Worth the Candle, Ch 68: Seeing Red

I went down into the basement, moving cautiously, the Anyblade held as a knife in my right hand and my left being used as a torch. It felt so good to have two working hands again, and sometimes I moved the fingers of my left hand just to feel them moving. So far as I could see, I was no worse the wear for the soul magic I’d done to myself, and I was already thinking about burning through those bones again as part of the normal course of combat, which would free up my bandolier for more interesting bones, ones with more specific purposes, as opposed to the cow bones that traditionally sat there. My chest was obviously far more important than my hand, given that it was probably going to end up killing me if left untreated, but I would take a victory where I could find it.

“There’s a light switch,” said Valencia, as soon as I was down the steep stairs and into the basement. She was handcuffed to a pipe coming out of a large boiler, looking miserable. The light of my flaming hand gave her a warmer look than I thought was natural for her pale skin and white hair. When I looked down, I saw that she was wearing one shoe, a slipper that Fenn had given her. I had tried to make it comfortable for her, with a blanket beneath her and some food in case she got hungry. That had netted me another point of loyalty, putting me at 9, the cusp of getting Twinned Souls with someone who didn’t have a soul.

I turned around and looked for the light switch, trying to keep her within my field of view at the same time. There was plenty of space between the two of us, enough that I wasn’t worried about her attacking, but I was trying to take what Amaryllis had said seriously, even if it really seemed unlikely that anything a demon in Valencia’s body could do would injure me in any meaningful way.

I let the flame go out when I turned on the light switch, and looked down to see a slipper laying on the ground. I picked it up and looked at it, then lofted it toward Valencia.

“Is there a reason you turned the light off?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” she replied, slipping her shoe back on. “Sometimes when there’s no one around they’re mean to me. Mostly they don’t think I’m a person.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s … I wonder why that is.”

“Because I don’t have a soul,” said Valencia, keeping her head down and not meeting my eyes.

“I don’t really think souls are actually that important,” I said.

She raised her eyes to look at me. “They are,” she said.

“You’re sort of proof that they aren’t,” I replied. “You’re … a muggle, basically, gated from performing magic, but you still have a personality and memories, skills, presumably, or the ability to learn some skills — do you have any skills?”

Valencia shook her head.

“Well, you can speak, that’s a skill,” I said. “I don’t imagine that you got much of an education, uh, growing up, but we can work on that.”

“Do you love me?” she asked, watching me with watery eyes.

“Uh,” I said, taking a half step back.

“Because I love you,” she said. “You’re so sweet and kind and understanding, more than anyone has ever been ever in my life, and I keep worrying that I’m going to lose you, and that must be what love is.”

I looked her over, wondering whether she was possessed.

“You’re wondering whether I’m possessed right now,” said Valencia, with a manic smile slowly creeping onto her face. “I suppose I’ll save you the trouble just this once and tell you that I am.”

“Oh,” I said, frowning. “I’ll confess I’ve never spoken to a devil before.”

“You have,” said the thing wearing Valencia’s skin, the smile quite wide now. “Through this creature’s nubile body.” She began undressing, though she was still in manacles, chained to a boiler pipe, so this didn’t go very smoothly.

“I’m not clear on why you would tell me that you’re a devil,” I said, watching it puppet her body. I had a decision to make, about whether or not to look away as it pulled up her dress. Basic Midwestern modesty demanded it, but that would let the devil know that I cared, and not just this current one, but all future ones. And on top of that, the real Valencia was aware of what happened while she was possessed, and she would see me looking away, and know that I was embarrassed or ashamed.

“So why tell me?” I asked.

“It’s true that she thinks she loves you,” said the devil. Having gotten the dress part of the way up her midriff, it was working on moving the panties down. “Always best to say the things that are hurtful and true, they stick in best. She saw your face when I said it, saw your reaction to that love, saw the gears turning in your head, all the sort of heartbreaking stuff that normally gets to her.”

“So you do consider her a person?” I asked.

“No,” said the devil with a smile that didn’t seem like it belonged on Valencia’s face. “But you do, so it works either way.” It had slid her underwear down and was flashing me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Leave? Try to restrain her and make it stop? It hadn’t occurred to me that having a gag in her mouth was probably a mercy for Valencia, when a possession came.

“It seems so basic,” I found myself saying.

“Basic?” asked the devil.

“You’re trying to cause pain and hurt in the world,” I said. “Your only avenues for doing that during a possession are manipulation of the body or injection of information, even if that information is false.”

The devil controlling Valencia perked up slightly. “Oh?” it asked.

“The problem is, you’re temporarily inhabiting a body that I know can sometimes house devils, and I know that the information coming from that body is sometimes inaccurate, so … why should I listen?” I asked. “From a strategic perspective … is it just that devils can’t coordinate with each other? Is that why you don’t make an effort to plan for the long-term?”

Valencia stopped exposing herself and her dress fell back down. She looked away from me, back toward the boiler. “It left,” she said. “They don’t like the second guessing, I don’t think.”

“Okay,” I said with a nod, not knowing whether to believe that.

“And you don’t believe me,” she said. She turned back to me with watery eyes. “You don’t believe me because I’m not even my own person!” She started crying, leaning against the boiler pipe we’d cuffed her to. I waited, watching her, knowing that if she was really Valencia there was something that I should be saying to her to make things better, but also knowing that it probably wasn’t Valencia.

“I’m sorry, Valencia,” I said.

She looked up, then leaned over to dry away her tears with her chained up hands. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” she said.

“I’m sorry that this world is the way that it is,” I said. Some of that is probably my fault. “I’m sorry that we don’t have a better solution than to put you in manacles in the basement.” Yet. “I think one of the solutions to this problem is that while there’s unreliable information transfer from you, information transfer from us will always get to you, because you’re aware of what happens when you’re possessed. That doesn’t really help you to effectively communicate with us, in a real sense, but when I say things, I can still be sure that I’m saying them to Valencia, even if someone else might be in control of the ears.”

“Why do you care about me?” she asked.

That was a loaded question, especially given that it might be coming from a devil, or that a devil might hear the answer in the future and use it against me. “I don’t know,” I said. “But I do care.”

(The true answer was probably that I was being manipulated by a game that knew which buttons to press in order to get me to care. I cared more about her because she was clearly young, and more because she was a girl (as fucked up as that might have been, from a gender politics standpoint). The most important thing was probably just that she was right in front of me, but I didn’t think that I was good enough at the social stuff to say any of that in a way that would come across well. “Because you’re here, in front of me, activating pathos, with no one else in the world who cares for you.”)

“Okay,” she nodded. “I care about you too, because you’re one of the only people that has ever been nice to me. But I don’t really know you.”

I nodded. “And I don’t really know you either. It’s going to be hard, not knowing what’s coming from you and what’s coming from them.” I paused slightly. “Does Fallatehr know of a way to figure out whether or not you were possessed?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “When he needed to know something from me he would just ask me over and over again and try to average out the reponses.”

“Huh,” I said. I had no idea whether that was true, but it was something that I could cross-check with Fallatehr. “Well, failing that –” I hesitated, wondering whether it was a good idea, then wondering whether pushing her loyalty up was a good idea, but I didn’t think that the game would fuck me over for helping someone, given the cowardice penalties I’d consistently gotten for not helping girls in danger, and the game stuff had always worked in my favor before, “– if only one direction of our communication is reliable, maybe I can tell you a bit about myself?”

“They’re listening in,” said Valencia. “When they come they’ll be able to hurt you with the things that you say.”

“I know,” I said with a shrug. “It’s not going to be anything earth-shattering, just small things.”

“Small things?” she asked.

“Things I would be okay with the devils knowing, if it meant that you could have someone to talk to,” I replied. “Like … my mom did most of the cooking in our house, but dad was always responsible for the big event meals, when we’d have people over for barbeque or a big,” Thanksgiving? “Holiday meal or something, and it was always this point of tension between the two of them, because he expected her to clean up after him. The weird thing was that it always came to a head afterward, when it came time for the cleaning, instead of before, when dad was in the process of making all the dirty dishes.”

“No one has ever cooked for me,” said Valencia.

“Really?” I asked. “I guess the prison fed you?”

She nodded. “Mother said that there were gardens and magic that kept us fed.”

“I — I didn’t know that you had a mother,” I replied. “I mean most people have mothers, unless they’re dwarves, I guess, but the circumstances of your birth aren’t really that clear to me. Fallatehr seemed to indicate that he made you.”

Valencia nodded again. “My mother was in the prison with him. He changed her to be like him, as much as he could, and then got her pregnant.”

“Ah,” I said, trying to keep my face from betraying any emotion. Then I relaxed somewhat, because that wasn’t really the way that I thought things should go between us, not if she was going to be a companion. “I find that sort of tragic.” She was silent, looking at me with her big red eyes. “It’s — the ideal, as I see it, anyway, is that children should be an expression of the love between two people, the closest that you can get to –” mingling your souls. “I don’t know, I just wish that you’d had better.” I hesitated before continuing on. “You’re more well-spoken than I would have expected.”

“Am I?” she asked. “I don’t feel like I speak well. Fallatehr put my mother in charge of making sure that I was normal, so that he could talk to me when he needed to. He made her like me, but it wore off sometimes, because he was juggling too many people.”

I nodded along at that, wishing that I could trust the information she was giving me about Fallatehr’s limits. That wasn’t the point of this conversation though, and I had to keep that in mind.

We talked for some time, almost entirely about innocuous things. I never mentioned Earth, or anything that was too close to Earth. I certainly didn’t mention the game, or the Dungeon Master, and I tried my best to steer clear of anything relating to my other traveling companions, because I didn’t want to put them at risk. Instead, I talked about the places I’d seen on Aerb, sharing some of what I liked about the world, trying to describe particularly vivid scenes as well as I could remember them. Valencia asked questions, usually not very deep ones, but enough to make me feel like I wasn’t just talking to a wall.

“Do you really like me?” asked Valencia as I got up to go.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We haven’t known each other long enough, and there’s the whole complication of the devils. But … I think this was pleasant, and I don’t really see why devils would want it to be pleasant, so, yeah,” but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I could think of reasons. They could be playing the long game, or setting me up for a punch to the gut, trying to gain my trust or lower my guard. “We’ll do this again, and maybe make some headway.”

“Until you’re finished with Fallatehr,” said Valencia.

“Oh,” I replied. “No, I had intended to take you into my care.”

Loyalty increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 14!

Companion Passive Unlocked: [Unknown Reference Error]!

Consulting …

Rebooting …

Loyalty increased: Valencia the Red lvl 14!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Infernal Capture!

The messages came through quickly, piling up on each other, almost so fast that I couldn’t read one before the next was pushed out of the way. I stared at the last message, and the words ‘Infernal Capture’, trying to parse it. When I looked up at Valencia, she was looking at her hands.

“What happened?” she asked, looking up at me.

“Uh,” I said. “Did something happen?”

“It’s still inside me,” she replied, looking back down at her hands, then back up at me. “I’m still possessed, but it’s … you were lying to me, when you asked whether something happened, you know that something happened, and you had something to do with it.”

I stared at her. “How do you know that?” I asked slowly. Something had changed about her. Obviously I’d expected that to be one of the natural outcomes of her gaining Twinned Souls, given that she was nearly useless as a party member, but she’d gotten some kind of different thing instead, and I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on. Whether Infernal Capture was a good or bad thing for her (or me) was very ambiguous.

“I don’t know!” she said, sounding helpless and pained. She stopped and watched me. “You knew that this might happen to me,” she said, slightly awed. “You’ve been waiting for some kind of change, but not the possessions, something else, and this is … not what you expected, and you’re trying to figure out whether it’s good or bad for … us. Us?”

“Where’s this information coming from?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm and steady.

“I’m thinking like one of them,” said Valencia, stepped back, catching the chain of her manacles on the pipe. “I’m being clever in the way that they always were, it’s … I can feel it inside of me, still wearing me, like I’m its glove, but … but I’m the one in control, moving the hand inside me. Feeding — feeding? — feeding on it. On the devil there.” She looked at me. “You don’t believe me. You think that it might be a trick the devil is pulling.”

“It’s a possibility,” I said. “Look … if this is real, then I think that it’s probably better that Fallatehr doesn’t know about it. Can you — would you hide it?”

“I could,” said Valencia with a nod. “With this inside of me, I –” she stopped. “And if it leaves, he never actually trusted me, if you’re going to kill him and take me with you –” Her words were coming out in a rush, sentences and thoughts half-formed before being abandoned.

“I’m not going to kill him,” I said.

“You’re lying,” said Valencia, looking me over. “But you’re lying because you don’t want me to leak it back to him, and I think that’s probably okay.”

“The devil is helping you to think?” I asked.

Valencia nodded, swallowing hard.

“Okay,” I said. “Uh, give me a few seconds.” I closed my eyes before waiting for a response, waiting three seconds until I had the character sheet up, then quickly moving over to the companions section.

Valencia the Red, Loyalty lvl 14

Valencia is a nonanima, a humanoid without a soul, created by the essentialist Fallatehr Whiteshell in the Amoureux Penitentiary where she lived for the first seventeen years of her life. Until recently she was subject to repeated possession by demons and devils at random intervals, but now, touched by your magic, she has become something to be feared, for much different reasons than she was before. She is nearly a newborn, in some ways, trying to find her feet.

And there, just below the biography:

Infernal Capture: Valencia is a loyal companion, now properly part of your kharass, though she is still without a soul. The non-anima is grasping, reaching, an unnatural construct trying to find its way in the world. Power has, for the first time in her life, found its way into her hands.

I opened my eyes and looked at her. Before, her character bio had displayed the same null reference exception, but now it was filled in, which seemed like it was good news. The message about the game rebooting itself, well, that was more troubling, as was the message about consulting, but whatever had happened, I had no more information on it than that. I closed my eyes again, this time to dip into my soul.

I found Valencia’s line almost immediately, coming off of my soul like the ones for Amaryllis and Fenn, but on following it, I found the end twisting and turning in the wind, leading off into nothing. I frowned at that, then dropped out from soul-vision to look at Valencia again.

“Take me with you,” she said.

“I can’t,” I replied. “Not right now, not without raising questions from Fallatehr, questions that I wouldn’t want him figuring out the answer to.” I didn’t want to leave her in this basement if she’d just leveled up, but didn’t really see that I had much of an option. My hope was that Fallatehr would just stay away from her; I would place one of my last vines around the door as a precaution, though I didn’t know what their range was.

“You’re going to come back for me,” said Valencia. “You’re going to kill him once he’s shown you what he knows.”

“You’re saying that like you know it for a fact,” I replied.

“It’s written on you,” said Valencia, staring at me in wonder. “Is this what it’s like, for a devil to see people?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I do still need to go, but I’ll help you to figure it out when I come back.”

“And you are coming back,” said Valencia, nodding as though she knew this as a fact. “You actually do like me. You think of me as …” she hesitated, disappointed, “A sister.” Confusion crossed her face. For all that she’d claimed to be able to read me like a book, her own emotions were as plain as day. Whatever the devil inside her was doing, it wasn’t giving her the ability to lie. Or, wait …

“Try lying to me,” I said.

“About what?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“Anything,” I said. “Something that we both know is false.” I touched my breastplate. “Tell me it’s red with black streaks.”

“Why?” asked Valencia, the confusion apparent on her face. “I thought you wanted me to lie? What color does it look like to you?”

I looked down, then up, staring at her. Her confusion faded away to a wide smile, and she gripped the pipe she was chained to, having little other way to express her excitement. “I did it!” she said. “I know what it feels like now, to be the one to do it, to say things that aren’t at all true and just, you believed me!”

I nodded. “You’re taking the devil’s power, somehow,” I said.

“I told you,” said Valencia, speaking fast again, “I’m the glove it fit its hand into, but now that hand is mine, because I’m its glove.”

I understood that as a metaphor, but not how it worked in practical terms, but the practicalities of demonic possession hadn’t been clear before they’d been upended. “So was Grak touched or not?”

Valencia froze. “Yes,” she said. “What I said, last night, that was the truth. I was possessed when I said it, but it’s the truth.”

“So you lied to me before,” I replied.

“I — I didn’t know that you were going to save me, I thought that you would leave, like he always said would happen if anyone wanted to take me,” said Valencia, “And he knew that you wouldn’t know, if the devils let it slip out, what was the truth and what wasn’t, it was, he had such plans and to go against them –” she stopped, watching me again. “You’re not upset.”

“I’m not sure that I trust you,” I replied. “But I trust you more now than when I came down here, and I think that’s a good platform for us to start from, whatever has happened in the past. I’m not going to be angry about you not showing instant loyalty to me.”

“Okay,” said Valencia, in a way that was totally unconvincing. She shifted slightly, watching me. “Okay,” she said again, this time in way that showed relief and acceptance. I couldn’t tell whether she was processing what I had said, or whether she’d decided to lie to me, but I turned away before my face could betray that thought.

“I’ll try not to be too long,” I said as I took my first step up the basement stairs.

“I’m going to be better, when you get back,” said Valencia. A quick look back showed that she was standing there, looking at her hands.

I worried about how much better she was going to be, but kept that thought private.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 68: Seeing Red

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