Amaryllis watched the car leave, tracking it until it was out of sight. She had memorized the glyph sequence as a matter of course, back when they’d purchased the farmhouse and taken stock of what was available to them, but it never hurt to get a confirmation. It was difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be relevant, but Amaryllis had a good memory, and the cost was low.
“Come on,” she said to Grak. “We need to put some distance behind us before we leave. Not more than five minutes. I just want us to have a landing site that they don’t know about.”
“You don’t trust them?” asked Grak.
“They might become other people in our absence,” she replied.
Grak nodded at that. “And me?” he asked.
“If you’re the person I’ve known for the past few weeks,” she replied, which wasn’t actually an answer. “Then you know asking for my trust on this trip won’t endear you to me.”
“Noted,” he said with a gruff nod.
She was on guard during teleportation. It required having the key in view, physical contact with an untrusted ally, and even if used quickly, at least a few moments of being unaware of her surroundings. It was also the most valuable single item she was ever likely to possess, above and beyond any individual heirloom entad that was hers by claim-in-fact. The keys were not particularly delicate, but she couldn’t help but hold it as though it were. (No, she could help it, if she had to, it would be easy to bend her natural instinct on that score, she had just never had to, and so indulged her sense of the precious.)
Teleporting hurt, as it always did, but the pain faded quickly, and the key was stowed in the Cloak of Leaves as soon as she’d regained her senses.
Before her stood the World Spine, stretching far up above the horizon even though they were many miles away from the base. The air was cleaner and fresher than on the farmland around Parsmont, spiked with the scent of nature rather than agriculture. They weren’t too far away from where they had been just a few days prior. She had gone outside the bottle then and marked the likeliest spot by walking in a spiral, which had been easily visible from within the view provided by the teleportation key.
“We need a place with good light,” she said, looking over the clearing. “I think that this is as good as we’ll get.” The mountains ran parallel to the path of the sun, which meant that there was little need to worry about putting the bottle in the shadow of the World Spine. It was an idyllic place, though it could do with a bit of contouring. There was a beauty in the wilds of the world, but it wasn’t a perfect beauty; the chaos of stochastic process was pleasing, but could always be improved by human hands.
“Do you trust me to handle the wards?” asked Grak.
“Has it begun to grate on you?” she asked in return.
“It was a simple question,” replied Grak.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she replied. Dwarves were, as a rule, one of the bluntest of the mortal species, but much of this was cultural, and Grakhuil Leadbraids was some distance removed from the culture of his kind. He’d spent enough time at the athenaeum to have partially assimilated, and learned enough Anglish that he was more or less fluent. He had a relatively thick accent, and more than that, his way of speaking was still characteristically dwarven, but he wasn’t really a dwarf of the clans anymore, he was an immigrant.
He was hard to read. It was easier for a person to lie in a second language, unless that second language was granted by translation tattoos or some rarer form of magic with an equivalent function, like the tongue-rings of Ellsion or the Terridoc linkages. People who spoke a second language sometimes stopped to sort their words, just like people who were lying, and being at a remove from the actual words you were speaking was a good way to prevent yourself from having to feel the force of your lies. To add to that, much of Grak’s face was hidden by a thick beard, and his facial expression were those of a clan-dwarf, which were distinct from those employed by humans. The idiom ‘stone-faced’ had entered into Anglish right around the time of the first dwarven expansion into Anglecynn for a good reason.
Reading Grak, for Amaryllis, was like trying to read a book whose author kept using unfamiliar words and phrases, which had to be understood from context. It wasn’t impossible, merely very difficult, and over the last few days, she had been putting in far more effort than normal to figure out whether or not he was hiding something. The primary difficulty in this endeavor, aside from the difficulty of getting a good read on Grak, was that if he was acting, he was acting like himself, and in Amaryllis’ experience, that was the easiest sort of lie for a person to sell.
“Do you want me to set up wards or not?” asked Grak.
“I do,” replied Amaryllis.
The failure states were obvious. If Grak were under Fallatehr’s sway, he could set up the wards in such a way as to hold the locus hostage, which would give him leverage in future negotiations. Wards were, generally speaking, invisible, and only another warder could check the work, which wasn’t an option here for obvious reasons. That leverage was something that Amaryllis had decided she was willing to risk even before they had arrived at this place. Not using the wards that Grak could provide meant that a random person or animal could stumble across the bottle and take it, or that it would be exposed to the elements in a way that would put it, and the land (and locus) inside it in danger. Those risks seemed to outweigh the danger of Fallatehr gaining leverage, especially since his leverage would, by necessity, not be a subtle thing. The other failure state was even simpler. If she didn’t watch Grak closely, he might try to encircle her and trap her within a ward, but she planned to watch him closely, and to make sure that his wand stayed within a few feet of the bottle.
She would be happy when this was all over, and she could just regard him as a friend and ally.
“Are you going to watch me the entire time?” asked Grak as he traced out the first of his wards. The plan was that they would spend two hours here, then return to where Fenn and Juniper would be waiting.
“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” asked Amaryllis.
“It wouldn’t do any good,” replied Grak. Irritation, disgust, frustration, these were all emotions that Grak was quick to express, even before.
“You seemed at ease with the decisions we made, because of how uncertain the situation was,” said Amaryllis. “I would ask what changed, but I imagine that the answer is simply time and isolation. Being cut out from a group wouldn’t agree with anyone, even if they were only a part of that group because they were paid in gold.”
Grak grunted at that, which was accompanied by a rush of air from his wide nostrils.
“Are you still planning to leave us once you’ve secured your thousand pounds of penance?” asked Amaryllis. The questions served two purposes, the first being the obvious surface one, and the second being the opportunity to watch his answers so she could get a better read on him.
It called to mind her time in the Lost King’s Court, in some ways, having to work on different levels, not being able to trust any single person, relying on known and shown incentives in order to figure out what people would actually do. That had been the life she’d lived from the moment she’d been born until her incarceration, and here, though deprived of resources, she was playing the same games. It wasn’t a terribly comfortable comparison for her, given how her last foray into court politics had gone.
(((This is probably the part where you’re wondering to yourself, ‘but I thought Juniper was our narrator, how does he know, and why is he talking in the third person?’, and here, safely hidden within triple parentheticals, I can tell you: some of this might not actually have happened in precisely these ways. We’re operating under really loose definitions of ‘actually happened’ already, but I don’t just mean that it ‘might not have happened’ in the sense that people might just disappear as soon as I stop looking at them, only to have an interstitial history written for them in accordance with the demands of the narrative as dictated by the Dungeon Master as soon as they become relevant to me again. Here, I mean ‘might not have actually happened’ in the sense that this is a recreation of sorts, me working backwards from information that I didn’t have at the end of the last chapter, and won’t have at the end of this one. The thing is, if you learned it like I learned it, it would be a drawn out, incomprehensible mess, so this is a little bit of poetic license and extrapolation on my part in order to present something coherent. I hope you don’t mind.)))
“I’ve been thinking of leaving,” said Grak. “The pay is better than anywhere else. The experience has been interesting. Dangerous. The connection to Juniper …” He trailed off, which was a bit of his assimilated tact showing.
“None of Uther Penndraig’s Knights ever left his service, not for long,” said Amaryllis. “They retired, from time to time, but they always came back for one last adventure, sometimes more than one. And sometimes they die. It’s not an aspect of narrative theory that I talked about that much with him, but my interest in it should be obvious.”
Grak grunted at that, giving her nothing. She hadn’t spent enough time with him to be able to distinguish between his grunts, not on a level that would tell her something. The way he seemed unwilling to continue the conversation, taking from her and giving little back, wasn’t uncharacteristic of him either. It was, however, very convenient for him if he was hiding something from her. She presumed that he would know if some alteration had been made to his soul and would be actively hiding it from her, but that was a soft assumption, not a firm one. Or it was also possible that he was simply Grakhuil Leadbraids, the same person he’d been since she’d met him in Aumann’s tower.
“It is starting to wear on me,” said Grak, after a silence between them.
She hadn’t expected more conversation from him, and had been thinking that it would be good to get a vantage point on the site, marked for the teleportation key by walking in another, smaller spiral, so that she would have a place to land the second time they came down here.
“The suspicion?” she asked, keeping her voice mild and sympathetic, watching him closely without exerting any of the muscles in her face. He was going about his work, frowning occasionally as he stepped back to inspect using his monocle, which made the task of reading him all the harder.
“I have to watch what I say,” he replied. “I can’t give any suggestions for fear they will condemn me. It’s more frustrating than I thought it would be. The precautions are sensible. I wish I weren’t the target. You’re the closest things to friends I have.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Soon Juniper will be able to see into your soul and it won’t be necessary.”
Grak nodded. “I don’t look forward to that.”
“Even though it would get you out from under suspicion?” asked Amaryllis.
Grak finally glanced at her. “I fear giving anyone that much power over me.”
Amaryllis nodded at that. She did too, but that rubicon had already been passed.
(((Okay, that’s more speculation on my part, and Amaryllis probably wouldn’t have phrased it as crossing the Rubicon, because the Rubicon was a river that didn’t exist on Aerb.)))
She left him to work, glancing back at regular intervals, moving up toward one of the hills beside the meadow, where trees would cloak her from view to anyone standing guard, but allow a good look at the bottle -- and anyone who might be staking it out when she returned to collect it, hopefully in a handful of days. This entire expedition served three purposes, as she saw it. First, it allowed her a chance to talk with (and interrogate) Grak in an attempt to root out subversion. Second, it would allow the bottle to have sunlight, which it needed in order to ensure the ecosystem remained at homeostasis, a dicey proposition with Solace dead and no replacement druid in sight. Third, with the locus safely under lock and (teleportation) key, they could openly speak of it to Fallatehr and get his advice on the matter.
She lost track of Grak only briefly, for no more than a few minutes, and then she was at the top of the hill, looking back down on the clearing, where he was still putting up his wards. She hadn’t asked about the nature of those wards, but could make her own guesses about which he would select. She had asked him in the past, in a few different situations, but he didn’t seem to much enjoy talking about his craft, and her understanding of warding was basic enough that the technical details were too difficult to put in their context.
The pattern she chose to mark her location as seen from the teleportation key was largely dictated by the trees, but she didn’t need anything complex, because it wouldn’t be far from the large spiral she’d already made in the meadow. There wasn’t much else for her to do. She wasn’t comfortable taking her eyes off Grak for long, even if she no longer thought it very likely that he had been compromised by Fallatehr. His background as first a stranger in a strange land and then a stranger returning home made him a better liar than most dwarves, she thought, and there were the inherent qualities he possessed that made him hard to read, but she didn’t think that he would have been able to become a completely different person without her knowing. Still, she wasn’t about to fully drop her guard.
Eventually, having watched from a distance for some time, she made her way back. Judging by the position of the sun in the sky, there was still an hour to go until they were to return to Parsmont. She resolved to practice her blood magic while Grak continued putting up wards; there were some trade-offs in terms of time spent on the wards and their durability, and given the two hours they would be spending in this field, Grak had opted to use the entirety of his time.
She’d had a problem with waiting, when she was younger, in large part because that was what being a noble consisted of. It wasn’t a problem that she had fixed so much as tamed. While the impulse to fidget or act incautiously was still there, it existed only as an impulse, one that did not impact her actions in any meaningful way. She sat in the grass, twenty feet away from where Grak was warding the bottle against all possible threats, and began the meditative exercises that she had learned at the athenaeum, keeping Grak in sight the entire time. It didn’t make for terribly fruitful meditation.
After perhaps twenty minutes, as she was moving flame from one fingertip to the next, Grak began to move. He was using his wand, keeping it low to the ground, and tracing a relatively small circle -- one that, if continued, would encircle her. She stood up at once.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she stepped backward and grabbed the bladeless hilt from her side. Her question found an answer as she hit an invisible wall of force just behind her. She turned and reached out to touch it, trying to feel the shape of it, and quickly came to a heart-sinking conclusion. Whatever Grak was doing now, he already had her encircled. She pulled the teleportation key out of the cloak and used it at once, navigating through the map and aiming for the return site in Parsmont, but when she pushed against the key, she found herself still in the meadow.
“Grak, what are you doing?” Amaryllis asked again, allowing a small amount of panic to seep into her voice, hopeful that if he thought she were desperate he would lower his guard. She crouched down and picked up a fist-sized rock from the ground and threw it at his head as hard as she could.
It hit his chin with far less force than it might have if he didn’t have such a thick beard, and he stopped, momentarily stunned, before looking up at her and then continuing on. When she threw the second rock, he was better prepared, and raised his hand in defense, grunting with pain but not stopping. The rocks within reach, or rather, within the confines of the ward around her, got smaller from there, more an annoyance than a threat.
Her inventory was small, just the armor (useless unless she wanted to stay in one place, which she desperately did not), the cloak (not loaded with much, as it had quite limited capacity), two of the marzipan fairies (irrelevant), a crystal (useless), and her sword (the only thing with any promise). She hefted it and tried to think of how she could best use it, but Grak seemed to be aware of her reach and intent on avoiding it. She flickered the sword on and threw it at him, aiming for the arm with the wand, hoping she could cut through it, but Grak only took a glancing blow to his arm, which left him trickling blood but did nothing to actually stop him.
When he’d finished his circuit, he made another, and then another. Watching him, Amaryllis tried not to focus too much of her attention on how he had gotten the initial wards around her, one fairly clearly a barrier against latent blood magic, the other clearly to stop her teleportation key from working. She was fairly sure that he must have constructed the wards around the bottle and then pushed them toward her, the inverse of what Aumann’s warder had done to let him set foot in Caer Laga without actually breaking the wards. Where Grak had more than once spoken of tunneling, this was the logical inverse of that, pushing out the boundaries of the ward like a finger pushing through mud. That was how Grak had enveloped her without moving from where he was, or seeming to break his concentration on the task of making wards around the bottle. In retrospect -- no, it didn’t do any good to spend time on thinking about whether she should have seen it coming, or seen that it was possible, there would be time to curse herself later, she hoped, or to think about all the ways she could have avoided this.
“We’re due to meet with Fenn and Juniper in less than an hour,” said Amaryllis.
Grak made no reply, and continued on with the wards, five circuits in total before he finished. She knew enough about warding to understand that he was building a prison for her; what he had trapped her with was temporary, but these new fetters were stronger, more efficient, built for the long term.
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“I’m going to take you to Fallatehr,” said Grak. “He’s going to alter you to his purposes.” He stood back from the wards. “If you hand over the teleportation key we can do that now. Otherwise I will wait until you are starved and sleep deprived and take the key from you.”
Amaryllis slipped the teleportation key into her armor, so that it was nestled against her chest, a horrible idea from a distribution-of-impact perspective, but as secure as it could be. She activated the armor’s ability to hold herself in place … and it did nothing. With a sigh, she reached in and pulled the teleportation key back out.
“A ward against blood to stop me from leaving, a ward against teleportation, a ward against the immobility plate?” she asked. She tried to keep the tension and anger from her voice; they wouldn’t be helpful here. “What are the fourth and fifth wards against?”
“You will be Fallatehr’s,” said Grak, ignoring her question. “When you are, you will not look fondly on having resisted him.”
Amaryllis nodded. She was sure that was true, which didn’t make it any less frightening. The way things were now, she was well and truly fucked. Even if they didn’t return to Parsmont, and Juniper and Fenn were alerted to the fact that something had gone wrong, that didn’t actually help her, because without the teleportation key, there was no way to launch a rescue. Her options, given her skills and equipment, were minimal. She could try to convince Grak, but that seemed eminently unlikely to work. What else remained? Stalling for time, trying to reconfigure her soul in order to send a message to Juniper, hoping that Grak would be incautious enough to leave her an opening, none of which seemed particularly promising.
Suicide was an option. Getting soulfucked into a tool against your own interests, becoming an instrument that would happily tear apart everything important, all that made death seem preferable, but death came in a variety of flavors, and there was no guarantee that if she managed to kill herself she would be bottled to fade away rather than going down to the hells for eternal torment. There was at least one upside of getting soulfucked though; it didn’t have to be forever. Juniper could save her.
The link between their souls was the biggest question mark. If it went both ways, and Fallatehr could access it, then he would have Juniper too, and through Juniper, Fenn, which would leave no possibility of salvation. There were calculations to be made there, unpleasant weighings of probability and value, not just because she would be putting others at risk, but because of what the aftermath might look like, once they realized she had put them at risk. But if the soul link didn’t allow Fallatehr to make alterations to Juniper from afar, it had a strong possibility of giving Juniper some kind of advantage in the coming confrontation, especially because he could fix whatever Fallatehr was going to do to her.
“Okay,” she said. “If it’s a choice between being compromised or being pushed to the edge of death and then compromised, I’ll choose to just get it over with.” What had finally tipped her decision was the thought that any escape attempt she made was more likely to succeed if she was at her peak, and the greatest chance for escape always came during transit. She tossed Grak the teleportation key, and he caught it in one hand.
She said a small prayer to each of the five gods, and then a final, sixth prayer to the Dungeon Master that Juniper believed was the one true god of Aerb. Prayers to the gods had their own specific structures to them, with motifs and iconographies that the pious were expected to adhere to, even if prayer itself was next to useless. The prayer to the Dungeon Master took some thought, because no standards existed for praying to what was only a theoretical deity.
Dungeon Master, if I must be on your railroad, let me ride the train with good humor. If I must roll the dice, let it be known that I would not object to you fudging. Place a dungeon before me, and I will delve it. Place a dragon before me, and I will slay it. I am, above all else, your player.
Grak collected her sword, then asked for her cloak, and her armor as well. She complied; he seemed to be in no hurry. When the cloak was on his back, and everything was stored within it, he tightened the blood magic ward, which was keyed only to her, until she could scarcely move. Only then did he take her hand in his own and use the teleportation key.
This was, naturally, her chance. Even as the pain hadn’t finished fading, even as she was still struggling to process where he’d taken them, she punched him in the face as hard as she could. They were in close quarters, a room with a bed and dresser, simple, plain, nothing she could use as a weapon, a single door the only exit, and she punched him again, feeling a flash of pain in her hand as she broke something in his face. He grunted and rolled, faster than she assumed the dwarf was capable of. She had already decided that she would kill him if the opportunity presented itself, even if none of this was his fault, even if it meant losing a valuable ally in the long-term, but when she stepped toward him, she met with a barrier. Probing showed that it crossed the room, which, on closer inspection, was the one that he’d slept in the night before. They were back in the farmhouse, in a site he’d had plenty of time to prepare; she had traded one prison for another. The lack of things to use as improvised weapons was now, obviously, by his design.
It took Grak some time to heave himself up from the floor and limp out the door. Amaryllis contemplated the wisdom of suicide again, or possibly harming herself enough that Fenn or Juniper would notice, but there was not much time for such thoughts before Grak returned with Fallatehr in tow.
The elf watched her carefully as Grak altered his wards, then took her pinned down hand without a word.
“Juniper has a soul link with me,” said Amaryllis as soon as Fallatehr’s eyes were once again focusing on the world. It had taken him ten minutes to change her, but even halfway through her commitment to resist and carry out her own plans in spite of what she might feel had evaporated. “Could you see it?” she asked. “He described it as a thin line, it allows him to see and alter my soul at a distance. His plan is to use it as a tool of surveillance, to make sure that nothing has happened to me.”
“Ah,” said Fallather, rubbing his chin. “Troublesome. I saw no such thing. Allow me to look again.”
Another five minutes passed as he touched her, once again with his eyes glazed-over. She kept her mouth shut, but looked Grak over. He hadn’t eaten one of the fairies in the pouch at his hip, and now that she’d undergone the same alterations he had, she understood why. She wouldn’t spend a resource that could be used for Fallatehr lightly, not unless she was sure that it was in his best interests.
That she still felt like herself was surprising. Fallatehr had twisted her, and all thoughts seemed to turn back in his direction, but they were still her thoughts, and beneath what she felt for him, there was an unpleasant dissonance. Because Fallatehr -- his name should have been written in big block letters, large enough to crowd out any other thought, because that’s how he sat in her mind now -- he connected back to so many concepts, so many memories, and even as much as she was willing to die for him, as much as he washed away all other concerns, there were points of contention. Her system of morality had always been a rather flexible one, bending to pragmatic necessity, but now it was bending so hard that it was downright irritating. The new her could be distilled down to “do what is best for Fallatehr”, but she wasn’t just that -- she still had a desire for self-preservation, though she would die for him if need be, and she wanted to be the best and most important among his allies, not just to better serve him, but for the raw desire toward autonomy.
“I saw no signs of it,” said Fallatehr as he came back. “Tell me everything you know about Juniper, starting with the most important, and assuming that Grakhuil has already divulged everything that he knows.”
She realized, as she gave up every secret, that what he’d done had limits. She wanted to tell him the truth, but she didn’t have to, and she could see that if she actually thought that “what is best for Fallatehr” was to tell him a lie, she could do that. In the same way, she could refuse him, or defy him, or even hurt him. There was an abstract concept of Fallatehr Whiteshell, and a question of definition there which her mind idly gnawed upon as she spoke, seeing all that ways that she could twist and turn that definition to her own ends. She didn’t just want what was best for Fallatehr, she still cared about her kharass and herself, and the people of Aerb -- and while those weren’t necessarily aligned values, and while if push came to shove she would choose him every time, there was room to wiggle.
“... and there’s the question of the overarching narrative, which Grak has already probably told you is pointed squarely against you. Likely terminally so.” She hadn’t realized it was true until she said it; Uther Penndraig had suffered losses and injuries, but they were almost always temporary, and never without being paid back a hundredfold. If someone began their time in Uther’s story by stabbing him in the gut and forcing him to limp off, they would end their time in his story with their life’s work dismantled, their castle razed to the ground, and every friend and ally they’d ever had turned against them -- and, of course, they would die, usually horribly. In his time on Aerb, Juniper had begun racking up his own list of narrative resolutions, most of which ended with someone dying. He had introduced her to the term ‘murderhobo’, which, with the right framing of their travels, seemed apt.
“You both take it so seriously,” said Fallatehr. “The evidence seems weak. I wonder whether something else is at play that would more easily explain your joint delusion.”
“The longer we stand here, the higher the chance that he sees into my soul and realizes what’s happened to me,” said Amaryllis. “We need to think of a plan as quickly as possible, both for the case where he doesn’t know and the case where he does. Ideally, we would find a peaceful resolution, or a turn in roles, or some measure by which this narrative can be concluded without your death.”
(And if Fallatehr died? She would do her best to resurrect him, until the alterations he had made to her soul had faded, as she could feel even now that they would. She would seek out another soul mage, she decided, and do her best to coerce them into altering her soul again, because without her, he would almost certainly be consigned to the hells forever, or trapped in a bottle at Juniper’s belt.)
“You don’t think that I can become his teacher in truth?” asked Fallatehr. “Stand down, or even submit myself?”
“Not after what you’ve done to us,” said Amaryllis. In the corner of her eye she saw Grak nod. “Not even if you undo it. If you could reverse what you have done and erase our memories --”
“No, memories are nigh-impossible to work with like that, even when freshly made, at least if attempting to manipulate them through the mechanism of the soul,” said Fallatehr. “As for reversing what I have done … your souls are unstable at the present moment, because the changes I made do not comport with the rest of the soul. They will largely revert on their own, if allowed to.”
“But you could do it?” asked Amaryllis. “Temporarily, to me, in order to fool Juniper?”
“Yes,” nodded Fallatehr after a moment. “An idea occurs to me. Let us go see Lehpenn.”
She had loved Fallatehr for a brief moment, and that moment had passed. Love was an imprecise word, made more imprecise by the nature of the magic he had used. She hadn’t had any romantic interest in him, nor a familial connection, nor had she even regarded him as a friend, but she had nevertheless attached such intensity of importance to him that the term ‘love’ felt apt.
She had assisted in the plan that she now hoped would fail, had held still while her bones were copied over, had watched as Lehpenn ate through all their fairies (save one, reserved for Grak) to heal himself into her form, and had given as much advice and information as she could about how to act like her. Lehpenn would need to lean on Grak for cues, and there was every chance that Juniper had spotted her soul while it was compromised, but Fallatehr had wagered that the chance to inject him into the inner circle was far too valuable, in spite of the inherent risk.
Amaryllis had argued that Fallatehr himself should have taken her place. Neither Rheta nor Lehpenn had any faculty with soul magic -- he hadn’t been lying about that, to her surprise -- which limited their utility as far as agents went. But Fallatehr had been adamant in his refusal; after all, if Lehpenn died, he was only Lehpenn, a servant with a soul as stable as Fallatehr could make it, but ultimately disposable.
She had consented to be bound and gagged, and had even given advice on how to do it -- how couldn’t she have, when it would serve Fallatehr? -- and then Fallatehr had undone the changes to her soul.
“You are leverage,” Fallatehr said to her, as though that was news to her. She had been the one to explain that she meant something to Juniper, that he might be compelled to act foolishly in order to save her. “You shouldn’t think that’s all you are, and if we can reach some peaceful resolution, I hope that we can work together in the future.” That was lunacy, naturally, but she couldn’t tell whether it was because he came from such a different culture from her, because he was delusional, or whether he was simply taunting her.
They had teleported as a group to the windbreak by the road. Without her initial diversion to allow a more hidden way back, that would have been too risky, but her precaution there had allowed them some leeway, and Fallatehr seemed optimistic that Juniper and Fenn would be delayed (their meeting time had come and gone, but they had not, at least, shown up at the farmhouse). He had stayed behind at the farmhouse, to wait for them there, but he had sent the non-anima, bound and gagged as Amaryllis was, to be teleported along. Amaryllis had marked her as a companion, and one that Juniper seemed invested in; the non-anima was leverage too.
After their arrival, Grak and Lehpenn-as-Amaryllis cautiously crept forward to check whether there was a car waiting, and finding none, settled themselves down to wait. Amaryllis had been laid down next to the non-anima, without a view of any of this, and Rheta, Fallatehr’s minion, stood over them, clutching the teleportation key. The plan had been hammered out with Amaryllis’ input, accounting for various possibilities, insulating Fallatehr from risk as much as possible, giving him leverage that couldn’t be taken away from him simply by killing him. There was a decent chance that Lehpenn would be killed on first contact, but if he wasn’t, then Juniper’s ability to see into her soul would actively work against him, giving him a false negative. That opened the path for other plans, other contingencies, and eventually, Juniper’s capture.
After two hours, which Amaryllis spent face down in the dirt uncomfortably close to the non-anima, Rheta used the teleportation key again. This time when the pain faded, they were someplace entirely different, somewhere that seemed, from Amaryllis’ limited vantage point, to consist largely of smooth rocks in various colors, each at least as large as a handspan. It was not a terribly comfortable place to be set down for a long stretch of time. She started grunting and wiggling, the most she could manage given her restraints. After a few minutes of this, Rheta, a muscular woman, eight feet tall, lifted her up and pulled out the gag.
“No spitting,” said Rheta.
“I need to use the bathroom,” said Amaryllis. “I wasn’t going to spit on you.”
“You seem like a spitter,” said Rheta. Upright, Amaryllis could see more of the terrain, which did little to disconfirm her initial impression of it as a place consisting mostly of smoothed rocks. Far in the distance, a herd of van-sized beasts seemed to be shoveling those rocks into their mouths. “Come,” said Rheta, but the command was unnecessary, because she was carrying Amaryllis in one hand.
Her captor helping her to go to the bathroom was mildly unpleasant, and little information was gained in the process, though to Amaryllis’ surprise, her gag wasn’t put back in place when she was set back on the rocks next to the non-anima. Rheta, for her part, seemed bored with this guard duty, which was the common fate of guards everywhere. Amaryllis had to wonder how much this woman was actually suited to the job; inside the prison, there would have been little cause to create someone in the specialized role of the brute, which at first glance is what she would have pegged Rheta as.
“I’m uncomfortable,” said Amaryllis. “I think Valencia probably is too.” Calling the non-anima by her made up name was going to be a good habit to get into, if the group was ever reunited -- if Juniper saw through the lies, cut through the plots, and won the fight. Here, saying ‘Valencia’ was an effort to humanize her in the eyes of their mutual captor, though Rheta had likely known her since birth.
“I don’t care,” said Rheta.
“The most likely outcome of this is that Fallatehr turns me to his side again,” replied Amaryllis. “I have no weapons, no armor, and no relevant training, the worst I could do is run away into an inhospitable wasteland, and that’s if you were foolish enough to remove all of my ropes, which I’m not even suggesting you do. Just loosen them, enough that I can move and avoid getting sores. I’ll be more valuable to Fallatehr that way.”
“You’re trying to manipulate me,” said Rheta. She shifted, clearly not comfortable on the rocks.
“I’m trying to find the seam of common cause,” said Amaryllis, which fell just short of being a bald-faced lie. She remembered what it had been like to think that Fallatehr was all-encompassing, and that gave her a handle on how to frame her arguments here. True manipulation might come later.
Rheta thought for a moment, then undid some of the knotwork, enough that Amaryllis was able to sit up and find a better position. That was promising, and gave her some room to work with, which was exactly why Rheta should have refused her.
When she leaned back, she found herself briefly touching the non-anima, and while her instinct was to shy away, she let the touch linger. The non-anima was unpredictable, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t also be a tool. Amaryllis felt at it while she spoke.
“It wasn’t like I expected, being his thrall,” said Amaryllis.
“Thrall?” asked Rheta. Amaryllis felt a rush of relief at the response. The woman still had curiosity, and could still be bored out of her mind by guard duty. She had a stable soul, to hear Fallatehr tell it, but Amaryllis was guessing -- hoping -- that came with less than the perfect peak of devotion to Fallatehr, or with more allowance for quirks.
“Thrall isn’t the right word,” said Amaryllis. “Fanatic? Devotee?”
“Devotee,” nodded Rheta.
“I was still myself,” said Amaryllis. “It takes some of the punch out of what was done to you. It’s not as immoral as simply wiping a mind away.” It was worse, in some ways. Secrets, spilling out of her mouth, people she cared about tossed aside, she could feel her anger rising as she thought about it, and quelled that anger. Her fingers touched the non-anima, feeling for her ropes. Exploration by touch revealed that the knot was nowhere she could reach without moving, not that she was actually planning on unleashing the non-anima, whatever Juniper’s powers might be whispering about it.
“Still immoral?” asked Rheta after some time had passed.
“I didn’t think so when I was his devotee,” said Amaryllis. She tried to keep her voice gentle. “I thought that anything that was of value to him was good. Now … I think otherwise.”
Rheta rolled her eyes. “Never much interested me, good and bad.”
“Who were you, before you were imprisoned?” asked Amaryllis.
“Why?” asked Rheta. She was looking out at the animals that were gargling rocks in the distance. “Doesn’t seem important.”
“Just making conversation,” replied Amaryllis. She touched the ropes again, and considered burning through them, like Juniper had done in the elevator shaft. She had blood magic at hand, though somewhat less faculty than he had even back then, and her hands would be nearly unusable, not to mention that any reaction from the non-anima would give the game away (a reaction that a devil might give, or that the non-anima might give in response to the pain of being burned). An option, but not a good one. “I had other interests, other ideas, when I was a devotee.”
“Trying to find seams of common cause?” asked Rheta. Amaryllis nodded. “I don’t trust you.”
“So don’t,” replied Amaryllis with as good of a shrug as she could manage in her loosened bonds. That was also a way of checking how much play she had: not much, but she didn’t think that she could ask for them to be loosened a second time, at least not yet. The bindings were all made of a single rope, circling her ankles and wrists, connected by a length that allowed some slack.
Rheta tapped her foot against one of the rocks, frowning, then picked it up and threw it off into the distance. “I was part of an honor guard for a now long-dead king,” she said. “My people are warriors. Were warriors, if they no longer exist. The king was a hold-out when the Second Empire began to rise, but his brother was more than willing to negotiate. That’s speculation on my part. The king was killed in his sleep by agents unknown, and I was arrested by writ of the Lost King’s Court.” She turned to look at Amaryllis. “I’m curious how you would turn that to your advantage, princess.”
“Just killing time,” said Amaryllis, trying to be nonchalant. Amoureux Penitentiary had been Anglecynn’s dumping ground for quite some time, and the ruling class of Anglecynn consisted almost entirely of her relatives, most of them distant. The odds that any given person housed there would have a grudge against someone of her background was rather high, so this wasn’t quite down to unfortunate coincidence, but from the large woman’s tone, it probably meant that getting on her good side was out of the question. A number of conversational avenues had been slammed shut. “Can you loosen my friend’s knots?”
“She’s not your friend,” replied Rheta.
“Friend of a friend,” said Amaryllis. “She’s cosmically important.”
“No,” said Rheta. She turned away, to look out over the rocks. “I’m done talking.”
Amaryllis stayed calm. Doors were shutting all over the place. If she talked again, the gag was likely to return to her mouth. The plan had been that they would stay in this place until well past nightfall, then teleport back to Parsmont, to a place that Rheta would pick at random. After that, they’d use coded messages that could be sent and received with neither party knowing where the other was. That had been her idea; it was a way to keep her as leverage without Juniper being able to murder his way to a solution, a fall-back strategy in case other paths failed.
A long silence was broken when the non-anima began squirming and making noises through her gag. Rheta glanced over for a moment, then looked back out at the field of smooth rocks. The creatures that had been eating the rocks had gone, but a few small birds had taken their place, and were pecking at the rocks.
“She still needs to use the bathroom,” said Amaryllis. “We’re going to be together for quite a while, and I think we’d both rather not have to smell her if she shits herself. I half-suspect that a devil would do it just to fuck with us.”
Rheta sighed and stood up, then came over and dragged the non-anima to its feet, pulling by the rope. She carried her some distance away, not seeming to show any strain from carrying her, then unceremoniously reached up to yank down her underwear, then pushed her dress up as well. All of this impressed upon Amaryllis how strong the woman was; that was a given, at eight feet tall, but a direct physical confrontation was unlikely to be won. What other options did she have though? Rheta was, all things considered, not a terribly good guard, but there weren’t even any unobvious weaknesses to exploit.
As they were returning, with the non-anima having relieved herself, Amaryllis turned her hands inward to her own ropes and began burning through them, one hand to free her ankles, the other to free her wrists. The pain followed quickly, and from there it was a matter of trying her best to suppress the outward signs of that pain while still keeping enough concentration on the blood magic. It was a bit rash, as decisions went, but even if she’d had time for second thoughts, the opportunity to bail out had passed the moment she’d burned herself.
The pain overwhelmed her for a brief moment at the end, and she felt tears rolling down her cheeks, but then she was finished. Through tear-filled eyes, she saw Rheta looking at her, but couldn’t make out enough to see the huge woman’s expression. The sight of the non-anima falling to the rocks was enough of a warning about what was about to happen. Amaryllis stood up, swaying slightly -- every movement was agony on her hands, how had Juniper done this? -- and used her forearm to wipe away some of the tears, enough that she could look at Rheta.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Rheta.
Amaryllis settled into a fighting stance on the uneven rocks. Her hands were held out in front of her, usable only if she could spare the time for a bout of blinding pain, rather than the mere agony that each of her arms ended in. She’d always been weak at unarmed combat. And she was facing down an opponent with a three foot height advantage, a two hundred pound weight advantage, at least an extra foot of reach.
“What were you hoping to accomplish?” asked Rheta. Through the tears in her eyes, Amaryllis could almost see the frown, but her displeasure was apparent enough in her voice.
Amaryllis was shaking from the pain, and the unasked-for tears were going to further complicate matters. She tried to redirect the flow of her blood away from her hands, in the hopes that the lack of circulation would numb them, and that gradually began to do some work, which stepped the pain down enough that she could actually concentrate. Rheta was still standing in front of her, looking her over, and Amaryllis realized the predicament just before Rheta spoke.
“I don’t have more rope,” the giant woman said with a mild voice. She looked down at the non-anima. “Looks like one of you is going to have to give up your clothing.” Rheta reached down and began to pull the non-anima out of her dress, stopping momentarily in order to tear it.
Amaryllis picked that moment to attack, because if you were going to do something like burning a significant amount of your own skin and flesh away, then you sure as hell weren’t going to just give up halfway through. She raced forward, mind awash with fresh pain from the movement, the smell of burning flesh in her nostrils, and ducked under a backhand fist from Rheta.
There was a loose school of combat taught to young women all around Aerb, if they were nobility, or the daughter of someone important, or simply had cautious parents. As legend had it, Uther Penndraig had invented the style when his own daughter was born, and he started by looking through all the formalized rules of physical aggression he could find and built, as the foundation, a series of principles and maneuvers that violated every single rule designed to make things fair.
Amaryllis went for the eyes, a risky move given that it meant slipping inside the other woman’s guard, and the damage to her hands that meant such an attack would be pure torture even with the hands numb. Her fingers were barely working, but the internal damage to her hands had largely spared the tendons that let her thumbs move, so she clapped her hands to the sides of Rheta’s head -- brilliantly sharp pain, white hot even past the numbness -- and drove in her thumbs. She was swatted off only a few seconds later, but when she regained her bearings (she’d landed on the rocks, and would have bruising down to the bone) she took visceral pleasure in the way that Rheta was rubbing at her face and stumbling around.
From there it became a fight of cripples, Amaryllis largely without the use of her hands, Rheta largely without the use of her eyes. She wasn’t fully blinded, because even though eyeballs were surprisingly fragile, it was difficult to apply much force to them. Nevertheless, she was having trouble seeing, and while Amaryllis’ body ached, she was still in decent enough shape to put up a fight against someone whose swings went wide more often than not.
Amaryllis finally got the upper hand with a kick at just the right moment, aimed right at Rheta’s knee when all her weight was on that foot. It took Amaryllis putting almost all of her effort behind the kick, a reckless attack, but there was a sickening crunch as Rheta’s foot went off balance on the rocks, slipped back slightly, and then caught in place, with the knee bent backward a moment later. Rheta cried out in pain and fell, and Amaryllis fell on top of her, using her elbow to repeatedly slam the giant in the head. Each hit sent another jolt of pain up Amaryllis’ arm from her badly burned hand.
The actual murder was accomplished once Rheta was insensate. Amaryllis picked up one of the stones using her wrists, and drove it down with all her might into the center of Rheta’s face. She checked for pulse (laughably difficult without fingers) and breathing, and finding none, finally took a moment to relax.
Relaxation meant pain. The blood began to flow back into her hands, and the pins and needles of circulation returning was the baby’s breath in a floral arrangement of pain. She screamed and cried, for a time, because it was good to scream and cry, but eventually she stopped and fought back the pain once more to take stock of her surroundings.
She had a teleportation key, the corpse of an eight-foot tall woman, and a bound non-anima who was looking at her with wide eyes.
“Not sure I was supposed to rescue myself,” she said. She willed her hands to stop shaking, because it was making the pain worse, but they didn’t comply.
The only real question was where to take the teleportation key to. Juniper was out there somewhere, almost certainly ready to fall into whatever trap Fallatehr had set for him, but without knowing where he was, there wasn’t anything she could do about that. Teleporting anywhere was fraught with peril, simply because of how incredibly valuable the key was, but staying in this land of smooth rocks was out of the question given she had no food, water, shelter, or medical assistance. She let out a shaky breath. The fight had left her, and a bruised and burnt husk seemed to be all that remained. She needed help.
She cast her glance toward the non-anima. “Fuck,” she said, then got up and staggered over to her. It was brutally hard work to remove the gag, given the state of her hands, and once the gag was out, there was no question of her being able to get it back in.
“I’m an ally,” said the non-anima.
“Yeah?” asked Amaryllis. She willed her hands to stop shaking again, and this time they settled slightly. The sun was starting to set.
“Something happened in the basement when I was with Juniper,” said the non-anima. “Something changed in me. I was granted power, and freedom from possession. He seemed to have expected something like that.”
“He’s an idiot,” replied Amaryllis. She wanted to slump over and sleep, even as hard as sleep was to imagine with the pain she was in. Rational evaluation was hard in that kind of state, and against a devil, she needed to be at her best. She’d thought, coming over, that she could do it, but trying to work through the logical implications of what the non-anima said was proving difficult. Devils could be cunning, masters of the social, perfect liars, but what Amaryllis needed right now was help, and this seemed like a risk that she had to take. Juniper had probably pushed her loyalty above ten, against Amaryllis’ advice, but that didn’t mean that she was telling the truth. He obviously hadn’t released her from the basement, which meant that he wasn’t entirely confident either. He hadn’t said anything about a loyalty increase either. “Any proof?”
“None,” said the non-anima. “There was nothing he said I wouldn’t have cause to know by other means.”
Amaryllis nodded. “Yup, because that would be too easy.” She looked down at her shaking hands and willed them to stop again. They seemed to start back up whenever she stopped paying attention to them. “Fucking devils.”
“If you let me out, I can help you,” said the non-anima. “I think I can capture one with medical knowledge.”
“I need magic,” said Amaryllis. “Best we could do is cover them with cloth.”
“You’ll need a pair of hands,” said the non-anima.
“Yup,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. She glanced over at the corpse a few feet away. If she had bone magic, the throbbing pain in her hands would be a problem she could fix in a matter of minutes. Symbiosis, they’d called it; Fenn had bone magic by proxy. She tried, briefly, to raise her loyalty, to come to a personal revelation that would allow her access to new abilities, but if it worked, there was no immediate effect.
“You’re a fearsome fighter,” said the non-anima. “I thought you would die.”
“She didn’t want to kill me, gave me an edge,” said Amaryllis. That, and I’m better at fighting than I should be, far beyond any of the training I ever got. I fight like a seasoned veteran of the pits. “You said something happened to you, down in the basement?”
“Something he knew was going to happen,” said the non-anima. “It wasn’t what he thought it might be, but he didn’t clarify. It turned the tables, made me a furnace fed by them. I eat demons.”
“Shit,” said Amaryllis. Wouldn’t Juniper have told her, if something like that had happened? Maybe not, with Grak there, or given her previous opinion on the matter. Would the devils have been able to figure out something like a Loyalty change, without Juniper’s input? Unknown. Would Juniper have given his input? Also unknown. What the non-anima -- Valencia, he’d named her -- was saying fit, under the assumption that Juniper’s power almost always worked in his benefit, and under the assumption that he wouldn’t be given worthless companions.
Sitting on the uncomfortable rocks, covered with bruises, staring at her burned hands and trying to ignore the pain, or at least maintain conscious thought through it, Amaryllis wondered about that last assumption. Whatever forces were at work hadn’t stopped companions from being problems. Hells, with his rapidly evolving skillset, Juniper probably would have been better off going to the border wall of the Risen Lands instead of meeting her. From her perspective, their time together had been a litany of failures and setbacks, getting captured by Aumann, being incapacitated by rat rot, being chased by Larkspur, and then captured and turned by Fallatehr, which was its own series of failures rolled into one.
(((Okay, I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself here, but these are all things that she confessed feeling to me, after we were back together. Uh, spoilers, I guess, but you already know that I’m okay and Fallatehr’s dead, and with the soul mage and his two minions killed it’s sort of just a question of what happens between Amaryllis and Valencia, and how or whether they joined back up with me, which I guess you also have already figured out, since how else would I know any of this?
But what she didn’t mention was the stillborn romance, which I think must have been part of that train of thought. Why she didn’t mention it to me was obvious enough, but I thought it probably had to go on her list of failures, if she was feeling down about herself and her capacity as a member of the team. Still, there are limits to the kinds of thoughts that I’m willing to say were running through her mind.
Okay, back to the story.)))
“What is Juniper to you?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” said Valencia. “He said he wanted to be a friend. To help me. I haven’t known very many people. Most of them were Fallatehr. Juniper might seem less, when I know more, but I don’t think he will.” She didn’t say less what.
“I’m going to let you out,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. She looked down at her hands. “Might take a bit.” It sometimes seemed like there should be a limit to how much something can hurt before your body said, ‘alright, I think you probably have the message, I’ll shut up about it now’.
Eventually, working mostly with her thumbs, Amaryllis managed to get the knots loose enough for Valencia to slip free of them. A lesser person than Amaryllis Penndraig might have resigned herself to her fate, but Amaryllis kept on her guard, as though there would be anything that she could do against the combat prowess of a demon shoved into mortal form.
“You don’t trust me,” said Valencia, rubbing her wrists and ankles.
“No,” said Amaryllis.
“Then why did you let me out?” asked Valencia.
“Necessity,” answered Amaryllis. That wasn’t quite true though. “It’s what Juniper would have done. He has better instincts for this sort of thing.”
“People things?” asked Valencia, cocking her head to the side.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “Other sorts of things. I’ll explain it to you later, if -- if it’s safe to.”
“Okay,” said Valencia. Her voice was soft. She reached down and touched her dress where it had been ripped. “Are we going to be like sisters?”
Amaryllis might have let out a long sigh of discontent at that, but she was holding her hands in front of her so they wouldn’t have to touch anything, and the muscles of her body were aching from the tension of fighting pain, not to mention the bruisings she’d taken. “Come on,” she said. “I need you to go search the body and get the teleportation key, then hand it to me. We’re leaving this place.”
“To the farmhouse?” asked Valencia. “In Parsmont?”
“No,” replied Amaryllis, looking down at her hands. “Somewhere a little riskier.”
Ever since escaping the Risen Lands with the teleportation key, Amaryllis had been on the lookout. Dark alleyways were her preference, especially those with little nooks off to the side created where, say, there had once been a doorway that had been sealed, or a street that had been built up in, or a rarely-used accessway. When she spotted a place like that, she would go to it, move around as much as possible within its confines, then retreat backward along her own steps. These places were all marked on the view as provided by the teleportation key.
Valencia was already moving when they arrived, stepping out in front of Amaryllis in a fighting stance that was recognizable as such only because there was no other explanation for what she would be doing. Amaryllis might have stopped her, if she wasn’t trying to push through the overwhelming flash of quickly-fading pain that accompanied use of the key.
“It hurts you?” asked Valencia, who relaxed and turned back toward Amaryllis.
“Yeah, it hurts,” replied Amaryllis. She had been holding the teleportation key between the heels of her hands, and fearing the worst, handed it over to Valencia, simply because there was no other option. Valencia slipped the key into a small pocket on Amaryllis' dress though, without seeming to understand the importance of the gesture. “Come on, we’ve got a bone mage to see.”
It was easy enough to play the part of indigents; Amaryllis held her injuries in front of her, stopping occasionally to beg for coin she was certain she wasn’t going to get. Valencia’s dress was ripped, and neither of them were wearing shoes (Amaryllis' had been taken to be worn by her double, along with all her armor; Valencia’s had been left behind). Even before stepping onto the streets of Barren Jewel, they had been dirty. They still got a few looks; even as indigents, even horribly wounded, they were two young, attractive women.
They reached the small shop with a bone on the sign above its door, and went in without knocking. Amaryllis sat down even as the pale woman with black spots stood up from behind her desk.
“Emergency,” said Amaryllis, laying back. She was bone tired -- pain would do that to you, if you felt it for long enough. “Gonna have to pay you later.”
“Is she,” said Bormann, looking Valencia up and down with a frown.
“Non-anima?” asked Valencia. “No, I just have the misfortune to come from a bad bloodline.” Her accent had changed radically, losing the faint trace of elvish it’d had and becoming a melange of Anglecynn Anglish. She let out a rueful chuckle. “As if anyone these days would suffer a non-anima to live past infancy.”
“Some mothers would,” said Bormann, but she seemed satisfied by the explanation. She moved over to Amaryllis and got to work without comment, first looking over her hands, then her other injuries. “I don’t normally take on patients who can’t pay.”
“But it helps that I was upfront about it, right?” asked Amaryllis. Humor had never been her strong suit, and she had been trying for a joke, but it didn’t even remotely land.
“More ill-advised use of blood magic, like last time?” asked Bormann, sitting back slightly on her chair and looking Amaryllis over.
“Given the circumstances, it wasn’t ill-advised,” said Valencia, and despite herself, Amaryllis was grateful that she didn’t have to muster up the energy for her own response. “We’ll be able to give you twice your normal rate within twenty-four hours. Coming here first was, I hope you understand, a priority.” Again the different persona was there, surrounding her like a cloak.
Bormann glanced at her, then back to Amaryllis. “The bill will be four million tcher then,” she said, and got up from her seat to start taking down bones. “You should thank your friend, the half-elf, for establishing a good working relationship.” The bones rattled and clacked as she took them from the strings they hung from, and Amaryllis closed her eyes for a moment, finally dropping her guard.