I emerged from the time chamber feeling drained, despite my best efforts. I ate well, I slept well, I exercised often, and by the end, none of it really seemed to help. My break from the chamber had lasted no more than two hours, if that, so it was effectively two solid months, back to back, with only the smallest respite. The chamber was small, and it seemed smaller with every passing week, despite all the work we put into making it seem less small, like murals on the walls, switching around the arrangement of furniture, and putting up some mirrors. Most of it was like trying to scratch an itch by rubbing your fingers in the air above your skin.
All my skills were at their caps, and I’d put in the hours trying to unlock other abilities that might be accessible without actually needing to raise the skills higher. Skin magic was the primary beneficiary there; with Fenn’s faculty at Art, I was able to get past a hurdle and learn some new patterns. Even that was kind of pointless, since Fenn and I were doubling up on the skills, and it wasn’t as easily accessible as other schools of magic, given that it needed magical reagents for the inks, which the backpack couldn’t produce, and which the clonal kit couldn’t be convinced to give up in sufficient quantities (not to mention the insane markup when we paid it back).
I read lots of books. Amaryllis had a working television by this point, a big, bulky cathode ray tube without a case around it, which seemed to fail half the time I tried to use it. Of course, the television would have been worthless without something to watch, but thankfully, Amaryllis had been able to build a fairly crude VCR to go along with it, which also seemed to fail too often, though I considered it a miracle that she was able to get it working at all. We were limited to things that had been released in the VHS format, but it opened up a wider range of movies, and VHS boxsets of television series that had been popular enough to be released that way.
(Weirdly, the backpack would sometimes give us home recordings of television, if the thing we wanted wasn’t available commercially. I supposed that this wasn’t too dissimilar from the printouts of webpages, but it was a little bit weird to see, especially when there were bits and pieces of old newscasts and home movies on the tapes. Similarly, the printouts of webpages were occasionally printed on reused paper, with random spreadsheets or news articles on the back, which seemed to follow no rhyme or reason, save that they could plausibly have been scrap paper somewhere in America. And at times, requests for webpages would simply fail for no clear reason, with a little note saying something like, “no printout of the Urban Dictionary page on ‘basic bitch’, sorry”. I suspected, but couldn’t quite prove, that the backpack was only grabbing things that literally existed on Earth, rather than that plausibly might have come from Earth. At the very least, it could pull historical items that I was pretty sure hadn’t survived to 2017, but that was also pretty damned hard to conclusively prove.)
Things with Amaryllis went fine. The second month was easier than the first month, though all the currently intractable issues were still there. She was further along in the pregnancy, her movements a little more ungainly, but it didn’t seem to affect her much. She didn’t complain, but I saw the occasional wince of annoyance when she couldn’t move quite how she wanted to, and she was going to the bathroom a lot more, not that I was tracking that. She was still rock climbing, but the routes she chose were easier, and she didn’t do anything that used her abdominal muscles.
(She was still breathtakingly pretty, though not in quite the same way as she’d been when we first met.)
When the month was up and the door to the time chamber was finally reopened, I rushed out and found Fenn. There were no surprises waiting for me this time, only a slightly anxious-looking half-elf. I’d reread her letter, the heavy one, just so that I would have it in mind, and the hug I wrapped her in reflected what I felt.
She’d been right that none of what she’d told me was the sort of thing that normally pinged at my instincts, and that there was a bad kind of damage, when it came to what I found compelling, but I was already in love with her, and all I could think was that I wished nothing bad had ever happened to her. There was a small part of me wondering if this was all somehow my fault, if every bad thing in her life was just set up in order to manipulate me. I was still trying my best to just live my life without second-guessing though.
Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 26!
“You’re crushing me,” Fenn whispered into my ear. I relaxed my grip on her. “No,” she said. “It was good, more crushing please.”
So we had our moment of reunion, and then went away from the others so we could talk.
“You don’t hate me then?” asked Fenn.
“No,” I murmured. I was still holding her.
“Well, good,” said Fenn. “Good. I should have told you. It felt like there were just some things that I needed to dance around, and --”
“I understand,” I said. “I wish you didn’t have to go in there, or that we could take some time together, or … something.”
“Mary would pitch a fit,” replied Fenn. “Rightfully so, I think. You’re in fighting shape?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Ready to cut the world’s heart out.” In theory, I had about three hours left until the baby was born, maybe as little as two. Amaryllis had let me come out so that I would be as well-rested, fed, and keyed up as possible, so that I would be ready for anything. I was in my full gear, including Ropey at my waist.
”You wrote me letters?” asked Fenn.
“I did,” I nodded. “And don’t think that you’re going to get out of writing me back just because I’m not going back in there.”
“You’re just going to read them all at once?” asked Fenn with a laugh.
“Maybe,” I said. “I mean, I really might. But mostly, I want to be there for you, so you can write me if you want to talk about something, even if for me, it will happen all at once.”
“Okay,” nodded Fenn. “I’m going to miss you. More than the first time, even.”
“I’ll miss you too,” I said. “It’s going to be the longest forty-five minutes of my life.”
“I already used that joke,” said Fenn.
“I know,” I replied with a smile. “But it’s been a couple months, and I like to recycle.”
We kissed for a bit, and indulged in physical contact that we hadn’t had from each other for a long time, until eventually Amaryllis came calling, and it was time for her to get back into the chamber.
I handed over the list of our entads to Zona, and she read through it carefully, not saying a word as her eyes moved across the page. I was certain that she didn’t need the avatar to do it, but she kept up the illusion, going so far as to minutely move Tiff’s lips as her eyes scanned the pages.
“This is only partial negotiation,” I said. “Amaryllis wants to have final say in whatever gets provisionally decided, this is just the opening part of it, where I can hopefully get the basic stuff out of the way. She’s marked the ones that we don’t feel we can give up, the ones that we’d prefer not to, and the ones that we have no particular attachment to, or in some cases, can’t actually use because of bloodline limitations.”
“I saw as much,” said Zona. “The Anyblade, the backpack, and the teleportation key are the three that I would choose.”
I nodded. “We were a little worried that you would say that. The Anyblade is the only one that I think we can really part with. The backpack is important, a literal gift from the Dungeon Master, and the crux of Amaryllis’ plan to remake the world. And as for the teleportation key, there’s some question of what would actually happen if you were to consume it. Based on what we know about how your meta-entad power works, it’s a bit of a crapshoot, and some of the outcomes are unacceptable.”
Zona smiled at me. “How much time did you devote to talking this over?” she asked.
“Days,” I said. “Amaryllis is acting as the focal point for cross-group conversations, to make sure that the four of us are on the same page. It’s important, and we wanted to get things right.”
“I see,” replied Zona. She smirked at me. “The variability inherent in any acquisition is a good reason for me to refrain from taking the key. Would I function as a key, capable of taking five individuals to any place that any of them had been? Or only to places that I had been? Could I make use of the touchstones, or not? Perhaps, in the worst case, people could only teleport within me, which I agree, would be a disaster for you. I can’t say that I have the answer.”
“Okay,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I also wasn’t sure how you interacted with entads that were twinned, or parts of a whole. Out of all the things in our collection, the key is the only one that applies to, at least that I know of.”
“The backpack I will be taking though,” said Zona, ignoring that question. “There are a number of entads that are already part of me which have similar functions, and the result from taking in the backpack will fall within a narrow band. You will still be able to acquire whatever you want from,” she hesitated, tripping over a word for the first time, “From Earth. My interior space is much greater than that of the backpack, which should allow you access to a variety of goods that you currently can’t pull from it.”
I nodded. The catch was that we wouldn’t be able to access the backpack without, at the very least, Zona’s consent. Amaryllis was in favor; she’d already spent time pulling out thousands of books (fiction and non-fiction), movies, parts, equipment, medicine, seeds, and everything else she thought she would need. The interior of Sable truly was, as best we could ascertain, limitless. The way Amaryllis saw it, so long as we took all of the low-hanging fruit, the actual cost to us could be mitigated. In return, not only would Zona get something powerful, it would in many ways be a bond between us. Zona would be more comfortable knowing that we had a concrete reason to maintain a good relationship with her.
“You can have the Anyblade too,” I said, trying not to wince as I said it. “I’m not sure quite what the effect would be. Do you have any idea?” My two best guesses were that Zona would become the Anyhouse, or that the house would be able to take on any shape, so long as it could in some way be construed as a blade.
“Entads that morph are somewhat rare,” said Zona. “I haven’t had the pleasure of consuming one. I’m quite interested to know the result myself.”
“And the strain won’t be too much?” I asked. “The unpleasantness of adapting to a new sensation won’t hold you back?”
“Do you mean to dissuade me?” asked Zona. She crossed her arms.
“No,” I said, holding up a hand. “Just curious. You brought it up a lot.”
“I take my time,” said Zona. “The worst cases have always been when I had a handful at once. The severity of the handicap depends on the entad consumed, but a week or a month later, I’ll have adapted. Perhaps more, if the entad had some sentience of its own. I can have the Anyblade then?”
“Yes,” I said. “Provisionally, assuming that Amaryllis agrees.”
“She controls too much,” said Zona with a frown.
“She’s smart and capable,” I said. “And she’s by far the best negotiator among us. We’d be foolish not to use her.” In fact, the primary reason that I was doing the talking was that Amaryllis had hoped that I would improve my relationship with the house and trigger something from the mostly-silent game. It also helped that the house liked me better; I wasn’t a Penndraig.
“That’s two of three,” said Zona. “If not the teleportation key, then the glove you call Sable.”
I winced. “No,” I said.
“A flat no?” asked Zona.
“It serves too many functions for us,” I said. “We’re willing to make a deal for the third item, not a lesser replacement for the one you want, but a wide selection of lesser entads. We have a number of them we can’t use, those tied to Uther’s most-direct male descendant. They’re on the list.”
“Most of them worthless to both me and you,” replied Zona.
“True,” I nodded. “But more than just those, we’d have a standing agreement that any entads we come across that we’re gated from in some way will be yours for the taking, if you want them.” The thinking here was that while Zona having the backpack would set up a reason for us to treat her well, her getting a steady flow of entads would give her incentives to treat us well.
The more I’d gotten to know Zona, the more I thought that she wouldn’t be swayed by that. She wanted to be a house, and the only reason that she wasn’t was because she was settling for lesser pursuits, like torturing and killing people who tried to come inside her, or making war with the tuung, or accumulating power.
“I would find that acceptable,” said Zona, “If your manager agrees.” She was smirking, just a bit. It was hard to remember quite what our first encounter had been like, but I thought she was smiling more, and I took that as a good sign.
“There would be some leeway,” I said. “Some entads we aren’t going to be able to use, but might be able to trade away, or hold hostage, or return to their rightful owners. Amaryllis will be more exact about it, so long as you agree in general terms. To start with, there are all the things at the end of the list, the arrow-annihilating armor, reflection portal shield, spin stick, and teleporting sword. Those were all taken from Larkspur Prentiss and his people. In addition to that, we have a number of entads taken from a different encounter, whose function we haven’t been able to figure out. I assume if you consume an entad, you figure out its function, but given that they integrate, I can see why you wouldn’t want to do that.”
“I’ve done it, in the past,” said Zona. “Typically though, I allow people to use their entads within the house, to discover what it is the entads do. Obviously some of them wouldn’t be worth their quirks. The people who come to this place do tend be desperate, and it’s not uncommon for their complement of items to reflect that desperation.”
“Okay,” I said, swallowing. “There’s one more thing, an entad that’s not on the list.”
“Oh?” asked Zona, though I didn’t imagine she could possibly have missed it.
I undid the rope around my waist, then held it out, coiled in my hands. “This is the Eternal Golden Braid,” I said. Ropey uncoiled slightly, and one end of him rose up like a snake being charmed out of a basket. “He’s sentient. We didn’t introduce you earlier because of concerns that you would consume him.”
The free end of Ropey gave an extended flourish that was vaguely reminiscent of a bow.
“Can he talk?” asked Zona.
Ropey moved his free end around, shaping out letters in sequence. He’d done the same for me a few times, when there were things that needed to be communicated, but mostly he stayed silent, and acted only when he needed to act. Watching him, I felt a little guilty for not spending more time trying to talk with him. I’d never once asked how he was doing, or what he thought of things. I’d had half a mind to start doing that during our time in the chamber, but I didn’t want to disingenuously try to change the nature of our relationship.
“Faster, please,” said Zona.
Ropey started contorting faster, making the letters so quickly that I couldn’t hope to follow along. I glanced over at Grak, and saw a slightly concerned look on his face. I tried to keep my expression impassive, but I was feeling it a little bit too. Whatever Ropey was spelling out, it had a lot of letters. One of the things that I really hadn’t been worried about was that Ropey would throw us under the bus, but I had a moment of panic as I realized that was possible, even if it wasn’t likely.
“I see,” said Zona after three minutes had passed, and Ropey had finally come to a stop. She gave a curtsey to the rope. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Ropey extended himself forward with his free end, using the other to wrap around my wrist for support, and Zona held out a hand to him. He threaded through her fingers, pushing them apart and encircling them, in what seemed like a weirdly intimate gesture to me. It didn’t last long though, and Zona dropped her hand when Ropey retracted back into my arms.
“Only five pounds of force, unfortunately,” said Zona. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to Ropey, not me. “But I have a vast sensorium, of which this illusion is only one part. You may have spent too much time with humans, if you see me primarily as one. I’ll choose to take that as a compliment on my mastery of artifice.”
Ropey sprang into action again, presumably making more letters, though faster than before, which had already been too fast for me to read.
“No,” said Zona, suddenly holding up a hand. “Privately.”
Ropey turned his free end, which he was more or less using as a head, toward me, nodded once, and then dropped out of my hands by going completely limp in the right places. When he touched the ground, he took off, slithering across the flagstones like a snake, about as fast as I could run. When he was around the corner, the illusion of Zona disappeared.
“Did that go well, do you think?” I asked Grak.
“Unclear,” said Grak.
“Yeah,” I said. “Could you follow what Ropey was saying?”
“Only until she told it to go faster,” said Grak. “And then, only because I focused on the magic I could see from him, to the exclusion of all else. He was giving her details of his biography.”
“Huh,” I said. “Do you think they’re … what do you think they’re going to do together?”
“Perhaps they will touch butts,” said Grak.
I looked at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. “I missed you,” I said. “Not sure if I said that.”
“You did not,” replied Grak. “And no letters.”
“Actually, I wrote four last time I was in there,” I said. “Should be waiting for you when it’s your shift again. I would have written more, but I’m a lot more worried about how Fenn is or was handling it, so that’s where my energy was going.”
“I am honored to get a letter,” said Grak with a small bow in my direction. I couldn’t tell whether or not he was being sarcastic.
“Don’t expect much,” I said. “They’re short by my standards, only five pages or so each, and a lot of it is just … I don’t know, not incredibly personal, like it is with Fenn, not because I don’t want to share with you, but I didn’t want to do this one-sided unloading about stuff I didn’t know if you’d be interested in. Plus there’s also a lot of broken Groglir, which I was trying to keep from getting rusty. It’s unbelievable to me that with all of our preparation, and all of the sheer quantity of stuff packed into the glove, there was no Groglir-English dictionary.”
Grakhuil shrugged. “You are the only one who would need it.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” I said. I looked down the hallway. “Hopefully things are going well.”
“The rope is a stalwart companion,” said Grak.
I nodded at that, but didn’t wholly agree. It had been by my side from virtually the moment I got it, serving as extra arms or sometimes legs, helping to bind people, increasing my mobility, and doing basically whatever was in its power to help me … but it wasn’t actually a partner, and though it could follow along when people talked, it rarely engaged in conversation. Our relationship was incredibly one-sided, from a certain point of view.
Ropey came slinking back around the corner at roughly the same time that Zona appeared next to us.
“He’s a very agreeable fellow,” said Zona with a nod.
“I’ve often thought so,” I replied. “Did you … talk?”
“Hrm,” replied Zona.
“I’m not sure how to interpret that,” I said.
“You want to know whether I intend to kill a kindred spirit?” asked Zona.
“Um,” I said. “Yes, I did want to know that, but I wasn’t going to ask so bluntly. I thought … you want power, right?”
“Power is not nearly all I want,” said Zona. She peered at me. “Have you been spending too much time with the little Penndraig, to think that power is the end of all things?”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s fair. And -- sorry, but I knew Arthur, and he didn’t think that power was the ultimate goal, he thought that it was a means to achieve some goal. He lectured me on it more than once. Amaryllis is the same, maybe not the same as whoever Uther became, but if there really were nothing left for her to do, she would sit back and relax, without worrying.”
“Do you believe that?” asked Grak.
I looked over at him. “I … huh. I think it’s awfully convenient for her that her work is never done, and she’s very adept at making new work even when there’s time to relax. But that’s not the same thing as wanting power for its own sake.”
“I find your defense of her interesting,” said Zona. She turned to the time chamber. “They’re coming out. There are only another three cycles to go, which I’m glad of. I grow weary of this changing of the guard.”
I didn’t know whether that was intended as a joke, but if it was, I didn’t find it funny. The thought of going back in there made my skin crawl; it was hard to imagine what might have happened if Amaryllis had taken it upon herself to go the whole time without company. The last I’d heard, which was a month ago from her perspective, she was ready to see a sunrise, drink herself into a stupor, and go somewhere with a good enough view that the world seemed to stretch out wide. If we really did end up needing to raise Solace in the time chamber, I had no idea how the fuck we were going to manage that.
Fenn came out of the chamber like a cat darting out of a door that’s been momentarily left ajar, and ran straight at me. She didn’t slow down, and leaped up into the air, the better to tackle me. I caught her, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do with my body as it was back on Earth, and she wrapped her legs around me as she started kissing me.
“Missed me?” I asked, when she gave me a chance to breathe.
“A bit,” said Fenn, smiling wide. “I almost didn’t make it, but I kept thinking, hey, Juniper is waiting for me at the end of it all. Not as bad as solitary confinement, but they don’t keep you in solitary for two fucking months. And now I’m done!”
I let go of her legs, and she unhooked herself from me to step down onto the floor.
“Congratulations,” said Amaryllis from by the door. She was much more pregnant now, well into the third trimester. I idly wondered whether the immobility plate would magically fit her new shape, then more seriously considered it, because that was how we were going to get down into the bottle. “Juniper, how did negotiations go?”
“Good enough,” I said. “Anyblade, backpack, cast-offs, that’s about as good as is reasonable, if we’re not being absolute misers.”
“Good,” replied Amaryllis with a sigh.
“And I did end up showing her Ropey,” I said.
“I figured as much,” said Amaryllis. She glanced down at Zona’s feet, where the rope was coiled. “Can we make the exchange now?”
“Now?” asked Zona, furrowing her eyebrows. “Why?”
“It might help us,” I replied. “If the Anyblade allows you radical shape changes, we could take you with, should we need to leave.”
Zona stared at me. “Take me with … where?” she asked.
“Anywhere,” I said. “We have a companion back in Headwater that we need to retrieve, at a minimum. If something goes desperately wrong, then we’ll probably go back to one of the safehouses we have set up in Cranberry Bay, so that Amaryllis and Solace can get emergency medical attention.”
(I was really hoping that it didn’t come to that, but the athenaeum produced some of the best healers Aerb had to offer, and the hospital there was first rate -- by Aerbian standards, anyway, which were better than Earth's in some ways, but worse in others. For the most part, healing someone with a fully healthy soul was easy street, but if the problem couldn’t be fixed by resetting the body to the soul’s image of the body, or through enhancing the body’s natural processes of homeostasis, you had problems. Purely physical injuries were generally easy to heal, unless you let them go long enough that the injury became a part of the soul. Diseases, poisons, cancers, disorders, and things like that all had various ways of being dealt with, but they weren’t surefire, and there was a lot of variance when you got into the specifics. Maternal mortality, according to Amaryllis, was slightly worse than in the United States, though the distributions were different.)
“You have other houses?” asked Zona. She frowned slightly.
“Places to lay low,” I said. “They’re not secure, and we assume that we’ll have to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, given that we have a few enemies.”
“Very well,” said Zona. “I’ll escort you, to show you where to put the entads.”
“I should be getting back in anyway,” said Amaryllis. She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m prepared to give over the backpack now, incidentally. All of the things that we should need for the labor and birth were carefully placed into storage months ago. Juniper, I have a list of things that I’d like, if it turns out that Zona is capable of exceeding the spatial limits of the backpack. In my ideal world, you would spend the next few hours setting up an operating room, with all the equipment that’s larger than the backpack can handle. I’ll be coming out at thirty-six weeks, and might take a longer break then, if you need more time to set up. We might also think about grabbing Valencia, as she might be some help in the operating room.”
“If it gets to the point where we need her, then we’re probably going to a proper hospital,” I said. “If you have something like preeclampsia, I don’t want to be jury-rigging solutions, not when we could just get professional help.”
“The procedure for preeclampsia will be for you to bridge our circulatory systems to reduce hypertension, bleeding yourself if necessary, then administering magnesium sulfate,” said Amaryllis. “That should prevent progression to eclampsia, and allow us some time to either induce labor, if it’s not already underway, or for the birth to progress naturally.”
I stared at her. “You’re really that dead set on not going to the hospital?” I asked.
“I’m not dead set on it, no,” said Amaryllis. “But if we go to a hospital, there are going to be questions, not to mention written documents, and my ability to leave, or even just to be watched by people I trust, will be compromised. This is, to put it lightly, an unconventional pregnancy, and I am, to put it lightly, a wanted criminal. In my view, it’s worth taking some minor risks to avoid giving birth on public record.”
I sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I’m just worried.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I think that some level of anxiety is the appropriate reaction to have to this situation.” She turned slightly, so she was pointing in the direction of the time chamber. “I think I’m in good hands with Grak, and when the time comes, we’ll be as prepared as we can possibly be. If it comes to the worst, there’s a plan in place for getting from the safehouse to the hospital, one that I wrote out before we even got on the train. I don’t want to do that unless it looks like there’s a risk of death.”
“Which we might not know about until it’s too late,” said Fenn. She had her arms crossed and was looking at Amaryllis with something like a glare. “You’re the one that’s always going on about worst case scenarios.”
“We already talked this to death,” Amaryllis said to Fenn. “You agreed with me.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t have Juniper for backup,” said Fenn. “Now we’ve got you outnumbered, which means that you’ll pretty much have to see reason.”
“I don’t want to re-litigate this,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. “If there are serious problems, or the birth is too early, then yes, we’ll go to the hospital, but there are a wide variety of more minor problems that we have all the tools, knowledge, and training to deal with. I’ve been preparing for this for months. I don’t want to expose us too much, and I don’t want to spend time that we probably don’t have. The life that’s most at stake here is my own.”
“And Solace,” I said.
Amaryllis glared at me. “If you think that I’m not trying to do right by her --”
“I do,” I said, a little too quick. “It’s fine, I’ll trust your judgment.”
“Grak, come on, let’s go,” said Amaryllis. She walked back into the time chamber, doing a little bit of a waddle.
“I will be watching her,” Grak said to us as he followed after her. “I will talk to her. We will see you in a month.”
The doors to the time chamber closed, and I let out a breath.
“Not the easiest person, is she?” asked Fenn. “She’s gotten worse. She got worse, in the month I was in there with her.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I kind of get where she’s coming from, because she was the one to take on the burden of pregnancy, and she’s spent seven months in the chamber so far, but … still. I don’t know if she’s right or not, but it really felt like one of those situations where we both just got entrenched and weren’t listening to each other. That’s not usually a problem for us.”
“Come,” said Zona. “Follow me with the entads, and I’ll show you where they go. If I’m to use their powers to help you, then I’ll need as much time as possible to acclimate.”