Worth the Candle, Ch 61: Animus

We didn’t have another major fight, but we did have skirmishes, four of them as we went through the prison trying to find the gymnasium, or failing that, the cell where Fallatehr was kept. Three of those were against the brass creatures, which we mostly dealt with from as far a distance as possible. If you assumed that everything was out to kill you, it wasn’t actually that hard to deal with a dungeon, just time-consuming. We burnt through more bones for some healing and took a few bangs and scrapes, but came out relatively unscathed for our troubles. There was no real drama or tension battling the security system. It was good, but we were better, and we had killed the Colossus, apparently the largest, most threatening thing that it had, in a single swift show of immense force. If there was another, we didn’t see it.

I was worried about how long it would take the dungeon to start making fresh golems, and whether it was rebuilding its forces, but we didn’t see much more of them as we went deeper into the prison, nor when we started backtracking because we realized we’d gone the wrong way. We did fight a few more, but there were only a few of them, and they seemed like they were inartfully trying to lead us somewhere, so we took a different path instead.

And just like that, we stumbled into the gymnasium. My attention was immediately drawn to the people and the equipment in the center of it, but the room itself was also of note, another place with one of the many high domes the prison seemed fond of. The major difference here, aside from the fact that it was the first place that had actual people in it, was that the walls had enormous, intricately done murals that depicted elaborate battle scenes I didn’t quite find appropriate in a prison. The sun was setting, and the light coming through the glass roof was dim, which meant that most of what I could see was thanks to a greenish luminance from the lit wall sconces.

But it was the people who drew my attention, fifteen of them, all turned our way as we crept into the room. Most of them were elves, but there were other races too, an insectoid with a multi-hued carapace that had been scored with lines, a man with bumpy grey skin I recognized as one of the vlere-gur, and a woman who stood nearly seven feet tall and didn’t belong to any race I could recall making or reading about. I eyed them all carefully, scanning for signs of a threat.

A brief smattering of applause came from one of the elves, who began making his way towards us as his hands fell to his sides. “Congratulations!” he called across the distance from the center of the gym to where we stood by the door.

“Thanks!” Fenn called back.

“There was some discussion about whether you would make it!” he called, closing toward us quickly.

If this was Fallatehr, and there was no guarantee that it was, then he was very dangerous. And if it wasn’t Fallatehr, then he was almost certainly sending someone dangerous toward us. I tried to take in his face and kept having my eyes drawn to his pointed teeth, which seemed ready and willing to rend my flesh. He was tall and somewhat effeminate, with long, pointed ears, which I more or less expected from an elf at this point. His face was lively though, more animated than I had seen from any elf but Fenn, and she didn’t really count. Unlike the one we’d seen in the visiting room, this one didn’t seem to have any of the intricate scars used in scar magic, though his chest wasn’t visible to us. He wore white, with a high collar and no sleeves. The hem of the shirt hung so low that it was almost a dress, though he had white pants beneath that.

“Are you Fallatehr?” asked Amaryllis.

“Are you Amaryllis Penndraig, most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, and Princess of Anglecynn?” asked Fallatehr. I wasn’t certain that it was really him, but I thought that the odds were good.

“I am,” said Amaryllis, removing her helmet and holding it under her arm at her side. “We seek Fallatehr Whiteshell. We spoke with one of your … associates.” The pause wasn’t because Amaryllis was searching for the word, it was a deliberate sort of hitch in her speech that let him know she was choosing to be diplomatic, the classy way of making quote marks with your fingers.

“Yes,” said Fallatehr with a nod. “I am the man you seek. Explain to me why I should help you.”

“How much can the prison hear?” asked Amaryllis.

“In this place she has been rendered deaf,” said Fallatehr. To my surprise, I realized that he had a lisp; the ‘th’ sound was coming out awkwardly, or replaced entirely by something that sounded similar. ‘Uther’ had become ‘Oo-her’. I could imagine how that was a hard sound if you had to stick your tongue against pointy teeth, but couldn’t remember the other elf having that problem.

“Then we offer you escape,” said Amaryllis. “If your associate relayed our message accurately, then you know that we want you for a teacher. In exchange, you would go free.”

“Your ancestor, the one I knew, how many generations back was he?” asked Fallatehr. “Six? Seven?”

“If you mean Cyclamine, then three,” said Amaryllis. “He was my great-grandfather.”

“Far less than I expected then,” said Falltehr. “And do you know what our relationship was?”

“As far as I’m aware, he tried to save his family and his legacy when the regime change began,” said Amaryllis. “If there was any bad blood between the two of you, I haven’t heard about it.”

“We weren’t close friends,” said Fallatehr. “I knew him, and knew that he would do nothing for me, because there wasn’t enough incentive for him.” He clapped his hands once. “You and I aren’t close friends either.”

“The question of trust and incentives is an admittedly difficult one,” said Amaryllis. “Do we have time to talk? Will the prison take action against us here? Will it try to move you?”

“You’ve upset Amoureux greatly,” said Fallatehr. “But she has also been beaten into a temporary submission. I put a great deal of work into her over the years, bending and changing her, and I hate to say that you’ve upset all that. What she sends against you next time won’t be so softened.”

“There’s not going to be a next time,” said Amaryllis. “We can leave now.”

“How?” asked Fallatehr.

“We have a teleportation key,” said Amaryllis.

Fallatehr was silent for a moment, which he spent staring at Amaryllis, his eyes twitching fractionally as he looked over her face from a distance. “Anglecynn truly wants me?” he asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t speak for Anglecynn, nor act on the behalf of the kingdom.”

“Ah,” said Fallatehr. “Strange that a princess does not speak for her country. No pardon is on offer then? The crime I was put here for was, after all, only a crime after the fact.”

“It’s not within my power,” said Amaryllis. “If it were, I would offer that pardon.”

“Alright,” said Arthur, “Let me do the talking.”

“Me no talk good,” said Tom, with his best half-orc impression.

“But I want to talk,” said Tiff.

“Arthur has the best rolls,” said Reimer.

“Sheet,” said Tiff, holding out her hand. She had only recently learned that people would just hand over their character sheets if she asked, after having mistakenly believed that this was private information, and she was taking advantage of being able to look over what other people had done. Arthur handed his character sheet over with a smile, and Tiff narrowed her eyes as she looked at it. “Okay, that’s ridiculously good, but you’re lawful neutral, I’m chaotic good, I can’t let you do all the talking.”

“You don’t trust me to represent the average of the group view?” asked Arthur.

“First, no,” said Tiff with a laugh, “Second, that takes all the roleplaying out of it, doesn’t it? If you’re the one that always talks, then the rest of us are just, at best, talking out of character.”

“This is going to be a clusterfuck,” groaned Reimer.

“Well I think it’ll be fun,” said Tom.

“I didn’t say that it wouldn’t be fun,” replied Reimer. “Joon, I’m going to apply drowfire poison to my daggers before we go in. I have my special sheaths, so I should be able to keep them concealed.”

“Okay, sounds good,” I replied as I made a note in my scratchpad.

“What does the average of our values mean?” asked Maddie.

“Ugh, please no,” said Reimer. “Never let Arthur –”

“What I mean is that all of our alignments could potentially be plotted on a two-dimensional grid, like so,” said Arthur, sketching two quick lines in his notebook and giving them simple, one-letter labels. “The C-L axis is Chaos and Law, the G-E axis is Good and Evil. We can use this to map everyone in the group.” He made six quick points on the piece of paper. “And with some more lines, we have the basic alignment grid.” He drew in four more lines, two vertical, two horizontal, then held the paper up for our inspection. “So once we have that, we can average the points on the C-L axis, then average the points on the G-E axis, which would give us a new point about here,” he poked the paper in roughly the center of the dots, toward the corner of the square that would traditionally be labeled ‘neutral good’.

“Objection!” cried Tiff, who had been watching let’s plays of Phoenix Wright (she did this instead of playing them, it was weird). She jabbed a finger at her character sheet. “Cleonia feels very, very strongly about chaos, and if you were just averaging alignment, then you’d get people like Plunder — that is such a ridiculously stupid name –”

“Thank you,” said Reimer.

“People who don’t care about the abstract concept of law at all get counted the same in the average,” continued Tiff.

“They do,” said Arthur, “You’d assign a numeric value to each of the alignments –”

“No,” said Tiff. “It’s like, if we were talking about abortion, –”

“No, please, please, not again,” said Craig with a groan.

“You can hold the same pro-life beliefs as someone else, but feel it less strongly than they do,” said Tiff. “There are people who have some particular position on abortion as being central to the core of their identity, and there are other people with that same position who only really put forward their position when pressed about it.”

“So there are some people who are firmly neutral, and others who are wishy-washy about their neutrality,” I said.

“Point taken,” said Arthur with a frown. “I mean, we can fix that by making each point into a vector instead, and then averaging the vectors, but the alignment system is just notional anyway.”

“No, it’s not, it’s mechanical,” said Reimer. “If you can detect it with a spell, then it’s not just a norm.”

“Sure, fine,” said Arthur. He looked down at his graph. “The real problem is that for any given issue, we would need to figure out what everyone thought about it, and then how strongly they felt, and then as the voice of the group, because I have the best rolls, I would deliver whatever that position was to the NPCs.”

“Which wouldn’t work, because half the time conversation is about getting information from someone rather than delivering it to them,” I replied. “So with every line I deliver, you have to go back to the group and see their individual reaction to it, then synthesize a new position based on the change.”

“So we’re agreed on me talking?” asked Tiff. “Not a free-for-all, but if Arthur doesn’t do a good job of representing the truth and beauty of medieval ancap?” The historical context was really more like Early Modern Period, borrowing from the Scientific Revolution, but I refrained from making that correction.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Craig. “Joon can force the issue, and in-character there’s usually a reason to not let the snake oil salesman be the only one you talk with.”

“None taken,” said Arthur.

“Actually,” said Reimer, “The real reason it doesn’t matter is that we’re never actually going to get to that part of the night where we actually talk to anyone.”

“And you?” asked Fallatehr, turning his attention to me. He glanced down at my hand. “You’re the bone mage whose soul is in such dire need of fixing.”

“Yes,” I said, not fully trusting myself to speak. I had no idea whether Amaryllis was actually sympathetic to him, or whether her plan was to murder him outright as soon as we got what we wanted from him. I hoped that I wouldn’t give her away just from the fact that I was still terrible at lying.

“I can fix it quickly, if you’d give me a few minutes,” said Fallatehr.

I glanced at Amaryllis for help. “I don’t think that would be wise,” she said.

“You want me to teach someone the technique,” said Fallatehr with a nod. “I receive so little information from the outside world these days, is the nature of the soul still so taboo that you would need me?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “You might be able to change that, if you left this place.”

Fallatehr barked laughter, and it was one of the uglier sounds I had heard come from an elf. “Oh, I’m not yet sold on the idea of leaving,” said Fallatehr. “Not only is there the chance that it would be bad for my health, but I have quite the life here, with associates that I’ve spent decades crafting to perfection.” He gestured behind him, where the others were standing. Some were talking amongst themselves, which I took as a good sign; they didn’t have telepathy, and didn’t work with unanimity of purpose.

“Is there another arrangement that we could come to?” asked Amaryllis. “I wouldn’t think that you would have everything here that you could want.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” asked Fallatehr. “I know this prison very well, I control the levers of everyone inside it, I can move around with near-impunity, and I have already had much time to acquire creature comforts. I was never as concerned with the frivolity of the material as my brethren.” The heedlessness with which he lisped through the ‘th’ sounds was grating on me.

“That’s bluster,” said Amaryllis, keeping her tone flat. “There are things you want. We have a teleportation key and the capacity to get those things for you, even if you don’t wish to leave.”

“I didn’t say that I didn’t want to leave,” said Fallatehr, “Only that I was not sold.” He drummed his fingers on his chin, then looked to me. “Who would I be teaching?”

“Me,” I said, staring him down. “How long does it take, for someone to manipulate his own soul?”

“For a human?” asked Fallatehr. “Years, but not more than a decade.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Are you human?”

“Yes,” I replied, but I had a hunch what the next question was going to be.

“You are young, to have gone through the athenaeum,” said Fallatehr. He looked at the hand again. “You’ve made some attempt at healing, before coming to me. The bones have been cut out and regrown.”

“Not intentionally,” I replied. Fallatehr raised an eyebrow at that. I was hoping that being vague and mysterious would get him interested, on a professional level if nothing else.

“The body tries its best,” said Fallatehr. “It would be simplicity itself for me to fix what’s wrong with you. I’ve done it dozens of times before.”

“I’d prefer to learn on my own,” I replied.

“And spend years of your life to do so?” asked Fallatehr.

“If that’s what it takes,” I answered. I was hoping that it would take hours, but maybe that was a little bit unrealistic. I couldn’t say that I thought it would take hours, because that would demand an explanation that I didn’t want to give, and I already thought that Amaryllis was being a little loose with what information she was giving up. I didn’t doubt that she had a plan, but my plan hadn’t involved telling him that we had a teleportation key until we had to.

“And you, quarter-elf,” said Fallatehr, addressing his attention to Fenn. “Why do you travel with a princess and a prodigy?”

“I don’t think that’s germane,” said Amaryllis as quickly as she could.

“If I’m to be teaching this one for years on end, of course it is,” said Fallatehr with a frown. “We’re speaking of a long-term arrangement, and it would, of course, behoove me to know more about who you are and what you want, even if your prodigy can learn what he needs to know in months, not years.”

“Sharing information goes both ways,” said Amaryllis, with a glance back to the people still standing in the center of the room.

“I have you at a disadvantage,” said Fallatehr, “I see no point in pretending otherwise.” I felt pained at that; I didn’t really believe that he was content to stay here, even if he’d had his way with the prison, but it was clear that he was willing to walk away from our escape, which wasn’t at all what I’d been hoping for.

Amaryllis nodded, and gestured toward Fenn.

“What is it you’d like to know?” asked Fenn. Her enunciation was more perfect than I had ever heard from her before.

“You’re a half-elf?” asked Fallatehr. “Descended from wood elf stock?”

Fenn nodded. “My father was an elf from the Isle of Eversummer. My mother was a human.”

“And what is your role in this group?” he asked. The unself-consciousness of the way he spoke was unsettling me, given his lisp. He didn’t trip over or slow down for the word ‘this’, he simply spoke it incorrectly and continued on.

“I’m our ranged specialist,” said Fenn. She didn’t have her bow drawn, which made the statement a little farcical, but there were lots of ways to be a ranged specialist without having visible equipment, at least on Aerb, and hopefully being enigmatic would keep him guessing, or at least force him to ask another question.

“How old are you?” asked Fallatehr.

“Thirty-three years old,” said Fenn.

(That was quite a bit older than I had thought, and my brain had an irrational moment of uncomfortability and panic at our age difference. It didn’t actually matter, it didn’t make her a different person, I’d already known that she’d spent a few years in prison. I hadn’t asked, because it didn’t seem important, and if it wasn’t important enough to ask, then it wasn’t important enough to think about once I knew.

And I immediately began spinning up reasons that her being that old was actually a bad thing, because that was how my brain worked. She’d left the elves for good at the age of seventeen, after they’d scarred her, which meant that she’d been on her own for nearly sixteen years. I guess in my mind there was an acceptable length of time to go bumming around the Risen Lands looking for loot, where a few years was just a matter of finding yourself, and a decade and a half was more just who you were. And there was, too, the question of Fenn’s immaturity on both an emotional and social level, the jokes that she used to cover her insecurities and weaknesses, the way she kept her guard up, even around me … I had thought that I would help her, and she would help me, and we would grow together, but there were sixteen years of her mostly being the same person without changing much, and six partners over the course of those sixteen years meant that her issues with intimacy and how gun shy she was about relationships were also more serious than I had thought.

Really, I was probably just carrying over cultural conceptions from Earth about what age ranges were appropriate. That had been something I’d been sensitive to for a long time, ever since a few girls in our class freshman year had dated seniors, and the age gap between them had rankled, partly because I’d had a crush on one of them. That got added to the standard Midwestern cultural programming package, which would have considered me, at seventeen, dating a thirty-three-year-old woman as incredibly scandalous.

This was all very incidental to the powerful soul mage standing in front of us, but that didn’t do much to keep the cascade of thoughts from running through my head.)

“You’re a pup, then,” said Fallatehr. “An outcast from elven society, I would wager, like myself?”

Fenn shrugged.

“Not the talkative type then,” said Fallatehr with a slight frown. Amaryllis coughed, which didn’t hide her momentary smile from me.

Fallatehr looked at Grak only briefly, but apparently had no questions for him. Elves and dwarves didn’t have any inborn animosity on Aerb, contrary to the traditional fantasy cliche, partly because they occupied completely different niches within the sociocultural ecosystem.

“Very well,” said Fallatehr, looking back toward Amaryllis, “I would like some time alone with the prodigy, to gauge him as a student.”

Amaryllis nodded, and gestured for me to go forward. “Away from the others, of course,” she said with a glance toward the cluster of people in the center.

“So little trust,” said Fallatehr with a frown, but he began walking to a different corner of the gymnasium all the same. I followed after him, suddenly feeling nervous. This was a man that I would need some kind of working relationship with, if I wanted to learn his secrets, but he currently had some strong incentives to hold me hostage. Elves were stronger and faster than people, and their luck grew as they got older. I had never fought an elf before, unless you counted sparring with Fenn, and that uncertainty was one of the primary sources of my apprehension.

Fallatehr led us behind a small folding screen, where two chairs were set up, along with a variety of equipment on a simple tray. I recognized the runic nail like the one I’d used to collect souls in Comfort, and there was a variety of glass equipment, along with a few other things that I didn’t recognize, and a few pieces of mundane doctor’s equipment I was familiar with, like a speculum.

“I didn’t catch your name,” said Fallatehr. He sat in his chair with his legs folded and his hands clasped over his knees.

“Juniper Smith,” I said. I was watching him closely and listening for suspect sounds from beyond the screen.

“And it’s you who will be my pupil?” he asked. His eyes roamed my face and rested on my deformed hand. I tried not to join him in looking at it; I knew what I would see there, skin stretched and sagged in places, each knuckle just slightly off from the right length, either too long or too short.

“Yes,” I said. “If you’ll have me, if we can come to some sort of arrangement.”

“What was it you were doing, when you reached down through your marrow and touched your soul?” asked Fallatehr with a raised eyebrow.

“I was running for my life,” I said. “I needed the swiftness.” Swiftness was the bone mage name for SPD, and I wasn’t about to reveal myself to him if I could help it. I held up my hand so he could see it. “I used every bone, and even then I only barely lived.” I wasn’t going to tell him about my ribs either, I had decided, not until I knew how to fix my hand.

“It might be easier to work with you, given how you’ve disfigured yourself,” said Fallatehr. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” I replied.

“How old were you, when you began studying at the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh?” asked Fallatehr.

“You’re assuming that I studied there,” I replied. I could feel his eyes watching me. I knew that I was going to present him with a number of facts that weren’t going to make much sense, but not only was I terrible at lying, I didn’t know enough to carry on a campaign of lies.

“And where did you study?” he asked.

“I had a teacher in Barren Jewel, if you know where that is,” I said.

“Outside the athenaeums,” said Fallatehr.

“That’s something that I’m seeking to do again, given the tight controls on the art,” I said. That much was truth, at least. I was scared of soul magic, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to learn it, and if this man was the most direct path, then so be it.

“Show me your bone magic,” said Fallatehr.

I grabbed a bone from out of my bandolier and held it in my right hand, then frowned slightly as I tried to think about the best way to demonstrate. I assumed that he wanted to get some understanding of who I was as a student, or possibly was trying to get some information from me. I didn’t really mind that too much; there were only a few things that I wasn’t going to tell him.

I ended up using the Anyblade to make a cut in my left hand, feeling almost no pain from it, and then healed myself immediately with only a trace of the cut remaining. I went slow, pulling steadily rather than trying to yank out all the healing at once, in order to maximize what the bone would give me. “Satisfied?” I asked.

“And how long did you spend in study to attain that level of proficiency?” asked Fallatehr, leaning forward slightly.

Ah. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. “I learn quickly.”

“How quickly?” asked Fallatehr.

That was a tricky thing to answer. It had taken me maybe an hour to go from Bormann’s simple description to being able to do it myself, and my current level of proficiency had taken maybe a month, at the most, though that was without a huge amount of effort put into actually learning anything. But the actual timeline wasn’t what made it tricky, it was that saying “I learned it in an hour” was unbelievable, and besides that, might betray a little too much of what I was. And if he did believe me, then he might realize that he wasn’t actually all that valuable, because we didn’t need years worth of training from him, we needed weeks, or maybe even mere days.

“It took me a month,” I said. That seemed like a fair compromise, startlingly quick, but maybe not outrageous.

Fallatehr watched me, frowning. “Have you applied your quick learning to other tasks?” he asked.

“A few, I replied. “What we want from you won’t take years of your life, it will take much less, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I am not human, such that I worry about a few years here and there,” said Fallatehr. He was still looking me over. “Your other specialities, skin magic and blood magic?”

I hesitated. “Yes,” I said. I wasn’t sure how he had been able to tell about the blood magic. My veins were maybe a little more prominent than they might otherwise have been, if you had eyes keen enough to look me over carefully from a distance. As for the tattoos … well, that was obvious enough, if you looked down at my wrist. I hadn’t made an effort to hide them. Maybe I should have, but my tattoos were weak enough that I would rather project strength that I didn’t have instead of keeping a trivial trick up my sleeve.

“And others,” said Fallatehr.

“Yes,” I replied.

Fallatehr leaned back in his chair. “Have you surpassed your teachers?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Though I can’t say that I had particularly good teachers, so that might not say much.”

“And this prodigy, is it natural or magical?” asked Fallatehr.

“Neither,” I replied. It took place above the levels where natural and magical existed, that I was pretty sure of, though it obviously interfaced with those levels as well.

“Very well,” said Fallatehr, standing up from his chair. “I believe I find this intriguing enough to go along with, which I imagine was what you were going for. The princess has a handle on you –”

“She doesn’t,” I said. “We’re just friends. I let her do the talking and negotiating, because she’s better than me, but I wouldn’t think it smart to try to manipulate her as a way of manipulating me.”

“I’ve never held with manipulation,” said Fallatehr. “Far easier to simply stick your hand on someone’s soul to get them to do what you want.”

I swallowed at that. If he tried that with Amaryllis, I would stab him to death until he wasn’t much more than a pile of broken bones, raw meat, and ruptured organs, but I didn’t know whether he was the sort of person who responded well to threats. Then again, he was threatening me, or at least the people close to me, so maybe this was one of those occasions where displaying a willingness to inflict violence was appropriate. Too much time passed as I thought about it, and I ended up keeping my mouth shut.

“Come,” said Falltehr. “I believe the time has come to negotiate over the matter of my associates, now that I’ve decided you would make an interesting enough pupil.”

We walked back to the rest of the party, who were still standing close together. They had been talking, but ceasing their conversation as we approached. Fallatehr’s “associates” had moved somewhat, but they were still watching us.

“I’ve accepted the base offer,” said Fallatehr. “I will leave this prison with you and teach Mr. Smith everything there is to know about the soul and how to manipulate it.”

“With reservations?” asked Amaryllis.

“Naturally,” replied Fallatehr. “And I have bad news, I’m afraid. The teleportation key you’ve brought in will not work, and this place will not remain safe for you for more than another hour.” Of course, because that would be too easy.

“The prison is not warded,” said Grak with a furrowed brow.

“It is an innate feature of this place, not a ward,” said Fallatehr.

“And you couldn’t have mentioned this earlier?” asked Fenn.

“It wouldn’t have been to my advantage then,” said Fallatehr, casting his gaze over her. She broke eye contact with him almost immediately, but his eyes continued tracing the lines of her body. Fenn had repeatedly assured me that elves found her extremely distasteful, but Fallatehr wasn’t exactly a typical elf, and he’d already said that he was an outcast. “In an hour, it will be curfew, and the prison’s appendages will come here. That’s not something that I can prevent.”

“The prohibition against teleportation doesn’t extend beyond the outer walls though?” asked Amaryllis.

“Not to my understanding,” said Fallatehr. He was watching the four of us like he was taking some entertainment from this. He’d agreed to leaving the prison and working with us, but we still didn’t have something that he actually wanted. To him, our failure would be a boon, and that was a serious problem.

“You said that the prison would bring us greater challenges on our way out,” I said. “Explain that.”

“There have been less than fifty prisoners here for the last hundred years,” said Fallatehr. “For the last six decades, I have been working on the penitentiary itself, uninhibited, gradually bending her to my will. The weakness of the appendages of dirt is a result of that. In another hundred years, I could have transformed this place into a fortress under my complete control.”

“Go faster, please,” said Amaryllis. “Time is apparently of the essence.”

“The prison is reactive,” said Fallatehr. “She rises to the threats that she faces. When there were two thousand unruly prisoners, she was fearsome. Given such a long span of a few dozen completely docile prisoners who she never recognizes as breaking rules, she has become the weak thing you faced in reaching me. And now, having been so thoroughly provoked, she will rise once again. How fast, I can’t say.”

“Shit,” Amaryllis swore.

“Yes,” agreed Fallatehr. “When you came here I thought that I would be happy enough to see you all die by the penitentiary’s hands, but Juniper has changed my mind on that score somewhat.”

“Then let’s get going,” said Fenn, folding her arms across her chest.

“There’s still the matter of the … associates,” said Amaryllis. That was more or less what it came down to. We’d been given a clock and told there was danger, but we were going to keep standing in this room, talking, until we could come to an agreement. “We can’t take them, the teleportation key only allows five.”

“Unacceptable,” said Fallatehr with a shrug. “My counter-offer is that we take all of them. You have free use of the key, it wouldn’t take more than six trips in total. It would naturally have to be done carefully in order to ensure that there’s no chance you simply leave them behind.”

“We can’t deal with that many people,” said Amaryllis. “Logistically speaking –”

“It’s about trust, not logistics,” said Fallatehr.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “You’re right, I apologize for not cutting to the point. We’ll move everyone at once, and if the far side of the island is safe from the penitentiary, we’ll extract everyone, including whichever associates you want to remove from this place. None of them will come with us. I’ll place them in whatever locations you prefer, so long as they’re distant from us.”

“Hang on,” I said, “You’re talking about releasing them into the world?”

“I’m negotiating,” said Amaryllis with a carefully calm glance in my direction.

“Ah, young Juniper doesn’t share your belief in the injustice of my incarceration?” asked Fallatehr.

“I don’t know the specifics, and I don’t think we have the time to talk about them,” I said. “Your associate we talked to made it clear that your associates aren’t actually you, they’re,” I waved my hand in the air, as though I could skate by the fact that I had no real idea what had been done to those people. “And I imagine some of them were put in this penitentiary for a good reason.”

“We can talk about this later,” said Amaryllis. “We need to get moving, which means that we need to get a consensus, fast.”

“The associates are of no use to me scattered,” said Fallatehr.

“They would be freed to pursue your goals,” said Amaryllis. “If that’s not enough, you could arrange to meet with them once your obligation to us is complete.”

“I’ll take three with me, plus another who is not an associate,” said Fallatehr. “I will, naturally, never be put in a situation where I might be pressganged.”

“Not an associate?” asked Amaryllis with narrowed eyes.

“Nonanima,” said Fallatehr. The name wasn’t familiar to me, but I heard an intake of breath from Fenn. “She is already in chains.” Well that’s fucking ominous.

“You, two associates, and the nonanima,” said Amaryllis.

“And, of course, passage for all my associates,” said Fallatehr.

Amaryllis nodded, but she didn’t seem particularly happy about it. I had no idea what the bounds of soul magic actually were, and didn’t fully understand what these associates were to him. They weren’t clones, exactly, but they were at the very least people whose souls had been remade in the image of his own. There was too much uncertainty though, and the fact that he could lie to us with practical impunity was worrying.

Fallatehr left to go speak with his associates. I didn’t know how much time we had left until the curfew, but it sure as hell felt like he was being nonchalant about things. We were just out of range of being able to hear his conversation, which was done with low voices and occasional glances in our direction.

“Do you have some clever plan?” I asked Amaryllis. “Something that you’re not telling me because of the n-word, or –”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “I intend to hold up our end of the bargain.”

“Fuck,” said Fenn. “I’m not on board with that.”

“Seems dicey, if anyone finds out that it was us, and they’ll have our names,” I said.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “It gives us an incentive not to defect against him, it’s implicitly part of the deal.”

That made sense, but I really didn’t like it. We were essentially giving him blackmail ammunition. Of course, we were already enemies of the state, which meant that the blackmail wasn’t as useful as it might seem on first blush, and that was probably also part of Amaryllis’ negotiation strategy, which was, apparently, more layered than I gave her credit for. It also put us in a collective corner, which she’d done without consulting us. Hard to do, in the heat of the moment, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

“Scenario?” asked Amaryllis.

“Scenario zero,” I replied. No new quests, no quest updates, no achievements, no companion messages. I had thought that Fallatehr would prove to be a companion, but if he was, the game hadn’t seen fit to say anything about him yet. I’d thought that the prison would hold some kind of companion, because this seemed like the perfect place for the ‘you find a locked up guy with skills who joins your party‘ trope to rear its head.

“You’re not going to talk her out of this?” asked Fenn.

“No,” I replied. I looked her over. She was still standing with her arms crossed. “Be on the lookout while we move, they have every incentive to try to whittle down our numbers or attack us in the confusion of battle. It could be Fireteam Blackheart all over again.”

Fenn twisted her lips to the side for a moment, then nodded. I wasn’t sure that she had caught the message that I was trying to pass across; when Fenn and I had been stuck with Fireteam Blackheart, before we’d really known each other, whittling down the fireteam while ostensibly moving toward our goals had been the best plan of action we’d had available to us, because there was no way that we were going to be left alive. Fallatehr and his people had incentives to weaken us so we’d be easier to handle, but we had those same incentives.

I glanced toward Amaryllis after a short grace period, wanting to see whether she would pick up what I was saying but not wanting to look over eager, like I was getting away with something. She was, mercifully, staring at Fallatehr and his associates. I tracked her intent gaze to where a cage was being drawn out from under a table. A pale woman with white hair was inside it, and two of the scarred elves opened the door to pull her out.

“Nonanima?” I asked.

Amaryllis nodded. She looked my in direction with cold eyes. “If any of them happen to die on our way out, it would be best if she was one of them.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 61: Animus

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