going after the unicorn. If those statues are turned on us, I don’t like our odds.”

“I could send more birds,” said Solace. She sounded less pained over the idea than I would have thought, but after watching her with the flowers, I already knew that she didn’t have that much aversion to crimes against nature.

“One is a test,” said Amaryllis. “I worry that more will be seen as probing for weakness, because they would be.”

“There was a one-second pause,” said Grak. “That’s something. It would help to know how long before it can fire again.” He lifted his monocle out of its pocket. “Two more birds. Then I should be able to ward against it.”

Solace grimaced slightly, but two more birds flew off from her staff toward the wall. This time the statues were proactive, and turned toward the perceived threat before the birds had even crossed the wall. The birds flitted and twirled, and managed to dodge the first and second shots at them before being taken down by the third; the laser-fire came from all four of the statues within range, again with a high-pitched whine as they charged. When both birds had crashed to the ground, flaming, the nearest statue to us turned our way and fired at the ground a foot in front of Solace.

“Well, that was our warning,” said Amaryllis. “Grak?”

Grak lowered his monocle. “A one second pause before firing. Three seconds between firings. That’s a feint; the true refresh is faster. If given time I can ward against the effect.”

“Which might provoke them,” said Amaryllis.

“I think we should talk to the gate,” I said, nodding in the direction of the huge golem (and wondering, idly, how many experience points it might be worth if we were forced to kill it). “Where we are now, it’s pretty clear that we’re not safe anyway.”

We moved up, slowly, watching as the metal orbs that served as the golem’s eyes turned in their sockets. I looked closer at the fists that barred our way, noting that they were exactly wide enough that not even a mouse would have been able to squeak through.

“Hail, and well met,” called a woman’s voice from the other side of the golem. A dirt-golem climbed up over the gate-golem’s back and sat upon its shoulder. It was of a similar make, but much smaller, about Solace’s size. It had more proportionate limbs, and no visible eyes or eye sockets. What it did have was a mouth set into the packed earth of its face, white teeth, pink tongue, and all. “What brings you five this way today?”

I looked at the others, and nodded at Amaryllis. Diplomacy was her thing, not mine, and I was hoping that was one of her skills that had increased through Twinned Souls.

“Are you the voice of the Amoureux Penitentiary?” asked Amaryllis, raising her voice slightly to cross the distance up to where it sat.

“A voice,” the dirt-golem called down. “Have you come to visit, or to stay?”

“We hope to visit,” said Amaryllis. She touched her armored chest. “I am Amaryllis Penndraig, most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, Princess of the Kingdom of Anglecynn.”

“Whether Uther is here, I cannot say,” called the golem.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “It isn’t Uther Penndraig we seek. We’re looking for a summer elf imprisoned here, Fallatehr Whiteshell.”

“Oh, yes, him I know well,” spoke the golem. “If you wish to come inside, you may.” The gate-golem’s hands turned and unfolded, making a pathway between surprisingly slender legs. Beyond that was a well-tended garden, with more green than we’d so far seen on the rocky island.

“We appreciate your hospitality,” said Amaryllis with a small bow. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and in response I started forward, leading the way.

It was impossible to tell whether there was something off about the penitentiary and its golems, because we didn’t know what state it had been in when it was fully functional. Even when it had first been built it probably had its quirks, it was basically a building-size magic item for cripes sake, and on Aerb some of those were weird, impossible things that didn’t feel beholden to concepts like “making sense”. The jar of marzipan fairies had shown that much. Maybe this place had always had golems made of dirt, and their contrast with the rest of the decor was just the way things were.

I passed through the huge hands, thinking about how easily they could crush me if given half the chance, and trying to keep on my toes, ready to move, without actually displaying distrust. I relaxed slightly when I was through, and the eyeless golem hopped down from its friend’s back to stand beside me.

“Behold,” it said, gesturing to the buildings in front of us. “A home for those who’ve gone astray.”

There were no people around, only golems, these more human-sized than the one with the mouth. Some were working with the plants, trimming plants with shears or pulling weeds, but most were just standing there, watching us, each with a single, silvery metal eye. They weren’t quite surrounding us in a defensive semi-circle, but it was close to that. Figuring out their combat abilities on the fly while dodging laser fire wasn’t something I had much of a hankering for.

I hadn’t been divested of my sword yet, which was a plus, but at the same time, that said some worrying things about the laxness of security. We wanted security to be tight enough that any remaining inmates who hadn’t died of old age wouldn’t be a threat to us, but also loose enough that we would be able to steal a prisoner from inside. That was a pretty fine line to walk.

“I’m not really liking this,” said Fenn. “There’s just something about having heavy weapons aimed at me that makes me nervous.”

“Spider sense tingling?” I asked.

“If it was, I wouldn’t be standing here jabbering about it,” said Fenn.

We stood there for a moment, but the ‘voice’ of the Amoureux Penitentiary didn’t move. After a time, it began to hum a gratingly dissonant tune.

“Is there something that we’re waiting for?” asked Amaryllis.

“Your desired prisoner was within the gymnasium,” said the golem. “We wait for him to be moved to visitation, where you may make parlance with him.” Its speech-patterns had switched following the period of silence, which made me more nervous than if it had continued on with the same awkward cadance it was using before. A predictably broken intelligence I thought we could handle, but an unpredictably broken one I was less sure about. Variations in speech like that didn’t necessarily mean anything about the mind (or mind-equivalent), but they were suggestive.

“Are there any restrictions on visitation?” asked Amaryllis.

I reached over and quickly placed my hand over Fenn’s mouth when I saw her about to say something, because I’d seen the look in her eyes that usually meant she was about to make a joke. She smiled at me and licked my hand, but otherwise seemed content enough to have been preempted.

“You will engage in conversation with the prisoner for four hours at the upper bound,” said the golem. Up close, its mouth was disturbingly human; it didn’t just have a simulacrum of a mouth, it had all of the interior musculature, membranes, and teeth that I would have expected. Maybe some of that was necessary to actually create sound (which implied lungs, a diaphragm, etc.), but it seemed like overkill, especially given that magic existed. “You will be diverged from him by a complete ward, save for the transfer of sound between your mouths and ears.”

And that didn’t speak terribly well to our ability to remove the soul mage from prison, nor to giving him something that he wanted in exchange for a few lessons. But if we left this place having learned little and only wasted half a day of our time, then I would probably still make a mark in the win column. Doing something risky and having it come to nothing was, to me, a pretty acceptable outcome.

A dirt-golem came out from the largest doors of the main building, pushing them open only slightly to come through. It moved toward us at a brisk walking speed, singular metal eyeball focused our way. I noticed another dirt golem move to the door and use a cloth to wipe away the dirt left on the handle; that sort of care was probably why the outside space we were in was immaculately clean.

The dirt golem stopped close to us and gave a slight bow.

“The prisoner had a missive that he would like to relate,” said the golem serving as our guide, the voice of the Amoureux Penitentiary, “He could not relate it in a language that I could pass on, so inscribed it upon this –”

“Okay, I kick the door open,” said Arthur.

“Alright, where is everyone standing?” I asked.

“Fuck,” said Reimer.

“Well don’t say that,” said Greg, “Then he knows that you’re going to try to game it.”

“I already knew that,” I said. “But if I had asked for your positions as you approached the door, then you would know that something was up.”

“Yeah, like how in old cartoons the cel-shading let you know that some particular bit of rock was going to move and wasn’t part of the background,” said Arthur.

“So place your figs,” I said, gesturing at the dry erase battlemat. “But do it as you would have in-character, and I will remind you that no one was taking this seriously as a threat, so you can’t retroactively have been on high alert and optimally positioned for a trap and slash or encounter.”

The dirt golem that had come forward from the main building began unfolding its hand as the other spoke, and Fenn moved in front of me a half second before I saw the small purple crystal it was holding in its hand. Time seemed to go slower then, as my mind first recognized it as a void crystal, then made sense of it as a threat, and finally parsed that Fenn had moved in front of me. Amaryllis and Solace were both further in front of me, close to the main entrance, and both were moving in different directions, but Fenn was shielding me with her body, and I couldn’t let her —

A solid steel wall popped out from her outstretched hand and the soft, subdued whump of the improvised void grenade happened just after that. The first thing that I heard was Solace screaming in pain, and then the high whine of the statues charging to fire. Fenn lunged backward and put up another wall of steel behind us, as I reached for one of the bones in my bandolier and pulled down as much SPD as possible from it. I was up and moving as soon as the whining sounds stopped.

Solace was slumped on the ground, dark green blood pooling around her. Most of her back and legs were missing, exposing bone and muscle. Amaryllis was unhurt and racing across the grounds, toward the mass of dirt-golems that were moving toward us, her helmet now firmly in place and the blade of her sword flickered into existence. She was bleeding from the leg, where a substantial fraction of her armor had been removed; the last I’d seen of her before the blast, she had been moving behind the dirt-golem that had been speaking to us. Grak had been the straggler, further away from us, and he trundled his way toward the barricades that Fenn had set up. He was bleeding from two places, but not as heavily as I would have feared.

I ran to Solace and pulled her body behind the makeshift barricade, leaving a smear of her dark green blood on the flagstones. Her skin had been transformed into hard bark, but if that was what she’d tried with druidic magic, it had apparently not helped her. She had moved her cloak around and clutched it to her chest in order to shield it with her body, but she was either unconscious or dead, and either way wasn’t holding onto it anymore, so the cloak of leaves trailed after her, becoming bloodied in the process.

Fenn fired an artillery shot at one of the statues, using heavyweight, blunt arrowheads, then ducked back down behind the barricade with us as the whine of the statues picked up again. I pulled more SPD from one of the bones and left again, this time moving toward where Amaryllis had engaged the dirt-golems in combat. Her sword was flickering rapidly as she spun and ducked through them, and with her every movement she put more of them between her and the statues.

“Aim for their centers!” she called as soon as she saw me.

“We have to go!” I called back, even as I waded in with the Anyblade.

It was my first time actually fighting with a blade since I’d gotten the new blade-bound bonuses, and the difference would probably have been overwhelming if it wasn’t all muscle memory. The dirt golems were mostly unarmed, throwing punches or trying to grab at me, and I danced between them with fluid motions, nimbly avoiding them and striking out with my sword at all the opportunities that seemed to be presenting themselves. I could tell that the dirt golems hadn’t been built for combat just from how they moved, but there was a huge amount of weight behind their swings.

When my sword cleaved into them, it stuck into the dirt, and I was only able to remove it by quickly shrinking the Anyblade to pull it out and then expanding it back to its full size again. Amaryllis was having more luck than I was; the ones she was fighting had dark brown liquid leaking from the holes she was putting into them, and a few had already dropped around her. I switched up my tactics and began using the Anyblade in its largest form; Monkey Grip applied even when wielding two-handed, which mean that I had what should have been an impractically enormous six-foot sword. I swung it through the air like I had been born with a blade in my hand, and when I struck one of the dirt golems with a full swing, my sword went halfway through its body, causing a thick spurt of dark brown liquid as it collapsed to the ground.

Basic Dirt Golem defeated!

After that, my new strategy was to duck and roll out of the way, getting enough distance that I could wind up for a huge swing with the massive sword. The dirt golems were either too slow or stupid to dodge; the best they could do was to put up an arm in defense, but a burst of blood magic to enhance the force of my swing was enough to both cut off the limb and strike to their heart. The power of it left my right hand shaking with pain — I couldn’t feel anything from my left. The messages kept piling up, not just from the golems Amaryllis and I defeated, but from skills going from 20 to 21 and hitting that cap.

I took a few hits. The golems had been converging on Amaryllis and I from all directions, and sometimes it was simply a matter of needing to take the hit or be overwhelmed and unable to continue with the power strike strategy, which required a fair bit of room. Each time, the hit was absorbed by my armor, leaving the blue metal a bleach-white but otherwise not affecting me at all. Twice I was struck with a laser, but it only left a small white mark on the metal. Amaryllis was taking hits too, but less gracefully; she could lock her armor in place, but that wasn’t an absolute proof against the impacts, and every time she did it, she was stopping herself dead in her tracks, unable to dodge or attack.

It became a slog, but one that we were winning, and there was a feedback loop of victory, where each golem defeated meant that it was easier to defeat the others, even as I began to grow exhausted. I glanced to Fenn and Grak and saw a dirt golem slam his fist against an invisible wall just before Grak buried his axe in the creature’s torso. Grak wasn’t nearly as effective as Amaryllis and I, but he was fortified. Three of the four statues in range were gone, and as I watched, Fenn fired another artillery shot at the fourth. The arrows struck hard enough to chip and crack the stone, and while the statue didn’t quite topple to the ground, it stopped in place with its mouth wide, no longer shooting lasers down at us.

Then I swung my sword again, dropping another golem to the ground,

Basic Dirt Golem defeated!

and that was it, we had killed everything there was to kill. I glanced toward the gate golem, but it hadn’t budged, save to close its enormous hands.

I ran to where Fenn and Grak were and knelt down to look Solace over, a hand already going to one of my few remaining bones. Her skin was no longer bark, having reverted back to its natural light green.

“She’s dead,” said Fenn. “Has been since you brought her here.” I could see dark green crantek blood on Fenn’s hands and staining her fatigues.

“A person isn’t dead until their soul is gone,” I replied, “We’ve got thirty minutes to think of something, we can put her in the bottle, –”

I reached down and undid the leafy cloak around Solace’s neck, put it around my own neck, and once it was in place, reached into it as though absentmindedly drawing something from a pocket. To my relief, my fingers found the bottle and pulled it out. I set the bottle, with the forest inside it, down onto the ground.

“We can’t put her in, Joon, there’s no magic there to catch her, nothing to stop her fall, you’d be dropping her a mile to smash up her corpse,” said Fenn.

“Amaryllis has the immobility plate,” I said, “She could –”

“No,” said Amaryllis, “I would be trapped if the locus couldn’t somehow revive her. We used her magic to get in and out of the bottle.” Amaryllis took the void rifle from her back and leveled it at Solace’s head. Thunk. “Fenn, nail and bottle.”

Fenn held out Sable and a small glass bottle with a glass stopper in it appeared, followed by a nail with runes as soon as Amaryllis had grabbed the bottle. I watched, feeling numb, as Amaryllis slid the nail into the hole she’d made and extracted Solace’s soul from her body. When that was done, both the nail and bottle went back into Fenn’s glove, and after that, what remained of Solace as well.

(And during the battle, I had actually been feeling gleeful at the way that I’d been moving, reveling in the power that was now mine, high on the rush of inflicting pain and damage, and on each message the game gave me about another one down. I’d forgotten, for minutes, that something had happened to Solace.)

“So the plan is that we blow through this place and murder everyone inside?” asked Fenn.

“We should go,” I said. “Regroup, try to …” I looked down at the bottle. The last druid on Aerb was dead, and the locus couldn’t induct another when it had such a small, tamed scrap of land to call its own. And now the bottle really was a closed system, one that seemed like it was going to reach a failure state sooner rather than later.

“The locus is going to die without our intervention,” said Amaryllis. “At the moment, we have no intervention to administer. If we leave, the penitentiary will have time to rebuild and repair. We could fight this battle better the second time, from a position of knowledge, but we’d still have to fight it again. We have clocks running against us.”

Quest Updated: Taking Root – The world’s last druid has died, leaving the last locus severely constrained and untended. Eventually the imperfectly self-regulating cycles of life within the bottle will fail and the locus will die, unless you can find a way to remove the locus and transplant it into the wider world, where it was always meant to be. (Companion Quest)

“Fuck,” I said.

“A careful observer would have known that Amaryllis intended us to stay,” said Fenn. “If she hadn’t, then she’d have had the key out from the moment she came over here.”

“Don’t start with me,” said Amaryllis with a glare.

“Sorry,” said Fenn with a shrug that didn’t read as remotely apologetic. “I’m in a people-murdering mood, that always gets me feisty.”

“She was a good woman,” said Grak. His eyes were fixed on the puddle of green blood. He hefted his dirt-smeared axe. “I believe she would want us to see this through.”

I stared at the three of them, my eyes flicking from one to the other. I was afraid of what we’d find within the penitentiary, given that the prisoner we were after had enough free rein to send a void bomb out to us and that the security systems, or maybe just the penitentiary itself, had been thoroughly subverted against us. But we’d been caught off-guard this time, and if there were more fights in the future — well, who was I kidding, there were sure to be more fights in the future — then at least those fights would be ones that we could approach on a full war footing, with no fear of offending our now-hostile host.

“We’re going to need to be on the lookout for traps,” I said. “Not just magical ones, but mechanical too. And revenge is not our priority here, we need at least enough information to kickstart my own knowledge of soul manipulation. We can’t kill whoever sent that bomb our way until after that.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” asked Amaryllis. “Let’s go.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 57: Place Your Figs

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