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We moved through the prison together, with our party of four at the front. Fallatehr walked in the midst of his quote associates unquote, who formed a tight ring around him. Behind him, the nonanima was being pulled along by the brass manacles around her wrists and the collar wrapping her throat.

My eyes kept going to her whenever I looked behind me. She walked with a downcast stare, her scarlet eyes fixed on the ground three feet in front of her. Unlike most of the others, she was in dingy clothing, but she was still pretty for all that, with delicate, gracile features. Her white hair, pale skin, and red eyes were obviously (to me) meant to call to mind an albino, but I knew what actual albinos looked like, and she wasn’t quite that.

“So what’s a nonanima?” I had asked Amaryllis.

“She doesn’t have a soul,” Amaryllis had answered, while looking the woman over. “They’re prone to demonic possession; without a soul, it’s easy to enter the body. She won’t have any magic that ties to the soul, which means most of them.”

“We’re talking about demonic possession here?” I’d asked. Demons, and the hells in general, were not one of the areas that I’d done a deep dive on; Portrait of the Many Hells was one of those books that I’d mostly gotten in case I needed it, rather than because I thought it was important background information that I needed to get to as quickly as possible, not that (from the index) Portrait went into much detail on demons or devils.

“It’s short-term, hours at most, maybe longer if they chained it, but they’re bad at coordination. If possessed, she’ll only have the strength of a human,” Amaryllis had replied. “The kinds of devils that can reach up to puppet her won’t be clever enough to be convincing, and if Fallatehr is smart, he’ll have his people punch her in the mouth if she tries to convince anyone. I don’t think she’s a threat.”

“The real question is why he has her,” Fenn had said.

“He’s a soul mage,” Amaryllis had replied. “The interest is obvious. Where he got her from is more concerning.” She’d pursed her lips. “It’s possible that he made her.”

I’d had a lot of questions, as was typical for me, but the operational briefing of ‘she can be possessed by demons or devils pretty much at will and can’t do magic’ was clear enough for the time being. The whole conversation about some people not having souls was going to have to wait, even though it raised a lot of questions about what, exactly, a soul actually did for you. I might have considered myself lucky to have recently acquired an apprenticeship to a master soul mage, if I liked or trusted the soul mage in question.

So we had moved from the gymnasium, down the hallways of the penitentiary, trying to make as direct a path outside as possible, keeping to a formation that would nearly guarantee that our party would take the brunt of any counter-attack by whatever Amoureux Penitentiary could muster against us. I didn’t really consider that fair, but Amaryllis didn’t seem to want to press the matter, and I deferred to her judgement. It certainly made more tactical sense, if you valued all of us equally, but I wanted some cannon fodder between myself and whatever trouble was ahead (and I was thankful that the game didn’t slap a penalty on me for that thought).

“Kran di in negidor gre ha deheki,” said Grak as he walked beside me, keeping his voice low. Literally translated, that meant ‘I him the gate about disbelieve’, except that ‘negid(or)’ didn’t just mean gate, it meant a ward, and in context, he was referring to Fallatehr telling us that the prison would block teleportation, I was pretty sure.

I glanced back at the people following us, for what seemed like the fifth time. “Lir Groglir lonele lalile?” I asked. Do we need to be speaking Groglir?

“Lir okr dril na mo lahon dadon o,” replied Grak. And he was right, we had been putting in the work for a reason. Being able to speak in confidence was, certainly, one of those reasons, and given the complexity of Groglir, and the fact that it was the trade language of dwarves, it was really unlikely that anyone could listen in on us -- that, plus the fact that Grak was speaking softly.

“Na lir lonele lonele di gre?” I asked, which I was fairly sure was a butchering of Groglir, meant to ask whether there was anything actionable we could do about the fact that we were taking Fallatehr’s word on teleportation not working.

“Ri,” said Grak. Nothing.

That had more or less been my conclusion. If you couldn’t teleport within the penitentiary, then the only way to test that was to attempt to teleport, which we couldn’t do because of the risk that it was successful. At best, we might have been able to convince Fallatehr to be part of the test, leaving all his associates behind, but it would be hard to do that now, after terms had been negotiated. I wished that Grak had said something earlier, but maybe it hadn’t occurred to him, or maybe he was still second-guessing himself after our encounter with the suits of armor. My command of Groglir wasn’t good enough that I wanted to pursue that conversation.

So all that Grak had really done was to heighten my anxiety, not just about our teleportation being blocked, but about everything that Fallatehr had said to us. Thanks, Grak.

I was already in high gear when the golems appeared. Whatever internal changes the penitentiary had been going through in response to our arrival, there was a clear difference in the golems; they were wearing armor now, thick, crude slabs of wood on top of the packed earth of their torsos. There were fewer of them than last time, but more of the dangerous ones, and I was pretty confident that the addition of even something as weak as wooden armor was going to mean that I couldn’t kill one of the big guys by myself.

Nevertheless, I ran toward them with my sword drawn, with Amaryllis close behind me.

By the time we reached them, the casters had done something to make the air oppressively hot. Burning leaves swirled through the air, flashing bright enough to leave a spot on my vision where they landed. The golems didn’t seem to mind at all; small embers were gradually accumulating on them. It was a complication that I really didn’t want, but there was nothing to be done about it, so I burned SPD from one of my bones and sliced off the arm of a brute, then kicked it over to dodge away from a fist that was slamming down like a windmill.

I’d felt the excitement building from the moment we’d seen them, and it had built up to fever pitch by the time I actually met with them. I was gradually learning to simply lose myself in combat, to experience the zen of trusting in my skills. It became more of a sequence of decisions than anything else, each one thought about for relatively little time, especially on a battlefield like this one where burning motes threatened to incinerate part of my armor or dig into my skin, or whatever they were going to do.

Fallatehr’s associates came to join us, wielding the weapons that we’d given them to use. They had nothing magical, but there were more than enough mundane weapons stored away in Fenn’s glove. We hadn’t had a discussion about arming people who might be the enemy, but it seemed to me to be a building block of trust, in the same way that the way they joined us in battle was another building block. Naturally, there are different reasons to build trust, and one of them was so you could betray that trust later on; I wasn’t blind to that, because that was my current plan with Fallatehr.

I fought alongside Fallatehr’s people, which mostly consisted of them baiting out strikes and me moving in with superior agility and strength to land a hit that actually did some damage. The golems seemed to understand that I was the real threat, since they went after me more than anyone else, but they couldn’t flatly ignore the damage that was being done to them by the elves.

This was my first time seeing elves actually fight, and I wasn’t all that impressed, given their reputation. I could see the elf luck in action, as they slipped beneath a crushing fist or leapt back from a blow that they couldn’t see, and certainly they moved with an unearthly grace and agility that didn’t seem like it could possibly be a product of their muscles, but I didn’t think that I was all that far behind them in terms of dexterity. When using bone magic to speed, they were practically slow. And even without blood magic, I still had a clear power advantage, though I was, at this point, pretty powerfully built.

I was gauging their abilities because I was thinking about what Fenn had said -- I agreed with her, that we’d prefer as many of them to die as possible, and I’d also agreed that it would make sense for them to try the same against us. I wasn’t just fighting against the golems, I was watching the men and women fighting alongside us, trying not to expose myself too much to them.

I watched one of them get clipped in the head by one of the large, armored golems, but the elven woman only slid along the ground without crumpling up as I’d thought she would. I realized what had happened a moment later, when a quick glance around showed the grey vlere-gur clutching a bleeding head-wound, far from the action. All of Fallatehr’s people were probably linked through the soul, so that wounds would end up on the person most able to take them. That was going to make any fight we had with them extremely problematic.

And it might have been because I was keeping a close eye on what everyone else around me was doing that I allowed one of the floating, burning bits of leaf to touch me. It landed on my armored collarbone, where it ignited with a blinding flash, and while I was blinking that away and trying to move to safety, I was hit by the golem, right in the chest. I went flying backward through the air and skidded to a stop on the tiled floor, gasping in pain and nearly blind.

Grak was on me in an instant, slapping down at the places where I was on fire; I had hit a few of the motes of fire on my way through the air. As I slowly came to my senses and my vision returned to me, I saw Fallatehr standing with six of his associates around him, out of the fight, which he was watching with interest. His nonanima stood behind him, chained and held in place, but I could see that she too was watching.

I healed myself as quickly as I could. I had broken ribs and punctured my lungs, but I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t reach a shaky hand to my bandolier and touch one of the bones. After the first wave of healing, it was easy to administer the second, and the third, until Fenn was beside me, feeding me more bones and waving bone-smoke from the air. It was painful, certainly, but my chest was almost as numb as my hand was, and whatever internal injuries I had sustained, I wasn’t feeling anywhere near the full brunt of them.

As soon as I was able, I raced back into the fight. I passed the vlere-gur, who was dead on the ground, and saw one of the elves fly to the side of the hallway from some unseen hit she’d taken through a soul link. Amaryllis was all by herself, separated from both me and Fallatehr’s people, but the casters at the back seemed to be dead, with the ground around them littered with the effects of their spells: pink petals, thin bits of vines, and a handful of rocks that floated a few inches above the ground.

Two of the four brutes had been killed, with the majority of the work having been done with my blade. A third had its wooden armor on fire, and was being slowly taken down by the elves, who were flensing away at it with their borrowed swords. That left one for Amaryllis and I. We came together, each taking a different side of it, and I sliced halfway through its crude arm at the shoulder while she went in close and began flickering her blade. Even with my strongest hits, I wasn’t getting through the armor, but I could at least disarm him so that Amaryllis could do her work. Once I’d dodged another attack and chopped clean through his other arm, I began to attack him from the side, seeking the gaps in his armor, but it was hard to bring as much power to a precise hit. The golem died from a thousand cuts, spilling goop out from the hundreds of holes Amaryllis had put through its armor and into its interior, and eventually it collapsed down to the ground.

Weakly Armored Brutish Dirt Golem defeated!

Now that I had time to pay some attention to the messages instead of treating them like a distraction, I really didn’t like the implication. Weakly armored meant that strongly armored were coming, and I wasn’t confident that we would be able to skip past them just by moving fast. I also didn’t know how predetermined this scenario was, or how perfectly the Dungeon Master could (or would) predict what we were going to do. Maybe the game was adding on to the warning that Fallatehr had already given us, or maybe it was giving a hint of what was to come.

“We need to get moving,” I said as I restored the Anyblade to its ring form.

“Souls,” said Amaryllis. She began moving around to the corpses on the ground, briefly pointing her hilt at their heads and making the sword appear there. When that was done, she used her spike to draw out their souls and place them in her glass jar. This was a post-battle ritual that I hadn’t yet gotten used to.

“An unfortunate number of deaths,” said Fallatehr, looking at the corpses of the fallen with a raised eyebrow. “A few were not beyond recovery, if they had received immediate aid.” He’d lost four of them in all, three elves and the vlere-gur.

“I was busy,” I replied.

Fallatehr nodded, but I didn’t think he fully bought that. The idea of going to heal the fallen elves had crossed my mind. I’d decided against it, not just on the ground that I was our second-most valuable asset in this fight (behind Amaryllis), but because weakening them was in our strategic interest. I was also a little leery about touching someone who could very well be a soul mage; they needed touch, and while it was usually more on the order of minutes than seconds, I wasn’t about to take the chance with one of Fallatehr’s creations, given that he had a good claim to being one of the most powerful soul mages in the world.

We went faster, after that, down the branching corridors at almost a jog, watching for sudden ambushes and looking askance down every hallway. There was another fight coming, I knew there had to be, but it was an elusive one.

“You’re thinking that they’re weak fighters, for elves,” said Fallatehr.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “We were hoping for more.”

We kept moving as they talked, with the conversation carried out over the rustling of clothes and the echoing sound of our footfalls. Each step of the seven-foot-tall woman was almost thunderously loud, and she was breathing heavily, putting by far the most effort into moving quickly. She hadn’t come into battle with us, though I wasn’t quite sure why; she was powerfully built, and I was getting a real ‘death by snu snu’ vibe from her.

“It was once common practice to carve out the skills of the imprisoned,” said Fallatehr. “I have not built these men and women up to be fighters, though some of them were, in their past lives. It’s as though they’ve never held a blade before.”

“Unfortunate,” said Amaryllis. I wondered whether she was thinking what I was thinking, which is that Fallatehr was probably feeding us a line of bullshit.

It wasn’t entirely clear what exact alterations Fallatehr had made to these people, except that he’d done something to their souls to make them relatively obedient and willing to listen to his orders, if (it was implied) imperfectly, and also to use them to cloak his own identity from the penitentiary. Even given his limited supply of bodies, I didn’t believe that he had completely neglected turning one of them into a knife. If he hadn’t trained (or forged) them all into soul mages, what was the point in making them into his servants? The gambit would be simple enough; throw a few bodies away in the first fight to convince us that he had no one who would be that much of a threat, and save the rest for a strike when we least expected it. It was what I might have done.

They didn’t turn on us as we moved through the halls, retracing our steps back to the entrance, past a few of the battles we’d fought, and the other threat, the prison itself, didn’t seem to have any other surprises ready to ambush us with, at least not before we got outside. We finally found ourselves in the entryway where we’d fought the brass suits of armor, which were still laying on the ground right where we’d left them, along with a fair amount of our own blood. It had grown dark as we’d made our way through the penitentiary, and now the only light was from my hand, which I channeled blood magic through to act as a torch.

“It’s probably waiting for us on the other side,” said Amaryllis. “It hasn’t had that much time to set anything up.”

“Don’t underestimate this place,” said Fallatehr. With a gesture from him, his associates fanned out and moved forward. One of them left him holding the chain that bound the nonanima. “It was weak while it slept, but now it has awakened.” He stepped toward one of the people in front of him, who flinched back.

“What are you doing?” asked the elf, watching Fallatehr with wary eyes.

Fallatehr looked at the other elf, head cocked to the side. “I will turn you back, if we both survive. You know that oblivion awaits you without me.”

The elf hesitated, then straightened slightly and bowed his head. Fallatehr moved forward and touched him on the brow, pushing with an elegant thumb. The elf stepped back, gasping slightly, and Fallatehr moved on to the next, continuing on down the line until only two were left, one of them the large woman, the other the shirtless elf we’d met in the visitation room. Two associates would travel with us, that was the agreement.

“Heal them, Juniper,” said Fallatehr, gesturing to the people he had touched.

I looked at him. “They’re not injured.” I was taking the conversational bait, for his sake. I was smart enough to know where he was going with this.

“Injury is a matter of how the soul views the body,” said Fallatehr with a triumphant, sharp-toothed grin. “I think you will find that they are quite injured.”

I swallowed hard and touched the first of them. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t a trap, but even though it wasn’t, I was getting a bad feeling about this. The elf was no longer himself, visibly so; he had shown a wariness before Fallatehr had touched him, but now there was nothing but a cow-like submission and a faint dullness to his eyes. He didn’t react to my touch in the slightest.

I did a slow, steady pull from the bone to get as much from it as I could, and I had to resist the urge to yank my hand away when I saw his jaw dislocate itself. Eventually I closed my eyes as I burned through bones, but that wasn’t any better, because then I was listening to the creaks and groans of his body. So I opened my eyes and tried not to pay too much attention. It took ten bones, drained with full efficiency, until he stopped changing. I looked on the creation in horror.

Aerbian elves were carnivores, hunters, that much had been made clear to me, but they were still humanoid. They were upright tool users, not beasts, and killers, but still refined and restrained. The thing that Fallatehr had turned this elf into, with my help, was more gracile but less human, and as soon as my hand pulled away, it dropped to all fours, in a position it was clearly comfortable in. The arms had been elongated and the wrists had been adapted, the better for the creature to swipe with its claws. But as I looked, I saw that it didn’t actually have claws, it had sharpened bones protruding from its last knuckle, with the fingernail resting just on top of it. There were other changes, most of them to get the creature into a less humanoid shape, but I quickly moved on before getting engrossed in the appearance of the thing.

“Not the best weapon we might have, given the circumstances,” said Fallatehr, “But I had always assumed that if it came to a fight I would be facing people, not the prison itself, so this is what I had prepared.”

“What are they?” asked Fenn with a shaky voice.

“Elves,” said Fallatehr with a laugh that no one shared. “I stripped out everything I didn’t think was necessary and used it to rebuild them into something ferocious. It used to be common, in the glory days of the Second Empire. They are death incarnate, though of course, better suited to fighting against people.” I wasn’t sure whether I was imagining a threat there.

I moved down the line, “healing” each of them in turn and trying my best not to have my stomach churned by what I was doing.

“I take it these are not the things you wish to learn from me, Juniper?” asked Fallatehr.

“I’ll learn them, if you’re willing to teach,” I said as I transformed another one into a monster. I tried to rationalize it; I wasn’t the one that had actually changed them, they had been changed at the level of their very soul by Fallatehr, I was just expressing that change. And it hadn’t been like they were full people before -- though they had been people enough to fear what Fallatehr was going to do to them.

“They’ve been giving us time,” said Amaryllis with her eyes on the door. “I’m not sure that we’re getting the better end of the deal here.”

“We only need to leave the penitentiary,” said Fallatehr. “The pelehr will provide a distraction, if nothing else, so that we might find a way through.”

After I had changed over the last of them, they turned and lined up in front of the door. Fallatehr didn’t seem at all perturbed by the idea of what we might find out there, waiting between us and the front gate. I could already feel my pulse starting to pick up, because this was the final battle, and that was when things always got hairy.

We opened the door to see two of the twenty-foot tall brass creatures with their hammers held in a firm grip, lit by the glow of Celestar and the multi-colored stars that hung above Aerb. Four of the gorilla-like brutes stood beneath them, each of them with brass armor rather than wood, an unfortunate development. The gargoyles were still broken though, which was the only good news, or rather, the only absence of bad news. The gate golem still blocked the main entryway, which we’d been hoping to leave out of. As fights went, it didn’t look particularly winnable.

The single saving grace was that they weren’t attacking just yet, and the reason for that was simple; they had sent an envoy. It was a far cry from the dirt golem that we’d first met, the one that spoke to us with its too-human mouth. Instead, it was a thing of dark glass and brass, with a few places where it had strips of dark wood. Its mouth was still a normal mouth though, with lips and teeth that seemed out of place on its form.

“Please,” it said. “There is still time to resolve this with peace.”

“How would we do that?” asked Amaryllis.

“Lay down your arms and surrender,” said the mouthpiece of the prison. “You will die with surety otherwise.”

I could hear the sound of the pelehr breathing loudly. Whatever had been done to their lungs and mouth, Fallatehr hadn’t been optimizing for silence. It gave an unnerving backdrop to the conversation. I didn’t think that giving in to the prison was an option, but the fight didn’t seem to be an option either, especially since it would be the perfect, final opportunity to stab us in the back before we had him on the back foot.

I wasn’t about to back down at this point and throw away the grind we’d gone through in getting through this dungeon, but I also stared at the giant brass creatures and didn’t see a way for us to beat them. No, that was the wrong way of thinking, that was my problem, this wasn’t a fight to destroy the enemy, we didn’t actually care about the prison except that it was an impediment to our goals. All we really needed to do was to get on the other side of the wall, where, presumably, the teleportation key would still work. Fallatehr had said it himself, we only needed to leave the penitentiary.

I moved close to Amaryllis. “Stall,” I whispered to her, hoping that she’d be able to hear me clearly through her helmet. I moved on to Fallatehr as she started talking to the golem, using polite, meaningless, diplomatic language like she’d been prepared to do that all along.

“The prison thinks that you’re all one person?” I asked him.

He raised an eyebrow, which arched perfectly. “No,” he replied. He gestured to the pelehr. “They are no longer in my image.”

“Do you fear this fight?” I asked. In the background, the golem was answering Amaryllis’ long monologue.

“I’ve stripped fear from myself, as much as was possible,” answered Fallatehr. “I do not believe our outcomes are likely to be good. Most likely you will die and I will remain imprisoned with fewer resources than I had when you arrived.”

“I have a plan, but it’s going to require trust,” I said. “We’re going to stuff you inside the glove.”

Fallatehr frowned. “With an associate left outside to cloak my position? Yes, it might work. There are still a few, less valuable ones left behind in strategic locations.” (I had guessed that, just based on the discrepancy in the numbers that I’d been given: twenty associates, but only fifteen people in the gymnasium.)

I moved away from him and made sure that Amaryllis was still engaged with the golem. She appeared to be talking at length about the morality of imprisonment for crimes which were committed prior to the criminal act becoming illegal. That seemed to at least be holding its attention. I had no idea how well it could hear, or whether it was even cognitively capable of acting on that information if it could, but so far it wasn’t making a move against us.

“Fenn, you remember riding the rocket?” I asked as I stepped up beside her.

“I remember it not going so great,” she said. “Actually, I remember it getting so fucked that you were racing across the desert and burning through your bones, which is what got us in this particular mess in the first place. Besides that, we don’t have a rocket.”

“You’ve got the sand bow,” I said. I glanced at the wall, which stood thirty feet high and at least a football field’s length away from us. The shot would be simplicity itself for someone as skilled as Fenn.

“You’re nuts,” she said, but she gave me a grin. Her eyes quickly scanned the top of the wall, and I looked with her, to the places where she’d removed the gargoyles. We already knew, from the birds that Solace had sent over, that the laser gargoyles had been the primary means of keeping things from going over the wall. “Not enough masks though, and however great Mary is, I doubt that she can keep it up for long enough that we can make more.” We had made more of them during our week off in the bottle, so that we had five on hand, enough to cover the whole party, but assuming that we still needed to keep up our end of the bargain, that wasn’t enough.

I moved back over to Fallatehr. “We have to leave them behind,” I said, gesturing at the pelehr. “Non-negotiable.”

“Convenient for you,” said Fallatehr, watching me closely. I agreed with him, it was very convenient for me, but that didn’t make it any less true. Bad enough that we’d be taking him and three others, nearly even numbers except that the nonanima didn’t count, but not releasing more of Fallatehr onto the world was a plus in my book, given what he could do. “Very well.”

“Wait ten minutes before you try to get out, we’ll pull you if it’s clear,” I said. I wondered whether he would think it was a trap, because that’s what I would have thought, but I was apparently bad enough at lying that it was an asset to me, because he nodded along.

Fenn surprised me by stepping forward and handing him a breathing kit from her glove. I hadn’t even heard her sneak up next to me. He took it for a moment with a mild questioning look, but he put it on all the same. Fenn touched him on the arm with her gloved hand, and I stepped over to Amaryllis, trying not to think about the fact that they were touching, or worry too much about whether that was giving him access to her soul, or what he might be able to do in ten seconds time. Ten seconds got you nothing, according to everything that we knew about soul magic, but he had been pursuing his own research here for hundreds of years. It was a disquieting thought.

“Might be trouble in five seconds,” I said. I wasn’t sure how the prison would react to Fallatehr -- though one of many, from its perspective -- disappearing.

“I think I might be getting somewhere,” said Amaryllis.

I glanced back at Fallatehr, just in time to see him disappear into the glove. I began transforming my sword from ring into two-hander, but stopped when I looked back at the golem, which hadn’t reacted at all. Holy crap, this might actually work.

We put the others into the glove, one by one, first Grak, then the tall woman, then the elf with strips taken out of his scarwork that we’d first met in the visitation room. That left only Amaryllis, Fenn, the nonanima, and the pelehr, who we weren’t going to be taking with us. I wasn’t sure what kind of standing orders they had from Fallatehr, if he had control over them at all, but they weren’t moving yet, so I counted my blessings.

“Okay,” I said to the nonanima, looking her in her red eyes. They were glassy and unfocused, not actually looking at me even though I was right in front of her. I held the last breathing kit in my hand, with its thick rubber hose and connected tank. “I’m going to put this on you, I need you to not make a move until you’ve counted to five minutes.”

“Fallatehr was willing to leave her,” said Fenn. She held her hand out to the side and the void rifle appeared in it. I moved in front of the nonanima as she raised it. “Joon,” she sighed. “We have minutes, she could be possessed right now.”

“She’s innocent,” I said.

“Shit,” Fenn swore. “She’s fucking Joon-bait.” But whatever her objections, the void rifle disappeared back into her glove. She took out the sand bow, then took out a type of arrow that I had never seen before, one with a thick metal center. She unscrewed the fletching from the shaft and poked a finger down it. “You know,” she said as she stripped off the glove and began rolling it up, “The nonanima isn’t a clue, she’s a threat.” She stuck the glove into the arrow’s tube, then screwed it shut. “Really hoping that weight isn’t going to be too much of a factor, but the glove is light enough, and luck is on our side.” She prodded at a small bit of glove sticking out. “Put her in the glove, then let’s make haste.”

The nonanima hadn’t said anything to me, and when I put the mask on her, leaving her chains and collar in place, she accepted it without complaint. Fenn put her into the glove without further comment.

“So, my pretty companion, how goes the jabbering?” asked Fenn, clasping Amaryllis on the shoulder. Amaryllis stopped in mid-sentence; she had been saying something about the legal structure of Anglecynn and where the Amoureux Penitentiary fell in that scheme.

“Ready,” said Amaryllis, touching the glove.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the golem, looking between the three of us. Whatever rhetorical spell Amaryllis had wrapped it in, that had broken, but we still weren’t being attacked.

Amaryllis disappeared into the glove, then Fenn held it out to me. I hesitated.

“I can make it over the wall on my own,” I said, looking down at the arrow. “Burning bones, I can do it.”

“Oh fuck off,” said Fenn.

“I will not allow you to leave,” said the golem. “You have committed crimes against me which must be answered for, illegalities which --”

“I can make it over the wall, I can burn through bones, I have Ropey with me, and the Anyblade, and if something goes wrong with the arrow, if the shot is off, if it’s intercepted, then someone should --”

“All points you could have raised earlier,” said Fenn with a scowl. She drew back her bow and fired the arrow at full draw, which stuck in the air a foot from the end of the bow. She walked forward and touched the small bit of black that stuck out from it. “I’m going to trust you, and we’re going to have words after this is over. You promised me that you didn’t have a deathwish.”

“I don’t,” I said, keeping my eyes on the arrow hanging in the air. Fenn vanished shortly afterward. I kept watching the arrow and counting down, occasionally looking at the armored golems and the twenty-foot tall brass statues with their enormous hammers. The thing I was most worried about was one of the brass colossi doing a giant basketball-player jump up into the air to slam the arrow back down, or maybe just rushing forward to intercept its arc. They still weren’t moving though, and with every second I began to relax a little bit, except for the fact that I still had to run past all that garbage. And if the arrow plan went off without a hitch, then I’d look pretty stupid.

(I was trying to stop myself from thinking about the Unspoken Plan Guarantee, which was the real reason that I was standing watch and putting myself in danger. I hated that meta-level reasoning, and halfway wished I could abolish it from my mind. But the last time we’d tried a similar plan, things had gone wrong, and I didn’t know whether it was down to narrative or not, to the whims of the Dungeon Master trying to make things interesting. I was hoping that I was forcing the game into a particular position, but trying my best not to think about it, because if it was only meta-level thinking, I was pretty sure that the Dungeon Master wouldn’t respond well to it.

I wasn’t sure that having me stand guard and act as a backup strategy made sense by itself, without the meta considerations, but it was too hard to evaluate the situation on the fly and try to strip out a layer of information and processing that I knew was there. In a hypothetical world where I didn’t know that I was in a game, would I have acted the same way? Would I have declared myself the party member most capable of making the run, the best option in case the arrow and glove didn’t make it and had to be manually tossed over? Or would I have just let Fenn touch that corner of the glove to me? I honestly had no idea.)

Twenty-five mississippi, twenty-six mississippi --

The nonanima appeared beside the arrow, still with a dull look in her eyes, with her hands in manacles in front of her and the collar around her neck, and the mask I’d put in place. She looked at me for just a moment, then I watched the arrow zip off through the air at Fenn’s full draw, sailing high over the wall and disappearing from sight.

“Something has gone wrong,” said the golem. I saw the enormous brass colossuses start to move. “Cease what you are doing.”

“Okay,” I said to the nonanima. “I’ll get you out of here.”

“No,” said the golem, “Cease.”

I reached forward, cautious of frightening her, and began to pick her locks with the Anyblade.

“What are you doing?” she asked. Her voice was soft and her red eyes were wide. The sound was slightly muffled by the mask, which I removed once the manacles were off. She gently touched her wrist. Up until this point, I wasn’t actually sure that she could talk.

“I’m taking you out of here,” I said. A gentleman should ask, but we didn’t have time for that, so I picked her up and threw her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and took off toward the wall.

Now this, this was legitimately stupid, and even as I’d recognized that, I knew that I was going to do it anyway. I’d been preparing for different scenarios, trying to plot out how best to weave a path through the various enemies, trying to figure out where the arrow would land, if it went off course or was stopped in flight where it would land, how I would get to it … and this was a complication that would lower my chances of surviving the next few minutes. I’d be better off leaving her to fend for herself among the pelehr at the prison systems, and she’d be obliterated one way or another.

But no, I ran with her over my shoulder, grateful that she wasn’t struggling against me. I’d thought that it wouldn’t be too hard for me to clear the wall; it was thirty feet tall, I was about six feet tall, plus another two feet for my arms, which meant that I needed a vertical jump of maybe twenty-two feet. The highest vertical jump on record was something like four feet -- information that I knew I didn’t know off-hand, which must have been injected into my brain by high KNO -- but I had bone and blood magic in combination. Back at Barren Jewel I’d been able to launch both Fenn and Amaryllis high enough that they could reach the top of a twenty-foot wall, and I’d been much weaker back then.

And if that failed, the plan was to use Ropey to get a way over, no grappling hook needed, and if that somehow didn’t work, then I’d lure one of the big guys over to smash in the wall and give me an out, and if that didn’t work, then I could probably make something happen with the Anyblade, either using a poleaxe as a ladder or wedging it into the wall. If all those failed, then I was pretty confident that I could think of something; it wasn’t too much of a guess to say that the enemy had high Endurance and Power but low Speed, which meant that all I really had to do was keep running and not get penned in.

The problem was, none of those plans assumed that I would be carrying a hundred pounds of weight that also needed to get over (or through) the wall, and she was definitely slowing me down. The gorilla golems were stomping toward me as I took my run for the wall, and the brass colossi were stomping along, hammers raised. My dead hand groped for a bone in my bandolier, and I drew in SPD from it, then dodged between two of the large golems, narrowly avoiding a powerful hit that sailed above my head. I was right though, the golems were slow and easy to dodge, and assuming that their base form hadn’t been upgraded too much, a single hit from them still wouldn’t be enough to kill me, so long as it landed on my armor.

I liked speed. I liked being faster, being able to outrun people, not having to worry about hits because I’d be gone by the time the hit reached me. The girl on my shoulder was slowing me down, but I was proficient enough with blood magic to put the pulse of my blood in every step, and combined with the extra speed from the bone, avoiding their attacks was nearly trivial.

“You’re going to have to lock your legs when I throw you!” I yelled to her, hoping that she was together enough to understand me. “Catch the lip of the wall!”

I skidded to a stop at the wall and glanced behind us to see how much time we had. I was momentarily thrilled to see that the golems were concerning themselves with the pelehr, which had taken it upon themselves to provide a distraction (or more likely, been commanded to). That relief turned sour when I saw one of them die; they had been people, imprisoned here, then with their essence manipulated by Fallatehr for decades or longer until they were simply thrown away, meat for the grinder. And one of the two colossuses was still coming for us.

“Lock your legs,” I said and I started to lift the girl up. I thought about it for a bit and reached down to pull up a bone to put it in my mouth, which had a nauseatingly gamey taste. “I ‘oin’ a’ ‘row oo up ‘ere.”

She looked up at the top of the wall, then down at me, and I felt her legs go straight. She didn’t seem very strong, but I was hoping that she could take the force of it and not just crumple. “Un, ‘wo, ‘ree,” I said, and launched her as high in the air as I could, using every ounce of power from bone and blood. She went higher than I had expected, and landed right on the top of the wall with her legs sticking out, barely visible in the dark now that I’d let my light go out.

“Stay there!” I called to her. A glance back at the colossus showed I had maybe a second. I fished Ropey out from my bag and spun him around once before tossing him up; he landed on her legs and slithered over her. I hoped that he would get the message about helping her down, but Ropey had always been dependable.

I rolled to the side to avoid the strike of the colossus bringing its hammer down; it was faster than I had hoped it would be, but now I wasn’t carrying anything. I spared a glance toward my supply of blood, which had finally dipped down below the halfway point, which was the normal carrying capacity of my body. I’d blown through the surplus, one bounding step or swing of the sword at a time, that and the few hits I’d taken. I watched the colossus carefully as it moved, the weight behind how it lifted the monstrously large hammer, the wind-up before it took another swing. I dodged that one too, with minimal effort on my part.

The pelehr were dying one-by-one, skulls crushed in or legs stomped down, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about them, and the battlefield wasn’t the place to be actively trying to make yourself feel emotions about people you’d just met. In a stark, split-second moment, I realized that’s what I was trying to do, and I could see the chain of thought that was trying to form in my mind, where I would rush in to save them, and be forced into killing the golems, and surely that would get me closer to leveling up. The colossus swung his hammer down and I had to expend more effort in moving out of the way with a well-timed Sanguine Surge, because I wasn’t paying the full amount of attention to the fight.

I did a ducking roll through his legs, coming up behind his back. I struck his ankle once with the Anyblade in its largest form, but barely even left a dent in the brass. I needed to get over the wall, that was all I needed to do to win, yet here I was, moving closer to the action, where the second colossus had swept aside one of the pelehr. He began moving toward me as his counterpart, the one I’d ducked past, began turning around.

I ran, just to give myself time to think. It seemed too easy to go over the wall, like I’d be punished for it by the game, but was I just thinking that because I was worried that I was depriving myself of a level up by leaving these slow, lumbering sources of xp behind? I didn’t know whether I could actually trust myself to be rational. I heard a sound and looked up in time to see a gargoyle opening its mouth toward me. I moved the Anyblade up, as a shortsword, and parried the green laser that the gargoyle fired my way.

I turned and ran back the other way. The only reason that the gargoyle was in play was that I’d gone too far, away from the ones that Fenn had knocked down. I could see bloodied, broken corpses laying on the ground by the golems, all of which were heading my way. They had a few chunks taken out of them, along with marks on the brass, some of them sharp, but their lives had been spent on buying me time. Maybe Fallatehr had set them up for that when he’d changed them. All I could think about when I looked at the enemies was that it was all such a waste, and I couldn’t even tell which part of my brain was thinking that.

I charged toward the wall and jumped up it, bone and blood propelling me higher than anyone back on Earth had ever jumped before. It wasn’t enough, but I extended the Anyblade into a polearm with a hook, which, fully extended caught the edge of the wall. I hit the wall, scraping my face, then began to climb, hand over hand, up the length of the polearm. When I reached the top, I reformed the Anyblade into a ring and took a last look at the penitentiary. It was spectacular under the light of Celestar and the multicolored stars.

One of the brass colossi reared back and threw his hammer at me, end over end, which I really hadn’t expected. I dropped down the other side of the wall, grabbing the edge with my hands as I fell, and watched the brass hammer go sailing by above me. It was twenty feet to the ground from where I was, but I dropped it anyway, pushing off the wall at the last second and then going for a roll once I hit the ground to shed my momentum. Rolling was none too fun in armor, as I’d already learned, but I still had three bones to spare.

Quest Completed: Crimes Against the Soul - You have retrieved Fallatehr Whiteshell from within the Amoureux Penitentiary and are ready to embark upon your new life as his dedicated student, with a new companion to boot.

There was no level up.

I jogged over to the nonanima, who was looking at Ropey in confusion, healing my minor scrapes along the way. It had crossed my mind that she might be a new companion, but between her, Fallatehr, and the seven-foot-tall woman, she was my third choice.

“Joon!” called Fenn, from some distance away, barely visible in the moonlight.

I waved to her. “Fenn, I made a friend!”

“Why did you save me?” the nonanima asked with her small, hushed voice.

“It seemed wrong to let you die,” I said. Actually, I think that I might have tried to save you because I wanted to experience the ecstasy provided to me by the game we’re in, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.

Loyalty Increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 2!

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Alexander Wales

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